Major Breakthrough in Historiography, January 16, 2006
Reviewer: William R. Erwin (Durham, NC United States)
Dr. Carolyn Earle Billingsley has made a major breakthrough in American, especially Southern, historiography. She has elevated genealogy into the first rank of scholarly tools for understanding society and what springs from it. In the process she has overturned former conclusions as to how the Southern frontier was settled and developed. The core element is communities of kinship.
They have been right under our noses all along. Although writers have noted the importance of kinships episodically, they have explored them indifferently. It is common practice for biographers to devote a few pages to family background but little more. One extraordinary exception was Robert A. Caro who described President Johnson's families and environment in the Texas Hill Country in vivid detail. You could almost see little Lyndon as an incipient statesman. A friend wisely observed, though, that we do not know what cultural baggage those families brought to those hills and where they got it.
Dr. Billingsley's process opens up vast possibilities for research among families and persons for whom manuscript and printed documentation is skimpy or virtually non-existent, which is to say, most of them. As a longtime manuscript librarian I know how spotty the records are. Many a worthy in his or her time is now unknown when the opposite was the case in their own time and place.
Dr. Billingsley has not only theorized about the process but also demonstrated it in a study of a migrating, changing community of kinship, one without much documentation beyond genealogy. She has shown us how to do it. She has identified the core element of Southern society that defined its culture, politics, economics, and religion. As she noted, church history is incomplete if you are unaware of the familial interconnections of the clergy among themselves and communities of kinship.
Reading this book, I felt like I was reading about my own community of kinship, a most useful term, from Virginia and, especially South Carolina, to Alabama and westward. Our complex was quite larger and more concentrated in one region. In our principal county, the metropolis of Birmingham rose among us. Large numbers of us stayed and, having developed a rural society from scratch, participated in making a city.
Perhaps her Earles connect to our Earles in South Carolina and Alabama, two galaxies touching at the edges. One of our prominent relatives was a neighbor of her kinship community in Bibb County, Alabama. Cases in point!