Looking for the “whole story” of slavery

Published:April 30, 2019 by Brendan Wolfe

We get a fair amount of reader feedback here at Encyclopedia Virginia. For instance, we are still hearing about our entry on the United Daughters of the Confederacy and we recently received a note from a reader who found on our site “Easily the best article on Mary Bowser I’ve come across.” There are a lot of genealogical inquiries, too, and just yesterday someone who wanted to debate the relative quality of two conflicting sources related to Nathaniel Basse.

To be fair, though, most of the emails we receive appear to originate in middle-school classrooms and are some variation on the word “poop.”

Over the weekend an email came in that was more thoughtful. Attached to our entry on slave sales, it wondered whether our treatment of slavery in Virginia told the full story. We are in the third year of a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create content related to slavery in Virginia. And just yesterday we met as a staff to take stock and think more about how we can tell the public about the work that we’ve done.

So I read this with interest:

I have been studying slaves in my family, and I find your perspective doesn’t give the whole story. I also taught black children in an all black northern school, and all they thought about in their heritage were people in shackles. I realize that slavery was a horrible institution, but I wish you would talk about the people who tried to fight against it, even in the midst of it. I wanted to give these children a perspective that some of their ancestors could have in fact been loved. Many white people were trying to get out of owning people, but they had to pay a large fine, and the slave had to leave their family behind. You make it sound so simple. The more I study it, the more complicated it is. But for the sake of the children give the whole story.

I couldn’t agree more about the importance of this history, especially when thinking about that kerfuffle regarding the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Many of the comments seek to minimize and deflect the importance of slavery to the culture of the antebellum South and to the causes of the Civil War. They deploy decontextualized factoids—”Did you know that slaves were captured and sold by their own people?” (Why, yes!)—as weapons in a political war rather than any kind of sincere attempt to understand the period or the people.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible not to get caught up in that political war sometimes, debating people who want to score points rather than those relative few, like our Basse correspondent, who (thankfully) prefer to debate history and its sources.

All of which is to say that when a reader wonders how we might do a better job teaching the nuances of slavery, the violence it inflicted but also the resistance it engendered, we listen.

I suggested to the emailer that she consult our entries on Gabriel’s Conspiracy, Nat Turner’s Revolt, even the little-known Westmoreland Slave Plot, for examples of resistance. It’s true, though, that resistance took many, often non-violent, forms, and we have a scholar working on an entry about that, too. In the meantime, consider Bethany Veney, an enslaved woman who foiled her owner’s attempt at selling her. We just did a podcast about her, and the text of her autobiography is published on our site.

In fact, one of the best ways to dive into the complexities of the lives of enslaved people is by reading their stories—some told directly by them, some mediated by white people. We have published a good number of these, which you can find here.

Our reader wrote back that she “wasn’t talking about resistance necessarily. I was talking about the whole life of slaves. The stories of bravery catch our attention, but to focus on who we might think of as brave leaves us with many life stories untold.”

Again, I couldn’t agree more, and we’ve tried to put a premium on biographical entries of enslaved people, regardless of whether they are traditionally “important” in the way that normally recommends one as the subject of an encyclopedia entry. Hence our entries on Veney, Sally Cottrell Cole, Corinna Hinton, Ann Banks Davis, and John M. Washington, in addition to slightly better known people, such as Angela, Kitty Foster, Henry Martin, Hercules, Oney Judge, Thomas Fuller, Paul Jennings, Gilbert Hunt, Billy, Blind Billy, Jack Ditcher, Joseph Fossett, and Mary Aggie. Not to even mention Sally Hemings.

The stories contained in these names are varied and often astounding. You can engage with them through our entries, through first-person narratives and other primary-source documents, through two- and three-dimensional media objects, virtual tours, and podcasts. Even 3D video.

You can’t understand Virginia without understanding slavery, and I am pleased that, with the NEH’s help, we’ve been able to do our part. And as for our emailer, the more she digs into Encyclopedia Virginia, the happier she seems to be:

“I have read the first two [slave] narratives and I am spell bound. I can’t wait to read more. I am so glad I came across your site.”

IMAGES: an enslaved man named Tom (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association); watercolor portrait of an enslaved girl by Mary Custis Lee (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)


3 Comments on “Looking for the “whole story” of slavery”

  1. 1828 Definition of American, American Indian ( not Native American)


    Why are people changing 20 odd Negroes to 20 odd Africans? There are multiple sources that say these people came from New Spain who had been enslaving and hiring American Indians in South America and the North American islands prior. Since you all are supposed to be a respectful and reputable institution. Why are you not researching American Indian slavery and servitude. Why is no one pen pointing the paper genocide of the American Indian(not Native Americans from Asia, not even genetically Americans). Why are you not investigating how American Indians were reclassified as colors (Black, Negro, Colored, Mulatto) and most recently African American, which is on most of our family/historical records. Please do the morally right thing and speak out on this. Ive have never saw a person who’s skin is BLACK or negro ( black in Spanish) in my life. I know some of you see this topic rising alot these days, and that’s because we are doing our own research on our families. We see now that we have been lied to for a very long time. Now we know why our elders never said anything about us being African American or having any African Ancestors. Thats because we did not come from Africa at any point in our history. So why do they teach us that in school? Feel Free to reply.

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