Authors' Corner with John G. Deal, Marianne E. Julienne, and Brent Tarter, authors of JUSTICE FOR OURSELVES
Justice for Ourselves

Welcome back to the UVA Press Author's Corner! Here, we feature conversations with the authors of our latest releases to provide a glimpse into the writer's mind, their book's main lessons, and what’s next for them. We hope you enjoy these inside stories.

Today, we are happy to bring you our conversation with John G. Deal, Marianne E. Julienne, and Brent Tarter, authors Justice for Ourselves: Black Virginians Claim Their Freedom after Slavery:

What inspired you to write this book? 

For many years, we have wanted to read a book that treated in detail the experiences of Black Virginians after the end of slavery and that covered the entire state and the whole remainder of the nineteenth century. Having directed and taken part in the Library of Virginia's Dictionary of Virginia Biography project we had a wealth of new, primary source data and new biographies of nearly two hundred Virginians that enabled us to reevaluate the entire history of the period in every part of the state. Some excellent new scholarship also gave us insights into parts of the state or aspects of the history of the time period that had not been adequately studied until recently.

What did you learn and what are you hoping readers will learn from your book? 

We learned how inspiring some of the success stories of formerly enslaved people were, but we also documented how poor and without opportunities many others were and remained. Nothing appeared so important as education. Hence the great popularity of the new public school system that Virginia created in 1870. Freed people who had opportunities to obtain an education fared much better personally and economically than people who did not. The brief successful experiment in bi-racial political cooperation of the Readjuster Party showed what was possible after slavery, but the sad fate of that experiment also showed how difficult it was to create or even imagine a bi-racial political party in that age of racism and racial discrimination that created the Jim Crow regime of American apartheid.

What surprised you the most in the process of writing the book? 

Finding so many excellent first-person accounts from political leaders, educators, ministers, and mothers that illuminated the personal experiences, hopes, and fears of Black Virginians during the decades after gaining freedom was exciting. Looking at this group of legislators in particular gave us new insights into what was most important to them and their constituents in constructing a new Virginia. We were particularly surprised and gratified to recover the actual words of many men and women whose stories have not always been easily accessible. The vast expansion of searchable online resources, such as newspapers, court records, and other documents, enabled us to uncover evidence in many instances that we had not even known to look for. The biographical research in particular was rich in personal stories that illustrated many of the interpretive themes in the book.

What’s your favorite anecdote from your book?

There's not really a single anecdote, but the stories of some of the families are truly remarkable. One example is the Fields family, whose members escaped slavery at different times and reunited at Fort Monroe and went on to take advantage of every opportunity they could to go to school, to buy property, and became teachers, lawyers, and legislators who served their communities in myriad ways, and whose descendants continue that tradition. And there are many more women and men whose similarly compelling life stories fill this book.

What’s next? 

The Dictionary of Virginia Biography continues to publish life stories online and our current focus is on expanding our collection of entries on Virginia Indians/Indigenous Virginians.

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