Written by Lori Higginbotham
Megaphone Op/Ed Editor
The History Department’s Annual Colloquium this year featured Northwestern University’s Dr. Dylan Penningroth, who spoke last Thursday on African-American divorce rates in the South.
While only history majors were required to attend the event, a variety of students and faculty members came to listen to Penningroth’s talk in the Mood Atrium. Penningroth begun his talk, titled “The Preacher’s Wife,” with an apology to Whitney Houston.
“I only watched the movie because my mom loved it,” he said, greeted with chuckles from the audience.
Penningroth has been doing an intensive study on divorce rates in the South, particularly focusing on divorce rates in which both the plaintiff and defendant are African-American. The cases he studies took place from the time period after the end of the Civil War until the Great Migration in the 1920s and 1930s, in which millions of African-Americans leave the South.
Surprisingly, he has found that courts were not unwelcoming to African-American cases, as one might have assumed. In five Virginia counties from 1865 to 1930, 2/3 of the cases feature African-American plaintiffs, and most are directed toward African-American defendants.
This illustrates a dramatic shift from the 19th century ideology of the African-American family, in which most unsuccessful marriages did not end in divorce due to familial or community pressures.
The cases also illustrate the unevenness of the internalization of the Emancipation Proclamation. Because race officially “didn’t matter anymore” in the South as of 1863, in the majority of the cases Penningroth studies, the race of the litigants is not clearly marked, making his task of sorting through the dockets even more tedious. Once he did find the cases involving African-Americans, however, he was surprised to find how much racial language was used in the actual transcripts from the courts, both defending and condemning African-Americans.
Eventually, Penningroth will turn his studies into a book on African-American social history. For the talk, he focused on divorce rates, but his wider studies involve many aspects of African-American life from the Civil War until the Great Migration. A main goal is to break the idea that African-Americans were immobile during this period.
For students and staff alike, the History Colloquium is an important opportunity to bring together students of different disciplines of history. Angelica Castillo, a senior History major with a focus in Latin American studies, enjoys the opportunity to get out of her discipline.
“Southwestern is pretty good about allowing someone to have particular focus, and that is great if you come in knowing what you want to learn about,” Castillo said. “This colloquium is personally valuable to me because I can see a time in history that I’m not as familiar with. I’m more concerned with other areas of study, and this gives me insight into another part of history.”
Dr. Thomas McClendon also sees the History Colloquium as a time to expand students’ views, particularly in the areas of professional historical research.
“What I like is that it gives our students a chance to see other professional historians,” McClendon said. “There’s a bigger, exciting world of professional research and writing—more than what we try to get people to think about in class.”
While Penningroth was enlightening students and faculty with his talk, the effect was reversed: He said that the audience was also enlightening him.
“I came to Southwestern for the same reason that I get excited about when giving a talk to knowledgeable students, because it helps me,” Penningroth said.
He also said that he gained some particularly valuable questions from Southwestern students. Penningroth spent the day attending several events around campus, including an informal lunch with students and faculty and Dr. Green-Musselman’s Historiography class.
“It is different talking to undergraduates,” Penningroth said. “But in my day here, I’ve gotten tougher and better questions from undergrads that from lots of professional conferences.”
Penningroth also took a moment to say how thankful he was for the students and faculty that attended his talk, and for the work that went into setting up the event and bringing him to Southwestern.
“When people come to a talk like this and are listening and responding, there’s a generosity that I really appreciate. I also really appreciate the work that people put into this event,” he said. “The payoff for me is that now I have really good quotes to build on; I’m making adjustments all the time. Tough questions are what we look for as professional historians.”