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

Click here to read the rest of this entry

“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.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

I have an opinion article up today at, 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

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.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

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.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

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.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

Tonight, the 30th annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards were presented by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in a ceremony at New York’s Lincoln Center.

As an historical consultant on the PBS documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, I was nominated, along with my fellow researchers, for an Emmy for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Research.”

While we didn’t win, it was truly an honor just to be nominated, and I congratulate Salimah El-Amin and Blair Foster of HBO’s Taxi to the Dark Side for their accomplishment. Their film examines how the U.S. has treated detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, focusing on compelling research into the apprehension of an innocent taxi driver by U.S. forces and the circumstances leading to his eventual death at Bagram Airfield.

We are quite pleased that our nomination has helped to raise the visibility of Traces of the Trade, and has highlighted the importance of its historical subject matter.

Our research revealed for the first time that James D’Wolf was the leading slave-trader in U.S. history, and that his family were collectively the leading slave-trading family in our history. The D’Wolf family carried out at least 96 slaving voyages, bringing some 11,455 enslaved Africans to the Americas.

By my calculations, there may be more than 500,000 people alive today who are descended from those brought across the Middle Passage on D’Wolf slave ships.

The film raised much broader issues than our family’s history, however. This family’s involvement in the slave trade in many ways represents, in miniature, the American slave-trading experience. Our research into the family’s history has shed new light on the ways in which American slave traders operated, and the deep connections between their economic activities and the rest of American society. The research summarized in the film heightens our understanding of the role of the north in slavery and the slave trade, and emphasizes the centrality of slavery in American history. These are themes which I am exploring in more detail, and which I will begin presenting at the African Studies Association conference in New Orleans this fall.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

Historical amnesia about slavery and race takes very different forms in the northern and southern United States.

This week, that reality is demonstrated by a critical look at public history in Charleston, South Carolina.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

The Providence Journal, which has frequently covered Traces of the Trade and other stories relating to the history of Rhode Island and the slave trade, has a review in Sunday’s edition of Tom DeWolf’s Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History.

The book review is a companion to a feature story about the film leading the Sunday arts section, but the review is available online now. The review is not kind, but I think the reviewer’s reasoning is highly instructive about Tom’s intended audience.

Click here to read the rest of this entry

Traces of the Trade carries the message that the North was far more implicated in slavery, even in southern slavery, than we are commonly led to understand.

In this vein, Professor Steven Hahn, of the University of Pennsylvania, argues that for fugitive slaves in the 19th century, there was little distinction between the slave-owning South and the more progressive North, to the point where “the border itself was illusory.”

Click here to read the rest of this entry