Visiting Scholars: Julia Carroll

With the reopening of the Georgia Historical Society’s newly expanded and renovated Research Center, GHS is again getting visits from scholars, students, and researchers from all over the world researching and studying a wide variety of topics. Off the Deaton Path would like to introduce our readers to some of these visiting scholars and share with you what they’re working on and what they’re finding at GHS.

This week we’ll spotlight Julia Carroll, a PhD candidate in American and New England Studies at Boston University.

Tell Us About Yourself: Until moving to Massachusetts for graduate school in 2015, I have lived in Georgia all my life. I was born and raised in Atlanta, then the summer before I entered the tenth grade my family relocated to Tybee Island. After finishing high school at Johnson (go Atom Smashers!), I limped through a few semesters at Armstrong but eventually gravitated back to my hometown to pursue a music career. In 2009, I decided to try my hand at college again and applied to Georgia State University, which was close to where I was living at the time. My original intent was to take only a couple of courses, just for fun, but within a year my part-time coursework turned into full-time, one major turned into two, and the next thing I knew it was 2014 and I was graduating summa cum laude with B.A.s in History and Religious Studies. Some folks need a gap year; I needed a gap decade.

In May 2017 I earned a History M.A. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and that fall I entered Boston University’s American & New England Studies Program. At present I am a doctoral candidate specializing in histories of the Atlantic world, specifically in intersections of religion and race. My dissertation committee is led by professors Joseph Rezek and John Thornton.

Tell Us About Your Current Project: My dissertation looks at eighteenth-century proslavery Protestant itinerants and their influence on public policy and the development of racial and religious identities. I am specifically researching how the enslavement of African-descended people by Anglo-Protestants living in the Lowcountry in the 1740s-1790s, during what might be referred to as the “long Great Awakening” era, influenced wider socioeconomic and cultural developments. This is a close examination of a much larger picture, that being the emergence of the United States as a slaveholding society dominated by adherents of Protestant Christianity.

When we think of America’s founding period, we tend to think of throwing tea into Boston harbor, armies of redcoats, and George Washington. But this late early modern period is also when we start to see American Protestantism take on a life of its own, with various denominations taking root and forging larger communities of believers, a transformation that also coincided with the peak of the transatlantic slave trade. Why did some Protestants arrive at the proslavery positions they did, while others rejected slaveholding altogether? And what are we to make of marginalized individuals who promoted ideals and beliefs espoused by proslavery religious networks? This era is full of paradoxes and contradictions, and for this it is a fascinating, if sometimes terrible, period to research. But it is an important one, I think, because a lot of the widespread societal inequities we’re reckoning with today have roots that can be traced back to this time.

What Are you Finding at GHS? At the GHS I was looking for documents related to the slaveholding practices of the era’s most renowned religious itinerant, George Whitefield, and his British patron, Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. After Whitefield’s death in 1770, the Countess inherited all his Georgian properties, including Bethesda Orphan House (today’s Bethesda Academy), its adjacent plantations, and its enslaved people. For years James Habersham oversaw much of Bethesda’s growth, and after Whitefield’s death he was relied upon by the Countess for providing accurate estate inventory. The GHS has many relevant documents, including first-hand accounts of Bethesda during its founding decade, the 1740s, through the tumultuous period after Whitefield’s death and beyond the revolution years. My aim is to locate any documents associated with the purchase and sale of enslaved individuals who lived at any of Whitefield’s properties—their names, ages, skillsets—anything that might help me tell a story of what life at Bethesda (or Whitefield’s earlier South Carolinian plantation, “Providence”) might have been like. While at the GHS I was able to find enough supporting documentation to connect some dots I’d begun drawing elsewhere, and this provided some very exciting developments for my project.

The James Habersham papers (MS 337) and Habersham Family papers (MS 1787) include letters to Whitefield and the Countess of Huntingdon, plus other prominent individuals, and also offer material that will provide a backdrop to my colonial-era narrative. For example, besides helping run Bethesda, Habersham’s primary interest during the 1750s was silk cultivation. His papers feature not only a wealth of practical information about this process, but also exchanges he had with members of a nearby German-Protestant settlement, whose priority was also silk cultivation but without the use of enslaved labor. The Marmaduke Hamilton & Dolores Boisfeuillet Floyd papers (MS 1308) have a wealth of handwritten transcriptions of important events, including William Stephens’s notes on the 1739 Stono slave uprising, early impressions of Whitefield, and discussions of bringing slavery to then-anti-slavery Georgia. This element of the Floyd collection also acts as a handy guide to materials published in the Colonial Records of Georgia, whose printed volumes are conveniently located on a shelf in the GHS’s reading room. Perhaps the most exciting and useful discovery from my visit was John Johnson’s journal and letters (MS 430). Johnson was the last minister sent to Bethesda by the Countess, and his writings describe his experience in Georgia and the state of things there during the early 1790s.

My favorite part about visiting archives, and to me the best part of studying history in general, is learning to make mental space for new ways of looking. Often this means seeking out histories of people, places, or ideas that were left out of the history books many of us grew up with, so doing this sort of work requires mining the archives for more than meets the eye. Sometimes this means paying special attention to the spaces, the things not said; sometimes it is taking note of a name that seemed insignificant until you happened upon it again in an unexpected place. When you’re seeking the voices of those who have been marginalized (which in an archive may be quite literal!), this sort of heightened awareness is what is required. One of the biggest lessons my dissertation is teaching me is that it is entirely possible to tell a story about something that at first glance seems impossible to tell, you just have to know where to look. I am grateful to the GHS for providing such an excellent space, support staff, and resources to do this work.

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