Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)I posted this announcement over at the Tracing Center earlier this week.

We’re pleased to announce the release of the Tracing Center’s new book, Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

“This seminal work … will make a significant impact.”

— Rex M. Ellis, Associate Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Interpreting Slavery, edited by Kristin Gallas and James DeWolf Perry, is the most visible product to date of a three-year Tracing Center project to develop and disseminate best practices in slavery interpretation. This project has also included surveys of the field, workshops at historic sites and museums, conference presentations and instructional sessions, as well as additional publications.

The book is a collaboration with seven leading public historians with deep expertise in navigating the interpretation of slavery:

  • Dina A. Bailey, National Center for Civil and Human Rights
  • Patricia Brooks, National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Richard C. Cooper, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
  • Conny Graft, Conny C. Graft Research and Evaluation
  • Linnea Grim, Monticello
  • Katherine D. Kane, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
  • Nicole A. Moore, Museum Educator and Historic Consultant

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“Civil War 150th” is a periodic compilation of information related to the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the U.S. Civil War (2011-2015). In keeping with the theme of this blog, the focus is on the often-misunderstood role of slavery and race in the war.

Today’s “Civil War 150th” includes the North’s relationship to southern slavery, battles over the Confederate flag and commemorative license plates, and the complexity of Missouri’s role in the Civil War.

Readers are encouraged to share these stories and to offer their thoughts at the end of the post.

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I have an opinion article up today at CNN.com, co-authored with Katrina Browne, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War at Fort Sumter.

The subject is the mythology about the war that still lingers on both sides. For the South, that mythology has received ample attention over the years; it’s the myth of the “Lost Cause,” which centers on a romantic vision of the rebellion which excludes slavery as the primary motivation for southern secession.

For the North and the rest of the country, myths about the Civil War, and particularly about the role that slavery and race played in the conflict, remain less well explored and are therefore worth examing.

Here is how the article begins:

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, a war that redefined national and regional identities and became an enduring tale of noble resistance in the South and, for the rest of the country, a mighty moral struggle to erase the stain of slavery.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on the beleaguered Union garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. By April 14, the fort had fallen and the war had begun in earnest.

By the time Fort Sumter was again in Union hands, following the evacuation of Charleston in the closing days of the war in 1865, the war had become the bloodiest in the nation’s history — and has not been surpassed. Yet the relationship of the North to the South, and to slavery before and during the war is not at all what we remember today.

The reality is that both North and South were profoundly complicit in slavery and deeply reluctant to abolish our nation’s “peculiar institution.”

To read the rest of the article, go to “Civil War’s dirty secret about slavery” at CNN.com.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of another Civil War milestone: the proposal by Mayor Fernando Wood to the city council that New York City secede from the Union, in order to continue its relationship with the South, just as southern states were beginning to declare their secession.

I’ve co-authored an opinion article coming out soon describing this event, and discussing its broader significance for our understanding of the Civil War and the role that slavery and race played for the North and the South. In the meantime, I’d like to offer a quick picture of the role of slavery in New York up to the time of the Civil War, as a counterweight to the myth that the North at the outbreak of the war consisted of free states eager to abolish the scourge of southern slavery.

First, a side note: I’m currently attending the four-day American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting in Boston, and in particular, a multi-session workshop on slavery and public memory. I plan to report back here  on some of the latest scholarship related to slavery, race, and public history, all themes directly related to this blog and my work at the Tracing Center.

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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.

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On tonight’s episode of “The Simpsons,” Lisa Simpson explores her family’s historical connection to slavery and presents the results at school for Black History Month.

This was fascinating for me to watch, as my own family’s powerful connection to slavery has taken up much of my time and energy over the last decade. Being a direct descendant of the leading slave trader in U.S. history, I think I can also relate to Lisa’s worry that her family tree sometimes seems dominated by scoundrels.

Disappointingly, however, this episode perpetuates some of the most common stereotypes that dominate public perceptions about the connections of American families to the nation’s history of slavery. For, immediately after learning that the Simpson family had a connection to slavery, we hear that this story involves Simpson ancestors living in the South, and that they were, in fact, anti-slavery and risked everything they had to take part in the Underground Railroad.

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Slavery in New England was brutal and lasted, in its official form, for 150 years. Enslavement greatly enriched the colonists and, later, citizens of New England, and only died out gradually and fitfully.

This is the proposition of an op-ed appearing in tomorrow’s Boston Globe, entitled “New England’s scarlet ‘S’ for slavery,” in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The op-ed suggests that the northern states lag behind the South in acknowledging the difficult truths of race buried in our past, and that we cannot skip this step if we are to make progress on race relations.

The essay is written by C. S. Manegold, who is the author of Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North (2009), published last month by Princeton University Press.

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Harry ReidSenate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been taking heat since yesterday for his remarks on the Senate floor comparing the opponents of health care reform to those who opposed ending slavery.

As I’ll explain below, I believe the criticism over Reid’s remarks is misplaced at best, and political gamesmanship at worst. However, I also think his comment was not merely impolitic, but an unfortunate contribution to our overheated political climate and, more importantly, mischaracterizes our nation’s history on slavery and race.

I am saddened at Reid’s perpetration of a damaging historical myth about our nation’s involvement in slavery, and as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, I believe it is imperative that we combat such false narratives about our nation’s past.

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Seal of the State of Rhode Island and Providence PlantationsI’ve written before about the movement in Rhode Island to remove the words “Providence Plantations” from the state’s name. Supporters argue that these words constitute an offensive reminder of the state’s, and the nation’s, history of slavery.

Last night, the R.I. state legislature approved the constitutional amendment which would change the state’s name. The measure will go before the voters of Rhode Island next year.

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As I previewed last month, the Massachusetts state legislature held a hearing yesterday on state representative Byron Rushing’s proposed slavery-era disclosure law.

Update: Governor Deval Patrick has commented that while he hasn’t read the bill, he agrees that “we have some unfinished work about some injustices that goes back generations.”

H 3148 would make Massachusetts the fifth state to enact a law intended to pry open corporate records on their involvement in slavery and the slave trade. As I’ve indicated in the blog posts I’ve linked to above, I think these laws offer significant benefits in addressing our nation’s pervasive amnesia regarding the centrality of slavery to our history and its relevance to our present circumstances.

The extent of the nation’s historical amnesia over slavery, particularly in the northern states, is strikingly illustrated by yesterday’s Associated Press story in advance of the hearing.

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