‘Hidden History’ Panel participants (clockwise from upper left): Kabria Baumgartner, Ph.D, ABC57’s Brian Conybeare, Christy Clark-Pujara, Ph.D., and Jonathan Daniel Wells, Ph.D.


‘Hidden History’ Panel Depicts How the Slave Trade Enriched Whites and How African Americans Resisted

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.— For any Northerners who may think the North was essentially innocent during two-and-a-half centuries of American slavery, three historians have a message.

They say “the business of slavery” permeated both South and North and enriched white people in every place bound up with its vast machinery. And Black people in the North were in danger in many ways, including seeking a formal education. “We were racist as a country before we even became a country. It is in the DNA of the nation,” one said.

The historians told of their research during the first of three webinars called “Hidden History: Understanding the Origins of Racial Inequity.” The second and third parts will take place in May and June, ending with the present era of racial history. The series is part of the ongoing Community Grand Rounds program about how systemic racism harms the health of people of color.

The first webinar, on April 13, covered the colonial period of slavery to the Civil War in the 1860s. Moderated by ABC57’s Brian Conybeare, panelists were three history scholars: Christy Clark-Pujara, Ph.D., the University of Wisconsin; Kabria Baumgartner, Ph.D., the University of New Hampshire; and Jonathan Daniel Wells, Ph.D., the University of Michigan.

All three emphasized that enslaved and other Black people often resisted their mistreatment, insisting on their full humanity. “These people were anything but simple property,” Clark-Pujara said.

Rhode Island exemplified what was going on in the northern colonies (and, later, northern states) as it bought people, food and goods in bilateral trade that helped plantations in the American South and the West Indies thrive and enriched Rhode Island colonists, Clark-Pujara said. Tiny Rhode Island was a giant in the slave trade. In the total colonial period, it sent 514 slave ships to West Africa. The rest of the colonies, North and South combined, sent just 189.

Baumgartner told about the Canterbury Female Seminary, a Connecticut school in the 1830s for white girls ages 12 to 20. The enrollment of a young Black woman caused a white backlash. The white Quaker principal closed the school but opened a new seminary just for African-American girls. White residents fought back in the courts, with physical threats and by pushing a law through the General Assembly forbidding schools “for colored persons,” thus criminalizing the Canterbury school. The principal was arrested, and court proceedings dragged on for months. Ultimately, a mob attacked the school building, making it “almost uninhabitable,” and the principal closed the school.

Canterbury’s Black students “embraced an ethics of Christian love,”  according to Baumgartner. Their resistance was “an act of social protest, a bold declaration of African-American belonging.”

“Nothing illustrates the roots of slavery in America’s founding better than the U.S. Constitution, which compromised with slavery in various ways – ‘most egregiously’ in the Fugitive Slave Clause that required Northern communities to return slaves who escaped the South” – Jonathan Daniel Wells, Ph.D.

She estimates that whites attacked Black schools at least a dozen times in the 19th-century North.

Wells said nothing illustrates the roots of slavery in America’s founding better than the U.S. Constitution, which compromised with slavery in various ways – “most egregiously” in the Fugitive Slave Clause that required Northern communities to return slaves who escaped the South.   

New York City in the pre-Civil War decades owed much of its wealth and power to cotton grown by enslaved people, making it according to Wells “a very dangerous place for African Americans.” A loosely knit group of men, whom a Black opponent, David Ruggles, named The Kidnapping Club, approached “untold numbers of Black New Yorkers” on the streets and sold them into slavery on unjustified allegations that they were violating the Fugitive Slave Clause, Wells said. Ruggles tirelessly roamed the city, vigilant for any threat to Black lives by the “club.” 

Ruggles died around age 40. “He gives his physical being, he gives his existence, to the fight against institutional racism in America’s metropolis, ” Wells said.

Following the formal presentations, the program opened up to questions from the virtual audience of nearly 200. Panelists expanded upon their remarks and added observations about how historical events are tied to issues of today. Hidden History panel 2 is Tuesday, May 11, 2021, at 7 p.m. ET. To register, click.

The “Hidden History” series is sponsored by Spectrum Health Lakeland and Lake Michigan Community College in cooperation with St. Joseph Mayor Mike Garey.