Last year Fazila Kabahita and I decided to nominate the Ambidexter Industrial and Normal Institute in Springfield, Illinois, to the National Register of Historic Places as a part of our Historic Preservation course. Fazila and I learned that the Ambidexter Institute was modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Deemed the “Tuskegee of the North,” Ambidexter was a private industrial school intended to teach trades and provide academic education to African American students. It received the name “Ambidexter” because its founder, Springfield clergyman G.H. McDaniel, believed that the students would have to be ‘ambidextrous,’ (in some sense-suggesting that they would have to be doubly as skilled as whites) using both their minds and their might, in order to make it in competition for employment with the white labor force. McDaniel intended to “accomplish for the negroes of the north what Booker T. Washington’s great school is doing for the colored people of the south.” He opened the school in 1901 with funding from prominent Springfield residents. As we continue to work toward nominating the site through the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, I thought I’d share a little about the history of the school and similar institutions that followed the Tuskegee model.
Many people are familiar with Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp that held Union soldiers during the Civil War, but fewer know of Camp Douglas, a Union camp that held Confederate prisoners on Chicago’s South Side. Between October 8th and 14th, we—and others from Loyola, DePaul, and the community—worked as volunteer archaeologists on a dig with the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, uncovering elements of Chicago’s Civil War past, and learning some basics about archaeology and the processes that go into a dig.
From 1861 to 1865, Camp Douglas occupied about 80 acres in what is now the Bronzeville community. Initially, Camp Douglas was a training ground for Union soldiers, and would later train enlisted African Americans. The camp was designed to be temporary, since the Union was confident the war wouldn’t last long. But by February 1862, Camp Douglas had become a prison camp for Confederate soldiers captured in battle, since the Union Army had nowhere else to put them. Camp Douglas became one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the nation and had the most Confederate deaths of any camp. Poor sanitation and overcrowding in makeshift wooden shelters spread disease among the prisoners, resulting in approximately 4,500 deaths (the prison housed roughly 30,000 prisoners through the course of the war). Security was slack and escapes were frequent; an estimated 500 Confederate prisoners escaped during the camp’s operation. After the war Camp Douglas was quickly dissolved, and for the most part, forgotten.
I was lucky enough to catch a pre-wide release showing of Selma earlier this week, when colleague Anthony Di Lorenzo and I braved Arctic weather to trudge to the multiplex. Overall, with a few caveats, I found the movie an effective piece of history that should have a positive impact on the public memory of the Black Freedom Struggle. I have quite a few thoughts about the film—many half-formed—but here I’ll just stick to a few of the themes that struck me most:
- The LBJ Depiction: fast and loose with many historical ‘facts,’ but the ends justify the means.
- Keeping the Black in the Black Freedom Struggle: the ‘white savior’ theme is unavoidable—but challenged; the historians’ age-old dilemma between power and agency is here—but maybe only by accident.
- Intra-movement Tensions: Valiant focus made possible by the above point, but SNCC is an unfortunate and ill-formed prop; consensus carries the day.
- A Cast of Thousands vs. the Biopic: ‘Whoa it’s awesome that you have James Orange and Bayard Rustin in there.’/’Why aren’t you telling me more about Orange and Rustin?!’
(Click the link above to skip the commentary and watch the debate)
Since I finished my summer independent study course last week, you will finally stop seeing book reviews on “The Black Atlantic” posted on this blog. For those of you that read some of those reviews, thank you for giving me an audience. Now, I have decided to followup my weekly tradition by posting a video. My favorite historical video.
Recently, I have been struggling to deal with, to talk about, and to understand the Israeli/Palestinian crisis in the Middle East. I have felt a lot of pain and a lot of anger. Not only at the conflict, but at my seeming inability to have any recourse to have my voice heard. I have tried to work my way through some discussions on Facebook about this topic, but they always seem to end in gridlocked, polarized, and intractable monologues. I find myself very eager to assert my opinion in the beginning (backed by righteous self-affirmation), but after the arguing continues, I become weary, and I cannot find the energy to keep up.
This week, I was involved in one particularly exciting back-and-forth about the crisis in the Middle East. When I became weary of the debate, I logged off Facebook and I turned to YouTube. I decided to revisit my favorite lecture (as I often do when my frustration with the world mounts). While this lecture has nothing to do with the Israeli/Palestinian crisis directly, it touches on some very basic and shared issues of human co-existence. It is this lecture that I want to share with you today. As you will see, I have posted a link to it below.
LAURENT DUBOIS. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, York: The Dial Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 357. $17.95.
Avengers of the New World is the first book written by Laurent Dubois, the historian, anthropologist, and literary scholar of France, the French Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Dubois wrote Avengers as a new history of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), updating the anticolonial work of the Caribbean scholar C.L.R. James with Atlantic and African scholarship and social and cultural methodologies. Whereas James tended to “essentialize the differences” between groups within San Domingo, and focus on defending the actions of black revolutionaries and condemning those of planters from within a racialized discourse, Dubois is interested in creating an understanding of the revolution’s wider context within the “Age of Revolutions.” Although his book lacks the passion, verve, and spontaneous philosophical insight that characterized The Black Jacobins, it succeeds at drawing a more holistic portrait of the transatlantic republican forces that contributed not only to the “crucial moment” of the Haitian revolution, but to “the overall destruction of slavery in the Americas,” and to our ongoing battle for global democracy and human rights.
JANE LANDERS. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Forward by Peter H. Wood. (Blacks in the New World.) Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 390. $29.00.
Black Society in Spanish Florida is the first book written by Jane Landers, colonial Latin Americanist, historian of the Caribbean and the Hispanic southeast, and assistant professor of History at Vanderbilt University. Inthe text, Landers presents the first English-language, conceptual history of black society on the Florida peninsula during the first and second Spanish tenures (1565-1763, and 1783-1821). After addressing precedents for Afro-Floridian history on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish Caribbean, and covering activities through the British interregnum (1763-1783), Landers organizes her study into six conceptual chapters on the remaining years: entrepreneurs and property holders, religious life, the lives of women, slaves and the slave trade, crime and punishment, and military service. Landers then ends with a critical chapter and afterward on “the demise of Spanish Florida,” and its historical consequences, as a result of American expansionist policies. Overall, Black Society recaptures not only the shared, tri-racial history of Spanish Florida and the extraordinary “cultural diversity and adaptation” of its black inhabitants, but it documents the conquest of a better model of multiculturalism by the prolonged, racist imperialism of Anglo-American societies.
The 2010, WTTW-Channel 11 (otherwise known as Chicago PBS) documentary DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis endeavors to present over two centuries of African-American history in Chicago, from the settling of the Afro-French trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable at the mouth of the Chicago River around 1790, to the presidential victory speech of Barack Obama in November, 2008, at Grant Park. Needless to say, this is an ambitious task. At a length of exactly two hours and sixteen minutes, the documentary succeeds in packaging black-Chicago history for its public audience, but it also falls prey to problems associated with deciding when to adhere to dominant narratives and when to create a new narrative by introducing stories that are local and unexpected.
A certain degree of loyalty to the national narrative is important. For example, it is always enlightening to remember that figures with a major national impact, such as Ida B. Wells, Emmett Till, Fred Hampton, Langston Hughes, and perhaps Robert Sengstacke Abbott (founder of the oft-cited black newspaper, The Chicago Defender), were once based here in the city. Likewise, a certain degree of local character is extremely important. In this respect, the documentary succeeds in profiling several black institutions—namely, the Provident Hospital, an institution for the practice of black medical professionals, and the Quinn Chapel A.M.E, described as the longest-standing African-American congregation in the city. Speaking generally, this tension between national narrative and local character is not unique to DuSable to Obama. Rather, it is a struggle that is somewhat inherent to all historical interpretations, especially those regarding histories of minority groups.