Category Archives: Identifying The Problem

Slavery & American Memory

In 1839, John “Jack” Saunders, a slave belonging to Jacob Waltz of Washington County, Maryland fled from slavery, and may have made it into Pennsylvania; however, Jack was caught later in the year and forced to face the Maryland Justice System.  Jack was to be forced to an out-of-state sale; however, Waltz petitioned the Governor and Jack was granted a pardon.  This seemed to have turned some gears in Jack’s mind where he was emboldened by the feasibility of escaping the “peculiar institution.”  Jack again escaped in 1840.  He was caught in Frederick County.  The facts of his life are not known beyond this point, except that his capture in-state saved him from being sold South.

These are simply facts; there is no interpretation, no narrative.

Why is slavery so contested in American history and memory?  Is it because it was morally wrong?  Is it because it is so complex and affected the lives of not only blacks but whites as well?  Is it because it deals with Americans identities?  Does the American public even know enough about slavery to hold an intellectual dialogue on slavery?  These questions loom before us as many historical sites – local, state, and federal – attempt to interpret the “peculiar institution.”  As Ira Berlin states in his article “Coming to Terms with Slavery” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, what Americans need “are not only new debates about slavery and race but also a new education . . .The simple truth,” he states “is that most Americans know little about the three-hundred-year history of slavery in mainland North America with respect to peoples of African descent and almost nothing of its effect on the majority of white Americans.”(4)  This is but one major issue public historians face when attempting to present and convey slavery to the public.

Slavery, at its core, complicates the identity of Americans – how can a nation espouse its founding of freedom and liberty while at the same time admit to enslaving another people?  Slavery is, of course, not a uniquely American institution; it has been practiced all over the world.  As James Horton wrote, in the same aforementioned book, “history matters.  It provides our national and our personal identity.  It structures our relationships, and it defines the terms of our debates.”(36)  Horton goes on to emphasize the role of the public historian in all this hullabaloo – “History must be taught not only in the academy but in the variety of nonacademic settings where Americans go to learn.  Here is where the role of the public historian, in charge of telling the complex and contradictory national story in public places, becomes crucial.” (36)

Reconciling the American narrative  would require that we, as Americans, rewrite the major narrative of American history and memory so as to develop an inclusive story of all the human experiences of slavery.  One of the reasons Americans have such a difficult time talking about slavery is because slavery itself needs to be acknowledged as part of the American identity.

Another issue public historians face concerning the presentation of slavery in a public place is that slavery is difficult to generalize, and in fact it should not be generalized.  “The lives of slaves, like those of all men and women, changed over time and differed from place to place.  Thus slavery was not one thing but many.” (Berlin 7)

So then how do we present and interpret slavery to the public?  Then additionally, how do we engage the public?  I do not have the answer; rather, I can only make suggestions.  I think we need to give Americans a visual of how widespread slavery actually was on the continent – it was not a Southern phenomenon.  This of course requires maps – maps that show slave escape routes, maps that show where slaves lived.  It would also be beneficial to present all the narratives that relate to slavery; most Americans think slavery and they think “African American history;” well, I have news, it’s also white history.  It will be a long road to accomplish incorporating slavery into the American narrative.

Adapted from Slavery & American Memory by Heidi Carbaugh

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.



Reflections on Interpreting Slavery and Freedom

One of the main problems public historians encounter when interpreting slavery and freedom with and in the public is a collision with collective memory and/or group identity. Presently the national collective memory and group identity around both slavery and freedom is conventionally categorized and at times idolized, and does not provide a multi-directional  narrative sharing stories and  connections between various groups, locations or situations. Freedom in particular provides a cornerstone in American collective identity, and slavery, a painful history narrative, acts as a barrier, establishing group identity between the “us” and “them” for both racial and regional groups. When public historians present interpretations or attempt to expand upon collective memory by providing an increased narrative, they often encounter confusion, closed-mindedness and on occasion, anger at the obscuring of public understandings.

Numerous historical locations across the United States, have experienced success with the public presenting narratives on slavery and freedom, but segregate them to specific, “appropriate” locations or times on the tour or on a separate tour such Monticello’s Mulberry Row in Virginia and The President’s House site in Philadelphia. This seems like a compromise, it provides public historians the ability to tell the story while respecting the conventionally categorized collective identity. At Monticello in particular, it allows the story of Thomas Jefferson, as a slave owner, owning about 200 slaves in a typical year, not to overshadow that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.

Monticello reflected Photographer: Matt KozlowskiMonticello reflected Photographer: Matt Kozlowski

At The President’s House, the tour, is isolated from that of the Liberty Bell, and explores the implications of liberty evolving at the birth of the nation. This allows the National Park Service to discuss the role of slavery while still maintaining a separation from the ideals of liberty and freedom discussed within Liberty Bell Center. While this process is successful, it is only successful at reinforcing popular collective memory and group identities in the public.

“Reopening a House That’s Still Divided” image by Sabina Louise Pierce for The New York Times

Both of these sites act as strong cornerstones in the American National identity and this separation almost protects the idolized understandings of freedom, while simultaneously reinforcing the barriers between the “us” and “them.” The narratives lack a multi-directional  approach, and do not incorporate the histories and memories of “others,” together in the same context. Instead, the interpretations of slavery and freedom at each location remain separate narratives; “us” and “them,” black and white, no grey.

To find true success with these topics, I feel we as public historians must build multi-directional  interpretations, combining shared histories, stories and memories from various groups to build a rounded interpretation. Additionally, I feel we can increase public receptiveness by presenting interpretations as narrative tales, connecting characters and plots into the overarching themes of slavery and freedom. Stories are far more engaging than traditional chronological sequencing that occurs at most historic sites and in historic narratives. Furthermore, taking advantage of the digital age and instant information era, public historians can utilize the web to their advantage, providing shorter narratives at a time, and physically linking the connections to different people, locations or places. While some of this is already occurring on history websites and blogs, I feel we have the ability to improve the narrative, inspiring our audience and building connections utilizing the multi-directional  approach. Not only incorporating the stories of “us” and “them,” and black and white, to make grey but also painting a narrative rainbow building connections between slavery, freedom and 21st century concerns such as genocide, global racism and LGBTQ equality.

Source: Reflections on Interpreting Slavery and Freedom

Improving the Interpretation of Slavery and Freedom in Maryland

Slavery is, to put it lightly, a touchy subject. It might even be argued that it is one of the most sensitive topics of American history if we base that argument on the current interpretation of slavery in physical and digital environments. Interpretation of slavery has a habit of separating slave lives from the lives of almost anyone else or to simply ignore the presence of slavery. Nothing is going to be gained by using a ‘separation is best’ policy though.

A common response when asking about slaves and why there is little to nothing that pertains to them at a certain site is “we simply do not have enough information,” even if there actually is information available. This provides the basis for pushing that painful narrative to the side to make way for a more approachable one, which is often about the former owners of a particular site or object. If slavery is not outright ignored it is often placed into a separate category, as with separate “slave tours.” This does nothing to help educate people about the lives of slaves and how they were integral to the operation of a house or plantation. Separating narratives simply sweeps the tough issues under the rug and puts them into the room down the hall, reinforcing the notion that slavery was an just a terrible mistake made by people who did not know or even think any different of it at the time.

Another problem that we must address is also a contributing factor to the difficult time with which public historians have interpreting slavery and freedom: people do not want to talk about slavery. Many visitors and those who are tasked with interpretation feel that it is too difficult to talk about as nuanced a topic as slavery. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently tweeted that it is “very difficult for people to understand enslavement as [a] “done thing,” as “policy.” As part of America, not counter to America,” a sentiment that is echoed at almost any historical site in the United States once populated by slaves.

Even more harmful is the attitude that, because it happened in the past and is supposedly removed from our current lives, slavery is not necessary to talk about, especially in conjunction with the Founding Fathers and Civil War sites. As seen in “A Cosmic Threat”: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War by Dwight T. Pitcaithley, people have put the Civil War and the Founding Fathers on a pedestal because they often do not want to confront the idea of our Founding Fathers as anything but heroic.

When public historians ignore comments from the community and, especially, descendants, we run the risk of turning away certain audiences. Dr. Cheryl LaRoche demonstrates this perfectly in Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: the Geography of Resistance. Often what makes interpretation successful is input from people who have had stories passed down from one generation to another. By creating a narrative that is based on personal stories it is possible for visitors to connect on a deeper level. Maybe the visitors won’t remember the year the President’s House in Philadelphia was built, but they might walk away remembering that two of George Washington’s slaves, Hercules and Oney Judge, “sought and gained freedom from [the] very spot” on which visitors stand. (Nash, 93)

I would like to improve the way the story of slavery and freedom in Maryland is presented in a digital environment by focusing on connections actual. People are not a monolith and as such narratives of slavery and freedom cannot be thought of as the same throughout. If we afford historical houses and battleground memorials the opportunity to have individuality, why not do the same thing for slaves and sites of freedom? I would also like to attempt to connect specific places to the history of freedom and slavery in a state where almost anywhere you walk is steeped in a rich history. Too often the historical narratives focus on the people who were in power instead of the people who actually formed the incredibly heavy and bloody backbone of this country.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Twitter Post, September 10, 2014, 7:01 p.m., http://twitter/tanehisicoates
LaRoche, Cheryl. Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: the Geography of Resistance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.
Nash, Gary B. “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll? From Controversy to Cooperation.” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, 93. New York: The New Press, 2009.
Pitcaithley, Dwight T. ” “A Cosmic Threat”: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War.” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, 168-185. New York: The New Press, 2009.

Source: Improving the Interpretation of Slavery and Freedom in Maryland

Where do we go from here?

How can we create a digital space that fosters a dialogue about slavery in Maryland?

In the past, public historians have struggled to interpret slavery and freedom in engaging and truthful ways because these concepts are so wrought with emotional baggage in this country. Our national identity has evolved in the context of an ugly hypocrisy that our historical narratives often avoid: that the land of liberty was built with stolen labor in a culture that strove to dehumanize its darker skinned members. Americans often display a visceral reaction when their assumptions about the history of slavery are threatened. As discussed in the article “ ‘A Cosmic Threat’: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” NPS Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithley and others involved in a congressionally mandated initiative at national battlefields to “recognize and include…the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War” received scores of angry letters from members of the public and heritage groups incensed that sites which they associated with military glory should be sullied by discussions about why Americans took up arms against each other. This historic amnesia is not limited to the Sons of Confederate Veterans; Marylanders, like residents of other border states, tend to ignore our legacy of brutal chattel slavery and racism. We want to forget that it happened here, too.

To overcome the contradictions inherent in an exploration of slavery in a nation which claims as its heritage an unwavering commitment to liberty, many public history professionals have sought to tell two different stories in distinct spaces. Historic homes like Monticello ( and Sotterley Plantation ( offer house tours for the main (read: white) story and interpret the history of the enslaved residents in separate “slave” locations like the gardens. Docents and interpreters at plantation sites are often encouraged to limit discussions of slavery to marginal spaces like an outside kitchen rather than weaving it into all aspects of a house tour. Our project should instead emphasize the interconnected lives of slaveholders and their enslaved workers. We want to represent a more accurate sense of the blended setting in which white and black Marylanders functioned in the time before emancipation.

Our site must be uncompromisingly faithful to our historical research while also representing the stories of those whose voices tend to be left out of the documents. Can we create opportunities for descendants of those enslaved in Maryland to share their stories? Will we be able to move beyond the well-known narratives of famous Marylanders Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to uncover the lives of everyday African Americans living in places like Baltimore, Rockville, and Annapolis? Cheryl Janifer LaRoche from the University of Maryland advocates the use of geography in the quest to dig deeper into the stories of the past. When we diagram the communities in which people lived and the journeys they traveled, we begin to paint a fuller picture of world inhabited by black and white, enslaved and free. The digital space we design should include interactive maps so that visitors can begin with a visual landscape of slavery and freedom in Maryland. By clicking on links, those using the site could then “drill down” to access in-depth stories and the source documents that support those narratives.

Most importantly, our digital project should not seek to resolve the tensions inherent in any discussion of slavery. Rather, we want to support a virtual environment in which visitors will have the opportunity to explore the contradictions of the past. Through our project, we can propose  a more complete picture of slavery in Maryland.

Source: Where do we go from here?