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.