Northern Slavery, Public History, and Memory

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.

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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21 comments… add one
  • Ranger Cyrus Aug 28, 2011 @ 16:03

    As a ranger at the African Burial Ground, I would be remiss not to direct you to our own website ( or make you aware of our regular walking tours that focus on either the history of slavery in NYC and the abolitionist movement in NYC. We are also planning a major series of events for the 20th anniversary of our rediscovery; stay tuned!

    Also is an excellent resource for sites related to NYC slavery.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2011 @ 16:07

      Thanks for the comment and links. Best of luck with your programming.

    • Ray O'Hara Aug 29, 2011 @ 5:12

      Most who died in training at Camp Meigs in Readville Ma{Dedham then, Boston now} were sent home for burial.
      Members of the 54th Ma not being from Massachusetts were buried in the town cemetary on Village Ave in Dedham Massachusetts mixed in with the town’s residents

      • Kevin Levin Aug 29, 2011 @ 5:14

        Thanks Ray. I am going to have to check that out at some point.

  • Geralyn Hoffman Aug 11, 2011 @ 9:35

    The Haffenreffer Museum of Brown University will also have educational materials on it’s website by early September. Click on K-12, free lesson plans.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2011 @ 9:36


      Thanks for stopping by.

  • Julie Holcomb Aug 6, 2011 @ 4:19

    Along with the books already mentioned, I would suggest Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 6, 2011 @ 4:43

      The Horton book is an excellent choice.

  • Edwin Thompson Aug 5, 2011 @ 14:14

    Hey Kevin – New York City has a long history with slavery. You referenced the right source – the NY Historical Society – but they are currently under construction. There is also the African burial ground downtown Manhattan which now has a visitors center.

    I also checked Governors Island website – nothing on slavery, but they have a civil war activity coming up on the 13th and 14th of this month.

    If you’re in NYC and this is what you visit – you are definitely a hardcore civil war buff! Let’s see – Broadway, Lincoln Center, The Met, MOMA, 5th Ave., Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, getting lost – hahaha.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 6, 2011 @ 3:28

      Hi Edwin,

      Thanks for the additional links for New York City.

  • Jaime Martinez Aug 5, 2011 @ 9:18

    I was just in New Paltz, NY, and visited the Huguenot Street historic district. They were very open about the slaveholding/slavetrading history of the intermingled Dutch, French, and English populations of the area in the colonial era, and also talked about New York state’s long and tangled journey to emancipation. (It was a great tour for other reasons as well–I highly recommend it.)

    • Kevin Levin Aug 5, 2011 @ 9:20

      Nice to hear from you. Looking forward to seeing you in Richmond in October.

  • Marc Ferguson Aug 5, 2011 @ 9:11

    You might be interested in this book as well:

    “Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts
    Robert H. Romer
    “In this first history of slavery in western Massachusetts in colonial times, Robert H. Romer demonstrates that slavery was pervasive in the Pioneer Valley in the 1700s, where many of the ministers and other “important people” owned black slaves. To show the role of slavery in the valley, Professor Romer presents a “snapshot” of slavery, choosing a moment (1752) and a place (the main street of Deerfield) to present detailed information about the slaves who lived in that place at that time – and their owners. Working largely from original sources – wills, probate inventories, church records, and merchants’ account books – he shows that slavery was much more significant than had previously been thought. Some twenty-five slaves belonging to fifteen different owners lived on that mile-long street in 1752. He emphasizes that these were individuals, some born in Africa, some born as slaves in New England, forced to live their lives as property, always subject to being sold away at the whim of an owner.

    “Deerfield is used simply as an example – slavery was pervasive throughout the valley. In other chapters he treats – in less detail – other towns in the valley. He also gives a brief history of slavery in Massachusetts, from its beginnings in the 1630s until its gradual end in the final decades of the 1700s and then discusses how in the following centuries New Englanders for the most part managed to forget that slavery had ever existed here.

    “His work brings out of obscurity the many black slaves who lived in the valley, the invisible men and women of our colonial past.”

    • Kevin Levin Aug 5, 2011 @ 9:20

      Thanks Marc.

  • Ray O'Hara Aug 5, 2011 @ 7:49

    That painting is in the Museum of Fine Arts on Huntington Ave. It’s open for FREE on Weds after 4 pm until closing at 9PM.

    In Lexington on Marret Rd {2A} there is the Museum of our National Heritage run by the Masons.
    this is an excellent Museum with a permanent exhibit on the events leading to the Revolution and 3 other galleries that feature changing exhibits on American history and culture and also a history library/reading room.
    this Museum is always FREE of charge.

    website here

    Also in Ct just an hour and a half from the Boston area are three of the very best Museums in the US and the best of their kind. all are about 20 minutes from each other.
    these are Old Mystic Seaport , in Mystic, just a bit further in Groton is the USN Submarie Museum. the Nautilus is there and open for tours there is a large collection of midget subs from WWII and a museum building this museum is FREE and surprisingly the Foxwoods Casino has a museum in a seperate building on the Foxwoods grounds that is state of the art and it depicts the pre-contact way of life using life sized dioramas.
    I can’t recommend these three places enough. I’ve been to all of the places mentioned more than once. Kids love them but adults do too.

    all the Ct Museums are just down I-95 from Boston the furthest the Sub Museum is maybe 75 miles and all are near it.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 5, 2011 @ 7:51

      Thanks Ray. I am looking for exhibits that focus specifically on slavery and the slave trade.

  • Caitlin GD Hopkins Aug 5, 2011 @ 6:42

    Thanks for posting this, Kevin!

    Another recent book that’s very accessible for a popular audience is Black Walden: Slavery and its Aftermath in Concord, MA by Elise Lemire. One of my favorite books about Northern slavery is New York Burning, Jill Lepore’s investigation into the alleged slave rebellion in NYC in the 1740s.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 5, 2011 @ 6:52

      I can second your referencing of the Lepore book. I’ve been meaning to order Lemire’s book since visiting Concord last week. Thanks.

  • Kate Halleron Aug 5, 2011 @ 6:19

    I read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Sons of Providence’, the story of the Brown family (who established Brown University) – one son who was in the slave trade, one who left the slave trade to become a Quaker and very early abolitionist.

  • Brian Jordan Aug 5, 2011 @ 6:01

    Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780 to 1860. Also, check out Wendy Anne Warren’s work on New England slavery; her book is forthcoming, but her very powerful essay on the rape of a slave in seventeenth century Massachusetts appeared in the JAH in September 2007.

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