Slavery and Public History

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 in Boston.

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.

Slavery 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 here.

Author: Martin Blatt

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