Strange Arts & Visual Delights
The Method and Value of Prosopography
In August 1895, rumors of an imminent lynching swept the white and black communities of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Probably in response to a call for action at the end of a Sunday evening church service, a large group of armed African Americans went to guard the jail and protect he prisoner in question, young Arthur Tuttle. As I will explain in detail in the next post or two, Tuttle had killed a policeman on the street a few months before.
When the crowd did not disperse, the local militia and sheriff deputies gathered, someone fired a shot, then the firing became general. The crowd scattered, with an unknown number wounded and possibly killed. Approximately fifty African American men were arrested, many of whom were tried and convicted, with sentences ranging from a year at hard labor on the county roads to payment of court costs. Their names were published in the local newspapers.
In reading accounts of the riot, as it was called, I became interested in the fifty men: who were they? What were their family backgrounds, their trades and professions, their connections with each other? Which churches did they belong to? What were their political aspirations? One of the rioters, an older man called Cager Watt, was said by the newspapers to be a ringleader, and I wondered if there were a way to support or debunk that claim. Were there other likely leaders in the group?
So far as I have discovered, there are no surviving first person accounts from participants in the riot—no diaries, letters, memoirs, or photographs. [Update, 18 Aug 2022: In the 1970s, some eyewitnesses were interviewed; their accounts are reflected in the 1981 dissertation by Bertha Hampton Miller, "Blacks in Winston-Salem, North Carolina 1895-1920."] To draw the group’s portrait, I must rely on the information that can be gleaned from newspapers, city directories, genealogical records, vital records, etc. In 1971, Lawrence Stone defined prosopography (collective biography) as “the investigation of the common background characteristics of a group of actors in history by means of a collective study of their lives. The method employed is to establish a universe to be studied, and then to ask a set of uniform questions—about birth and death, marriage and family, social origins and inherited economic position, place of residence, education, amount and source of personal wealth, occupation, religion, experience of office, and so on.” It works best when “applied to easily defined and fairly small groups over a limited period” for which there are many sources. (“Prospography,” Daedalus 100:1, 46-79). A major question will be whether the sources are adequate for my purposes.
Before Stone’s essay, the discipline had been applied by Lewis Namier in his groundbreaking studies of British parliamentarians. Since then, digital tools—databases, visualization tools, etc.—have been devised to help construct and analyze social networks across a wide array of times and places. One example among many is the Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire (http://www.pbe.kcl.ac.uk/).
My techniques are old-fashioned and slow and my ambitions are on a far smaller scale. I am an amateur getting started rather late in life. But I hope to make a contribution that will be useful to more sophisticated and energetic researchers. The larger question under examination is the nature of African American political life between Reconstruction and Jim Crow, a period that I believe has been somewhat neglected by historians.
Next posts: “The Tuttle Family and the Riot of 1895.”
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