Sunday, June 3, 2012

Just Finished Reading

When I came across this title while browsing through recently I was intrigued. Unfortunately, our local library didn't have it in it's catalog, so I got a copy through interlibrary loan.

In On Jordan's Banks, author Darrel E. Bigham, professor emeritus at Southern Indiana University looks at African American life in the cities, towns and counties - on both the north and south banks - along the Ohio River from Ashland, Kentucky to Cairo, Illinois. His study covers from the late antebellum era and 1860s to the 1880s, and then from the 1890s to the Great Depression in the epilogue.

Bigham brings up several interesting findings. For instance, using census records he found that after emancipation, while blacks on the north bank lived largely in black headed family households, on the south bank they often remained as part of white headed families working as servants and laborers.

The amount of statistical information that Bigham brings to life is amazing. And, the nature of settlement and life along the river lends itself well to comparative studies. For example, although usually different in population and demographic makeup, cities and towns opposite one another on the Ohio River provide good opportunities for comparison. Jeffersonville and New Albany, Indiana compared to Louisville, Kentucky; Newport and Covington, Kentucky as compared to experiences in Cincinnati, Ohio; or Henderson, Kentucky versus Evansville, Indiana all provide valuable insights.

But, one issue I had with the book is just this - numbers and analysis prevail, which after all is important, but human stories are too often missing. One paragraph, that has many similar to it in the book, is as follows:

"During and after the Civil War, moreover, African Americans tended to move from rural to urban areas because of job opportunities and the presence of Union troops and whites who provided a modicum of protection and encouragement. In 1870 (table 8) 21,024 African Americans lived in Kentucky towns of 2,500 or  more, and they  accounted for slightly below one-third of those dwelling in the state's river counties (table 7). Ten years later the number had risen to just above 30,000, or 41 percent. Across the river, 12,918 resided in towns in 1870, or 43 percent of the African Americans residing in north-bank counties (table 9). Then years later that number had risen to nearly 20,000, or just below half."

The above information is very helpful and educational, and combined with personal stories, makes for a well balanced study, however, too much of either may make for either difficult reading or lack of proper analysis.

I applaud Bigham for taking on this study. It is not an easy task writing history where so few personal primary sources (letters, journals, diaries) have survived - or never created in the first place. Therefore, it appears that he relied heavily on census records and secondary sources for his research sources.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give On Jordan's Banks: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley a 4.

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