The South Doesn’t Own Slavery

Roundup
tags: slavery, White Supremacy



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.”

The violent 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. ...




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