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Teaching with Primary Sources

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
May 12th, 2014

Guest blog post by Dr. Brian Luskey, Associate Professor, WVU Department of History


In “Slavery’s Capitalism,” a history course I taught this semester, my students and I tried a bit of an experiment. Taking advantage of the small class size (10 undergraduate students hailing from a variety of majors across the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences), students learned how to do history by researching, writing, and revising sections of a collaborative research paper based upon archival sources in the West Virginia & Regional History Center.


 Engraving of Salt-Works on Kanawha River, W. Va.

Engraving of Salt-Works on Kanawha River, WV


Practically, what that means is that, from the beginning of the course, we read deeply in the secondary source literature on the relationship between slavery and capitalism in nineteenth-century America, trying to understand—through reading and discussion—the debates between scholars who have disagreed over time on the question of whether or to what extent slavery intersected with capitalism; the different forms of slavery and capitalism that emerged in various areas of the American South; and the cultural practices and worldviews that constituted capitalism in this period. Once they understood the parameters of those debates, the students did primary source research in court cases and business records located in WVRHC’s amazing collections.


Kanawha Salines ledger page

Kanawha Salines Ledger, 1855, from A&M 3442


In the essay that emerged from this research, entitled “The Promise and Peril of Interdependence: Establishing Credit Networks and Negotiating Slavery in Antebellum Kanawha County, Virginia,” authors Amanda Gaines, Jason Williams, Louis Falbo, Jessica Fletcher, Jonathan Schad, Patrick Hartnett, Thomas Sims, Thomas Wong, Senetha Clay, and Evan Dove argued that Kanawha County saltmakers crafted credit networks in large part through the use of slaves’ labor and by marshaling slaves’ economic potential in other ways—as hired commodities and as financial instruments. They each took a section of that story to tell, writing and revising four drafts (with the help of outside reader Dr. Kimberly Welch, a professor in WVU’s history department) and presenting their work to the public. At every turn, they discussed and debated the direction of the essay, sharing research notes and making analytical connections through collaboration rather than in isolated individual work. History is a shared endeavor, and we received expert guidance and generous assistance in WVRHC from Kevin Fredette, Jane Metters, Brandi Oswald, Catherine Rakowski, and Christy Venham. We thank them for their support of our project!

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