Back to Top

02.21.02 Latour, Francie, “New England’s Hidden History (More than we like to think, the North was built on slavery),” an article published in the Boston Globe on September 26, 2010.

Our Review

The following is an extensive review by member Valerie Protopapas, which explores the Boston Globe article as an extensive study.  To view the article itself click on the line to the newspaper’s website which you will find at the end of this posting.

Putting the Whole Puzzle Together: A Report on One Important Piece as It Appeared in the Boston Globe

Valerie Protopapas

Anyone addicted to picture puzzles knows how frustrating it is to assemble one almost to completion only to find out that a piece is missing. The more complicated and difficult the puzzle, the more maddening it is to come near to completion only to realize that you will never accomplish your desired end for the information required is absent. And puzzles are not the only circumstance in which missing pieces can be catastrophic. Try assembling a model or making a garment when there are parts lost. A great many human endeavors as well as man-hours are brought to naught because, when all is said and done, essential components are simply not there.

But missing pieces do more damage than simply aggravating those involved. When the puzzle cannot be finished or the garment assembled, the aggrieved laborer can assuage himself with a stiff drink or some other pleasantry. But what about the “missing piece” scenario when it occurs in such disciplines as the study of history? While the former examples of the consequences involved are obvious, for the historian what most often happens is that the “puzzle” is “completed” absent the missing pieces and this may often result in a faulty conclusion. The picture puzzle’s missing piece is obvious; the historian’s missing piece may be overlooked or, worse, ignored. 

Of course, the more important the historic subject, the more essential the missing piece—and no subject today seems to carry with it a greater weight in the general culture than that of slavery as it existed in the ante-bellum South. It is not necessary to repeat yet again the general view of black slavery in the South but that view is minus a good many pieces and hence it cannot be accepted as valid. Yes, it does contain a great deal of information, but absent the rest, the conclusion invariably reached by the historian (or anyone else) is palpably false. 

And while it is easy enough to talk of “missing pieces,” if we are attempting to invalidate the conclusions reached without them, we must find those pieces and place them into the puzzle. This is a very lengthy process so I will only make mention of two such, concentrating on one that seems to have been not so much “lost” as “ignored!” A “lost” piece can be unintentionally overlooked because the historian does not see the connection of the piece with his particular puzzle or, in the alternative, he is unaware of it in the first place. An “ignored” piece indicates an attempt to reach a conclusion that said “piece” might invalidate—and that is how “history” is manufactured!

The first piece of the puzzle of black slavery in the South is the role played by the slave trade and especially the involvement in that trade of the Africans themselves. Many people have this “vision” of (especially Western) slavers sailing to Africa, fitting out expeditions into the bush and “capturing” innocent natives going about their daily business. These captives were then brought back to the coast, and loaded onto sailing ships for the hideous “Middle Passage” to Europe or the New World. But this is nonsense! Now certainly, Arabs from the Middle East might have obtained slaves that way, but the easiest, cheapest and safest way to obtain an African slave was from another African! The economic system of Africa was based upon slavery. African chieftains and kings did not till the land or even mine for the great wealth of that Continent. They used the captives of eternal tribal wars as capital, keeping some and selling the rest. The fate of a captive who was not kept or sold was death. So, the ease and relative cheapness with which slaves were procured through tribal warfare and the wealth that their sale obtained from the slave traders encouraged African potentates to use slavery as their source of wealth. The idea that black slavery was a white European or American invention is ludicrous and certainly not validated by history.

Because slavery is such an emotional topic, people don’t bother to understand it other than all those hideous tableaus eternally presented to the gullible and naïve. Furthermore, today slavery is seen only as involving blacks, but especially in colonial America, most slaves were white. Only later did that change with the African slave trade run from New England. But, most important to understand is that the reason for slavery had nothing to do with “lording it” over another human being but rather to maintain a stable labor force. In other words, without slavery, the planter would be constantly in danger of losing all that he possessed if that labor force simply wasn’t available to sow and to reap. Agriculture is a livelihood in which there are periods of intense labor followed by periods of if not rest, than certainly far less work than is required during planting and harvest. That is why school children in rural areas used to be excused from class during those periods! These were activities that could not be “put off” until a more convenient time! 

On the other hand, the mill, factory or mine owner needed only to have available to him a labor pool from which to draw workers because one day at the mill, factory or  mine was much the same as any other. Most of the jobs in the manufacturing North did not require any great skill or training but they did require bodies in which the manufacturer need not invest anything but a small wage in exchange for hard labor. So the North—with its endless supply of immigrants pouring into its cities—did not need to maintain chattel slavery which was far more expensive as a source of labor than the cheap and easily replaced “wage slave.” However, the agricultural South which had no such multitudes fleeing the wars and famines of Europe, found itself wed to a system that had gotten out of control simply because no one—no, not even Thomas Jefferson—could determine what would happen, and, more importantly, how to avoid what would happen if the system were simply “ended” and the newly freed slaves released into the general population to fend for themselves. This situation was summed up in Jefferson’s agonized response to the call for emancipation: “But what shall we do with the Negro?” 

This is one of those “pieces” that is most frequently left out of the puzzle of ante-bellum slavery though it is certainly no secret to historians. The problem is this: they cannot delve deeply into what happened and why it happened and still maintain the claim that the War for Southern Independence was solely a desperate effort to maintain chattel slavery. In addition, they cannot lay the “blame” for chattel slavery entirely at the door of the people and the States of the South. And this is where we find the second “lost piece” of the puzzle; that is, what was happening in the North during this period of time?

And to this most important question, I refer the reader to an article written by African-American journalist, Francie Latour. Ms. Latour’s work appeared in the September 26th, 2010 edition of the Boston Globe*, hardly a Southern paper. The title of her article is New England’s hidden history: More than we like to think, the North was built on slavery.  The best thing that could be done would be to post Ms. Latour’s article here, but for that we need her permission and having tried to gain such in the past—and failing—it was determined to try to entice folks to read the piece for themselves through the auspices of this article. 

Ms. Latour begins with the execution of a black slave who had murdered his master in colonial times. She gives the particulars but does not say where this event occurred until the account is complete. She then goes on to write:

“It sounds like a classic account of Southern slavery. But Codman’s body didn’t hang in Savannah, Ga.; it hung in present-day Somerville, Mass. And the reason we know just how long Mark the slave was left on view is that Paul Revere passed it on his midnight ride. In a fleeting mention from Revere’s account, the horseman described galloping past ‘Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains.’ When it comes to slavery, the story that New England has long told itself goes like this: Slavery happened in the South, and it ended thanks to the North. Maybe we had a little slavery, early on. But it wasn’t real slavery. We never had many slaves, and the ones we did have were practically family. We let them marry, we taught them to read, and soon enough, we freed them. New England is the home of abolitionists and underground railroads. In the story of slavery—and by extension, the story of race and racism in modern-day America—we’re the heroes. Aren’t we? “[emphasis mine vhp

Ms. Latour proceeds to briefly document the history of slavery in New England and the North, something she says has gone too long unrevealed. She also states that, “. . . historians say it is time to radically rewrite America’s slavery story to include its buried history in New England.” Perhaps that is so, but if it is, I have not seen any effort other than that by Ms. Latour for any such revelations though she solemnly states that all sorts of Northern historians are hot on the trail of Northern slave involvement. As her article was written four years ago and blessed little has come forth on this subject, it would appear that our Northern historians seem less anxious for these revelations than is Ms. Latour. 

The lady then refers to another extremely interesting book written by three Hartford (Connecticut) Courant journalists, one of whom was Ann Farrow. The book is entitled, Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited From Slavery. This is another work that has received “crickets” from the historical and academic communities. Of course, some effort has been made such as the rather stupid “apology” given by Connecticut for its involvement in black slavery which makes that state, in Ms. Latour’s words, “. . . the first New England state to formally apologize for slavery.” And while this may assuage the perennially “deeply offended” among us, frankly it is useless until Africa also apologizes and both that Continent and much of Asia and the Middle East end present day slavery! 

Ms. Latour goes on to quote Stephen Bressler, director of the Brookline (Massachusetts) Human Relations-Youth Resources Commission who said: 

“What people need to understand is that, here in the North, while there were not the large plantations of the South or the Caribbean islands, there were families who owned slaves. There were businesses actively involved in the slave trade, either directly in the importation or selling of slaves on our shores, or in the shipbuilding, insurance, manufacturing of shackles, processing of sugar into rum, and so on. Slavery was a major stimulus to the Northern economy.” 

Ah, yes, the infamous Triangle Trade—molasses to rum to slaves—a strictly New England enterprise! 

Ms. Latour quotes Joanne Pope Melish, a teacher of history at the University of Kentucky and author of the book Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860. Ms. Melish expounds on New England “racism” thusly: 

“The absolute amnesia about slavery here on the one hand, and the gradualness of slavery ending on the other, work together to make race a very distinctive thing in New England. If you have obliterated the historical memory of actual slavery—because we’re the free states, right?—that makes it possible to turn around and look at a population that is disproportionately poor and say, it must be their own inferiority. That is where New England’s particular brand of racism comes from.” 

Of course, Ms. Latour could not resist blowing New England’s abolitionist horn and brought forth as her hero “The Liberator” William Lloyd Garrison. And, as well, she determines that the whole Civil War (sic) was fought on the issue of slavery. Still, she is  honest enough to point out: 

“But to focus on crusaders like Garrison is to ignore ugly truths about how unwillingly New England as a whole turned the page on slavery. Across the region, scholars have found, slavery here died a painfully gradual death, with emancipation laws and judicial rulings that either were unclear, poorly enforced, or written with provisions that kept slaves and the children born to them in bondage for years. Meanwhile, whites who had trained slaves to do skilled work refused to hire the same blacks who were now free, driving an emerging class of skilled workers back to the lowest rungs of unskilled labor. Many whites, driven by reward money and racial hatred, continued to capture and return runaway Southern slaves; some even sent free New England blacks south, knowing no questions about identity would be asked at the other end. And as surely as there was abolition, there was “bobalition” — the mocking name given to graphic, racist broadsides printed through the 1830s, ridiculing free blacks with characters like Cezar Blubberlip and Mungo Mufflechops. Plastered around Boston, the posters had a subtext that seemed to boil down to this: Who do these people think they are? Citizens?” 

The Latour article goes on to remove the romantic notion of a loving, caring culture where whites sympathized and helped the free blacks among them. She quotes historian Elise Lemire who pointed out that, “Slaves [in Concord] were split up in the same way (as slave families in the South). You didn’t have any rights over your children. Slave children were given away all the time, sometimes when they were very young.” But as interesting as Concord was, historians, according to Latour, say that “Connecticut was a slave state!”  Going back to Ann Farrow, the Connecticut journalist, Latour quotes her thusly: 

“Where in the South a few people owned so many slaves, here in the North, many people owned a few. There was a widespread ownership of black people.” Perhaps no New England colony or state profited more from the unpaid labor of blacks than Rhode Island: Following the Revolution, scholars estimate, slave traders in the tiny Ocean State controlled between two-thirds and 90 percent of America’s trade in enslaved Africans. On the rolling farms of Narragansett, nearly one-third of the population was black—a proportion not much different from Southern plantations.” 

Latour also quotes author C. S. Manegold author of the book, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North which garnered the same critical “crickets” from academia as did Farrow’s Complicity. Manegold argues that New England’s “amnesia has not only been pervasive, but willful.” In his book, Manegold points to “slavery’s markers” that weren’t hidden or buried: 

“In New England, one need look no further than a symbol that graces welcome mats, door knockers, bedposts, and all manner of household decor: the pineapple.” That exotic fruit, explained Manegold, “. . . is as intertwined with slavery as the Confederate flag” (but the Confederate flag is not “intertwined with slavery!” vhp): When New England ships came to port, captains would impale pineapples on a fence post, a sign to everyone that they were home and open for business, bearing the bounty of slave labor and sometimes slaves themselves.” 

Of course, there are many more interesting anecdotes, quotes and revelations in this rather long article and I highly recommend that one not only read the article but the books herein mentioned by Ms. Latour. Far too many Southerners bow beneath the guilt of slavery when they have no reason to do so. Slavery in the South was hardly the horror that we have been told over the years. The proof of that is the fact that by 1861, the black population in the South had reached three million! People in the clutches of a genocidal movement tend to lose not gain in numbers. Was slavery a good thing? After the war, when the freedmen were thrown onto their own resources in a desolated South, many was the especially old slave who would have dearly loved to return to his or her cabin and the safety and peace of what had been his or her home. Certainly, the treatment of slaves and free blacks in the North was far worse than in the deepest of the deep South. Ms Latour makes that obvious. Indeed, New York gained the title of a “black graveyard” because of the death rate among that State’s black slaves. 

Slavery is a very complex issue and especially as it existed in the 19th Century. The idea that an historical situation is being used as a tool for cultural genocide against the People of the South is not only unjust, but mendacious. Those who seek the destruction of all things Southern know perfectly well that they are creating a straw man with which to further their agenda. Neither does it matter whether they pursue that agenda out of ignorance or hatred or the desire for personal gain. A lie must be exposed and confounded or we will all become slaves. 

Article Link: *

Books worthy of consideration regarding this subject:

Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery – Anne Farrow, Joel Lang and Jenifer Frank

Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the NorthC. S. Manegold

Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860 – Joanne Pope Melish

Valerie Protopapas

August, 2014