Remembering and Teaching Slavery in America

March 31, 2020

Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), edited by historians James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, is a collection of essays on the public memory of slavery in the U.S. The book begins with a challenge for public historians: How do we deal with the history of American slavery in a country dedicated to freedom?

The first five essays make for interesting reading. At first I thought my favorite essay was essay #3, when James Horton makes the bold statement that America’s problem with slavery is that the “vast majority of Americans react strongly to the topic, but few know much about it.”  I was fascinated by his argument on page 38 that the original fervor to leave the British Empire was that English taxation and governance made “slaves” of the colonists.

I then, however, read essay #4 by John Michael Vlach, The Last Great Taboo Subject: Exhibiting Slavery at the Library of Congress, and changed my mind. This essay became the most compelling for me, of the first five.

Image of slavery in America: copyright in the public domain. 
Photo credit: Okinawa_Soba, Flickr, "Black America"


Vlach’s essay describes how an exhibition that he put together for the Library of Congress was set up but never shown to the public. Vlach explains that the exhibit was a continuation of seven years of his research on the actual housing and architecture of slaves. In 1988 Vlach began researching original building surveys and slave narratives from the 1930s and 1940s that were housed in the Library of Congress. Between the building plan documents and surviving slave narratives, and historic site visits to prior slave-owning properties, Vlach felt he was able to create a social landscape of slavery, and published his book Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery, in 1993. Writes Vlach, “It was my position that the plantation was not merely a place of captivity but a culturally contested site, a social arena in which enslaved blacks began to piece back together their shattered lives.”

The book’s publication and general positive reception prompted the Library of Congress to invite Vlach to share his work with the public in an exhibit at the Library of Congress. The exhibit was supposed to be in place for six weeks from December 1995 to January 1996, after stops in other locations. However, after its setup, a group of African American employees complained they found it offensive and Library of Congress management quickly cancelled the exhibit the day before it was to open. Amid resulting media coverage, including some national exposure, Vlach’s exhibit ended up at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in D.C., with its name changed, where it was received with interest for four months.

What I found interesting about Vlach’s essay is how public history can be manipulated by many influencing forces, not least politically charged arenas where other factors are at work. (I also really liked the history of the capitol and the discussion on where houses once stood in relation to the current location of the White House – houses and properties that were slave owning plantations, but that’s a blog post for another time.)

Vlach ends with acknowledging that the history of slavery cannot move easily through the public due to its inherent sensitivity, but that by allowing Americans to have a direct encounter with our “hidden history” of slavery, we might be enabled to understand how we have become the people that we are.




Professor Peniel Joseph

YouTube video: my preferred presentation in the YouTube video “Not Even Past: The Confederate Statues at UT” was the second one by professor Peniel Joseph at the University of Texas at Austin. His passionate arguments on any celebration of the Confederacy not being American were compelling and thought provoking. I liked his bald positioning statement, “Confederate memorials are un-American” and the way he backed it up with scholarship on the mythology of white supremacy and the exploitation of blacks. What a statement: “The Confederacy is a living monument to the most reprehensible moral and political disasters and catastrophe that the world has ever seen in terms of racial slavery.” Professor Joseph is a great speaker: articulate, energetic, and focused.