BackStory’s Year In Review
As 2016 comes to a close, BackStory takes a look at the stories that resonated most with our audience. Here are the 12 most popular episodes from this year:
12. Judaism In America
In this episode, the Guys explore the history of Judaism in America.
11. Watch The Throne: America & Royalty
For this episode, the Guys explore the tensions that have arisen as many Americans defined the nation as the opposite of monarchy, while admiring, and sometimes emulating, royal families throughout the world.
10. Well-Regulated Militias: A History Of Armed Protest
In this episode of BackStory, the Guys will consider different groups who have taken up arms and the causes that have led Americans to, on occasion, rebel.
9. Believer-In-Chief: Faith & The Presidency
In this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore the relationship between American presidents and their spiritual beliefs.
8. Wish You Were Here: A History Of American Tourism
In this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed and Brian explore the history of American tourism.
7. You’ve Come A Long Way? A History Of Women In Politics
On this episode of BackStory, we look at the different ways women have influenced American politics, both before and after they won the right to vote in 1920.
6. Color Lines: Racial Passing In America
On this episode of BackStory, the Guys will consider what the history of “passing” has to say about race, identity, and privilege in America.
5. Above The Fray? Ideology & The Court
In this episode, the Guys will examine why the Supreme Court is regarded as an institution that remains above partisan squabbles.
4. Nose To The Grindstone: A History Of American Work Ethic
In this episode, the Guys look at American attitudes towards the value, meaning, and importance of work.
3. Politically Incorrect: Speech In American Politics
On this episode of BackStory, we trace what it has meant to be “politically incorrect” throughout American history. CONTENT ADVISORY: THIS EPISODE CONTAINS STRONG, UNBLEEPED LANGUAGE
2. The GOP: A History Of The Republican Party
On this episode of BackStory, we unpack the origins, evolution, and reinvention of the Grand Old Party.
1. Hamilton: A History
On this episode of BackStory, we take apart the Hamilton phenomenon by considering who he was, his legacy and why a white migrant from the British West Indies appeals to so many Americans in 2016.
“To My Old Master”
In September of 1848, Frederick Douglass wrote to his former slave master, Thomas Auld. The open letter, which was also published in Douglass’s newspaper “The North Star,” talked about his life since his escape and inquired about the welfare of his sisters and grandmother. Douglass thought the women were still in Auld’s possession and asked Auld to write back and let him know how they were doing. Douglass believed his elderly grandmother had been “turned out” and he implored Auld to release his grandmother to him. “If my grandmother be still alive, she is of no service to you, for by this time she must be nearly eighty years old—too old to be cared for by one to whom she has ceased to be of service,” Douglass wrote. “Send her to me at Rochester, or bring her to Philadelphia, and it shall be the crowning happiness of my life to take care of her in her old age.”
He closed the letter with this:
I am your fellow man, but not your slave,
The letter is so eloquently written and moving, it makes the reader wonder what happened next. (Read the full transcript of the letter.)
To answer that question (and a few others), we turned to David W. Blight, a professor of American history at Yale University. One of Blight’s latest books includes the annotated edition, with an introductory essay, of Frederick Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (Yale Univ. Press, 2013). Blight is also working on a new, full biography of Frederick Douglass that will be published by Simon and Schuster.
Q. Describe Douglass’ life at the time he’s writing the letter?
A. At the time Douglass wrote this letter, which was published first in his own paper “The North Star,” Sept. 8, 1848, and then again in William Lloyd Garrison’s “Liberator” on Sept. 22, 1848, he was living in Rochester, NY. He had moved there in late 1847 from Lynn, Mass. Douglass had moved out to Rochester for several reasons – to seek the independent environment in which to found and edit his own newspaper, to establish his own abolitionist identity apart from the Garrisonians of the Boston area among whom he had begun his public career, and because Rochester did have a fairly significant abolitionist community. He had just returned in spring of 1847 from some eighteen months touring Ireland, Scotland and England after the publication of his first autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1845). His time in the British Isles had been transformative in many ways.
Q. What was Douglass’ goal in writing the letter?
A. Douglass used this extraordinary letter as a very personal kind of confrontational, moralistic antislavery propaganda. He used Auld throughout the letter as a model of the deeply compromised, religiously hypocritical, contradictory, and even physically brutal ways of slaveholders. He made Auld into the model of the corrupted slaveholder, and apart from Auld personally, Douglass was trying to use his former master as a means of showing what slavery did to all people that it touched.
Q. Do we know that Thomas Auld saw the letter? What was his response if any?
A. We do know that Auld read the letter, as did some of Auld’s friends on the eastern shore of Maryland and in Baltimore. Later Douglass, first in 1849 and then again in 1877, publicly apologized for some of what he said in this letter, especially the parts about his grandmother Betsy Bailey. It turns out that Auld had not simply turned out grandma Bailey to die in old age, and when Douglass learned this, in part from Auld’s own protests, he apologized and cleared the air on that point.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist
After the Civil War, freedom for the enslaved didn’t always come in the form of a soldier. For Dora Franks, it was her brother who helped her escape in the summer of 1865 by sneaking into the Mississippi plantation where she was enslaved.
And Dora Franks’ brother wasn’t the only one trying to put a family back together in the aftermath of the
war. It was a daunting task considering how far and wide the southern slave market stretched and how many different kin connections a freed person could have. It was not uncommon for enslaved person to have started a family on one plantation only to be sold to another and forced into a childbearing relationship with a new partner.
We sat down with Brenda Stevenson, a historian at UCLA, to discuss the tough choices that freed people faced as they tried to piece their families back together.
On the methods people used to locate family members:
“There were thousands of people who hit the roads and went to find family members— tens of thousands actually. And of course there were hundreds, even thousands who advertised for family members, who asked, do you know where my family members are? I am located at this place, I was sold at this time. This was my master at this time. My mother’s name was this. Can you help me to find her?
There were people who had people write letters for them, those who were literate, to ask their former masters, do you know who bought my mother, who bought my brother, my sister. So people really did feel as if they could connect and they wouldn’t allow themselves to think that they could not.”
On why former masters weren’t always very helpful:
“Sometimes the masters will cooperate, but remember that the master class at this point is also devastated and they are trying to reconnect their families. They are trying to get their sons back who’ve been off at the war [and] figure out their finances. I don’t think that it’s uppermost in their mind that they are trying to connect these persons who were enslaved who no longer are working for them, that they don’t have control over. We do certainly find some instances where people said, you might look in this area or she was bought by this person. That was much more likely to happen, however, if the person actually arrived at the former master’s home and asked.
It could actually be dangerous, and I think the former slave who was looking for a family member had to be very careful and had to decide what was the best way to approach this plantation. That’s why, for example, this woman Dora Franks — her brother climbed into a window, and said ‘Get your things together, we’re leaving.’ So people often would have to use a clandestine way to actually get their relative.”
On the role churches played in reconnecting family members:
“The churches would be a useful network because people in the churches often were literate and they are the ones who could help to write the notices for the newspapers, write the letters to former masters, also to former slave traders to try to connect people with their lost loved ones.
The churches also were interesting because they insisted that former slave couples get married. Slaves could not legally marry, and so they instituted these group marriages. They insisted in many places you have to marry you cannot just you cannot just live together any longer. There were some people who resisted that. Mostly men, but there were a few women too who decided that they were not going to stay with their husbands that they had been forced into these relationships by their masters and they were not going to stay with them.”
On the unintended consequences of finding lost family members:
“There was a lot of anxiety around whether or not you would meet a relative a cousin or sister and become romantically involved. Some of the folklore that comes out of this post-slave era is that people will be united and not know that they were blood-related.
There were some tragedies as well. There’s a story of this man, Henderson Beckett, who…lived in Texas. His father had had a family in Florida and then was sold to Texas and had several children. Well, when the war ended the father went back to his family in Florida, and of course that was heartbreak for the family that had been created in Texas.
So these were difficult decisions that had to be made but I think what’s most important is that we understand that the institution of slavery, as harsh as it was, did not kill this desire to have a family. Family was really at the core of the social and psychological lives of these people.”
Brenda Stevenson is the author of Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South. You can listen to our entire episode on the aftermath of the Civil War here.
No such thing as a free lunch
Eleven years before the start of the Civil War, as the abolition movement was reaching new heights, a man named William Alcott gathered his supporters together for a discussion about slavery–but not the kind that you’re probably thinking about.
“There is no slavery in this world like the slavery of a man to his appetite. Let man but abstain from the use of the flesh and fish, and the slavery of one man to another cannot long exist.”
Alcott was founder of a group called the American Vegetarian Society (or AVS), and an ardent believer in the link between meat and slavery. Consuming meat, he argued, caused people to become savage and corrupt, and slavery could only happen in a savage, corrupt society.
And Alcott wasn’t the only one who believed that if Americans stopped eating meat, slavery would eventually die. The AVS’ members dedicated themselves to pursuing a meat-free and slavery-free America.
In 1864, the Kansas Nebraska Act gave these abolitionist vegetarians a chance to accelerate that process. The decision to make those territories slave or free states would be put to a vote by the settlers there, and so members of the American Vegetarian Society flocked west, eager to make the territories a model for the rest of the country. Under the leadership of an atheist member named Henry S. Clubb, they joined the flood of people rushing to colonize Kansas and set up their own settlement. But things didn’t exactly go according to plan. Historian Adam Shprintzen, who’s written about the history of vegetarianism, described for us some of the challenges this vegetarian colony faced on the plains:
“The first group of settlers arrived, they were very enthusiastic about their cause of course. But then when the next wave of settlers come from the Northeast, the settlement itself is rickety, there’s maybe some old sheds barely with roofing on it…There’s a significant disenchantment really quickly and within three to four months, especially as mosquito season really starts to hit and people suffer…A lot of the reformers end up kind of turning around and heading back east.”
The settlers that remained ended up furthering their cause in a different way: joining the Union army. This was quite a turnaround for a group whose goal in promoting both vegetarianism and abolitionism had been a less violent, more harmonious society. Henry S. Clubb, former leader of the vegetarian settlement, was one of many who had to wrestle with his abolitionist and pacifist principles while serving in the Union army. Though Clubb served as a quartermaster, arming and supporting northern troops, he himself refused to carry a weapon.
With the success of the abolitionist cause, the vegetarianism movement lost its focus and organization. The AVS dissolved, and the alliance of anti-slavery vegetarians fractured. But vegetarianism as a social force was far from dead. Instead, as Shprintzen explained, the cause took on an entirely new shape.
“Because there is no organization, this allows for a new vegetarianism to crop up that focuses on the diet for its health benefits for the individual, and that those health benefits will then also help the individual advance socially and economically. And this is a real difference from the previous vegetarians, who saw their diet as a way to help others rather than only themselves.”
This new vegetarianism promised a new and improved self rather than a transformed society. Vegetarianism was linked to social success, being a better businessman, and even to athleticism and bodybuilding, giving Americans a whole new set of reasons to, as the Beach Boys put it, “chow down on [their] vegetables.”
This story comes from our show on the history of nutritional advice. You can listen to the whole show here.
The Writing on the Wall
Around 1810, a man began writing in a mysterious script on the walls of his jail cell in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fascinated onlookers soon came to marvel, and to guess what the symbols meant. Eventually, someone identified the language as Arabic, and the man as an escaped slave named Omar ibn Said.
Omar, who had been an Islamic scholar in West Africa before he was captured and enslaved, was returned to slavery after his imprisonment in the Fayetteville jail. He was sold to a prominent North Carolina family, the Owens, and ostensibly converted to Christianity. In the years following his sale to the prominent Owens family, his fame as a literate slave — and literate in Arabic, no less — grew. Omar remained a slave. But, most unusually, he was also allowed to write and publish an account of his life. The Life of Omar Ibn Said, Written by Himself was published in 1831, decades after his capture in West Africa.
“You asked me to write my life…I have much forgotten my own, as well as the Arabic language. Neither can I write very grammatically or according to the true idiom. And so, my brother, I beg you, in God’s name, not to blame me, for I am a man of weak eyes, and of a weak body.”
For our guest Ala Alryyes, the mere fact that such a narrative exists is remarkable:
“This is the only extant autobiography written in Arabic by a Muslim American slave. Through it we have access to both his original world that is the world he came from – West Africa – and an attempt to negotiate his situation in the U.S. as a slave.”
But Alryyes says that what you see in that document isn’t necessarily what it seems, either when it comes to religion or to his feelings about being owned. For example, Said opens his autobiography with a chapter, or sura, from the Koran. Its central idea is that God exercises power over, and is the supreme owner of, all things and persons.
“Opening your slave narrative, as it were, with a text that says that God is the only one who has ownership of all things seems to be it couldn’t just be an accidental or negligible feature of his autobiography but a choice that has an organic connection to his possession as a slave, right? In other words, he’s using the the sura to negate the idea that one man can own another man.”
Omar continues his autobiography by describing how he was taken from the region of current day Senegal all the way to the great sea, put on a great ship, and “sold into the hands of the Christians.”
“My name is Omar ibn Seid. My birthplace was Fut Tûr, between the two rivers. I sought knowledge under the instruction of a Sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Soleiman Kembeh, and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal. I continued my studies twenty-five years. Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language.”
He goes on to describe his life as a slave, first with a brutal master named Johnson, “a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.” Because Omar was still enslaved when he composed his narrative, it’s perhaps not too surprising that his account of life with his then-masters the Owenses isn’t so critical. Nor does he seem unhappy about his public conversion to Christianity.
Though Omar’s story is unique, as a Muslim in a strange land, he was far from alone. As many as 15 percent — maybe more — of the half million African slaves brought to what became the U.S. were Muslim. But within a generation or two, the memory and practice of Islam had largely faded away in America. And that, says Alryyes, is what makes this unique document so important.
“Omar’s autobiography is not the full story. But it is a clear example of the fact that Islam and America did not just meet on Sept. 11, 2001. And that they had a lengthy, complex and more interesting relationship than that.”
This is a story from our show on the history of Islam & the United States. You can listen to the whole episode here. If you’d like to know more about Omar ibn Said’s story, you can read a translation of his autobiography here.