The Importance of this History

I did not know what I was getting into this summer when I started this job. Sure, I was aware that I would be digitizing Quaker manumissions, but I didn’t understand the importance of that history. That was, until I started reading Caste.

In the 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson dissects the phenomenon of caste systems. She urges readers to see that though we may not call it by name, the United States functions through a caste system not unlike those in India and Nazi Germany. Caste in America assigns the Black diaspora to the subordinate caste, a direct result of slavery. Thus, according to Wilkerson, “racism” is not an accurate enough term to describe the oppression of Black people in America. Rather, casteism is the more appropriate—and perhaps more exigent—term.

Caste is a brilliant book, and I found that reading it parallel to my work in Black genealogy this summer enhanced my experience. In chapter 17, “On the Early Front Lines of Caste,” Wilkerson writes about the 1941 Davis study, the anthropological work of two couples, one Black and one white. The goal of the study was to examine how the American caste system dictates the lives of Black people. This study was groundbreaking for many reasons but most notably because Allison and Elizabeth Davis put their lives on the line to expose a caste system that saw them as subordinate. The Black couple voluntarily traveled into Jim Crow era Mississippi and blended in as undercover anthropologists. Their work would have been considered a landmark study, but unfortunately two white anthropologists published similar, less in-depth studies before the Davises. Had Wilkerson not told their story in her book, Allison and Elizabeth’s work would be lost to history, overshadowed by the dominant caste. 

As I read this chapter for the first time, I was struck by the severity of losing pieces of my history. Stories of Black success are too often suppressed. The potential loss of all the Davis’ contributions felt devastating. Thinking of this, I began to consider my own role in preserving Black genealogy and share a history that would otherwise be forgotten. 

Manumissions do not give us much information about the enslaved people that Quakers freed. At most, we get a first name (rarely a last name), age, and assumed gender. The 1847 Philadelphia African-American Census, specifically the census of the Blockley Almshouse, gives us a bit more information (occupation, birth place, sickness), but we still lack a thorough understanding of who my ancestors were. With this limited information, just the awareness that these people existed is more important than anything. The caste system we live in orders for the erasure of people who have come before me. Acknowledgment of their existence is resistance. Any additional information I can provide about the lives of my ancestors is the cherry on top. I realize now that whatever I could do to help Black people take up space in our history books is so important. Perhaps the most important thing I could be doing with my summer. 

Access to these marginalized histories is so precious that I think it is necessary to consider the responsibility we have to treat them with care. History, science, and data has been used against the Black diaspora for too long. Thus, some of the questions I have asked myself in meeting this responsibility are: What does it mean that we at Swarthmore, a predominately white institution, have access to statistical data about the lives of Black people? How are we to best handle that data? In addition to the 1847 Census, other data collections like the 1838 Philadelphia Abolition Society Census and the 1899 Philadelphia Negro by W.E.B Dubois exist to tell the stories of Black folks living in those time periods. Who has control over this data and what narrative does it tell?

I feel a responsibility to treat every manumission as a piece of a person whose story, even if just a piece of it, deserves to be told. I feel a responsibility when digitizing the Blockley records for the outcome to be as high quality as possible. My ancestors did not fight for their voices to be muffled. They did not endure centuries of mistreatment to be forgotten to history. When Black voices are silenced, they are lost to us, and the caste system is reinforced. I understood this summer that my role was to combat this, and nothing else feels quite as fulfilling.

When I work with manumissions and censuses, I am working with my history. This experience has shown me that archival work is a powerful path to take in the future. It is one that has changed the way I interpret, digest, and interact with history—a valuable lesson to learn from some old books and papers.