Finding Maria’s Story

Jacqueline Allain, Duke University

The summer after I passed my preliminary exams, in the months leading up to my first long-term dissertation research trip abroad, I decided to take a week-long course for Duke University graduate students called Teaching with Archives. I didn’t put a lot of thought into the decision: I was intrigued by the idea of incorporating archival analysis into my teaching, and I hadn’t really started on my dissertation research yet, so I wasn’t slammed with work. On the first day of the course, Trudi Abel, the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library librarian placed several documents from the Robert Anderson Papers in front of me to examine. As I read a letter from a man named Robert Anderson to his enslaved daughter, Haidee, and a letter from Angelina Grimké Weld to Anderson, begging him to free his enslaved children and their mother, I was immediately intrigued by the kernel of a story I saw materializing on the desk before me. Who were these people, and what happened to Haidee, her siblings, and her mother—a woman whose name, I would later find out, was Maria Griffin?

Day after day, week after week, my mind returned to them. I used online resources like, ArchiveGrid, and to get my hands on any information that I could. I used my income from summer teaching to take mini-archival trips, some of which turned up nothing, others of which were tremendously useful, such as my excursion to the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg. As I sought to apprehend Maria Griffin, I grew to viscerally despise Robert Anderson and the other people who hurt her.

I found myself developing a fondness for Maria and trying to imagine what she looked like, and how she would react to knowing what I was writing about her. One night, I even dreamt about having a conversation with her and her descendants. The sense of personal investment that I was developing in my subjects, especially Maria, took me aback. I had to remind myself to keep my distance, to be careful about projecting my feelings onto someone long dead, that it wasn’t my place, that the job of a historian is not to lionize her subjects, and that truly doing right by Maria meant acknowledging her as a human being (in all the messiness that entails), not the idea of her I was forging in my mind. I struggled mightily, and with lots of help from colleagues and mentors, produced an article that, I hope, conveys respect for Maria Griffin while also laying bare the complex affective dynamics that suffuse encounters with our historical subjects and the narrativization of their lives.

I want to offer a few take-away points that I hope readers will find useful. These are particularly, although not exclusively, targeted toward graduate student researchers:

Take-Away 1: Read carefully and find stories.

“Maria Griffin, et al.” represents the kind of narrative-driven social history that I most enjoy reading and writing, and which inspired me to study history in the first place. The approach is simple: find stories that pique your interest. In whatever form, or for whatever reason, your subjects appear in the archive—latch onto that, those moments. Don’t worry too much about the ultimate “significance” of the stories you find and don’t think too hard about the intervention you want to make. That comes later (and it should; I am certainly not suggesting that one jettison analytical rigor). Read your documents very, very carefully, and give yourself the time you need to simply sit with the stories. For historians of slavery, colonialism, and racial violence, sitting with our subjects is one way to show them respect.

This narrative-driven approach isn’t everyone’s approach—nor does it need to be—and I am aware that some historians bristle at the history-as-storytelling framework I describe here, but this is the only way I know how to do history.

Take-Away 2: Don’t be afraid to follow your interests.

Although I did an examination field in the history of Atlantic slavery, including the United States, I am not formally trained as a United States historian, but rather, as a historian of the British and French colonial Caribbean. There is something to be said for being cognizant of the limits of your expertise. For graduate students, there’s also something to be said for sticking to your dissertation research and getting it done. But I also think it’s important to listen to your gut. When your gut is telling you, “This is a project worth pursuing, even if it doesn’t make it into the dissertation,” consider taking a leap of faith. As our discipline becomes ever more precarious—as jobs and funding dry up—and as we witness a complete assault on the teaching of evidence-based history in schools across the US, it’s ever more important to pursue this kind of work. Not for the discipline, and certainly not for our institutions, but because the work we do, the work of understanding the past, matters.

I will end this post with some thoughts on directions for further research. I hope that someone might continue this project.

In footnote 54 of the article, I write of the record James City County / Williamsburg (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1799–1933, 1873–005: Maria Griffin, etc. vs. Exr. of Helen Anderson, etc. James City County / Williamsburg (Va.): “This record presents something of an enigma: in addition to Helen Anderson’s kin, the Griffins’ lawsuit also names four individuals previously enslaved by Robert Anderson as defendants. The part that these four people, at least two of whom may have been related to Maria Griffin, played in the saga is unclear.” Those people were named Fanny Thurston, Charlotte Francis Thurston, Judah Thurston, and George Southall Thurston. For researchers interested in trying to find out who they were, I would suggest visiting any and every archive in Williamsburg or Richmond, the Robert Anderson Family Papers at Princeton University, and the Robert Southall Bright papers at the University of Delaware. There might be more to this story yet.