“Every 3.6 Minutes”

I’ve always struggled with the way I teach the history of slavery to high school students. Pushing my students toward what I hope is a meaningful overview of slavery’s evolution and eventual demise inevitably overshadows change over time, regional differences, and even runs the risk of minimizing the horror of slavery itself. This last category is especially difficult to convey.

I can share movie clips from Amistad or 12 Years a Slave and even play with the idea of introducing a short excerpt from Edward Baptists’s new book, but I often worry about introducing sources that primarily work on their emotions. In other words, I want my students to be able to finish a unit on slavery with more than just that slavery was really bad.

It is with this in mind that I came across a little twitter experiment by Caleb McDaniel, who I have been following in one form or another since 2005. Professor McDaniel teaches at Rice University and has a new book out on history of abolitionism in the broader transatlantic world, which is well worth reading.

Caleb was looking for a way for his students to comprehend a statistic first published by Herbert Gutman that between on average a slave was sold every 3.6 minutes between 1820 and 1860. To me this is one of the more horrific aspects of slavery. Again, there are any number of ways to approach the scale of slave sales during this period, but how do you do so constructively – in a way that conveys some sense of the numbers involved and the experience of what such a moment may have included for all parties involved.

You can read the backstory for yourself at Caleb’s website, but the long and short of it is that he decided to set up a twitter account that tweets out a reminder of a slave sale, accompanied by links, every 3.6 minutes.

Every Three SecondsI’ve been following the account for the past few days and I am still wrapping my head around how effectively it functions as a teaching tool and exactly what it conveys. Overall, I think it’s an incredibly creative approach. There are a number of ways that this feed will be experienced depending on when you access twitter as well as who and how many you follow. Right now the feed is cycling around relatively few tweets so I wonder if there is a way to expand on this. Certainly there is plenty of time to work on enriching the feed given the total number of sales that could be tweeted. Perhaps this could be turned into some kind of open source project.

I would be interested to hear what others think and how it might be utilized in a history classroom.

6 comments… add one
  • Thanks for the comments, Kevin.

    I’ve been thinking about possible ways to vary and add to the bank of tweets emitted by the feed. One possibility would be to create an open source, crowd-sourced list of named people who were sold on particular dates, and include those in the feed on particular days of the year. I can also easily extend the number of URLs included in the link, and in fact those comfortable with using GitHub can already submit pull requests or open issues to do just that. I’m open to other suggestions as well.

    On the other hand, a part of me still favors my original thought, which was to make each tweet exactly the same. That proved to be technically impossible under the terms of the Twitter API, but I wonder if it would have better communicated the banality of commodification that lay at the heart of the slave trade.

  • Kevin,

    Thanks for sharing this post, what a great experiment in social media and historical documentation. The ‘3.6 minutes’ figure is indeed horrifying.

    Also, thank you Mr. McDaniel, for tackling such a project. Your point regarding ‘the banality of commodification’ is fascinating and a core strength you should continue and in no way, to use your words, does this experiment run the ‘risk of trivializing the history that it recalls.”

    Just a thought, how do we make something produced by a bot, social? Have you thought about utilizing a program such as Hootsuite to automate tweets that feature photos, videos, audio, etc instead of long URLs? The Library of Congress features a fascinating gallery, ‘Portraits of African American ex-slaves from the U.S. Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives collections,’ that might work as a resource for putting a face with the string of dates and generic – grandchild, parent, etc – API work arounds.


    I’m really looking forward to tracking the project and observing how it develops over time.

    Good luck!



  • Coincidentally, that is about the same number as the casualties per minute (3.2) during the invasion of the South from 1861-1865, when using Dr. J David Hacker’s low-end casualty estimate. The rate of his high end estimate of casualties would be one every 2.4 minutes.

    • Yes, there are a number of opportunities for which a twitter bot could be used to convey large numbers related to the Civil War.

  • I also wonder how many minutes between the buying or selling of a slave in today’s world … given that there are meant to be 36 million people alive today who are bonded and traded … slavery has not stopped when the CSA government ceased to function or it was outlawed in Brazil – this is for me always the missing piece of the equation

    • I have no idea how that is a “missing piece of the equation” when the subject is the United States in the mid-19th century.

      You might also look more closely at that report you cite, and how it defines “slavery.” It encompasses a much broader collection of circumstances than that of chattel bondage in the antebellum U.S. In almost all of those modern countries, the slavery that exists now exists outside the law (even where authorities turn a blind eye to it), which is fundamentally different than the situation in this country 150-odd years ago, where slaveholding was written into the law at every level — local, state and federal.

      Finally, according to that study, the “worst” nation in terms of modern slavery is Mauritania, with about 4% of its population “enslaved.” That seems like a minor infraction compared to places like South Carolina or Mississippi in 1860, where more than half of the population was chattel property of the remainder.


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