Slavery and its Legacy.
The Five Colleges Learning in Retirement (5CLIR) 2005 Memorial Series
Session #3 – March 9, Smith College
John Bracey and Manisha Sinha
UMass Afro-American Studies
Black Studies, Amherst College.
“SLAVERY AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE”
by Chuck Gillies, Project Director 5CLIR Slavery and Its Legacy
and by Naomi Miller, Director of the Office of Institutional Diversity, Smith College
First panelist, John Bracey, Professor, African-American Studies, University of Massachusetts.
GILLIES: Welcome to this third program in Five College Learning in Retirement Series “Slavery and its Legacy.”
Today we are especially appreciative of Smith College’s generous support. To represent the office of the President of the College, we have asked Naomi Miller, Director of the Office of Institutional Diversity, to say a few words to us, and I discovered at dinner tonight she’s also a Professor of English. Dr. Miller.
MLLER: Good evening. I bring you greetings from Smith College President, Carol Christ, who is unable to be here this evening, but he wanted to welcome you very warmly to the Smith College campus and to say how happy we are to have the opportunity tonight to participate in the Five College Learning in Retirement program on Slavery and its Legacy.
Part of what we have been working on at Smith College is to find a common ground for those of us who are from many different backgrounds and who bring different legacies, to communicate with one another and to respect one another’s heritage. We found this particular program a wonderful opportunity to value the dialogue that can be engaged in when we look back and trace what it is that we’ve brought from our separate histories, sometimes shared histories. In the case of the extensive and rather really, if you look at the series of programs over the course of this last week, the Five College Learning in Retirement programs put together, you realize how it’s really bringing slavery home to our own local environment in Massachusetts, in the Pioneer Valley. The heritage that Massachusetts’ residents share, sometimes that we think of as belonging to someone else, to another state, another region of the country, that is very much a part of our own history as well, and that includes the area where we are right now, even in Northampton.
So I’m delighted to be able to welcome you tonight to this program on the Legacy of Slavery and our speakers will be introduced by Chuck Gilles, and I can promise you this will be a very exciting and challenging, intellectually challenging evening, which I’m hoping will allow us the opportunity to engage in dialogue and questions after we hear the presentations, that can connect us to some of the issues that are so relevant to our present day, dealing with some of the very same issues in our current climate. Thank you very much and welcome to Smith College.
GILLIES: Thank you, Dr. Miller. If you attended President Marx of Amherst College’s keynote a couple of weeks ago, you heard some comparisons of past racial policies in the US, in South Africa and in Brazil, and differing consequences for our day. Professor Wilson of Mount Holyoke, on that same day showed us how some of the problems persist today in higher education.
If you came to our history talk last week at Hampshire, you learned of slavery above the Mason Dixon Line and today we take another look at the past in what we call Slavery and the American Experience, with three very distinguished historians. It is my pleasure now to introduce our speaker panelists, John Bracey, Manisha Sinha and Hilary Moss. Each will speak for about twenty minutes or so and then we will have time for questions. To save time, I’m going to introduce them all to you right now.
First, we are pleased to have John Bracey of the W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts. He has been there since 1972. He attended Howard University and Roosevelt University and did graduate work at Roosevelt and at Northwestern. I learned at an earlier meeting that he had participated in the founding of the Black Studies Program at Northwestern. He perhaps will tell you a little about that story. He has a long list of publications and editorships, of which the most recent is titled African American Mosaic, Documentary History from the Slave Trade to the 21st Century, 2004, which he completed with his fellow panelist, Manisha Sinha. Having heard him speak before, I suspect he will give us an interesting blend of history, both distant and recent, with links to the consequences today.
Manisha Sinha is Professor of Afro-American History and Professor of History, also at the University of Massachusetts. She has her doctorate from Columbia, where her dissertation was nominated for the Bancroft Award. She, too, has many publications, including the one referred to with John Bracey, and another, The Counter Revolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. She is now working on a book about African Americans and the movement to abolish slavery.
Our third speaker, Hilary Moss, is Professor of History and Black Studies at Amherst College. Dr. Moss has her B.A. from Northwestern University and her Ph.D. from Brandeis, where her 2004 dissertation was Opportunity and Opposition,The African American Struggle for Education in New Haven, Baltimore and Boston, 1825-1855. She has participated in numerous conferences on topics like the one tonight and has authored numerous publications, the most recent I noticed in her bio was called Educations in Equity, Opposition to Black Higher Education in Antebellum Connecticut. So we turn now to our speakers and panelists, Dr. Bracey.
First Panelist, John Bracey, Professor, African-American Studies, University of Massachusetts.
BRACEY: I want to thank Chuck Gilles and the Five College Learning in Retirement group for organizing this series. The opening session at Amherst College was actually quite impressive. Never would I have thought that I would live to see the day where I would have to fight to get to the left of an Amherst College President, in terms of a presentation. It’s not what I’m used to hearing coming from presidential quarters, but President Marx gave us a quite profound and radical analysis of racism in the modern world, and I wish him good luck at Amherst College.
I’m sorry that I missed the Saturday session, but it was the day before David DuBois’s memorial service, so we were tied down with the details of that, because I did want to hear the presentations on slavery in New England.
Now, slavery’s a huge topic to tackle in such a brief time. Rather than attempt to give you a mound of numerical and statistical data, I’ll just sketch out in broad terms what I see to be a kind of paradox between the widely acknowledged centrality of slavery in the economics and politics of the 19th century and the lack of that knowledge and awareness in the 20th century and the 21st century.
With the exception of professional historians and most African Americans, the issue of slavery is a good example of “out of sight, out of mind”. The overall pattern of the nation’s response to slavery or the reality of slavery has been denial of its significance and the containment of the descendants of slaves. The lingering significance of slavery in American life is of course most obvious in the African American experience. Many white Americans are quite willing to grant at least some degree of importance to the artistic and cultural contributions of African Americans. We all know at least one spiritual – and usually not more than one.
The issue is the lack of an awareness of the impact of slavery on the not-so-obvious areas of American life, and I would contend that there are few if any American institutions and practices that have not been influenced by slavery. So in the next few minutes I want to begin to explore this paradox, talk a bit about what we don’t know about slavery and why we don’t know it today, and then jump back to the 19th century and highlight the importance of slavery in the foundation of this country and the development of America as a country, and then bring us back to the present.
I want to begin very close to home with an example of the extensive way that slavery has infiltrated into all aspects of American life, and I do this in New England and I do this in front of members – at least some of you, I hope, are members – of Red Sox Nation. I would like to assert that perhaps without the slave trade and slavery, there would be no Boston Red Sox and they would not have won the pennant in 2004. How does one prove that?
Well, it’s quite simple. After the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth in 1918, the team was dropping rapidly downhill and was on the auction block. It was bought by a man named Tom Yawkey. Where’s Tom Yawkey from? South Carolina. Where does his money come from in South Carolina? Rice plantations. Who’s working on these rice plantations? Black people. How much were they getting paid before 1865? Nothing. The capital built up on those plantations that Tom Yawkey used to buy the Boston Red Sox was built on the labor, the unpaid labor, of black Americans. Without slavery and the slave trade, no Red Sox.
If you look at the pictures of the ball players that won the championship this year, the most astounding figure of course is that giant photo of that great Ibo man, David Ortiz. He’s not Spanish. You would not see him walking down the streets of Madrid. You would see him walking down the streets of Lagos, because he has all the characteristics of an Ibo. Where did these other people of African descent come from? Martinez? Ramirez? You say, oh, that’s not America, that’s the Dominican Republic. What were their ancestors doing in the Dominican Republic? Sugar plantations. Without slavery and the slave trade, no Ramirez, no Martinez, no Ortiz, no pennant. No World Series championship.
So in the most unobvious of places the legacy of slavery has infiltrated itself and is profound, and that can’t be hidden by jumping around and patting one’s self on the back and giving Jackie Robinson’s widow a medal fifty years after Jackie Robinson was denied an opportunity to play for the Red Sox. That to me is a preemptive strike, which is to say, we’ll look at this as a minor kind of concern and ignore the fact that our whole institution was founded on slave labor and that the Red Sox are probably the only baseball team one can sue for reparations.
But leaving the Red Sox aside, there are other areas where in fact you still don’t see – you see slavery but you don’t see slavery, and that’s in a way that containment denial reality in the way we look at African Americans today. It’s tied up with the combination of race and patriarchy in economic exploitation that make slavery and racism in the American context so intractable. If it was just an economic matter, then the nation could get over that. You could free people, pay them what they were due, or give them right to participate in the society and the economy, and then racism would not be that large a factor. You have an economically poor population, maybe, but not a degraded population.
What’s made slavery so intractable in the American context is that it’s linked not only to the economic exploitation of blacks, but the psychological need to define black people as non-people in order for white Americans to define who they are, and that’s something few people can give up. Which is why you still have a difficult time dealing even today with the question of where’s the status of black Americans, the status of ex-slaves, in American society.
I’ll give you just two examples before I go back to the 19th century. Again, these are popular examples, but they show you the depth of this kind of combination of fear of black people and a denial of the exploitation of black people. One of the most popular movies out is the movie called Hitch, starring Will Smith, who most black people don’t think epitomizes the depth of blackness as such. But Hollywood was so afraid that when they cast the film, they decided two things. One, he could not have a black girlfriend because then white people wouldn’t go see the movie, because who wants to see a black couple? Second, he couldn’t have a white girlfriend because the other half of the white population wouldn’t want to go see the movie because he has a white girlfriend. So the compromise was to give him a Puerto Rican girlfriend. This is the year 2005. That’s still important. So that has nothing to do with economics. It has to do with the perception of ex-slaves and where their psychosexual and social status fits in with American reality.
The other one is a bit sillier, but equally important. Tyrell Owens and that incident with the white actress on TV where she drops her towel and he apologizes. What did he do? This is a black man who stood in the presence of the white female, and therefore was guilty. Of what? She dropped her towel. She was the one standing nude in the commercial. He apologized. She was not asked to apologize. What is he guilty of? That’s the level of dehumanization of black people that cannot be addressed with affirmative action, or with more jobs, or with workshops and so forth. That’s a level of dehumanization that’s founded in the reality of the enormity of slavery and the founding of this country that goes back to the very beginning.
I’ll drop back to the 19th century to give you some examples of how that took place and how that came to be. Most economists now generally agree that slavery was fundamental to the foundation of American capitalism, that slavery was not incidental to American capitalism, that slavery was capitalism in its most fundamental sense. Now, I’ll read you just a few numbers. Not a lot of numbers, just a few numbers, to make that point.
There’s a book by James Houston, an economic historian who studied property rights and slavery before the Civil War. Houston gives figures for the values of wealth in the United States in 1860, the time of the Civil War. The largest category of wealth in the United States outside of land itself, which of course was donated by the American Indians, was three billion dollars in slave labor. This is more than the value of farm implements, more than the investment in manufacturing, more than the investment in the railroads, more than the investment in banks, more than the value of livestock. In fact, if you add manufacturing and railroads, you still don’t have the amount of capital invested in slaves and slave labor. There’s book after book after book talking about the centrality of the railroads and banking and industry to the development of American capitalism, but no discussion of the importance of slave labor as the most important form of capitalism.
Now, people in the 19th century understood this and knew this. There are books written in the 19th century about the slave power. Southerners in the 19th century talked about the importance of maintaining their wealth. They fought the most important wars in the history of this country in terms of casualties to maintain that wealth. You’re talking about the Seminole Wars, where they move into the swamps in Florida and Georgia, to break up lagoon communities and bring back runaway slaves. The expulsion of what they called the Five Civilized Tribes across the Mississippi out into the Oklahoma Territory, in order to secure the southeast for the expansion of slavery. You’re talking about the extension of slavery into Mexico, the Mexican War, which is not an extension of freedom into Mexico, but an extension of slaveholders. Texas was a slave state, not a state for freedom. These are the most elaborate and most expensive wars this country fought, prior to the Civil War, which of course is the most important one, the most important war in terms of casualties, of all American wars combined. If you add every single casualty in all the wars before and after the American Civil War, they don’t equal the casualties of the American Civil War. This is not a minor consideration, and people in the 19th century knew that.
The most popular novel in the 19th century was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If you read Herman Melville, he writes a story about a slavery boat, Benito Savino. This is not some secret hidden away thing. There’s poem after poem after poem written about slavery and the importance of slaves in American society. This was the issue, the issue that defined this country at the beginning. It’s in the Constitution. It’s in the Northwest Ordinance. It reconfigures and reshapes and distorts American law down to the present date.
The concept of people as property calls into question virtually every premise of the American Revolution, every gesture toward and every exposition of belief in equality that are found in any of the founding documents or any sort of 4th of July celebrations, and people in the 19th century knew this. And white southerners, when they went to battle were not dragged into battle reluctantly. They were fighting for a substantial amount of property. They were fighting for a way of life. They were fighting for the right to expand. They weren’t crazy, and this wasn’t about states’ rights. When southerners controlled the national government down into the 1850s, they were quite content with national power. When they wanted the Fugitive Slave Act enforced, they were quite content to have national power. When they wanted to extend the rights of slaveholders across the Mississippi River, they were quite content to use the federal government to do that. They were quite content to call upon the federal army to go fight in Mexico, to take half of Mexico to extend slavery into Texas. No concern about federal power at that point, centralized national government. It’s only when they lost control of that government that you hear, after the Civil War, that it wasn’t a war about slavery, it was a war about states’ rights. It was a war about slaves and slave labor and the profits made from slavery and slave labor. That was fundamental to what they were fighting about.
The issue is, how could this, which was so commonly and so well understood in the middle of the 19th century, be lost completely a hundred years later. So that we have a symposium and a conference on the Legacy of Slavery and people are looking at me as if “How come nobody told me this before?” or “This wasn’t in any book I read,” and “Why is he exaggerating all these things and making up this stuff? It’s not in my textbook.”
Well, the South, immediately upon losing the war, wasn’t about to turn around and say they lost because of slaves. So they claimed they fought for southern honor, southern heritage, the right of a small, free state against a big behemoth of a government, and they very successfully sold that line. So that’s what the story is that we hear coming down into the 20th century today. It’s reinforced, of course, by the massive immigration, white immigration, that comes after slavery, so that the sons and daughters of immigrants and their sons and daughters, when they write about America, they write about a land of freedom. They come after slavery is over. They get on the railroad, but they don’t see who built it. They move into the South into buildings that they don’t know who built. So they write about a land of opportunity and moving onward and upward, the American Dream. Any talk of anybody not making it in America is just sour grapes and griping. Black people were left to the South and what southerners said, “You don’t really expect us to give power to these people? Look at them, they’re illiterate. They’re depraved. They’re backward, and it’s not our fault. We tried to shape them up as best we could, but you started a war and set them free”. “And so if you leave us alone, we’ll try to keep them contained,” and that’s what’s reflected in the textbooks.
So you get even a fairly radical scholar like Charles Beard, The Rise of the American Civilization, who points out that slavery – well, he exaggerates the figures. His numbers are off a bit. He says four billion dollars in property. He says “this is the largest confiscation of property in Anglo Saxon jurisprudence.” It’s quite amazing. He said “it wasn’t really important because they’re all incompetent, backward people and, they kind of smashed around down there. They loved their masters, anyway. They didn’t run away too much, and the idea of giving them rights, that’s obviously kind of ridiculous.” This was a radical. Beard was considered to be on the left. That’s the most popular textbook in American history in the 1930s. It went through several editions. He saw the centrality of slavery and then took it away, by going after racism and talking about racism. He said, “Slaves might have been there, but they weren’t people, people that we ought to take into account.”
The obvious question would have been, “Why not?” If slavery is only about economics, why not, therefore, treat slaves like an immigrant group? Grant them the right as free individuals to move into American society, to own land, to buy property, to stand or fall based on their own skills, to be treated like any other white ethnic group, and then the notion of the melting pot might make some sense. But in fact the notion of the melting pot comes after slavery, that America is a group of people that all kind of merged together and that we’d become one people. At the bottom of this melting pot is always this kind of dark strata that the rest of the stew sits on, and it never seems to get up anywhere off the bottom. So however you stir this melting pot, we never come out at the top, and if you know anything about stirring a pot, you get to see some of the vegetables of all sorts move up a little bit. You see a little bit of okra here and there’s a tomato there, and you get to see all the parts of it. You can stir the melting pot and black people don’t come up.
The modern explanation, the explanation that takes hold in the 20th century, is well, we were the last people in the cities, ignoring the evidence from the African burial ground, in effect, that black people might have been the first people in the cities. That they built the cities. So if we’re talking about slavery as a fundamental kind of institution in American society, you can say it’s the fundamental institution in American society. Slavery was not an exception. Slavery was the norm in the new world. There was slavery all the way from Massachusetts all the way down to the bottom of Latin America.
The abolition of slavery took place only in isolated places. You had the Haitian revolution, which stood out way beyond anything else. You had the abolition of slaves in the West Indies, but then you had the growth of slavery in Cuba and in Puerto Rico and in Brazil. So the idea of a southern society breaking off with slave labor and allying with Cuba and allying with Brazil and allying with Puerto Rico to build an empire of slavery was not a false dream. This is a possibility. A lot of support for that because this was the most successful form of labor in the new world. The most productive. Southern society was not in decay. It was not falling apart. Cotton prices were maintaining steady. The value of slaves was going up. That’s how you get to the three billion dollar figure. The price of a field hand from 1800 to 1860 went from a hundred dollars to a thousand dollars. This is not a stupid, uneducated backward population, just worthless. This is a very vibrant population that has economic power in their labor, and this labor’s important to the country.
The industries that people talk about in the North that are tied to slave labor, even though we now deny it, are industries right in this state. You’ve probably heard a bit about that, the Lowell Mills. Well, what are they processing in these Lowell mills? Cotton. Well, they don’t grow cotton in Massachusetts. And what about those wonderful ships that flow out of Providence and Newport, just sail out into the ocean. Well, what are they bringing back? What were they doing during this period? The watchword coming out of Newport was “Don’t forget the Guinea trade.” This is to say, “Pick up slaves on the way back to make sure you have a profit.”
So everybody understood the economic centrality of slavery. It’s only when you tied it to a racially demonized population that you get the inability to move past slavery. We didn’t make up the same kind of story that you have in Cuba and in Brazil and in Puerto Rico, where you have a mestizo population as the norm. It may not be true, but at least they have an idea that not everybody is white, and those societies’ blacks might be at the bottom, but they have an idea that not everybody looks white, doesn’t have to look white to be considered a Brazilian, or be considered a Cuban, or be considered a Puerto Rican. The idea of a mixed population, as being the norm, as an idea, it’s not even thinkable in this country. The idea we have of mulattos is that they are tragic. They are not looked upon with great esteem as the blending of two cultures. But, oh, my God, we mixed these two bloods and this poor person can’t handle this. The tragic mulatto. You look at Birth of a Nation, the mulattos are crazy, both of them. You’ve seen Birth of a Nation. The two mulattos are barely human. They thrash around. They throw themselves on the ground. One lusts after white women. Why? Because they have this white blood in there fighting with the black blood and clearly this is not a normal situation. These are not normal human beings.
There’s no brown middle class in this country, except on the fringes, in South Carolina, Alabama, New Orleans. You don’t get like you get in the West Indies where you talk about brown men, with black people on the bottom and brown kind of in between. There is no such thing in this country. Homer Plessey found that out when he tried to get on the white section of the train in New Orleans. He says, “Well, where’s the car for brown people?” “No, no, you’re black.” “No, I’m brown.” Says, “No, no, no.” No space in the culture for brown people. You’re either white or black, and that’s dehumanization, that tying of blackness to slavery, and the importance of tying that blackness to slavery that makes life so complicated and racism so difficult.
And I’ll give you a couple of more examples of how nobody could figure out how to deal with this. Thomas Jefferson, of course, is my favorite. We all know Thomas Jefferson, the president. One of the greatest men this country’s ever produced. Jefferson got a letter from a Congressman from Massachusetts, a man named John Holmes, and Jefferson was asked – Jefferson was at the end of his life, toward the end of his life. He’d served in the government. He’d helped write the Constitution, and so forth. He’s a man of great intelligence. This is 1820 when they’re still trying to sort out how are we going to deal with this country of slavery. Holmes writes and asks him. He says, “You’re a great man. You think great thoughts. Tell me what you think?” Jefferson writes, at this moment, “this question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final – not a final sentence.” Then he goes on to those amazing words, which kind of get to the essence of white political thought on this question. “But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears and so we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale and self-preservation in the other.”
That’s Thomas Jefferson. That’s the best he can do. That’s not an answer. He doesn’t say they’re human beings that we’re exploiting, like a good colonial power would say. They caught onto us. We’ll let them have their country back, as long as we keep a bank or two, and let’s let them go. Like the French did in Africa or the British did. They didn’t get all involved in the psychological possibilities. Said, “Okay, we exploited them as best we could, as long as we could, but if they can act enough like us, they can come to England and act like us”. The Queen can have a surgeon from Barbados who’s Black. Doesn’t bother anybody. That doesn’t mean a thing. That’s sort of a compromise. That’s sort of coming to terms with black people as human beings. It’s not possible that this is what you think you have on your hands. A wolf by the ears. Can’t hold him. Can’t let him go.
It’s a powerful, powerful metaphor and this is the brightest of American men. This is not a stupid man. It’s a man that thinks deeply about politics and society. It’s the best he can do. Everybody predicts doom. Nobody has a solution. Everybody’s predicting doom, and you have those words from that great poet James Russell Lowell, which echo down even to Martin Luther King’s time. He used it quite a bit, in that poem he wrote in 1844, “The Present Crisis”. You’ve all heard – you’ve all heard these words. “Careless seems the great avenger; history’s pages but record one death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt old systems and the word. Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own. We see dimly in the present what is small and what is great. Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of fate, but the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din, list the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within: ‘They enslave their children`s children who make compromise with sin.’ Slavery, the earth-born Cyclops, fellest of the giant brood, sons of brutish force”, and he goes on. You have doom, no solution.
And that other person who really understood this passage, someone who people don’t talk about at all in terms of a student of slavery, is Alexis de Tocqueville. What does de Tocqueville say? People say de Tocqueville talked about democracy. He also talked about black people and he said, ” America does pretty good on this democratic thing, except for one thing. They have these black people and guess what? They can never – they would never be – accepted.” He says the problem is not that they’re slaves, that they’re black, and once they stop being slaves, they’ll still be black. He said if there was to be a revolution in this country, it will be because of this inequality of condition, the presence of black people on this soil. People don’t quote that part of de Tocqueville very often. And he says, they can drop off the badge of slavery, but they cannot shed their skin, so they’ll never be accepted by whites. The stigma put on them will stay with them forever. There’s nothing they can do about it, except what they’re going to try. He said a revolution might be possible. He said minorities make revolution. He said they may not win them, but they certainly will try. Very prophetic words.
Not that de Tocqueville wasn’t a racist. He was. His views of blacks are quite backward, but he saw the reality, in moving to a democratic United States in the 1830s. That everything is fine except for this problem and it’s not just an economic problem. It’s a psychosexual problem. It’s a social problem. A problem with dehumanization of human beings, and that’s the legacy of slavery that I don’t know how we get out of.
In the 20th century, to give you – just to finish up with a couple of examples – William Faulkner, great man. One of the greatest American novelists that ever lived by most people’s eyes, grappled with this problem over and over and over again, but if you read Absolam, Absolam, he goes into almost a psychotic fervor about miscegenation. Sutkin’s Negroes. Slavery’s been over like eighty years. He’s still worried about Sutkin’s Negroes out there somewhere mixing with white women.
And the battle cry of segregation that’s in the 20th century was not will you work next to a Negro, but will your daughter – do you want your daughter to marry a Negro? That’s why Ellison said that the place where Marx reached out for Freud and Freud reaches out for Marx is in the Negro question. Couldn’t figure out what to do. Nobody.
And to make it even more pessimistic, Talcott Parsons in 1963 was a leading sociologist, again a person who didn’t write that clearly, was asked to reflect upon race relations in America at the time of the civil rights movement, and he said he’d like to be nice about it, but he thought this was an intractable problem. He said you can diddle around the edges, but a sense of whiteness and a sense of the inferiority of black people is foundational to American identity, white American identity. How do you get a people to stop being themselves? I don’t know how you do that, so I don’t have any recommendations. He says, “I think black people ought to have rights, but they will not be seen as Americans because the foundational ethos of American identity is that white people aren’t black. So if black people become citizens, where does that leave white people as Americans?” He said, “I don’t know how to deal with that,” so he left it.
And that’s where I’d like to leave you. I’ll leave you with Michael Harper, a poet again, and sometimes the only place to go with this problem is into the arts. Artists are usually a little bit better than scholars in sorting these things out. This is Michael Harper. He’s down at Brown, been at Brown a while, and Harper read a lot of great poets. He read Delmar Schwartz’s In Dreams Begins Responsibility. Well, Harper as an African American, took the flip side of that and says, “No, no, nightmare begins responsibility.” And he says in his Homage to the New World, a couple of things. First, in the foreword, he says, “When there is no history, there is no metaphor. A blind nation in storm mauls its own harbors. Sperm whale, Indian Black, belted in these ruins,” and then he says, “Nightmare begins responsibility. Three things hinder. To see the good to be done and to neglect it. To hesitate when the occasion presents itself. To know evil and follow it.” That has been the reality of white America’s response to the legacy of slavery. That’s why we still have a problem in the 21st century, because with all the brains we have mustered, we have yet to come to grips, to acknowledge the reality and the fundamental nature of slavery in the foundation of this country and then to address the consequences of that and the legacy of that.
And on that cheerful note, I will sit down.
Second Panelist, Manisha Sinha, Professor, African-American Studies, University of Massachusetts.
SINHA: I feel it’s my job to cheer you up right now, but I’m afraid there’s no relief in sight. Firstly, I’d like to thank Chuck Gilles for organizing this program and for having you all over here today on this dreadfully cold night. And I want to thank our previous speaker. John never fails to amaze me. He’s been my colleague now for nearly ten years and every time I hear him, I feel as if I’ve learned something new.
But today what I’d like to do is really follow up a little bit on some of the points that he made and to concentrate a little bit on slavery in the old South, which is my area of expertise. I know you have heard a lot about slavery in colonial New England and its centrality in the North and you will be hearing from Hilary Moss more about the free black populations in the North and the legacy of slavery in the North. So what I’d like to do today is concentrate on the South, where in fact 90% of the African American population was enslaved before the Civil War.
The first point that I’d like to make, just in introducing my topic to you is this notion that when you think about slavery and American history, we get a very different view of what this country is all about. We get what I call a counter-narrative of American history. It’s one that actually completely demolishes the myths, the ideas or the values that we cherish as part of the story of American Republicanism. There’s this notion that somehow American freedom has unfolded in an unproblematic way and that even though there were these difficulties encountered along the way, slavery, segregation, racial inequality, that they were all kind of taken care of and eventually everything was made right.
But I think just from hearing John you know that that’s simply not true. When we think about slavery, what we first realize is that there has been no progression. There is no simple linear progress of freedom in American history. In fact, what you get is contradiction, struggle, and in the end a counter-narrative. So if you go back to founding moments, you would begin with the Middle Passage for the African slave trade, not with the Declaration of Independence. If you go to the founding of this country, the Constitution, you would look at clear protections for slavery. You would look at founding fathers who were slaveholders. The majority of the presidents before the Civil War, except a handful, were slaveholders. How slavery was really entrenched in this country. It was very much a slave holding republic.
It never fails to astound me when I hear people say, “Oh, slavery and race don’t matter any more.” That has to be born out of complete historical naivety. A complete ignorance of, in fact, as John put it, the centrality of slavery, to the founding of this country, to its politics and to its economy.
Let’s look at the period immediately after the Revolution, when in fact the North had gone along the way of gradual emancipation. A lot of black people in the North inhabited this limbo position between slavery and freedom. They were not slaves. They were not thought of as full citizens, either. But if we look at the period immediately after the founding of this country, what you see is not the gradual disappearance of slavery and the onward march of freedom. What you see is quite the opposite. You see how slavery becomes more central, expansive and aggressive, precisely in the ways that John Bracey has talked about today.
It’s not just the property value before the Civil War-that’s extremely important. In fact, I accuse him of stealing one of my statistics, but I will talk a little bit more about some other statistics. That is, if you look at the period before the American Revolution and after the American Revolution, there are actually more slaves in the newly founded American Republic than there were in the American colonies, despite the fact that you had emancipation in the North. Then if you look at the period right down to the Civil War, you see how slavery expands in an aggressive manner throughout pretty much of the 19th century.
In 1790, you have six hundred and fifty thousand slaves in this country. In 1860 you have four million slaves. So slavery is not going backward. It is in fact progressing and the country is becoming a slave republic. It is not fighting for laws to spread freedom and democracy, as we are constantly told. The Mexican War is a land grab for slavery and Lincoln begins his career in opposition to that, as an anti-war politician – to those who think being against war is not a patriotic thing to do. Slavery is very much part of this country’s history at that point, and part of the story, of course, is the expansion of the cotton kingdom. Southerners used to boast, “Cotton is King,” and the reason they boasted was because they knew very well, as John said, that the plantation system, especially the production of cotton – there were other crops, of course, but cotton especially – lay at the foundation of this country’s wealth.
Cotton was the largest item of export from the United States, the single largest item of export from the United States right down to the Civil War. Its value exceeded the value of all other items of export from the United States. That’s the foundation of American wealth before the Civil War, and of course it was bought on the backs of black slaves.
If you look at just the connections between the production of cotton in the South and the country’s economic growth, it’s astounding. It’s that connection between the lords of the loom in New England and the lords of the lash in the South. It’s shipping, banking, commerce in New York. In fact, slavery in the United States at that point plays very much a similar role as the slave trade did, the African slave trade did, in the rise of European wealth in the early modern era. It’s implicated everywhere and it’s central to the country’s economy, the cotton kingdom, and you could say it’s central to, in fact, the growth of western capitalism as a whole. After all, what is being spun in Manchester? Slave-grown southern cotton, and this is the start of the industrial revolution in England.
The first industry to develop a factory system, cotton. Guess what? Textiles. And where is this cotton coming from? The United States, the South. So to argue or to say that this is a long-dead institution, that it had nothing to do with the creation of wealth in this country, is really a product of willful ignorance and part of that willful ignorance is in fact if we’d really truly reckon with the legacy of slavery, its importance, its centrality in early American history, then it sort of destroys all our myths about what this country’s all about and what it has stood for. That’s been part of the problem.
Now, when we talk more specifically about the South, the tendency is to say, oh, well, just a minority of southern whites owned slaves. The majority were not slaveholders. Now, that fact in itself looks very simple, but you examine it a little more closely and you will see that slavery in fact was a central institution in the South in various ways. If we look at the number of households that were slave owning, rather than simply individual slaveholders, then you can see the reach of slavery in southern society. It’s true there were areas which were inhabited mainly by non-slaveholding farmers, but for the most part, if you count slaveholding households in the South on the eve of the Civil War, then the numbers you get are astounding. There are regional differences, but the numbers are astounding. In states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, over 50% of the white households are slaveholding. If you take into account those whites who act as overseers, patrollers, hirers or who performed other functions within the slave economy and slave society, you can see that in fact southern society is a slave society.
Slaveholders controlled over 90% of the agricultural wealth of this region. They dominated its politics. It’s the reason why some states can secede so quickly, because slaveholders pretty much dominate the state governments. So it’s really important also to look at this argument, that somehow only a minority of whites are involved and therefore, we are not all culpable.
And if you look at the institutional presence of slavery and the way in which the states actually uphold slavery in various ways through laws, constitutional and statutory, you get a sense that slavery had a broad institutional presence and that the responsibility and the reckoning for this legacy cannot be understood in terms of arguments that are so minimalistic and that are so – that have no weight. The notion that only direct descendants of slaveholders are really responsible. No, slavery was a central political and economic institution, supported by church, state and various institutions in this country and its legacy has lived on in insidious ways. Even today, the dawn of the 21st century, we have statistics that tell us that black families cannot reproduce wealth in the same ways that white families can. Don’t tell me slavery and race don’t play a part here. They do and we all know they do.
So in that sense, when we think about the legacy of slavery, we really do need to think of it in this broad manner, not in the manner of how many slaveholding families there were and who was directly responsible. I don’t hear a lot of Germans running around and saying, “Well, we are not directly descended from the Nazis, so therefore we will not pay reparations.” They don’t. They know it’s a national guilt. I think it’s about time that people in this country realize how much of our history and of our institutions have been bought off slavery and how much it owes to slavery.
In fact, if you even read the newspapers, you get that sense immediately. You open a newspaper, and there is some financial institution that is acknowledging insuring slaves or having dealt with some part of slavery. Then there’s an attempt to make a grant to a certain college or to do something to make amends. But there is no full scale historical reckoning of this and I think it’s about time that as a nation the United States realized its implication in this past, as a society, as a state.
And when we talk about reparations or affirmative action as making amends for this past, again, it’s a very partial ,it’s an extremely small response in my opinion to a very big problem. Now, you would think this odd because of course affirmative action is under attack. Even the smallest, the most partial steps are under attack. It’s as if when you make amends to black people, somehow you’re taking something away from whites. If there are a hundred students admitted and one is not, it’s the ten black students who got in, not the ninety whites, who took away his particular place. I think it’s about time that we move beyond this kind of partial reckoning with the legacy of slavery and really think about it in the broadest possible manner. What does the state, what does this country, owe to people of African descent, owe to this long, long history, this long, long period of oppression and its legacy that still lives on with us?
To go back to the old South, there are a couple of things that I’d like to bring up today, too. One is this very common notion which is the common view of slavery. This notion that somehow slavery in the old South, the romanticized South, the South of plantations and moonlight and magnolias, was not so much – I think people hesitate today to say it was a humane or a benevolent institution, but somehow it had been domesticated. That slaveholders had learned to be paternalistic. They had learned to take care of the needs of their slaves. That some of the worst aspects of the colonial slave codes, the most barbaric aspects of punishment, were done away with. That slavery was somehow humanized in the old South and there were these intimate personal connections between black people and white people. Again, this theory that slavery was somehow domesticated and made more humane is very, very problematic and it’s a theory that I’m afraid to say has been dominant in US history for a very long time.
If you look at this humane veneer that people say slavery had in the antebellum South and you compare it with what’s actually happening, of course you get a very different picture. One of the things that one simply has to take into account is that the moment there was a slave rebellion or the moment African Americans questioned the system of slavery in any fashion, the humane veneer would fall apart. Then it was not how much we are giving our slaves in terms of food or clothing and how nice we are and how we don’t sell them apart. Then it was, let’s hang and kill them all, and immediately they would resort back to the barbaric aspects of the colonial slave code.
So you look at something like the aftermath of the Nat Turner Rebellion and you see more black people being killed than whites ever were by Nat Turner and his rebels. So this notion that somehow slavery became more tolerable, that somehow slaveholders took care of the slaves in better ways by the time the Civil War started, is simply not true.
The other fact that I think completely demolishes this notion of slavery as somehow a kind paternalistic institution is the domestic slave trade. People forget that there was a huge domestic slave trade in the United States from the northern states to the deep South. Not the northern states, the border, the northern slave states, the upper South. States like Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, to the deep South – Louisiana, South Carolina, the southwest, Alabama, Mississippi – and that this domestic slave trade in many ways replicated the horrors of the African slave trade. People being driven in shackles. People being whipped. Families being torn apart. People being reduced to property. Literally being reduced to a cash value. That was going on. Over one million slaves were sold in the domestic slave trade in the United States right up to the Civil War. One in four slave families were broken up in the upper South states. This was the real horror of slavery and many times this was being done in the District of Columbia, in Washington, D.C. This was the capital of the American republic, the example to the world, the city on the hill, and here were slaves being traded and human beings being treated as property.
So this notion that somehow slavery became more domesticated and benevolent as time went on, that slaveholders learned to be kind and included black people in their big family – my family black and white – this notion does not hold true, if you look at the reality of slavery. The fact is that it could become its vicious self at any moment. Now, why am I saying this? Is it even necessary to say that slavery was bad, at this point? Yes. There are people out there, some fundamentalist groups in the Midwest who are taking out books on slavery, published in 2004, 2005, claiming that slavery was a paternalistic institution defended by the Bible, and that slave masters were “kind to their slaves”. So this is something that I think this country has to reckon with again and again. It’s not something that need not be said any more. In fact, we do need to deal with the horrors of slavery and only if we deal with the horrors of slavery, could we perhaps get to those psychological problems and issues that John raised, that slavery in fact was the dehumanization of an entire group of people, and that’s something that, of course, most people have to recognize, even when talking about southern slavery. Many historians now, with their “facts” on slavery and how much slaves were fed or how much they worked or how they were able to reproduce themselves, have lost sight of those horrors that went along with slavery.
The other point that I would like to make here is – and I mainly make it because, unlike John, I’m pretty optimistic, believe it or not, and I want to end on a positive note. The history of slavery is not just the history of oppression. There was a time when abolitionists and slaveholders would argue about this, historians from the South and North would argue about this. One would say slavery was a benevolent institution. The other would say, “Oh, wait a minute, extremely oppressive and bad institution,” and that back and forth has gone on for a long time in US history, but now we are beyond that, luckily, and maybe this is a time now to acknowledge the sort of new work that has been done in African American history in the past thirty or forty years. Slavery is not just the story of the oppressors. It’s also the story of the oppressed and what’s been wonderful about the history of slavery or the kind of history of slavery that has been done is that no longer are black people the objects of this history. They’re now the subjects of this history. What did they do? Some of the best works in slavery today are the works that really talk about how African Americans survived slavery. How they built their communities, their families, their music, their culture, their religion, a black Christianity that validated them. The African heritage. This side of the story of slavery is the one that’s extremely empowering. How could a people in the absolutely worst of conditions survive and in a way create a culture that acted as somehow a resistance to slavery, that continuously reinforced their self-worth to themselves and to their communities and their people? How do we reconcile this, this amazing story of cultural resistance, of resistance to slavery, with the dehumanization that was represented by slavery, with this very oppressive system? I think that’s part of the story of slavery and it’s the part that we need to recover, that African Americans were not simply passive victims of this system. It was extremely oppressive, but it was also a story in which they learned to survive and to overcome at one point. It’s not as if those problems are solved, but for a brief moment during the Civil War and reconstruction, it seemed, yes, you know, slavery is destroyed, political and civil rights are given to black people. Well, of course, we know what happened. The fall of reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, racial violence, lynching. You needed another huge movement, the civil rights movement, to correct that.
But I think that story of black resistance to slavery or black ability to survive in the worst of circumstances, and be creative, to boot, while doing that, is a story that we need to constantly think about. It’s the side of the story of slavery that gives one hope. Even today one could say that you can see that legacy, too. You can see that tremendous legacy of resistance and creativity that lives on.
So when we think about how white Americans have to deal with the legacies of slavery, I think that’s the tradition they need to tap into. The tradition of resistance. It’s the tradition that abolitionists tapped into. It’s the tradition that white radical Republicans during reconstruction tapped into. It’s the tradition which white allies during the civil rights movement tapped into, and we need to be authentic to that tradition. We need to get back to that resistance and realize that each generation recreates race in this country insidiously. It’s the legacy of slavery where each generation comes up with new ways in which to mark out whiteness and blackness, and privilege whiteness, and the ways in which we can constantly resist that.
So I decided I’m going to end with that, that upbeat message, rather than end with simply the reckoning of the oppression. I think that’s part of it, certainly, but I don’t think that we should forget that slavery did not just dehumanize people, it also fostered a radical and rich tradition of resistance that we can all tap into, if we are decent human beings. Thank you.
Third Panelist, Hilary Moss, Professor, Black Studies, Amherst College.
MOSS: I would also like to thank Chuck Gillies and the Five College Learning in Retirement community for sponsoring this forum. What I would like to do this evening is to try to put together some of the pieces of the larger dialogue which has been going on in this series. Specifically, when I heard about the theme, “Slavery and Its Legacy”, I was struck by the pairing – or how seamlessly we embrace the notion that the current African American struggle for education is in fact a direct legacy of slavery. What I hope to do today is to tease out that connection and make it a little more explicit by detailing the roots of white opposition to black education, which took place in the early 19th century. So it’s my hope then that I can more fully explain that connection between slavery and the current educational disparity along racial lines in American society, a connection that I think is a bit more complicated than just the notion that slavery caused racism, racism caused segregation, and segregation then led to a denial of educational opportunities.
So what I’d like to do is just to highlight a couple of key points, and the first is to keep in mind that emergence of white opposition to black education, which I’ll talk about in a bit, was never a foregone conclusion. What I mean by this is that if you look at the educational opportunities of African Americans in the 17th and 18th century, northern communities, particularly the New England slaveholders, they generally tolerated if not encouraged the religious and the vocational education of people of color. Especially in New England, where we know that Biblical literacy went to the core of Protestant theology, many ministers worked diligently to bring blacks into their spiritual fold. At the same time, colonial law mandated that all households provide their charges, both free and enslaved, with sufficient literacy to read the Bible. That legislation then provided additional incentives for New England slaveholders to tend to their bonds-people’s spiritual and literary education. But we do know that this climate of educational permissiveness was generally disappearing by the first decades of the 19th century, and it’s replaced by a very systemic and violent opposition to black education.
Now, let me just give you a few examples of what I’m talking about. The episode that I’ll talk about in more detail tonight is an episode in New Haven in 1831 where a group of abolitionists and free blacks got together to found the nation’s first black college. Now, the group settled on New Haven as the proposed location, for they concluded that “in no place in the union is the situation of blacks more comfortable or the prejudices of the community weaker against them,” and it took New Haven’s white townspeople just a couple of hours to prove that totally false. After an afternoon’s discussion, they rejected the proposal for the African college by a vote of seven hundred to four. With one swift unified declaration, white residents of New Haven ended the nation’s first movement for a black college.
Now, the fall of what was to have been the nation’s first black college really ushered in the bleakest period for African American education in the history of New England. Just two years later, after New Haven derailed the first movement for an African college, the town of Canterbury, Connecticut, convulsed over a boarding school for blacks. They were so determined to drive out the institution that some residents showered its proprietors’ home with bricks and then attempted to set the building on fire.
The following year, in 1834, the controversies in New Haven and Canterbury led the state legislature to ban the instruction of all blacks who were not state residents, making Connecticut the sole state above the Mason-Dixon Line to formally criminalize the teaching of African Americans. In July 1834, white Bostonians similarly put together a two year campaign to prevent an African school from “infiltrating their neighborhood”. Now, their reasoning was actually eerily prescient of contemporary arguments today levied against racial integration. They argued that the introduction of a black school into their neighborhood would trigger a downward spiral of decay, attracting “unruly blacks”, repelling “respectable whites”, and causing property values to plummet in the city.
But one year later, in 1835, Boston’s neighbors to the north evidenced a similar determination to expel a black school from their community. Enraged over an integrated abolitionist school in their midst, residents of Canaan, New Hampshire, encircled the school with eighty yoke of oxen and “relocated” it into a swamp.
Now, while white opposition to black education was engulfing communities from Charleston to Boston, the other key point to keep in mind is that northern cities and towns for the first time were initiating formal school segregation. This is all going on at the exact same moment in time, so that by the 1830s you see towns like Providence, Rhode Island, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Portland, Maine, Salem, Massachusetts, New Haven, New York and Philadelphia all sustaining separate black schools with public money. Again, this was all going on in the 1820s and early 1830s.
That surge of opposition to black education, I argue, belies one of our most trusted maxims about American history. We have long since known that America’s prized system of public education lived its adolescence in New England. New England was the place of the common school where men like Henry Barnard and Horace Mann stumped for democracy, working to build institutions that would educate every child – except that they didn’t. During this era, through the rise of institutional segregation and a wave of really violent opposition to black schooling, African Americans were excluded from the educational system. So this is really the key point to keep in mind, that exclusion is going on at the exact same time that Americans are building up their public schools and they’re ushering white Americans, immigrants and women into their common school system.
So the question then that I’d like you to keep in mind is – why is this emergence of opposition to black education going on at precisely the same time as an expansion in white educational opportunities? Those two cases are directly related. What I’d like to do is to circle back to where I started my talk and to begin by talking about the events in New Haven in 1831, and I’d like to talk about what white New Haveners found to be so objectionable in the proposal of a college for black men.
To answer this question, it’s useful to know a little bit more about the proposed college. College planners had agreed that the school would provide classical, agricultural, and vocational instruction for free black men by combining physical labor with study. Now, while they labeled the school a Manual Labor School, it was never intended to be a trade school. Instead classical and vocational instruction were each essential to the school’s philosophy. Now, African Americans largely embraced the college for its potential to enable people of color to infiltrate the so-called mental professions, which really conveyed a higher status than physical labor. Without such training, they argued, free blacks were trapped in a vicious cycle where they could perform only the least desirable labor and in turn were degraded by that association. So they argued that an African college would train a fortunate few to escape that life of degrading work and that incipient talented sensibilities would then lift the race upward, by example.
Now, that philosophy helps to explain why a community that abhorred segregation, themselves chose to support a separate institution. College planners recognized the importance of mechanical training to blacks’ economic survival and understood that classical learning was necessary to dismantle prejudice. It was an unsavory compromise, but given the importance of education to political elevation at the time, there really didn’t seem to be much choice.
Now, as college planners determined, New Haven seemed to be the perfect city to accomplish these varied objectives. Alternating with Hartford as the capital of Connecticut, the town provided both the benefits of a large cosmopolitan city and those of a small community, intimately linked by ties with family and ties of church. New Haven, surprisingly, also had a long history of comparatively enlightened racial progressiveness, particularly compared with other New England cities. In the end, however, the New Haven that college supporters encountered, as I mentioned, bore little resemblance to these expectations, for underneath the surface of this purportedly liberal utopia, the combination of industrialization, immigration, and – most importantly – gradual emancipation convinced many white townspeople that both their financial independence and their social status were in jeopardy, and for that insecurity, then, they blamed free blacks.
So you see that by the 1830s New Haveners are really, really upset about outsiders who are invading their “peaceable kingdom”. They’re very uncomfortable with the presence of free blacks and they’re very uncomfortable with the presence of immigrants, and they write a lot that these groups of people are going to burden the town coffers, and they associate them directly with poverty and disorder. But what’s very interesting is that if you look at the demographics and you look at the population of New Haven in 1831, you find that they’re not under siege from immigrants and they’re certainly not under siege from free blacks, for both the absolute number of African Americans and their percentage was actually declining, and it had been declining for over a decade, despite a 20% rise in the town’s total population. New Haven had yet to be flooded with immigrants, either.
So despite a number of Irish who are coming in to labor on the Farmington canal, in 1831 blacks outnumber immigrants by about two to one. So then the question arises as to what accounts for this incongruity? What accounts for this incongruity between New Haven’s actual and their perceived demographic composition?
What I argue is that while the number of free blacks is actually diminishing, so were the forces that worked to restrict their social and their economic aspirations, and this is where the process of gradual emancipation really becomes key to understanding the emergence of white opposition to black education. So as I think you probably talked about in the “Slavery in New England” panel last week, Connecticut began the process of gradual emancipation in 1784. On the eve of the Revolution, Connecticut had been the largest slaveholding state in New England. There were about five thousand slaves in Connecticut, eight hundred of whom called New Haven County their home.
After the war, following the trend of other New England states, Connecticut then begins that arduous transition from a labor system that was premised on slavery to one that was ostensibly premised on freedom. But emancipation in the state really moved at a rate that was slow and uneven. The first statute did not actually free a single slave. Instead it decreed that “All Negro or Mulatto children born within the state after March 1, 1784 will be given their freedom after their twenty-fifth birthday”. So the first slave in the state was not actually to become free until 1809.
Now, as the limited nature of this statute suggests, law makers of the time were really profoundly ambivalent about using human bondage to satisfy their labor needs, and perhaps in Connecticut, more than any other New England state, the emancipation process moved very slowly. Connecticut did not officially emancipate until 1848, but by 1831 most blacks in the state had transitioned from being enslaved to being free men and women. But that transition had consequences, such that, for example, where the town government could once limit slaves’ movements by enacting curfew laws, for example, it could not put such restrictions on free people of color. Where New Haveners could once prohibit taverns from serving slaves “forbidden drink,” they could not order that free blacks remain temperate. But, perhaps most importantly, where the government could once prevent slaves from owning property and toiling on their own accord, free blacks, whites argued, could out of economic desperation accept less for their labor, depressing white wages in order to compete.
In response, whites attempted to fashion alternate systems of control, and – ironically – free blacks actually lost some of the freedom that they had once enjoyed. So you see that while slaves were trained to perform all sorts of occupations, free men and women no longer received vocational instruction and they were rarely permitted to enter the laboring trades. Now, at the same time, you also have to keep in mind that African American access to citizenship is similarly constricting. So that, for example, while Connecticut’s free blacks could vote in state and local elections throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, in 1814 the state moved to deny all African American suffrage. Such an act gave Connecticut the dubious distinction of being the only state in New England to formally disenfranchise the black population.
At the same time, if you look at the city of New Haven, a rigid system of socio-occupational and residential segregation also emerged to replace that boundary that once demarked enslaved from free. With few exceptions, most New Haven free blacks lived in a community that was dubbed “New Liberia,” and there they worked largely as domestics and unskilled workers. In the city, as in the rest of the state, this uneasy transition from slavery to freedom was not quite complete. You’d still see slaves in New Haven sold on the center green well into the 1820s, and in the 1820s newspapers are still carrying the occasional notice of a “servant” for sale.
Now, at the same time, cries to extend emancipation and black education worked to heighten these anxieties. William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator arrives in New Haven just nine months before news of the college, and just one year earlier David Walker had released his “Revolutionary Appeal”, which explicitly coupled calls for increased black education with violence. So the gradual emancipation act had been gradually decreasing white power over black socio-economic mobility, and these insurrectionary tests then increased concerns over this eroding racial stability.
Then in early September of 1831, many white New Haveners’ worst fears over emancipation and education were finally confirmed, when on August 22, 1831, just two weeks before college planners released their proposal, the literate slave preacher, Nat Turner, began his rebellion against the white residents of Southampton, Virginia. If you look at newspapers that are announcing the college that is planned for the city, news of the college literally appears in a column directly beside news of Nat Turner’s rebellion in Southampton. A really unfortunate case of bad timing.
So when localities are responding to the college proposal, they’re naturally invoking the lessons of Turner’s uprising, and so for a white community that’s already uneasy with a free black community that’s living, working and seemingly multiplying unfettered in their midst, the shock of Turner is simply too much to withstand, and Turner’s last casualty was really that first black college.
Now, as the richness of this one episode suggests – remember, it takes place really in just a two week span of time – a detailed exploration of the emergence of white opposition to black education in the early 1830s can really tell us a much larger story about shifting conceptions of race and national identity in the 19th century. If you look at the decline of black educational opportunity, you see that it really correlates with a much larger process going on in America to define citizenship in explicitly racial terms.
So as the African American experience in Connecticut reveals, during the 19th century, in the wake of gradual emancipation, African Americans are losing many of the “freedoms” that they had once found as slaves. Access to vocational and literary instruction is one, but at the same time, the concept of what it means to be a citizen began to take on an explicitly racial view. The demise of northern black voting rights in the early 19th century, for example, is really the most obvious example of this transformation. So as I mentioned before, Connecticut then inserts the word “white” into its constitutional clause detailing voting rights at the exact time that it’s emancipating slaves.
You see the same thing going on in New York, for example, which enacts a two hundred and fifty dollar property requirement for a black man to vote, at the same time that it’s creating universal suffrage. So you see that where free black New Yorkers once held political parity with whites, now scarcely any are qualified to vote. It’s all going on at exactly the same time.
I want to close by talking briefly about the political significance of public education at this time, because this is really where these pieces begin to come together. If you think about the 17th-century origins of what a common school meant, a common school didn’t really denote a school for the common or middling classes, but it denoted an experience that all citizens would have in common, and this is really key. As such, particularly after the revolution, common schools are intended to give children from various social strata a shared political and social ideology. Those values then would unite them as Americans, by giving them a collective understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Now, antebellum school reformers expanded on this idea to include not just class, but also religion and ethnicity. So time and time again, advocates of public education are asserting that schools are first and foremost agents of Americanization. So their central purpose was to take children from all classes and ethnicities and bring them together into one single American citizenry.
Now, as the 19th century advanced, rising immigration is making this proposition even more important, so that you see during the 1840s and 1850s, for example, European immigrants flooding eastern port cities. Now, natives are associating these immigrants with what they call urban disorder and social decay, and they’re looking very uneasily to the day when Irish immigrants’ children are themselves going to become citizens. So they then rally around the common schools or public education to prepare them for that responsibility. Schools then were envisioned as a powerful means to expunge immigrants’ ethnic identity. If properly organized and supervised, public schools could take children from disparate national and religious backgrounds and give them a common American character, with all of its republican, capitalist and Protestant appendages.
But despite faith in the power of the school house to dissuade social distinction, they’re really powerful limitations of that vision, and in their scenario, while common schools could soften differences in class and religion or ethnicity, they could not erase the stigma of color, and that obstacle was becoming increasingly apparent as the defining characteristic of citizenship was becoming increasingly white.
What I’d like to argue is that by putting these pieces together, if you look at the process that’s moving to keep African Americans out of public education, it’s designed explicitly to keep African Americans out of citizenship rights, and it’s designed explicitly to create a definition of Americans which is fundamentally white, and those pieces are absolutely tied together. So by making citizenship contingent upon race, that process is designed to fundamentally whiten the definition of American identity, and that’s where education or the lack of educational opportunity, as one of slavery’s direct legacies, becomes explicitly apparent.