Black History Today: A Profile of Historian Crystal Feimster

As a member of a new generation of African-American historians, Feimster’s work focuses on the overlooked role of politics in racial and sexual violence.

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Crystal Feimster went to college thinking she was going to be an attorney. The legal profession’s loss was history’s gain. While she was still an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, Feimster met a string of distinguished African-American historians who made history exciting, including Tera Hunter, Darlene Clark Hine and Clayborne Carson.

“It’s one of those weird things,” says Feimster, who speaks with the slow drawl of her native North Carolina. “I never thought I’d like history. But once I got into college, I was really interesting in learning about history, my own history.” But while she became fascinated with black history, she has not yet devoted time to research her own family’s history in Iredell County, a longtime Ku Klux Klan stronghold.

Today, Feimster, 38, is at the forefront of a new wave of black historians exploring the forgotten nooks and crannies of American history. This fall, she will move from Princeton, where she has been a visiting professor, to a position in the Department of African-American Studies at Yale University. She is married to Australian historian Daniel Bottsman, whose work centers on Japan.

Feimster’s academic focus is racial and sexual violence; currently, she is completing a project on rape during the American Civil War. She says that both Confederate and Union soldiers targeted black women. Many Northern soldiers, angry at having to serve in the war to free blacks, took out their resentments by raping black women in the South. “I’m finding there was a moment where white people, Southern and Northern, were able to see black people as victims,” she says.

Feimster says white women in the South were also victims of rape, despite a myth that they were somehow protected; Northern troops sometimes used sexual violence as a political weapon. One Union general, Benjamin “Beast” Butler, issued an order that Southern women who spat on Union troops or showed other forms of defiance would be treated as prostitutes—an invitation to his troops to assault these women.

Feimster’s research has taken her to court martial records and the letters and diaries of soldiers who served in the war. “I’m finding that, like most wars, there was big cover-up,” she says. “There’s a big effort to sanitize what’s happening.” However, she says, the military was very conscious of what was happening and sometimes took steps to try to prevent the rapes.

In the classroom, Feimster teaches a seminar on the politics of racial violence, a course that starts with the treatment of Native Americans and goes through to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

She earned her Ph.D. at Princeton University in 2000 and was an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina. Feimster’s latest book, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, was published by Harvard University Press in November 2009. It focuses on two women journalists, African-American Ida B. Wells, who campaigned against lynching, and Rebecca Latimer Felton, who urged white men to prove their manhood by lynching black men accused of raping white women. A reviewer in Double X noted, “this account leaves us with a sense of what made the fights for racial equality and women’s suffrage so complicated and contentious.” Feimster is a supporter of Black History Month because it causes Americans to focus on aspects of American history that are often neglected. But, she says, “I don’t organize my life around it.”

Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.. Follow him on Twitter.