Tag Archives: slavery

Selling humans in the Capitol’s shadow

This week I’ve been reading Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life for one of my classes.  It’s one of the most engrossing books I’ve come across in grad school, and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to put it on your list.

One of the topics Deyle addresses is the slave trade in Washington, D.C.  I knew slave traders were active in the District of Columbia until 1850, but I didn’t know (or I’d forgotten) that trading in human beings went on just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol building.

One of the illustrations in Deyle’s book is a map from an anti-slavery broadside showing three of the largest pens where D.C. traders kept their merchandise.  The map places the slave house of Joseph Neal & Co. on Seventh Street near the southern edge of the National Mall.  That’s less than two-thirds of a mile from the Capitol.  Here’s a modern map of the Mall with a dropped pin near the site of Neal’s slave house.  The Capitol is on the right side of the image, the Washington Monument on the left:

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 9.53.33 PM

There were a couple of other large slave pens just a few blocks north, one of which belonged to a trader named William Williams.  Solomon Northup of 12 Years a Slave fame spent about two weeks imprisoned there after his kidnapping.  Here’s how he remembered Williams’s slave prison and the savage beating he endured there:

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square—the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

An iron-bound door led into an adjoining cell, or vault, wholly destitute of windows, or any means of admitting light. The furniture of the room in which I was, consisted of the wooden bench on which I sat, an old-fashioned, dirty box stove, and besides these, in either cell, there was neither bed, nor blanket, nor any other thing whatever. The door, through which Burch [James H. Birch, the D.C. slave trader who purchased Northup from his kidnappers] and Radburn entered, led through a small passage, up a flight of steps into a yard, surrounded by a brick wall ten or twelve feet high, immediately in rear of a building of the same width as itself. The yard extended rearward from the house about thirty feet. In one part of the wall there was a strongly ironed door, opening into a narrow, covered passage, leading along one side of the house into the street. The doom of the colored man, upon whom the door leading out of that narrow passage closed, was sealed. The top of the wall supported one end of a roof, which ascended inwards, forming a kind of open shed. Underneath the roof there was a crazy loft all round, where slaves, if so disposed, might sleep at night, or in inclement weather seek shelter from the storm. It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.

The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!

Such is a correct description as it was in 1841, of Williams’ slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined.

“Well, my boy, how do you feel now?” said Burch, as he entered through the open door. I replied that I was sick, and inquired the cause of my imprisonment. He answered that I was his slave— that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New-Orleans. I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a freeman—a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. I complained bitterly of the strange treatment I had received, and threatened, upon my liberation, to have satisfaction for the wrong. He denied that I was free, and with an emphatic oath, declared that I came from Georgia. Again and again I asserted I was no man’s slave, and insisted upon his taking off my chains at once. He endeavored to hush me, as if he feared my voice would be overheard. But I would not be silent, and denounced the authors of my imprisonment, whoever they might be, as unmitigated villains. Finding he could not quiet me, he flew into a towering passion. With blasphemous oaths, he called me a black liar, a runaway from Georgia, and every other profane and vulgar epithet that the most indecent fancy could conceive.

During this time Radburn was standing silently by. His business was, to oversee this human, or rather inhuman stable, receiving slaves, feeding, and whipping them, at the rate of two shillings a head per day. Turning to him, Burch ordered the paddle and cat-o’-ninetails to be brought in. He disappeared, and in a few moments returned with these instruments of torture. The paddle, as it is termed in slave-beating parlance, or at least the one with which I first became acquainted, and of which I now speak, was a piece of hard-wood board, eighteen or twenty inches long, moulded to the shape of an old-fashioned pudding stick, or ordinary oar The flattened portion, which was about the size in circumference of two open hands, was bored with a small auger in numerous places. The cat was a large rope of many strands— the strands unraveled, and a knot tied at the extremity of each.

As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labor. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!

At last I became silent to his repeated questions. I would make no reply. In fact, I was becoming almost unable to speak. Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke. A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly. At length Radburn said that it was useless to whip me any more—that I would be sore enough. Thereupon Burch desisted, saying, with an admonitory shake of his fist in my face, and hissing the words through his firm-set teeth, that if ever I dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, that I had been kidnapped, or any thing whatever of the kind, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what would follow. He swore that he would either conquer or kill me. With these consolatory words, the fetters were taken from my wrists, my feet still remaining fastened to the ring; the shutter of the little barred window, which had been opened, was again closed, and going out, locking the great door behind them, I was left in darkness as before.

For more info on the slave trade in Washington, D.C., check out Mary Beth Corrigan’s article in Washington History and this piece from the National Archives.

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Would a monument cure America’s slavery amnesia?

Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle call for a national monument to slavery in an op-ed for The New York Times:

White Americans have long used monuments to propagate a flawed understanding of slavery and its role in the Civil War. When Charlestonians raised a memorial to the South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun in 1896, they praised his dedication to truth, justice and the Constitution — ignoring his devotion to slavery, which he famously called “a positive good.”

Hundreds of similar monuments convinced generations of white Southerners, and others, that the Confederacy had gone to war to defend states’ rights, liberty and the Southern way of life. Anything but slavery.

Rather than relegating slavery to the margins of memory, we must place it front and center. Decades ago, scholars demolished claims that slavery did not cause the Civil War and debunked fairy tales about faithful slaves and doting masters. New research has gone further, exposing how American capitalism and democracy — once thought to be antithetical to slavery — emerged hand-in-hand with it.

Our nation’s capital is replete with memorials to presidents and veterans. Why not raise a slave monument alongside them? Congress actually entertained the idea in 2003, when the National Slave Memorial Act was introduced, but ultimately authorized the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture instead.

There seem to be two impulses at work here, one commemorative and the other pedagogical.  I think a national monument to slavery would only address the former.

Monuments are great if you want to commemorate and pay tribute.  They constitute a visible, public statement about what a community thinks is important about its past.

As educational devices, though, monuments aren’t exactly the most effective instruments.  If the aim is to counter mythical Lost Cause narratives or to propagate knowledge about the links between slavery, democracy, and capitalism, then the sort of sustained and serious public history effort we can expect from the NMAAHC will do far, far more good than a memorial on the National Mall.

I hasten to add that I don’t think a national slavery monument is a bad idea.  I just don’t think it would address the issues regarding public understanding of the history of slavery that Roberts and Kytle have identified.

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Jamestown Settlement’s new museum is excellent

One of the things I really wanted to do while in the Historic Triangle was see the new museum exhibit at Jamestown Settlement.  Technically, the exhibit isn’t that new; it opened in time for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding.  But it was still under construction last time I was there, so I’m going by NBC’s logic.  If I haven’t seen it, it’s new to me.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Jamestown Settlement is distinct from “Historic Jamestowne,” the NPS-run site of the original colony that we visited in the last post.  JS is a living history museum next door to the historic site, operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and the Commonwealth of Virginia along with Yorktown Victory Center. The old JS museum was extremely impressive, so I had really high hopes for the new exhibits.  I wasn’t at all disappointed.  They really knocked it out of the park.  The new galleries merit a good half-day of touring on their own, besides the reconstructed Powhatan village, colonial fort, and ships that make up the rest of the site.  I spent about four hours inside, and probably could’ve stayed longer.  You can’t take pictures in the galleries, so I don’t have any pics, but you can see some of the artifacts by clicking here.

The tour starts with an introduction to the three cultures that collided in colonial Virginia: American Indian, English, and African.  Museum figures, reconstructed dwellings, and artifacts offer a glimpse at the material cultures of these three groups, their religious beliefs, their forms of government, their languages, and the ways they earned a living. You then move on to early modern Europe’s maritime development and the motives for English colonization, including a look at the investors who made up the Virginia Company.  You’ll meet some of the most important figures in Jamestown’s early history, check out the types of things the first colonists brought with them, and get a glimpse at a couple of items supposedly given to Pocahontas on her visit to England.  Interactive maps demonstrate the spread of white settlement and the loss of Powhatan territory over the years.

The sections on Virginia’s development into a plantation society are particularly strong.  The exhibit covers the emergence of the tobacco colony, the importance of Atlantic trade, the changes in Virginia’s government, and the impact of the shift toward slave labor on African material culture.

Whereas the exhibits at the NPS site focus on excavated objects, the JS galleries’ strength is seventeenth-century Anglo-American furniture, art, and personal belongings.  I had no idea that the foundation’s artifact collections were so extensive, but there are hundreds of original items on display.  The galleries feature audiovisual elements and immersive environments, too, but each gizmo and set piece serves a purpose.  You don’t get the gratuitous overuse of technology and effects for their own sake that mar some big-budget exhibits.  The museum strikes a good balance between original objects and interpretive artistry.  You can walk along a ca. 1600 English city street, step inside a Powhatan home, and look around the bedroom of a wealthy planter, but there are plenty of exhibit cases full of original objects.

My favorite piece of audiovisual gimmickry is in the first gallery, where handsets allow you to hear spoken dialects similar to those of the Powhatans, Africans, and English who made up seventeenth-century Virginia’s population.  (By the way, if you think Jamestown’s English settlers sounded like modern-day Shakespearean thespians, you’re in for a surprise.)

The exhibit is so comprehensive that any visitor who spends a few hours inside should get a pretty solid overview of Virginia’s seventeenth-century history and its larger Atlantic setting.  Whether you want to see artifacts, experience some modern museum showmanship, or get a grounding in the subject matter before heading over to the NPS site, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Now I’m even more excited to see what’s in store when the foundation’s new museum opens at Yorktown next year.

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Suggestions wanted on sources for the US Navy’s war on the slave trade

I’m taking a seminar on African history this semester, and we’re supposed to write a substantial research paper on a topic in which Africa intersects with our own area of research.

Inspired by my visit to the USS Constellation a few months ago, I thought I might look into the US Navy’s suppression of the slave trade in the Civil War era, maybe examining how this activity changed between the Buchanan and Lincoln administrations or something along those lines.

So here’s a question for you naval history folks out there.  What sources would you suggest?  I know where to go to find presidential documents, but I want to see what the Navy itself was doing, and if possible get some accounts from the sailors who were confronting the slave trade in person to see how they felt about it.  Help a landlubber like me get started.

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Yes, the Lincolns had servants…but not slaves

You hate to generalize about people, but modern apologists for the Confederacy tend to be really, really bad at using primary sources.  As Andy Hall once said while discussing a particularly hilarious example, “Forget interpretation. Forget analysis. Forget trying to understand the document within the context of the time and place it was written; these people don’t even seem capable of reading the documents they cite.”

Now Brooks Simpson has drawn our attention to the latest instance of a neo-Confederate trying to make sense of a document and failing spectacularly.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a doozy.

Over at Cold Southern Steel, a diligent researcher and defender of Southron Heritage presented what he believed to be evidence that Lincoln had a slave.  This supposed evidence had been hiding in plain sight in the 1860 U.S. census, but had apparently gone unnoticed for lo these 150 years.

Here’s a close-up of the census list which was posted to Cold Southern Steel.  As you can see, it indeed names one Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, IL, occupation “Lawyer,” along with the members of his household.

Lincoln Household

Included in the list is “M. Johnson,” an eighteen-year-old female.  Her occupation?

“Servant.”

So right there it is, proof that Abraham Lincoln had a “servant” in 1860.  Ergo Lincoln was a slaveowner.  Right?

Well, no.  “M. Johnson” was not a slave.  She was Mary Johnson, a free white girl employed by the Lincolns.

In this context, “servant” doesn’t mean an enslaved person.  It’s a job description.  In the nineteenth century, many middle-class families employed young women and girls as house servants, often on a live-in basis.  A lot of these women were immigrants from Ireland or Germany.  In Springfield, about one-fourth of the homes had hired help of this kind around the time Lincoln lived there.

As a prospering family headed by a respectable lawyer, the Lincolns employed several women over the years, some of them as live-in servants.  For example, eighteen-year-old Catharine Gordon was working and living with the Lincolns in 1850, and appears in the census for that year.  In 1860, the same year that Mary Johnson turned up in the census, Mary Todd Lincoln employed a Portuguese teenager named Charlotte Rodruiguis as a seamstress.  A woman named Margaret Ryan claimed that she witnessed some of Mary Todd Lincoln’s worst behavior during her employment in the house, although the chronology behind her claims is iffy.  (Richard Lawrence Miller discusses the Ryan evidence in the third volume of Lincoln and His World.)  These women and girls were not slaves bound to work for life.  They were not the property of the people in whose homes they worked.

Now, here’s the really funny part.  The proof that Mary Johnson was a free woman is right there in the 1860 census, the very source being offered as evidence that she was a slave.  In other words, the problem here is that the blogger in question simply doesn’t know how to read the document.

Here’s the page in question.

1860 Census Lincoln

 

See the very top, where it says “SCHEDULE 1.—Free Inhabitants”?

Free Inhabitants

That’s sort of an indicator that all the folks in that list were, you know, free inhabitants of Springfield.  The 1860 census counted slaves separately.  You’re not going to find any slaves officially listed in a census list of free inhabitants.

Of course, you’re not likely to find many slaves documented in the census lists for Illinois at all, since Illinois was a free state.  (Funny thing you’ll notice about slave states and free states: the slave states tended to be the ones with slaves.  An interesting coincidence, that.  You know how Peanut M&M’s are the ones with peanuts, whereas the plain M&M’s are the ones without them?  It runs somewhat along those same lines.)

Now, check out the very bottom of the list, where all the individuals are tallied up by race and gender.

Race Inhabitants

Twenty-six white males, fourteen white females.  All forty people on the page present and accounted for, and each one of them white.  This list does not include any African-American residents of Springfield, let alone enslaved ones.  Incidentally, the Lincolns did employ a free black woman named Mariah Vance as a cook and laundress a couple of days a week for ten years.

Now, just because these women and girls were free doesn’t mean their lives were all beer and skittles.  By many accounts, Mary Todd Lincoln was an absolute Gorgon as a boss, difficult to please and tight-fisted.  She was particularly critical of Irish girls—the “wild Irish,” as she referred to them in a letter to a relative.  According to the NPS, Mary Johnson was of Irish background herself, so she was probably on the receiving end of Mrs. Lincoln’s temper at one time or another.  (For information on Mary Todd Lincoln’s domestic help, check out Jean Baker’s fine biography, pp. 105-08).

But the women and girls who worked for the Lincolns were not chattel slaves, and were not the family’s property, despite the fact that they worked in the home and sometimes lived there.

There’s a lot of neat information to unpack in that list of names.  It shows us a time when middle-class Americans were very conscious of their status, when hired help was an indicator of that status, and when working in someone else’s home was the fate of many a young European-born immigrant girl.  It tells us a lot about the Lincoln family’s economic and social circumstances, about how they saw themselves and wanted to be seen by others.  It offers us a glimpse of a world somewhat similar to our own, but also strikingly different in terms of the way people conceived of their ranks and roles.

But it doesn’t show us evidence of slavery, and it takes a spectacularly negligent misreading to make it say otherwise.  Primary sources are wonderful things, but only if you know how to make sense of them.

UPDATE: Now the guy is claiming that he never said the Lincolns had slaves, despite the fact that he titled his post “Lincoln and his slave.”

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A slave cemetery study and a TSM exhibit

Next year the Tennessee State Museum is mounting an exhibit on slavery at the Wessyngton plantation, which at one point was the largest farm in the entire state and the biggest tobacco-producing plantation in the country.  Archaeologists from UT have been studying the plantation’s slave cemetery, site of some 200 burials, as part of the preparation for the exhibit.  USA Today has the details.  Looks like it’ll be an interesting display.

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The exceptional Solomon Northup

I saw 12 Years a Slave the other day, and it’s a darn good movie—certainly the most visceral onscreen depiction of the peculiar institution I’ve ever seen, rivaling the harrowing slave ship scenes from Amistad.

One reason the film is so powerful is because Solomon Northup makes for an especially relatable protagonist. Anyone who’s thought about the history of American slavery has probably sympathized with the people who were victims of it, but sympathy for someone is not the same as identification with them. Identification requires you to be able to see yourself in a character, and living your whole life as someone else’s property is so foreign to the experience of most modern Americans that it’s difficult to put yourself in that place.

Northup wasn’t born into slavery; he had his freedom, a home, and a family before losing it all when he was abducted. You can see yourself in him. And in the movie, he’s thrown into this brutal new reality at the same time you are. You’re on his journey alongside him, and that lends the experience a special kind of impact.

Of course, if Northup’s exceptionalness makes him a useful surrogate in approaching the subject of slavery, it also means that we have to remind ourselves of how atypical his story is. Most slaves were born into bondage, lived their entire lives in that condition, and died without publishing their stories. Peter Malamud Smith explains the dilemma:

It’s just so hard for us to identify with “the regular slaves,” in whatever form they may take. 12 Years a Slave is constructed as a story of a man trying to return to his family, offering every viewer a way into empathizing with its protagonist. Maybe we need a story framed on that individual scale in order to understand it. But it has a distorting effect all the same. We’re more invested in one hero than in millions of victims; if we’re forced to imagine ourselves enslaved, we want to imagine ourselves as Northup, a special person who miraculously escaped the system that attempted to crush him.

In other words, this individual’s story can’t take the place of millions of other slaves’ untold stories. But it more than compensates by reminding us, as few other slave narratives can, that behind each of those untold stories was an individual.

Northup as depicted in his book, via Wikimedia Commons

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