Associate professor of history Justin Behrend was awarded the Mississippi Department of Archives and History 2016 McLemore Prize for his latest book Reconstructing Democracy: Grassroots Black Politics in the Deep South after the Civil War. He will be the keynote speaker on March 4 for the Mississippi Historical Society at their annual meeting, which runs March 3-5 in Jackson, Mississippi. According to the MDAH website, the McLemore Prize is awarded to “the author of the most distinguished scholarly book on a topic in Mississippi history or biography published in 2015.” The award honors two former presidents of the Mississippi Historical Society: Richard A. McLemore and Nannie Pitts McLemore. Winners receive $700 and the opportunity to give a keynote address at the society’s annual meeting.
Behrend’s book competed against approximately 20 other publications on Mississippi history. Published in January 2015, his book focuses on the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, during which recently freed African-American slaves struggled to find their ground both socially and politically.
“After the Civil War, there was actually a lot of black political activity in ways that we forget today,” he said. “African-American men could vote. They held office. They changed public policy in a myriad of ways and that story was largely forgotten.”
He added that he hoped to evoke the significant transformation from slave to politician that many African-American men had in an extremely short period of time.
“How do people who were recently enslaved—with all the limitations, like little wealth, political experience or education—how then do they win office?” he said. “How were they able to change society—as well as the workings of government—in the south?”
Behrend’s book looks specifically at Natchez, Mississippi—which borders the Mississippi River—and areas of Louisiana; both of which had a large African-American population during Reconstruction.
The topic—which doubled as the subject of his dissertation—took him 12 years to research, during which he traveled throughout the United States to places like Jackson, Mississippi and Washington, D.C. Behrend studied both local and federal records alongside archives at various universities such as the University of Texas and county courthouses.
Coincidentally, Behrend is not the only professor from Geneseo who has received this award. Fellow professor of history Emilye Crosby received the McLemore Prize in 2006 for her book A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi, which chronicles the freedom movement of African-Americans in Claiborne County during the 1960s.
“It is interesting that both our books deal with the same geographical area in Mississippi,” Crosby—who is currently on semester leave—said in a phone interview. “Claiborne County is in the Natchez district, where Behrend bases his work.”
Crosby also mentioned that the books even reference the same families, although a century apart. “It’s a neat connection,” she said.
Senior American studies major David Atti—who took a Civil War and Memory course with Behrend in fall 2014—described the professor as charismatic and someone who “relishes teaching.”
“He had a lot of enthusiasm,” Atti said. “You can tell he really loves teaching class.”
Behrend is currently working a long-term project about the role of fugitive slaves and their influence on national politics and southern Congressmen.
“We often don’t think of slaves as political beings,” he said. “But I think if we look at the broader ramifications of the resistance, we can see them actually shaping national policy.”
Behrend will travel to Jackson in March, where he will speak about his current book to members of the Mississippi Historical Society and various other historians.