A few of my readers have requested that I comment on ongoing and recent exhibits in my new neck of the woods that concentrate on the history of slavery and the slave trade. I assume they are planning family vacations north of the Mason-Dixon Line so I am more than happy to comply. Their requests, however, seem to be couched in the assumption that historical institutions in New England and elsewhere are actively ignoring this dark and complex subject in American history. Nothing could be further from the truth so I hope this short post will alleviate their concerns and perhaps even serve as a catalyst for an exciting and educational trip north.
There is much to see and read in my new home of Boston, but I should preface this by noting that I have only just begun to explore some of these places. I would suggest preparing for your visit by doing a little reading. Start with some early primary sources that can be found on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website. For a broader survey of norther cities check out the primary sources provided by the National Archivies. The famous Freedom Trail website also offers a few educational pages in preparation for your visit to this popular tourist destination. There is a fast growing secondary literature on the slave trade and slavery in the North. Unfortunately, many people are unfamiliar with this literature and this continues to fuel wild generalizations about the state of the field. I wrote about this in response to a review by a fellow blogger about one popular study. The books are available, you just need to take the initiative to look for them. Possible books to read include, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North and Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America by Ira Berlin. There are hundreds of books on every aspect of slavery and the slave trade in the North that I could reference, but let’s leave it there and move on. I welcome readers to suggest other titles in the comments section.
The same is true of historical institutions throughout the north that focus on some aspect of slavery. One of the best of the recent exhibits was organized by the New York Historical Society, which can still be accessed online. Their permanent exhibit on American history includes plenty of information on the subject. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also includes artifacts from the Atlantic slave trade, which, of course, included New York City. Even small museums are focusing on the subject in various ways. The New Bedford Historical Society recently included a talk on the slave trade in its speakers series. The Royall House in Medford, Massachusetts seems to be an ideal place to learn about the lives of slaves in New England. My wife and I plan on visiting Plimouth Plantation tomorrow. Tours and educational resources now focus on the sale of the Wampanoag into slavery in the Caribbean. Again, the number of institutions (large and small) that focus on some aspect of slavery is endless.
Interestingly, a number of northern universities have focused on their own early connections to the slave trade. Arguably, no school has done more than Brown University, which also provides educational materials for k-12 teachers to help out with this difficult subject. Yale, Williams College, and Cornell have also acknowledged this connection in various forms.
I recently visited the Concord Museum’s new exhibit on the Civil War. While I was walking through I struck up a conversation with one of the interpreters and she was very forthcoming about the difficulty that many face when dealing with the subject of slavery. It is true that our popular memory of slavery is focused predominantly on the South to the exclusion of the long and painful history of the institution in the North. You can find plenty of resistance surrounding the region’s participation and even more tension over its proper interpretation. [To get a sense of this I would suggest watching Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North, which follows one woman’s journey as she explores her family’s connection to the slave trade.] While it is difficult to gauge the level of awareness north of the Mason-Dixon line what is clear is that if you are interested in the subject the resources are available.
Take advantage of the comments section to recommend books on the subject that you have found to be helpful as well as places to visit in the region that are actively engaged in the interpretation of this subject.