This September, the University of Reading was fortunate to host the British Association of Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) and the Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) in the first conference shared by both organisations. The collaboration provided attendees with a wide range of topics in emerging scholarship, from Hollywood to enslaved families, and many panels benefitted from papers which combined 19th and 20th century focuses. With over seventy papers delivered and 107 attendees over the course of the weekend, ‘#BrATCUS’ (as it became known!) successfully brought together an impressive range of research focuses and attendees from the UK and beyond. Here are some of my highlights.
The first parallel session of the week end included panels focused on the eighties, the cold war, disease, and music and politics. In ‘Re-thinking Music and Politics in American History’, the benefits of 19th and 20th century collaboration were clear – papers covered from the 19th century to the 1960s, encouraging discussion which thought more broadly about the relationship between music and politics. Tomek Mossakowski delivered a fascinating paper on the use of black face as entertainment on polar voyages, and Billy Coleman discussed the relationships between social reform and music based upon his extensive research on Samuel Willard Saxton. Julia Mitchell completed the panel with ‘Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals’ – an insightful paper focussed on the often unknown conservative folk music from 1888 to 1965.
Afterwards, the BrANCH Parish lecture was delivered by Leslie Butler of Dartmouth College entitled ‘The Social Imaginary of “Movement” in the Nineteenth Century’. Butler characterised the 19th century as an age of ‘movement’; particularly focussing on the sense of ‘helpful discontent’ which birthed an era of ‘progressive reform movements’ across the United States. Following Butler’s lecture, we enjoyed a Pimm’s reception courtesy of the History Department at the University of Reading and plenty of lively discussion, before heading to the conference dinner.
Day two began with the same diversity in panels as Friday, themes including the relationship between the US and China, Hollywood and the media, American conservatism, and crime. In the ‘Crime and Punishment’ Julie Roy Jeffrey delivered her fascinating research on the treatment of ‘treasonous’ Americans in the Civil War. Mark Ellis followed with his paper focussed on race, property and crime in rural counties of Georgia, illuminating the connections between African American property ownership and lynchings before the New Deal. In the second session, I opted for the panel ‘Searching for “Truths”: Memories of American Slavery since Emancipation’, where Becky Fraser’s compelling research on former enslaved men and women in the years since emancipation showed African Americans’ enduring searches for their lost families. Considering the connections of these fractured families to the formation of collective memories of the trauma of slavery, Fraser’s paper led into Lydia Plath’s ‘Remembering and Representing Enslaved Migration to Mississippi.’ Plath shared the personal stories of those forced to migrate to Mississippi in the antebellum era, and discussed the importance of these oral memories, both papers giving another interpretation of ‘movement’ in the 19th century.
After lunch and respective organisations’ AGMs, attendees enjoyed an exhibition of ephemera from the University of Reading Special collections, including letters from Franklin Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin, kindly presented by Guy Baxter (University archivist) and Jacqui Turner (Department of History). We then moved on to the final parallel sessions of the day, panels focused on a range of topics such as Britain and the USA, racial politics in the sixties, Native American history, and American history and memory. In ‘American History and Memory’, David Gleeson discussed the commemorations of the Civil War in South Carolina, and James Kimble gave his paper on the changing representations of war fatalities on the American ‘Home front’. Jessica Johnson completed the panel with her research on representations of Korean War veterans in American culture, illuminating the differing representations of veterans depending on the conflict they were engaged in. We finished the day with the HOTCUS plenary lecture, delivered by Sarah Phillips of Boston University on the topic of ‘The New Muckrakers and the Old Farm Bloc: The Twentieth-Century Politics of Surplus and Abundance’. Afterwards, we all enjoyed the conference dinner and drinks into the evening at the Meadows Suite.
My Sunday morning began with the panel ‘Challenging White Hegemony’, which brought together scholars Julia Lawton and June Melby Benowitz. Lawton discussed the attempts of free black people to establish stable kinship structures, and the problematic nature of interpreting peoples’ experiences from official documents. June Melby Benowitz’s paper focused on black educators in Jim Crow Florida, giving insight into the problems faced by black communities in their efforts to establish education systems in the post-civil war south. As BrATCUS drew to a close, my selection from the final parallel session was the panel ‘Death and Dying’. Rachael Pasierowska opened with her paper on the beliefs and superstitions surrounding owls in the antebellum south, exploring how such beliefs are formed in ‘ethnogenesis’. Kevin Yuill continued the session, giving his research on turn-of-the-century attitudes towards suicide in the U.S., discussing both the moral and social perspectives of the act. The panel was closed by Francesca Fuentes, whose paper on the American state funeral examined the changing traditions around Presidents’ funerals and memorialisation. All three papers opened an interesting discussion on the changing social attitudes to death in the United States.
With this panel, the inaugural BrATCUS closed and delegates began their journeys home. The conference was a fantastic opportunity to join together historians of the nineteenth and twentieth century and enjoyed by all. Thoroughly interesting and entertaining, BrATCUS was a resounding success. Many thanks must be extended to Emily West and Nick Witham for their organisation (along with Mara Oliva and Dan Hale), both BrATCUS and HOTCUS organisations, the University of Reading History department and Venue Reading team, and all the delegates who attended and contributed to such a fantastic weekend which hopefully marks the beginning of a BrATCUS tradition!