Monday, September 11, 2017
"By Tiya Miles, www.nytimes.comView OriginalSeptember 11th, 2017
Credit Laura McDermott for The New York Times
Photo by: Laura McDermott for The New York Times
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.
The Macomb surname and those of numerous Detroit slave sellers, slaveholders and indigenous-land thieves cover the region’s map. Men who committed crimes against humanity in their fur trade shops and private homes, on their farms, islands and Great Lakes trading vessels, are memorialized throughout the metropolis, on street signs, school buildings, town halls and county seats. The Detroit journalist Bill McGraw began a catalog of these names in his 2012 article “Slavery Is Detroit’s Big, Bad Secret” — Macomb, Campau, Beaubien, McDougall, Abbott, Brush, Cass, Hamtramck, Gouin, Meldrum, Dequindre, Beaufait, Groesbeck, Livernois, Rivard. And that’s just a start.
Belle Isle, for instance, was named for Isabelle Cass, a daughter of Lewis Cass, a Detroit politician and governor of Michigan in the early 1800s. Lewis Cass, a supporter of slavery, negotiated the sale of a woman he had enslaved named Sally to a member of the Macomb family in 1818, according to his biographer, Willard Carl Klunder. The Cass family name is attached to a county in Michigan as well as one of Detroit’s best public schools, Cass Tech. Detroiters and visitors alike speak and elevate the names of these slaveholders whenever they trace their fingers across a map or walk the streets in search of the nearest Starbucks.
Detroit is just one example of the hidden historical maps that silently shape our sense of place and community. Place names, submerged below our immediate awareness, may make us feel that slavery and racial oppression have faded into the backdrops of cities, and our history. Yet they do their cultural and political work.
The embedded racism of our streetscapes and landscapes is made perhaps more dangerous because we cannot see it upon a first glance. In Detroit and across the country, slaveholder names plastered about commemorate a social order in which elite white people exerted inexorable power over black and indigenous bodies and lives. Places named after slaveholders who sold people, raped people, chained people, beat people and orchestrated sexual pairings to further their financial ends slip off our tongues without pause or forethought. Yet these memory maps make up what the University of Michigan historian Matthew Countryman has called “moral maps” of the places that we inhabit together.
It is our duty to confront our ugly history in whole cloth. Confederate monuments in the South, in all of their artistic barbarity and weighty symbolism, are but one kind of commemoration of slavery and white power among many that shape our everyday environments, influence our collective identities and silently signal what our national culture validates. While the past does not change, our interpretations of it as we gain new evidence and insight can and should. Collectively determining what we valorize in the public square is the responsibility of the people who live in these stained places now. We can and must recover them."
The South Doesn’t Own Slavery - The New York Times