Ten quick questions at Tulane: Randy Sparks, Tulane history professor

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Ten quick questions at Tulane: Randy Sparks, Tulane history professor

Deeya Patel, News Editor

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Professor of history Randy Sparks teaches a variety of courses with loyal semesterly enrollment such as The Old South; The New South; and Prophets, Sects, and Cults. Sparks is also the author of several acclaimed books exploring the Atlantic Slave Trade such as “The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey. The Hullabaloo sat down with him to find out about his research process for this book and learn what inspired him to study southern history. 

How did you end up at Tulane?

Well, I taught for 10 years at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and a job opened up here. I applied, and fortunately, I was hired. If you had asked me in graduate school what my dream job was this would’ve been very high on my list. I grew up in Mississippi and it’s not so far away. I used to come to New Orleans a lot and loved the city, so it was a place I was very excited to come to.

You said you grew up in Mississippi. Do you think that is what led you to study the Old South?

Yes, absolutely. Though I didn’t go into graduate school with the intention, actually. But I came of age in the ‘60s and during the Civil Rights Movement, and I grew up in rural Mississippi. It was very segregated and very racist, and I think I was trying to make sense of all of that and look for answers and explanations. I think once I began to study Southern history I fell in love with the subject partly because it helped me answer a lot of questions in my own life. 

One of your research focuses is on biracial worship in the south. Could you expand more on that?

Growing up in the rural South, I went to a Methodist church that was, of course, completely segregated. And every church I knew anything about was completely segregated. Dr. Martin Luther King said the most segregated time of the week in the south was 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. So in graduate school I was in a seminar focused on American religion and I was looking for a research paper topic and I pulled down off of the shelves of the Rice [University] library a volume that included transcribed church records from the Antebellum Period in the Mississippi. And to my surprise, half of those churches were black, sometimes the majority of those churches were black. They were the Methodist church in their town, they were the Baptist church in their town. They were the most important churches in their community and yet, and they were biracial. And this just flew in the face of everything I thought I knew about southern religion. But in the antebellum period, it was very common for Blacks and whites to attend church together. But as time went on, sometimes Blacks met in the afternoons, whites in the mornings, and they were still technically part of the same church but segregated. But nonetheless, it was a big surprise to me. 

How do you think biracial worship plays a role today?

Well, Dr. King’s observations still pretty much hold true. Churches are still incredibly segregated across the south and across the nation. But that’s changing a little bit. There’s a few congregations here in New Orleans that are biracial. Some of those came together after Hurricane Katrina when churches were damaged or destroyed. But it’s unusual, even today. 

You’re also writing a microhistory of the Atlantic slave trade from an afrocentric perspective, which has to be more difficult to do. What was your process for conducting research for your books?

Some of this was, I have to confess, accidental. I was working on a project in the history of religion, an Atlantic project, and one of the people I was interested in was an evangelist in the United States in the early 19th century who would also do preaching tours in England. And so I was trying to track down what he did in England. So I went to this huge archive of Methodism in Manchester, and I was just digging around. I found everything I could on him. They had the papers of Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism. I wasn’t really researching Wesley, but I was just interested. I was flipping through the guides and there was a file that was simply labeled “Letters from Slaves.” But when I opened the file, it was letters these elite members of a slave trading family in old Calabar, in what is today Nigeria. They had been kidnapped and enslaved, and taken around the Atlantic world and wound up in Bristol. They had written to Charles Wesley in their own hand. They were literate in English before they had ever left Africa. So here were these letters in this folder telling these amazing stories. So that’s what started me down this road. 

What has been your favorite book to work on so far?

Well, that’s hard to say. I suppose “The Two Prices of Calabar” may have been the most fun. It was such a detective project. When I first saw the letters, I thought, “Is this even true?” And if it’s true, how could you ever prove it’s true, right? But the more research I did, the more I was able to track them and find references to them in the most unlikely places, to actually prove that story and find out just how remarkable they really were. It was very exciting. 

What is your favorite class to teach?

Oh, that’s hard. I teach every year The Old South and The New South. And as I’ve said, I really think the subject matter is important and worthwhile, and I still enjoy teaching it even though I do it every year. But the seminars in some ways are more fun because you get to focus more on 15 people sitting around a table. You get to know the students more than you would in a lecture course. I’ve got several seminars that I teach on a regular basis right now. One’s called The Plantation South, and then I’m teaching a course right now called Prophets, Sects, and Cults. 

If you could give one piece of advice to a Tulane student, what would you tell them? 

I think since most of you are not from New Orleans, I would say get out into the city and learn about this remarkable place because it’s one of the most historically significant cities in the United States, it’s one of the most distinctive cities in the United States, it’s one of the most culturally rich cities in the United States. This is an important place for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes I’m afraid students are staying in their little Uptown bubble and don’t hear any more music than what’s played at The Boot. When I think learning about jazz, exploring the city, eating well and immersing themselves is incredibly important. It’s a privilege, I think, to be here. I consider it a privilege for myself to be here. 

What is your favorite place in New Orleans? 

Aside from my own house, which I really like? I have lots of favorite places. I have lots of favorite restaurants that I like to go to time and time again. There are places like Jackson Square or the Ogden Museum that I like to go back to. There are lots of jazz clubs I like to go to. I have lots of favorite places. I don’t think I could choose one. 

What’s the last book you read?

For class I just finished a biography about Charles Manson that we’re reading for Prophets, Sects, and Cults. That’s the last book I read. During the semester, it’s a lot of reading for class.