A Visit to the Slavery Museum: How the Legacy of Slavery Is Linked to White Racism Today

Over many years of doing anti-racist work among whites I have learned that the role of slavery in the formation of the economics, politics and culture of the United States is not well taught or well understood. That’s unfortunate, because when it comes to the connection between slavery then and white racism now, William Faulkner’s famous line “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” could not be more appropriate.

Visiting the Old Slave Mart in Charleston, South Carolina

There is a rack outside the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn in Charleston, South Carolina. It contains the typical assortment of flyers for local attractions from museums to golf courses to tours of various kinds including plantations and Fort Sumter. It does not contain brochures for the Old Slave Mart Museum.

Still, whether widely promoted or not, the museum does exist. And to Charleston’s credit, it acknowledges its slave-laden history more than most US cities. Various maps and plaques identify sites associated with Charleston’s history as the major entry point for slaves from Africa. And it was the city itself that purchased the old slave mart and now operates it as a museum. You can learn more about it on the City’s website.

The simplicity of the museum makes it all the more powerful. Upon entry visitors receive a brief introduction and then are off on their own. Mostly there are large panels using text, graphics and photos to describe the nature of the buying and selling that went on at the market.

When I was there, a steady stream of mostly white sightseers had found their way to the museum. Many were surprised to learn that the Slave Market and others like it, opened only after the legal importing of slaves was outlawed in 1808. In other words, virtually all of the men, women and children bought and sold at the Charleston slave market had been born in the United States.

The racially illiterate story most people believe is that all the slaves came from Africa. This conveniently ignores how extensively slavery became a highly profitable domestic industry. Even as the widespread smuggling of slaves continued after the 1808 ban, more than 2,000,000 men, women and children were sold in the internal slave trade.

The Museum’s descriptions of the strategies employed by the slave sellers to elevate the price of the slaves they sold were especially powerful. These included holding slaves in special areas while their rations were temporally increased so they would not look emaciated, bribing or bullying them to stay silent so as to not blurt out things that might tend to lower their price, providing them with new clothes, dying their hair to make them look younger and treating their skin to make them appear healthier. It’s as though what now is normal for the selling of products, politicians and just about everything else was invented in the marketing of slaves.

In addition to the Old Slave Mart museum, thanks to the years’ long effort of the Avery Research Center and others, Charleston now has its first monument to an African-American. A statue located in the city’s Hampton Park pays tribute to Denmark Vesey. It was formally unveiled on February 15, 2014.

By any measure Denmark Vesey was an accomplished man. A skilled carpenter and scholar of the bible, he used money he won in a lottery to purchase his own freedom. In 1822 Vesey and 35 others were executed for having conspired to organize a slave rebellion. His role in the history of Charleston and the history of slavery is described in many books including the extraordinary historical novel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

Slave rebellion and resistance are confusing at best to most whites. The very idea contradicts the white supremacist story that blacks were “happy.” It is at odds with the narrative that blacks are submissive by nature and thus indifferent to ideas such as “freedom.”

Undeniably though, whites were and are fearful of uprisings and resistance of all kinds. This fear is the basis for the vast system of repression and brutal punishment that characterized every aspect of the slave trade and of daily life under the slave system. The Haitian revolution in 1791, US uprisings and plots and the unremitting efforts of slaves to run away kept whites in a constant state of high anxiety.

To state the obvious, by any rational measure blacks then and now have far more to fear from whites than the other way around. But in the upside down world of white racism, whites to this day manage to keep themselves in a state of apprehension and victimhood.

Among other consequences, this fear makes whites vulnerable to being manipulated by politicians, real estate agents and others to focus on ersatz racial threats. I have long maintained that the huge numbers of non-slave owning whites who died defending slavery in the civil war is the mother of all whites “voting against their own interest.”

That said, it is also true that white skin provided real advantages during slavery and it provides real benefits now. Simply put, structural racism gives whites more freedom, more opportunity and more money. History suggests that humans with advantages over other humans, real or imagined, often do what they can to keep them.

For 500 years whites have worked to first create and then keep white skin advantage. With that territory comes the fear of losing the advantage and hence the shameful history of violence, repression and discrimination necessary for people of one skin color to dominate another. So deep are the cumulative effects of this fear that its impact extends well beyond race to distort the thinking of whites about life itself.

I often wonder who lives in a more permanent state of fear, our ancient ancestors who had to worry about dangerous weather, primitive health care and food shortages or “modern man” faced with never ending threats of precarious employment, constant financial debt, human-on-human violence on a mass scale and the loss of status caused by the “gains” of women, blacks, immigrants or some other other.

More specifically, the white fear of blacks is part of the slavery DNA that automatically reproduces racism to this day. It is evident in the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and the reaction to those killings. It is inextricably linked to the nation’s obsession with guns, the Second Amendment and the practice of militarizing police departments that goes all the way back to pre-civil war slave patrols. It is the key factor in the post WWII suburbanization that has left the nation as racially segregated now in many ways as it has ever been. It is the hidden force behind the weakness of the US social contract.

It is on display as well in our reaction to ISIS. I heard an MSNBC news pundit say that while we don’t have specific evidence of any ISIS plot or capability to strike in the US, “I can imagine such a thing,” as if that alone is sufficient to justify any and all forms of military action against them.

Speaking of ISIS, in a speech this September at the University of Michigan, Tom Hayden made a compelling case that ISIS has many similarities to the Khmer Rouge. (John Pilger has made that analysis as well.) But I see another parallel closer to home. ISIS is also a lot like the KKK.

One of the things they have in common is the propaganda use of public brutality including burning at the stake, mutilation of bodies and lynching. Another shared trait is the religious zealotry of the KKK and other similar groups such as the Red Shirts. They were the self-proclaimed defenders of true Christianity, which by definition was white and only white. Their symbol, remember, was the cross. And like ISIS they were explicitly stateless, claiming loyalty to an ideology and a way of life that transcends government. As does ISIS, the Klan drew heavily from former officers and soldiers. In the case of the Klan, they came from the ranks of the Confederate Army and the militias and slave patrols that preceded the Civil War.

Perhaps the most significant parallel of all is that the Klan and similar groups emerged out the ashes of a brutal war that upended the previous power dynamics of the region. Is that not exactly what is happening now in Iraq?

Wilmington, North Carolina

Which brings me to Wilmington. It too has a monument to its past. It strangely designed, located in an out of the way part of town and not well known. Yet it exists and it acknowledges an important event — a literal coup d’état. It happened in Wilmington in 1898.

Believe it or not, Wilmington in the post-civil war period came to be governed by a coalition of blacks and populist thinking whites. It was in real life the expression of a black-white coalition that we dream about to this day. It was intolerable to powerful whites.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes what happened, two days after the election of a bi-racial , but 2/3 majority white, fusion government. (Note, this account has been verified by multiple other sources).

“Led by Alfred Waddell, who was defeated in 1878 as the congressional incumbent by Daniel L. Russell (elected governor in 1896), more than 2000 white men participated in an attack on the black newspaper, Daily Record, burning down the building. They ran officials and community leaders out of the city, and killed many blacks in widespread attacks, especially destroying the Brooklyn neighborhood. They took photographs of each other during the events. The Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) and federal Naval Reserves, ordered to quell the riot, became involved, using rapid-fire weapons and killing several black men in the Brooklyn neighborhood. Both black and white residents later appealed for help after the coup to President William McKinley, but his administration did not respond, as Governor Russell had not requested aid. After the riot, [many] blacks left the city permanently, having to abandon their businesses and properties, turning it from a black-majority to a white-majority city.”

What does this — any of this — have to do with today? Much more than you might think. For example, what transpired in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 fundamentally foreshadows what has been happening in recent years in Michigan. Over the last several years under the guise of “emergency management” and bankruptcy, the political power of black dominated governments in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Benton Harbor and other Michigan cities has been taken away by the white power structure.

The Chain Is Yet Unbroken

One reason that understanding slavery is important is that the philosophy of white supremacy required to justify slavery hundreds of years ago remains central to white identity. It’s true that the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement disrupted the form of racial oppression. Life for blacks and whites surely improved as a result.

But control of, by and for whites remains in place. Today’s struggles over voting rights, gerrymandering, mass incarceration, school segregation, destruction of unions and the killing of young black men symbolize the dynamic of relentlessly pushing back against each and every gain for African-Americans.

Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Ted Cruz, George Zimmerman, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, those who are wearing and promoting “I am Darren Wilson” wrist bands and T-shirts, L Brooks Patterson, the NRA and many others who comprise the white power machine are the linear descendants of those who defended slavery, then destroyed reconstruction and then instituted Jim Crow. They all act like they are saying something original. And millions of whites agree with them — sincerely believing in some cases that it’s all being said for the first time.


Many racial deniers, especially liberals, vaguely acknowledge ongoing negative effects of the legacy of slavery. Even then, however, they do so in an intrinsically racist way. They focus exclusively on “disadvantaged” blacks. Just as slaveholders always wanted the focus to be on the alleged bad behavior of slaves, they see nothing of the price whites pay for racism, morally, economically, politically or any other way.

They have no awareness of how one grand-racist-bargain after another has left white workers pitifully powerless in the workplace, the economy and halls of political power. They cannot and do not connect the dots of racism to the mass mental illness on display in today’s conversations about everything from gun violence to repeatedly counterproductive foreign military adventures to the growing wealth and power of the 1%.

Racial illiterates play a somewhat different part in perpetuating the system. I had a revealing conversation recently with a daughter of the South. She generally acknowledged the immorality of the current inequality between whites and blacks. It was caused she said by whites having more “power and education.”

This is a typically confused yet conveniently self-serving white perspective because it suggests that blacks have only themselves to blame for not getting enough “education.” In other words, both sides are at fault. This “both sides are at fault” evasive mindset is also revealed in the common use of terms such “racial divide” and “racial tensions” to obfuscate the white advantages now built into the system.

The idea that white power itself is responsible for the disparity in education seemed quite novel to her. Despite having been raised in Mississippi and New Orleans, she seemed surprised to hear that one of the most dangerous things that could happen to a slave was to be discovered trying to learn to read or write. Whipping or worse was mandated by custom and often by law.

Sally Hadden in her definitive book, Slave Patrols puts it this way, “From the time of their first creation, patrols searched slave quarters as one of their three principal duties. Patrols rummaged through slave dwellings looking for weapons of revolt—guns, scythes, knives, but also writing paper, books and other indications of education.” (Emphasis added.)


So, is the line between what people “know” and what they want to know thick or thin? Good question. The answer is that, like a rubber band, it can expand, contract or break. Until they didn’t, people once believed all sorts of things including that the sun revolved around the earth, that the earth was flat, that the enslavement of blacks was God’s will and that tobacco cigarettes are good for your health.

Mostly we prefer to stay in the comfort zone of the status quo. That’s why social change is rarely easy. Diseases of the public mind, such as white racism, have highly developed defense systems.

Historical perspective, I am convinced, can be a powerful disinfectant. By knowing the past we can better see whether it is repeating itself or not. I am amazed on a daily basis by the extent to which we are shocked, shocked, shocked by things that keeping happening over and over again. For example treating each police or vigilante killing of an African American, or disparity in income, or other measures as a discrete act we need never come to terms with the reality of the racist system. The Rev Al Sharpton is no less guilty of this than Anderson Cooper or Bill O’Reilly.

Admittedly, the question of how and when humans learn from the past is anything but simple. But for sure we don’t have a chance of benefiting from history if we neither know nor acknowledge it.

In my town of Detroit there is a “monument” too. It is the Birwood Wall. One-half mile long, it was built by a developer on Detroit’s west side in the 1940’s. Its explicit purpose was to separate white and black neighborhoods. (The Making of Ferguson, by Richard Rothstein is an excellent analysis of the role of government policy in creating the residential segregation that continues to this day.)

The Birwood Wall still stands. It is not recognized in any official way. In recent years however a group of artists have turned it into a mural which sends a message of hope.

In Germany, a great deal is done to learn from and atone for Nazism and the holocaust. We can’t yet do that here because racism is still the dominant system. That said, there are many ways to expand awareness of our racist past and our racist present.

Are there symbols of racism in your town? Of course there are. Perhaps you know where one is. Or you could do some research. Maybe it’s old. Maybe it’s as fresh as last week. Finding it, identifying it, marking it and talking about it would be a constructive act of learning and healing for you and your community.


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