Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory

Marc Howard Ross

In 2002, with plans to revamp Philadelphia’s Independence National Park underway, an article published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania delivered a bombshell: Just one block from Independence Hall, President George Washington’s household counted among its inhabitants nine enslaved Africans.

For Marc Howard Ross, an emeritus professor of political science at Bryn Mawr, that news began a long engagement with the story and brought him into contact with groups who were demanding a meaningful memorial to the enslaved at the site.

The more Ross learned, the broader the scope of his investigation became—and, over time, he began to focus on the larger issue of slavery in the North. Slavery was institutionalized throughout the colonies and, later, the states, but its existence and indeed its significance up North had gone largely unrecognized.

Why and how, Ross wondered, did that aspect of slavery in the U.S. fade from public consciousness to such a degree that most Americans perceive it as an entirely Southern problem? And why and how has some of that forgotten history been reclaimed over the past 25 years?

His exploration of those questions resulted in his latest book, Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2018.

In examining what lay behind this collective forgetting, Ross offers two explanations. First, he points to the “sectional politics that produced strong Northern and Southern competition over political and economic interests ... [and] increasingly emphasized and demonstrated regional differences in cultures and interests, which made it easy for politicians to support narratives of Northern virtues and Southern vices.”

Plus, he suggests, the North’s collective amnesia arose, in part, “from the shame and guilt that many white Northerners felt about their past practices.”

To explain the recent recovery of memory, Ross points first to the acquisition of evidence—documents, objects, records, and data provided by new technologies (such as the DNA analysis that has confirmed Thomas Jefferson as the father of Sally Hemmings’ children).

Of equal weight is a shift in the field of history itself that, since the 1960s, has expanded to include the experience of more people, including women and people of color. This new understanding about “what is important,” Ross observes, has opened our eyes “so that what had previously been available is no longer ignored.”

Marc Howard Ross is the William Rand Kenan, Jr., Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Bryn Mawr College. He is author of numerous books and is editor of Culture and Belonging in Divided Societies, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.