Molasses, sugar, palm leaves, and cotton. Tea, coffee,
rum. All of these were staples of eighteenth and nineteenth-century New England
life. None of them were produced in New England, and obtaining them involved
some 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 when
such practice was generally acceptable. This and other questions like it are
central to Traces of the Trade: Massachusetts
and the Economy of Slavery, Mass
Humanities' programming to mark the 200th anniversary of the
legislation abolishing the importation of slaves into the US. It will start
this week, with events on October 4th in Sheffield, and October 7th
The programming is organized on the premise that we can't
answer, or perhaps evenformulate or address, the difficult moral
questions around the history of slavery until we know more about the history of
Massachusetts involvement in the economy of slavery.
Our Traces programming does not stand alone, however. It
has been encouraged, supported, and helped by Dr. Martin Blatt of the National
Park Service in Boston. In addition to assisting us with our programming, he
has, for years, been working to bring the history of Massachusetts and its
involvement in slavery (and abolition) to the public. He has generously
provided us with an enumeration.
and Public History by Martin Blatt
Recently, as part of my work with the National Park Service (NPS), I had the privilege
of collaborating with the Gulag Museum in developing a traveling exhibit on the
history of the Gulag that traveled to several NPS sites. In a section of that exhibit placing the
Gulag Museum in a larger context, I wrote the following text: "Brutal systems have played a prominent role
in many countries, including the United States. Although slavery ended after
the American Civil War, its consequences persist. The repercussions of the
Holocaust in Europe and Apartheid in South Africa reverberate even today.
Similarly, Russians face the legacy of the Gulag. How can citizens in these
countries face up to the horrors of the past?"
The "problem" of slavery in the United States, the problem
of apartheid in South Africa, or the "problem" of the Holocaust in Germany--these
are problems that are deeply imbedded in these cultures. It is essential that public history in the
United States confront slavery and its myriad legacies. (See James and Lois Horton, editors, Slavery
and Public History--The Tough Stuff of American Memory, The New Press,
2006.) I have sought to make a
contribution to this ongoing effort and will provide here some examples.
In the early 1990s I worked at Lowell National Historical Park and was
involved in developing the permanent exhibit at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. I learned that the exhibit as planned was
rather weak on the issue of slavery.
After a struggle, I managed to insert into the exhibit, with the
assistance of James Horton, a reproduction slave shackle on the plantation
economy platform. Also, I rewrote the
text in this section to make it much stronger.
For comparison, from the discarded text: "Southern cotton planters and
Northern textile mill owners maintained close political and economic ties
during the first half of the nineteenth century." Now the current text: "Southern cotton planters and Northern
textile mill owners maintained what Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts
called an 'unholy alliance . . . between the lords of the lash and the lords of the
loom.' The brutal institution of slavery
in America was propelled by the rapid expansion of the cotton textile industry." I also organized a conference, "The Meaning
of Slavery in the North." The central
point of the conference was to demonstrate the interconnections between the
slave South and the industrial North. (See David Roediger and Martin Blatt, editors, The
Meaning of Slavery in the North, Garland, 1998.)
From Lowell I moved to Boston
National Historical Park. At this
park I conceived of a research project funded by the National Park Service that
would examine the black and Native American combatants in the Battle of
Lexington and Concord. I was able to
identify an indefatigable genealogist, George Quintal, Jr., who produced Patriots
of Color. Revolutionary War
scholar Alfred Young argues that this study disproves the previous prevailing
wisdom that only a handful of African American soldiers were present at Bunker
Hill. In order that this research get
broader exposure, in managing the development of the new Battle of Bunker
Hill Museum, I insisted that we include material from this study. So, in one exhibit panel we include a
section entitled "The Face of the Patriot Soldier." Here the text reads: "While most rebel soldiers were of British
descent, black and American Indian soldiers also served in the Massachusetts
ranks." We discuss the patriots of color
at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and their significance. We also explicitly address the fact that
many New Englanders owned slaves, including patriot leaders John Hancock, James
Otis, and Joseph Warren. Salem
Poor, whom we include in the exhibit, and Peter Salem
are not at all household names but they are better known than many other
patriot of color combatants. We include
one of the compelling stories from the study of one man most have never heard
of. Jude Hall, the exhibit text
relates, "enlisted with a patriot regiment after escaping slavery. He fought at Bunker Hill and during the
entire war. Hall fought for his
countrymens freedom and following the war lived in freedom in New
Hampshire. However, he could not
protect from slavery three of his sons, James, Aaron, and William." We then quote from an affidavit of Robert
Roberts, Hall's son-in-law, which provides details of the enslavement of three
of his sons.
In addition to collaborating with MFH on their Traces
of the Trade series, I am involved in developing a conference, "Abolitionism
in 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 Railway
Theater, based in Cambridge, MA, will produce a staged reading of a portion
of a new play about Harriet Jacobs, followed by a conversation with the
African-American playwright Lydia Diamond and Yale scholar David Blight
focusing on slave narratives and how to employ drama to communicate the history
of slavery. This evening program will
be free and open to the public.
On Saturday, October 24, several scholars, including
Blight, James Horton, emeritus, George Washington University, Lois Horton,
George Mason University, John Stauffer, Harvard University, and others will
address: overview of the anti-slavery movement; Charles Sumner and the black
abolitionist community; abolitionism in popular culture; women in the
anti-slavery movement; what happened to the abolitionist movement during and
after the Civil War; contemporary relevance of this history. In addition, we will feature musical
presentations of the abolitionist movement songs. The Saturday program will run between 9 am and 5 pm.
The organizing committee for this project consists of
representatives from Boston African American National Historic Site, Boston
National Historical Park, Longfellow National Historic Site, the Friends of
Longfellow House, and Harvard University.
The central purpose of this project is to enhance the understanding of
the abolitionist movement by public historians and teachers. Professional development points will be
available for teachers. One area of
focus will be the black and white abolitionists of Boston and Cambridge. We will provide multiple strategies for how
best to address this history at National Park Service and other historical
sites, in museums, and in classrooms.
We will recruit scholars as presenters who are national leaders in this
field and who are adept at making presentations that are both substantive and
accessible to non-scholarly audiences.
I would be happy to hear from anyone who would like to
contact me about this forthcoming conference or anything that I have discussed