“Critical study of womanhood, in all its complexities, is needed for today’s women who are still living through so many oppressions. Not that much has happened that we get to escape societal agreements about our sanity, our worth, our ability to contribute, our need for rest and to be protected and to protect and so on.” – Dr. Sharony Green, historian and author
For Women’s History Month I am proud to present an interview series with Dr. Sharony Green, Assistant Professor of History at University of Alabama. Last fall, I read her book Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black-White Intimacies in Antebellum America (Northern Illinois University Press; 2015; $24.95; ISBN: 978-0-87580-723-2). My personal reason was Dr. Green and I were colleagues and friends in PhD programs concurrently at University of Chicago. This project began for Green back at that time, when she started to dig into historical archives and a black woman’s 1838 letter fascinated her into discoveries. In 2013, University of Illinois in Urbana-Champagne awarded her PhD for her work.
My intellectual and spiritual reason was an investment in absorbing all the data and cultural memory my mind and spirit can hold about my African-American women descendants. In terms of this latter drive, Remember Me to Miss Louisa is a superior portrait of Black women’s lives during that precarious border of the 19th century, where many were still enslaved but many were also freed. And Green does not reveal truths about just black women, but white women as well.
The book centers upon an ironic subject when talking of black women and white men who owned them- “intimacies.” In arrangements where black women had children and prolonged or brief relationships with white men who drove the American economy off slave trading and labor, white women not yet equally part of the workforce were dependent on men whose affairs and alternate family support anguished them. In our times giving rise to the term “Modern Family,” Green’s work forces us to think just how modern we are. Please enjoy this first part of her interview on this book, women and her work.
The title’s “Miss Louisa” is actually a white planter’s white wife. The command to “Remember Me” comes from this planter’s black mistress. So, these women knew each other but shared the same man in their own ways. How do you frame this book–as new slavery scholarship, black women’s studies, women’s studies?
In this day of genealogy and finding our roots, people seem more open to learning, if not sharing, their families’ stories. So, based on the surviving evidence, Louisa appears to be a diminutive of Louise, the name of a white woman married to a white man who not only freed two women of color and their four children, but periodically supported them financially after moving them in 1838 to Cincinnati – a sort of ground zero for the resettlement of such women and children because it sat on the Ohio River, which poured into the Mississippi (thing superhighway).
He allowed a third woman, this one enslaved, to live apart from him and earn money on her own. In 1847, she lived in Bainbridge, Georgia, a river town where she earned money in an unnamed profession. She may have prostituted herself. For sure, she said via an 1847 letter that all she wanted from him now was her freedom and that he should spare her the expense of returning to New Orleans to secure such an arrangement. She closed the letter with the words “Remember me to Miss Louisa.”
It is possible that she was referring to his wife Louise and that they’d met at least once possibly in the lower south. This planter, incidentally, kept his wife and three daughters in Louisville, Kentucky, which was about 100 miles south of Cincinnati. Maybe he did this so he could check on two households at the same time while he maintained an interest in several cotton plantations in Arkansas and Mississippi. His wife, a native of Mississippi, may have met the third woman who asked to be remembered shortly before being moved by her husband to Kentucky.
New Orleans is a place where the planter traveled for business reasons. His cotton was often shipped out of that port. New Orleans was also a domestic slave trading center where women and girls of mixed race, also known as “fancy girls,” were sold for use as bedmates. The point is this: we’re talking about a situation that fits into several bodies of scholarship.
This woman boldly asks to be remembered. Imagine that. The study of her response dovetails with black women’s studies and women’s studies scholarship. Consider Audre Lorde’s classic essay on erotic power, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Lorde asked us – women of various sexual and other constructed identities – to access the “chaos of our strongest feelings.” This is a place where we “feel” rather than just “do.” This woman was certainly in this space, I think. She may have permitted herself to have some complicated emotional exchange with the man who owned her rather than hating him outright. How can this be?
For sure, she says to him in the same letter that he – not she – may die before they meet again so he needed to hurry up and free her. She may have had to cleverly deal with the horrors of using her own body to support herself. Certainly, she had to manage all of that and still honor herself by asking to be remembered possibly to the man’s wife. Had these two women connected in any way? The record does not easily say. Generally speaking the white “mistress” has been portrayed as being unsympathetic to the black woman’s condition before and even after the war. But we do not know.
We do know his wife once asked her husband to send her a black woman from one of his plantations to be a nursemaid in their Kentucky home, as she had trouble finding good help. If we can apply Lorde’s injunction, keeping in mind so much had to have happened between the Antebellum period and Lorde’s 1992 writing, this enslaved is really sorting through a lot of emotional and mental chaos that is difficult for historians to fully peel apart; we often rely on empirical evidence and all we have is her one letter.
And since letter-writing is a performance, we have to keep in mind that everything she said on paper may not be all that needed saying. “Remember me” may have been a veiled threat to tell his wife something he preferred left unsaid.
But she got enough down that enables us to see the complexities of her personhood. Critical study of womanhood, in all its complexities, is needed for today’s women who are still living through so many oppressions. Not that much has happened that we get to escape societal agreements about our sanity, our worth, our ability to contribute, our need for rest and to be protected and to protect and so on.
I know of your fiction writing career and prose writing background, and it enriches the book in how you build all these real historical people as novel-like characters. And, you focus on three particular circumstances in the book including their children. How did you decide what stories to include and focus on? Did you find a quantity of material on each case to give you enough to write about, or did you find what you wanted to write about and then build your cases?
I stumbled upon this topic by accident. I saw mention of “fancy girls” in Deborah Gray White’s now classic story on black women in the “plantation” south [Ar’n’t I A Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South]. I lived in New York City. The towers had just fallen and I decided to write a work of fiction to keep my head in place. I was smelling smoke and seeing missing person signs. So, there’s real horror on my computer screen. People were dead, right? A friend who worked in publishing urged me to find real women in the archive and I eventually did after going back to school. First, I wanted to study the antebellum body on real bodies. I earned a Masters in Dance at UNC-Greensboro.
I continued my work by pursuing a degree in history. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I began to read the Rice Ballard papers at UNC-Chapel Hill. As I say, I fell out of my chair when I stumbled upon five letters by one black woman, one of the two freed in Cincinnati. Here were women who had almost certainly been their master’s bedmates. How they coped with the tragedy around that is a huge story in and of itself, but then to be freed by him with your four children, right? This ended up being one of several case studies I kept stumbling upon as I received historical training at Chicago and then at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
Being a former journalist, I approached this “story” as an investigator who could not ignore the small pieces of evidence that were becoming a pretty big pile. And Cincinnati kept coming up. Or Ohio kept coming up. And it turns out that Cincinnati was the place where one could find the highest per capita population of mixed race people outside New Orleans before the Civil War. White men had partly orchestrated this without even trying. They were permitting women and children of African descent to leave slave territory, usually with their assistance. If the children could pass as white, they attended public schools in the Midwest.
Abolitionists were there to assist with their resettlement although they were not necessarily free of their own prejudices. Generally speaking abolitionists were in more agreement that slavery was wrong, not that black people were not inferior human beings. But they wanted to see these freed people become productive citizens. Wilberforce University, opened in 1856, saw mixed race people from the South in its student population in large numbers. Oberlin College in Ohio, which opened earlier, also had a lot of mixed race students.
So, I had enough evidence with all of those tidbits and three case studies with a lot of information that gave me more than enough material to write a book. The second case study involves a woman from South Carolina who, since her birth, is sold off first to Georgia before being moved at age 14 to New Orleans by an aging white man who bought her in Mobile, Alabama. Did you follow all of that? This child moved a lot! She was of mixed race and that partly informs her movement. Folks wanted or didn’t want her or her mother and siblings around. Tragic either way and no pun intended.
The third case involves nine children to one unmarried Huntsville, Alabama, planter, and five enslaved women. He left them his $200,000 estate, worth $5.5 million in today’s currency. Some of those children were resettled in Ohio and attended Wilberforce before the Civil War.
Your ah-hah moment was finding an archived letter from the 1830s where a freedwoman writes to her former master in the South for money she and another freed woman need for their children. This gave you a jolt of curiosity about why such a circumstance existed, and led to the book. What year did you find this? Did you ever think at that time it would lead to this book and its course?
I discovered this letter during grad school at the University of Chicago so this had to have been in about 2006. I had enough evidence to write a seminar paper, which became an essay that won an Honorable Mention for the Ruth Murray Prize in the graduate student category. It was a huge affirmation that this work was worthwhile. I continued my training with Dave Roediger in Urbana and learned more about the nuts and bolts of historical research. Chicago is a great place to learn how to ask questions. I will also treasure that approach to research. Sometimes, even now, I ask my undergrad students and grad students here in Alabama to ponder the question, forget the answer.
Knowing what to ask helps you get to what is really at stake. It also helps you see how your answer might have importance to different areas of scholarship. But at Illinois, you learn that and the basic tools in the tool kit of a historian such as the way one determines how their topic fits in with other historical writings.
I always thought I’d use everything I learned to take this story as far as it could go. I remember speaking to one possible advisor at a university I considered applying to and the person said, “How do you know what you will work on when you get here? Hasn’t enough been written about this topic?” and I couldn’t run out of that person’s office fast enough. His words showed a true lack of knowledge about the work that still needs to be done even today.
And saying that is to not be without humility, but to instead honor the possibilities of discovery and honor the miracle, yes, miracle, of finding evidence. It’s not easy!
Who would have known that I could start with a bad piece of fiction and end up finding meaning in various documents in different archives?
And by the way, the historical training I received for nearly a decade ended up being so intense, in the time it took me to transfer to another grad program. I revisited the original work of fiction and turned it into short stories and a musical for relief!
I still needed to proceed down the imagined work route. Creativity feeds my soul. I am an academic who works with empirical evidence, but I will never shut out that creative side, which nowadays shows up in my teaching and approach to writing.
I want my work to be accessible. My work has the rigor of any other academic work, but must be understood by people in and outside of the academy. Finding a balance is not easy.
Sometimes I am still too academic. I once resubmitted that first work of fiction to the same editor whose assistant said this time said, “It’s too literary now, Sharony. A university press may like it.”
I was like “Huh?”
One day, I’ll pick it up again, but there’s too much to think about now. I certainly want to look at the musical just to see where I was in 2008 when I had the time to be with my archive, read letters and study business and legal documents between grad programs.
Part Two of Dr. Green’s interview will appear March 21. In the meantime, enjoy the following WVXU-FM Cincinatti NPR interview where she discusses the role Ohio played in freed black women and children’s lives. You may also view historical letters and other materials at her history and cultural commentary blog on Tumblr, Remember to Miss Louisa.