How politicians seek to control classroom discussions about slavery | Opinion
By Raphael E. Rogers
Of all the subjects taught in public schools across the country, few have generated as much controversy in recent times as the topics of racism and slavery in the United States.
Attention has come largely through a flood of bills introduced mostly by Republicans over the past year and a half. Commonly known as anti-criticism race theory legislation, these bills seek to restrict how teachers discuss race and racism in their classrooms.
One of the most peculiar by-products of this legislation has come from Texas, where in June 2022 an advisory committee of nine educators recommended that slavery be labeled as “involuntary displacement.”
The measure ultimately failed.
As an educator who trains teachers on how to educate young students about the history of slavery in the United States, I see the Texas proposal as part of a disturbing trend of politicians seeking to hide the horrific and brutal nature of slavery – and to keep it divorced from the birth and development of the nation.
The Texas proposal, for example, grew out of work done under a Texas law that says slavery and racism cannot be taught as part of the “true foundation” of the United States. Rather, the law states that they must be taught as a “failure to uphold the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
To better understand the nature of slavery and the role it played in the development of America, it helps to have some basic facts about the length of slavery in the territory now known as of the United States and the number of slaves he involved. I also believe in using authentic documents to show students the reality of slavery.
Before the Mayflower
Slavery in what is now called the United States often dates back to the year 1619. It was then, as colonist John Rolfe documented, that a ship named the White Lion delivered about twenty enslaved Africans to Virginia.
As for the idea that slavery was not part of the founding of the United States, it is easily refuted by the American Constitution itself. Specifically, Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 prevented Congress from banning the “importation” of slaves until 1808 – nearly 20 years after the Constitution was ratified – although it did not did not use the word “slaves”. Instead, the Constitution used the phrase “such persons as any of the existing states shall see fit to admit”.
Congress eventually passed the “Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves Act”, which went into effect in 1808. Although the act imposed heavy penalties on international traders, it did not end slavery itself. -even nor to the internal sale of slaves. Not only did this spur the clandestine trade, but many illegally captured ships were also brought to the United States and their “passengers” sold as slaves.
The last known slave ship – the Clotilda – arrived in Mobile, Alabama in 1860, more than half a century after Congress banned the importation of enslaved individuals.
According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which derives its figures from shipping records from 1525 to 1866, an estimated 12.5 million enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas. About 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage and arrived in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Of these, only a small portion – 388,000 – arrived in North America.
Most enslaved people in the United States therefore entered slavery not by importation or “involuntary removal”, but by birth.
From the arrival of these first 20 enslaved Africans in 1619 until the abolition of slavery in 1865, approximately 10 million slaves lived in the United States and contributed 410 billion hours of labor. This is why slavery is an “essential element” in understanding the American economy from the founding of the nation until the Civil War.
The value of historical documents
As an educator who trains teachers on how to deal with the subject of slavery, I see no value in politicians limiting what teachers can and cannot say about the role that slavery owners slaves – at least 1,800 of whom were members of Congress, not to mention the 12 who served as Presidents of the United States – played a part in maintaining slavery in American society.
What I see is the use of historical records to educate school children about the harsh realities of slavery. There are three types of recordings that I recommend in particular.
1. Census records
Since enslaved people were counted in every census that took place from 1790 to 1860, census records allow students to learn a lot about who specifically owned slaves. Census records also allow students to see differences in slave ownership within states and across the country.
Censuses also show the growth of the slave population over time – from
697,624 in the first census in 1790, shortly after the nation’s founding, to 3.95 million in the 1860 census, when the nation was on the brink of civil war.
2. Advertisements for Runaway Slaves
Few things speak of the horrors and evils of slavery like the advertisements slave owners made for runaway slaves. It is not difficult to find advertisements that depict fugitive slaves whose bodies were covered with various scars from beatings and branding iron marks.
For example, consider an advertisement published on July 3, 1823 in the Star and North-Carolina State Gazette by Alford Green offering $25 for a runaway slave named Ned, whom he describes as follows:
“…about 21 years old, his weight about 150, well built, lively and active, tolerably fierce looking, a little prone to yellow, his upper front teeth a little defective, and, I suppose, has some signs of the whip on his hips and thighs, as he was whipped that way the day before he left.
Advertisements for runaway slaves can be accessed through digital databases, such as Freedom on the Move, which contains over 32,000 advertisements. Another database – the North Carolina Runaway Slave Notices Project – contains 5,000 advertisements published in North Carolina newspapers from 1751 to 1865. The sheer number of these advertisements sheds light on the number of enslaved blacks who attempted to escape bondage.
3. Personal accounts of slaves
Although few in number, recordings of interviews with former slaves do exist.
Some interviews are problematic for a variety of reasons. For example, some of the interviews were heavily edited by the investigators or did not include full, word-for-word transcripts of the interviews.
Yet the interviews still provide insight into the harshness of life in bondage. They also expose the fallacy of the argument that slaves – as one slave owner claimed in his memoirs – “loved ‘old Marster’ better than anyone in the world and would not have the freedom to he offered it to them”.
For example, when Fountain Hughes – a descendant of a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson who spent his childhood in slavery in Charlottesville, Virginia – was asked whether he preferred to be free or enslaved, he told his interviewer :
“You know what I’d rather do? If I thought, if I had any idea, that I would ever become a slave again, I would grab a gun and stop right now, because you’re nothing but a dog. You are not a thing but a dog. A night never came that you had nothing to do. Time to cut the tobacco? If they want you to cut all night in the field, you cut. And if they want you to hang all night, you hang tobacco. It didn’t matter that you were tired, that you were tired. You are afraid to say that you are tired.
So it’s ironic that when it comes to teaching American school children about the horrors of American slavery and how entrenched it was in the American political establishment, some politicians would rather chain educators with restrictive laws. What they could do is grant educators the opportunity to teach freely about the role that slavery played in shaping a nation that was founded – as Texas law states – on the principles of freedom and equality.
Raphael E. Rogers is Professor of Educational Practice at Clark University. He wrote this piece for
The Conversation, where she first appeared.