Category Archives: Slavery

Slavery’s Voice


My dear friend, teacher and scholar Roberta Logan, posted an excerpt from the testimony of a former slave gathered by the WPA. I remembered that my uncle Marty (Martin Daniel Richardson) had been a part of the group of writers and journalists who collected those stories in the 1930s — in Florida, in his case. I’ve read a few he gathered and some transcribed by others. Many voices, and nothing simple about the choices and decisions enslaved men and women made for themselves and their loved ones.

So, short version, it turns out many of the typescripts were digitized by the Library of Congress. Here’s one; some of you will recognize the location thanks to Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker.


copy Gragston


“Save Your Confederate Money, Boys…”


“According to P.P.P., 70 percent of Mr. Trump’s voters in South Carolina wish the Confederate battle flag were still flying on their statehouse grounds. (It was removed last summer less than a month after a mass shooting at a black church in Charleston.) The polling firm says that 38 percent of them wish the South had won the Civil War. Only a quarter of Mr. Rubio’s supporters share that wish, and even fewer of Mr. Kasich’s and Mr. Carson’s do.

Nationally, the YouGov data show a similar trend: Nearly 20 percent of Mr. Trump’s voters disagreed with the freeing of slaves in Southern states after the Civil War. Only 5 percent of Mr. Rubio’s voters share this view.

Mr. Trump’s popularity with white, working-class voters who are more likely than other Republicans to believe that whites are a supreme race and who long for the Confederacy may make him unpopular among leaders in his party. But it’s worth noting that he isn’t persuading voters to hold these beliefs. The beliefs were there — and have been for some time…”

The Economist Backtracks

How is it even possible that such an atrocity made it past all sorts of editors at The Economist, out the door, and onto the news stands?

2JnpHjUo_400x400Editor’s note

Our withdrawn review “Blood cotton”

Sep 4th 2014
Apology: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We have therefore withdrawn the review, but in the interests of transparency the text remains available only on this special page and appears below.


“ FOR sale: a coloured girl, of very superior qualifications…a bright mulatto, fine figure, straight, black hair, and very black eyes; very neat and cleanly in her dress and person.” Such accounts of people being marketed like livestock punctuate Edward Baptist’s grim history of the business of slavery.

Although the import of African slaves into the United States was stopped in 1807, the country’s internal slave trade continued to prosper and expand for a long time afterwards. Right up until the outbreak of the civil war in 1861, the American-born children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans were bought cheap in Virginia and Maryland to be sold dear in private deals and public auctions to cotton planters in the deep South.

Tall men commanded higher prices than short ones. Women went for less than men. The best bids were for men aged 18 to 25 and for women aged 15 to 22. One slave recalled buyers passing up and down the lines at a Virginia slave auction, asking, “What can you do? Are you a good cook? Seamstress? Dairy maid?” and to the men, “Can you plough? Are you a blacksmith?” Slaves who gave surly answers risked a whipping from their masters.

Raw cotton was America’s most valuable export. It was grown and picked by black slaves. So Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Take, for example, the astonishing increases he cites in both cotton productivity and cotton production. In 1860 a typical slave picked at least three times as much cotton a day as in 1800. In the 1850s cotton production in the southern states doubled to 4m bales and satisfied two-thirds of world consumption. By 1860 the four wealthiest states in the United States, ranked in terms of wealth per white person, were all southern: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.

Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

Add your thoughts here… (optional)

Esther Schreuder

The Slave in European Art: From Renaissance Trophy to Abolitionist Emblem

Edited by prof. Elizabeth McGrath (Warburg Institute) and prof. Jean Michel Massing (University of Cambridge)

Warburg Institute Colloquia, 20

(Editors: Jill Kraye and Charles Burnett)

The Warburg Institute – Nino Aragno Editore (London and Turin, 2012)

This volume explores the imagery of slaves and enslavement – white as well as black – in early modern Europe.

Long before the abolitionist movement took up the theme, European art abounded in images of slaves – chained, subjected, subdued figures. Often these enslaved figures were meant to be symbolic, for slavery was widely invoked as a metaphor in both religious and secular contexts. The ancient Roman iconography of triumphalism, with its trophies and caryatids, provided a crucial impetus to this imagery, particularly for Renaissance artists who developed their own variations. Here the use of classical models had a peculiar force, since nudity…

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George Washington and the “Main Event”

By Louise Mirrer, New-York Historical Society

“Slavery,” historian James Oliver Horton wrote in 2006, “was not a sideshow in American history. It was the main event.” So why has a work by the African-American artist Fred Wilson — an installation piece that riffs on the topic by assembling authentic slave shackles, slave chains and Revolutionary-era icons — been such a sore point with critics?

Conceived especially for the New-York Historical Society, Wilson’s Liberty/Liberté was our unquestioned choice to be the first thing that visitors would see when they came into our renovated building. Our ground floor would now offer the first overview we have ever presented, in more than 200 years in operation, of the themes and collections of our Museum. Our building would now reveal these new galleries immediately to visitors, thanks to a glass-walled entrance lobby. And facing the visitors through the glass wall, as soon as they came in the door, would be this large, complex installation by Wilson, made entirely with objects from New-York Historical and from its resident Gilder Lehrman Collection.


What happened when we threw open the doors last November? Critics universally praised our ground-floor galleries — and complained about Wilson’s installation. Obviously, we had struck a raw nerve. To explain how, and why, let me tell you a little about the artist and what he has done.

Born in 1954, Fred Wilson is one of the best-known American artists of his generation. For the past twenty years, he has created engaging, thought-provoking artworks with the lightest touch imaginable by ingeniously reshuffling the objects he finds in the permanent collections of museums. He has been recognized with a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and in 2003 he represented the United States as our nation’s official artist at the Venice Biennale.

For New-York Historical, Wilson arranged his chosen objects on and around a large marble stand made with pedestals of varying heights. Among the pieces that Wilson assembled for Liberty/Liberté were two sculptures of George Washington (one showing him in the toga of an ancient Roman republican, the other in the garb of a Virginia gentleman farmer); a cigar-store figurine of an African-American man holding a red French liberty cap; a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte; a miniature portrait of Haitian liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture; a wrought-iron balustrade from Federal Hall in New York, where Washington was sworn in as the first President; chains, shackles and slave badges (the metal tags that were used to label enslaved African Americans with the crafts they practiced); and a tag bearing Sojourner Truth’s famous question, “Ain’t I a woman?”

What did our critics make of this assemblage? They voiced two main complaints: Wilson’s piece had no readily discernible meaning, and its meaning was far too obvious.

Liberty/Liberté is “enigmatic,” one critic wrote. “What is it about? Slavery? Tyranny? The Constitution? No clear answer is given to the puzzled onlooker.” Another critic thought he knew exactly what the piece meant — and didn’t like it. “In recent exhibitions,” he wrote, “the society has explored some troubling aspects of New York’s past, but the presentations were nuanced and enlarging. Here, though, we see only a placard. We want to think highly of our once-worshiped gods? Hypocrites, slave holders, oppressors!”

Because Wilson’s installations are in effect high-art Rorschach blots, these judgments tell us more, perhaps, about how touchy the topic of American slavery still is than about Liberty/Liberté. Could it possibly be that Wilson had something in mind other than the simple-minded intention to debunk and condemn? Could it also be possible to connect slavery, tyranny, and constitutional government — and that Wilson is doing just this in his work?

In fact, though, Wilson in Liberty/Liberté is doing nothing more than New-York Historical’s curators have done elsewhere throughout the galleries, or that researchers do every day in New-York Historical’s Library. Wilson has reached into the trove of evidence left to us by past centuries. He has selected; he has juxtaposed; and in so doing, he has given us one possible interpretation of what happened in history. Where Wilson differs from the others is that he leaves much of this interpretation to the viewers. In essence, we become the curators and researchers.

That’s why we believe Liberty/Liberté is really an ideal introduction to New-York Historical’s galleries. It has the potential to get everyone thinking like an historian. And that’s also why the criticism of Wilson’s installation is so interesting. When it comes to the “main event” in American history, our nerves are still very raw.

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