Jim Remsen

AUTHOR AND FREELANCE EDITOR

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Our Undying Past

"The Slave Trail of Tears"

October 25, 2015

Tags: history, slavery, racism, African Americans, Civil War, abolition, fugitives

Smithsonian magazine has done a great service to our national self-understanding by publishing an article in its latest edition about what it terms “The Slave Trail of Tears.” Schools today teach about the other, outrageous “Trail of Tears” that Native Americans endured. Now, add to your understanding “the great missing migration,” which author Edward Ball describes as “a thousand-mile-long river of people, all of them black, reaching from Virginia to Louisiana. During the 50 years before the Civil War, about a million enslaved people moved from the Upper South—Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky—to the Deep South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. They were made to go, deported, you could say, having been sold.

“This forced resettlement,” Ball tells us, was to stock large plantations in the newly opened states of the Deep South with slave labor. The move “was 20 times larger than Andrew Jackson’s ‘Indian removal’ campaigns of the 1830s, which gave rise to the original Trail of Tears as it drove tribes of Native Americans out of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. It was bigger than the immigration of Jews into the United States during the 19th century, when some 500,000 arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. It was bigger than the wagon-train migration to the West, beloved of American lore. This movement lasted longer and grabbed up more people than any other migration in North America before 1900.”

I’m currently hard at work on a book about the fugitive-slave settlement in my hometown, Waverly, Pa., in Northeastern Pennsylvania. At least two of the escaped slaves who landed in Waverly, George Keys and William Diggs, had their chattel families broken up in Maryland and quite probably “sold down the river” as part of that trail. Keys’ story has come down to us through his son, who told a Scranton newspaper years later that Keys had been a favored slave of a Dr. John Hawkins in tidewater Maryland. As I summarize it in my manuscript, “Hawkins ‘mated’ Keys to a slave woman and provided a special cabin. But hard times came and Hawkins summarily sold Keys’ common-law wife and their two infants to a planter somewhere in the Carolinas. Keys was absent at the time and never got to bid his chattel family goodbye. Instead, he was handed some money and a signed travel pass and was told to disappear north. That would have been George Keys’ heart-wrenching testimony, about being used for breeding, then having his loved ones discarded to a new plantation, never to be seen again.”

Smithsonian writer Ball goes into agonizing detail about the forced marches. “The drama of a million individuals going so far from their homes changed the country,” he writes. “It gave the Deep South a character it retains to this day; and it changed the slaves themselves, traumatizing uncountable families.”

You can read the full article at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/slavery-trail-of-tears-180956968/#Qd2uEaP93Oq4hcWf.99

''Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania''

October 2, 2015

Tags: history, slavery, racism, African Americans, Civil War, Pennsylvania, fugitives

If you saw the film Twelve Years a Slave or read the memoir it’s based on, you know that prior to the Civil War, free-born black people in the Northern states were at risk of being kidnapped and illegally sold into Southern bondage. Mercenaries were carrying out the horrific practice throughout the early decades of the 1800s, and they really upped their game once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. The new law let slave-catchers come North to capture suspected runaways, with the Northern authorities and public required to cooperate. A quick hearing would be held at which the suspect couldn’t testify. If no one else would pay his bounty, he’d be ordered South with his captors.

This period is included in a Pennsylvania history book I’m currently writing. During my research in the Harrisburg archives, I came upon a powerful article from the Conneautville (Pa.) Courier headlined “Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania.” It drives home just how systematic and conniving the abductions were. Unfortunately, because I have so much other information to use and my primary focus is across the state in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I doubt the article will make it into the book. Still, I’d like to share it because it’s memorable. (more…)

A hard historical truth

August 1, 2015

Tags: Civil War, racism, abolition, Copperheads, Pennsylvania, American history

A hickory pole, symbol of the race-baiting Jacksonian Democrats.
“MORE THAN SIX THOUSAND PRESENT! THE GREATEST ENTHUSIASMS PREVAILED.”

I just came upon that breathless headline while doing research for my next book, which will delve into 19th century black life in the section of northeastern Pennsylvania where I was raised. My hometown, the lovely hamlet of Waverly, north of Scranton, takes pride that it once harbored a settlement of fugitive slaves. I’ve been drilling down into that history, with a focus on the dozen remarkable black men from the settlement who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

My goal in this latest round of road research was to find verification for a report I recently ran across online (thank you, newspapers.com!) about a rally in Waverly in October 1861, in the early stages of the war. According to the Adams Sentinel of Gettysburg, the rally was held in support of Lincoln’s policies, and it featured speeches by two gutsy officials of the opposition Democrats, representing the faction of “pro-war Democrats.” The article said ten thousand people attended and cheered loudly. Who else spoke, I wondered. Waverly’s black residents must have attended. Did one of their leaders perhaps get a spot on the platform as well? And where could such a massive event even be held in little Waverly?

I hoped the answer might pop up in one of the old Scranton newspapers, which would presumably have covered such a major event in its area. Unfortunately, the archived newspapers at the Scranton public library only go back to 1863, so that part of my search is thwarted for now.

Meanwhile, I dove into newly added microfilm for another Scranton newspaper, The Lackawanna Register, beginning in early 1863. The Register was a hard-core, Lincoln-hating Democratic house organ—and wow, the invective and racism! Its pages were filled with accounts of large antiwar demonstrations throughout the region in the summer of 1863. There was one in Greenfield, and in Scott, in Lenox, in Harford, in Dundaff, in Fleetville.

Wait a second. This picture runs directly counter to the impression I’d gotten before-- that the area was in Lincoln’s camp and that its Southern-sympathizing, abolition-loathing “Copperheads” were fringe crackpots who were few in number.

Even if you figure The Register was inflating the size of the turnouts (more…)

At last, a slavery museum

February 27, 2015

Tags: African Americans, South, slavery, museums, racism, history, plantations

The Louisiana museum includes a number of tableau including this one of children.
America finally has a slavery museum. And it’s right in the belly of the beast, rural Louisiana.

But what took long? Our country was founded on two pillars of shame – the enslavement of black people and the dispossession of Native Americans – so why did it take us until 2015 to open a museum focusing on the enormity of what’s been called our “peculiar institution”?

Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor, has a theory about this societal avoidance. “Slavery gets understood as a kind of prehistory to freedom rather than what it really is: the foundation for a country where white supremacy was predicated upon African-American exploitation,” he says. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”

Johnson is among the people quoted by The New York Times in a Feb. 26 feature story about the new slavery museum. The article walks you through the museum grounds, located on the original Whitney Plantation west of New Orleans. Whitney is far different from other restored sugar plantations in a region where, the Times states, “mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings.”

At Whitney, the visitor finds not only slave cabins and exhibits (more…)

Truth-Telling on White Terrorism

February 13, 2015

Tags: African Americans, South, racism, lynching, murder, history

The Equal Justice Initiative's new report shows how lynchings were open spectacles at the time, but have been edged out of our public history.
One of the most outrageous – and suppressed – parts of our nation’s history is racial lynching. You probably knew that sadistic murders of African Americans happened across the South. Perhaps it was a paragraph in your history textbook about the Jim Crow era. Maybe you stared at one of the gruesome old photos of dangling corpses. But did you know lynching’s full scope, and just how openly and even gleefully it occurred, with impunity for the perpetrators and a bottomless grief and rage for the victims’ terrorized communities?

This month, an intrepid Alabama-based rights group called the Equal Justice Initiative issued a monumental report on lynching that’s designed to grab us all (more…)

Selected Works by Jim Remsen

Nonfiction
The chronicle of a group of fugitive slaves and the world they encountered in the wary North. Despite serving bravely in the Civil War, their battle for respect was never-ending.
A comprehensive, immensely practical self-help book for intermarried families and those who love them.
Historical fiction
A tween girl visits a seemingly out-of-the-way town on a summer vacation and has close encounters with its amazing past. This saga blends history, suspense, and a coming-of-age journey.

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