In his West Virginia: A History for Beginners, John Alexander Williams carefully explains to young readers how social scientists gather evidence, make reasonable inferences from that evidence, and then interpret the information they have before them.
People come up with new interpretations of historical events all the time. In writing Carla Rising, I examined the historical evidence — both documentation and interviews I’d conducted with family members of those involved — to come up with a new interpretation of the Battle of Blair Mountain, taking place in southern West Virginia in 1921.
I love this: Exploring new “threads” to an old story, both for my own and other people’s projects. To me, there is nothing like the feeling of combing through first-hand historical material that no one else has explored or applied in exactly the same way. (I’m currently reading old letters for a new project, here in Berlin.)
I’ve also enjoyed helping others interpret new information and get it “out there.”
In 1998, I became interested in some fascinating research being conducted by historian Hannah Geffert, working in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Hannah’s subject is “Organized black resistance to slavery before the US Civil War,” and she has turned up some remarkable evidence to support her new interpretation of John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, in then-Jefferson County, Virginia.
When it comes to understanding John Brown, the difficulty comes from the fact that his story, in large part, was told (or “spun,” we might say today) by his executioners — the men who captured and killed him, acting on behalf of the slave state of Virginia.
Examining the evidence, Hannah Geffert came to the conclusion that there were more American blacks, both slave and free, who helped Brown plan and participate in his armed raid on Harpers Ferry than the Virginians of his time wanted to believe.
During the 1990s, Geffert presented her material at Harvard University and before the Pennsylvania Historical Society, among others. Her research was well-presented in two works, John Stauffer’s The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Harvard University Press, 2002); and Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John Stauffer, eds. The New Press, 2006.)
As accomplished as it was, however, Geffert’s interpretation of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was seen by some as intellectually “risky,” and unworthy of support. It was not especially well-received by other, local academics of that time; nor by her own Shepherd University, whose full-time employ Geffert left some years ago.
I remain captured by her work. Back then, I encouraged her to write a more complete book about it, which I’d hoped to publish with my imprint, Appalachian Editions. I also explored making a documentary about it.
Among other things, I arranged a meeting with accomplished documentary filmmaker Louis J. Massiah (W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices, 1996). Massiah, founder of the Scribe Video Center, graciously met with me in Baltimore. We talked over coffee at the train station, and I told him about Geffert’s work. He liked the idea, liked the story, as I presented it. He offered me another line of thought, though:
“Some stories are better told as fiction,” he suggested.
Many years and many projects later, this idea led me to write Carla Rising from all I’d learned about the battle at Blair.
I was never able to complete a John Brown project, either as fiction or nonfiction. (As far as I know, Geffert still hasn’t completed her own book.) But, with help from a couple of sympathetic and talented friends, I was able to tape an interview with her one afternoon.
Here are 14 minutes of that interview, arranged to give a very good sense, I think, of Geffert’s work on John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry. I offer it here, for the first time, with her permission.