Published: 6 March 2015

Slavery and history as a moral enterprise

‘History is a moral enterprise’: This was the message Professor Annette Gordon-Reed stressed to her audience at the second annual Centre for the Study of International Slavery Donor’s Lecture, hosted by Executive Pro-Vice-Chancellor Fiona Beveridge this week.

In a talk exploring the legacies of slavery within American society, the Pulitzer Prize winner was able to draw out this universal truth of the importance of history to importance of engaging with difficult pasts when trying to understand present day trauma.

Gordon-Reed, a Professor of Law and History at Harvard University, examined contemporary concerns over African-American citizenship by investigating the paradoxical nature of American claims to be the ‘Land of the Free’ as embodied by its founding father Thomas Jefferson. ‘All men are created equal’, a phrase penned by Jefferson in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, is one of the most iconic in the English language. It was the foundation upon which the United States of America was built; yet the history of America has been characterised racial discrimination and inequality.

Speaking, at the International Slavery Museum’s Martin Luther King Jr. building, Gordon-Reed argued that this conflict between Jefferson’s dual role as slave-owner and champion of freedom set a precedent for the questions over Black citizenship that remain to this very day.

Professor Gordon-Reed has previously worked on the Hemingses of Monticello, a family of enslaved people owned by Jefferson, who fathered several children with Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed argued that whilst Jefferson’s personal behaviour might seem at odds with his comments on racial separation, his objection to a multi-racial society was grounded in fear of the tensions and resentments generated by the systematic exploitation of enslaved people. Gordon-Reed drew a direct through line from Jefferson’s fears to the racial violence of the Jim Crow South and hence to the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in Ferguson and New York.

Professor Gordon-Reed told an audience of staff, current students, alumni, and members of the wider community that slavery was a vital part of the ‘grand American narrative’. This statement was food for thought and an important reminder that the more shameful aspects of the past must not be forgotten, as they have a genuine impact on the world around us.

Co-Director of CSIS, Dr Richard Huzzey, said “Annette’s lecture challenged our research community, our students, and our supporters to rethink the links between past and present. Thanks to the support of our donor funding our Annual Lectures, we have once again enjoyed a chance to celebrate the Centre’s successes in the past year and cement our innovative partnership between the Museum and the University.”

Joseph Kelly is a first-year PhD researcher in the Department of History and seminar convenor for the Centre for the Study of International Slavery; he holds an ESRC CASE studentship to collaborate with the International Slavery Museum and research slavery’s supply chains in the nineteenth-century British Atlantic world.

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