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Nation's painful past emerges into light; Slavery: A shift toward the center of public and scholarly attention could help reverse "process of intentional forgetting."

For most of the 134 years since the last slaves were freed, the history of human bondage has been pushed to the margins of American memory.

But now, as if the dam built by white guilt and black pain has begun to give way, this terrible chapter in the nation's past has become the focus of widespread fascination. Slavery suddenly seems to be under scrutiny everywhere -- in the blossoming of black genealogy on the World Wide Web; in an unprecedented outpouring of books, films and CD-ROMs; in the popularity of slavery memorabilia; in celebrations of emancipation and new pride in slave ancestry.

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Thousands are expected to gather in New York City on July 3 for a ceremony launching a "Middle Passage Monument" -- a wave-shaped aluminum sculpture -- to be lowered into the Atlantic on the route of millions of Africans 'forced journey to slavery or death. Juneteenth, a commemoration of the day -- June 19, 1865 -- that word of freedom finally reached Texas, was marked yesterday in dozens of cities, including Baltimore.

Colonial Williamsburg, which for its first 50 years ignored slavery altogether except for euphemistic references to "servants," has chosen "Enslaving Virginia" as the central theme of its programs this year.

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A group led by former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is raising money for a slavery museum and research center at Jamestown, Va., on the lines of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Cincinnati's museum documenting the Underground Railroad is expected to open in 2003.

Ripples becoming a wave

"All these little ripples are beginning to make one big wave," says Pat Bearden, 57, a retired Chicago teacher and president of an exclusive new society: To join, you must prove you are descended from a slave. The International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry is building a genealogical database and collecting oral histories and has created a traveling exhibit of photographs of former slaves.

"Something fundamental is happening," says Orlando Bagwell, the Baltimore-bred documentary filmmaker who produced last fall's PBS television series on slavery, "Africans in America." "As a nation, while we're not eager to open a discussion of race, we're troubled that race remains an issue. We know something's wrong. And slavery is the obvious area that has never been adequately addressed."

Bagwell recalls the fleeting presentation of slavery at Blessed Sacrament, the Baltimore school where he was one of a small number of black students in the early 1960s. "I didn't feel that slavery was necessarily seen by the teacher as a bad thing," he says.

While African-Americans are leading the new examination of slavery, some white descendants of slave owners are joining the movement to face squarely one of the great tragedies of U.S. history. They are learning something obscured by textbooks' distortion, and, more recently, by Black History Month tokenism: Slavery is white history, too.

"I think a lot of white Americans are surprised to find how central slavery was in our history," says David Brion Davis, an eminent slavery historian who directs a new slavery research center at Yale University. "For a lot of ordinary Americans, white and black, it's a period of discovery and, to some degree, of shock."

When the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition recently assembled a jury at Yale to award a $25,000 prize for the best book of last year on slavery, the judges were presented with 86 titles. "I'm sure that's a record," Davis said.

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University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin wrote one of those books, "Many Thousands Gone," an account of the first two centuries of slavery, and co-edited another, "Remembering Slavery," the reminiscences of the last living former slaves, recorded by folklorists in the 1930s and '40s.

For Berlin, the shift of slavery toward the center of public and scholarly attention is long overdue. It was no accident that the founding fathers owned slaves, he says; nor was the glaring contradiction of their demands for liberty from Britain lost on them.

"You cannot be interested in American history and not be interested in slavery," he says. "It sits there right in the middle of things. You can't deal with the overwhelming matter of race without dealing with slavery."

How to 'deal with' slavery

But what does it mean, exactly, to "deal with" slavery? Slavery scholars say that at a minimum it means forthright public education, with the facts of slavery given a central place in school curricula and perhaps in a national museum. Many African-Americans call for an official apology from the government. Some believe that monetary reparations should go to the descendants of slaves.

Compensation for historical injustice has become a familiar notion, whether for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II or Jews exploited as slave labor in Nazi Germany.

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Yet each year for a decade, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a black Michigan Democrat, has introduced legislation to launch a study of reparations for slavery, and the measure has gone nowhere. Black Americans notice the discrepancy. They're not the only ones. When the United States pressured Swiss banks two years ago to return assets to descendants of Holocaust victims, Swiss diplomat Thomas Borer responded sharply: "Who are the Americans to be judging us? Whose wealth was founded on slavery?"

Many white Americans reject apologies and reparations as gratuitous acts that can only open ancient wounds. But Edward Ball, whose disinterment of his South Carolina ancestors' slaveholding past won the National Book Award last year, says white Americans must accept responsibility for their history.

"Often we're able to shrug it off as white folks and say, 'Slavery? That's black folks' problem,' " says Ball, author of "Slaves in the Family." "But it's undeniable that our family damaged the lives of thousands of people, and our story is far from unique. At the end of the Civil War, there were 450,000 slave owners. Now they have tens of millions of descendants."

The country must reverse, Ball says, "a process of intentional forgetting. There were auction houses, whipping posts, slave prisons. None of it is commemorated."

Not so long ago

Nor are the wounds really so ancient. Slavery existed in this country for 246 years; it has been abolished in Maryland for just 135.

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When PBS filmmaker Bagwell spoke at a West Baltimore church last fall, a frail, elderly woman hushed the audience with a reminder of how recently white Americans held black Americans in bondage.

"I was raised by former slaves," said Elsie Bumbry.

Bumbry, 73, was raised on an Edgemere farm by her great-grandparents, William Payne Thornton and Mertine Thornton, who grew up in slavery in Virginia. He was a stern, Bible-quoting farmer; she was an expert in folk medicine who sat beneath her grape arbor and told stories of the quirks and cruelties of white masters.

"Some black people still have the slave syndrome," a deep-seated feeling of inferiority, Bumbry says in her room at the Villa St. Michael nursing home in Northwest Baltimore. The dignified face of her great-grandmother looks down from an aging portrait on the wall. "Some whites still feel superior. I think it's ingrown from slavery. It's still there."

This conviction that the legacy of slavery contaminates race relations is one reason for the surge of interest in history. Growing African-American affluence is clearly another. Oprah Winfrey bankrolled the making of "Beloved," last year's film version of Toni Morrison's novel about a former slave. Bill Cosby has offered to help finance a slavery museum.

On a more modest scale, some African-Americans are confronting the past by collecting slavery memorabilia; yellowing bills of sale for human beings are a coveted item on Internet auction sites. In an incongruous trend that Newsweek has dubbed "slavery chic," some young people are wearing jewelry designed to be an unmistakable reminder of the past.

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"Some people say, 'Why do I want to remember slavery?' " says Shawn Baker, president of a Randallstown business called Ujaama Inc. that sells "freedom bracelets," designed to resemble iron slave shackles. "I say, 'It's part of our history.' "

Boom in genealogy

But the most striking way in which the growth of the black middle class has fueled interest in slavery is the boom in African-American genealogy.

Angela Walton-Raji, an administrator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one of many genealogists shattering the myth that descendants of slaves cannot trace their roots. Among her enslaved ancestors, she has found some who were owned by Indian tribes in Oklahoma and others who, after joining the Union army, were taken prisoner by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notorious Confederate general who later led the Ku Klux Klan.

"And then they escaped!" she declares. "Can you believe that? They escaped from Nathan Bedford Forrest!"

Recently, she took her research across the racial divide. On a tip from a librarian, she contacted a white Mississippi genealogist, the widow of the man whose great-grandfather owned Walton-Raji's great-great-grandmother.

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They have exchanged documents and plan to meet in Mississippi this summer. Their connection is one of a growing number of genealogical contacts across racial lines, quieter versions of the recent quest by descendants of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's slave and presumed lover, to be recognized as Jefferson's descendants.

Walton-Raji, who is the host of a weekly African-American genealogy chat session on America Online from her Catonsville home, says she finds research in the dusty archives an antidote to anger, converting enslaved ancestors from vague victims into human beings. She uncovered, for example, the real story of her great-grandmother's brother, who disappeared from family records.

"We always assumed he was sold. I found the actual reason: He joined the Union army," she says. "It was great to find he went to fight for his own freedom. It gave my mother such a sense of pride."

New technology

For anyone researching their forebears, new technology has become indispensable. A World Wide Web site called AfriGeneas.com overflows with advice on tracing black ancestry; its online discussion group recently debated the personal family histories presented in April by NBC "Today" show hosts Katie Couric, a descendant of cotton-growing slave owners, and Al Roker, a descendant of slaves in the Bahamas.

A CD-ROM just published by Cambridge University Press has revolutionized the study of the slave trade by detailing 27,233 trans-Atlantic voyages, cross-referencing ships, captains, ports and even shipboard rebellions. Another new CD-ROM records more than 90,000 Louisiana slaves along with gender, age, skills and sale prices.

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No such resource exists for Maryland, but a rich history is there. The narrative of this American original sin is densely woven into the social history of the Chesapeake region, where kidnapped Africans built the plantation economy whose splendid mansions still survive. The struggle against slavery also has deep roots here: The great black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were enslaved on the Eastern Shore.

'Horror stories'

"There are some real horror stories, but some real inspiring stories, too," says Francis W. Green, 72, a retired Baltimore manager who has led local interracial discussion groups in which slavery was much debated.

Last year, Green traveled the route by which Tubman led more than 300 slaves to freedom. "There were many, many eye-opening things for me: stories of people swimming to Canada, bounty hunters grabbing people in churches," he says. "One man who was taken back after running away for the 13th time; his ear was nailed to a tree, and he was left there till he died."

Few Baltimoreans know it, but in the decades before the Civil War, more than a dozen slave dealers operated around the harbor. Local shipbuilders, meanwhile, served the illicit international slave trade, building for illegal slavers the speedy "Baltimore clippers" they used to evade the Coast Guard.

Newspaper advertisements offering slaves for sale appeared daily; some in this newspaper concluded, "Inquire at Sun office." Ads and posters seeking the return of runaways were ubiquitous. Some were inadvertent portraits of the human talent kept in bondage, such as an 1809 poster from Westminster offering $10 for the return of "Peter, about 30 years of age speaks German nearly as well as English; he was brought up by me to do plantation work chiefly, of which he is very capable; but can do a little at blacksmith, shoe-making and carpenter's work, and has some knowledge of making gun barrels. He also plays on the fiddle and fife tolerably well."

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Through the Civil War, the ideology of the slave owner held sway in Maryland. In 1857, a free black man in Dorchester County got 10 years in prison for mere possession of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." An 1859 meeting of slaveholders at the Towson courthouse resolved: "That the welfare of the negro and his elevation in the scale of existence is dependent upon his continuation of subordination under a superior and more intellectual race."

That world view would linger for a century after emancipation. Its taint is unmistakable, for example, in "The Growth of the American Republic," a history text by two eminent historians, Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, in the 1930s and not revised until the 1950s.

"As for Sambo," they wrote, casually invoking an insulting popular stereotype, "whose wrongs moved some abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its 'peculiar institution.' The majority of slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy."

Even as a generation of college students absorbed such views, interviewers were documenting a far more authentic account of slavery, capturing the voices of the last living former slaves on early tape recorders.

Among many interviewed in Baltimore was a 101-year-old former slave named Fountain Hughes, who recounted slave life in Virginia in sonorous tones.

"If I thought, had any idea, that I'd ever be a slave again, I'd take a gun and just end it all right away," said Hughes in the 1949 taping. "Because you're nothing but a dog. You're not a thing but a dog."

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By the 1970s, history texts that echoed slaveholders' "happy slave" self-justifications were disappearing from print. But even as landmark revisionist books were published, slavery remained a byway of the historical profession.

"Until remarkably recently -- the 1980s -- slavery was a subfield within Southern history," says Steven Mintz, an historian of slavery at the University of Houston. The more recent consensus, he says, is that "the American economy really rested on slavery, which produced the first mass-market consumer products: coffee, sugar, chocolate, tobacco and cotton."

The flowering of studies in the past two decades has filled out the portrait of slavery in more subtle hues. Scholars have traced specific West and Central African vestiges in American culture, from the banjo to the design of the frame house and words such as "gumbo" and even the affirmative expression "uh-huh." New research has undermined the image of the docile slave by documenting resistance and rebellion. Historians of Africa have explored the complicity of African warlords in the slave trade and its devastating impact on the continent's development.

Lagging behind

But popular knowledge of slavery has lagged behind scholarly understanding. The phenomenal success of Alex Haley's 1976 book and spinoff television miniseries "Roots" spawned few imitators. And as black history found a place in every school curriculum, far more emphasis was placed on the reliably uplifting story of the civil rights movement than on the grimmer tale of slavery.

Alice Brailey-Torriente, a retired principal who taught in Baltimore and New York schools for many years, said she often met resistance from black students. "They saw only the terrible conditions, the lack of education, being held in bondage. They didn't know how they'd survived the Middle Passage and helped build this country," she says.

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Now Brailey-Torriente is president of African American Cultural Tours, which offers a four-hour black history tour of Baltimore. She sees the renewed interest in slavery as part of a broader boom in African-American history but says it is still the most unsettling part: "There was something in the national psyche that blocked it out. Blacks wanted to forget it. Whites didn't want to remember it. Now, maybe, just maybe, that's beginning to change."

Sun staff writer Michael Hill and researchers Dee Lyon and Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 6/20/99



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