This week, Northwestern history professor Dylan Penningroth was named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, an honor bestowed on 23 individuals who have shown“extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Nicknamed the “Genius Grant,” this award includes a $500,000 stipend that recipients may use with “no strings attached.” Penningroth, who is also a research professor at the American Barr Foundation, has been researching the ownership of property by slaves during the Civil War.
What inspired you to begin this research on slaves owning property?
I guess it was partly academic and partly personal. I was in grad school my first year and talking over ideas with my adviser at John Hopkins [University]. I wanted to do something related to African Americans and slavery and had always been interested in questions of property from college — I don’t know why, couldn’t really tell you. But for whatever reason, I was just interested. And so he suggested a few different kinds of sources and one of them turned out to be really good. It was called the Southern Claims Commission, held at the National Archives.
As a researcher, when do you start to see patterns?
In order to understand what I was doing, I should just describe the source. The source is basically a compensation commission. So if a tornado sweeps through, I think there is a process today through which you can get compensation through your insurance company or something like that. The idea was to compensate loyal southerners — that is, southerners who were not rebels — for property that they had lost to the Union army during the war. The Union army is rampaging, it’s living off the land, it’s taking everything. It does not have supply lines in 1864.
And so they did all that and after the Civil War, the government says, “We will pay back anyone who can prove he was loyal and can prove he owned this property.” So I read these cases, and it’s almost taking for granted that the formal slaves were loyal. But what is surprising is that they come in, they claim they owned property and the government gives it back to them. In other words, the government says, “Yes, we believe you.” And they say this even though everyone knows legally slaves were property and they couldn’t possibly have owned it legally.
Why did the government give the slaves compensation?
I read some of the records of the northern commissioners and there is no record of them meeting where they decided to expand eligible claimants. But it’s clear that when they started they didn’t expect this; all they expected was a bunch of white people. As time goes by, they see there are all these slaves and they start writing letters to each other. And you can tell that the letters from the commissioners in this field are all saying the same thing: “Look, we know it wasn’t legal, but everyone recognized that it happened.” And few white people would have stooped so low to have taken property from a slave.
You can see a couple of things there: one is it’s not legal. The second is it’s barely stable at least according to these guys. And third, it’s small. It’s small enough stuff that nobody is going to bother with it. Now, having said all that, you also have to reckon with the reality of southern slavery. It’s a system founded on violence. If you get out of line, they will come and whip you and they may kill you. And so these two things are existing side-by-side and that is one of the enduring paradoxes that I tried to figure out in this research.
What do you plan to do with the grant money?
I don’t know. It’s all so new. [The grant] is structured in a way that they do not just plop a bunch of money in your lap. There will be time for me to figure out what would be the best way to apply this. But I do know, one thing is that it’s going to make possible a more ambitious scope for the work that I do. For that I am very grateful. It’s a pretty incredible thing to happen.
Do you have any advice for Northwestern students who are budding researchers or budding historians?
I guess the best piece of advice would be to try find the time and the space for self-reflection, because I think the most important thing when you are doing history, whether you are starting out or not, is that you be researching something that is interesting to you. Our lives are so crammed, and there are so many things competing for our attention that it can be difficult to get the space that we need to understand what those interests are. But I would say if there is any way for a student to carve out an hour or a couple of hours each week to go into the library, into the stacks and pull down books and think about what kinds of topics are most interesting to you and why the interest on topics that are interesting to you, I think that’s kind of the place that I would start.