Friday, October 12, 2012

Quantitative History, A Useful Tool When Research African American History

One of the recurring themes throughout history is the notion that history has been written with a view from the top to the bottom.  As we have discussed during class, much of the research done concerning African American history during the Reconstruction era requires a historian to look past the bias that is typically present in documents produced during this time.  The author Armstead L. Robinson provides many great examples in his article titled Plans Dat Comed from God. I thought that it would be interesting to take a look at some of the sources that he used, and how he was able to work around potential biases that might be present in these documents.
                Armstead’s ability to work through the bias found in many primary sources is impressive, and in the majority of the text he seems to primarily use a method of research known as quantitative history. That is, throughout his article he uses censuses and other documents that are based primarily off of numbers, and uses his reason to extract meaning from them.  For example, in order to refute the claims of Reverend William G. Brownlow’s suggestion that the African American population during the Reconstruction era of Memphis were considered to be prone to “idleness, starvation and disease” (pg. 80), he analyzes documents that would seem to speak for themselves. The records he uses in this example include: records of the Freedmen’s Bureau and arrest records from the Memphis Police Department. He points out that the relative lack of the African American‘s reliance on the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the few arrests made tell a different tale than what the Reverend would have you believe.  In fact, the number of arrests in this area pale in comparison to those of Irish immigrant workers who worked on the railroad. Although Armstead does admit that this is not exactly direct evidence, he states that this is certainly a fair amount of evidence refuting Brownlow’s claims.  Naturally, one can never be too sure, as another historian might interpret these numbers and read into other factors that say something else. I, however, think that Robinson’s article provides great insight as to how one might approach researching the history of a group that has a great deal of bias in sources concerning them.

Clearly, the skillful use of quantitative history by Armstead L. Robinson in his article show the merits how one might navigate the potentially hazardous environment of African American History.  What do you think about Robinson’s skill in interpreting history through these documents? Are there any other methods, besides quantitative history that he uses? What are some other texts you have read that show a historians skillful use of another historical method?

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