September 2019

An Antiracist Approach to Researching and Writing History

Hawks traces one example from her own research on the Freedom Train to highlight an antiracist approach to researching and writing history.

By Julie Hawks

Ph.D. candidates like me spend a lot of time in the archives working to extend or refute current scholarship on our topics. What I found initially surprised me. Although, perhaps it shouldn’t have. All of the literature related to the 1947 Freedom Train, the topic of several of my dissertation chapters, seemed to be in agreement. The historians cited many of the same sources and came to similar conclusions. Going into the archives, I felt like I had a sound foundation to build from.

Yet, as I started reading the primary sources for myself, I found them to differ from the way historians had discussed them. Historians had covered, more or less, the same passages from the same documents from the same archives. In doing so, they failed to engage with crucial evidence that could have informed a more socially aware rendition of the larger project.

This article traces one example from my own research to highlight an antiracist approach to researching and writing history. By antiracist I mean that I actively look for ways that racist attitudes and acts have been covered over, ignored, or misinterpreted in scholarship and primary sources to bring them to light.

In 1993, forty-five years after the Freedom Train toured the United States, Stuart Little published the first article in an academic journal on the train. His article, “The Freedom Train: Citizenship and Postwar Political Culture 1946-1949” became the foundational study on which later scholarship built. The article provides a solid overview of the project, but Little never went far enough to help readers understand how the traveling exhibition effectively covered over evidence of social unrest campaign organizers hoped to erase. In fact, his discussion of events mystified the adverse societal conditions African Americans continued to face after WWII. One case in particular is analyzed below.

Image 1: A souvenir postcard from the Freedom Train. (National Archives Identifier 18520032)

On May 22, 1947, the American Heritage Foundation (AHF), which sponsored the Freedom Train, held a conference for hundreds of media, organizational, and business leaders at the White House to announce the campaign. Following the sponsors’ speeches, community and organizational leaders offered statements of support. Only Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, stood out for his display of courage that day, calling attention to violence against and unequal protection for African Americans under the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. In his article, Stuart Little conveyed that Walter White had pledged support of the nation’s Black population for the tour while noting that he [White] was more concerned about “native totalitarianism” than “foreign ideologies.”[1] Even though White had indeed made these statements, Little effectively erased the context in which they were made.

The day before the conference, an all-white jury in Greenville, South Carolina acquitted twenty-eight confessed lynchers for the death of twenty-four-year-old Willie Earle. White stood up before the AHF and the hundreds of conference attendees, pointedly stating that those twelve “good men and true” [jurors] should be the target of the Freedom Train’s educational mission.[2] White drove home how America’s justice system failed not only Earle and his community, but also, every American. Those jurors exonerated twenty-eight men who signed confessions and testified in court that they had lynched an American citizen. “In doing so,” White argued, “[they] also lynched the Constitution and ideal of our Government.”[3] White told members of the AHF, whose speeches emphasized the communist threat, that he was less concerned about the threat foreign ideologies posed in America than he was about the “native totalitarianism” that repeatedly put minorities in harm’s way.

Image 2: Headline from Australian newspaper, The Mercury.

White correctly surmised that leading news stories around the world would report the acquittals as a sign that democracy had failed in the United States. In addition to the stories that appeared in newspapers across the country, England’s and Australia’s news outlets ran articles under headlines like, “Death Men Go Free and Hold Carnival” and “‘Freedom Train’ Plan Follows Lynching.”  

Walter White had no choice but to call attention to this matter in a room full of privileged patriotic enthusiasts. He offered his support for the Freedom Train’s mission, but strongly urged members of the AHF to go beyond publicizing empty words about democracy. He said, “We have got to plant it so deep in the hearts of all Americans that we can demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that democracy is the best way of life. But we have got to live it as well as talk about it.” Concluding his statements, White pledged “the unqualified support of thirteen million American Negroes who desperately want to see democracy made a living reality in our country,” to much applause.

Other historians who wrote about the Freedom Train followed suit. For example, in Channeling the Past, Erik Christiansen noted that White pledged Black support, but was less concerned about “foreign ideologies as he was about American lynchings” (154). Likewise, Richard M. Fried noted White’s campaign support along with his concern over “a jury’s recent refusal to convict a southern lynch mob” in his book The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (32). Nevertheless, by skimming his conference commentary, historians failed to recognize White’s indictment of America’s broken legal system.

Failure to engage with Walter White’s entire commentary is a critical oversight for historians writing about an educational campaign that was initially developed under the auspices of U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark and which aimed to teach Americans about their duties and responsibilities as citizens. Had these historians grasped the significance of White’s comments, they might have made connections to other pieces of unsettling evidence that supported White’s observations. For example, the Advertising Council designed and distributed the Good Citizen booklet in concert with the Freedom Train campaign. Voting and jury duty were listed as the highest priorities. Yet clearly, the white men who designed the booklet had only themselves in mind.

Poll taxes, illiteracy, poverty, white primaries, and terrorism interfered with African Americans voting rights, leaving them with no recourse. As recently as July 18, 1946, white men gunned down Maceo Snipes, a Black veteran, at his front door for voting in the Georgia primary.[4]

Image 3: “Voters at the Voting Booths.” ca. 1945. NAACP Collection, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, Library of Congress.

The Good Citizen explained that in 1947, only eighteen states required women to serve on juries and another sixteen plus the District of Columbia permitted them to. But the booklet remained silent concerning minorities, who were often excluded from jury selection and were not guaranteed a jury of peers.

The Good Citizen devoted a page to excerpts from the U.S. Constitution under the heading “Law Alone Can Give Us Freedom.” Yet, in his first speech to Freedom Train investors, Attorney General Clark, head of the nation’s legal system, did not call for action to rectify unjust laws across the country. Instead, he advocated for an Americanism program to educate citizens to respect America’s “sacred institutions” and its laws, no matter how unjust.[5] Astonishingly, the only effective weapon against bigots and other “disrupters of unity,” Clark asserted, was to develop “a broader appreciation of our American heritage.”[6]

Historians have an ethical obligation to critically examine not only evidence, but also, the production of historical narratives that has prefigured our foundation for current understanding. We may choose to build upon scholarship that others cite or findings that seem self-evident. We might also include research because it supports the arguments we are making. Of course, few people have the time, money, or energy to revisit archival evidence with which other scholars seem to agree. But, as Walter Benjamin warned, there are dangers inherent to repeating historical narratives like rosary beads.[7] We have to find ways to interrupt those narratives in order to give voice to what has been otherwise silenced.

Julie Hawks is a PhD candidate at American University in Washington, D.C. She studies 20th century U.S. history that focuses on the politics of memory, commemoration, material culture, racism, and gender studies. Her dissertation examines how business and government elites used traveling exhibitions in America and Europe to sell anti-Communism and the Marshall Plan during the Truman administration. Moreover, she explores how these campaigns promoted “freedom” as they simultaneously reinforced class, race, and gender inequalities. Julie holds master’s degrees in library science, religious studies, and history with a public history concentration. Her undergraduate degree is in mathematics. She worked for many years in high tech and publishing before entering academia. She has created and contributed to digital humanities projects and online exhibitions, including the website for American University’s Humanities Truck – http://humanitiestruck.com. Follow her on Twitter at @justjuliehawks.


[1] Stuart J. Little, “The Freedom Train: Citizenship and Postwar Political Culture 1946-1949,” American Studies 34, no. 1 (1993): 55.

[2] The white men who served on the jury consisted of nine textile workers, two salesmen, and a farmer. Jane Noland, “Lynch Jury Acquits All 28 Defendants on All Counts,” Post and Courier, May 22, 1947, 1.

[3] “Proceedings at: The American Heritage Foundation Luncheon, Washington, D.C. Statler Hotel, South American Room, 2:00 PM, May 22, 1947,” (loose in box, no folder), Box 185, RG 200 A1 27120T, NARA2.

[4] Richard Gergel, Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), 34.

[5] “Address by Honorable Tom C. Clark, Attorney General of the United States at Bill of Rights Luncheon, Tuesday, December 10, 1946, p.3,” Box 1, RG 64 P82, NARA2. Clark stated, “Let there be no doubt about it, we are in need of developing greater respect on the part of our citizenry for the law of our land and its sacred institutions.”

[6] “Address by Honorable Tom C. Clark, Attorney General of the United States at Bill of Rights Luncheon, Tuesday, December 10, 1946, p.4,” Box 1, RG 64 P82, NARA2.

[7]Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Marxists Internet Archive, accessed July 16, 2019. http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm.

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