Yale Center in New Haven Takes Hard Look at Slavery, in History and Today

By Stannard, Ed | New Haven Register (New Haven, CT), January 28, 2017 | Go to article overview

Yale Center in New Haven Takes Hard Look at Slavery, in History and Today


Stannard, Ed, New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)


Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series during Black History Month 2017.

NEW HAVEN » Slavery was America's largest industry in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University exists to help Americans of today understand that legacy and how it still felt today, as we celebrate Black History Month in February.

What too many Americans don't understand, even with greater exposure to both academic study and popular culture, is "the sheer scale of the slave trade," said David Blight, director of the center and a professor of American history at Yale. "Roughly twelve and a half million Africans brought out of Africa over 400 years. About 1 million and a half, at least, died at sea. It's the largest forced migration in human history."

All this occurred in "the age of sail, thousands of ships, and they came to all over the Americas from the lower part of South America to the U.S. and Canada. ... Slaves by the late antebellum period, by the 1850s, were the largest financial asset in the entire American economy."

What many Americans misunderstand is how powerfully slavery influenced society and the economy, both in the North and the South, for an extended period, Blight said.

"The dollar value of slavery in just the U.S. in 1860 was about $3.5 billion," he said. That would equal about $80 billion in today's dollars.

While slavery still exists, in other parts of the world, it was in the United States in particular that it was inextricably based on race.

"For a whole set of unique circumstances, from the first encounters of Europeans with Africans, [it] became a racial system," Blight said.

"Slavery in the United States was based on ideological racial hierarchies that maintained that 'white' people were superior and that 'black' and other people of color were inferior -- or even not quite human," said Associate Director Michelle Zacks. "Those racist mental and legal categories did not disappear when slavery ended."

And it wasn't just slave owners who benefited. New Haven's own ties to slavery include the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, who has long been honored in the region where he prospered and died. The machine mechanically separated the seeds from the cotton bolls.

"Most people don't think about what that means, except for Yankee ingenuity," Zacks said. But the cotton gins, which were built so large that enslaved people used giant rakes to draw the cotton through the machines, "made it so much easier, more efficient to process cotton," Zacks said.

Zacks grew up in Hamden and lived in the South, assuming that slavery was most important to that region. However, "coming back here, I think we can see the footprint of slavery everywhere," she said, pointing to the evidence of seagoing trade in New Haven Harbor and on the Quinnipiac River shoreline in Fair Haven.

Even though Connecticut's rocky soil did not encourage the practice to grow as widely as in the South, "New Haven was heavily invested in that trade with the Caribbean," Zacks said. The state did not abolish slavery until 1848, according to slavenorth.com.

But even after slavery was abolished in the North, its economy was still largely dependent on trading in cotton. "Slavery is driving the accumulation of capital that allows us to invest

in what becomes the industrial United States," said Thomas Thurston, education director of the center.

"There were good reasons the Southern planters by the 1850s thought cotton was king," Blight said. "They thought they had the world by the tail.

"The 80-some years of the American experience before the Civil War was deeply infested, dominated by the power of slavery," he said. "I think in the last 20 or 30 years we've made great strides in engaging a larger public in understanding these things."

"It isn't just a matter of slavery's tentacles being all around us, it's back to the political and economic power that that system . …

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