Let’s face it, folks. The Florida Department of Education has been throwing one curve ball after another at our public school students and their teachers lately, and nowhere has this been more evident than in the area of African American History.
The reason for this is crystal clear. Our governor’s determination to prevent anything resembling a “woke” approach to this subject matter has led to one chest-pounding proclamation after another — no critical race theory (whatever that may be) allowed, no Advance Placement African American Studies course for Florida’s high school students, to cite only two examples.
So I was expecting more of the same when I read through the “African American History Strand” in the Florida Department of Education’s “State Academic Standards — Social Studies, 2023.” I was, to put it mildly, surprised. It quickly became clear that our governor had not taken the time to read through this document, with his red pen poised to strike through all the “woke” material that remained. There is plenty of subject matter here that teachers and all of our students can address to their profit.
As I read through the Department of Education’s guidance, I found two sentences that open the door to a full and unvarnished discussion of slavery in the Old South.
Sentence one: “Explain how the rise of cash crops accelerated the growth of the domestic slave trade in the United States.”
After mentioning Eli Whitney’s 1793 invention of the cotton gin and the growth of the Cotton Kingdom of the Deep South, the second key sentence appears: “Instruction includes how the demand for slave labor resulted in a large, forced migration.”
Indeed it did, and this subject takes us into the belly of the beast of the Old South’s slave system: the trafficking of close to a million enslaved souls from the upper South to the lower South between 1790 and 1860.
The slave trade was the second largest industry in the antebellum South (staple crop agriculture was first) and was, by far, the most advanced in terms of finance, communication and transportation. And this trade brings into striking view the most horrific element of slavery in the American South: the “chattel principle,” the legal definition of human beings as property. Once men, women and children were defined as chattel, they could be, and were, rendered the equivalent of livestock, to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. And that is exactly what took place, on a massive scale, in the Old South.
This infamous trade struck at the heart of Black survival under slavery: the slave family. Although slave marriages had no legal standing, Black men and women viewed their marriage vows as a sacred commitment, and they passionately loved their children. Every source we have tells us this. The slave family, to put it succinctly, was their haven in a heartless world. Voluntary divorce was almost unheard of. Suicide was extremely rare. And slave families were constantly being broken by sale, probably every day of every year that the institution existed in this country. Husbands sold away from wives, wives sold away from husbands, and young children, sold by height, separated from their mothers and fathers simply by the fall of an auctioneer’s hammer.
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I spent the bleakest months of my career as a Southern historian reading the correspondence of the slave traders of Richmond, Virginia, in the decades leading up to the Civil War. The world these letters describe is clearly open for discussion in our Florida classrooms — the Department of Education has given the green light. Here is that world in three documents, which I will present without commentary.
Letter from W.S. Mallicote, Yorktown, Virginia, to Betts & Gregory, Richmond, Feb. 22, 1861:
“(A) gentleman of my acquaintance has some negroes he wishes to sell … he is an old man and says he wants to sell them before he dies.”
Telegram from J.O. Stanfield, Lynchburg, Virginia, to Browning, Moore & Co., Richmond, Feb. 15, 1860:
“What can be had for Two (2) Girls, Number One. One about Seven (7), the other Nine---”
Letter from P.N. Dunlin, Smith Grove, North Carolina, to Betts & Gregory, Richmond, May 25, 1861:
“I write you to ascertain the price of negroes in Richmond at this time. I want to buy 5 or 6 boys and girls from 8 to 12 years old or, from 5½ to 4½ feet high. You will please answer this and inform me whether I can get them in Richmond and at what price.”
I think it is fair to say that these documents speak for themselves. And our students need to listen to them, and countless others like them. How else are we ever going to come to grips with the ugly face of racism in our country?
Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, emeritus, at Williams College. The documents cited are drawn from his book “The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.”