Page Smith’s Sweeping History

March 23, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write for sometime about Page Smith’s huge and sweeping multi-volume “A People’s History…” series.

First, let me say that I’ve only read one volume of this eight volume work. Each book is massive. Vol. 4, entitled The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years weighs in at slightly more than 1000 pages. Umph!

But let me tell you why you should read it, or any of the other volumes in this series. Forget the boring history textbooks of high school or college. Smith’s work is both vast, and detailed. He covers all of the basic historical ground – politics, presidents, wars, economy, exploration and so on. But he also has fabulous chapters about cultural life – theatre, literature, religion, and more. He impressively combines narrative of larger historical events with eyewitness history, built from diaries, letters, newspapers, and other first hand sources. These first hand accounts breathe life into the old dusty facts that died in a history class long ago, and are now revived with vigor in Smith’s work.

Sure, it is a massive tome, and one that may take quite some time to read. But I found it interesting, educational, and a helpful way to quickly dig into specific subjects and areas of interest, even if I wasn’t interested in the whole thing.

However, I did have two small problems with it. One, is the lack of an index. This means if you happen to recall reading about something several hundred pages ago – but can’t recall which chapter, there’s no easy way to go back and find it. The second problem I have is a related one – and that is a complete lack of footnotes. The good news is that he is pretty good about including at least a general source citation within the text, like “So-n-So wrote in his diary…”, but I miss having the specifics.

© writingreading, 2009


Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of – #2 – Callie House

June 29, 2008

Callie House is not an everyday name in women’s history, or even in African-American history. But she should be. An African-American washerwoman who had been born into slavery in 1861 in Rutherford County, Tennessee, she later moved to Nashville where she would launch a movement in the late 1890s for justice and civil rights that loomed so powerful and seemed so threatening to the established order of things that high-ranking officials in Washington, DC had her arrested, imprisoned, and repeatedly took a variety of measures to suppress the movement.

Her cause? Federally paid pensions for former slaves, who had toiled for years and decades without wages. Motivated in part by the Federal pensions paid to former Union soldiers, and a similar, but different, type of ex-slave pension movement begun by white Southerner Walter R. Vaughan, House believed that only through activism within the African-American community could the cause be brought to fruition in a way that would be truly beneficial to the black community. Vaughan’s plan did not have the best interests of African-Americans at heart; he simply wanted to bring more financial wherewithal to blacks still living in the South, as a way to prop up the South’s economic woes. Ultimately, he sought an “economic stimulus package” for blacks, who would then spend their funds with white merchants, thus growing the economy of the post-Reconstruction white South.

House partnered with an African-American man, also from Rutherford County, and a former agent for Vaughan, named Isaiah Dickerson. Together, they established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, hosting their first convention in 1898. The organization grew quickly, with local chapters established throughout the country. Not only was one of the stated aims of the organization to introduce and secure passage of a pension bill in Congress for former slaves, but it was also to provide assistance to members of the local communities, such as providing support for orphans and covering burial expenses.

As the movement gained strength and numbers, the Federal Government became increasingly suspicious, and House’s noble cause became one of unceasing struggle. House and other officers of the national organization were accused of fraud. The government charged that the organization was a mere sham, a way for House and others to make money by requiring membership fees which provided no service whatsoever. Eventually, House was imprisoned, but her cause continued. Time and again the government charges of fraud were proven to be unfounded, and time and again the charges would be resurrected. There was even division within the black community, with many middle-class blacks believing the unfounded charges of fraud, or preferring to pursue Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist message.

House died in 1928 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Her movement for ex-slave pensions continued, but was never the same after her imprisonment. By the 1930s, those persons born in bondage were dying off. The Depression made it difficult to sustain the few chapters that remained, although their dues were often a dollar or less. By the end of the decade, the organization essentially ceased to exist.

There is much more to the story than I have provided here. This is simply a summary. The full story about Callie House and the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association can be found in My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry, an excellent and detailed work about this tragically forgotten woman, and her heroic struggle for justice and civil rights. Berry spends the bulk of the book creating a detailed biography of House, and the growth and eventual death of the organization, but she also provides a helpful epilogue sketching out the legacy of House’s work throughout the twentieth century, and the continuing campaign for reparations for slavery, even today.

Although I enjoy reading about strong, little-known but heroic women of the past, I found Berry’s work especially intriguing, simply because House’s work – until now – was so tragically ignored and unknown.

© writingreading 2008


Reviving Women’s Lives through Cookbooks

June 19, 2008

I wrote a post recently about Carol and her dread of cooking. This was from a book called Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano. As I’ve continued reading this book, I just have to comment further.

This is a fascinating, extraordinarily detailed examination of, well, as the subtitle indicates – unearthing and resurrecting women’s lives and social surroundings through a detailed examination of various cookbooks. It’s not as boring or far-fetched as I may have made it sound, here. That little synopsis just simply doesn’t do it justice.

What Theophano does is to go far beyond the mere printed words on the page, to examine the ways cookbooks link multiple generations of women (heirlooms); how cookbooks also serve as guidebooks to womanly and wifely duties and decorum; how cookbooks were a way to gain or promote literacy among women; and how cookbooks, through the exchange and gathering of recipes, are a communal activity – and therefore can reveal a myriad of social interactions which often crossed boundaries of race and class which were otherwise insurmountable, given the time and place of their writing.

I am truly impressed with Theophano’s versatile range and analysis, and her ability to shed light on women’s lives and culture through this method. She is truly talented in the way she brings these women back to life, through something that on the surface seems so ordinary and mundane – a cookbook. And many of the women discussed in the book are otherwise obscure or unknown – simply everyday ordinary women. Now and then, there is a prominent authoress or lordly lady, but by and large, most are ordinary women.

I’m certain that my poor attempt to convey the drama and interest of this book falls short, but if you are interested in learning more about our foremothers, the history of home cookery, or general women’s studies, this is one not to miss!

©2008 writingreading


Women’s Clubs a Great History Resource

May 28, 2008

I realized today that maybe one of the best ways to research women’s history (at least, for around 1880-1920 or so in the United States) is through records, minute books, newsletters and similar materials produced by various women’s clubs, such as book clubs, gardening clubs, and other types of “local” associations – not to mention more national-level and well known groups like women’s church groups, Red Cross, and other groups.

I say this only because I know it is often hard for the beginning researcher to do identify source materials for women’s history. A lot of times, the types of sources like I mention above are not explicitly identified as “women’s history” resources. They might only be listed by their name, or a general identification like “Clubs” or something similar.

Another reason, and maybe the major reason, that I think these are worthwhile resources to pursue is because of the concept of “separate spheres” – women were expected to stay out of the political arena, be concerned with child-rearing, and so forth – but viewed from a feminist and/or modern perspective, sometimes these organizations appear to be quite benign on the surface – but turn out to be very politically active and savvy – wielding women’s power in the forums in which it was “granted,” and then some! Like (fictional example) a women’s charity organized to aid orphans. Well, that could lead to broader child welfare issues, getting the children out of the sweatshops, advocating better city sanitation, or all sorts of other things. I think it goes along the same lines as the adage: “The personal is political.”

I hadn’t thought of using this blog as a way to offer and share (and perhaps receive!) research tips, but maybe that is a good idea. I certainly do enough research and sometimes come across weird and interesting things while looking for something else (one of the pleasures of research – yes, it can be FUN!!) – so maybe I’ll start doing that occasionally. Though I still expect to spend most of my time on other things and topics, something like this might be a nice diversion now and then.

©2008 writingreading