Slavery and the systematic exploitation of people of African descent have profoundly shaped our nation. The rise of racial slavery underpinned the beginnings of pervasive and discriminatory racialist ideologies. Debates over slavery informed our national constitution and ultimately led the nation into four years of bloody war. But rather than settling arguments about the role of black men and women in national political, social, and economic life, emancipation raised new questions, many of which beg for resolution today.

As Frederick Douglass suggests, black Americans were never passive vessels. From the moment the first black people disembarked on the tip of Long Island and at Jamestown, Africans and African Americans have played a vital role in shaping our nation's social, productive, cultural, and political life. Agency, or struggle, if you will, has been a hallmark of black life in mainland North America. Black Americans' resistance gave particular shape to North America's peculiar institution, and then helped bring about its abolition. Nearly a century later, continued traditions of resistance and struggle forced a reluctant nation to make good on long deferred promises of civil rights. Black Americans' cultures—from early whispers of Africa and a knowledge of rice cultivation, to the blues sung by working people of the Mississippi Delta, to the poets of Harlem—have influenced language, politics, religion, diet, and even agricultural practices.

To leave unexplored the historical experiences of black Americans thus leaves untold—and unexplained—the story of our national past. This course is designed to begin telling that story.

By means of lectures, readings, and discussion, we will survey the experiences of Africans in America from the colonial period through the end of the nineteenth century.


Read: The course readings consist of both primary and secondary sources. The books are available for purchase at the Coop, and have been placed on library reserve. Some of the articles are available online through one of the library system’s E-Resources or E-journals. Other materials are posted on the course website; all are accessible to enrolled students via links imbedded in the online syllabus.

Write: Writing assignments will take several forms:

Talk: The study of history is a conversation about the past and how we should think about it. Consider your registration in this course an invitation to join in that conversation.

Schedule of Topics and Readings

Wednesday, 1 February Introduction: Rethinking the American Narrative
Monday, 6 February Africa, Africans, and the Middle Passage
  • David Eltis and David Richardson, "The 'Numbers Game' and Routes to Slavery," Slavery & Abolition, 18 (April 1997), pp. 1-15
  • Philip D. Morgan, "The Cultural Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade: African Regional Origins, American Destinations and New World Developments," Slavery & Abolition, 18 (April 1997), pp. 122-45
  • Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite, Jr., The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas (Follow the links to the maps)
  • What major point does Philip Morgan hope his readers take away from his essay? Identify and analyze two or three maps from Jerome Handler's website that you think best illustrate Morgan's central argument. Limit your response to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class on February 6.
Wednesday, 8 February Making Slavery
Readings: Write:
  • What is the central lesson, or big point, that Berlin hopes to convey in this book more generally, and in this section more particularly? To what extent do the two documents support his argument? Limit your response to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class on February 8.
Monday, 13 February Colonial America: Slave Societies
Readings: Write:
  • Runaway ads, though written in a master's often demeaning and derogatory language, contain enormous information about slaves' lives and the worlds they made for themselves. After reading carefully the selection for this week, sketch out something of slaves' lives in the mid-Atlantic colonies of the mid-colonial period. Be sure to think in terms of what slaves did as men, and as women; where they did it; who they befriended, and so forth. How do your findings accord with Berlin's notion of a "society with slaves"? Limit your response paper to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class on February 13.
Wednesday 15, February Colonial America: Slave Societies
  • Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, pp. 93-216
  • Monday it was a society with slaves, today it is a slave society. How does Berlin understand the distinction? List what you believe to be the key differences between the two. Limit your response to 1 typewritten page. Due in class on February 15.
Classroom Resources
Monday, 20 February holiday
Wednesday, 22 February African Americans in the Age of Revolution
Readings: Write:
  • Having read with care Thomas Jefferson’s remarks concerning African people in his Notes on the State of Virginia, assume Jefferson’s perspective and respond to Woody Holton and the argument he puts forward in "'Rebel Against Rebel.'" This requires that you understand and can summarize both authors' arguments, their assumptions, and their conclusions. (Remember, assumptions are those "truths" you never question; they are also the starting point of all logic.) This also requires you to understand (and evaluate) the nature of evidence they draw on to support their arguments and conclusions. Due in class February 22.
Monday, 27 February New Crops, New Homes
  • Lorena S. Walsh, "Slave Life, Slave Society, and Tobacco Production in the Tidewater Chesapeake," in Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas, ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (Charlottesville, Va., 1993), 170-99
  • Steven F. Miller, "Plantation Labor Organization and Slave Life on the Cotton Frontier: The Alabama-Mississippi Black Belt, 1815-1840," in Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas, ed. Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan (Charlottesville, Va., 1993), 155-69
  • Charles L. Munnerlyn to James Shackleford, 23 Nov. 1839
  • The history of African Americans is, in many respects, a history of migration. But not all migrations are identical. They have their own histories. Drawing from today's readings, and taking into account previous weeks' material, list and be prepared to explain and defend what you believe to be some of the key distinctions between the antebellum "domestic" migration and the earlier, transatlantic migration. Limit yourself to 1 typewritten page. Due in class February 27.
Wednesday, 1 March New Lives: Reconstructing Communities and Cultures in the Antebellum South
Readings: Write:
  • With each upheaval in their lives, black men and black women were faced with the problem of once again reassembling ruptured lives and communities. But people can never fully and completely replicate their previous situations. Drawing from Monday's readings as well as today's, discuss EITHER the impact and implications for the lives of the people who were left behind OR the impact and implications for those who were sold or shipped South. (Don't forget as you contemplate these questions that it is the circumstances of peoples' everyday lives from which arise ideas about gender, domestic order, and culture.) Limit your response to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class March 1.
Monday, 6 March Of Markets and Men (and Women)
  • Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul
  • Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, (New York, 1972), pp. 1-7, 587-91
  • What is the main idea Walter Johnson is trying to convey in Soul by Soul ? What information or evidence does he use to make his point? What does he assume about the people he studies? Does Eugene Genovese share these same assumptions? (Assumptions, remember, are those ideas and beliefs people take for granted; in other words, the "starting point" of all logic.) Limit yourself to 3-4 typewritten pages. Due in class on March 6.
Wednesday, 8 March Black Life and Labor in the Free North
Readings: Write:
  • Read carefully "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery." Who is being emancipated? When? What might be some of the implications of this act? How, for instance, might this emancipation project inform the economic status of free blacks in Pennsylvania? How might the terms of this act influence African American families and communities? (You might find it useful to consult a general American history text to learn the average life expectancy of Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.) Due in class March 8.
Monday, 13 March Free People of Color in the Slave South
Readings: Write:
  • Slaveholders spent considerable energy defending their institution on the grounds of race, drawing creatively on Biblical texts and various strands of science to legitimize their system of intense exploitation. These arguments became especially well developed after the American Revolution. But they also came under serious assault, not only by a rising chorus of anti-slavery activists (to whom we'll turn shortly) but also by the very presence of free people of color in the slaveholding states. Spend some time on these documents, then discuss in specific terms how in conducting their lives, the black men and women who lived free in the antebellum South inadvertently problematized slaveholders' notions about "race" (feel free to reference Tom's Notes on the State of Virginia). Limit yourself to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class March 13.
Wednesday, 15 March The Northern Struggle Against Slavery: Abolitionists
Readings: Write:
  • Read David Walker's Appeal carefully. What is his purpose in writing? What are his assumptions—about American society generally, about African Americans, and about slaves particularly? Do his assumptions have any implications in terms of his approach to antislavery and his vision for a post-slave world? How do you think the enslaved men and women studied by Walter Johnson would receive Walker's assumptions? Keep your response brief (limit yourself to 1-2 typewritten pages). Due in class March 15.
FYI: There will be a screening of GLORY this evening at 6:00 in CGIS South, S-001
Monday, 20 March The Southern Struggle Against Slavery: "Dissidents in the Conscript Army"
Readings: Write:
  • David Walker was hardly alone in discounting the ability of slaves to act on their own volition; countless of his contemporaries shared in that assessment, likewise many generations of historians of slavery (W.E.B. Du Bois being an early and important exception). As we have changed our assumptions and our perspectives, we have come to recognize that slaves were never passive subjects of slaveholders' authority. But at the same time, we have come to recognize that resistance— the forms slaves' responses took as they struggled to restore order and coherency to their lives—has its own history. In other words, how enslaved people attempted to deflect their owners' impositions depended on the specific circumstances of their lives. Taking as your starting point todays readings, discuss to what extent, how, and why slaves' modes of resistance took different form in the 19th century than they had in the colonial period. Limit your responses to 2-3 typewritten pages. Due in class March 20.
Wednesday, 22 March Thinking about Slaves, Thinking about History
25 March–2 April Spring Break
Monday, 3 April Civil War: Loosening the Bonds and Self-Emancipation
Readings: Write:
  • Popular wisdom has it that Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. Without taking anything away from Lincoln's critical role in making freedom a national goal, assess that statement in light of the insights you can draw from today's documents. In particular, think about who acted first, and to what effect. Limit your response to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class April 3.
Wednesday, 5 April Civil War: Soldiering and Sailoring for Freedom
Readings: Write:
  • Military service vastly transformed black people's lives; in some ways good, in some ways not. Considering these documents, identify and explain some of the benefits, as well as costs to enlisting in (or offering support to) Lincoln's war. Limit your response to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class April 5.

  • Note: don't feel compelled to explore the National Park Service database systematically. It is enormous. Instead, select a state or two (perhaps one from the North and one from the South) and thinking about when they enlisted, where, for how long, and with whom, speculate about how military service might have transformed their lives.
Monday, 10 April Envisioning Freedom
Readings: Write:
  • Freedom, as historian Eric Foner has pointed out on numerous occasions, is a hotly contested concept. What it means, who enjoys it, and on what terms has been and continues to be a subject of great national and private debate. This was especially true of the Civil War era, when the upheaval of war and emancipation placed the topic squarely on the national agenda. Examining today's documents, jot down (a list is fine) the various versions of freedom you see, thinking as you do so, about who is articulating each particular view, the sorts of rights and privileges they envision different people exercising, and the roles of the same in the new, post-emancipation nation. Limit yourself to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class April 10.
Wednesday, 12 April Presidential Reconstruction
  • Steven Hahn, "'Extravagant Expectations' of Freedom: Rumour, Political Struggle, and the Christmas Insurrection Scare of 1865 in the American South," Past & Present, no. 157 (November 1997), 122-58
  • U.S. Congress, Senate, "Reports of the Assistant Commissioners of Freedmen, and a Synopsis of Laws Respecting Persons of Color in the Late Slave States," Senate Executive Documents, 39th Cong., 2nd sess., No. 6, serial 1276, pp. 190-97, pp. 202-20
  • "Amnesty Proclamation," The Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America from December 1863, to December 1865 (Boston, 1866), vol. 13, pp. 758-60
  • J.B. Carr to Major General O.O. Howard, 17 Jan. 1866
  • Howell Cobb Jr. to Howell Cobb, 3 Jan. 1866
  • In reading these materials, and thinking about how planters acquired labor in slavery, what do you believe is frightening the former slaveholders the most: the problem of land or the problem of labor? Please provide ample archival evidence to support your response. Limit yourself to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class April 12.
Monday, 17 April Mobilizing
  • John C. Rodrigue, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields, chap. 3
  • Steven F. Miller, Susan E. O'Donovan, John C. Rodrigue, and Leslie S. Rowland, ed., "Between Emancipation and Enfranchisement: Law and the Political Mobilization of Black Southerners during Presidential Reconstruction, 1865-1867," Chicago-Kent Law Review, 70, no. 3 (1995), 1059-77
  • Capt. George Smith to Major A.W. Preston, 31 Oct. 1866
  • Only recently have historians come to recognize the extent to which former slaves were mobilizing in advance of Radical Reconstruction, but in keeping with their visions of freedom, their patterns of mobilization took different shapes: who mobilized, how, and when depended heavily on the specific circumstances of people's lives. Limiting yourself to 1-2 typewritten pages, describe some of the different patterns and process of mobilization and speculate on why they took the shape that they did. Due in class on April 17.
Wednesday, 19 April A Republican Freedom
Readings: Write:
  • Read carefully Major Martin R. Delany's report o his commanding officer, Colonel W.L.M. Burger. What assumptions inform his thinking? What conclusions does he draw from his tour of the low country? What are some of the political implications of his reasoning, especially as they apply to Radical Reconstruction, the relationship between North and South, and black Americans' roles and responsibilities within the nation? Limit your response to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class April 19.
Monday, 24 April Democratic Resurgence
Readings: Write:
  • We often hear about the racialized violence that marked the end of Radical Reconstruction, a period commonly understood to have come to a close with the final removal of federal soldiers in 1877. To what extent do today's readings problematize both the narrative of race violence, and the chronology of Reconstruction? Limit your response to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class April 24.
Wednesday, 26 April Bi-Racial Movements and Political Promises
  • Eric Arneson, "'It Aint Like They Do In New Orleans': Race Relations, Labor Markets, and Waterfront Labor Movements in the American South, 1880-1923," in Racism and the Labour Market: Historical Studies, ed. Marcel van der Linden and Jan Lucassen (Berlin, Germany, 1995), 57-100
  • Lawrence C. Goodwyn, "Populist Dreams and Negro Rights: East Texas as a Case Study," American Historical Review, 76 (December 1971): 1435-56
  • J.F. Johnson and T.J. Green to Governor John B. Gordon, 5 Feb. 1889
  • In The Wages of Whiteness (revised ed., 1999), p. 8, David R. Roediger states that "working class formation and the systematic development of a sense of whiteness went hand in hand for the US white working class." Is this view sustained or challenged by today's readings? Support your response with specific examples. Limit your response to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class April 26.
Monday, 1 May Backlashes: A Sharply Contracting Democracy
Readings: Write:
  • Democracy comes under heavy assault in the late nineteenth-century. The South is not alone in bearing the stigma of injustice and inequality. Examining these documents closely, identify and defend what you believe to be the two or three most critical points of contention. Limit your response to 1-2 typewritten pages. Due in class May 1.
Wednesday, 3 May New Leaders, New Directions, New People
Readings: Write:
  • To paraphrase Marx, men and women make their own history, but they do not make it just as they choose. Or, in the words of French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, "'In each one of us, in differing degrees, is contained the person we were yesterday.'" In thinking about today's readings, were these two men onto something? As you contemplate the possible connections between pasts, presents, and aspirations for the future, jot down two or three questions that you think might reasonably appear on the final exam and bring them with you to class for a collaborative review.
Saturday, 6 May Spring reading period begins
Website designed by kop. Updated January 2006.