Monthly Archives: October 2014

On the Borders of Slavery and Race

Stanley Harrold “On the Borders of Slavery and Race:  Charles T. Torrey and the Underground Railroad” Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 20, Number 2 (Summer, 2000), pp. 273-292.

In “On the Borders of Slavery and Race,” Stanley Harrold explores the contributions made by white abolitionists in the Underground Railroad movement. Specifically, he examines the involvement of Charles T. Torrey and the circumstances that led him to become interested in helping the slave communities of the south, including those in Maryland. In addition, the author addresses some of the discrepancies that have existed among historians “concerning the involvement of white abolitionists…the extension of their activities in the South, and the relationship of the antislavery movement to the sectional conflict” (p. 275). He shows that Torrey’s participation in abolition contributed to “his arrest on charges of helping slaves escape, his imprisonment in the Maryland Penitentiary, and his death there in 1846” (p. 274). He suggests that the Underground Railroad movement benefited significantly from the participation of white abolitionists such as Charles T. Torrey who despite the many issues they faced at the time, they were able to break-down racial barriers and promote interracial organizations.

In addition to analyzing the involvement of Charles T. Torrey, the author also aims to dispel the notion that this movement needs to be examined from a compartmentalized perspective. That is, he suggests that despite the myriad of articles proposing otherwise, there is enough evidence to suggest that both African Americans and whites worked together for abolition of slavery. In order to validate this claim the author focuses on relationship between Torrey and Thomas Smallwood. Thomas Smallwood was an African American man who was born into slavery in Prince George’s County and later emancipated. Soon after, he committed to helping other African Americans achieve freedom. He was also a prominent member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church of Washington. The two men met near Washington D.C. and “created what Smallwood called ‘our new underground railroad’” (p. 283). The relationship between the two suggests that both men shared many similarities and qualities. In fact, as the author suggests, these similarities are what turned the movement into a biracial effort. The article seems to suggest that there is significant evidence to propose that white abolitionists did more than just harbor those who were fleeing slavery. With that in mind, it would be helpful to determine how many people and to what extent Charles T. Torrey helped in the state of Maryland.

Adapted from Critical Summaries of Existing Literature by Yamid Macias

Freedom Suits

In “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery,” Loren Scheweninger demonstrates the importance that African American played in preserving the history of slavery. Enslaved people relied on oral history as a way to seek and, in some cases, successfully achieve their freedom. People who had white ancestry and had evidence (usually the testimony of others) to demonstrate it in the courts challenged legal definitions of race as well as increasingly restrictive laws regarding slavery. During the 18th century understandings of race were still in flux, and hundreds of African American men and women to file lawsuits against their masters challenging the law in order to pursue freedom.

Schweninger focuses on the enslaved descendants of Maria, a Spanish or Portuguese woman (her actual place of origin is still unknown) who was brought to Maryland and sold into slavery in 1686. Although she was not of African descent, her racial status was ill defined. She was categorized as an indentured slave, working on Robert Lockwood’s farm near Anne Arundel County. In the decades that followed, the different individuals who were directly related to Maria –identified by the author as the Boston family– were passed down and resold as slaves despite their ill-defined racial status. Beginning in 1795, many of them were successful in pursuing their freedom through the Maryland courts. The oral testimony of twenty-four free and enslaved African Americans who acknowledged Maria’s white ancestry (as the story was passed down by their relatives and neighbors) were pivotal for the few members of the Boston family that achieved their freedom. The author puts special emphasis on the oral depositions of Anne Brown. This is because she was the daughter of Mary Brown, an African American woman who knew Maria when she was alive and who was responsible to pass that information down to her relatives.

Although Schweninger’s focus is on the Boston family and Maria herself, throughout the article she also presents examples of other similar cases. Several biracial individuals who were held in bondage testified that their white relatives had been in consensual relationships with enslaved people. She also discusses how and to what extent the Maryland court system allowed (at least temporarily) enslaved people to use the same legal resources that were generally for white people only. As a result, the court’s decision to allow the different plaintiffs to use hearsay (be it from free or enslaved blacks or white people) “reveals a legal system that was more egalitarian at that moment than it would be for generations to come” (p. 41).

As a whole by examining freedom suits, this article provides scholars and students alike with a succinct analysis of some of the legal maneuvers that many African American relied on to seek their freedom. But more importantly, as indicated by the author, these “Freedom suits reveal cultural interactions among slaves, free blacks, and whites; the power that court actions could give to those held in bondage; and the role of African American women in maintaining family histories and sustaining oral traditions” (p. 37). Moreover, considering that Anne Brown and several other slaves who helped in the lawsuits resided near Anne Arundel County in a section of Maryland that is also known as the Swamp, both the Swamp and Brown are worth examining even further. In fact, for the purpose of our project, there is a possibility that their stories could provide us with relevant information regarding the preservation of oral history among enslaved people in the state of Maryland.

Adapted from Critical Summaries of Existing Literature by Yamid Macias

Thinking about Slavery

During the first half of the fall semester, 2014, student contributors to this project had two major tasks.

First, they analyzed work related to the interpretation of slavery that had been produced by public history scholars and practitioners. Together, we used this body of scholarship to identify the shortcomings in public interpretations of slavery. Students reflected on their findings, and they identified several interpretive problems that stand in the way of effective and engaging interpretation of slavery at historic sites, in museums, and online. At the most basic level, the problem can be summarized this way:  slavery has been marginalized in the public sector. At some sites, it has been obliterated –slave quarters destroyed by neglect or active removal. At others, it has been set aside from a core interpretive narrative —the word “slave” replaced by “servant,” interpretive programs about slavery offered outside a plantation house, off site, and only to those who request them. Core narratives focus on wealthy and influential white people, and slavery is –at best– interpreted as an unfortunate symbol of their wealth. At the same time, where the history of slavery is interpreted, it is typically represented as the purview of African American History. In some ways this is benign. However, it has also  tended to reinforce the marginalization of slavery, segregating it as a story that belongs to some Americans but not to others.

Students also mined the work of public history scholars and practitioners to identify some strategies that had potential to shape a new and more successful publicly-oriented interpretation of slavery. Cheryl LaRoche challenged students to rethink geography and topography. She reminded us that geographical and communal boundaries are constructions. By viewing these boundaries through a multi-disciplinary lens –history, archaeology, anthropology–  we can re-draw maps,  making the experience of slavery and freedom visible and central to the way we understand the nation spatially as well as culturally. James Horton and others called on us to imagine new methods of storytelling that might craft an inclusive past, one not segregated by “white” history and “black” history, but rather one that foregrounds relationships and connections. Doing so requires us to break out of the limiting view of “good” and “bad” people and pasts in order to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the way average people shaped American identity, memory, and history over time. To that end, Antoinette Jackson challenged us to recognize memory and oral traditions as central to the construction of a meaningful past. While historians may be loathe to include sources they see as ahistorical in any work of scholarship, reaching out to descendant communities can shed light on the contemporary relevance and lingering meaning of slavery and its interpretation.

Next, students explored formal scholarship on the history of slavery and freedom in the border states, particularly focusing on the relationship between Maryland and Pennsylvania. It’s fair to say that –unconsciously– they approached this work differently than the work of public historians. Trained in historiography, they were ready to identify the ways in which ideas and arguments about slavery have evolved over time inside the discipline, and they were adept at identifying themes and trends that could serve as the backdrop of our public project. Their critical summaries are linked through the bibliography here.

Interestingly, however, they did not always immediately recognize that scholarship on slavery also presents problems and strategies for the production of new public interpretations. For example, a significant theme in the historiography relates to its economic impact. In many of the early works, then, enslaved people appear mostly as foils against which to measure economic change over time –a problem that precisely relates to the ways in which slavery has been marginalized at many historic sites. Only more recently, have scholars begun to turn the mirror around, examining the ways in which economic relationships among enslaved and free workers sheds light on the construction of class, race, and gender over time. Similarly, the rise of African American history opened up important new scholarship on African American resistance to slavery as abolitionists and freedom seekers. This work humanized enslaved people, but sometimes merely replaced a focus on whites with a focus on blacks, missing the opportunity to foreground relationships.

On the other hand, traditional scholars have had more freedom than public historians to document, describe, and interpret violence as a process by which identities and experience are shaped. Interpreting violence at public history sites is difficult. It is too easy to sensationalize it as evidence of past savagery. Yet, the persistence of racial violence in our culture as a method of social control and geographical boundary enforcement indicates it is something we cannot and should not avoid in the field of public history.

If there is one thing all the student contributors agree on, it is this:  exploring the history of slavery and freedom can open up important and meaningful questions about contemporary American culture, and the best way to do that is to foreground the actions and experiences of people living, working, negotiating, and resisting the social, cultural, political, and economic forces that limited their actions.



Gleanings of Freedom

In Gleanings of Freedom: Free & Slave Labor Along the Mason-Dixon Line, 1790-1860, Max Grivno explores how understanding “the lives of the men and women who worked the land along the Mason-Dixon Line open[s] a window onto the evolution of race, class, and labor regimes in the early national and antebellum United States (page 6).” Grivno examines “a narrow swath of territory near the Mason-Dixon Line;” specifically, “six Maryland counties that abutted the sectional border (Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Harford, Frederick, and Washington.) (page 9)”

Grivno’s basic argument is that “unfree and free labor balanced each other; slaves could be used to bring unwieldy free workers to heel, and hired help was needed to keep the relatively inflexible system of slavery running smoothly (page 7).” He aims to write a history that integrates the stories of free blacks, slaves, women, itinerant laborers, skilled workers, and landowners, cutting against historians’ tendency to separate histories of slavery from that of other forms of labor.  He writes, “the boundaries of labor regimes and the meanings of workers’ statuses are best viewed through a shifting lens that is capable of viewing individual groups of workers in detail, of expanding outward to view the workforce as a whole, and of widening to encompass the larger national and international forces that interacted with local processes to shape the landscape of slavery and free labor.” (296)

One of Grivno’s most convincing arguments is that the small wheat growing region (formerly tobacco) in northern Maryland is inextricably linked to the booms and busts of external markets.  Grivno’s argument advances in a chronological order, following changing labor patterns and the decay of slavery from the end of the American Revolutionary period to the antebellum period right before the Civil War.  With the closing of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Grivno argues that slavery was declining in Maryland because farmers could not manage to compete in the global wheat market as prices plummeted. As a result, landowners sought to rid themselves of fixed property, including slaves.  The economic panic of 1819 led to a further erosion of slavery in northern Maryland as landowners scrambled to sell slaves they no longer needed (since wheat required only was seasonal labor support) to the Deep South where burgeoning plantations of sugar and cotton were beginning to require greater numbers of slaves to ensure large profits. At the same time, as Maryland’s enslaved people were becoming increasingly vulnerable to being sold South as part of an interstate slave trade, many migrated north in an escape to freedom.

As some slaves escaped North and others slaves were sold South, northern Maryland wheat farmers experimented with new labor arrangements.  As demand for year-round agricultural labor decreased, it made more economic sense to retain only a small number of laborers year round and to hire more when needed during harvest season.  Thus the labor force in the border counties on which Grivno is focused became an amalgamation that included slaves, free blacks, and indentured servants—“northern Maryland was a region where ‘slavery was just one form of labor among many’ and where ‘slavery was just one form of labor among many’ and where ‘no one presumed the master-slave relationship to be the social exemplar.’” (11)

Grivno’s work presents an important example of how to make the history of slavery relevant and central to the American story. Gleanings of Freedom is an inclusive history that connects the stories of slaves, freedmen and women, poor white laborers, and the landowners. These connections enable us to begin to address larger, thorny, and persistent questions about race and identity in American culture —“If you don’t tell it like it was . . . it can never be as it ought to be.” (Blight in Horton, 33)

Adapted from Northern Maryland: “Where slavery & free labor jostled, mingled, & merged” by Heidi Carbaugh

Scraping By

One might say that Baltimore was a northern city in a southern state.  That is certainly one of the ideas running through Seth Rockman’s book Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore.  As Baltimore industrialized, and the harbor became a focus of life and work, both the economy and landscape of the city transformed. The institution of slavery in Maryland changed along with the city.  The number of free blacks exceeded the number of slaves in Baltimore. The labor performed by the slave minority shifted from agricultural to industrial. The function and viability of slavery as part of the urban economy were gradually called into question.

In the late 18th century, many Maryland planters converted from tobacco production to food grain production. The new crops required less labor to plant and harvest. At the same time, Baltimore’s convenient location made it an attractive hub for the export of grain from both Pennsylvania and Maryland to Europe. These twin trends resulted in a decreased demand for slave labor in agriculture, and an increased demand for a variety of urban and industrial workers in Baltimore. As a result, both slaves and free blacks to migrated to Baltimore for work.

By the early 19th century, a diverse work force supported the economy in Baltimore. The city’s black population was predominantly free, but there was still a sizable enslaved population. The city was also one of the largest ports for European immigration in the United States from Germany, Ireland and elsewhere. The labor force consisted of a combination of these groups.  Slave owners often rented their slaves out as laborers to provide a trickle of income.  The income from rented slaves enabled the small population of middle class professionals (such as doctors and lawyers) to achieve a measure of gentility (58). In this system, slave owners might rarely see their own enslaved work force, relying instead on others to police the boundaries of slavery and freedom.

It was difficult to maintain slavery in this environment of urban labor.  Baltimore’s proximity to Pennsylvania, its large free black population, and the separation between slave and owner in the urban economy all made freedom more accessible to the enslaved population.  Baltimore itself could be a destination of freedom.  Slaves from the countryside could escape to Baltimore and slip into obscurity within the densely populated free black community.  Many fugitive slave ads reported slaves as “going at large” or “living as free” in Baltimore (58).

The changing form of slavery in Baltimore required new devices of control.  Delayed manumission became one of those devices.  To discourage largely independent enslaved laborers from running away, owners guaranteed their freedom after a set time of service. Many enslaved people accepted these terms, choosing to work towards freedom and remaining with family and an extended community rather than flee alone. However, it was common that the children of a manumitted slave would remain enslaved. Saving money to purchase the freedom of  children and other family members placed a tremendous  financial hardship on the free black community.

Urban slavery in Baltimore made less economic sense over time.  The primary value of slaves in Baltimore, and in the rest of Maryland, was based on the price they might bring on the slave market in the deep south. In other words, as Rockman wrote, “slaves were valuable in Baltimore because they were valuable elsewhere” (235). Slavery would not be otherwise be profitable in Maryland. The meaning and structure of slavery was different in different places, but each unique form of slavery affected the institution as a whole.

Adapted from Critical Summary of Seth Rockman by Michael J. Stone

The Selling of the Underground Railroad

Stephen G. Hall highlights the work of the abolitionist William Still. Still collected stories and genealogical accounts from people he encountered migrating north in order to escape slavery. Still protected these accounts through the 1850s, because he hoped they might be used to re-united families and because he knew the discovery of these stories could endanger himself and the people he had assisted. He published the stories after the end of the Civil War, and, according to Hall, the accounts had a profound impact both on the perception of Blacks and on the way slavery was remembered.

William Still began his abolitionist activism in 1844, first working  as a janitor and then as a clerical assistant for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. He gradually moved up the ranks, eventually working directly to assist escapees. His book, “The Underground Railroad,” first appeared in print in 1872. In addition to stories gathered from escaped people, the book also documented the work done by many abolitionists. Its publication meant that the authority to collect, recount, and interpret the history of slavery and abolition was firmly held by black people. The stories were personal and often brutal, serving as powerful counter-narratives to the rise of a nostalgic false memory of pre-Civil War America. The book played a crucial role in preserving first hand accounts of slavery and freedom.


Adapted from The selling of the Underground Railroad by Francis Mohammed

Planting an Empire

In their well-researched book Planting an Empire: The Early Chesapeake in British North America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), Jean B. Russo and J. Elliot Russo provide a rather exhaustive account of early European exploration and English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay region, and the development of “sister colonies” Virginia (1607) and Maryland  (1634). They cover the period from exploration until just before the French and Indian War (1754).   The main argument posited by the authors is that “any broad assessment [of the Chesapeake colonies in their first century or so of existence] must conclude that for white society as a whole enslaved labor was the route to substantial wealth.” (198)  The focus of Planting an Empire is indisputably wealth– how it was made and transferred, by whom, to whom, and with what consequences. At times, the authors’ focus on economics can be tiresome.  Nevertheless, the Russos do provide context and examples to balance estate lists and ships’ manifests. This balance helps readers see the way economic decisions impacted life at a personal, local, and macroscopic level.  Unfortunately, slavery is not really examined as more than an economic institution, and the Russos seem to presume that the meaning of freedom is static and universal.

Economics is everywhere in Planting an Empire, from the role of English investment companies in the founding of settlements in Virginia and Maryland, to their growth as tobacco colonies to their diversification with westward expansion.  Economics also connects the Chesapeake to the Caribbean from which most early slaves arrived in the North American colonies,  rather than directly from Africa (94) and to which colonists exported goods such as timber and wheat (148).  The establishment of social stability in the colonies over time created a series of “complex cultural changes” (129) that allowed established families to accumulate ever more capital, some of it in the form of slaves (132). Because the purchase of slaves was “out of reach for small planters,” (134) it became a hallmark of genteel life for planters not only to own slaves, but to have slaves dedicated to particular tasks in all aspects of plantation life –in the fields and in the home (161).

Despite describing colonial laws as “severely circumscribing the lives of all black people, whether free or enslaved” and claiming that “the region acquired the cultural features of a slave society, permeated by violence and […] notions of inherent inequality,” the Russos also maintain that “poorer whites who did not own slaves could have seen themselves as having more in common with blacks than with men whose wealth derived from slavery” (166). While the book provides readers with a sense of the importance of slavery to the economy of the colonial Chesapeake, the authors do not explore the human dimension of slavery. Slaves appear –as they might have to the colonists themselves– as little more than livestock.

Only the final chapter of the book really goes into significant detail about the lives of people of color in the colonial Chesapeake. There, the Russos provide evidence that racial distinction were still in flux in the colonial Chesapeake, and people of color could be more or less integrated into the social life of the colones; Under law, mixed-race children born to white women were free. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mixed-race children born to black women were slaves. The Russos also present evidence about the private lives and experiences of enslaved people. They review archaeological evidence to postulate about slave hobbies and diet (172). The book also provides a window into the potential usefulness of genealogy as a historical source. Familiar surnames in the Baltimore-Washington area like Carter and Carroll appear repeatedly along with other family names –Claiborne, Dinwiddie, Madden, Nicholson, Paca, Custis, Greene, Fleet, Dulany, Calvert, Addison– now common on street and place names throughout the Baltimore metro area. Because enslaved people were often assigned their owners’ last names, these family connections may provide us with clues for re-evaluating the historical record of slavery. The Russos also provide some geographical insights. Slaveowning was not as widespread on the Chesapeake’s Eastern shore (199), so that area may have been a first stop on the way to freedom.

Adapted from Planting an Empire- can you dig it? by David B.

The forgotten story of the Christiana Riot

In Bloody Dawn, Thomas Slaughter examines the seething tensions running through mid-nineteenth century America, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. These hostilities came to a bloody head outside of a stone house owned by a free black man and abolitionist named William Parker in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the early morning of September 11, 1851.  Baltimore County slave owner Edward Gorsuch and several others he had enlisted approached the house with federal warrants authorizing them to capture Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, and Joshua Hammond. Until 1849, all four men had been enslaved at Gorsuch’s Retreat Farm. The occupants of the house, including at least two of the fugitives and members of the Parker family, had been tipped off about the approaching posse, and they were prepared to stand and fight. The ensuing conflict which became known as the Christiana Riot left Edward Gorsuch dead and, Slaughter argues, “fertilized” the “political soil” in which the Civil War grew (182).

The forgotten story of the Christiana Riot helps highlight the complex relationships and sensibilities that shaped the experience of slavery and freedom in the Mid-Atlantic region. In particular, the story of the Christiana Riot reminds us that it is not easy to distinguish good and bad actors when telling the full story of slavery. Gorsuch, who considered himself a good master, was shocked that enslaved members of his household had run away. He had promised to free them when they reached 28 years old, a decision that reflected less his personal kindness than the reality that the economic viability of slavery was waning in the Upper South. Nonetheless, based on his relationship with these men, Gorsuch believed that if he could simply talk with them, he could convince them to return to slavery voluntarily. His decision to pursue them was born out of a desire to restore his honor; it made little practical sense. For their part, the enslaved workers had left Gorsuch’s farm in November 1849 because their long-running enterprise of skimming some of the master’s wheat crop for sale on the side had been exposed. From our perspective, their activity is evidence that people caught in the slave system actively worked to resist and even undermine their oppressive situation. They were betrayed by miller Elias Matthews, a member of the Baltimore Society of Friends. Although Quakers were committed abolitionists, Matthews was not comfortable hiding his knowledge of a crime.

Most significantly, the Christiana Riot illustrates the heightening tensions in borderlands like the Maryland-Pennsylvania area. Both the slave-catchers and those resisting them were aided by Pennsylvanians whose sympathies lay on different sides of the slavery question. In general, Lancaster County residents were hostile towards the interlopers who invaded their state searching for fugitive slaves and often kidnapping the wrong people in the process. However, in the aftermath of Gorsuch’s death, black residents throughout the area were subjected to mass violence and arrest by their white neighbors. Despite pervasive anti-slavery sympathies among the population, white Lancaster citizens “shared [a] sense that African Americans were aliens who worked in the region but were not truly members of the communities in which they lived” (42). None of the actual resisters stood trial because they escaped to Canada with the help of Frederick Douglass. However, Castner Hanway, a white neighbor of Parker’s who arrived at the scene but did not participate, was tried for treason for failing to assist the slavecatching posse. The Pennsylvania jury acquitted Hanway; all other arrestees were released.

Bloody Dawn is an excellent source to explore the nuances and complexities of America, North and South, in the antebellum period. Slaughter surrounds the narrative of the riot and trial with a deeper investigation of evolving sectional, racial, and legal sentiments during the era. He demonstrates that the history of slavery and abolition is not a simple tale of good and evil. It is instead peopled with individuals, black and white, caught up in moral and practical dilemmas trying to do what they thought was right.



Adapted from The forgotten story of the Christiana Riot by Susan Philpott

Buildings and Landscapes as Connections to African-American Communities

In the article “Reclaiming the Forgotten History and Cultural Landscapes of African-Americans in Rural Washington County,” author Edie Wallace admits that his and “our perceptions of the past are not always entirely accurate.” (10). She argues, as a result, that there is a need to study the cultural landscapes of the United States in order to obtain more accurate view of the past.

Wallace uses farms and buildings in Washington County, Maryland to establish connections among slavery, freedom, and the landscape. In doing so Wallace has created an opportunity to expand on the argument that what we “know” about slavery and even what we “know” about objects, is not always correct.

Maryland’s system of slavery continued even after the Civil War began in 1861. As a slave-holding border state, Maryland retained ties to both Virginia and Pennsylvania, economically and through shared families. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Maryland delegates drafted a new constitution, which “passed by the narrowest of votes in October 1864″ and established that “all persons held to service or labor, as slaves, are hereby declared free.”(20). However, Wallace argues that Maryland slaves may have been freed, but they were not treated as equals by “white employers, neighbors, and even county governments.” (21). This inequality ed to the establishment of black communities in places like Washington County where structures built by and for free people would eventually become as important to interpreting history as documents.

Wallace’s article serves as an example that it is worthwhile to look at structures as indicative of the lives of people who once lived and toiled within the walls. She reminds us that that schools and churches were often one in the same building, as was the case with Tolson’s Chapel in Sharpsburg, MD. (24) These buildings are also evidence of the kind of community making that happened after the Emancipation Proclamation. By paying attention to churches, farms, schoolhouses, or even the homes in the communities, we can obtain a more complete picture of slavery and freedom.

Adapted from Buildings and Landscapes as Connections to African-American Washington County by Kymberly Peters

Rescuing African American Kidnapping Victims in Philadelphia

The authors of this essay on the Joseph Watson Papers Eric explore efforts to rescue African American kidnapping victims during the 1820s, specifically those incidents documented in letters to and from Joseph Watson in Philadelphia, PA.

Joseph Watson was mayor of Philadelphia from 1824-1827, during which he presided over weddings, city functions, made appointments, and greeted foreign visitors like Marquis de Lafayette of France to the city. (318). His duties also expanded far beyond his expectations for the office. During his tenure, Watson “received numerous letters… a few from southerners writing about alleged kidnappings of the city’s African American children.” While Watson could have ignored these letters he chose instead to respond, working to help  free these children and put an end to the kidnappings. It was not uncommon for free African American children to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. In fact, the authors insist that kidnapping was evolving into “a well-organized business venture.” (318)

Kidnappings like this and the testimony of witnesses were a product of “what we call today ‘racial profiling’.” For example,  white Philadelphians witnessing a struggle between a white male and a black child or a black male and a black child perceived the struggle as something understandable -perhaps the child was really a fugitive or had done something wrong that required discipline. (321) By forging a connection to the racial profiling of contemporary society, the authors allow readers to make their own connections and to recognize the significance of slavery as a historical subject.

Adapted from Critical Review of Notes and Documents: Rescuing African American Kidnapping Victims in Philadelphia as Documented in the Joseph Watson Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by Kymberly Peters