Slavery in the City (#OAH19)

Slavery in the City

Slave auction in Charleston, SC, circa 1860

Katie Lowe is an M.A. student in history at Towson University in Towson, Maryland.  She is reporting for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Philadelphia.  In this dispatch, she summarizes a panel on urban slavery.  Enjoy!  –JF

Hello from Philadelphia! This is my first time attending the OAH meeting, and it’s been a positive experience overall. The members of the OAH planning team are good people, and I have appreciated getting to know them as a volunteer this year. Below is a recap of a panel I attended Friday morning.

“Slavery in the City” (#AM3149), chaired by Martha Jones of Johns Hopkins University, discussed some of the challenges of exploring the intersection of American and urban histories.

Leslie Harris of Northwestern started us off by stating that there is “no synthetic work” in the field of urban slavery.  Older work is being challenged and there is still a lot that we don’t know about the subject.  For example, we need to know more about what caused shifts in urban free black populations.  Harris also noted that slavery in Philadelphia has been understudied. She stressed that more work needs to be done on how the practice of slavery was adapted to specific locales, economic situations, and the demographics of the enslaved population in a given area. She concluded by pointing out that after the Civil War, the image and memory of slavery focused overwhelmingly on the plantation and much less on the cities.

Rashauna Johnson of Dartmouth College noted a recent “outpouring of scholarship” on slavery and urban history.  She described New Orleans as having a “confined cosmopolitanism,” suggested a need to both broaden frameworks and center particular stories of urban slavery, and challenged us to recognize  the “heterogeneous landscape” of slavery in American cities.

Jonathan Wells of the University of Michigan highlighted how cities in the North were divided over the issue of slavery and preserving the Union, especially in terms of creating coalitions to forward business interests. He mentioned that kidnapping, violence, and resistance to anti-slavery activity created dangerous conditions for African Americans in the North.