To Disparage John Brown and Quash the New Negro: Troubled Confederate Commemoration 1920

For Confederate Memorial Associations maintaining the distinctive social arrangements based on race was central to their survival. These values and beliefs protected the power of the dominant class (patrician southern whites) by infusing the Lost Cause into the minds of the public. In periods of social change their presence would amplify with commemoration activities. Amidst the arrival of the New Negro, “a class of colored people,.. who have arisen since the war, with education, refinement, and money”, the United Daugters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans would collaborate to prepare themselves to devote their first memorial to a “faithful slave.”

In November 1920, President-General of the United Daughters of the Confederacy May McKinney admonished her fellow UDC sisters to see that “future generations may be impressed with the real truth” about John Brown and how he killed “a faithful slave” who “held too dear the lives of ‘Ole Massa’ and ‘Ole Miss’us’, to fulfill Brown’s orders of rapine and murder.” She also concluded of Mr. Shepherd that he would never have been one of those negroes that tried to sit at the front of a railcar.

It was of no consequence to Mrs. McKinney that Shepherd had actually been a free black. Here we find the selection of the purported “type” of blacks selected as worthy of memorials, parades, statues, gravestones, and commemorative days. They needed to fit the faithful slave mold. As David Blight pointed out “the Lost Cause changed with succeeding generations and shifting political circumstances”16 For the general public, including African Americans in their organizations and proclaiming that African Americans participated fully in the Confederacy gives the pretense of racial inclusion, whereas their symbolism of Stars and Bars as well as the historic record convey the old southern view that is tinged with elements of white supremacy.”1

During the ceremony for the Heyward Shepherd memorial, Pearl Tatten, an African American music teacher at the historically black Storer College, bristled at the paternalistic tone of the event where the virtues of black mammies were being extolled to resounding applause. Ms. Tatten later indicated that her father had served in the Civil War as a Union soldier who had fought for liberty and that African Americans were “pushing forward to a larger freedom, not in the spirit of the black mammy but in the spirit of new freedom and rising youth.”2

From the point of view of the Confederate Memorial Associations an African American was a villain or saint depending on whether or not (s)he actively asserted his freedom; on the other hand if (s)he desired to perpetuate his or her role as a servant (s)he was drawn as a contented negro who enjoyed status in southern society, gained the admiration of masters and in turn recognized the natural and proper supremacy of the white man.3

1.David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2001), 258.
2 Mary Johnson An “Ever Present Bone of Contention”:The Heyward Shepherd Memorial,” West Virginia History Journal
Volume 56 (1997), pp. 1-26
3. Theodore L. Gross, “The Negro in the Literature of Reconstruction,” Phylon (1960-2002), Vol. 22, No. 1 (1st Qtr., 1961), page
6 (accessed 10/03/14)

Osnaburg Fabric: Garment for the Enslaved

It was the osnaburg nightshirt that failed to keep Moses Grandy’s enslaved brother warm when he died of exposure while trying to find a yoke of steers that had wandered into woods of the Great Dismal Swamp during the winter of 1795. That coarse, yet thin fabric had not been enough to keep the enslaved child warm- the elements of winter’s cold air and his steadily weakening body from the previous floggings committed on him by slaver Mr. Kemp assured that death would soon remove the lad from slavery’s grip.[1]

Osnaburg fabric was part of the imposed uniform for the enslaved. It was cheap, relatively durable, and unremarkable enough to fit the status of unfreedom deployed onto enslaved people. As each day dragged on usually working fourteen hours per day in warmer months, enslaved people donned the drab fabric, however on Sunday- an enslaved person’s one day of rest, they would transform the fabric into a Sabbath Day ensemble that they could be proud of. Enslaved people combined their talents at improvisation with precious little into an aesthetic of what middling classes and planter elites would find objectionable.

The forced migration of enslaved captives placed them in alien locales across the Americas where they had to conform to European garb from the very beginning. The articles of enslaved dress are often outlined in the descriptions of runaway slave ads in order to increase the livelihood that the enslaved person could be identified by their clothing- “a strong Oznabrig shirt” or “linsey-woolsey” dress were often worn as enslaved people attempted their flight to freedom.[2]

Osnaburg is part of a family of poor quality textiles- made from coarse inexpensive linen with the main object being durability; a sturdiness appropriate for the unending toil comprised from the forced agricultural, pastoral, and manual labor performed by enslaved people. While working enslaved women wore osnaburg dresses “reefed up” with a cord drawn tightly around the body, along the hips in order that their work would get done unencumbered from long dress hems. Booker T. Washington, a former enslaved person himself, recalled his experience wearing the fabric, describing osnaburg as feeling like “a hundred pin points in contact with the flesh” His older brother eased Booker’s discomfort by “breaking in” the shirt for some days before transferring the garment to him.[3]

 Because enslaved people were responsible for making their own clothing, they knew which root, tree bark, leaf and berry that made red, blue, green and other colors. It was this knowledge that allowed enslaved women to use the dyed cloth to enhance the drab appearance of osnaburg in order to have something nice to wear on Sundays to church.[4]

Travelers and commentators of the nineteenth century complained about the propensity of enslaved people to dress “above themselves” to engage in elaborate finery clearly inappropriate to their lowly station in life. Nevertheless osnaburg fabric exists still today as a cultural remnant and reminder of the fabric relegated to the class of people also known as chattel.



Grandy, Moses, “Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, “Late a Slave in the United States of America” .London: Gilpin, 1843


White, Shane and Graham, “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, Past and Present No. 148. Oxford, 1995

[1] Moses Grandy, Narrative in the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a Slave in the United States of America (London: C. Gilpin, 1843), 9

[2] Shane and Graham White, “Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”, Past and Present No. 148 (August 1995), 154.

[3] Ibid, 174

[4] It should be mentioned that church attendance was mandatory on many plantations during the antebellum era for enslaved people. Pastors were often Euroamerican and sermons were carefully constructed to dissuade enslaved people from insurgent activity-church was a method of control for enslaved people. In many locales enslaved people had a separate clandestine church meeting for themselves in the outlying woods of the plantation. In these gatherings enslaved people practiced their faith in a manner of their choosing.

Art Break: Simone Leigh’s method of concealment and visibility

“Through ceramics, Leigh references vernacular visual traditions from the Caribbean, the American South, and the African continent, as well as the Afro Descendant diasporic experience dating from the Middle Passage to the present. Vessels, cowrie shells, and busts are reoccurring forms, each making symbolic reference to the black body.”

Read the full article by clicking link below:


Notes on Kate Brown’s Plutopia

Kate Brown presents the first decisive account of the major plutonium disasters of the United States and the Soviet Union in “Plutopia : Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters.”  Drawing on interpretation gleaned from government records as well as oral testimonies Brown tells an astounding story of two nuclear power towns, Ozersk, Russia and Richland, Washington. What unfolds is a complex history of how American and Soviet leaders created what Brown calls “plutopias”—ideal communities for nuclear families in exchange for their cooperation with state control over bodies.

The residents of these nuclears towns were gainfully employed with extensive health monitoring and enjoyed an elevated standard of living compared with locales outside of their plutopian boundaries. Brown’s study enjoyed all the pleasures of consumer society, while nearby, migrants, prisoners, and soldiers were banned from plutopia–they lived in temporary “staging grounds” and often performed the most dangerous work at the plant. For the “plutopians” it seemed as if they were willing to concede the health surveillance over their bodies in exchange for the commodified treasures of their toxic locales. Brown’s study emphasizes the questions inherent in such a trade off as it related to residents of Ozersk while juxtaposing the rights of “plutopians” in Richland, Washington:

“At this writing, Ozersk remains in a state of incarceration, fenced and guarded. I wondered about these choices. Why did residents of these plutonium cities choose to give up their civil and political rights? Soviet citizens had no electoral politics, no independent media, but the residents of Richland lived in a thriving democracy. Why did the famed checks and balances fail to the extent that a calamity surpassing Chernobyl occurred in America’s heartland?”[1]

It is through telling the story of Plutopia that Kate Brown’s shows how “risk, was calibrated along the lines of class and affluence.”[2] From this revelation readers are introduced to a history of nuclear energy and its attendant effects on landscape and society.  Brown’s text explores racial and class dimensions as well while commenting on the repressive political tactics that kept the class elements of society in place. All these elements enliven our understanding of the power of corporate and state control of energy sources and the people slated to live and be surveilled within its exclusive dominions.


[1] Kate Brown, Plutopia: nuclear families, atomic cities, and the great Soviet and American plutonium disasters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).4

[2] Ibid, 7

Invited Lecture: Mapping Movements and Memory

My friend and colleague Dave Tell at the University of Kansas was kind enough to recommend my work to Paul Stob at Vanderbilt. Because of this referral Stob invited me to share my work on counter-mapping enslaved flight within the Great Dismal Swamp. I learned a great deal from everyone there and met some excellent scholars in the digital humanities at Vandy.

Click “Vandy” below to see the program site.