The Collaborative Studio

The Practices of Emancipation: A Conversation with John Clegg and Alisea Williams McLeod

Episode Summary

University of Chicago scholar John Clegg and Rust College scholar Alisea Williams McLeod, a Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellow, discuss their work on the Practices of Emancipation research project.

Episode Notes

For many of the estimated 200,000 African American men who fought in the Civil War, enlistment in the Union Army was a path to freedom from enslavement. The Practices of Emancipation project at the Neubauer Collegium aims to deepen our understanding of these soldiers and to link their stories to those of the freed people who sought refuge in so-called “contraband camps” along the Union Army lines. The researchers and a group of students at the University of Chicago are using sophisticated digital tools to build a comprehensive, publicly accessible database and interactive map detailing the process of emancipation as it played out in movements of fugitivity and armed resistance. The new information will be immensely valuable to historians of the era and to genealogists tracing links back to nineteenth-century African Americans. In this podcast, two of the project’s leaders — John Clegg (Collegiate Assistant Professor of History and Harper-Schmidt Fellow, University of Chicago) and Alisea Williams McLeod (Assistant Professor of Humanities, Rust College; 2020–21 Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellow) — reflect on their collaboration and the significance of their work. 

Episode Transcription


John Clegg: This project began with some conversations between myself and Christopher Taylor, professor of English here at the University of Chicago. We were thinking about a project gathering data on African Americans in the Civil War both during and after the conflict. I’ve been working on that for a while in my own research, looking at African American soldiers who fought for the Union Army. We can look at their pension records, and we can make that data available to genealogists. But we were also interested in many other projects engaged in similar work around the country, one of which was Alisea’s project on the registers of the contraband camps.


Alisea Williams McLeod: I think it’s been at least five years that John and I have been talking. These are kindred projects. He has spent time researching soldiers’ records and digitizing them, and I’ve done the same with the contraband camp records, so we’ve been having conversations all along, and we’ve also worked on an NEH [grant] together. So when this came along, we had already been involved in networking with related projects and articulating common goals. And so I told John when I asked him to come that this [project] was straight from heaven, because these kinds of records that we’re looking at have so much social relevance, and it’s really, really exciting to be able to work on these.


JC: As I was saying, there are actually quite a lot of projects on this subject around today. A lot of genealogists are very interested in gathering data on emancipated people, and formerly enslaved people, and that is something that many of the main genealogical websites often lack. So there’s a place to fill that void. Also, in terms of people like me, researchers who are interested in analyzing the dynamics of emancipation at a more fine-grained level, there’s plenty of work to be done gathering data and analyzing it. And so I’m working on the soldiers, but many others are working on subjects like advertisements that formerly enslaved people would post in newspapers, which enabled them to reconnect with family members, and researchers are digitizing and putting them online. There’s also a huge project now on fugitive slaves in the Antebellum period. 


But the thing that really interested me about Alisea’s project is that during the Civil War, refugee camps were being formed, and those refugee camps – on the Union Army lines, primarily – were the first point of contact of people fleeing slavery. It’s usually the first time that any evidence of their lives is recorded. And for many of the soldiers that I study, the first time that any aspects of their lives were recorded was in their arrival to these refugee camps, and in the registers that Alisea has been digitizing and making available online. These would often show the family connections between soldiers, wives, and children, which I had not been able to analyze before because I had only used the army records, which focus on the men. 


The other thing we often show is how far people have traveled to arrive at these refugee camps, because these documents tell you where people were from, and that’s a hugely important piece of information for historians and people who study practices of emancipation (as we describe our project). [It is important] to see, in the records themselves, the evidence of the efforts that people have gone through to flee slavery and free themselves in the midst of a Civil War – prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Prior to the Union Army officially emancipating people, people were emancipating themselves, and Alisea’s records show that in the most fine-grained way, by showing how individuals traveled to get to these refugee camps. 


So, as I was saying, the work that we’re doing here on African American soldiers is quite limited in the sense that it only enables us to look at men, and it only enables us to observe people from the point at which they signed up, or the point at which they enlisted in the Union Army. And my dream is that the soldiers in my database will be linked to wives and children or even soldiers themselves sometimes, in the contraband camp registers that Alisea is digitizing. 


So the idea of bringing projects together in the Neubauer Collegium was really the hope that the databases we’re working on can be linked. Even if we can’t link all the individuals – which obviously can be difficult, and we’re finding that it is harder than we thought – we can certainly show the spatial connections, and the way that these refugee camps can demonstrate movement of people in the midst of a process of emancipation in a war. This can be compared to the movement that I can observe of soldiers during the war, and even after the war in their pension records, we can follow them as they moved. So, in a way, our projects are all about movement, and insofar as we can map those movements, I think that we’ll be able to achieve more together than we each would be able to as individual scholars. 


AWM: Yeah, I will second everything that John said. One thing he didn’t mention was that I was to spend a month in Washington, DC, to see if we could find even more contraband camp records. Actually, we began this project (or I began the fellowship) with at least 50 already. That may not sound like a huge number to people who aren’t doing this work, but when you’re talking about African American history and emancipation, and not only that but African Americans naming their former owners, and naming where they were located before coming to these refugee camps, it’s huge. It’s really deep. 


So we were hoping to find more, and not being able to go to DC at first was a bummer, but in fact, around January we found more online. And John [piqued my interest] when he made contact with the FamilySearch staff through the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, and we had a series of conversations with them. And then I just started looking into the Freedmen’s Bureau records, which I hadn’t looked at much recently. The majority of the contraband camp records are from the Provost Marshal records, and in the past two or three years I hadn’t spent much time in the Freedmen’s Bureau records. So as a result we have 30 new contraband camp records that we will be looking at. And what’s really exciting about that is that we’ve added some states that hadn’t been represented in the first data set. 


We are even destabilizing the whole notion of contraband camp registers, since, in fact, these are in some cases plantations – former plantations, or plantations operating even after the war. In some cases, they are what we would call “freedmen’s villages.” So there are some social experiments going on in these different locations. We’re also seeing other information that we haven’t received necessarily through looking at the contraband camp registers. [We’re encountering] many more intellectual developments [in the project] than what we even thought at the outset. 


Another interesting highlight: I’ve never had grad students to help me with my research. I’ve [collaborated on research] before, since anyone who’s working today does so in a team format, but working with two really smart graduate students who know the ins and outs of different digital tools [has been helpful.] I was going to joke that I learned a new alphabet: John knows that the technical stuff is challenging for me! But every week we talk about our programming language, our GIS coding, and the students are doing mapping and linking for us. This has been a real education for me on the technical side.


JC: This is also the first time that I’ve worked with graduate student researchers, and it is a very different dynamic. It’s amazing. Which is not to say that working with undergraduates wasn’t fantastic. In the past in this project, we’ve worked with undergraduates on things like cleaning and processing the data that we’ve gathered. And what we’re doing now is more related to analyzing the data, and so there’s a different kind of skill set that I find incredibly impressive in the students. And I’m learning a lot from them, doing this work of linking the soldiers to others in the refugee camps, trying to find them in the Census, and then mapping them, showing where they’re from and building a kind of dynamic map. It’s really beautiful work that both of our research assistants have done. 


AWM: One of the things that I have also devoted time to is reading that I hadn’t been able to do before. As soon as I got here to the University, I visited the library via the website and in person. I haven’t talked very much to John about this, but I’ve discovered that Chicago holds a number of family papers for prominent families in Virginia, and so we are most certainly talking about members of the planter class. I know that John has a very long-term goal to be able to locate and connect the African Americans we’re seeing in these records to those persons who quote-on-quote owned them in 1860 and earlier. And what I’m discovering is that in many cases these very well-to-do families migrated to Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky in groups. And so we’re going to find that a lot of the papers that we have access to at the University here are going to give us deep information and knowledge about these persons. That’s been really exciting. 


The whole time I’ve been here I’ve been thinking about the degree of migration from Mississippi and Tennessee to Chicago. This has caused me to think that we should make these records very publicly accessible, and also possibly involve University of Chicago students in this work, even at the undergraduate level. For instance, at Rust University, I’ve been working this kind of undergraduate research opportunity into the writing curriculum. I think there’s a very good probability that we would be able to make some connections to families here in Chicago. 


JC: Just to add a little bit to that, I thought as I was starting this project that it would serve at least two purposes: that my work would both enable us to find out more about the dynamics of emancipation, the historical facts about it, and that it would also be useful for African American genealogists who are looking to find and ultimately trace their families back into the Antebellum South, which is something that is very difficult to do with existing tools like the Census. But what I’ve discovered this year is that these data that we’re collecting will also enable people who’ve descended from slave owners to learn more about their historical linkages to those families, and I’m only just beginning to grapple with what the implications of that are. We’re in negotiations with FamilySearch to think about how that kind of data could be presented to people who are interested. But I think it’s really fascinating, so I’m excited about the project, and I’m really excited to work with Alisea on it.