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Remembering the Slave Trade



Above: Execution following New York City slave uprising, 1741

Too often, we discuss slavery as simply as southern phenomenon. This serves a number of functions, all of which are unfortunate. It allows northerners to demonize southerners specifically for slavery and for racism, when of course racism is nearly as bad in the rest of the country as it is in the South. It allows northerners to conveniently forget their own slavery history. It also has significant contemporary implications as America’s racial issues become uniquely southern in popular culture. But in early America, the northern industrial economy was deeply intertwined with the southern plantation economy. Southern cotton fueled northern mills. Northern shipowners brought slaves to southern ports. Northerners invested heavily in southern plantations. Slavery was central to the growth of American capitalism and slaves were the first large-scale good in the capitalist commodity markets. This latter point has been the subject of a number of vital recent books in the literature of slavery.

Luckily this push toward connecting the North to slavery has been gaining more attention in the North, with attempts to recognize the region’s slave history. A lot of this has been in Rhode Island, the home to a lot of the slave trading ships. So we have projects like this:

A project aimed at memorializing America’s slave-trade ports is moving to Rhode Island, where some 1,000 slave-trading voyages were launched.

The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project has been working to place markers at 40 ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts where slaves arrived or where ships were sent to be used in the trade. The Middle Passage refers to the forced migration across the Atlantic Ocean of more than 10 million Africans, many of whom died on the way.

“We’re just simply saying mark the place where it began,” said Ann Chinn, who founded the Middle Passage project. “In the same way, people marked Plymouth, they marked Jamestown, they marked St. Augustine. Well, in each of those places, Africans were there too.”

The project is rolling out as places around the country have been coming to grips with their roles in the slave trade, including the North, where the region’s history of fighting against slavery is more widely known than its less noble roots of trading and profiting from slavery.

A lot more of this please. Slavery and racism are not southern problems with southern histories. They are national problems with national histories. They need to be remembered and discussed way.

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