Posts Tagged 'Slavery'

“The Troubles of His Country Were His Own”: Rev. N. A. Staples

By James Marten

This year two parts of my lives collided: my work as a historian of the Civil War era and my membership in the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee.  First Church is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and I’m helping the congregation commemorate the milestone by organizing speakers and writing a monthly blog.

First Church was formed in the spring of 1842, but a few months earlier a notice had appeared in a local newspaper asking Unitarians interested in starting a church to gather at a local meeting hall “at early candlelight” to talk it over.  Although the congregation has had its ups and downs–in fact, it suspended services at least twice in the nineteenth century, and once had its mortgage foreclosed–since 1892 it has been housed in a brick church at Ogden and Astor, on Milwaukee’s lower east side.  The denomination as a whole and our congregation in particular is noted for its social activism; today it is one of the largest congregations in the denomination with around 800 members.

My January blog highlighted the unique life of one of our earliest ministers, N. A. Staples. He was an unusual character–kind of hard to live with, it seems–but he represented the radical abolitionists who helped spark the Civil War in 1861.  The blog is based largely on a biography and collection of sermons written and compiled by one of his close friends, but Staples’ complicated personality comes through as clearly as his passion for reform and his belief in the liberal Christianity promoted by Unitarians.

You can read the blog here.

Jim Marten is chair of the MU History Department and has been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee for over twenty years.

The More Things Change…

Laura Matthew, associate professor of Latin American history, checks in from Spain, where she is conducting research with the support of a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and shares her thoughts on how a recent archival discovery sheds new light on the historical relationship between racial discrimination and mass incarceration.

National Public Radio recently published this article on the high proportion of black males in jail in Wisconsin – the highest in the nation by far, a statistic that is primarily driven by Milwaukee.

MatthewHeadShot copyThat same week, I stumbled across a handwritten letter in the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla, Spain. It treats neither the century nor the themes of my current research. But its description of the discrimination facing people of African descent in late colonial Guatemala was so eloquent – and sadly, modern – that I transcribed it in full. (What follows is a somewhat free translation of parts of the letter into English. The full Spanish transcription will be published in the forthcoming volume of the academic journal Mesoamérica.)

A little context: at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Guatemala, slavery persisted but most people of African descent were free and had been for generations. Some had stopped paying the extra taxes demanded of free people of color, usually by serving in the military. Some had moved into positions of local political power, or were practicing professions like medicine, engineering, and law.

Continue reading ‘The More Things Change…’


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