Blog Post

Walking Gingerly Through Time: When and Why to Digitize Historical Records

In the last two days, I have written two letters, both of them to strangers. In the first "letter," which was really an email, I wrote an academic historian, who published in 1997 a book containing the diaries of three Southern gentlemen. One of the dairists, Henry Craft of Marshall County, Mississippi, (son of Hugh Craft whose Holly Springs home U.S. Grant lived in during the Union's occupation of the town) was the fiance of Lucy Hull, who appears to have taken her own life, distraught as she was that her brothers didn't approve of her engagement.

As it turns out, her brothers include William Hull, who (I may have mentioned in an earlier post) owned my paternal family as late as 1863. In Henry's diary, he, in the process of mourning Lucy's death, gives in his journal an almost weekly log of his activities in and about Marshall County. He identifies institutions, people, and homes directly associated with local high society. He describes his travels to neighboring counties, naming in the process now extinct towns through which he passed and long re-developed roads he traveled. In short, Henry Craft, himself no doubt deceased for at least a hundred years now, has provided me a virtual roadmap to my own family's life in slavery, as well as their literal path out of bondage. I wrote the editor who published the Craft diary to thank him for his work.

I have known for less than two years William Hull's ownership of our family, and it was shortly after learning the fact, recorded in The Register of Freedmen (a Civil War record I've transcribed) that I began searching the Web for information on the Hulls. The search turned up many sources including three or four digitized books, among them the one I describe here.

This brings me to the second letter I've written this week. This one I wrote to a white Hull descendant. I am not yet certain that she is connected to William Hull though I suspect that she is since I learned of her work in the process of researching his family line. She too has written a book, as it turns out, on the Hull family. The Writing's on the Wall: Family History, Memory, and the Lost Cause.

This is not the first time I have written a white descendant of a family that my family was "with" during slavery. Several years ago, I wrote a fellow researcher who descends from a family that I suspect owned my first great grandmother. He and I wrote back and forth several times and followed up our email messages with a phone call. Right away, I identified myself as African American, and he shared that over the years he had spoken with several black descendants of the men and women his family held in bondage. He and I shared lots of information, and he asked my thoughts on ways to publish his research. I advised him to tell the story waiting to be told. He thanked me for that advice. We have not been in touch again.

It is crystal clear that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of stories waiting to be told, stories that bridge "races" even as they must look critically at "race," culture, politics, and economy. While I would not say that stories of white families and those of black families of the slave era are the same, I would suggest that they are intricately woven together, certainly more than we think or feel comfortable admitting.

It has occurred to me--actually, one of my children hinted at it when I first developed the Last Road to Freedom website--that the information I provide there is not just relevant to African Americans but to descendants of the whites whose ancestors' names also are included. What will they feel and think when they read their ancestors' names? I suppose Americans who objectively appear to be on different sides of this history need to ask where at this point we are spiritually and politically in relation to it. Our answers to this question will tell us something not just about where we are as so-called racial groups but where we are temporally and spatially as well as intellectually or cognitively.

I have in fact visited the former plantation of William Hull, Greenwood Plantation, which was actually built by his mother Elizabeth Herndon Hull, who I believe in the 1830s brought my second great grandfather to Marshall County from her Spotsylvania County Virginia home. I have walked the grounds of Greenwood. I have a photo of the mansion as well as a picture of an area that may be where poor Lucy, whose burial spot Craft identifies in his diary, her sister Elizabeth (who died a year after her sibling) and their mother are buried. I have not done much with these pictures. I have shared them with some of my family, who have not responded in visible or audible ways to them nor to the publication of their ancestos' names in the Register. Their response to our Hull Family connection, likewise, has not yet been articulated.

Waiting for responses is a precarious position to be in, and so I have been walking, rather than simply waiting, through the different temporal spheres that construct permeable boundaries. Others, it seems to me, certainly the editor of Craft's diary and even Craft himself, also have been negotiating spheres. Craft must have known someone someday would read his journal, and the editor (presumably no kin to Craft) who chose to share the diary with a twenty-first century public audience, had to know that it provided a deep and personal view into the life of an individual trying, yet failing, to live up to the life expected of a Southern "gentleman."

I have only found one time that Craft mentions slaves, though he is of the slave-owning class. Servant Nancy, he says, to whom he speaks at the Tuckahoe Plantation of Elizabeth shortly after her death, deeply mourns her mistress. My own second great grandmother was named Nancy. Could Elizabeth's Nancy, Craft's Nancy, be my own? At the moment, I have no sure way of knowing. I can only rely on circumstantial evidence, which is actually worth something. Nancy was a slave of Elizabeth Hull Crump, sister, again, of William Hull. When Elizabeth died in the 1840s, her brother may have inherited the blacks she herself had earlier inherited. Proving this is not, however, my point, not here anyway. Instead, what I want to get across is that in the economy of Craft's time--both the actual slave-based economy and the gentleman's journal that was a part of that economy and culture--my second great grandmother, a slave, whether she is one and the same as Craft's Nancy or Elizabeth's Nancy, did not have to exist in any real meaningful way in his writing. Her being, like that of others of her condition, was always limited in the written record. Moreover, it can only be seen as ironic that she who was said to feel deeply for her deceased mistress could not have her feelings--even her capacity to feel--recognized in other contexts. I cannot help but wonder the connection between her inability to have this sensibility recognized in the day in which she lived and my own family members' lack of readiness to express feelings and thoughts about this history today.

Craft used tools of his time--pen, paper, and his literacy--to construct the world as he saw it, and more than a hundred years later I have found his writing, but it existed even before I was born. As an emerging digital historian, it seems that the task before me is to perceive when different temporal spheres come together, not to question (or at least over-question) why they do so but to--using the tools (various media) available today--birth that which has been waiting, more patiently perhaps than I, for this time. It certainly inspires me as well to know that today's tools can also allow me to offer a sense of dimension and depth to the lives of those who for so long appeared to have been written out of history. However, providing historical information that has not before been published widely and telling our many stories are one thing. How this development will be received is another. 

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