Friday, August 17, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #4

One last thought on our time in Virginia.  I know and teach about the incremental development of slavery in North America over the course of the 1600s.  I realize that early in the century, African slaves and white indentured servants sometimes formed alliances and viewed their plight in class rather than racial terms.  I understand that the institution of hereditary, racially defined chattel slavery did not land fully realized on the North American coast.  In short, I've read my Edmund Morgan* (and I recommend him).

That said: it's highly disturbing how often tours, museums and other institutions refer to those who worked on southern plantations, or doing menial labor in southern towns and cities, as "servants."  They weren't "servants," by and large -- and certainly not after the late 1600s.  They were slaves.  It existed.  It was profoundly wrong.  Yes, it wasn't just a southern phenomenon (in the pre-Revolutionary period, especially) and northerners would do very well to recognize this more openly.  To refer to "servants," however, is to gloss over the past in a way that does damage to our understanding of American history.  We need to know these things.  Ignoring them runs that familiar risk of succumbing to the damaging myopia of the "Lost Cause."

(It's worth noting that some places were far more forthright about slavery than others.  The Shirley Plantation in Charles City, VA, for example, dealt with its legacy well in a permanent exhibit -- all the more honorable given that the property is still in the hands of the antebellum [indeed, pre-Revolutionary] family owners.  Credit where credit is due!  If you're in the area, give it a visit.)

* Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975)

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