The ‘Unseen Power’ of Silenced Black Women During the Civil War

Through her archival work, a Duke historian revives hidden stories of the Civil War era.

This article was published on Global Affairs on September 13, 2019 (LINK).

By Alexis Owens

For Thavolia Glymph, spending days in government archives – searching for one detail – can be worth it to help tell forgotten and dismissed narratives of the lives of Black women who labored during the Civil War.

“The documentation is here, and we’ve just ignored it,” said Glymph, a professor of history and law at Duke University.

On Sept. 4, Glymph gave the first lecture of the Wednesday at the Center series. Her talk titled “Civil War Refugee Camps: Camp ‘Commandants’ and Black Woman and Children,” chronicled a few of the numerous untold stories and experiences of Black women who lived, worked and raised families during the Civil War.

Throughout the lecture, Glymph allowed her research to speak volumes about those untold stories. Glymph shared accounts from an overwhelming history filled with the trauma that both Black women and Black children endured during the Civil War, as well as their triumphs.

Glymph is the author of “Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household,” “The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation” and other works.

I insist we put African American Union women back in the Civil War story. They didn't just fight for their freedom, they fought for our nation." -Thavolia Glymph

“I explore what it means to ‘listen’ to the sounds of violence that accompanied the project of making freedom and, simultaneously, what anthropologist Nancy Hunt calls the ‘hushing of sound’ and what Rob Nixon terms ‘unofficial hostilities’ and their lingering impact into the 21st century,” Glymph said.

The stories Glymph read emphasized key moments in Black women’s lives that showed how their contributions to the war were devalued and slowly erased from the dominant historical narrative. Because some of these women applied for pensions as soldiers’ widows through the federal government, “immense records” are available through the U.S. National Archives. Glymph’s work also uses wartime documents from the treasury, war and state departments, and the previous Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands.

Those stories reveal negative representations of Black women, unfair treatment, underpaid labor, as well as discriminatory state policies and practices. This is a history that Black women are far too familiar with, but the pattern of dominant history often excludes these details.

During the talk, Glymph told the story of U.S. Navy nurse, Ann Stokes (née Bradford), and the unceasing obstacles she faced while trying to receive a well-deserved pension from her work tending wounds and comforting soldiers during the war.

Stokes was an escaped slave, and she was one of the first women to enlisted as active-duty personnel in the Navy during the Civil War. She resigned from her position in October 1864 and later sought a widow’s pension. In 1890, she applied to alter an invalid pension in her own name based on her service as a Union army nurse. She was qualified for a pension after resigning, but the process was complicated due to her inability to be able to read and write. She was also put through an exhausting process that would first lead her to be denied her pension.

Though Stokes died from “disease of heart and rectum,” Glymph argues the strenuous work Stokes performed as a nurse contributed to her death in 1903.

Like many other Black women applying for duly earned pensions in the Civil War era, Stokes experienced excessive scrutiny of her personal records, body and details of her personal life. Examiners even questioned family members and neighbors, only to discredit their accounts that supported Black women as “unreliable.”

The violence Black women experienced during the war often occurred “out of sight,” to borrow from Nixon, and was normalized.

“Some would say Stokes died of old age,” Glymph said. “I like to think of Stokes’s death as a death of slow violence.”

Wednesdays at the Center is a free, weekly public lecture series held every Wednesday at noon in the Ahmadieh Family Conference Hall at the John Hope Franklin Center (2204 Erwin Road, Room 240). The series is sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center and the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies.

Arturo Schomburg and the Jim Crow South

This story was featured on Duke’s Council on Race and Ethnicity,

Written by Camille Jackson

On Wednesday, Vanessa K. Valdés of The City College of New York, presented her research on Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, whose personal collection became the foundation for the Harlem-based and world-renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Valdés is the author of “Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg,” only the second full-length biography.

During her talk, “Building an International Archive in the Jim Crow South: Arturo Schomberg at Fisk University,” Valdés highlighted the collector’s global vision for his collection as well as the importance of access to the material.

The lunchtime talk was the latest installment of “Wednesdays at the Center,” held at the John Hope Franklin Center, which features a different speaker each week throughout the semester.

Valdés, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese, said that Schomburg, a Black Puerto Rican, helped establish Fisk University’s Africana collection in Nashville, now named the John Hope and Aurelia Franklin Library.

“Most have no idea about the man himself,” said Valdés, who pursued her graduate degree in Nashville. There is only one biography of Schomburg and it was published in 1989, she said.

Valdés and Neal

The Carnegie Foundation bought Schomburg’s personal collection for $10k which he used to travel across Europe and further develop his collection. However, he donated much of his work without compensation.

In Nashville, Thomas E. Jones was president of Fisk when Schomburg began assembling the library in 1929. He worked alongside his good friend, sociologist Charles S. Johnson, to replicate what he had accomplished in New York, building a black archive in Fisk University’s Cravath Hall, complete with a reading room.

“At the time, black people were steered toward vocational schools and not necessarily reading for pleasure,” Valdés said. Under Schomburg, Fisk established a reading room to “inculcate a desire” in students to read for pleasure.

“Being an active member of society meant being knowledgeable. He was creating spaces of liberation,” Valdés said. Schomburg spoke through his collection, highlighting moments of black independence and responding to U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean.

The Fisk collection concentrated on presence of people of African descent internationally, taking on a global character, telling the story of blacks in Europe and the Caribbean. There were 140 books when Schomburg arrived and more than 4,000 by the time he left Fisk. His efforts were not replicated at other schools until decades after his death, she said.

Johnson, the first black president of Fisk, acknowledged Schomburg’s “generosity and foresight” in curating books for the university’s then-named Race Relations Institute.

“Johnson was trying to get Schomburg to write his book but he wasn’t interested in that. He only wanted to disseminate his work,” Valdés said. “It’s important to consider different modes of scholarship and knowledge production. Establishing the collection, made it unequivocal that black folks were worthy of study and international analysis.”

The event was sponsored by the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship at Duke.


Black Arts, Black Muslims: Race, Religion, and Culture

Speaker: Ellen McLarney, Ph.D., Duke University

Recent, cutting edge scholarship on Black Power and its “spiritual sister” the Black Arts Movement chronicles an important era in the ongoing struggle for racial justice in the United States. This literature, however, does not fully account for the catalytic role played by Islamic mobilization, Islamic movements, and Islamic arts in what is now known as the “civil rights era.” Islamic commitments are equated with a retrograde and reactionary black nationalism systematically understood as violent, racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic—in short, as produced by the context they were trying to resist. A number of poets, writers, artists, musicians, and activists converted in the 1960s and 1970s bearing eloquent witness to deeper reasons for their identification with Islam, testimonies woven into an extensive body of poetry, drama, autobiographies, essays, music, and art. Black Arts, Black Muslims charts the development of an Islamically inflected arts, music, and poetics that gave expression to a black cultural sensibility, creating solidarity in a community under siege.

Ellen McLarney is the current director of Duke’s Center for Middle East Studies and the interim director for Duke’s Islamic Studies Center. Ellen’s book Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening was in 2015 published by Princeton University Press in their Muslim Politics series. An associate professor of Arabic Literature and Culture in the Department of Asian and Middle East Studies, Ellen has published in journals like Social Text, Camera Obscura, boundary2, and the International Journal of Middle East Studies. A Humanities fellow at Stanford in their Department of Religious Studies and a Hurford Family Fellow at the National Humanities Center, she has also received two Fulbright awards and a number of other grants. She has a secondary appointment in Gender, Feminism, and Sexuality Studies and is co-editor of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies.

This presentation is sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center, the Duke Islamic Studies Center, and the Duke Middle East Studies Center. A light lunch will be served. Parking is available in nearby Trent Rd. and Erwin Rd. parking decks. The series provides 1-hour parking vouchers to guests.