4/13 | The Abolition of Slavery

The artist Dread Scott presents the slave revolt reenactment project. Professors Dennis Childs, Maeve Glass, Stephanie Jones-Rogers, and Bernard E. Harcourt

read and discuss

Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary by Dennis Childs

They Were Her Property by Stephanie Jones-Rogers

Venus in Two Acts” by Saidiya Hartman

The History of Mary Prince by Mary Prince

Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Columbia University


In the chapter titled “The General Strike” of his book Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois demonstrates that the women and men who were enslaved in the South used their collective power, their labor and the threat of their labor force, to bring victory to the movement for abolition. With almost four million enslaved persons of color and over a quarter million freed Black men and women, the sheer power of their labor and their acts of resistance decided the Civil War. They waged what Du Bois called a “general strike”: “the slave entered upon a general strike against slavery… He ran away to the first place of safety and offered his services to the Federal Army. So that in this way it was really true that … this withdrawal and bestowal of his labor decided the war.”

A central thrust of Du Bois’s writings serve to demonstrate that abolition was achieved through the actions of Black men and women: through escape to fight in the ranks of the Union army, through the general strike and the threat of a general strike, through forms of resistance, through their presence as the primary force that fueled the Southern economy. The enslaved women and men “decided the war” despite the South and despite the North. As Du Bois explained:

It was not the Abolitionist alone who freed the slaves. The Abolitionists never had a real majority of the people of the United States back of them. Freedom for the slave was the logical result of a crazy attempt to wage war in the midst of four million black slaves, and trying the while sublimely to ignore the interests of those slaves in the outcome of the fighting. Yet, these slaves had enormous power in their hands. Simply by stopping work, they could threaten the Confederacy with starvation. By walking into the Federal camps, they showed to doubting Northerners the easy possibility of using them as workers and as servants, as farmers, and as spies, and finally, as fighting soldiers. And not only using them thus, but by the same gesture, depriving their enemies of their use in just these fields. It was the fugitive slave who made the slaveholders face the alternative of surrendering to the North, or to the Negroes.

The war transformed abolition into a democratic movement, against the will of the majority of the North and the South. The North had no choice but to bring enslaved persons into the democratic fold as a way to win the war. The South would have had to do the same in order to win the war, but it was, of course, unwilling. As Du Bois wrote, “It was this plain alternative that brought Lee’s sudden surrender. Either the South must make terms with its slaves, free them, use them to fight the North, and thereafter no longer treat them as bondsmen; or they could surrender to the North with the assumption that the North, after the war, must help them to defend slavery, as it had before. It was then that Abolition came in as a determining factor, and itself was transformed to a new democratic movement.”

In this seminar, we turn to interrogate the lessons that the abolition of slavery might teach us today in our struggles for abolition democracy.

One of the most salient of those lessons has to do precisely with the often-neglected but primordial role of enslaved and freed Black persons in the victory of emancipation. As my brilliant colleague and friend Maeve Glass writes, a new history of abolition is emerging which centers the role of Black men and women in the ultimate abolition of chattel slavery. As Glass writes: “Drawing on overlooked archives and revived social theories, this new history has de-centered the field’s traditional emphasis on the white bourgeois northerners who did little to change the centuries-old racial caste system upon which their own sense of self and privileges so often rested. Instead, this is a history that calls upon us to listen and learn from the transformational ideas, words, and deeds of Black abolitionists, who rose up and spoke out against an American injustice so profound it continues to defy the standard lexicon of the historian’s craft.” Our colleague Eric Foner as well, in The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, documents the critical role of the “Colored Convention” movement among free Black men and women, the place of Black abolitionists, and the influence of Black leaders.

We will begin the seminar on this theme with a presentation by the amazing artist Dread Scott  of his slave revolt reenactment project to explore the motivation, planning, and execution of the performance. Dread Scott’s piece highlights, precisely, the place of enslaved Black women and men in the struggle against oppression. We will then follow that presentation with presentations and critical discussion with a remarkable set of historians and critical thinkers, including professors Dennis Childs of the University of California, San Diego, Maeve Glass of Columbia University, and Stephanie Jones-Rogers of the University of California, Berkeley. Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s historical research highlights the dimension of gender in the historical accounts of abolition, recentering the role of white women’s economic relationships to slavery. In this seminar, she will explore how abolition should have been renumeration for the acts of theft perpetrated against people of African descent through chattel slavery, and what that means for abolition today. Dennis Childs’s historical research highlights the continuities from slavery to the systems of convict leasing and plantation prisons in the postbellum period, raising significant questions about the legacies and metamorphoses of oppressive institutions such as slavery.

This passage from a de jure to de facto system of racial oppression in this country raises many critical questions: What can we learn from analyzing the similarities and differences of these different periods? What can we learn especially about present abolitionist efforts? In what ways do the struggles inform each other? What are the shoals to be avoided in future abolitionist campaigns?

Welcome to Abolition Democracy 4/13!


[Read the full text of this introduction with citations: click here. © Bernard E. Harcourt.]