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.
One more word to the reader: historians and other critics have frequently questioned these WPA narratives, and whether the (usually white) interviewers accurately captured the stories of slavery or weather the interviewees were holding back and telling the WPA what they wanted to hear: “nostalgia-tinged histories full of myths about plantation life.” I didn’t get that sense in this particular narrative, but I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions.
Tom Randall, Interviewed on June 21, 1937.
“I was born in Ellicott City, Howard County, Maryland, in 1856, in a shack on a small street now known as New Cut Road- the name then, I do not know. My mother’s name was Julia Bacon. Why my name was Randall I do not know, but possibly a man by the name of Randall was my father. I have never known nor seen my father. Mother was the cook at the Howard House; she was permitted to keep me with her. When I could remember things, I remember eating out of the skillets, pits and pans, after she had fried chicken, game or baked in them, always leaving something for me. When I grew larger and older I can recall how I used to carry wood in the kitchen, empty the rinds of potatoes, the leaves of cabbages and the leaves and tops of other plants.
There was a colored man by the name of Joe Nick, called Old Nick by a great many white people of the city. Joe was owned by Rueben Rogers, a lawyer and farmer of Howard County. The farm was situated about 2 1/2 miles on a road that is the extension of Main Street, the leading street of Ellicott City. They never called me anything but Tomy or Randy, other people told me that Thomas Randall, a merchant of Ellicott City, was my father.
Mother was owned by a man by the name of O’Brien, a saloon or tavern keeper of the town. He conducted a saloon in Ellicott City for a long time until he became manager, or operator, of the Howard House of Ellicott City, a larger hotel and tavern in the city. Mother was a fine cook, especially of fowl and game. The Howard House was the gathering place of the farmers, lawyers and business men of Howard and Frederick Counties and people of Baltimore who had business in the courts of Howard County and people of western Maryland on their way to Baltimore.
Joe could read and write and was a good mechanic and wheelright. These accomplishments made him very valuable to Rogers’ farm, as wagons, buggies, carriages, plows and other vehicles and tools had to me made and repaired.
When I was about eight or nine years old Joe ran away, everybody saying to join the Union Army. Joe Nick drove a pair of horses, hitched to a covered wagon, to Ellicott City. The horses were found, but no Nick. Rogers offered a reward of $100.00 for the return of Nick. This offer drew to Ellicott City a number of people who had blood hounds that were trained to hunt Negroes- some coming from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and counties of southern Maryland, each owner priding his pack as being the best pack in the town. They all stopped at the Howard House, naturally drinking, treating their friends and each other, they all discussed among themselves the reward and their packs of hounds, each one saying that this pack was the best. This boasting was backed by cash. Some cash, plus the reward on their hounds. In the meantime Old Joe was thinking, not boasting, but riding the rail.
Old Joe left Ellicott City on a freight train, going west, which he hopped when it was stalled on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad a short distance from the railroad station at Ellicott City. Old Joe could not leave on the passenger trains, as no Negro would be allowed on the trains unless he had a pass signed by his master or a free Negro, and had his papers.
At dawn the hunters left the Howard House with the packs, accompanied by many friends and people who joined up for the sport of the chase. They went to Rogers’ farm where the dogs were taken in packs to Nick’s quarters so they could get the odor and scent of Nick. They had a twofold purpose, one to get the natural scent, the other was, if Old Nick had run away, he might come back at night to get some personal belongings, in that way the direction he had taken would be indicated by the scent and the hounds would soon track him down. The hounds were unleashed, each hunter going in a different direction without result. Then they circled the farm, some going 5 miles beyond the farm without result. After they had hunted all day they returned to the Howard House where they regaled themselves in pleasures of the hotel for the evening.
In June of 1865 Old Nick returned to Ellicott City dressed in a uniform of blue, showing that he had joined the Federal Army. Mr. Rueben Rogers upon seeing him had him arrested, charging him with being a fugitive slave. He was confined in the jail there and held until the U.S. Marshal of Baltimore released him, arresting Rogers and bringing him to Baltimore City where he was reprimanded by the Federal Judge. This story is well known by the older people of Howard County and traditionally known by the younger generation of Ellicott City, and is called Old Nick Roger’s Lemon.”
If you’d like to learn more about the experience of slavery in the Ellicott City area, here are two good places to get started:
Celia Holland Collection at the University of Maryland. Holland was a skilled historian of Howard County, Maryland (Ellicott City is the county seat).
Baltimore Sun article about the Underground Railroad in Ellicott City.