Carin Peller Semmens (Sussex) on the legacies of slavery in North Louisiana’s Red River region

My doctoral work examines the ideological, political, economic and behavioural legacies of slavery in North Louisiana’s Red River region from the early entrenchment of slavery in the 1820s through the violent and charged 1870s and 1880s. It investigates the foundation and significance of white dominated power structures in the shaping of black and white relations. The rigid power dynamic established by slavery proved particularly resilient in this region and ensured narrow pathways out of slavery for freed people throughout northern Louisiana. From the onset of Reconstruction, these narrow passages out of enslavement coupled with white desire to retain power created a clash of values and expectations that made northern Louisiana a breading ground for violent racial conflict. Violence against freed people was constant and brazen, finally surging into historical memory with the Colfax Massacre. The indicted white participants of the Colfax Massacre were found innocent in three individual court cases that included the United States Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Cruikshank, a decision that further underscored the acceptability of white supremacist violence in this region. Freed people reacted to this bloody and resilient racial order by fleeing the state through migrations such as the 1879 Kansas Exoduster movement.

The Society for the Study of Labour History’s travel bursary was critical to my doctoral research as it enabled me to spend seven extraordinarily fruitful weeks at the archives at Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Archival research is fundamental to understanding the events and the people that have shaped a region’s way of life. To illuminate the region’s past, and find new perspectives on national movements, it is vital physically to explore the traces left to us by its people. No dissertation can be effectively written without archival research, but this is very challenging when archives are located in other countries and resources are limited. The generous funding of the Society helped to cover the cost of my on-campus housing.

During my seven weeks at Hill Memorial Library – a truly wonderful repository for any student of Southern history – I mined more than one hundred and fifty collections, acquiring materials spanning from pre-1820 to the 1880s. I built a relationship with the kind and knowledgeable archivists, who generously granted me access to a recently donated and as yet unprocessed acquisition. These items, which will become part of the collected family papers of a prominent North Louisiana family, had not previously been seen by any historian and will serve as key primary sources for my fresh investigation of the Civil War and early Reconstruction era. The material I was able to collect at Hill Memorial has profoundly shaped and enhanced the core argument of my dissertation and enabled me to understand –with greater depth and nuance – the driving forces behind the violence in the Red River region. This funded trip will always stand as one of the critical pillars of my successful doctoral research. Even the final title for my work, “Unreconstructed: From Slavery to Freedom in the New Cotton South, 1820-1880,” was selected in the evocative atmosphere of the Hill Memorial Library.

Find out more about SSLH bursary schemes.