Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Exhuming Hidden History: Sources for Teaching about Slavery in New England

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Exhuming Hidden History: Sources for Teaching about Slavery in New England

Article excerpt


Abstract: The role of slavery in New England remains a neglected topic. This teaching resources article offers a comprehensive survey of some of the most recent teaching materials that cover the theme of slavery in the North and also traces the general history of African Americans in this region from the colonial era through the antebellum period. Particularly useful for high school teachers are the specific start/stop times for documentaries and the appendix, which points readers towards websites that are useful for classroom purposes. Author David Lucander recently earned his PhD from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

New England in general, and Massachusetts in particular, has a rich African American heritage that offers an intricate story of slavery and emancipation. In Massachusetts alone, a truncated list of prominent African Americans who called the Bay State home during the Revolutionary and antebellum years includes Crispus Attucks, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Maria Stewart, and David Walker. These eighteenth- and nineteenth-century icons represent a small sampling of African Americans in New England at a time when the region transformed from a society with slavery into a place where slavery was illegal.1

Teaching about slavery in New England is complicated by a number of factors, perhaps most significant among these is that the region's story is uniquely full of nuance - and nuance is difficult historical material. To be certain, no reasonable observer could confuse colonial New England with Virginia or parts of South Carolina. During this time, the proportion of Black people residing in Massachusetts and Connecticut peaked at under four percent, while New Hampshire had fewer than 1,000 African Americans on the eve of the American Revolution. Conversely, during this era Black people comprised more than half of the population in Virginia and the South Carolina low country.2

Unlike slaves on the massive sugar, rice, tobacco, and cotton plantations in the South, enslaved African Americans in New England lived in a primarily White world. Masters and their families typically worked, ate, slept, and socialized in common residence with their one or two slaves. Small slave holdings, frequent inter-racial contact, English language acquisition and cultural acculturation, access to a modicum of education, and the relatively small number of Black people in northern society characterized the experience of slavery in New England.3 Just as the sheer magnitude of Southern agri-business shaped African American lives and the development of Black American culture, demographics and patterns of land use impacted Black New Englanders, albeit in different ways.

History is the story of people, and people are complicated. As history teachers, we implicitly inculcate critical thinking skills that help our students interpret and analyze events. We also teach students about how to think with complexity, recognize variables, and pay attention to ways that subtle differences make large impacts. In short, we give students the tools to help make sense out of a chaotic world.

Teaching about slavery in New England fits this scenario because it is a curriculum that challenges the simplified way enslavement is depicted in popular culture. Instead of massive impersonal plantations, slavery in New England was on a much more intimate scale. While the Civil War shattered America's "peculiar institution" in the South, racial slavery ended in New England through decades of state legislative, judicial, and constitutional action.

A lifetime of training in sound-bite analysis and a natural human inclination to erroneously simplify complicated events undoubtedly shapes the way our students think. This leaves them better prepared to understand the Emancipation Proclamation and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment than to appreciate the intricacy of Quock Walker suing for his freedom in a 1783 court case that ultimately abolished slavery in Massachusetts. …

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