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After Textbook Controversy, A Look At Connecticut’s Ties To Slavery

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Courtesy of Gibbs Smith Education
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A social studies textbook was pulled from public schools in Norwalk and drew attention from the United Nations because it said slaves in Connecticut were well-treated. The U.N. said the book, “The Connecticut Adventure,” distorted the true nature of slavery.

WSHU’s Davis Dunavin recently spoke to Tom Thurston of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale to find out what textbooks still get wrong about slavery’s history in the North.

Dunavin asked him what was wrong with what the textbook said – that there were few slaves in Connecticut compared to the South, and they were treated like family and taught how to read and write. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

I think where this excerpt from the textbook really errs is talking about them as being treated as part of the family. There were very few large plantations in Connecticut, next to none really, and so it was often the case there would be one or two slaves in a family, in very close quarters. That doesn’t mean they’re being treated as family members – it can be a very brutal condition.

And more to the point, they are enslaved, and that means their freedom of movement, their freedom to do as they choose with their lives, the kind of basic human rights that we take for granted are denied them because of the color of their skin. It’s very hard to form relationships or feel that you’re part of a community. As far as retaining anything of your culture, it can be a very difficult thing.

Any time you begin to compare whose lot was easier when you’re talking about a system like slavery, you’re really walking down a thorny path, because ultimately this isn’t a condition that anyone would wish for themselves or for any of their loved ones.

I understand also that some of the context that gets left out is – New England also benefited from the spoils of slavery.

It often gets lost when you’re teaching about slavery. The idea that maybe we don’t need to focus on it in the Northeast, because the number of people enslaved is rather small, and New Englanders can take some pride in that. But what that neglects is the economy of New England is entirely implicated in the slave economy.

Connecticut is rapidly industrializing, and the first factories in America are in Connecticut and Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but these places often are making cheap textiles that certainly are not going to be imported to a place like Great Britain. Instead, they’re being used –  what they used to call ‘Negro cloth.’ This is materials that will clothe enslaved people in the South.

Now, how common has it been over the years to see things like this in textbooks that seem to downplay the role of slavery?

In some ways, slavery has always been portrayed as a bit of an odd sideshow in American history, instead of as I think most scholars would say today, the main event. That slavery is the engine that drives the economy, that allowed the United States to become the industrial nation it did.

On top of that, there’s always been a sense regionally that New England, Connecticut, Massachusetts – the city on the hill. We’re the place that the ideas of the republic and our nation that embedded in the founding documents, that’s where they come from, and that we’ve always held to a higher standard than the South. And we always have set ourselves apart.

Well, that’s the nature of textbooks and of teaching our history – we want to put our best face forward when we’re teaching our children this. Well, then, how do you deal with the real tough parts of our history?

Now, what about those people who say, ‘That’s so depressing.’ We want to have that shining city on a hill? Was this idea of a shining city on a hill ultimately an illusion?

I think in the way that it’s been used is an illusion. It’s a useful illusion. As far as what to do – how do you make our history something to look towards for inspiration – I think learning the stories of regular people, and how they make sense of, how they survive, how they push back against injustice, how they raise their families and teach their children, those are wonderful ways to teach our history.

And I think they’re ways students, children can appreciate. Because that’s what their world is like. How are they navigating this world that we live in? Understanding that the things that happen to you are part of a big untidy struggle that we’re all having to make sense of the times that we live in, I think there’s something empowering about that.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.