One of our toughest challenges in presenting Traces of the Trade is to help audiences acknowledge the often-hidden complicity in slavery, not merely of our slave-trading family, but of all of New England (and, indeed, the entire nation).

Tonight, I’m attending a screening and discussion of the documentary in Concord, Massachusetts, hosted by the Drinking Gourd Project and featuring Dain and Constance Perry, from the film, and Jayne Gordon, director of education and public programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

See if you can spot anything problematic in the press release for the event:

The Drinking Gourd Project will present a screening and discussion of Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. … A discussion with DeWolfe family members will follow the film.

Historian Jayne Gordon will link the film to local history – discussing the life stories and struggle for freedom of early African residents of Concord, as well as the town’s leadership in the Abolitionist movement.

That’s right: they’re planning to discuss a film about the hidden complicity of New England in slavery, and about the difficulty many white people have in acknowledging that history, by talking about how their own New England town featured free blacks and abolitionists.

Now, I imagine that part of the reason for focusing on the uplifting story of free blacks and abolitionists in Concord is that this event is also designed to raise awareness of the Drinking Gourd Project’s efforts to save Caesar Robbins House, home to generations of free blacks in Concord, and to publicize “Concord’s Untold Revolution,” which highlights the connections between the “heroic stories” of Concord’s white abolitionists and the “amazing stories” of the town’s early black residents as they struggled for freedom.

Thanks to organizations like the Drinking Gourd Project, the public now knows more than ever before about colonial-era slavery in towns like Concord, and about the long-hidden stories of black families struggling for freedom and prosperity in a hostile northern society.

Yet the “amazing” and “heroic” stories of free blacks and abolitionists do not begin to confront the very difficult history of Concord and other New England towns when it comes to slavery, especially in the 19th century. I hope that those who attend tonight will understand, by the end of the evening, that these stories, as important and inspirational as they are, do not reflect the full history of Concord and slavery.

The reality is that Massachusetts was a slave state, and Concord was a slave town. Slave-owning took place here for more than a century and a half, from the earliest days of settlement until into the 19th century. Slavery was in some ways more widespread here than in the South, as up to one in four households in the area owned at least one slave.

Slavery gradually died out in Concord, and in Massachusetts, in the decades after the American Revolution, because the climate was not sufficiently conducive to the economic exploitation of slaves. Yet this remained a fundamentally pro-slavery state. Slavery was not formally abolished in Concord, or in Massachusetts, until 1865, and the record of the state, and the town, with respect to free blacks were terrible ones. Elise Lemire writes in Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts (2009) that free blacks in Concord were forbidden to own land and required to squat on undesirable parcels; eventually, free blacks were driven out by decades of segregation and abuse, leaving Concord a white town.

There were progressive abolitionists in Concord who opposed slavery elsewhere, but as in New England and the northern states generally, Concord’s abolitionists were a radical fringe element that only began to make real headway with the general public in the years immediately before the Civil War. Most white people simply had no objection to the existence of slavery or to their to complicity in it.

Public attitudes in Concord and throughout New England towards slavery elsewhere are not surprising, considering that the local economy, both in colonial times and afterward, depended heavily upon slavery elsewhere. In the colonial era, much of the New England economy involved trade with the West Indies, where the production of sugar (“white gold”) for European consumers was so valuable that plantation owners paid high premiums to import large quantities of agricultural produce, lumber, and livestock from thoughout New England to allow their land and slaves to be devoted entirely to sugar production.

After the American Revolution and before the Civil War, Massachusetts industrialized its economy, primarily by developing a widespread cotton textile industry that created mill towns such as Lowell and Lawrence, and scattered cotton mills virtually anywhere water power could be found. This industry was dependent upon privileged access to cheap cotton produced by slave labor in the American South, and financed largely with the profits from New England slave trading and southern plantation slavery.

The town of Concord was no exception, seeing its first cotton textile mill in 1805. That mill alone contained 1,100 spindles and twenty looms, and it annually consumed 50,000 pounds of southern, slave-produced cotton in order to produce 188,000 yards of cloth.

Cotton manufacturing was a significant industry in Concord in the 19th century. Damon’s Mill in West Concord processed cotton into “domet” cloth, which became a widespread substitute for linsey-woolsey and a specialty of Concord’s.

This brief review of the profound complicity of Concord, and of New England, in slavery is not intended to deny the reality, or the importance, of the struggles and contributions of free blacks and progressive abolitionists. Those of us who work with the new Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery aim to provide a balanced view of history, and not one which simply emphasizes the negative or seeks to cast blame on anyone today. I do think, though, that these facts should give local residents considerable pause as they think about the area’s history, and about their own relationship to the nation’s sordid history of slavery and race.

4 Responses to “Exposing the role of New England in slavery”

  1. Faith Ferguson says:

    HI–Faith Ferguson here, part of the Drinking Gourd Project. I'm pleased that you're coming tonight. I also hope you get a chance to understand a bit more about our group, its origins, our motivations and the territory we cover. Talking to us would also be wonderful. Actually–it would be really great if you did that before blogging about how our work is flawed. So again, I hope we'll have a positive dialogue this evening and I look forward to meeting with you Thanks.

  2. James says:

    Thanks so much, Faith, for your swift and constructive response.

    Just so you know, I did precisely what you are suggesting before I posted this entry. Specifically, I spoke with Liz Clayton, the primary contact for the press release sent out by the Drinking Gourd Project, two days ago. I had a very nice and informative conversation with her about this evening, about the project, and about my concerns and intention to blog about the advance framing of the event.

    It was precisely my purpose to make sure that I wasn't misunderstanding anything about how the event was being billed, and to better understand the organization's activities and intentions. I deeply respect the Drinking Gourd Project's efforts to bring to light lesser-known aspects of Concord's history, especially ones, like the early history of slavery, the struggles of black residents, and the abolitionist movement, which are near and dear to my heart.

    My goal was simply to share with my readers a common obstacle in the work that we do with Traces of the Trade, and the framing of tonight's event in its publicity appears to illustrate that difficulty, and common popular perceptions of New England history, quite well. Nothing in my conversation with Liz Clayton suggested that I was misunderstanding the general plan for the evening, and more importantly, its advance publicity, and I did not intend to imply anything further about the work of the organization or what will be said tonight.

    Liz did invite me to speak at this evening's event, and while I declined to do that, since two other members of our organization will already be speaking, I would be delighted to talk with you or anyone else this evening about my perspective on these issues and about the work that you and your organization are engaged in.

    Please feel free to post anything here that you'd like, to illuminate my readers about any aspects of your group, its origins, motivations, and activities, which might give them a better understanding of who you are and what you do. We could also talk about that further tonight if you'd like.

  3. Faith Ferguson says:

    Hey James–Thanks again. It was a great evening and I had a terrific time talking with you. Would love to continue the conversation anytime. I deeply appreciate all the work you folks are taking on and accomplishing with so much grace.

    all best,

    //faith f.

  4. Inheriting the Trade | One of the toughest challenges in discussing the legacy of slavery says:

    […] my cousin James DeWolf Perry posted a thought-provoking piece on his blog, The Living Consequences. I encourage all my friends to read it. James explores one of the most difficult challenges we all […]

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