Do you keep a journal? If you do, you probably think of it as one of your most private possessions; but to historians hundreds of years from now, your journal might be worth writing a whole book about! That’s what acclaimed children’s author Tonya Bolden thought about a journal kept by Michael Shiner, an African American man who helped build our nation’s capital, and who lived through both the War of 1812 and the Civil War. In honor of Black History Month, the Reading into History family book club will be meeting this Sunday, February 7th to discuss Ms. Bolden’s book, Capital Days: Michael Shiner’s Journal and the Growth of Our Nation’s Capital. At the meeting, we’ll also take a look at some rare and unique items written by African Americans from the 18th and 19th centuries, including a recently discovered, handwritten poem by Jupiter Hammon and a journal kept by a man whose life in many ways parallels Shiner’s. Want to know more about the book and Michael Shiner before Sunday? Check out our interview with Bolden below!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: In Capital Days, you have told the story of the growth of Washington DC through the life, really the journal, of one man: Michael Shiner. How did you come across Michael Shiner and “His Book?” What made you want to tell a story about and through Shiner’s experiences?
Tonya Bolden: I was researching another book when I stumbled upon two pages from Shiner’s journal on the Library of Congress’s website. I puzzled over Shiner’s scrawl, the lack of punctuation, the misspellings (“wensday” for “Wednesday,” “wher” for “were”). But I was hooked. One of the pages contained the start of his account of the harrowing day in 1833 when his wife and daughters were sold and hauled away. Why have I never heard of this guy? I wondered, especially as I am so mad about 19th century American history.
I wanted to tell Shiner’s story because here was a man who was enslaved but who at times went about as if he owned himself. And one day he legally did because he, with very little formal education, was resourceful enough to sue for his freedom in court. And Shiner not only secured his liberty but this everyday man went on to experience a bit of prosperity.
Michael Shiner’s gumption and resourcefulness expands what we know not only about the lives of enslaved people, but also about their minds. Capital Days challenges unfortunate assumptions many people have about enslaved people. Other than Frederick Douglass and a few other well-known people born in slavery, by and large, a lot of people today don’t imagine enslaved people as being intelligent and having agency. So often people think of bent backs and broken spirits—and there certainly was a lot of that. Michael Shiner’s story informs us that there were enslaved people with vim, vigor, and intelligence. How else to explain how so many survived and didn’t commit suicide over the nightmare of living enslaved. If there hadn’t been a whole lot of blacks with agency, people like me wouldn’t be here today.
What also endeared me to Michael Shiner is that he was candid about himself. In the 19th century not many people aired their dirty laundry. Most people strove to present themselves in the best possible light. Not Michael Shiner. He wrote of his flaws, foibles, his recklessness at times. I found that refreshing—and thought young people would too. Imperfect people are so much more relatable than paragons of virtue.
The fact that Michael Shiner wrote about so much history, from the burning of the capital during the War of 1812 and the cholera epidemic of 1832 to the laying of Washington Monument cornerstone and the Confederate attack on the capital in 1864—how often do we experience these events through the eyes of an everyday person.
Lastly: Michael Shiner’s leaving behind a chronicle of his life and times is a powerful reminder that it is not only the lives of the rich and powerful that matter. It is not only the lives of people who do epic things that matter. We all matter. We are all part of history and making history even if only in some very small way.
DCHM: Michael Shiner was a witness to many historic moments, great and small. Is there any moment in his life you wish you could have witnessed alongside him?
TB: I wish I could have been by Shiner’s side the day he gained his freedom.
DCHM: As you note, there are some things about Michael Shiner’s life and his personal opinions that he never recorded. What did he leave out that you most wish he had written down?
TB: I wish Shiner had written more about his home life, his wives and children. I also wish he had provided more detail on black Washington. For example, one of Shiner’s fellow black workers at the Washington Navy Yard was Daniel Bell. Bell was one of the masterminds of one of the largest if not the largest escape attempts, commonly know as the Pearl Incident (1848). Shiner says not a word in his journal about Bell or the Pearl Incident. While part of me wishes Shiner had, I understand why he probably did not: Loose lips sink ships. To survive, blacks were very cautious about what they said or put in print, lest it come back to bite them or harm a member of their community.
DCHM:You have written numerous non-fiction books including Capital Days that draw upon a variety of primary sources. Have you ever gotten to examine the original documents, paintings, or objects you write about? What is it like to explore pieces of the past up close? What impact does it have on you?
TB: Last spring when I had the pleasure and great honor of speaking on Capital Days at the Library of Congress, a fellow presenter Dr. Adrienne Cannon, LoC’s Afro-American History and Culture Specialist, Manuscript Division—and so the “guardian” of Shiner’s journal—brought the journal to the program. What a wonderful thing to behold!
I also have a habit of buying history. A 19th century engraving or newspaper, for example. An early 1900s postcard. I buy these items as part of the research process, sometimes even IF I can access an item online. There’s something magical about holding history in your hands. It really helps my process.
DCHM: Do you keep a journal? What advice do you have for young journal keepers out there? How can they help historians of the future?
TB: Alas, I do not keep a journal. Perhaps it’s because I write practically every day. Keeping a journal is a terrific way to help future historians. It will provide them with information and points of view they won’t find in a blog, newspaper, or book from the period. Along with keeping journals, young people can also help future historians by safekeeping artifacts from their lives. When older they can then pass these artifacts on to a fine institution such as the New-York Historical Society, which will safeguard these items for the ages.
DCHM: What three words best describe Capital Days?
TB: Enlightening. Challenging. Inspiring.
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