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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The odd invisibility of slavery landmarks in the United States

Last Friday, while freezing in New Orleans for the AALS meeting, I had the unnerving experience of eating lunch in New Orleans' former slave exchange, in which Pierre Maspero's restaurant is now housed. The building's former role as a slave market is invisible except for a discrete historical plaque. The restaurant's menu, unsurprisingly, prefers to give much greater prominence to Andrew Jackson's and the Lafitte Brothers' meeting in the building to plan the defense of New Orleans: Anyone who has read Walter Johnson's searing account of the New Orleans slave markets can imagine that eating inside a slave market can have the chilling feeling of eating inside, say, a barracks at Dachau.

But the invisibility of Maspero's slavery exchange seems par for the course in the United States: Slavery's physical landmarks and artifacts seem mostly invisible in th realm of public history. The building that houses that old Franklin & Armfield slave market in Alexandria, Virginia (on 3115 Duke Street, in case any of you are curious) is, for instance, marked only with a small plaque and a National Historic Landmark designation -- this, despite its being on federal territory until 1846 (when Alexandria was ceded back to Virginia by the feds) and, therefore, at the center of the great constitutional controversy of the 1830s over the petition campaign to end slavery in Washington, D.C. There is no museum inside explaining its role in maintaining slavery. There is a small, family-run museum with slavery-related artifacts in Milwaukee, WI -- a credit to J. Justin & Gwen Ragsdale who maintain it, but hardly what one would call a nationally visible landmark on the beaten path of public history. There are several important museums of African-American history that include material on slavery but, to my knowledge, no museum devoted solely to the study and preservation of material on slavery itself -- its victims, economics, laws, customs, etc. Such a museum has been proposed for Washington, D.C., but, to my knowledge, Congress has appropriated no funds for the project.

Why not? There is something deeply odd about the absence of a major research and educational center about slavery in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, or elsewhere on the beaten path of tourism and public history. Have African-American organizations not made the creation of such a museum a priority? Or is the existence of our "peculiar institution" still too embarrassing and emotionally painful for us to make part of the standard docent's circuit on the Washington Mall?

Posted by Rick Hills on January 17, 2010 at 04:31 PM | Permalink


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Cincinnati has a museum devoted to the Underground Railroad, so that's about one aspect of the anti-slavery struggle.

That demonstrates, I think, that the absence of a slavery-specific museum is just one instance, albeit a large one, of the broader rule that American mounuments and museums are generally positive/celebratory. Or, at a minimum, we put any memorials-of-loss into a context of ultimate triumph. The Holocaust is a rare exception, but it also concerns events centered far away from American soil, so it's not dwelling on our own sins (our omissions in not doing enough, or commissions in turning away refugees, are not the central story). Pearl Harbor marks evil done to us by outsiders, not our own evil, and further, our ultimate victory is well-known to all approaching the memorial. Gettysburg is a somber memorial of loss, but is also a marker of the turning point toward Northern victory etc.

So slavery is reflected indirectly in sites that honor the North's victory and/or abolition, such as the Underground Railroad one, or as a tangent to a site otherwise centered on a different topic, such as at Mount Vernon. A focus on slavery itself is unlikely unless connected to abolition. Even there, it's difficult to nail down the precise place and time to memorialize that. The history of Jim Crow and the civil rights battles make it harder to pin down the "victory day" in the way that we can with WWII.

With that in mind, it might be more important to focus on how slavery is presented in all the other sites, such as museums focused on a given city's or state's history, or on a historical person/site with a slavery connection (like Mt. Vernon), rather than to push for a separate slavery museum.

Posted by: anonner | Jan 19, 2010 4:04:00 PM

I certainly understood Professor Hills to be asking why there isn't a Museum of American Slavery and why African-American organizations haven't succeeded in having one created. My answer, which I think is simply descriptive, is that African-American organizations don't want one because there would be no black heroes in the musuem.

If you turned the matter over to academic historians of slavery, then indeed you would get a museum of comparative slavery or unfree labor, since that is the way historians actually conceptualize the issue these days. But that is way down the list of reasons why there is no Museum of American Slavery.

While I appreciate your desire not to reduce slavery to a chapter in African-American history, that's just not how the public discourse on slavery works. Since you keep bringing up the Shoah, imagine how many Jewish organizations, Holocaust survivors, etc. would react if, instead of a Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., there had been built a more theoretically-sound Museum of Genocide, in which the Shoah was considered alongside the Soviet Terror Famines, Killing Fields, etc. Good luck with that!

Posted by: Managing Board | Jan 19, 2010 9:38:45 AM

Someone is advocating for this: http://www.usnationalslaverymuseum.org/slavery-museum.html

Agree with Prof. Hills that slavery is not solely a chapter in African-American history, but why did you ask in the original post, "Have African-American organizations not made the creation of such a museum a priority?" if you're aware of this? African-American non-historical organizations have bigger fish to fry w/r/t education, poverty, segregation of various kinds, etc., but I would hope a historical organization, whether led by African-Americans or not, would advocate for such a museum in a location of national prominence (e.g., not just the big slave ports like Charleston or Savannah.)

Posted by: Future Prof | Jan 19, 2010 8:45:58 AM

There's something of a monument to slavery at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, mostly situated around the site of George Washington's old slave quarters. It's not a focus of the site, though. The fairly new African Burial Ground memorial in lower Manhattan (near the court houses and city hall) is also partially a slavery memorial, though not only that. It's quite an interesting little site.

Posted by: Matt | Jan 19, 2010 8:12:00 AM

"Managing Board" notes that "[t]he fundamental problem with a museum about slavery only is that it's a museum about whites victimizing blacks and that's all."

This strikes me as a mistaken view of slavery. Slavery was not merely about the victimization of blacks by whites: It was also about the victimization of blacks by blacks (Africans were major participants in the slave trade) and whites by whites (slavery writ large obviously antedated slavery of Africans in the Caribbean in North America and, even in North America, Indians as well as Africans had been enslaved, especially in the Southwest). Slavery is at the center of American history -- American laws and particularly its constitution, American economics and trade, American concepts of democracy (if Edmund Morgan's thesis is correct), and American struggles over class and social equality. Just as African-American history cannot be reduce to a history of slavery, so too, slavery cannot be reduced to a chapter in African-American history. The two topics overlap, but they are different, and public history about one cannot be a substitute for public history about the other, any more than a museum devoted to Jewish culture and history can serve the role of a museum about genocide.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jan 18, 2010 11:17:36 PM

This isn't directly on point, but I'm reminded of this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/us/15schools.html

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jan 18, 2010 8:41:20 PM

It seems to me that the founders and sponsors of basically every African-American history museum must have considered and rejected making it a museum about slavery only. Instead they situated slavery as part of the black experience in America. So I think the answer is that the African-American community and other constituencies don't have much interest in a museum about slavery only. The fundamental problem with a museum about slavery only is that it's a museum about whites victimizing blacks and that's all. Maybe many whites do not want that story told at all, but I think the decisive factor is that almost no blacks want it told that way.

Posted by: Managing Board | Jan 18, 2010 7:56:11 PM

At least Mt. Vernon has the slave quarters rebuilt and open to tourists, but not much discussion, as might be expected. It's hard to say the US never engaged in soul-searching considering the rise of the abolitionist movement, the fighting of a civil war that left 600,000 dead, and the 12 years of Reconstruction, with its major concern being raising the freedmen to a secure status, ending all vestiges of slavery, and protecting freedmen from terrorism. We didn't succeed in those objectives, but did spend 12 years trying.

Posted by: Dave Hardy | Jan 18, 2010 12:59:15 PM

This is an interesting point. A few thoughts:

1) The United States is notoriously bad at acknowledging our past transgressions. Witness the congressional and media handwringing over the "apology" for slavery or the controversy over the Smithsonian display that purported to even hint at moral questions surrounding the use of the Atomic Bomb; the possible exception was the Japanese internment (which Eric Muller has written about), although most of the camps (and thus the landmarks) are located in remote parts of the Great Plains. At the national level, there is an attitude of "get over it" and "stop talking about the past" and "stop blaming us for the bad acts of 200 years ago" in response to any efforts to memorialize something as ugly as slavery.

2) States of the Old South are not going to take the lead on this, for similar reasons. For the states, we also can add that the legacy of slavery (namely, Jim Crow) is very fresh and still a subject of legal controversy (e.g., pre-clearance in the Voting Rights Act) and political conversation (e.g., Nixon's Southern Strategy).

3) The U.S. has never demanded of itself as to slavery the national soul-searching we have seen (and expected) from other nations, such as Germany (and other nations complicit in the Shoah) or Japan after WW II.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 17, 2010 8:12:38 PM

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