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Planting sweet potatoes at John Hopkinson's plantation. (Photo: Library of Congress/Public Domain)

The United States Needs a Slavery Museum

• May 20, 2014 • 12:00 PM

Planting sweet potatoes at John Hopkinson's plantation. (Photo: Library of Congress/Public Domain)

As part of its reparations demands, the Caribbean Community is seeking money for cultural organizations that examine the history of slavery. Here’s why the U.S. should construct similar institutions to memorialize our peculiar institution.

The media frenzy has (mostly) died down and the reporters have left the ranch, but Cliven Bundy’s brief time in the spotlight forced many to take a closer look at certain realities of American belief. The rancher, who initially drew attention through his refusal to obey federal grazing laws, used his 15 minutes to air his view that perhaps African Americans were better off when they were enslaved.

Horrifying though Bundy’s remarks were (and he did receive a fast rebuke from some of those who had initially sided with him), he’s not the only one who has shared this opinion publicly in recent years. In March, Arizona congressional candidate Jim Brown wrote on his Facebook page that “Basically slave owners took pretty good care of their slaves and livestock and this kept business rolling along.” Last year, Walter Block, who holds an endowed chair at Loyola University, wrote the following in an article on lewrockwell.com: “Otherwise, slavery wasn’t so bad. You could pick cotton, sing songs, be fed nice gruel, etc. The only real problem was that this relationship was compulsory.”

What this kind of commentary tells us is deeply disturbing: That we as a nation have failed to educate ourselves about the institution of slavery, and what’s more, that there are Americans who refuse to accept it as the United States’ original sin. To begin to address this ignorance, we need a national museum dedicated to slavery in America—its reality, its history, and its long-lasting effects.

Individuals who visit museums, it has been noted by recent research, develop increased historical empathy and have higher levels of tolerance than those who do not.

Recent films like Twelve Years a Slave and even Quentin Tarantino’s cartoonish Django Unchained have gone a long way in addressing some of the misperceptions of slave life. But they can’t correct what generations have taken from watching images like those in Gone With the Wind, of benign masters fighting a war and feisty slave women running the plantation. We’ve placed a lot of faith in the medium, but film alone cannot carry the burden against such entrenched images and misrepresentations.

Some claim that the great plantation mansions like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage serve as slavery museums; they exhibit slave cabins and describe some of those who worked and lived on the properties. Yet more often than not, these plantations celebrate the individual owner and the beauty and refinement of the architecture rather than revealing the crimes against humanity committed there.

Monticello, Mount Vernon, and the others also continue to perpetuate the notion that slavery only existed in the Southern United States. In fact, up until the turn of the 19th century, slavery could be found in each and every state except Pennsylvania. The largest slave market in the 1750s was in New York City, far from the plantation life of the South.

For some of us, visiting a plantation is akin to visiting a concentration camp. This should be true for all. Because of the fraught nature of these locations functioning as museums, a separate site dedicated to telling the real history of the institution of African American enslavement should be built, and soon.

Individuals who visit museums, it has been noted by recent research, develop increased historical empathy and have higher levels of tolerance than those who do not. This is the primary goal of having a national museum that will reveal—in depth—the 250-year history of slavery in this country and correct those Gone With the Wind ideas. It would function in much the same way as Washington, D.C’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, which works to memorialize the facts and contradict Holocaust deniers through its dedication to illustrating the savage reality of the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews.

The U.S. is not the only place with a history of slavery that has failed to create a related historical institution to honor and document its past. In the Caribbean, there is no such museum or national heritage site. Seeking to change that, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a political and economic alliance comparable to the European Union, recently listed money for cultural institutions that examine the history of slavery as one of its demands for reparations. As of now, only Sweden has offered to negotiate an agreement. If the issue is not addressed by other named European countries, including Portugal, Spain, and France, among others, CARICOM is prepared to take the reparation demands to the International Court of Justice.

This Caribbean effort has inspired Americans to reintroduce the issue of reparations here in the United States. Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, leader of the Black Congressional Caucus, has vowed to bring legislation on this issue forward during this congressional session.

While some might argue that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture answers the call for an institution dedicated to examining our long history with slavery, that museum’s primary goal is not to document slavery in the U.S. In fact, slavery is not even mentioned in its mission statement. And even if it were, slavery is too entrenched and consequential to U.S. development for it to be explained in a single, rotating exhibition hall.

Sara Fanning
Sara Fanning is an assistant professor of history at Texas Woman's University. Her forthcoming book, Caribbean Crossing: African Americans and the Haitian Emigration Movement, tells the story of free black Americans who went to the Caribbean nation shortly after it won independence in the early 19th century. She is also a fellow in The OpEd Project’s Public Voices Fellowship at TWU.

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