furor that erupted this summer over the removal of Confederate monuments in
several cities was a stark reminder that Americans remain trapped in the residue
of slavery and racial violence. In confronting this difficult truth, our
attention is naturally drawn to the South. And rightfully so: The South was the
hotbed of race-based labor and sexual exploitation before and after the Civil
War, and the caldron of a white supremacist ideology that sought to draw an
inviolable line between whiteness and blackness, purity and contagion, precious
lives and throwaway lives. As the author of three histories on slavery and race
in the South, I agree that removing Confederate iconography from cities like New
Orleans, Baltimore and Charlottesville, Va., is necessary and urgent.
However, in our national discourse on slavery’s legacy and racism’s persistent
grip, we have overlooked a crucial fact: Our history of human bondage and white
supremacy is not restricted to the South.
By turning the South into an island of historical injustice separate from the
rest of the United States, we misunderstand the longstanding nationwide
collusion that has produced white supremacist organizers in Fargo, N.D., and a
president from New York City who thinks further research is needed to determine
the aims of the Ku Klux Klan. Historians of the United States are continually
unearthing an ugly truth: American slavery had no bounds. It penetrated every
corner of this country, materially, economically and ideologically, and the
unjust campaign to preserve it is embedded in our built environments, North and
South, East and West. Detroit is a surprising case in point.
Detroit’s legacy is one of a “free” city, a final stop on the Underground
Railroad before Canada, known by the code word “Midnight.” Yet its early history
is mired in a slave past. Near the start of the Revolutionary War, William and
Alexander Macomb, Scots-Irish traders from New York, illegally purchased Grosse
Isle from the Potawatomi people. William Macomb was the largest slaveholder in
Detroit in the late 1700s. He owned at least 26 black men, women and children.
He kept slaves on his Detroit River islands, which included Belle Isle (the
current city park) and Grosse Isle, and right in the heart of the city, not far
from where the International Underground Railroad Memorial now rises above the
river view. When Macomb died, his wife, Sarah, and their sons inherited the
family fortune, later becoming — along with other Detroit slaveholding families
— among the first trustees of the University of Michigan.
The Macomb surname and those of numerous Detroit slave sellers, slaveholders and
indigenous-land thieves cover the region’s map. Men who committed crimes against
humanity in their fur trade shops and private homes, on their farms, islands and
Great Lakes trading vessels, are memorialized throughout the metropolis, on
street signs, school buildings, town halls and county seats. The Detroit
journalist Bill McGraw began a catalog of these names in his 2012 article
“Slavery Is Detroit’s Big, Bad Secret” — Macomb, Campau, Beaubien, McDougall,
Abbott, Brush, Cass, Hamtramck, Gouin, Meldrum, Dequindre, Beaufait, Groesbeck,
Livernois, Rivard. And that’s just a start.
Belle Isle, for instance, was named for Isabelle Cass, a daughter of Lewis Cass,
a Detroit politician and governor of Michigan in the early 1800s. Lewis Cass, a
supporter of slavery, negotiated the sale of a woman he had enslaved named Sally
to a member of the Macomb family in 1818, according to his biographer, Willard
Carl Klunder. The Cass family name is attached to a county in Michigan as well
as one of Detroit’s best public schools, Cass Tech. Detroiters and visitors
alike speak and elevate the names of these slaveholders whenever they trace
their fingers across a map or walk the streets in search of the nearest
Detroit is just one example of the hidden historical maps that silently shape
our sense of place and community. Place names, submerged below our immediate
awareness, may make us feel that slavery and racial oppression have faded into
the backdrops of cities, and our history. Yet they do their cultural and
racism of our streetscapes and landscapes is made perhaps more dangerous because
we cannot see it upon a first glance. In Detroit and across the country,
slaveholder names plastered about commemorate a social order in which elite
white people exerted inexorable power over black and indigenous bodies and
lives. Places named after slaveholders who sold people, raped people, chained
people, beat people and orchestrated sexual pairings to further their financial
ends slip off our tongues without pause or forethought. Yet these memory maps
make up what the University of Michigan historian Matthew Countryman has called
“moral maps” of the places that we inhabit together.
It is our duty to confront our ugly history in whole cloth. Confederate
monuments in the South, in all of their artistic barbarity and weighty
symbolism, are but one kind of commemoration of slavery and white power among
many that shape our everyday environments, influence our collective identities
and silently signal what our national culture validates. While the past does not
change, our interpretations of it as we gain new evidence and insight can and
should. Collectively determining what we valorize in the public square is the
responsibility of the people who live in these stained places now. We can and
must recover them.
Tiya Miles is a professor of American culture and history at the University of
Michigan and the author of the forthcoming book “The Dawn of Detroit: A
Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits.”
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 11, 2017, on Page A21 of
the New York edition with the headline: The South Doesn’t Own Slavery.
CAPE COAST, Ghana (AP) -- From the rampart of a whitewashed fort once used to
ship countless slaves from Africa to the Americas, Cheryl Hardin gazed through
watery eyes at the path forcibly trodden across the sea by her ancestors
''It never gets any easier,'' the 48-year-old pediatrician said, wiping away
tears on her fourth trip to Ghana's Cape Coast Castle in two decades. ''It feels
the same as when I first visited -- painful, incomprehensible.''
On Saturday, Barack Obama and his family will follow in the footsteps of
countless African-Americans who have tried to reconnect with their past on these
shores. Though Obama was not descended from slaves -- his father was Kenyan --
he will carry the legacy of the African-American experience with him as
America's first black president.
For many, the trip will be steeped in symbolism.
''The world's least powerful people were shipped off from here as slaves,''
Hardin said Tuesday, looking past a row of cannons pointing toward the Atlantic
Ocean. ''Now Obama, an African-American, the most powerful person in the world,
is going to be standing here. For us it will be a full-circle experience.''
Built in the 1600s, Cape Coast Castle served as Britain's West Africa
headquarters for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which saw European powers and
African chiefs export millions in shackles to Europe and the Americas.
The slave trade ended here in 1833, and visitors can now trek through the fort's
dungeons, dark rooms once crammed with more than 1,000 men and women at a time
who slept in their own excrement. The dank air inside still stings the eyes.
Visiting for the first time, Hardin's 47-year-old sister Wanda Milian said the
dungeons felt ''like burial tombs.''
''It felt suffocating. It felt still,'' said Milian, who like her sister lives
in Houston, Texas. ''I don't know what I expected. I didn't expect to experience
the sense of loss, the sense of hopelessness and desolation.''
Those who rebelled were packed into similar rooms with hardly enough air to
breath, left to die without food or water. Their faint scratch marks are still
visible on walls.
Down by the shore is the fort's so-called ''Door of No Return,'' the last
glimpse of Africa the slaves would ever see before they were loaded into canoes
that took them to ships that crossed the ocean.
Today, the door opens onto a different world: a gentle shore where boys freely
kick a white soccer ball through the surf, where gray-bearded men sit in beached
canoes fixing lime-green fishing nets, where women sell maize meal from plates
on their heads.
Behind them is Africa's poverty: smoke from cooking fires rises from a maze of
thin wooden shacks, their rusted corrugated aluminum roofs held down by rocks.
Children bathe naked in a tiny dirt courtyard.
''I just can't wrap my mind around this,'' said Milian, who works at a Methodist
church. ''If it weren't for all this'' -- for slavery -- ''I wouldn't be
standing here today. I wouldn't be who I am. I wouldn't have the opportunities I
do. I wouldn't practice the religion I do.''
Milian also grappled with the irony that fort housed a church while the trade
went on, and that African chiefs and merchants made it all possible, brutally
capturing millions and marching them from the continent's interior to be sold in
exchange for guns, iron and rum.
''It's mixed up,'' Milian said. ''It's not an easy puzzle to put together.''
Though slavery in the U.S. ended after the Civil War in 1865, its legacy has
lived on. The U.S. Senate on June 18 unanimously passed a resolution apologizing
for slavery and racial segregation.
''This is part of our history,'' said Hardin, who first visited Ghana in the
late 1980s and later married a Ghanaian engineer she met in the U.S.
Her 15-year-old son was along for the first time. ''I want him to understand
what his liberty really means, who he really is,'' Hardin said.
But racism, both sisters agreed, would not end with Obama's visit.
''Let's not be naive. When your skin is darker, you are still going to be
treated differently,'' Hardin said. But Obama's trip ''will be a turning point,
not just for America but for the world.''
Milian said Obama's journey would also bear a message to those who organized the
''It will say they failed, it all failed,'' she said. ''The human mind is
capable of horrible things, but the fact that we're standing here, the fact
Obama will be standing here, proves we are also capable of great resilience.''
ON June 11, 1823, a man named John Redman walked into the courtroom of Judge
Charles Lobb in Hardy County, Virginia, to apply for a pension, claiming to be a
veteran of the Revolutionary War. Redman, more than 60 years old, testified that
he had been in the First Virginia Regiment of Light Dragoons from Christmas 1778
through 1782, serving initially as a waiter to Lt. Vincent Howell.
The Light Dragoons fought mainly on horseback, using sabers, pistols, and light
carbines. They marched from Winchester, Va., to Georgia, where, in the fall of
1779, they laid siege to Savannah. The following year, they fought in
Charleston, S.C., narrowly escaping capture in a rout by the British. Redman’s
regiment fought the Creek Indians and the British early in 1782, ultimately
triumphing over them in June at Sharon, Ga., near Savannah. After the war,
Redman settled in Hardy County, where he and his wife kept a farm.
Four decades later, a neighbor and fellow veteran named John Jenkins affirmed
Redman’s court testimony. A few weeks later, Redman was granted his Certificate
of Pension, receiving the tidy sum of $8 a month until his death in 1836.
Yet standing before Judge Lobb in his courtroom that morning in 1823, John
Redman had every reason to be nervous, for his appeal was anything but ordinary.
Redman was the rarest of breeds: not just a patriot, but a black patriot — both
a free Negro in a nation of slaves and a black man who had fought in a white
In 1790, only 1.7 percent of Virginia’s population consisted of free people of
color; in the 13 former colonies and the territories of Kentucky, Maine and
Vermont, the combined figure was even smaller. Historians estimate that only
5,000 black men served in the Continental Army, whereas tens of thousands fled
slavery to join the British.
The story of John Redman is illuminating because it opens a window on an aspect
of the Revolutionary War that remains too little known: the contributions and
sacrifices of a band of black patriots. But it is particularly fascinating to me
because, as I learned just recently, John Redman was my ancestor.
I have been obsessed with my family tree since I was a boy. My grandfather,
Edward Gates, died in 1960, when I was 10. After his burial at Rose Hill
Cemetery in Cumberland, Md. — Gateses have been buried there since 1888 — my
father showed me my grandfather’s scrapbooks. There, buried in those yellowing
pages of newsprint, was an obituary, the obituary, to my astonishment, of our
matriarch, a midwife and former slave named Jane Gates. “An estimable colored
woman,” the obituary said.
I wanted to know how I got here from there, from the mysterious and shadowy
preserve of slavery in the depths of the black past, to my life as a 10-year-old
Negro boy living blissfully in a stable, loving family in Piedmont, W.Va., circa
1960, in the middle of the civil rights movement.
I peppered my father with questions about the names and dates of my ancestors,
both black and white, and dutifully recorded the details in a notebook. I wanted
to see my white ancestors’ coat of arms. Eventually, I even allowed myself to
dream of discovering which tribe we had come from in Africa.
More recently, in part to find my own roots, I started work on a documentary
series on genetics and black genealogy. I especially wanted to find my white
patriarch, the father of Jane Gates’s children. The genealogical research into
my family tree uncovered, to my great wonder, three of my fourth
great-grandfathers on my mother’s side: Isaac Clifford, Joe Bruce and John
All were black and born in the middle of the 18th century; two gained freedom by
the beginning of the Revolutionary War. All three lived in the vicinity of
Williamsport, a tiny town in the Potomac Valley in the Allegheny Mountains, in
what is now West Virginia.
I am descended from these men through my maternal grandmother, Marguerite
Howard, whom we affectionately called “Big Mom.” When Jane Ailes, a genealogist,
revealed these discoveries to me, I could scarcely keep my composure. In
searching for a white ancestor, I had found — improbably — a black patriot
Frankly, it had never occurred to me that I, or anyone in the many branches of
my family — Gateses, Colemans, Howards, Bruces, Cliffords, and Redmans — had
even the remotest relationship to the American Revolution, or to anyone who had
fought in it. If anyone had told me a year ago that this summer I would be
inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution as the descendant of a black
patriot — 183 years almost to the day after John Redman proved his claim — I
would have laughed. I had long supposed that slavery had robbed my ancestors of
the privilege of fighting for the birth of this country.
Like most African-Americans of my generation, I had heard of the Daughters of
the American Revolution, unfortunately, because of their refusal in 1939 to
allow the great contralto, Marian Anderson, the right to perform at Constitution
Hall. Anderson responded to the group’s racism with sonorous defiance, holding
her Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead.
In part to make amends for their treatment of Anderson, the Daughters of the
American Revolution have begun counting the number of black patriots; so far
they have documented about 3,000. Harvard’s Du Bois Institute and the Sons of
the American Revolution are now researching the 80,000 pension and bounty land
warrant applications of Revolutionary War veterans to compare these names to
census records from 1790 to 1840.
Already, in just a few weeks, we have discovered almost a dozen
African-Americans who served in the war and whose racial identity had been lost
or undetected. With this systematic approach, we hope to expand substantially
our knowledge of African-Americans who served in the Continental Army and,
eventually, to reach a definitive number.
Once the research is completed, we will advertise for descendants of these
individuals and encourage them to join the Sons or Daughters of the American
Revolution, thus increasing the organizations’ black memberships beyond the
meager few dozen or so the two groups have now. (If all of my aunts, uncles and
cousins who are also descended from John Redman join, we will quadruple the
number of black members in both organizations!)
We want to establish the exact number of descendants of African-Americans who
served in the Continental Army, great American patriots, defenders of liberty to
which they themselves were not entitled.
OF course, it is perfectly irrelevant, in one sense, what one’s ancestors did
two centuries ago; but re-imagining our past, as Americans, can sometimes help
us to re-imagine our future. In doing so, it may help to understand that the
founding of this Republic was not only red, white and blue, it was also
On Wednesday morning we were surprised with the novel
circumstance of the arrival of a French brig, of 240 tons, called the Vigilante,
as a prize.
She [was] captured, with several others, in the act of
slave trading (having 343 on board), on 15th of April last, in the river Bonny
(northward of the line), by the boats of his Majesty's ships Iphigenia and
Myrmidon, manned with about 150 seamen, and commanded by Lieutenant G. Wm. St
John Mildmay, after a most severe contest, in which two seamen were killed and
seven were wounded.
It is not known how many of the slaves suffered in this vessel as they jumped
overboard, and were destroyed by the sharks; and the crew mixing with the slaves
in the hold, after our seamen were in the possession of the upper deck, several
slaves were also killed.
One poor girl, about 10 years of age, had both her legs amputated, and was doing
This vessel, with six others, formed a little slave-trading squadron, which was
discovered by boats dispatched to reconnoitre the river Bonny, moored across the
stream of the river, with springs on their cables, all armed, with apparently
about 400 men on board, and perfectly prepared to resist the approach of
Lieut. Mildmay pushed on with his boats, and as they got within range of the
slavers, they all opened a heavy fire of canister and grapeshot and musketry;
but as nothing could withstand the coolness and undaunted courage of our seamen,
all the vessels were soon in their possession.
The state of the unhappy slaves on board these vessels it is impossible to
describe; some were linked in shackles by the leg; some of them were bound in
chords [sic]: and many of them had their arms so lacerated that the flesh was
completely eaten through!
The crew of one of the captured vessels, which the slavers deserted, placed a
lighted match in the magazine in the hope that, so soon as our men had boarded,
the vessel would blow up with them, and the 300 slaves chained together in the
Providentially one of the men discovered it, very coolly put his hat under it,
and carried it safely on deck.
We regret very much to state, that on the passage of the prizes from the Bonny
river to Sierra Leone, the fine schooner Yeatam (drawing 17 feet water), with
500 slaves on board, and 23 seamen, upset in a tornado, and all on her perished
except eight seamen.
The number of slaves liberated by the capture of these vessels was 1,876, about
200 of whom died on the passage to Sierra Leone.
William Wilberforce, born in 1759
and an MP at 21,
became leader of the anti-slavery movement in 1787.
The trade was abolished in
the British colonies
in 1807, slavery itself in 1833, the year he died.
This is how The Observer supported
his campaign, in an
on Christmas Day 1791.
With every argument in support of humanity, with every argument in support of
trade and commerce; with every argument in support of national honour; of
abstract improvement; and of individual advantage; Mr Wilberforce brings forward
his religious, moral, and politic Bill for the abolition of the odious slave
trade, early in the ensuing session of Parliament. That just, that merciful,
that benignant great Being, whose creatures of every colour, and of every
nation, are equally dear, will surely support this true patriot in a measure of
so sublime a nature; will, surely, inspire him with zeal, and eloquence, to
prostrate the opinions and sophistry of men, who, slaves themselves to temporary
interest, would persecute, torment, and entail perpetual slavery on others.
Should the divine Power, for the purpose of trying the virtue of a favoured
nation, suffer the intentions of this illustrious senator, to be delayed, can
there be a doubt, but associations will form in every part, and a great majority
unite in abstaining from the use of rum and sugar, until the object is