I can just imagine the look that Kate Masur’s graduate school overlords gave her when she told them she wanted to study the Civil War history of Washington, D.C.
Kate, Kate, Kate, their arched eyebrows must have said. Washington? Really?
“There was a lot of skepticism among my advisers,” Kate said.
Nobody had done much research on the topic. It was thought there wouldn’t be many sources to consult. And even if there were, what was the point? Washington, the thinking goes in some academic circles, is weird: a capital that’s more than a city but less than a state.
“D.C. is such an anomalous city,” Kate said. “It’s not New York or Chicago. It’s not one of these cities that people study a lot.”
And because of Washington’s relationship to the federal government, some historians think there isn’t much to be gained from studying it. What can our oddly feudal village tell us about the country at large?
A lot, decided Kate, who is now an associate professor of history at Northwestern University. She’ll be sharing some of her research Thursday evening at the kickoff event for this weekend’s annual D.C. Historical Studies Conference. Her lecture is titled “Black Politics in Civil War Washington: What Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ Didn’t Tell You.”
Said Kate: “First of all, there are amazing sources — and underutilized sources — for Washington.”
Congress’s obsession with posterity meant that every word uttered in the Capitol was copied and published. Because it had tight control over the city, its proceedings provided a regular record of interactions with the locals. The District’s newspapers, many now digitized, were good sources, too.
“Also, partly because of the city’s strange relationship with the federal government, it is quite an amazing place to study,” Kate said. “You can understand Washington as a laboratory for federal policy, both good and bad.”
Director Steven Spielberg explored a big piece of policy in his 2012 movie, as Abraham Lincoln pushes to pass the 13th Amendment and end slavery. Kate was looking forward to seeing it.
“I love historical films,” she said. “I feel like filmmakers are more visual than historians. . . . Even in movies like ‘Gangs of New York,’ which I don’t like, I love how they depicted how New York City looked.”
But what really bothered Kate was the short shrift given to African Americans. “Audiences will take away that the only people who were really motivated and pushed for the abolition of slavery were politicians — this cadre of Lincoln and his allies,” she said.
In fact, blacks were quite active in fighting for their future. Kate is especially interested in two of them: William Slade, a butler who worked in the White House, and Elizabeth Keckley, a seamstress.
“Slade was also active in the movement to recruit black soldiers in Washington in 1863,” Kate said. “He pushed Lincoln to recommend the appointment of officers that that community wanted. . . . Later, Slade advocates for voting rights.”
His wife, Josephine, was active in the movement to provide relief for the many slaves who had fled to Washington. Contraband camps dotted the city. Lincoln himself would pass a large one on his way to his cabin at the Soldiers’ Home.
Among Keckley’s clients were Washington’s white elites, including Mary Todd Lincoln.
Said Kate: “It was a politicized milieu they lived in, none of which you would even remotely imagine from the film ‘Lincoln.’ ”
Keckley will actually be discussed in one of the conference’s 24 panels, a session presented by Virginia Reynolds of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Other panels include an exploration of the retrocession of Alexandria back to Virginia, Washington’s culinary history, the fight for various war memorials and the role of black architects in the District.
There are also documentary film screenings and, on Sunday, a tour of sites related to the War of 1812. It’s a full plate, one of the nicest set of offerings I’ve seen for this conference, which this year marks its 40th anniversary.
Things kick off Thursday evening at George Washington University with Kate’s lecture. Friday’s and Saturday’s sessions will be at the Historical Society of Washington’s headquarters, in the Carnegie Library at 801 K St. NW. The registration fee is $20 for online registration, $25 on the day. For information and to register, go to annualconference
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.