The Public Humanist

Slavery and Public History

Molasses, sugar, palm leaves, and cotton. Tea, coffee,rum. All of these were staples of eighteenth and nineteenth-century New Englandlife. None of them were produced in New England, and obtaining them involvedsome practices we would now find morally objectionable, to say the least.Plantation slavery, for instance, and opium trading.

Do we condemn this? It was, after all, done at a time whensuch practice was generally acceptable. This and other questions like it arecentral to Traces of the Trade: Massachusettsand the Economy of Slavery, MassHumanities’ programming to mark the 200th anniversary of thelegislation abolishing the importation of slaves into the US. It will startthis week, with events on October 4th in Sheffield, and October 7thin Boston.

The programming is organized on the premise that we can’tanswer, or perhaps evenformulate or address, the difficult moralquestions around the history of slavery until we know more about the history ofMassachusetts involvement in the economy of slavery.

Our Traces programming does not stand alone, however. Ithas been encouraged, supported, and helped by Dr. Martin Blatt of the NationalPark Service in Boston. In addition to assisting us with our programming, hehas, for years, been working to bring the history of Massachusetts and itsinvolvement in slavery (and abolition) to the public. He has generouslyprovided us with an enumeration.

Slaveryand Public History by Martin Blatt

Recently, as part of my work with the National Park Service (NPS), I had the privilegeof collaborating with the Gulag Museum in developing a traveling exhibit on thehistory of the Gulag that traveled to several NPS sites. In a section of that exhibit placing theGulag Museum in a larger context, I wrote the following text: "Brutal systems have played a prominent rolein many countries, including the United States. Although slavery ended afterthe American Civil War, its consequences persist. The repercussions of theHolocaust in Europe and Apartheid in South Africa reverberate even today.Similarly, Russians face the legacy of the Gulag. How can citizens in thesecountries face up to the horrors of the past?"

The "problem" of slavery in the United States, the problemof apartheid in South Africa, or the "problem" of the Holocaust in Germany–theseare problems that are deeply imbedded in these cultures. It is essential that public history in theUnited States confront slavery and its myriad legacies. (See James and Lois Horton, editors, Slaveryand Public History–The Tough Stuff of American Memory, The New Press,2006.) I have sought to make acontribution to this ongoing effort and will provide here some examples.

In the early 1990s I worked at Lowell National Historical Park and wasinvolved in developing the permanent exhibit at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. I learned that the exhibit as planned wasrather weak on the issue of slavery.After a struggle, I managed to insert into the exhibit, with theassistance of James Horton, a reproduction slave shackle on the plantationeconomy platform. Also, I rewrote thetext in this section to make it much stronger.For comparison, from the discarded text: "Southern cotton planters andNorthern textile mill owners maintained close political and economic tiesduring the first half of the nineteenth century." Now the current text: "Southern cotton planters and Northerntextile mill owners maintained what Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusettscalled an ‘unholy alliance . . . between the lords of the lash and the lords of theloom.’ The brutal institution of slaveryin America was propelled by the rapid expansion of the cotton textile industry." I also organized a conference, "The Meaningof Slavery in the North." The centralpoint of the conference was to demonstrate the interconnections between theslave South and the industrial North. (See David Roediger and Martin Blatt, editors, TheMeaning of Slavery in the North, Garland, 1998.)

From Lowell I moved to BostonNational Historical Park. At thispark I conceived of a research project funded by the National Park Service thatwould examine the black and Native American combatants in the Battle ofLexington and Concord. I was able toidentify an indefatigable genealogist, George Quintal, Jr., who produced Patriotsof Color. Revolutionary Warscholar Alfred Young argues that this study disproves the previous prevailingwisdom that only a handful of African American soldiers were present at BunkerHill. In order that this research getbroader exposure, in managing the development of the new Battle of BunkerHill Museum, I insisted that we include material from this study. So, in one exhibit panel we include asection entitled "The Face of the Patriot Soldier." Here the text reads: "While most rebel soldiers were of Britishdescent, black and American Indian soldiers also served in the Massachusettsranks." We discuss the patriots of colorat Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and their significance. We also explicitly address the fact thatmany New Englanders owned slaves, including patriot leaders John Hancock, JamesOtis, and Joseph Warren. SalemPoor, whom we include in the exhibit, and Peter Salemare not at all household names but they are better known than many otherpatriot of color combatants. We includeone of the compelling stories from the study of one man most have never heardof. Jude Hall, the exhibit textrelates, "enlisted with a patriot regiment after escaping slavery. He fought at Bunker Hill and during theentire war. Hall fought for hiscountrymens freedom and following the war lived in freedom in NewHampshire. However, he could notprotect from slavery three of his sons, James, Aaron, and William." We then quote from an affidavit of RobertRoberts, Hall’s son-in-law, which provides details of the enslavement of threeof his sons.

In addition to collaborating with MFH on their Tracesof the Trade series, I am involved in developing a conference, "Abolitionismin Black and White: The Anti-Slavery Community of Boston and Cambridge,"scheduled for October 23 and 24, 2009.On the evening of Friday, October 23, the Underground RailwayTheater, based in Cambridge, MA, will produce a staged reading of a portionof a new play about Harriet Jacobs, followed by a conversation with theAfrican-American playwright Lydia Diamond and Yale scholar David Blightfocusing on slave narratives and how to employ drama to communicate the historyof slavery. This evening program willbe free and open to the public.

On Saturday, October 24, several scholars, includingBlight, James Horton, emeritus, George Washington University, Lois Horton,George Mason University, John Stauffer, Harvard University, and others willaddress: overview of the anti-slavery movement; Charles Sumner and the blackabolitionist community; abolitionism in popular culture; women in theanti-slavery movement; what happened to the abolitionist movement during andafter the Civil War; contemporary relevance of this history. In addition, we will feature musicalpresentations of the abolitionist movement songs. The Saturday program will run between 9 am and 5 pm.

The organizing committee for this project consists ofrepresentatives from Boston African American National Historic Site, BostonNational Historical Park, Longfellow National Historic Site, the Friends ofLongfellow House, and Harvard University.The central purpose of this project is to enhance the understanding ofthe abolitionist movement by public historians and teachers. Professional development points will beavailable for teachers. One area offocus will be the black and white abolitionists of Boston and Cambridge. We will provide multiple strategies for howbest to address this history at National Park Service and other historicalsites, in museums, and in classrooms.We will recruit scholars as presenters who are national leaders in thisfield and who are adept at making presentations that are both substantive andaccessible to non-scholarly audiences.

I would be happy to hear from anyone who would like tocontact me about this forthcoming conference or anything that I have discussedhere.

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