History students assemble fragments
History books are not messy. They are clean, neat works with superscript numbers that correspond to footnotes and paint a coherent picture of past events.
This is not the history that University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Associate Professor of History Lee Willis immerses his students in when working with him on research projects.
“Hopefully they see how messy the process actually is,” said Willis. “When they read old newspapers, or transcribe old court cases, they come away with ‘Wow, we don’t really know what happened.’ It’s all these little fragments.”
Willis’s research focuses on the illegal international slave trade of the first half of the 19th century. The nascent United States government had come to acknowledge that slavery was evil, but an evil necessary for sustaining the country’s economy, and banning the importation of new slaves was a measure aimed at reconciling those conflicting philosophies. Through investigating southern census data, microfilm and digital versions of newspapers and court cases, students have been able to recreate stories of the people involved in this nexus.
Those stories have led this research to focus on the problematic origins of the Liberian state. Liberia was created when “recaptives” – people captured in Africa, then captured and freed by authorities cracking down on banned international slave trade – were resettled on the West Coast of Africa. After a reasonably positive start, the settlement devolved into conflict between ethnic groups.
This Transatlantic turn is the latest turn in Willis’s interest in the American South, particularly the antebellum period leading up to the Civil War. Growing up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Willis heard stories from his grandfather, which he had heard as a boy about long-ago slave ship landings. “It fascinated me, and led me in all kinds of different directions,” he said.
Willis ended up at Florida State University, where he pursued his master’s and doctoral degrees and taught courses on the way race and slavery have shaped the political culture of the South. The experience was quite different than what he encountered upon moving to Stevens Point in 2007.
“At a school like Florida State you’d have a critical mass of people who were of nonwhite ethnic groups who were active contributors to the class discussions, they were really engaged in the material,” he said. “It’s still a highly emotional issue for people. At UW-Stevens Point you have classrooms where the majority of students are white and are more reluctant to talk about these issues.”
Still, Willis has effectively immersed students in the discussion through reading and directed class discussion. One key work is Race and Reunion, a book chronicling the contested memory of the Civil War and how the significance of abolishing slavery was minimized by both northerners and southerners. Identifying coherent themes like this from a mountain of subtle clues is one of Willis’ primary goals in leading students through the research process.
“You have to be really, really diligent to acquire every little shred of evidence you can get your hands on,” he said. “Then you realize you’re only human, and see that even this one little topic is really big. So you have to be humble when you try to understand the past, and draw big conclusions about it. Hopefully that’s something they come away with.”
Willis led off the 2014-15 College of Letters and Science Community Lecture Series with a talk titled “Compromised Origins: The Slave Trade and the Constitution.” One of his main points of emphasis is that contrary to popular belief, attitudes toward slavery were not static leading up to the Civil War.
“Around the 1830s, 1840s, more and more prominent slave owners said, ‘Wait a minute, slavery’s not a bad thing. If it is why does God allow it to exist?’” Willis said. “While they were coming out more and more assertively in defense of slavery, the antislavery movement became more and more strident saying, ‘No, it’s not a necessary evil, it’s just evil and we need to get rid of it now.’”