Libraries & Culture 40.2 (2005) 149-155
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Wilderness Journey during the Jim Crow Era:
A Review Essay
John Mark Tucker
In 1888 W. E. B. Du Bois, a senior at Fisk University writing for the student newspaper, reviewed the History of the Negro Race in America from 1916 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens (1883) by George Washington Williams. The budding scholar Du Bois announced that in Williams we finally had a historian, not just a black historian but one whose work—judged simply on scholarly merit—offered a superb narrative. Years later, as a fully mature scholar himself, Du Bois would refer to Williams as the greatest historian of the black race.1
Williams was not a trained historian but rather a soldier, minister, and politician. He did not have the opportunity to study at Michigan, Johns Hopkins, or one of the New England schools where a new, more scientific historiography was emerging. Innovations in teaching and research at these universities featured seminar instruction imported from Germany that utilized analysis and comparison of original sources in printed and manuscript collections. These approaches, in turn, necessitated an unprecedented growth in library book and archival holdings.
Williams, on the other hand, essentially trained himself in the tradition of Frederic Bancroft, one of the nation's leading self-taught historians. Williams sought Bancroft's advice, and the older historian became a helpful mentor. But the younger historian would advance [End Page 149] beyond Bancroft, employing methods similar to those used by university-trained historians.
According to John Hope Franklin, Williams read extensively in African and early American history. He traveled in Kansas and the Southwest, interviewing Civil War participants and thus pioneering oral history as a method of investigation. Williams also made extensive use of newspapers, a source virtually ignored by the first generation of scientific historians. Though Williams made a valiant effort to be objective, his narrative would betray his values, experience, and personality. Yet by any measure he produced a comprehensive, thoughtful, well-researched volume for which he cited about one thousand printed sources in addition to interviews and newspaper accounts.
Williams worked in an era when African American access to libraries and other cultural resources was sorely limited. He used the State Library of Ohio in Columbus, the Historical and Philosophical Society in Cincinnati, and the Astor and Lenox libraries along with several historical and society libraries in New York. But he also relied on an elite intellectual underground, the world of private collectors without whose support his research would have been untenable. Principal among these was Robert Clarke, Cincinnati's leading publisher, bookseller, and author, who gave Williams free rein among his eight thousand personal volumes. Williams also used the library and office facilities of John Austin Stevens, editor of the Magazine of American History, through which he was introduced to other scholars and bibliophiles, including George H. Moore and S. Austin Allibone. Although his research interests could have taken him into the states of the former Confederacy, access to books and manuscripts would likely have been denied, so he never pursued a much-contemplated history of Reconstruction.
The History of the Negro Race appeared in the twilight of Reconstruction when the nation's journey into racial apartheid was accelerating, soon to be ratified in the U.S. Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896. That decision sanctioned separate but ostensibly equal facilities in public accommodations and would in the next six decades be reapplied in a bewildering, confusing array of "Jim Crow" laws and ordinances.
The Jim Crow era ended in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education...