When Columbia University American history professor Stephanie McCurry read the written accounts of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas’s diary, she knew she had hit the jackpot of primary sources.
“I just felt like I died and went to heaven because she's telling me all these things that she thinks and does, and she's telling me who the people are,” McCurry said during her lecture. “There's all this emotion and interior life that I had never had access to before.”
At the 22nd Ferdinand Phinizy Lecture on Feb. 22 in the Seney-Stovall Chapel, McCurry discussed the period of time after the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, through the life of a specific woman.
McCurry analyzed Thomas’s story in order to look at Reconstruction through a distinct lense — one that combines the war’s effects on economic and domestic affairs.
“She lived through it all,” McCurry said. “Destruction, defeat, occupation, emancipation, political uncertainty and a long descent into poverty.”
Studying Thomas’s life also allows historians to study the impact slavery and emancipation had on family, love and sex, McCurry said.
“She lived through it all. Destruction, defeat, occupation, emancipation, political uncertainty and a long descent into poverty.”
- Stephanie McCurry, Columbia University professor
In 1864, Thomas learned through her father’s will he had children with their slaves, which severely altered her outlook on the rest of her life. As Thomas’s slaves fled her plantation when the Civil War ended, she felt abandoned, McCurry said. Thomas felt betrayed by the people who helped raise her children and look after her home.
“Former slaveholders like Gertrude Thomas articulated beliefs about love and belonging embedded deep in the social relations and ideology of slave society,” McCurry said.
McCurry shared the necessity of closely reading and interpreting women’s history with those who were in attendance, which included the Phinizy family, Athens residents and University of Georgia students.
“There’s still things I feel like we can research learn and rethink,” McCurry said. “This history that we’ve been living with is completely impartial and probably incorrect because it’s been the history of men writing about men, and that is not, as everyone knows, exactly how the world works.”
Freshman landscape architecture major Maggie Dyer took valuable lessons from McCurry’s lecture that she could apply to her history class.
“It made history seem more personal by coming from a firsthand account of a white woman from a wealthy plantation family who saw her life change drastically over the span of a decade or so,” Dyer said.
McCurry, who is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower at Columbia University, is originally from Northern Ireland. She has studied 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War and women and gender studies. She has also written two books on southern America during the Antebellum period and will release a third in April.
“Stephanie McCurry is one of the world’s leading scholars of the 19th-century American South and the Civil War,” said UGA Willson Center communications director Dave Marr. “The focus of her talk presents the subject of the war in a context that is fresh, illuminating and relevant to our time and place.”
The Ferdinand Phinizy lecture is sponsored by the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of history and the Willson Center’s Global Georgia Initiative. The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts promotes research and inquiry into the humanities and arts at UGA.
“The Willson Center’s Global Georgia Initiative provides a platform for visiting speakers in the humanities and arts to share their scholarship, insights, and creativity with audiences in ways that resonate with their own lived experiences,” Marr said.
The lecture is named after Ferdinand Phinizy, who graduated from UGA in 1838.
The next event in the Signature Lecture series will be the Charter Lecture featuring NASA programming manager Roger Hunter on March 20 in the Chapel at 2:30 p.m.