Guest Post: What Happens at the Southern…

Robert Taber, a postdoctoral associate with the University of Florida Writing Program, wrote his dissertation on the connection between family life and grassroots politics in colonial Saint-Domingue and is the author of Navigating Haiti’s History: Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution.

Mr. Wolf's Bingo Card. Historista Blog

Mr. Wolf’s Bingo Card. Historista Blog

According to The Junto archives, this post is the first-ever recap of the Southern. I’m a Yankee by birth but undertaking graduate studies at Florida all-but-guaranteed my attending at least one Southern, and I now have four of the last five under my belt. The Southern is, perhaps, a unique conference, with qualities that make it one of my favorite annual gatherings.

Like other regional conferences, the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association is defined both by the geography of its scholarship and its scholars, as a conference for historians of the U.S. South and as a gathering of historians in the South. Every November, large contingents of grad students, faculty, and alumni from SEC, (most) ACC, and (a few) Big 12 schools will descend on a city in or near the South to enjoy a long weekend of scholarly conversation and college football.[1] Although the main program focuses on the U.S. South, centered on the nineteenth century but stretching well back and forward in time, affiliate sections organize panels on Latin American and European history, providing an Atlantic flavor to the weekend.

The Southern is also famous for its support of grad students, making it a great first “big” conference. Registration for students is five dollars, and there’s a free graduate student luncheon, traditionally on the first full day of panels (ask for a ticket upon registration). It is common for grad students to present papers and to receive detailed feedback from more senior scholars. There’s a strong book exhibit, often with steep discounts on the final day. Furthermore, the wide spread of panel topics and themes make it a conference experience more easily shared with other department members. (My roommates from my past four trips, all UF folks, are experts on 19th-century Cuba, Southern railroads, 20th-century Nigeria, and 17th-century South Carolina, respectively.) These trends lead inevitably to Southern Historical Association bingo.

This year’s Southern in Little Rock, like most in out-of-the-way cities, was a little smaller, but still large and dynamic. Downtown Little Rock itself is readily walkable, with a decent mix of restaurants, a gorgeous riverwalk, and a fantastic used bookstore. As is custom, several history departments hosted evening receptions either in the hotel or at local restaurants.[2]

I’m loathe to tackle Adam Arenson’s question on whether there’s a driving question in the current manifestation of the Southern but for the early America/early Latin America papers there do tend to be themes centered on slavery/race, the porous nature of borders, the contingency of power, ethnogenesis, and the long history of U.S./Latin American interactions. Commenters, please contribute other ideas.

For those who teach the U.S. surveys and/or are concerned about how much politics to bring into the classroom and/or want to know what historians have to say about the Clintons, many other fascinating discussions happened at the Southern. Read through the tweets under the #2015SHA hashtag for information and some great models on how to live tweet conferences. Be sure to check out the opening night’s panel on civil rights since the 1960s and the roundtable on the periodization of Reconstruction. Much thanks to all of the twitterstorians who kept the tweets flying.

These themes are just part of the Southern, however. Nine of the conference’s sixty-three panels focused on the early Americas. Several papers explored intercultural interactions in areas now part of the southern United States, including works by Christian Pinnen on Natchez, Kristofer Ray on Cherokee-British diplomacy in the Ohio Valley, and Alyssa Reichardt on the orientation of imperial-native diplomacy. Matthew Kruer argued for a wider geography for Bacon’s Rebellion. Kathleen DuVal, the Hon. Morris Arnold, John L. Berrey, and Todd Smith discussed Arkansas as part of the Spanish Borderlands, while Kenneth Aslakson, Laura Kelley, Mary Niall Mitchell, and Greg O’Brien debated whether New Orleans should be seen as an Atlantic/Caribbean port or as a gateway to the hinterland. The answer to that question, like many historical questions, is “yes,” though for New Orleans the emphasis shifted from port to gateway in the early nineteenth century.

Several sessions, as always, focused on slavery, but the abundance illuminated the variety of slaveholding societies and arrangements. A major event was a Sunday morning roundtable on Richard Dunn’s Two Plantations featuring comments from Alison Games, Daniel Livesay, and Lorena Walsh, with a response from Dunn. Other new work on slavery included Tyler D. Perry on British efforts to curb domestic abuse among slaves during the “amelioration” period in the Caribbean; Amy Johnson on the ways Jamaican maroons decided to return, assimilate, or own runaway slaves; Ricardo Salazar-Rey on slaves using the court system in Cartagena; Caree Ann Benton on the deployment white popular religion in response to Obeah in Jamaica; Neal Polhemus on captivity accounts; Hayley Negrin on children in the shatter zone and Virginia’s 1682 legalization of Indian slavery; and Doug Tompson on the place of slavery in colonial Guatemala. Uniting social history and digital humanities, D. Andrew Johnson built some impressive maps of African and Indian slavery in early colonial South Carolina.

The Latin American and Caribbean Section sponsors a lunch talk each year. This conference, Kris Lane regaled us with stories and analysis from his current project on the Potosí mint scandal of 1649. The work weaves together political, financial, social, and cultural histories of the mine, its laborers, its managers, and many others. My favorite moment from the talk (aside from handling an actual piece of eight from the Potosí mint) was the story of the Patriarch of Baghdad visiting Potosí to provide sermons in Aramaic and (importantly!) collecting alms for his church.

The Southern also featured historians trying out new, or emerging, approaches. Early Americas papers along these lines included Gary Sellick on the ways smallpox influenced British manumission policies during the American Revolution; Andrew Kettler on fragrance and the early American botanical community; and Luke Willert on native claims of sovereignty in the English court system.

The only downside to the Southern is the long lead-time for submissions, with proposals (either panels or solo) due ~14 months in advance. On the plus side, I already know that I’ll be at next year’s conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida, talking about how residents of Saint-Domingue consumed inter-imperial news. Hope to see you all there!


[1] Football knowledge not required.

[2] An early flight prevented my attendance at the Florida party, sponsored by the Milbauer chair. I did what I could to make sure substitutes went in my stead.


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