African Diaspora

The U.S. has 35,000 museums. Only one is about slavery.

Excerpt: As a lifelong Southerner, I realized that there had been a glaring omission in my education of the nation’s history, and that I was not alone in my ignorance. While everyone knows that slavery existed in America, for many people, the details are sorely lacking. For instance, many Americans do not realize that religious institutions supported slavery. From the papal order in 1452 permitting the king of Portugal to keep Africans in “perpetual slavery” to the published lectures of an American Protestant doctor of divinity in the 1850s justifying slavery as an “appropriate form of government,” religious institutions were complicit in this atrocity.

Likewise, many do not fully understand the economic impact of slavery on the developing United States economy. The web of people who profited from the labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants stretched from New Orleans to New England. Beyond the obvious fortunes made by slave traders, cotton planters and sugar cane farmers, businesses that profited from American slavery extended far beyond the boundaries of the Confederacy. In the North as well as the South, lawyers and notaries created documents for the sale, lease and manumission of slaves; insurance companies wrote policies on slaves and slaving voyages; and northern shipyards built vessels to transport slaves and plantation cotton. New England textile mills used cotton picked by slaves and New York manufacturers produced what was designated as “Negro clothing.” In the 1850s, the I.M. Singer Company in New York advertised the development of a “new, improved sewing machine especially adapted to the making up of Negro clothing.” New England distilleries manufactured rum from from molasses produced on Louisiana sugar plantations. That cheap rum was used as currency in West Africa to purchase people. Every region of the U.S. and arena of American prosperity owes a debt to the forced labor of African slaves.

Our textbooks and museums have largely ignored or underplayed how tragically integral slavery was to the nation’s development and prosperity. Students have not been taught that slave labor produced America’s wealth, while the enslaved were denied the most basic education, preventing them and their descendants from enjoying access to and participation in America’s prosperity. Without knowledge about how slavery worked and how crushing the experience was — not only for those who endured it, but also for their descendants — it’s impossible to lift the weight of the lingering repercussions of that institution. Every generation of Americans since 1865 has been burdened by the hangover of slavery, through the unequal education, and limited political and economic opportunities available to black Americans.

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