All Americans Share Complex Racial Past

With Black History Month upon us, it's time to take a harder, and perhaps less self-satisfied, look at the complex history of slaves in New England. We may not recognize it, but the story of slavery is American history, and all of us, no matter how recently arrived, share in that story.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Every year during Black History Month, we are reminded of the accomplishments of African-Americans, the history of slavery and the emergence of the civil rights movement.

Well, commentator Gretchen Gerzina is the chair of the English department at Dartmouth College. She grew up in New England, which she says had its own complex history of race relations.

Dr. GRETCHEN GERZINA (Chairwoman, Department of English, Dartmouth College): As I look out of my office window on the Dartmouth campus in New Hampshire, I wonder how many people in the northern states and particularly in New England see themselves in this complicated history.

Slave plantations, sit-ins, civil rights marches - all seemed to have occurred below the Mason-Dixon line while northerners think they get a pass because they were pegged as good abolitionists. It's time to take a harder and perhaps a less self satisfied look at the complex history of New England.

Black folks appeared in New Hampshire as early as the 17th century but many of them moved on to slavery in other states. Other stayed on to work as sailors or in the ship building trade.

Just two years ago, a 300-year-old African burial ground was discovered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. That makes the length of the African-American presence in New England just about rival that of the most Brahmin of Mayflower descendants.

Plantations have been discovered in Connecticut where enslaved people grew the food that fed other enslaved people on the West Indian plantations. It was a shocking system that forced some black people to labor to feed other black people who were forced to work as well.

Most Americans today would be surprised that it was little Rhode Island that was at the heart of the American slave trade. They imported nearly 60,000 Africans into the Americas. Some of the most prominent families, like the founders of Brown University, they made their fortunes through it.

Slaves and their children were held throughout their lifetimes, bought and sold, but because they lived in colonial times of war and also needed to hunt, slaves had guns and were called upon to use them. They also had accounts in the local shops. They bartered furs or fish or real money and bought things like buttons, chocolate or Bibles. Slaves were made to attend church in New England, but they had to sit in the upstairs gallery, sometimes behind a curtain. They were often baptized and if lucky enough to find a partner, allowed to marry.

Free blacks could defend themselves in court expecting or at least hoping to be treated fairly. Yet they were still trapped in a system that was just as accepted in northern hamlets as on the largest of southern plantations.

Sometimes, this deeply contradictory past may exist within our own families. It did in mine. It may be our own African-American ancestors who fled the south for new lives in the north. Perhaps our white ancestors turned in their neighbors after the fugitive slave act.

While I was researching an early New England black family, I had no idea that my white ancestral family had owned one of them. As a mixed race woman, I realize that our personal histories don't exempt us from America's complex racial past. We can't squeeze it into the arbitrary confines of geography. We may not recognize it, but it is American history. And all of us, south and north, share in that story.

SIEGEL: Gretchen Gerzina is the chair of the English department at Dartmouth College. She's also the author of "Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend."

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