Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South: An Interview with Historian Keri Leigh MerrittHistorians/History
tags: slavery, inequality, interview, Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Huffington Post, AlterNet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: email@example.com.
Historian Keri Leigh Merritt
The lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks, but they are also the oracle and arbiters of non-slaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal, and whose unparalleled illiteracy and degradation is purposely and fiendishly perpetuated.
Hinton Helper, The Impending Crisis of the South (1857)
While the Southern abolitionist Hinton Helper abhorred the cruel institution of slavery, he was also appalled by the condition of poor whites in the South of the 1850s who he saw as suffering a “second degree of slavery” under the dominance of the slaveholding ruling class. Wealthy slaveholders brutally enforced the enslavement of blacks while repressing and degrading poor whites who they saw as disaffected pariahs that could upend the rigid hierarchy of the rich white slave-owning class.
Historian Keri Leigh Merritt presents a comprehensive study of this malignant and overlooked aspect of slavery in her new book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press). She offers a groundbreaking interdisciplinary perspective that explores economics, law, class, labor, race, social relations, the court system, and vigilante violence, among other issues, to reveal the world of poor whites in the South during the decades preceding the Civil War.
Dr. Merritt details how an underclass of white people grew in the Deep South. By the 1840s and 1850s, the global demand for cotton had skyrocketed, and slaveholders from the Upper South had sold over 800,000 African Americans to Lower South states. This influx of slaves reduced the need for white laborers, whose ranks also grew due to white immigration, particularly from Ireland. As she vividly describes, these whites were landless, jobless or underemployed, and illiterate, and faced involuntary servitude, a hostile legal system, illness, starvation, harassment, and the constant threat of violence—the result of the policies designed to expand the wealth and power of the white slaveholding master class while preserving slavery at all costs in a de facto police state.
Dr. Merritt also dispels myths about this time, including the idea that virtually all whites in the South supported slavery and secession. She concludes by chronicling how poor whites benefited from the end of slavery by gaining the ability to compete in a free economy while, ironically, free black people were excluded from the economic system and became subject to “slavery by another name” with the persistence of white supremacy and a racist justice system.
Because of the illiteracy of most poor white people in the prewar South, they left few written documents. To address this problem, Dr. Merritt conducted extensive original research to uncover their story by studying sources from county court records, jail and penitentiary records, newspapers, and coroners’ reports to slave narratives, accounts from slaveholders and abolitionists and veterans, petitions from laborers, and much more.
Dr. Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned a doctorate in history from The University of Georgia. In addition to Masterless Men, Dr. Merritt is also co-editor with Matthew Hild of Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power (University Press of Florida, 2018). She is currently researching books on radical black resistance during Reconstruction, and on the role of sheriffs and police in the nineteenth century South. She has earned numerous honors for her writing and research on inequality and poverty, and she frequently contributes articles to the non-academic press that place current events in historical perspective.
Dr. Merritt generously talked about her book and her work as a historian during a visit to Seattle.
Robin Lindley: Before getting to your new book Dr. Merritt, I wanted to ask how you decided to study history and then specialize in the issues of slavery, labor, race, and economics in the American South of the nineteenth century.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I’ve always been attracted to history. I’ve read history books since I was a young teenager. Growing up in the South and seeing the racism there drew me in even more.
I started studying poor whites and the nineteenth century South as an undergraduate and realized their story was largely untold. They were nearly always left out of history simply due to the fact that they were illiterate. I knew I wanted to go onto graduate school and study this topic, because I believe it adds a lot of nuance to how race and class interact – and how racism is perpetuated in America.
Robin Lindley: And you’ve brought in legal, social and economic history and other aspects of the story beyond the focus of many histories of the period.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes. I think we miss a lot as historians by just staying within our discipline. For example, what economists have come up on the price of slaves in the last few years that changes the whole dynamics of how we think about the South and slavery. By using interdisciplinary methods and relying on other subjects, we inch closer to the reality of the situation.
Robin Lindley: You’ve done pioneering research on an overlooked aspect of race and slavery in the antebellum South. How would you briefly describe your new book Masterless Men to readers?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Masterless Men examines how black slavery - and subsequently, black freedom – affected poor whites in the Deep South. Basically, with the influx of slaves from the Upper to the Lower South in the mid-1800s, poor whites increasingly found themselves unemployed and underemployed, and became cyclically impoverished. While poor whites certainly never experienced anything close to the horrific brutality of slavery, they did suffer socio-economically because of the peculiar institution.
I document the ways in which poorer whites traded and socially interacted with the enslaved, and how the slaveholders were constantly trying to figure out how to achieve segregation between the groups.
I show how poor whites were exploited by slave owners, who used myriad ways, from keeping them ignorant and illiterate to policing and terrorizing them, to maintain an effective system of slavery. Conversely, I also argue that black emancipation “freed” poor whites in certain, very important ways, often at the expense of African Americans.
Robin Lindley: Was there an incident or a reading that sparked your research on poor whites?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I come from impoverished whites myself on my mother’s side. She grew up in an old mill village. My grandmother was only barely literate – she had to drop out of school in the seventh grade to work.
I still remember visiting my grandmother during the summers and seeing not only the poverty of the area but how it affected both whites and blacks in her area of town. All the rest of the town – the upper middle class and upper-class sections - was segregated. But the really poor area was completely integrated. That didn’t mean that the poor whites weren’t racist, but they still lived with black people. They worked with black people. They had an underground economy. It was a story you don’t see told in history—and an interaction of poor people that we don’t talk about.
I was always drawn to the nineteenth century because growing up in the Deep South there are vestiges of slavery wherever you go, especially in the rural areas as in the Mississippi Delta, for example. You feel like you’re back in plantation times.
I realized early on that all types of disparity, from wealth to education to income, were dependent on the fact that, once slavery ended, a whole class of people was freed with zero wealth.
I focus on this period as the genesis of so many of today’s problems.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate the original research you did for Masterless Men. As you write, most poor whites in the antebellum South were illiterate so they didn’t leave behind documentary evidence. What source material did you rely on in your research?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Any time we try to study illiterate people, it poses so many more challenges than people realize, so scholars of illiterate people must be more creative and find multiple different ways to figure out the lives of those people.
For me, luckily, I had all the WPA [Works Progress Administration] slave narratives to rely upon. A lot of the questions to these former slaves centered on class and what they thought about poor whites. So there was a lot of information there.
I also used the Tennessee Civil War Veterans questionnaires. While they were given to Tennesseans from 1914-1922, and there were many different southerners who lived in Tennessee then. They talked about the Deep South and slavery and the class issues.
I relied heavily on government records such as county court records and coroners’ reports. How people die tells you a lot about a society. And I also utilized newspapers, petitions to governors for pardons and petitions about labor unions or “associations,” as they were called then. Census records were essential in studying family structures and the mobility of people.
In short, I used any kind of document I could get my hands on to try to uncover the lives of these people.
Robin Lindley: A major theme of your book is that the slave-owning white aristocracy used racism to extend their wealth and power, and both slaves and poor whites were oppressed. Do you have a sense of the percentage of whites who were slave owners?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes. In the Deep South, the percentages are concentrated, with more slave owners in the Deep South than in the Upper South. The Deep South states I studied are South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. I don’t include Louisiana because it’s too different from a racial perspective and a legal perspective.
In these Deep South states in 1860, you have about one-third of white people who own slaves or live in families who own slaves. About one-third of white people could classify as middling class status – yeomen who owned land and not slaves, or the up-and-coming middle class of merchants, lawyers, and bankers, and then men who were overseers and hadn’t come into their inheritances yet. And the last third are poor whites.
Robin Lindley: I don’t think many people understand how expensive slaves were. What did you learn about the price of slaves then and what this means now?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: The economists Samuel Williamson and Louis Cain came out with a paper called “Measuring Slavery.” They looked at the prices of slaves not just in terms of cash value but in terms of what kind of power and status it took to have this kind of cash, to make this kind of purchase. You weren’t just getting lines of credit anywhere.
So, just to have the power to purchase something (or someone) so expensive means that the buyer has to be incredibly wealthy. Williamson and Cain came up with a figure that purchasing a slave would cost something like $130,000 today. That’s a totally different figure than the cliometrician scholars were using in the 1970s to estimate slave prices.
Robin Lindley: Poor whites obviously could never own a slave. You stress that poor whites didn’t have steady incomes and didn’t have land and were illiterate, and the slave owning aristocracy kept them illiterate and impoverished. That may surprise some readers. Why did the slaveholders desire this result?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Most slaveholders looked at poor whites as nuisances—as impediments to slavery itself. Not masters, not slaves, they were essentially “masterless men and women” in a hierarchical world. But poor whites were also interacting on a social and economic level with the enslaved and had an underground economy in which they traded together. Primarily, slaves appropriated foodstuffs from plantations and often traded with poor whites for liquor and other goods – it was America’s original “black market.”
Slaveholders knew they had to control and manage poor whites to keep slavery viable and profitable, and to keep these sizable underclasses from banding together and doing anything about it.
By 1860, there were poor white labor associations (or unions) throughout the Deep South and the workers were protesting having to compete with slave labor. They went so far as to threaten to withdraw their support for slavery if something was not done to raise their wages. They literally could not compete with slavery and earn a living wage.
So what did planters do? Well, they used both the legal system and vigilante violence to control this potentially explosive population.
Robin Lindley: Why did the Southern elites feel so threatened by poor whites who seemed so powerless and degraded in this slave society?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Like I said, they’ve always been a nuisance. They’ve been trading with slaves and disrupting slavery in that way.
But they also interacted with the enslaved socially. Interracial relationships between the two groups were far from rare. In fact, poor white women had the power to create a race of free blacks because a child’s status was based on the race of the mother. So, if a poor white woman had a child with a black man, that child would be entitled to legal freedom, adding to the free black population. So they had the ability to disrupt the racial hierarchy as well.
And then you had the Irish famine in the 1840s and all of these poor white immigrants began pouring in, all over the Deep South, especially in port cities. In cities like Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, and even Mobile, the rates of white immigrants were exploding in the 1850s. So, you have a militant white labor force that was growing – and that was bucking against the system.
It’s no surprise that the push for secession started in Charleston because, while a sizable percentage of South Carolina’s enslaved laborers were being sold to western states like Mississippi and Texas, Charleston experienced a rapid increase in defiant white immigrant laborers. Poor white laborers’ ranks were growing – as was their militancy about not having to compete with unfree, brutalized labor.
Robin Lindley: How do you see the treatment of poor whites in this Southern caste system compared with the treatment of enslaved blacks?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: There’s no comparison. Slaves were treated horribly. The extent of the violent abuse and rape they endured has still not been fully revealed – and may never be. It’s starting to be told by people like Ed Baptist and a new generation of historians who have published books in the last ten or fifteen years.
Certainly, some poor whites were forced laborers and bound laborers – legally their children could be taken from them and forced to work for other people. These unfree laborers seemingly frequently suffered abuse at the hands of their “masters,” but there was always an end date to their terms of bound labor. Never would I compare their plight to slavery.
Robin Lindley: You dispel the myth that virtually all poor whites in the antebellum South supported slavery.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Obviously, all of the slave owning class did and, I’d argue, the vast majority of the middling classes supported slavery unconditionally.
I think there was more dissent in the poor white classes. I’m sure most of them were racist, but they saw that slavery was detrimental to them on a socioeconomic level. They recognized that they couldn’t get a decent wage and couldn’t get jobs as slavery increasingly pushed them out of agriculture.
As the possibility of disunion became a reality, poor whites were not the ones pushing for secession. Some were Unionists, but in the Deep South most were anti-Confederates – they just wanted to be left alone. They didn’t want to fight for slaveholders and slaveholder profits. But I argue that they were basically forced to fight in many instances. Even before the Conscription Act of 1862, there are vigilante groups all throughout the region that literally forced poor white men – with the threat of death – to join the Confederate army.
Robin Lindley: So, the Civil War may be seen as a war sparked by the white southern aristocracy against democracy to assure the survival of slavery—and preserve its wealth and power.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Right. Scholars such as Manisha Sinha have written about how the leaders of the secession movement were oligarchs. They were aristocrats. I show evidence of this too – they simply didn’t believe in democracy. They didn’t want poor people voting regardless of color. They didn’t think impoverished people should be involved on a political level at all. In the 1840s and 50s, slaveholders were increasingly attempting to remove civil liberties from poor whites. Furthermore, if you look at the laws passed by the Confederacy, you see more evidence of distain for both poor whites and democracy itself.
Robin Lindley: And, as the war approached, secessionists were preaching against abolition and raising fears of race war and other horrors if slavery ended.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Absolutely - as the Civil War approached, there was an explosion of propaganda in Southern newspapers. And even though most poor whites were illiterate, they still heard newspapers being read in town squares and at other gathering places, so they had some access to news. But this propaganda was not only directed at them – it was also a warning to middling classes as well. The richer whites predicted an impending racial war, saying that slaves would slaughter whites by the thousands, and that slaveholders were rich enough to move out of the region but poorer whites would be left to suffer at the hands of the enslaved. They said that black people would take over the South and rule the government; that poor whites would the slaves of blacks; that African American men would marry and rape their wives and daughters. It was just completely incendiary and vile, vicious racist language. I argue that you can see clearly here the beginnings of the vitriol of the Jim Crow era.
Robin Lindley: These poor whites, for the most part, were illiterate and otherwise uneducated. What was the state of public education in the South in the years before the Civil War?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: There was essentially no public education in the Deep South. None of the states had anything close to public education. Of course, some of the problem was poverty: only the upper-middling and elite classes didn’t need the labor of their children. And many poorer whites lived on the very margins of society, far from towns and schoolhouses.
I argue that elite whites didn’t want poor whites to learn how to read for several reasons – not only to prevent them from seeing what life was like outside of slave states or to read about workers’ rights, but they also didn’t want poor whites to be able to teach slaves to read. With the underground economy between the races, why couldn’t poor whites trade reading or writing lessons for a pound of corn or meat from the enslaved?
And there was also a zealous policing of any kind of information that entered the South. There was a huge culture of censorship, where slaveholders and their allies literally go through all the mail and any book that entered the region.
Interestingly, I did find that, after 1850, when a lot of politicians realized that secession or war was a possibility, they started talking about how to “educate” poor whites to become soldiers for the South. Their big idea was to indoctrinate the teachers, who were to be hand-picked southern-born men. Then slaveholders would send the teachers to Southern schools to indoctrinate them in Southern institutions – centered, of course, on the right to own slaves. These teachers would subsequently return home to teach the masses just enough to be decent soldiers.
Robin Lindley: I think people will be surprised by this lack of education combined with massive censorship. Who was doing the censoring?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: It’s carried on at both the state and the local levels. It’s important to remember that all local offices were held by people connected to slaveholding, if they were not slaveholders themselves. A lot of the censoring occurred in post offices. But elite white Southerners also formed violent vigilante groups to hunt out “unauthorized” ideas and reading materials, and viciously punish anyone who dared to read something they didn’t approve of.
Robin Lindley: And I was surprised by the total lack of public education.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: And that’s one of the ways I argue that black emancipation actually freed poor whites. After the Thirteenth Amendment, and due mainly to the Freedman’s Bureau, there were finally actual public schools in the Deep South.
Robin Lindley: You also write about poor whites forming unions but they are challenged by the criminal justice system and violent vigilance committees. Did you find that worker advocates were lynched by these agents of the slave owning class?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I haven’t uncovered anything specific on the lynching of labor leaders. But definitely anybody who threatened the system in any way was liable to be lynched. And I should clarify: when I use “lynched,” I mean that in the antebellum sense, which was not always murder, but included torture, tarring and feathering, shaving someone’s head, riding them on a rail. It was meant to embarrass, degrade, and humiliate the person, who was often then banished from his or her community.
Robin Lindley: You detail some gruesome atrocities.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: It was an incredibly violent society because slavery is predicated on violence.
Robin Lindley: I was also struck by many of your findings such as the high suicide rate of white women who were mothers of mixed race children.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Using court reports and coroner’s inquests, I was able to uncover a good bit about the daily lives of some of these poor white women. Unquestionably, antebellum Southern suicide would be a great book topic, as would be the levels of infanticide. Both rates are seemingly very high. From the limited research I’ve done, the levels of infanticide by the formerly enslaved in the post-bellum era were seemingly common as well. That would be a fascinating study: Why were these women killing their babies?
Robin Lindley: What is your sense of this high rate of infanticide?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: For a white woman in the antebellum period, I think it was self-interest, quite frankly. Once they were found out, they were completely socially ostracized and banished from society. They could be met with violence and even death. Their children would have had horrible lives trying to live as free blacks outside of cities such as Charleston and New Orleans. There were actually very few free blacks in rural areas of the Deep South, especially as secession neared.
My guess is that these women were trying to survive themselves. Furthermore, a mixed-race child could be legally taken away from a mother in this society and bound out to another person for the child’s labor. That’s not slavery, of course, but it’s a form of short-term bondage. Binding out children was not exclusive to mixed-race children, though – any child of impoverished white people was at risk.
Robin Lindley: Could these mixed-race children also be enslaved?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I didn’t find any case of that, but in the late 1850s, there was a movement in the Deep South where the states were trying to re-enslave free blacks. They were forced to move out of these states or choose a master. There were fewer and fewer rights for free blacks as the era approached the Civil War.
Robin Lindley: You stress that the conditions of poor whites in the South improved markedly with the end of slavery, but emancipation was imperfect for those once enslaved. What are a few things that happened after the Civil War with poor white people and freed blacks?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: With the emancipation of African Americans, poor whites were finally incorporated into the system of white privilege, even though it was at the bottom. The Southern elite understood that this was a way to buy their political allegiance and to forestall a political alliance between poor whites and former slaves, whose economic interests often aligned.
Poor whites quickly gained certain legal, political and social advantages solely based upon race, and this inclusion in white privilege allowed the former slaveholders to recapture control of Southern states after Reconstruction. Many times, though, these new freedoms came at the expense of African Americans, who now occupied the lowest rung of “free” society.
Most importantly, poor whites were finally able to compete in a free labor society. But they also were no longer the targets of the criminal justice system – African Americans suddenly took their place. And I argue that some poor whites were able to benefit from the Homestead Acts, gaining land and thus, wealth. And of course, after the war the Deep South finally started implementing a system of public education, however rudimentary. So, both blacks and poor whites were better off after emancipation, but both were still constrained by the vestiges of poverty and slavery.
Robin Lindley: You’ve also written recently about the resonance of this history in the issues of race and white supremacy we face now as the current president encourages racial division. You found echoes of the history you share in the Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville in August.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Obviously, the racial rhetoric has amped up over the last two years, from the time that the presidential campaign started. Trump was gaining supporters using the same manipulation of racial and xenophobic fears. He utilized chosen media outlets to create as much fear and worry as he could about “other” people taking over America. There was abject violence at campaign rallies and literally nothing was done about it. They even tried to silence the media, experts, and intellectuals.
I can’t say that I predicted Trump would become president, but I was definitely worried because I fully realized he was directing people’s anger and fears at other Americans – divided solely along the lines of race and ethnicity. And when people are downtrodden, when they are angry at the system, their anger is easily channeled by designing politicians.
Robin Lindley: In Charlottesville armed white supremacists congregated to defend the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and their violence led to the death of a young woman and serious injuries to more than a dozen counter-demonstrators. And the police stood by as Nazis and their ilk attacked those who responded to their message of hate and racism. Your book details similar incidents in the antebellum South.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: There’s a long and sordid history of violence in the South – from slavery and unfree labor practices to the criminal justice system.
The police are employed by the state and they know to whom they are answerable, to whom they serve. There’s also been a long history of police attracting a class of people who feel rejected by society and feel that they have something to prove – through a little bit of power that some of them truly exploit. And recent policies – not just under Trump, but under Obama as well – have heavily militarized them. It’s going to get very scary in the future with this grossly militarized police force, especially under the racist demagogue we currently have as President.
Robin Lindley: That ties in with mass incarceration of African Americans, a problem that has been evident since Reconstruction.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes. When you look at rates of incarceration before the Civil War, it was mostly poor whites in jails and prisons – and that makes sense, because slaveholders generally “disciplined” – really, tortured – the enslaved right there on the plantation. They wanted to be able to use them as laborers immediately after punishment. Right after slavery ended, however, the vast majority of people arrested were black. This type of heavy policing served not only as a form of labor control, but also as a form of social control.
Robin Lindley: Your book deals with how the upper classes used racism to hold power. That seems to be part of the equation when you look at America today.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Yes - we see that systemically in most of our institutions and in our government. In most of the South – and increasingly, the nation – poor and working-class whites are still reeling from the toll of poverty. Their anger is ripe and easily channeled by demagogues and politicians. Controlling education, the media and politics, elite whites – including Trump – continue inciting fears of immigrants, hatred of African Americans and an intense distrust of government and experts.
Robin Lindley: So, as you see it, the rich maintain their control and wealth by dividing people by race.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Absolutely. We definitely see this in the labor movement. Southern businesses have always used – and encouraged and incited – racism to divide the laboring classes. It’s the primary reason the South still has very few unions.
But the elite also maintain their control by disenfranchising as many working-class and poor people as possible, and through gerrymandering. They also control education and the media. They discredit experts and journalists with whom they disagree. We’ve only seen the beginning of it, but I believe in a matter of a few months we’ll see more and more attacks on academics and intellectuals.
Robin Lindley: There’s a sense that Trump was elected because of poor or working-class whites. However, you’ve stressed that the white middle and upper class, including white women, also assured a victory for Trump.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Right. There’s a lot of racist anger throughout the entire white community that is finally coming to light with the election.
I think Trump brought to the surface things that have always been there, but have until recently been talked about in a gentile or coded language. But Trump’s giving it to us straight, and white supremacists are emboldened enough to think they can come out of their basements and out of their online worlds and make their hatred public. He has emboldened them to do that.
Robin Lindley: Given this current volatile environment, what do you think should be done about Confederate memorials and monuments?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I’m definitely radical here – I think the best option is that they should all be destroyed. They were put up for one reason: to maintain white supremacy. They weren’t put up right after the Civil War to honor the dead. Most of them were erected in the first decades of the 1900s by white supremacist groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were all trying to maintain Jim Crow. They were meant to indoctrinate children and discourage black men from registering or attempting to vote. In Atlanta, where I live, many of them were dedicated in response to the bloody race riot in which angry, racist whites murdered scores of African Americans, and also destroyed and trashed black-owned businesses.
In short, the monuments are disgusting. They’re painful. I think we show a fundamental lack of empathy as a country to not understand how horrific these monuments are for African Americans who have to look at them every day.
As I recently said in response to removing Decatur, Georgia’s Confederate Monument, why do we need a visual reminder of slavery and white supremacy? The vestiges of slavery and white supremacy are still apparent every day in this country.
Robin Lindley: And some Confederate monuments were put up during the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: That’s right, no matter what time frame, though, there’s one constant—they were put up for one reason: to remind African Americans to stay in their “place.”
A healing way to deal with this is to figure out what to put up in their places. The South has a long history of biracial alliances against all odds. Or put up a monument to the enslaved themselves—the people who created this country, created the infrastructure, created so much of the wealth. Put up monuments to great black people.
To me it’s absurd that we’re even arguing about this. We should be focused on what is right and just and good.
Robin Lindley: You’ve been outspoken about how you see the role of historians. You’ve called yourself an “activist historian.” How do you see your role and what would you like to do with your career?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: In a blog post, I used the term “activist historian,” and perhaps it’s not the most accurate term, but for now it’s pretty accurate.
There seems to be emerging within the profession a sharp divide between two groups. One group is comprised of people who think that history is simply history and that should not have any presentist purpose. But there’s a growing number of younger scholars who consider themselves activist historians – who want to use the lessons of history to create a better, more equitable, more just future, and who think we should use our knowledge and expertise to affect public policy and racial policy and labor issues--all sorts of things—and turn what we know into something good for the future.
Robin Lindley: How do you think readers might take the history you present in Masterless Men, for example, and use the lessons you share to address our current concerns about issues such as race, labor, and economic inequality?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: The biggest lesson should be that there hasn’t always been a separation of the races in American history. There have been amazing, promising moments when people from different races lived together and worked together. That’s the hopeful aspect of it.
I think that it also shows the fallacy of all of the pro- and Neo-Confederate arguments. Many of the people waving Confederate flags and arguing for the monuments to remain are actually the descendants of Southern white Unionists or Southern white anti-Confederates who didn’t want to fight a war to preserve slavery.
I think also that, by showing the ways in which poor whites were freed by emancipation, and then what subsequently happened to freedmen and women – that should give us pause in thinking about reparations.
Robin Lindley: Who are some of the historians writing now that you consider your fellow activist historians?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: There are so many, it’s hard to narrow it down. I love the work of Ed Baptist, Manisha Sinha, Chad Pearson, William Horne, Michael Landis, Karen Cox, and Keisha Blain, Ibram Kendi, and all the people writing for Black Perspectives. There’s a whole group of graduate students in Washington, D.C., calling themselves Activist Historians.
There are also a bunch of us Southern historians – who are especially interested in labor history – and who come from more working-class backgrounds, who have worked as activists. Social media has made it far easier for us all to connect and to create a broader movement.
I also want to give a shout out to LAWCHA, the Labor and Working Class History Association. I went to their conference this summer and it reminded me why I want to do this work.
Robin Lindley: And are there some other historians who inspired you when you were considering becoming a historian?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: Definitely Eugene Genovese. I read his work as an undergraduate and was completely drawn in. And all of the cliometricians: Robert Fogle, Stanley Engerman, and others who wrote about the economic aspects of slavery. And of course, Eric Foner was a big influence--an amazing, amazing historian.
As I got into graduate school, I was heavily influenced by people who were researching poor whites, like Victoria Bynum and Charles Bolton and Jeff Forret.. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I had never read W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction until my final year of graduate school but, once I did that, my mind was blown.
Robin Lindley: What are you working on now?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I have two book projects I’m researching now.
The first one will look at the transition of criminal justice in the South. It goes from being run by sheriffs in the antebellum period to being dominated by professional, uniformed police forces in Reconstruction. One important thing to know about sheriffs is that they conducted sales of about half of the slaves in the South. These were slaves taken by the courts over debts and liens – and then sheriffs sold them to recoup costs. Very few scholars have even acknowledged that fact.
The other book project considers radical black resistance in early Reconstruction. The primary figure in that book is Aaron Alpeoria Bradley. He was a slave, escaped slavery, and moved to New York and became one of the nation’s first black lawyers. He went back down to Savannah in 1865, right after the war, to fight on behalf of common black laborers. He was heavily involved in Georgia politics and fought against police brutality and oligarchy. He also fought against gold coin, predating the populists. It’s hard to find a ton information on him, but I’m trying.
Robin Lindley: Those book projects sound fascinating. Would you like to add any thoughts for readers about your work or America today?
Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt: I believe we are at a vital crossroads in our country. Non-elite people of this country can either come together and begin fighting for their rights, or we can continue down this toxic road of racism and hatred. I’m understandably worried, but I do remain hopeful.
Robin Lindley: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughtful insights and congratulations on your new book Dr. Merritt.
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