Amplifying Voices on the Margins: Researching Cincinnati's Black HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: historiography, African American history, urban history, colonization, primary sources
“Black history is American history,” actor Morgan Freeman said in a 2005 “60 Minutes” interview. They are not really separate.
But there are extra challenges in researching historical events of marginalized populations, where records are more difficult to acquire or were never there at all. We have journals and letters from frontier explorers, but what do we have for the Native Americans from the same period? We have reams of legal records, correspondence and newspapers covering Cincinnati in the 19th century – what do we have for the African Americans living here at the time?
Mining historical resources to tell stories of those marginalized, ignored
Nikki M. Taylor, a history professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., has written three books on African American history in Cincinnati, including “Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868” and books on educator Peter H. Clark and the fugitive slave Margaret Garner.
“The period I write about is a time when city leaders, officials, politicians, citizens and historical records gatekeepers did not value their perspective or voices, so they did not record the things they said or preserve their documents,” Taylor wrote in an email response to questions about the challenges of researching Black history.
“Although there are a few exceptions, for the most part, the lives, political views, accomplishments, thoughts, intellect, and cultural practices of the masses of everyday African Americans were not deemed valuable.
“So historians like me, who are committed to African American history, must seek to find them in the sources left by whites. Some of the sources are dripping with vile racism and white supremacy, which was difficult for me to stomach.”
Taylor gave an example of mining the records of the American Colonization Society that concluded that African Americans should be sent back to Africa. In those records she found that Charles McMicken, who had bequeathed money and property to found the University of Cincinnati, where Taylor worked at the time, had also funded a project, “Ohio in Africa,” that was a deportation society.
“But it is from those same records that I learned that a small group of free African Americans in Cincinnati made plans to leave the country for good on their own terms and go to Liberia,” Taylor wrote. “They were tired of the obstacles and just wanted to find a place where they could have peace and be free of white racism. This is the start of what we now call black nationalism in the city which amounted to a desire for ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ back then.”
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