Matthew J. Clavin is Associate Professor of History at University of Houston. This interview is based on his new book, Aiming for Pensacola (Harvard University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Aiming for Pensacola?
MC: After receiving my Ph.D. in 2005, my first time full-time teaching job was in Pensacola, Florida, where shortly after arriving I began researching the city’s history. One day, while viewing a handful of antebellum-era newspapers, I was amazed by the number of runaway slave advertisements published in the local press. At times, these papers contained a dozen or more advertisements in a single issue and frequently on the front page, proving just how extensive the problem of runaway slaves was in this unique frontier town. It wasn’t long before I decided that I had to tell the story of the generations of enslaved people who made the desperate bid for freedom in a part of the United States where the attainment of freedom was for most African Americans nearly impossible.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Aiming for Pensacola?
MC: This study proves that despite the legend of the Underground Railroad, fugitive slaves routinely ran south towards freedom, often with the assistance of their free African American, European American, and Native American allies. Because of its reputation as an enclave of diverse people and cultures, Pensacola was in the colonial, antebellum, and Civil War eras, a popular destination for many of these runaways who sought refuge on the city’s waterfront, which verged on a boundless world of ocean and sea, and the surrounding villages that opened into a vast expanse of forests, swamps, and streams.
JF: Why do we need to read Aiming for Pensacola?
MC: The book demonstrates that resistance to slavery was much more widespread than previously understood. Even in the Deep South, where slavery was deeply embedded in the culture and the cars and conductors of the Underground Railroad stopped only infrequently, African Americans and their allies resisted the white supremacist culture that slaveowners and other white elites imposed on the region. There has long been a tendency to read American history as the story of two oppositional regions: a non-racist North and a racist South. Having lived in southern cities most of my life, and now being a resident of Houston, TX, what many consider the most diverse city in the entire United States, I have always been motivated by my own personal experiences to challenge this interpretation by finding examples of interracial cooperation and collaboration in early Southern history. This book is a case in point.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
MC: Though I’m sure they wouldn’t even remember me today, two truly extraordinary Jr. high school history teachers convinced me at an early age to become a teacher; however, it was while writing my senior thesis in college that I became enamored with the idea of research and writing history professionally, and I decided that I wanted to⎯or rather needed to⎯ become a college professor. There is no other job on earth that I would enjoy more, though, truth be told, if any NBA team was interested in a 44-yr. old shooting guard I would definitely consider the opportunity.
JF: What is your next project?
MC: I am currently working on two major projects, though the one much closer to completion is a narrative history of the Battle of Negro Fort, a bloody conflict between hundreds of fugitive slaves, Indians, and American soldiers under the leadership of Andrew Jackson at an abandoned British fort in Spanish Florida in the aftermath of the War of 1812.
JF: Thanks, Matthew!
And thanks to Abby Blakeney for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner