Slavery and Violence in the Old South: An Interview with Jeff Forret

forret250x255This month I interviewed Dr. Jeff Forret, Professor and Distinguished Faculty Research Fellow at Lamar University. He is the author of Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside and co-editor of New Directions in Slavery Studies: Commodification, Community, and Comparison. Dr. Forret was born in the small rural community of Calamus, Iowa, a town of about four hundred people in Clinton County, about a half-hour from the Mississippi River. After attending St. Ambrose University for college, he completed his Master’s at UNC Charlotte, and received his Ph.D. under the advisement of Peter Kolchin at the University of Delaware.

In this interview, we discuss his new book, Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South, which was recently nominated as a finalist for the 18th Annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize awarded by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. It was also one of three honorable mentions at the 40th Annual American Publishers Award for Professional & Scholarly Excellence (PROSE) in the U.S. history category. This week, the book was selected as one of five finalists for the 2016 Harriet Tubman Prize from the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery.

Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South by Jeff Forret. Photo: courtesy of Jeff Forret.Keri Leigh Merritt: In this book you shatter the idea of the tranquil, peaceful enslaved community. Through the lenses of infanticide, murder, and physical abuse, you show that blacks and whites shared the same problems concerning violence. Can you tell us a little about what you found, and what conclusions you reached?

Jeff Forret: Certainly the slave community remained a source of strength and support for those in bondage, but yes, I do try to complicate that picture by acknowledging the full range of human emotion that slaves possessed. I think of the book as divided into three parts. In the first few chapters, I discuss the origins of violence among slaves, its prevalence, and the patterns I could detect from the records, as well as the ways in which slaves, masters, churches, and the civil and criminal law dealt with such incidents. The second portion of the book examines the motivations for intraracial slave violence evident in the court records I examined. Here I discuss violence as the product of work and leisure time, of the slave economy, and of disputes over family. The last chapters explore the meaning of violence and honor for enslaved masculinity and femininity.

KLM: How much of this violence do you think was attributable to the brutal nature of slavery as an institution?

JF: This is a tricky question, because some of the violence among slaves did little more than make them southern. The antebellum South was a shockingly violent place, and slaves lived in that violent southern culture. Other episodes of violence among slaves just make them seem like the living, breathing human beings that they were. Lots of times I can sympathize with what they did, because, to be perfectly honest, I would have found it gratifying to do the exact same thing. Yet it is undeniably true as well that slavery generated special strains and tensions on those in bondage that could manifest in violence. To take just one example, slavery routinely broke up enslaved families, perhaps through sale or by the arbitrary decision of a master to terminate, say, a cross-plantation union. So you end up with some very confusing familial arrangements in which a slave has more than one partner. That’s one situation that might provoke violence. Another concerns slaves’ violent disputes over property. If slaves could declare lawful ownership over the property they claimed as their own, there would not have been such a need to enforce those claims through violence.

KLM: Obviously part of what brought you to this topic was your first book, which explored the underground economy operated by the enslaved, free blacks, and poor whites. But what else drew you to such an important (yet overlooked) aspect of slavery?

JF: Slave against Slave was a direct outgrowth of Race Relations at the Margins. One of the chapters in Race Relations at the Margins concerned violence between slaves and poor whites. Preparing to write that chapter, I first needed to read the scholarship on violence within the two groups, separately, so I dutifully read all the major works on violence among poor whites, most notably Elliott Gorn’s “Gouge and Bite” article. Then I went to the library to read what I could find on intraracial slave violence and quickly realized that that scholarship didn’t really exist, other than a few scattered, brief mentions in various books and articles. I was a bit surprised that there was this gaping hole in the literature, but I had my suspicions that no one had explored it in much depth because the topic ran so counter to the trajectory of the scholarship on the slave community in the late 1990s and very early 2000s. Beyond that, the topic held political implications and had the potential to generate some degree of controversy. At the same time, I didn’t want that to obstruct the process of historical inquiry. Some years later, when I submitted my first article manuscript on violence among slaves to the Journal of Southern History, in about 2006, I got a wide range of responses from the anonymous readers. Some were positive; one I recall was overtly hostile to the project. But editor John Boles shepherded it through the publication process and helped make the article a reality. In the end, I began the topic for no other reason than to fill a lacuna in the scholarship. The real excitement for me as a researcher, though, came once I realized that studying slavery through the lens of violence enabled me to peer as deeply inside the lived experience of the slave quarters as anyone ever had. It was a truly voyeuristic exercise, as I overheard slaves’ conversations, learned about their finances, pried into their sex lives, and so on.

KLM: Part of the reason your books are so impressive is that you use some pretty obscure historical resources. What advice would you give younger scholars concerning using more obscure primary sources? Do you foresee the use of certain record groups in the future as being instrumental in shifting the focus of antebellum southern history? Which under-utilized groups would you recommend young scholars consult?

JF: I always tell my students in historical methods to cast their nets as widely as possible. Whatever your topic, you’ve got to explore all possible sources that might help you access your subject. It’s amazing what scholars have found by leaving the beaten path. I remember, for instance, the first time I encountered Philip Morgan’s work with Southern Claims Commission records, later used so effectively by Dylan Penningroth. I didn’t know a thing about that source until graduate school, and the richness of the scholarship it permits is just incredible. I’m not a pioneer in the use of sources the way Morgan was; many people used court records or church records before I ever did. At the same time, I would argue that those sources have been underutilized, considering the wealth of information they contain. Courtroom testimonies and church disciplinary proceedings are two of my favorite sources to use because the caliber of information they contain just can’t be matched in other sources. But far be it from me to recommend certain records to young scholars or to predict the types of records that historians will use in the future. Some people can build entire careers revisiting well-known sources and viewing them through different analytical lenses; others will no doubt discover primary sources no one to date has yet thought to use. My recommendation for the younger generation is to move forward and innovate: dive headfirst into the archives and find what we’ve missed.

KLM: What do you do after a grueling day at the archives, spent investigating these horrific instances of violence, to try and relax and “get over” the stories that are imprinted in your mind?

JF: This may sound pathetic and sad, but after a day in the archives, I grab dinner, go back to the hotel, and, first, review the data I’ve collected that day, asking myself what that material suggests I might need to look at next, and second, compile my to-do list for the next day. On my more virtuous days, I make it to the gym to lift weights or go for a jog to decompress, but for the most part, I do not allow myself to get too emotionally invested in my work. The one real exception was when I began my current project, a legal history of the domestic slave trade. Research for that subject included the examination of slave ship manifests from the coastwise domestic slave trade. These lists of slaves show the names, ages, and complexions of those shipped from the Upper South to the Lower, and it’s quite clear that the two-year-olds, four-year-olds, eight-year-olds, and so on listed right below the names of adult female slaves are their children. Since I became a father in 2010, that kind of information bothers me in ways it did not before the onset of parenthood. I find it increasingly difficult to deal in these sources, because I know all the hopes and dreams and aspirations I have for my son, and here I am looking at kids the same age held as slaves and what that means for their futures. And to be an enslaved parent? I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been.

KLM: What bearing – or significance – do you think your work has on current events? From inner city violence to police brutality against African Americans, how does your work inform us? Could history help shape public policy?

JF: I very consciously refrained from using the term “black-on-black” violence in the text of the book because it is such a politically loaded, practically specious concept. Still, Slave against Slave cannot help but place those sorts of discussions in the broadest possible context. The book makes pretty clear that there is no quantifiable evidence to demonstrate that slaves were any more violent than southern whites in the nineteenth century. Nor were the freedpeople during Reconstruction. Elevated rates of violence among blacks did not emerge until the very late nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. All of this suggests that intraracial violence within the black community is the consequence of a historical process. This presents a real challenge to those critics – overwhelmingly, conservative ones – who for decades have complained about dysfunction and pathology endemic to the black community, that African Americans must suffer from some defect in their values. That sort of argument simply doesn’t hold up in the face of the evidence. If that were true, then why haven’t levels of violence among black people always been high? Slave against Slave instead provides a glimpse of enslaved people who felt pride, love of family, and commitment to making their lives as good as they possibly could under the circumstances. Doesn’t that make all of us more alike than different? Make no mistake: violence plagued slaves’ lives, but the perpetrators of that violence were whites more often than not.

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Keri Leigh Merritt

Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian of the 19th-century American South who works as an independent scholar in Atlanta. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and the co-editor of the forthcoming Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power . Follow her on Twitter @KeriLeighMerrit.

Comments on “Slavery and Violence in the Old South: An Interview with Jeff Forret

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    I look forward to reading this book! Thank you for this fine post.

    This post reminds me of comments Herbert Gutman made to me in 1984, about the subject of violence among slaves. He said that while doing research for his “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750-1925” (1975? 1976?) he had come across many, many instances of slave against slave violence, especially male violence against women. Gutman said he’d pondered this evidence for a long time, and had concluded (as I recall these conversations, before and after my first graduate class, with him) two things about this slave violence against slaves. First that such violence was, sadly, almost inevitable under American slavery: brutalized people tend to become brutal. Gutman was not retrospectively justifying it, just trying to explain its historical context.

    Second, he said he’d decided that his book was already too big, dealing with many topics, and that his chief aim for it was to disprove Moynihan and others who’d claimed that the Black family was intensely, inherently dysfunctional, due to slavery. Therefore, he largely omitted these topics from his book; but, Herb said to me, saying domestic existed in some or many slave families did not suggest that Black slaves lacked family. Always generous, he said the topic begged investigation, and while he died in 1985, I think Herb Gutman would be pleased by this new book.

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    This was an intriguing interview about violence among enslaved Africans in America. What would be also compelling analysis as well, would be to compare how violence was handled among the ethnic groups that those first-generation Africans came from, to discern their experiences and values about violence, conflict and reconciliation versus their experiences in plantation life. More importantly, this interview cements the enduring violence of American culture, and the spiritual and psychological work that many Africans engaged in after enslavement to thwart violence in resettled communities.

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