Did you know that there is a rich history of Jews in the South, specifically the Lowcountry? If not, neither did Seth Clare, a senior majoring in history. After a course he took that explored southern Jewish plantation owners, Seth decided to explore the topic further. ”The irony of Jews holding slaves (Egypt? Hello!) was not lost on me and since that first class, I have always been interested in understanding how Jewish identity meshed with the landscape of the American South.”
Seth Clare reading pages of Marx E. Cohen’s plantation journal.
Dr. Dale Rosengarten, a curator in Special Collections in Addlestone Library, helped Seth discover his bachelor’s essay topic after telling him about the Cohen plantation journal. “Dale told me that she knew of a journal kept by a Jewish Lowcountry plantation owner named Marx E. Cohen. The journal spans from the years 1840- 1868 and was being kept at the university of South Carolina’s manuscript collection. Most importantly of all, to both Dale’s and my own knowledge, this journal has never been used in any sort of scholarly study, dissertation, or paper.”
Surprisingly, after getting in touch with folks in the manuscript department at the University of South Carolina (USC), Seth found out they were beginning to digitize the journal so that it could be read online and easy to access for scholars everywhere. So, Seth is not only doing research for his own project, “Portrait of a Jewish Plantation Owner,” but also helping to make sure the journal can be used for others’ research on the topic.
“Together with [Dr. Rosengarten] and the USC manuscript department, I have arranged to help write the meta data for the journal being put online. What this means is that people will be able to see each page (which are actually quite difficult to read) alongside my own notes and notations so that they can understand what they are looking at. Most of what I do now involves microfilm. I go through each individual page and try and figure out what is going on to add information to the meta data. Cohen was an erratic and disorganized guy and its hard work.”
So, what has Seth found after reading the pages of Cohen’s journal? Unlike a personal sort of diary that many of us think of today as a journal, Seth discovered that Cohen used the journal for business purposes only; personal relationships and mentions about important happenings, such as the Civil War, are very rarely mentioned.
“…so far the journal indicates that they also made lots of bricks and sold wood as well. Cohen kept many slaves and their records are also in the journal. He comments on the weather, how much work his slaves have done in a day, how much of a given product he sells, births, deaths, etc. …Cohen also kept track of many of the people he sold to in Charleston. Amazingly, some of these names are well known to the folks in Special Collections, and we actually know more about some of his customers than we do about Cohen himself.”
A closer look of a page from the journal.
Keep an eye out for this year’s issue of Chrestomathy, where Seth’s essay “General Grant’s Order 11: Causes and Context” will be published. According to Seth, the essay “examines one of the most dramatic examples of anti-semitism in American history and took place in the South during the Civil War.”