Fri 22 May, 2009
Tags: Apologies, Connecticut, Historical amnesia, Legislation, Slavery
Yesterday, I wrote about the slavery apology passed by the Connecticut House of Representatives and, because it was a breaking story, had to settle for linking to the A.P. wire story on the site of the Hartford Courant.
This morning, the Courant has its own story about the vote, which begins:
More than 200 years after the fact, the state House of Representatives voted Thursday to formally apologize for slavery in Connecticut.
I think this opening line powerfully illustrates the importance of finally, and fully, acknowledging our society’s sordid history around slavery and race.
Just what does the reporter believe happened in Connecticut more than 200 years ago?
Surely he isn’t referring to the start of slavery in Connecticut, which had occurred by 1639, when the first slaves were mentioned in Hartford.
Surely he isn’t referring to the end of slavery in Connecticut. Slaves were listed openly in the state in each federal census until 1850, when the federal government simply stopped counting slaves in New England.
Perhaps he was referring specifically to the complicity of the state’s General Assembly in slavery. If so, however, he is mistaken.
The Connecticut General Assembly did eventually act to formally abolish slavery, declaring that “no person shall hereafter be held in slavery in this State.”
However, this was in 1848, a mere 161 years ago.
The exact number of years since slavery ended in Connecticut isn’t the real issue, of course, and the reporter may simply have made a meaningless slip which wasn’t caught by an editor or proofreader. However, this is a surprising mistake to make in the opening line of an article about the legislature’s role in slavery, and it does perfectly fit a common and pervasive pattern of historical amnesia about northern slavery.
It is common in Connecticut, and in the rest of the north, to assume that northern slavery was minor and economically unimportant, that the practice ended after the colonial period, and that long before the Civil War the north had become staunchly anti-slavery.
In fact, slavery was an essential part of Connecticut’s history and economy. At the time of the American Revolution, Connecticut had more slaves than any other New England state. Slavery in Connecticut was also a middle-class phenomenon, with one in four households owning at least one slave. In the antebellum period, while the economic benefits of owning slaves in Connecticut declined sharply, slavery in other regions became central to the state’s own growing economy and to its economic future, particularly through the process of industrialization.
Of course, apologies and acknowledgments are about the present as much as the past. Today, it is important that we cast aside myths about our history which seriously distort our understanding of our own past and its impact on the present day. It is also important that those who may feel that they remain second-class citizens do not continue to see evidence suggesting, fairly or not, that the majority of citizens deny that this history even occurred.
In fairness, I want to point out that this newspaper story, by Christopher Keating, is otherwise well researched and well written. Moreover, the Hartford Courant has been at the forefront of reporting on the North’s role in slavery. In fact, the newspaper’s ground-breaking reporting was turned into a book, Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery, which I highly recommend as a very readable introduction for the non-specialist. However, these facts only emphasize how strange it is that the mistake above would slip by, undetected, in such a prominent location.