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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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