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Our Undying Past

"The Slave Trail of Tears"

Smithsonian magazine has done a great service to our national self-understanding by publishing an article in its latest edition about what it terms “The Slave Trail of Tears.” Schools today teach about the other, outrageous “Trail of Tears” that Native Americans endured. Now, add to your understanding “the great missing migration,” which author Edward Ball describes as “a thousand-mile-long river of people, all of them black, reaching from Virginia to Louisiana. During the 50 years before the Civil War, about a million enslaved people moved from the Upper South—Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky—to the Deep South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. They were made to go, deported, you could say, having been sold.

“This forced resettlement,” Ball tells us, was to stock large plantations in the newly opened states of the Deep South with slave labor. The move “was 20 times larger than Andrew Jackson’s ‘Indian removal’ campaigns of the 1830s, which gave rise to the original Trail of Tears as it drove tribes of Native Americans out of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. It was bigger than the immigration of Jews into the United States during the 19th century, when some 500,000 arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. It was bigger than the wagon-train migration to the West, beloved of American lore. This movement lasted longer and grabbed up more people than any other migration in North America before 1900.”

I’m currently hard at work on a book about the fugitive-slave settlement in my hometown, Waverly, Pa., in Northeastern Pennsylvania. At least two of the escaped slaves who landed in Waverly, George Keys and William Diggs, had their chattel families broken up in Maryland and quite probably “sold down the river” as part of that trail. Keys’ story has come down to us through his son, who told a Scranton newspaper years later that Keys had been a favored slave of a Dr. John Hawkins in tidewater Maryland. As I summarize it in my manuscript, “Hawkins ‘mated’ Keys to a slave woman and provided a special cabin. But hard times came and Hawkins summarily sold Keys’ common-law wife and their two infants to a planter somewhere in the Carolinas. Keys was absent at the time and never got to bid his chattel family goodbye. Instead, he was handed some money and a signed travel pass and was told to disappear north. That would have been George Keys’ heart-wrenching testimony, about being used for breeding, then having his loved ones discarded to a new plantation, never to be seen again.”

Smithsonian writer Ball goes into agonizing detail about the forced marches. “The drama of a million individuals going so far from their homes changed the country,” he writes. “It gave the Deep South a character it retains to this day; and it changed the slaves themselves, traumatizing uncountable families.”

You can read the full article at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/slavery-trail-of-tears-180956968/#Qd2uEaP93Oq4hcWf.99
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''Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania''

If you saw the film Twelve Years a Slave or read the memoir it’s based on, you know that prior to the Civil War, free-born black people in the Northern states were at risk of being kidnapped and illegally sold into Southern bondage. Mercenaries were carrying out the horrific practice throughout the early decades of the 1800s, and they really upped their game once the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. The new law let slave-catchers come North to capture suspected runaways, with the Northern authorities and public required to cooperate. A quick hearing would be held at which the suspect couldn’t testify. If no one else would pay his bounty, he’d be ordered South with his captors.

This period is included in a Pennsylvania history book I’m currently writing. During my research in the Harrisburg archives, I came upon a powerful article from the Conneautville (Pa.) Courier headlined “Selling Slaves in Pennsylvania.” It drives home just how systematic and conniving the abductions were. Unfortunately, because I have so much other information to use and my primary focus is across the state in Northeastern Pennsylvania, I doubt the article will make it into the book. Still, I’d like to share it because it’s memorable.  Read More 
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A Mass Slave Sale, So Cut-and-Dried

An engraving of a Southern slave auction.

As fresh evidence of the bloodless manner enslaved black people were auctioned in antebellum America, the library system at the University of Pennsylvania has digitized a 1855 sales brochure that a brokerage firm issued to buyers at a New Orleans auction. It’s entitled “178 Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves!” Entries describe the individual slaves and family groups, and payment options are spelled out. Very helpful and enticing--as long as the customers remained dead to human compassion.

The brochure hit home because one of the main figures in my research about the fugitive slave settlement in my hometown of Waverly, Pa., was a Maryland runaway who’d seen his master sell off his chattel wife and two youngsters to a slaver in the Carolinas in the early 1840s. The runaway, George Keys, fled north, resettled in Waverly, and later became a Union soldier during the Civil War. I’m writing a book about Waverly’s Underground Railroad era and its dozen unsung black men including Keys who enlisted and fought in the war. Read More 

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At last, a slavery museum

The Louisiana museum includes a number of tableau including this one of children.
America finally has a slavery museum. And it’s right in the belly of the beast, rural Louisiana.

But what took long? Our country was founded on two pillars of shame – the enslavement of black people and the dispossession of Native Americans – so why did it take us until 2015 to open a museum focusing on the enormity of what’s been called our “peculiar institution”?

Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor, has a theory about this societal avoidance. “Slavery gets understood as a kind of prehistory to freedom rather than what it really is: the foundation for a country where white supremacy was predicated upon African-American exploitation,” he says. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”

Johnson is among the people quoted by The New York Times in a Feb. 26 feature story about the new slavery museum. The article walks you through the museum grounds, located on the original Whitney Plantation west of New Orleans. Whitney is far different from other restored sugar plantations in a region where, the Times states, “mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings.”

At Whitney, the visitor finds not only slave cabins and exhibits Read More 
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Truth-Telling on White Terrorism

The Equal Justice Initiative's new report shows how lynchings were open spectacles at the time, but have been edged out of our public history.
One of the most outrageous – and suppressed – parts of our nation’s history is racial lynching. You probably knew that sadistic murders of African Americans happened across the South. Perhaps it was a paragraph in your history textbook about the Jim Crow era. Maybe you stared at one of the gruesome old photos of dangling corpses. But did you know lynching’s full scope, and just how openly and even gleefully it occurred, with impunity for the perpetrators and a bottomless grief and rage for the victims’ terrorized communities?

This month, an intrepid Alabama-based rights group called the Equal Justice Initiative issued a monumental report on lynching that’s designed to grab us all  Read More 
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Red, Black, and Sometimes White


This new group taps into many African Americans' newfound interest in their native roots.

New Year’s Day brought a fascinating article out of Atlanta about black Native Americans. It should be no surprise that the two groups mixed over the centuries. Both were marginalized and persecuted by Europeans, with many American Indians being enslaved along with Africans in the early decades of contact, and with blacks sometimes being enslaved by Native Americans.

In the 1970s I delved into this complicated phenomenon when researching a story about an organization called United American Indians of the Delaware Valley. The coalition, now defunct, was dominated by a North Carolina group known as the Haliwas. Many of its members were triracial – black, white and red. Haliwa is an invented name that refers to the two rural counties, Halifax and Warren, where the group was concentrated. For generations, the Haliwas were what anthropologists term “triracial isolates” – subsisting on a toehold of isolated land, until many of them departed on the Great Migration north Read More 
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