Sunday, May 16, 2021

Harvard University Historian Examines Challenges of the 1850s

Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Communications
Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Communications

Walter Johnson to deliver lecture September 18

Slavery, capitalism and imperialism are the focus of this year’s Gilder-Jordan Lecture in Southern History at the University of Mississippi.

Walter Johnson, the Winthrop Professor of History and professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, speaks at 7 p.m. Sept. 18 in Nutt Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

Johnson’s lecture, “The ‘Negro Fever,’ the South, and the Ignominious Effort to Re-Open the Atlantic Slave Trade,” focuses on the challenges facing Mississippi Valley slaveholders in the late 1850s and the way many hoped to solve them through a global projection of slaveholding power, which was through pro-slavery imperialism.

Ted Ownby, director of the UM Center for the Study of Southern Culture, said Johnson is one of the most influential scholars writing on the history of American slavery.

“In his new book, ‘River of Dark Dreams,‘ and his first book, ‘Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market,’ he shows the ability to ask big, ambitious questions and answer them on a human scale with individual people making, or trying to make, individual choices,” Ownby said.

Johnson has been to Oxford before, for a conference organized by Winthrop Jordan, former UM professor of history and African-American studies for more than 20 years.

“I am looking forward to seeing some of the people I met then, and to seeing Oxford, which I very much like,” Johnson said. “I like being in Mississippi generally; I find the presence of the specific history about which I have been thinking for so long challenging, provocative and inspiring.”

He received his B.A. from Amherst College and his doctorate from Princeton University. Before teaching at Harvard, he taught history and American studies at New York University.

“I’m excited that Walter Johnson is this year’s Gilder-Jordan lecturer,” said Deirdre Cooper Owens, assistant professor of history. “His work on agency and the seven sites of racial reification have influenced my scholarship in profound ways, especially his discussion of medical journals as one of those sites.”

One of the important elements of the Gilder-Jordan lecture series is the opportunity for Southern studies and history graduate students to meet with leading scholars.

Johnson said he always learns things from talking to students, so he is looking forward to seeing what they are thinking about and what they care about.

“The thing I guess that I hope students take away from anything I do is a sense of history as palpable – what people in the past worried about, felt, and why they cared about what they cared about,” Johnson said. “Failing that, I’m usually good for a few citations of useful but obscure historical monographs.”

Organized through the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, African-American Studies Program, Center for Civil War Research and Department of History, the Gilder-Jordan Speaker Series is made possible through the generosity of the Gilder Foundation Inc. The series honors Richard Gilder of New York and his family, as well as his friends, Dan and Lou Jordan of Virginia.

Previous Gilder-Jordan Lecturers have been Barbara J. Fields of Columbia University, David Blight of Yale University and Grace Elizabeth Hale of the University of Virginia.

— Rebecca Lauck Cleary, Ole Miss News Desk