Creating the Right Narrative: Tom Randall’s Slavery Story

Sometimes as a historian I’m caught between my desire to interpret/contextualize a historical source, and the importance of letting individuals from history have their own, unmediated voice. Some posts in my blog contain lots of extra explanation and analysis that can shape how you read the quotes and copied passages , and others I’ve simply copied and left the reading and understanding up to you readers. It’s always a struggle for me and I’m hoping that I can get at finding the right balance as I keep on writing.

Especially when I was in graduate school, the pressure was always on not just to find important historical sources, but to fit them in larger narratives and use them to build up some sort of argument or larger point. And though (I think) I’m pretty good at finding those great sources, there’s always been a nagging voice in my head that wonders what the original authors/speakers would think of how I’m using their words. Did I get it right? Am I using their material in ways that they had never considered? What would they think? These are just a few of the questions I ask myself as I write and especially as I got back and look at pieces I’ve written in the past.

Every situation is different. Some historical sources are made even more powerful or can lend themselves to discussions that the original authors might not have thought about but nonetheless might have engaged in given the opportunity.

Other sources don’t need as much assistance from the historian and are more effective when you let the original author’s voice speak as loudly as possible. I think this is especially the case when you’re dealing with authors from communities that have traditionally been silenced or misinterpreted by the dominant voices in our society.

These sources are more compelling on their own and as a historian I feel it’s just my job to give the proper introductions and step to the side. I’ll leave my readers with a few short thoughts on why I’m interested in the source and what I was thinking about as I read it.

In the past few weeks I’ve been debating on how best to write about a 1930s ex-slave narrative and have finally decided that this is another good candidate for a brief introduction only.  This is a story by Tom Randall about life as a slave in Ellicott City, Maryland. Randall was interviewed towards the end of his life by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937, part of a larger project to collect oral histories from former slaves before they passed away. Randall hadn’t moved very far from his boyhood home in Ellicott City- he was living in Oella (just a mile away) at the time of the interview. I grew up in this area and was really happy to learn more about the experience of slavery in Civil War-era Maryland. Continue reading

Advertisements

The Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, Pennsylvania

Muncy_Kitchen

Inmates training in the kitchen at Muncy. Lycoming College.

In 1913, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed an act establishing the Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, about 20 miles east of Williamsport, PA. The first woman was admitted in 1920 and Muncy’s population grew steadily in the following years. Many new buildings were built in the 1930s, some of which are still in use today. Originally, the institution was built to house first-time female offenders between the ages of 16 and 30, but the maximum age limit was removed when Muncy was transferred from the Department of Welfare to the Department of Justice (now Corrections) in 1953.

Muncy Cottage

Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

By 1955, 11 cottages were built on the grounds. According to one report,

“The cottages are homelike in atmosphere with pianos, radios, and record players in the living rooms where each evening, except Sunday, the girls may congregate, play the piano, listen to the radio, sing, play cards, crochet, embroider, and on Saturday nights dance until 8:00 o’clock…the beautiful campus and well-kept, mountain stone buildings compare most favorably with those of the best of our modern American colleges. It is hard to believe that such beauty and freedom could ever be associated with a penal institution.” At Muncy, “each girl is encouraged to use nail polish, rouge, and lipstick, and to arrange her hair attractively. Every individual girl is issued three print dresses which she wears to religious services and movies, as well as at all other appropriate times.”

Inmates were kept busy working on Muncy’s 828-acre farm and in the power sewing shop throughout the year. Inmates were paid two cents an hour for their work. In the 1950s, Muncy also offered vocational and business classes in the winter months to help women find employment after they were paroled. If an inmate was paroled, she was given ten dollars, a suitcase with several outfits, a “very stylish hair-do,” and a ride to the train or bus station.

Muncy Group

Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

Muncy still only holds female inmates, and is known today as SCI Muncy. The Pennsylvania State Archives has a variety of documents, photographs, and other interesting stuff related to the facility. To learn more about Muncy’s long history and the women who were detained there, see the Department of Correction’s history of Muncy, or this Muncy scrapbook that’s been digitized by Lycoming College Archives. Lots of interesting stories here!

History of a Wandering Yankee: Train to Portland

Frank and Nell are finally finished with San Francisco, and are now headed north to Alaska via Portland, Oregon. Never one to leave out a stray detail, Frank describes every bit of this 600 mile train ride (I think they were riding on the Southern Pacific Railroad). My favorite parts of this are a short stop at Shasta Springs and a ride on a huge ferry boat called the “Solano” (the largest ferry ever built- it could carry an entire train on it). Frank and Nell try in vain to get some reading done on the train but the scenery is just too interesting to ignore. But who can blame them for enjoying the view?

SPR Shasta Route

Southern Pacific Railroad Shasta Route, Milepost 324.99. 1997. Library of Congress.

We leave on June 2nd in the morning, and board the ferry boat which is the largest and finest I have ever seen (its capacity being 4000 people,) the whole upper deck being entirely enclosed in glass protects the passenger from the wind while offering every advantage to see around. It takes 30 minutes to cross the bay, and, arriving at Oakland (which is principally a residential city for San Francisco business men), we take the train for Portland Oregon, and nothing of interest occurs until we reach Porta Costa where our whole train (broken up into sections) is run on the ferry boat “Solano” and carried across an arm of the bay. Here one can get a good breakfast on the boat and have time to reach his seat on the cars before the train pushes off on dry land again. The Solano is 425 feet long, over a hundred feet wide, and will carry as many as 48 freight cars.

We now settle ourselves down comfortably for the day with pillows at our backs, and books to read, as this part of the ride is the least interesting. Continue reading