Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2004 OAH ConventionHistorians/History
Day 1: Thursday March 25, 2004
HAW--Historians Against the War--persuaded the OAH executive board to pass a resolution to establish a committee to investigate reports of alleged repression involving historians. Click here for details.
If you stayed away because it's Boston and you heard the weather was terrible, you made a mistake. Most people found they could get away with a simple jacket. One historian even showed up in shorts (more on that in a moment). The convention is being held at the Boston Marriott Copley Plaza. Were you afraid to venture out into the brisk outdoors, you need not have done so. A covered walkway conveniently provides access from the Marriott to a giant nearby mall. I live in Seattle. I have never seen anything like it.
The biggest surprise of the day was the absence of people in attendance at the panel on U.S. Empire and the Transnational History of Race in the Twentieth Century. Obviously, the OAH organizers anticipated a bigger showing. The hall could have seated hundreds. Some twenty people showed up.
Then there was the panel, Exploring the American Revolution with Primary Sources. It got a small room. A big crowd turned out, people spilling out into the hallway.
Sometimes you just can't tell in advance which panels will be the big draws.
This Isn't Your Father's OAH
The theme of the convention is American Revolutions, which was well exemplified by two panels concerned with the history of queers and punk rockers.
The panel on queer history was as controversial as its name. Wesleyan's CLAIRE
BOND POTTER began with a story about J. Edgar Hoover as a cross-dresser,
providing intimate details about his participation in a sex orgy at which he wore a dress
and went by the name Mary. Potter admitted at the end that the story may not be true; it
rests on the testimony of a single witness. But she said that didn't matter to students of
queer history, which lays claim to gossip, rumor and innuendo. For the story is
evidence at the least of the powerful force of shame in American culture and figures in
the historiography of shame. York University's MARC STEIN followed up with a paper
about legal history and queers. He began by drawing a fascinating distinction between
queer history and gay & lesbian history. Queer history deconstructs history, he averred,
while gay history celebrates it. He noted a paradox. Some critics are against "queer"
studies. But by their very opposition they are doing what believers in queer studies advocate. As Stein noted, "If queer means oppositional, then anti-queer is as queer as it gets."
The panel which delved into the history of punk rock was an exercise in surreal
contradictions. Imagine a room featuring giant wall portraits of equestrian riders in full
regalia, horse whips included, like something out of a scene in Gone with the Wind (before the war). Now imagine an audience of respectable-looking historians, nearly all
of them born at least half a century ago, when young-looking Dick Clark really was
young and "American Bandstand" was a hit television show. Now consider the subject
these historians are discussing: 1970s punk rock, featuring teenage bands like
Dischord--get it?--with music featuring lines like: "you keep talking about talent?/what
do you know?/instead of studying theory/we're going to get up and go/get up and go get
up and go." The handout with the lyrics reminded us this was a history convention, but
the music blaring through the loud speaker kept saying, it's time to get up and dance.
No one danced. The historians stuck to studying theory.
Did they really get punk? The panelist explained punk well, noting that it was a phenomena of the late 1970s when teenagers, bored with watching TV and yet still too young to get into the clubs to hear their favorite groups, began demanding real music experiences that reflected the intense raging hormones of youth. Let down by the music establishment, which at staged concerts kept the musicians at a numbing distance from the audience, they created their own music venues where they literally could feel the musicians' sweat. But just one person in the room looked like somebody who actually may once have enjoyed punk bands. A young graduate student from the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) dressed in shorts. On his left arm, visible from his short-sleeve shirt, was a broad tattoo like something one might see on kids on Broadway in Seattle where punk still thrives. His presence was very much needed. It gave the session an authenticity it otherwise would have lacked. Too bad there was just one like him.
If you don't have to be a punk rocker to understand punk rock, do you have to be a
woman to understand women's history? No is the answer historians long ago gave to
this tired question, even as women activists were proclaiming the political is personal.
But more women than men seemed interested in women's history today, judging by
attendance at the panel on Gender, Rights and the Reaction to Revolution. Too bad.
Anyone could have benefited from the discussion.
Most remarkable point. George Mason University's ROSEMARIE ZAGARRI explained that in the 1790s, a period of intense parlisanship and rancor--sound familiar?--women came to be seen as the needed stable force in a febrile society strained by overly emotional males. How's that for a fresh insight?
In the evening Howard Zinn spoke to a crowd of hundreds at the Old South Meeting House. More on that later.
It is now 3am. If I have offended anyone it is not be design. Fatigue has set in. Time to
Day 2: Friday March 26, 2004
OAH officials announced this evening that this year's convention has attracted more people than any in history. One reason may be that the organization decided months ago to hire two unpaid interns from Boston University to promote the annual meeting in the media and local community. If there are any lawyers or doctors reading this, you're probably wondering what's wrong with historians. Of course, a professional organization should be doing PR. But the trouble is historians even at the mostly liberal OAH are, well, old-fashioned and PR sounds almost New Age, so until now they resisted. BU's Christopher Daly, who pushed the idea, noted that when he worked at the Associated Press in a prior life, he pleasantly discovered that professional organizations like the AMA and the Bar Association ran full-fledged PR operations catering to the needs of the media's every whim. But then doctors and lawyers have money for that sort of thing and historians don't.
Does PR really work? Apparently it does. The town hall meeting held last night to honor Howard Zinn attracted a huge crowd in the hundreds, many from the local community after the event was talked up by the two interns, who dispatched announcements to groups across the city. Tonight an even larger crowd turned out to attend a panel held at a local church to discuss the "history and legacy" of Brown v. Board of Education. The church, Union United Methodist, is said to hold 1100 people. It appeared to be filled to capacity. Again, many of the people in the audience came from the local community. (More on this event, probably the high point of the convention, below.)
About My PDA (Personal Digital Assistant)
First, before we begin, a quick note about the machine I have been using to take notes at the convention, about which many people have expressed wonderment. I am using a T-Mobile Pocket PC with an external keyboard. The Pocket PC--a glorified PDA--is about the size of an old-fashioned cigarette case and about the same weight. It does everything. On this little device I can make phone calls, do email, surf the Internet, write WORD documents, keep track of my expenses on an Excel spread sheet and much much more. If all of this sounds like gibberish, skip it. It's intended for those who want to get in touch with their inner geek.
Higham and Quarles
Historians may have stopped celebrating political heroes years ago, but judging by the well-attended panels on John Higham and Benjamin Quarles they retain a capacity for awe toward the leading members of their own guild. Michael Kammen (Cornell) remembered Higham as a giant of the profession and its leading historiographer. But he also noted that Higham was a man of paradoxes. While he generally was a stickler for protocol and was properly appalled when another historian plagiarized his writings, Higham twice reviewed books written or edited by Kammen even though they were friends and Higham obviously was in no position to render an unbiased judgment--or at least a judgment that appeared unbiased. When Kammen saw Higham after the second review was published, Higham "looked like the proverbial cat who had eaten the canary," said Kammen. Quarles was remembered by Gary B. Nash (UCLA) as a the person who let out the "dirty little secret" of the American Revolution: that black slaves, eager to win their freedom, went over to the British side in droves. Unfortunately, noted Nash, even today few Americans reach their eighteenth birthday cognizant of this fact.
- Spotted at lunch together: Jim Horton and John Hope Franklin. "There he goes," remarked one astonished historian as Franklin briskly and impressively made his way across the restaurant. "And I'd heard he was ill." It was like the sighting of a movie star.
- Quote of the Day: "I am a pervert." It was spoken by one of the members of the panel, Punishing the Crime of Bestiality in the Early Republic. He hastily added, in what easily passed for the most interesting interview I had today, that "we all try to be squares" but aren't. During the session he noted that allegations of sexual improprieties have been used throughout history to undermine the credibility of people we don't like or view as a threat. The trouble with that approach, he observed, is that it freezes democratic debate. Once a person is labeled a pervert they're so beyond the pale nobody takes their ideas seriously. He noted that counter terrorism expert and thorn-in-Bush's side Richard Clarke has already been made the subject of rumors because he's a lifelong bachelor--as if that somehow suggests unreliability.
- Best LBJ anecdote: At the panel devoted to Public History on Public Radio, a producer recalled one of the delightful conversations LBJ had one day with his tailor, which was captured by a presidential tape recorder and broadcast on radio. Be sure and make the crotch large enough to accommodate my ... [insert suitable LBJ crude reference to his genitals], LBJ ordered. And then added, and make the pockets long to accommodate my big pocketknife. It was pure LBJ. [italics indicate paraphrase.]
- Confession of the Day: Historian Ken Greenberg, who worked on the recent film about Nat Turner, Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property, admitted that the tree in the movie that was used to stage the hanging of the famous slave rebel wasn't a sycamore. Yes, Turner was hanged on a sycamore, he added, about the only thing we know for sure about Turner's death. But after searching high and low for a sycamore tree and finally finding one it turned out the movie men had parked their trucks in such a way as to obscure the shot. So instead they used another tree nearby. Did it matter? Well, Mr. Greenberg contended, it really shouldn't. After all, it wasn't like the sycamore tree they found was the sycamore tree anyway. (Eric Stange, whose film, Murder at Harvard, was also a subject of discussion, commended Mr. Greenberg's seriousness of purpose: "Filmmaking is a craft with many challenges and constraints, and if the purpose of historical documentaries is to engage more people in history -- both the stories and the process of their discovery -- they also must do it in both an engaging and practical way [e.g., budgetary and time limitations]. I found the discussion of the sycamore tree an enlightening look at how the filmmakers took all of the elements into play, weighing logistical needs with historical accuracy -- when many of the facts could not possibly be known regardless: which location, which sycamore tree, whether a coffin or not -- and make the best possible shot. If we had to rely on what we know for certain, no films would be made. And even if we did, the way one film was shot and edited could tell a different story from another." Email to HNN, 3-27-04.)
- Comment by an elderly historian as he exited a panel on Gender and the Civil War: they're just a bunch of women's libbers ....
Dead. Not Dead.
It was like this at the roundtable on political history. The audience couldn't even agree on the significance of the size of the crowd, which extended out into the hallway. Some took it as a sign that political history is very much alive. Others noted that the meeting was being held in a small room. Harvard's Liz Cohen observed that nine years ago when she served on a similar panel hundreds had turned out. This time under a hundred did. But she confidently declared political history is back (as in: back from the dead). But of course not everybody agreed.
But why had it died in the first place after having served as the bulkhead of history, as Stanford's David Kennedy put it, from the time of "Herodotus to Hofstadter"? Kennedy identified several causes among them, the collapse of the Progressive synthesis and the enduring American tradition that politics is "as much about the restraint of power as its exercise." Liz Cohen suggested political history had died because it had faced competition from social and ethnic studies and been found wanting, a deficiency now being corrected as political historians began doing gender and class studies. She added that it hadn't died, as someone had suggested, because "evil social historians" had been busy trying to bury their rivals.
Richard Jensen, the well-known conservative historian, sitting in the audience, argued that political history had died in tandem with the decline of the triumphal narrative. When we stopped praising American democracy in the Sixties and instead began emphasizing its many flaws, political history lost its attractiveness. He predicted that political history would never be resurrected as long as "we write about the history of failure." A lot of heads nodded in agreement.
Want to know what political historians are doing to revive history? A new book from Princeton, The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History, offers some answers.
Easily the most impressive event of the conference thus far was the two-hour discussion held tonight at the Union United Methodist Church on the subject of Brown v. Board of Education: A Fifty-Year Legacy. The discussion featured John Hope Franklin, Charles Ogletree, Lani Guinier, Derrick Bell, and, astonishingly, Robert L. Carter, a member of the NAACP legal team that argued the case before the Supreme Court and subsequently became a judge for the Southern District of New York. Carter couldn't be heard beyond the first few rows, which was unfortunate because he seemed to be the only member of the panel who took a positive view of Brown. The others found numerous reasons to view the legacy of the decision that ended school segregation de jure as decidedly mixed.
Derrick Bell, described by Ogletree as "one of the most mild-mannered radicals you will ever meet," compared the decision to Lincoln's Proclamation of Emancipation. In 1863, as in 1954, blacks jubilantly celebrated what appeared to be a great advance in civil rights and social progress. Only later did they realize that their situation in fact had barely improved. Moreover, the gift whites had seemingly offered out of a sincere impulse actually reflected depressing calculations of self-interest. In 1863 Lincoln acted in order to strike a blow at the South's labor system. In 1954 the federal government acted only because segregation had become an embarrassingly obvious enough defect in American democracy as to become a weapon against us in the ongoing propaganda wars with the communists.
Lani Guinier, speaking with great passion, argued that because of the way race is used in this country, Brown became a reason for working class whites to turn hostile toward African-Americans. While their real beef was with the white power structure, they blamed black integration for the decline in their public schools which followed the Brown decision in subsequent years. Several times as she spoke the audience broke out in applause. She noted that the very year Central High School was integrated in Little Rock, a new high school opened a few miles away for affluent whites. That working class whites left behind in Central High then turned angry toward blacks was inevitable "because we don't have a vocabulary of class."
Ogletree wondered if perhaps too much was being made of the negative consequences of Brown. Wasn't it really a great victory, as advertised? Derrick Bell, softening his earlier criticism, said that it was a great symbolic victory. "Without the Brown victory," he said, "we might not have had the resistance movement." But at this John Hope Franklin noted that the resistance movement actually predated the Brown decision and was really a result of World War II. After the war black soldiers wouldn't accept second class citizenship.
Judge Carter at this point angrily insisted that Brown was a real victory not just a symbolic victory--and he didn't care what Lani Guinier said. She sat smiling awkwardly. John Hope Franklin again noted the importance of World War II, to which Judge Carter replied, that he remembers what happened after World War II too, but that Brown helped bring about change.
For people who like their history neat and tidy it was a disturbing moment. But to historians in the room it was just another example of the rich contradictions in history and proof, if ever it was needed, that history truly is an argument without end.
Day 3: Saturday March 27, 2004
OAH executive director LEE FORMWALT told HNN that the board is "seriously" considering hiring a consultant to help historians correct the misstatements made about history in the public press, noting specifically the charges against revisionist history that were leveled last year by several prominent Republicans. "There is so much that's being said about American history that's wrong," Formwalt added, "and we're the logical organization to correct it."9In an email to HNN on March 29, 2004, Mr. Formwalt elaborated on the organization's concerns:"What OAH is concerned about is the lack of understanding about the nature of history itself. Anyone who accuses historians of being revisionists, does not understand the practice of professional history. We have an obligation to educate the broader public about the job of the historian which is to continually question our understanding of the past and to reinterpret the past in light of new facts or ways of thinking. History is the continual engagement of the present with the past--as the present changes, so does our understanding of the past."
Top 3 Reasons Why You Are Sorry You Missed this Year's Convention
#1 -- You missed watching Harvard's Reverend Professor PETER J. GOMES in action as the mischievous moderator of the gay marriage panel. A hoot. But you had to be there. I can't even begin to replicate his humor (though I have been trying; believe me, it's impossible).
#2 -- You missed tonight's ceremony honoring THOMAS D. CLARK. Mr. Clark, who celebrated his 100th birthday last July, first began attending meetings of the organization (then known as the Mississippi Valley Historical Association) in the 1920s. In 1954, the year of the Brown decision, he pressed the organization to book annual meetings only at desegregated hotels. Two years later he was elected president of the MVHA.
#3 -- (Finally and most importantly) -- You missed tonight's stunning address by outgoing president JACQUELYN DOWD HALL. Yes, you'll eventually be able to read it online but what you'll miss is the emotional response that greeted her call to reject the stale narrative that marks the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ends on a note of declension with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the urban riots. Ms. Hall, her native Oklahoma accent still very much in evidence, boldly argued that actually that's far too simple. The movement began in the 1930s and extended far past the Sixties, noting that it was in the 1970s that blacks, armed with the vote, began electing African-American mayors. And by 1980 "more schools in the South were desegregated than in the rest of the country." These victories suggest that it was not foreordained that the movement come to an end.
So how can we account for the conservative triumphs that ended in a shredded social safety net, the loss of high-paying blue collar jobs, and all the rest of the sorry milestones that have come to be identified with the late twentieth century? Blame the Cold War, Hall told the group. That may have come as a shock to some in the audience, who just last night were told at the church meeting on Brown that the Cold War put pressure on the government to end segregation in order to take away from the communists an obvious symbol of American backwardness. But Hall argued that the movement was actually a casualty of the Cold War, which empowered red-baiting conservatives in both parties and led to the collapse of the black-labor-left alliance. When she finished the two thousand people in the hall gave Hall a rousing standing ovation. As one historian commented afterward, she didn't have an enemy in the room.
Gays, Gays and Gays
In some ways this was Gay Day at the convention. In the morning there was the splendidly titled panel devoted to "The Peculiar Institution of Marriage," which was hastily arranged after the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision. In the afternoon there was the panel honoring the work of George Chauncey, the historian who wrote the brief used by the United States Supreme Court to strike down the laws against sodomy. Both panels no doubt would give heartburn to a conservative.
The three members of the gay marriage panel argued in favor of gay matrimony. The University of Oregon's PEGGY PASCOE provided a compelling history of miscegenation law, noting that the same arguments being made now against gay marriage were made for three centuries against miscegenation, which was said to be both unnatural and immoral. She added that by the 1980s no one wanted to remember miscegenation had ever been banned in America. "But now we are seeing people who again want to restrict marriage, thought this time the category is sex not race." Stanford's ESTELLE FREEDMAN argued that in New England lesbians have a history of partnering, as Henry James explicitly noted in his novel The Bostonians, which includes a character modeled after his lesbian sister. Princeton's HENDRIK HARTOG predicted that gay marriage will soon become legal in at least several parts of the country, specifically naming Californian and Massachusetts and several other states. No one in the audience seemed unpleased to hear any of this.
Whether a state that outlawed gay marriage could stop a couple legally married in another state from exercising their rights is not at present knowable. But Hartog observed that in the 1940s the United States Supreme Court began applying the full faith and credit clause to the institution. Divorce in Vegas and your home state in the South no longer could claim that you still remained married. So if the Court ruled that Alabama, say, could forbid gay marriage, the Court would have to change its own rulings.
The afternoon panel on gay history featured a paper by independent scholar MICHAEL HUSSEY that included frank descriptions of the sexual acts committed by American sailors between 1895 and 1920. Trial transcripts show, he said, that while same-sex sex seemed common among sailors, the belief at the time was that "normal men" could have sex with people of either gender "as long as they took the dominant position." The unequal condition that existed between sex partners demonstrated, he argued in an ingenious formulation, the pervasive "power of misogyny to insert itself into a world in which women were only virtually present."
A Correction (Sort of)
The other day we reported that this year's convention drew more people than any before. It turns out this is a matter of dispute. Like everything, it's more complicated the more details you know. The convention held in Washington DC in 1995 actually drew a few hundred more people. But here's the tricky part. The tally that year included the members of the National Council for Public History, who are invited to attend the convention when the OAH meets in DC. Count them and DC ranks biggest. Leave them out and Boston's on top. So how many attended this year's meeting? 2,720.
- Best Boast of the Day: As he was making his way to a table loaded with free food, one rotund historian confessed he was about to consume twenty jumbo shrimp. He added: "How can you consume twenty jumbo shrimp and not give the appearance of gluttony? There's an art to this."
- Best Excuse of the Day for Not Writing an Op-Ed for HNN: Asked if he would consider writing a piece for HNN one prominent historian explained that he was too busy at the moment serving as the head of a search committee for a new provost. "When do you expect to be free?" he was asked. "By May 15. Either we'll have a new provost by then or I'll be a suicide."
- Best Quip of the Day: Speaking of overly specialized political historians, who seem happy to write books read by 200 people, one scholar commented mockingly: "They think publishing for a wide audience is getting political scientists and sociologists to read their books."
- Puzzle of the Day: Why the OAH assigned a small room yesterday to a roundtable assessing the future of political history and a big room today to a roundtable assessing the future of diplomatic history. Should political historians be offended? Perhaps, but it was the diplomatic historians who suffered more. Few in number, they seemed lost in their giant room. They also sounded a lot more pessimistic than the political historians. While "our classes are packed"--and not just because of the Iraq War--"we are marginalized by the profession," said THOMAS ZELLER (University of Colorado).
- Best Put Down of President Bush: Speaking of the president's statement a few years ago that the story of America is the story of freedom, ERIC FONER acidly commented, "It's a little more complicated," which brought forth a roar of laughter.
- Most Politically Relevant Fact: According to Harvard's Peter Gomes, until the Anglicans came along at the tail end of the seventeenth century, church marriages were forbidden in Puritan Massachusetts. The very first marriage the Puritans held was in 1621. The couple was married by the colony's governor.
- Most Shocking Fact: In the nineteenth century an advocate of free love was sentenced to a year of hard labor simply for writing a pamphlet advocating his views. The man was married and had four children. He died shortly after his release. His health had been broken in prison.
The Cayton Thesis?
Is it time for a new master narrative of American history? ANDREW R.L. CAYTON and FRED ANDERSON think so and have come up with one. In a nutshell, they believe that imperialism is central to the meaning of the American experience and in a new book scheduled to be published by Viking in 2005 they lay out their arguments. Conservatives will hate it, even if they have of late begun to find virtues in the kind of "benevolent" imperialism. Britain laid claim to. The authors argue that "the very real sincerity of Americans' faith in freedom's vindicating power has enabled the United States to undertake wars and interventions with great frequency, even as it has diverted attention from the unpredictable and destabilizing effects that those conflicts have had on the development of the nation, the continent, the hemisphere, and the world." Furthermore, the book contends that "the defining moments of American nationhood, the Revolution and the Civil War, can best be understood as the unintended (and unsought) consequences of vaunting imperial ambitions."
You might expect such a book to focus on the past 100 years or so of American history, starting with the Spanish-American War and moving on through the long list of familiar dark chapters of U.S. foreign policy in the last century. But in fact the bulk of the book covers the colonial period; the authors explain they are trying to push back the starting point of American history in order to shed light on the continuity of imperialism which they see evident in the conflicts that took place here.. Eric Foner, commenting on the book, found their approach confounding and said so bluntly. He also wondered what the reason might be for the preponderance of imperialism. Was it owing to the personal ambition of the major politicians? And what exactly was the relationship between the forces shaping the development of the country and the outward quest for empire?
The authors shrugged and then proceeded to try to answer the concerns Foner and others in the room raised. They made few converts, but showed a grace under fire that everybody could admire. To have a book you've worked on for years savaged by critics standing in your presence has got to be one of the most difficult experiences an author can face. How they pulled it off I don't know.
Michael Bellesiles came up today in two contexts, neither of them flattering. At a panel on gun ownership in America a historian demonstrated conclusively that at least in western Massachusetts Americans in the colonial period loved guns, owned guns and learned how to fire them expertly. Upwards of 70 percent of them possessed guns. Bellesiles's claims that gun ownership was rare in the colonial period seemed hardly credible in the face of the evidence, backed by charts and detailed tabulations, presented today.
Later in the day at another panel it wasn't Bellesiles's assumptions that came under attack, it was his integrity--and the integrity of people like Stephen Ambrose and even Joseph Ellis. How, the panel was trying to figure out, can we clean up the profession? And how can we stop students from committing plagiarism? MICHAEL KAMMEN said he wasn't sure if plagiarism among historians was increasing, but he knows that it is among students. At Cornell where he teaches plagiarism cases are skyrocketing: 41 in 2002, 68 in 2003. And that's just the number of students filing appeals. More were caught and pleaded guilty.
Guns remain a topic of hot concern. More than seventy people were drawn to this morning's session on gun ownership. But the rage over plagiarism and ethics violations seems to have gradually dissipated. Last year rooms were packed with people shocked by all of the cases of fraud and malfeasance. Today just 13 people showed up for the panel on integrity.
Day 4: Sunday March 28, 2004
At 8 am this morning at the Business Meeting of the OAH the activists from Yale who have been asking academic associations to support their battle with the university over the formation of a union for graduate students walked away with another victory. The Business Meeting approved a resolution critical of Yale's handling of the dispute. In January the group won a resolution of support from the AHA.
The Business Meeting also discussed the executive board's decision to form a committee under the leadership of David Montgomery to investigate alleged instances of repression involving historians. The committee's first order of business is to investigate the extent of the problem and then report back to the board. The committee was formed several days ago in response to a petition filed by Historians Against the War (HAW). The Business Meeting did not take a vote on the board's decision to establish the committee.
The mandate of the committee is"to investigate reports of repressive measures having an impact on historians' teaching, research, employment, and freedom of expression." According to Lee Formwalt, executive director of the OAH, the committee has been asked to" collect and verify reports of actions by the government, officials of schools, colleges and universities, and self-designated groups dedicated to political surveillance, and report its findings periodically in the OAH Newsletter and in any other form the Executive Board deems appropriate."
A second petition backed by HAW condemns the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive war. HAW says more than 1200 historians have signed the petition, including nearly 200 over the course of the convention.
A Day of Rest?
As with the AHA in January, some of the best panels at this year's OAH annual meeting were scheduled for Sunday. Two in particular stood out: The panels on slavery and the Brown decision.
The slavery panel was designed to help members find out recent developments in the field. The charming young scholar who introduced the panel, DYLAN PENNINGROTH, author of The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South, brought forth a gasp from the crowd when he revealed the list of books about slavery now numbers more than 600--and that's just for books about North America.
The major change in slavery studies in recent years, explained DAVID BRION DAVIS, has been the proliferation of books and monographs about slavery as a trans-Atlantic phenomenon. In KENNETH STAMPP'S day slavery still seemed very much an American institution, specifically, a United States of America institution, though of course a few scholars had cast an occasional light on slavery in Brazil and Africa. Today we have a big picture of how slavery operated everywhere.
Davis related that when Frederick Douglass toured the country after the Civil War he was always asked why the slaves hadn't revolted. The question persists, Davis indicated.HERBERT APTHEKER to the contrary, there were really only a few major slave revolts and even one of these, Vesey, has recently come under suspicion. This despite the fact that quite often plantations of 100 or 200 slaves were run by just a couple of whites. How could just a few whites maintain their control over so many slaves? It wasn't because slavery destroyed the slaves psychologically, as STANLEY ELKINS argued in a famous book years ago, though slavery clearly damaged slaves in various ways. More likely, argued Davis, it was because they knew that any revolt was certain to be crushed ruthlessly and end in their own deaths. Slavery in the United States was not fragile, he argued. Not even on the eve of the Civil War was it "about to self-destruct." And the slaves knew this.
While the slavery panel attracted a packed crowd in a little room, the Brown decision attracted a small crowd in a big room. Maybe people had just become browned out. Too bad. I am sure they would have learned something. I know I did.
MCHAEL KLARMAN suggestively argued that as a country we may have been better off without Brown than with it. How so? By the 1950s segregation was beginning to erode in the border states and over the next couple of decades could have been expected to erode further to the point where Congress could have stepped in and passed a law against it. And that would have been preferable to the liberal elitists' resort to the courts to achieve social change. Going out on a limb, he suggested that slavery similarly could have been expected to shrink over time, raising doubts in his mind about the necessity of the Civil War. (Suggestion to the OAH; perhaps next year you should stage a debate between Klarman and David Brion Davis, who, as mentioned above, argues that slavery in the South was far from dying at the time of the war. Call it: Klarman v. Davis.)
Klarman was followed by KARA TURNER, who provided concrete evidence of the high price blacks in much of the South paid for Brown. In a remarkable study of Prince Edward County, Virginia, a hotbed of white supremacy, she noted that officials closed the public schools for four years after the courts ordered desegregation. The pain of this turn of events was felt unequally by blacks and whites. Whites continued their schooling in private institutions subsidized by the county, while the black students mainly went without any schooling at all. When the schools finally reopened the black students felt inferior and often failed at their studies and dropped out. Even their IQ scores fell. They came to be known in the black community as the "lost generation."
LAURA KALMAN noted the irony that Brown, which had once been regarded as "the greatest victory since Emancipation," had come to be defined by its flaws and unintended consequences and had even branded by some as racist. Even so, the decision remains iconic; even conservatives nowadays swear allegiance to it.
What grumbling there was at this year's convention--and there didn't seem much--had to do with the frequency with which popular panels seemed to have been assigned to small rooms at the same time that relatively less popular panels quite often seem to have been assigned to the large rooms. Time and again people who showed up a little late for the popular panels discovered they had to sit on the floor during sessions--or, in some cases, actually stand in the corridor outside and strain to hear. Even presidents of the OAH found themselves without chairs. On Saturday past OAH president DAVID MONTGOMERY could be seen sitting on the floor in the back of the room of the session exploring the work of GEORGE CHAUNCEY. Today the current president, JIM HORTON, could be spotted on the floor of the slavery panel. Some panel members took offense at the small rooms to which they had been assigned, one joking that the size of the room given to the American Revolution provided a measure of the respect for the field in the OAH. But in fact even the panels featuring the stars of the profession sometimes faced the same space limitations, as happened yesterday to ERIC FONER and today to DAVID BRION DAVIS.
Best Quote of the Day
When Michael Klarman's presentation ran long, he was given a two-minute warning by the moderator. Klarman pleaded to the crowd: "I only have two minutes but maybe somebody will ask me a question that allows me to elaborate." They did.