The Hidden Histories of Slavery

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)


A memorial in the former slave market of Zanzibar, Tanzania, where over a million slaves were traded between 1811 and 1873. [Patrick/Flickr]

[Scheduled for Wednesday May 17, 2006]

Ghanaian poet and scholar Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang calls slavery “the living wound under the patchwork of scars.” Alternately spotlighted and ignored on both sides of the Atlantic, slavery is still the bedrock of modern race relations in the U.S., and the starting point for every conversation about race and class.

The scar covered wound is an apt metaphor for how we tell our history: some things get remembered, some don’t, some pieces get canonized and some pieces get lost. Most people don’t remember, for example, the Maroons – escaped first generation slaves who led guerilla attacks against the British in Jamaica. Nor do most people remember the strange triangulation between black slaves, American patriots, and the British during the Revolutionary War.

Now many new histories are re-examining what we think we already know about a period of time when the Founding Fathers were hashing out the inalienable rights of man, while inscribing the 3/5 personhood of blacks into the Constitution.

In this show we’ll parse some of the hidden, lost, buried, ignored, forgotten, and suppressed stories and histories of slavery. What pieces got left out of the canon of American history? And why? And what does it mean now to unearth them?

Our main shepherd will be British-born uber-historian Simon Schama, the author of one of these new histories. An 11 on our 1-to-10 scale of good talkers, Schama has, as one review put it, “gained a reputation for challenging established notions of history and culture.” He says we’re only now starting to understand slavery as an integral part of every aspect of American history. Not just a story in and of itself, but part and parcel of the very foundation and conception of the country.

Leave your questions here, and reminders of the stories we’ve lost or ignored.

Simon Schama

University Professor of History and Art History, Columbia University

Author, Rough Crossing: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution

Jill Lepore

Professor of History, Harvard University

Author, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan

Marian Douglas

Blogger, Marian’s Blog

Family history researcher, co-founder American Cross Race Genealogy

Consultant in human rights and elections in the Balkans, Haiti, Latin America, and the Caribbean

Extra Credit Reading

Jill Lepore, Goodbye, Columbus, The New Yorker, May 1, 2006

Ira Berlin, Slaves in the Family, The New York Times Book Review, May 14, 2006

Adele Oltman, The Hidden History of Slavery in New York, The Nation, October 24, 2005

Kara Walker, After the Deluge, documentation and audio from her current show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Related Content

  • I wonder if to begin the healing process, America must not attend to both the “the living wound under the patchwork of scars,â€? from the its childhood and also the silenced and unmourned death of the original peoples that gave birth to the nation.

  • malcom z

    I suggested a show on modern day slavery. We still have slavery in this country. Being tuned into the subject I notice when there’s a story on slavery. I’ve seen many stories on chinese people held in this country as slaves. They’re brought over to work in secluded sweat shops as we speak. I’ve also heard of women brought here from the former Soviet Union to be prostitutes. You don’t have to look hard to see such stories. I also saw a story about a vietnamese woman who was sold for 5 thousand dollars in Malaysia just a week or so ago. Tie the two stories together. Remember the story, not so long ago, of the slave ship wandering off the coast of Africa. Do a search on the internet it’s loaded with examples and books that have been written on the subject.

  • Here is a good backgrounder for this topic.

    The Founding Fathers, Slavery and Black Patriotism

  • Robin

    I think your point is a good one, sidewalker. If we’re going to talk about how the history of slavery is fully integrated into the history of America, we should also talk about the history of the slaughter and conquest of Native Americans, and how that is fully integrated into American history as well.

    Malcolm Z – thanks, we saw that suggestion. Thanks for brining it up here as well. We’ll see if we can work it into tonight’s show. And if not, ways to tackle that question in the future.

  • joel

    May 9th, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    This country has never actually been able to wean itself from slavery. Products of slavery are merely of those industries moved offshore. Which is why U.S. workers cannot compete anymore and this society imports those low priced items with glee. The large corporate plantations of the Banana Republics, sugar, coffee, bananas, have been around ever since slaves went out of style here. The practice has expanded to nearly everything we buy, especially, shoes and other clothing and all other manufacturing and agriculture products we no longer produce – up to computers and state of the art electronics and now IT and related services. This will continue as long as we crave our inflated wages for what we produce while craving, also, all those cheap imports.


  • I’m struck by the caption for the photo above:

    “…where over a million slaves were traded between 1811 and 1873.”

    I think it would be more impactful to say: “where over a million people were kidnapped and sold into slavery…”

    We dehumanize the people by calling them slaves. I don’t believe a person is a slave. I believe other people enslave them. I prefer to put the degrading label on the offenders not the victims.

  • The hidden history of slavery is most definitely not only an American phenomenon. I’m from the Netherlands – a country that was intensely involved with the earliest slave transports from West Africa to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Dutch are often commended for their trade spirit and long tradition of expanding their horizons, but the shameful role that we played in both colonialism and slave trade are often conveniently ignored as essential elements of this.

    Just a few months ago I became painfully aware of this part of our Dutch heritage when I visited a former slave island just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. The island still bears the Dutch name of Goree, and is now an impressive museum. I learned a number of shocking facts about the role the Dutch played in institutionalizing slave trade, and I wish I’d learned ANY of this in school or, for that matter, read about it in newspapers or magazines. I can’t believe the lack of information about this issue in a country that is otherwise very open and progressive and ready to admit its mistakes. I’m not sure where this omission comes from – perhaps it’s because in everyday life the Dutch are not confronted with their slavery history the way Americans are. After all, our slavery history lies abroad.

  • dliroff

    By regrettable coincidence with this broadcast, the offices of the Black Loyalist Society in Birchtown, Nova Scotia were torched on 3/31/06, destroying records which went back to the Black Loyalists’ flight from the colonies to Canada in the mid/late 1770’s.


    Black Loyalist Society Receives Boost

    African Nova Scotian Affairs

    May 8, 2006 10:03


    An African Nova Scotian cultural institution destroyed by a suspicious fire a month ago, has received a $12,000 boost from the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs (ANSA).

    The Black Loyalist Society’s offices were gutted by fire on March 31. About 20 years of research, records, artifacts, and office equipment were destroyed in the fire.

    In addition to the contribution, the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs will reprint 5000 copies of the society’s promotional brochures ahead of the busy summer season. The brochures contain a map of Nova Scotia with descriptions of notable historic Black establishments — museums, exhibits and restaurants.

    “The fire was a tragic event, but it will not stop the society as it continues to tell the story of the Black Loyalists who came here centuries ago,” said Wayn Hamilton, CEO of the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs. “ANSA will work with the society as they move forward in their re-building efforts.”

    The office will also provide the society with communication support and help with the co-ordination of several fundraising initiatives.

    “This could not have come at a better time, we are please to receive the financial support,” said Richard Gallion, board member, Black Loyalist Society. “There is still lots of work to be done, but with ANSA’s contribution we hope to be ready for this year’s summer tours.”

    The society is currently in talks with the Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage. The business plan they presented to the department has received a favorable response.

    The Black Loyalist Society is a community group that works to preserve an important and significant Nova Scotian historical settlement site.

    Media Contact: Tokozani Zaza

                  African Nova Scotian Affairs



  • Rycke

    America presently has the largest slave labor system in the world. We have the largest prison system, the most people incarcerated, both absolute and per capita, and probably the most people working off “community service’ sentences.

    The 13th Amendment banned slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” Interesting how the number of laws multiplied after it was passed. Laws against things that had never been illegal before, like concealed weapons and drugs.

    Live Free and Prosper,

  • Chanutin

    Just to add a bit of complexity, I know of at least one British officer in the American Revolution who owned slaves during his service in America. The Colonel of the 29th Regiment had six or seven black teenagers whom he outfitted as musicians for the regiment. They served in that capacity throughout the war. After the war ended, as a reward for good service, he freed them. Their fate is unknown.

    The more important a period in history to a particular people, the more likely they are to simplify and mythologize the events and participants. So it is with the American Revolution. The colonial population was divided on religious, economic, linguistic, political, and yes, racial issues.

    There was some hypocrisy on all sides. The anti-slavery types in New England often enjoyed prosperity built either directly on the slave trade or indirectly on the sugar/molasses/rum trade. The southern planters held the Declaration of Independence in one hand and a whip in the other and dehumanized and rationalized because their economic lives depended on it. The British courted the slaves and the native Americans quite pragmatically while cashing in on the West Indies trade. As the participants in the show noted, the only heroes in the story were the slaves themselves.

  • spiritcircle

    I would like to recommend a Book; The COlor of Wealth and an organization, United for a Fair Economy, which runs worksshops on the legacy of institutional racism as well as in imigration policy and its lastin impact on generations of Americans.

  • babu

    On Jil Lepore’s observation that we (white folks) put the whole subject into the nice box called Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month to (not) talk about it:

    I grew up in the fifties/sixties in a left-wing, labor-organizing home where I was taught that CLASS was the big unmentionable in society and that the owners of the means of production pitted groups of workers against each other in various ways.

    I was taught to understand slavery as an extreme form of class-ism, the ultimate under-class. We talked about it quite openly as a facet of economic imperialism. I was also taught that it was reprehensible and that this was not a popular belief, one that I should not bring up casually outside. But we talked about it and it formed my beliefs and they’ve never changed.

    You can talk about this issue with children. You simply have to face up to it and start.

  • desertrose

    What is missing from the history of slavery is the Arab slave traders’ extensive role. The Arabs enslaved African way before the arrival of the white man to the African shores. Even after the down of Islam, it was still practiced although Islam abhorred it. In Saudi Arabia slavery was practiced until early 1900. The Sultan of Oman, with the help of the British, made Zanzibar his own farm, enslaved the population, and transformed the city into a big plantation for cloves, cardamom, and spices that was desired by British and many others.

    I lived in the Persian Gulf and Yemen, and visited a few other countries, and one can’t help but see the descendants of the African slaves every where you turn. In modern day Arabia, many live in slumps, poor and at the bottom of the social scale. One good note is that one can hear the African drums in the Persian Gulf music; in fact, most of the drummers are those of darker complexion. I can say that the west acknowledged it and to some degree is coming to terms with it. In Arabia however, there is a total silence.

    Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora by Ronald Segal

  • The proclamations of freedom in the midst of a slave-based society as one of the great historic American hypochracies is touched on in the show. Along side this must come the introduction of a private property system for land forcefully taken or stolen from native Americans.

  • tanyajones

    I think it would be more impactful to say: “where over a million people were kidnapped and sold into slavery…�

    While I completely agree, I think it would hold even more impact if we’d stop glossing over the fact that these human beings were kidnapped and sold into slavery, with the duplicity and assistance of people in their own community. Nobody ever wants to focus on, or talk about that part of the story. In order to fully understand the horror of slavery, we have to hear all of it, not just the parts that make good press.

  • scionxaj

    While listening to the recorded program on my i-pod, I was struck by the participants reaction to the news of the Black Loyalists Society and the fire they suffered. When it was mentioned that an article in a local newspaper had stated that the fire was the result of arson was not suspect ito be race related, everyone automatically bitterly laughed and assumed that of course it was. Why? People burns things down all the time for reasons other than racial hate. It reminds me of the story told earlier in the program of the African slaves being accused of setting a slew of fires in 18th Century New York City. The suspicion, fear, and predjudice on BOTH sides are so subtle that we dont notice their effects even while we are discussing them.