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Historian Represents UDM at Cambridge

The conference was held at Madingley Hall, a sprawling manor house on a sixteenth-century English country estate a few miles outside of the city of Cambridge.

Last fall, Professor of History Roy Finkenbine was one of 90 historians from the U.S. and Britain invited to attend a specially convened conference to assess the current state of scholarship in nineteenth-century American history and to introduce new directions for research. The gathering was organized by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) and the British Nineteenth-Century Historians (BrANCH) with significant financial support from the U.S. embassy in London and several British academic organizations. Finkenbine’s attendance was also supported by the College of Liberal Arts and Education.

Below, Finkenbine, who is also responsible for bringing the Black Abolitionist Archives to UDM and serves as the archive’s director, recounts his experience from this prestigious opportunity.

The conference convened October 3-5 at Madingley Hall, a sprawling manor house on a sixteenth-century English country estate a few miles outside of the city of Cambridge. Although a majority of the sessions focused on slavery, the Old South, and the Civil War, others ranged widely, introducing new scholarship on topics as diverse as “Gender Roles in the Early Republic” and “Antebellum Americans and the Islamic World.”

In a session on “Black Heroes in Nineteenth Century America,” I presented my own research on the efforts of African Americans of that era to shape Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian revolutionary leader, into a racial hero. It was well received and I was invited to submit it to a British journal for publication. There were also keynote addresses by James McPherson (Princeton University), America’s foremost historian of the Civil War, and Charles Joyner (Coastal Carolina University), long noted for his important work on slave culture and community. I came away from the conference with a number of new ideas and sources that will influence my teaching and scholarship in the years ahead.

In good English fashion, the sessions were punctuated by fine meals and plenty of opportunity for conversation with other scholars. Whether over a full English breakfast, high tea, or a sumptuous dinner in a dining hall reminiscent of Hogwarts Academy and Harry Potter, it was heady stuff to engage in conversation with prominent British and American scholars whose publications on slavery and abolitionism have long influenced my teaching and writing. These venues also provided me with an opportunity to introduce British scholars to my own work and to tell them about the wealth of historical materials to be found in the Black Abolitionist Archives at UDM. As a result of the conference, one scholar from the University of Sheffield has made plans to travel here to use the archives next year.

When not attending sessions, sampling the fare, or conversing with other scholars, I took the opportunity to explore the spacious grounds of the estate, ambling through exotic flower gardens, a topiary garden, a labyrinth, a croquet lawn, past towering cedars of Lebanon and a sheep-filled pasture, then down a long country lane. It all reminded me of a scene from a Jane Austen novel. At one point, I found my way to the edge of the estate, where I walked among the headstones and through the sanctuary of St. Mary Magdalene, a parish church and cemetery dating back to the eleventh century, which many scholars believe was the inspiration for Thomas Gray’s famous 1751 poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” After a few minutes of reflection and meditation, I had to steal back to another session.

The conference was over far too soon – but it provided many new ideas and some wonderful memories and a much richer sense of history.