Final Public Oral Exam: Anne Elizabeth Kerth
"Art, Trade, and Mystery": African-American Artisans in Nineteenth-Century South Carolina
Tera Hunter, adviser
Kate Masur, Northwestern University
This dissertation takes as its subject the lives and labors of African-American artisans, enslaved and free, in nineteenth-century South Carolina. It explores how the work performed by these skilled men and women shaped their experiences of the most important social, political, and economic transformations of the nineteenth-century American South: slavery, civil warfare, and emancipation; the rise and fall of the plantation agriculture complex; and the transition from a slave society to a wage-labor economy. Traditionally understood as an elite subset of the state and region’s African-American community, these artisans were essential to the construction of South Carolina’s powerful agricultural economy, as well as to the period’s political and social transformations. Across the period in question, black artisans leveraged their labor in pursuit of economic and political opportunities out of the reach of the average black South Carolinian, enslaved or free. As this dissertation demonstrates, however, these same labor skills and their corresponding advantages opened these men and women to heightened surveillance, resentment, and policing from white Southerners. In the American South, no form of African-American labor, no matter how materially or socially advantageous, came without its own corresponding dangers and vulnerabilities.
Overall, this dissertation offers new ways of understanding the history of American slavery and emancipation, as well as of artisan labor and the economy of the American South. While historians have considered the role that work plays in the achievement and enjoyment of freedom, when asking this question in reference to the history of slavery and emancipation in the United States, they have tended to focus on the majority of African Americans employed in field labor. This dissertation makes the case for studying a different population of laborers; by examining the economic and social lives of ordinary African-American artisans, we are able to reassess the role of skilled labor in promoting black economic and social advancement both before and after the abolition of slavery.
A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam in the History Graduate Student Lounge: 105 Dickinson Hall.
All are welcome and encouraged to attend.