A professor and I were researching the life of a wealthy St. Louis madam and found her in the 1860 census. Also listed were her slaves. “I’m sure she was a kind mistress,” said the woman with doctorate from Washington University.
“The Civil War was a Lost Cause fought over honor,” a friend from Memphis argued.
“It was the War of Northern Aggression,” a Savannah tour guide said.
Clint Smith debunks the idea of benign slaveowners, the Lost Cause, and other foundational myths in How the Word Was Passed: A Reckoning With The History of Slavery Across America. Smith’s debut just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. The New York Times listed it as one of the 10 Best Books of 2021. How the Word Was Passed reads like a novel of a journey, for Smith takes the reader along in his field research as he travels across America and to West Africa, home of the transatlantic slave trade. He interviews Black scholars and White supremacists, tour guides and tourists, Union re-enactors and those celebrating the Confederacy.
A writer at The Atlantic magazine, Smith makes the reader think how the past shapes the world we live in. A published poet, he reveals how what he learns affects him. “His words poured concrete into my heart,” he writes of one interview.
Here people of color celebrated weddings, birthdays, and funerals like White Americans. Here their children shot handmade marbles on Sundays when they did not have to work. The stories they handed down to their descendants are preserved in the Getting The Word oral history project at Monticello. “This is how the word gets passed,” said one man.
Smith asks if we have the will to reckon with our past, for “the story of slavery is the history of America. It is etched into every corner of this country and beyond.” Slavery “created the economic prosperity that enabled our country to exist.” He begins at our nation’s beginning with Thomas Jefferson. “You can’t understand the United States without understanding Jefferson,” says David Thorson, his tour guide at the president’s mountain top plantation, Monticello. The patriot who wrote the Declaration of Independence routinely leased, sold, and mortgaged his 607 slaves. Although Jefferson preferred selling his humans in family lots, he gifted his daughters with enslaved children. When the former president died in 1826, 100 of his humans were auctioned off in a human estate sale.
Slavery denied the humanity of those in bondage. Thorson restores it by calling them “enslaved humans” who enabled Jefferson to create what he did. He helps Smith imagine life outside the mansion in the cabins along Mulberry Row. Here people of color celebrated weddings, birthdays, and funerals like White Americans. Here their children shot handmade marbles on Sundays when they did not have to work. The stories they handed down to their descendants are preserved in the Getting The Word oral history project at Monticello. “This is how the word gets passed,” said one man.
One cannot understand Jefferson without considering his 40-year relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, half-sister to his late wife Martha. Jefferson first bedded Sally when she was 16 and he was 46. Men in the planter class frequently made concubines of their bondswomen. Martha’s father took Sally’s mother as his slave mistress after Martha’s mother died. There was no consensual sex because a slave was property, like a chair. “Kind of takes the shine off the guy,” says a woman tourist.
“When you challenge white people’s conception of Jefferson, you’re challenging their conception of themselves,” Thorson says. “History is what you need to know. Nostalgia is what you want to hear.”
Nostalgia is a big industry in America. Consider those brochures with pictures of destination weddings at plantations. The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana does not cater to those fancying a Gone With The Wind event. As he enters Whitney, Smith is startled by the sight of 55 ceramic heads on metal stakes, their features contorted in pain from torture. They symbolize the 200 slaves from nearby plantations who united in 1811 in the largest slave rebellion in North America. Their uprising was quickly crushed by state militia and federal troops. Plantation owners then formed slave patrols, which some scholars today believe led to modern policing. Slaveowners across the South lived in fear of a slave rebellion like the Haitian Revolution. (It cost France so much Napoleon was forced to sell the Louisiana Territory to Jefferson.)
The owner of the Whitney Plantation, John Cummings, a retired attorney, poured $10,000,000 into the exhibits to rewrite the story told the wrong way.¹ “I could not own this property and make it a tourist attraction that would glorify the life of the people who exploited human beings,” he told Smith. His director of operations, Yvonne Holden, calls Whitney an ancestral place, a healing place. “Working here is like a calling,” she says. She takes Smith inside an old church where he sees more than two dozen life-size sculptures of small children, so detailed and so alive, he first thinks they are real. “The reality of slavery is child enslavement,” she says. This exhibit demonstrates the horror of child enslavement. By 1860, 58 percent of America’s four million enslaved humans were under the age of twenty. One-quarter of them did not live to adulthood.
The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana does not cater to those fancying a Gone With The Wind event. As he enters Whitney, Smith is startled by the sight of 55 ceramic heads on metal stakes, their features contorted in pain from torture.
Outside, Smith comes across the Wall of Honor, slabs of black granite on which are engraved in white letters the names, dates of birth, and tribal affiliations of the 354 humans enslaved at the Whitney Plantation. Some names are those who lived to be interviewed in the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP).2
“A good breeder”
Chattel slavery was far more brutal than most people imagine. Cummings read 1,000 oral histories and never found one where a woman was not raped or a man branded, or nearly beaten to death. Women suffered the most. One account noted a woman was “a good breeder” for she bore nine children in eleven years. On another plantation, nearly sixty women were kept for slave breeding. When their children were ready for market, they were taken away and sold.
I used to say, “My ancestors who were here before the Civil War never owned slaves.” Smith points out slavery compromised every White American. The rice my great-great-grandmother cooked for supper was grown by slaves. The blue shirtwaist she wore had been dyed by slave-grown indigo. The diaper she put on my great-grandfather in 1859 was made of cotton grown by slaves. Slavery was the economic engine that built America. Slavery fueled the global economy. The sugar Mr. Darcy stirred in his tea in Pride & Prejudice was imported from America.
Two hours away from Whitney is Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as the most brutal of maximum-security prisons.³ Once a plantation, Angola is now a prison farm. When Smith sees Black men picking cotton in the fields, he has a flashback: They are doing the same work as their enslaved forefathers.
Smith points out slavery compromised every White American. The rice my great-great-grandmother cooked for supper was grown by slaves. The blue shirtwaist she wore had been dyed by slave-grown indigo. The diaper she put on my great-grandfather in 1859 was made of cotton grown by slaves. Slavery was the economic engine that built America.
Smith’s tour guide is Norris Henderson, a Black criminal justice reformer once incarcerated here. Henderson led the coalition that ended Louisiana’s system of non-unanimous jury verdicts in felony cases. Once Blacks were allowed on juries, Whites changed the law so that only nine jurors out of twelve were needed to convict. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Louisiana’s system unconstitutional in 2020.
Our Confederate heroes
At summer camp, girls from Memphis and Birmingham sang “Dixie,” then yelled “Save Your Dixie Cups. The South Will Rise Again!” Cabin mates from Chicago and I would laugh because they were clearly wrong. Maybe we were. The stone archway into Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Virginia, is inscribed to “Our Confederate Heroes.” Buried here are some 30,000 men in gray who fell in the Battle of the Crater. Smith attends what his guide calls a Memorial Celebration and what Smith labels an ahistorical celebration. It includes a hagiography of Robert E. Lee which Smith shreds: Lee was a ruthless slave owner who broke up every slave family he owned but one. He violated the rules of war by ordering the execution of Black Union soldiers who had surrendered to him.
Taxpayers have paid at least $40 million to build Confederate monuments, museums, heritage foundations, and cemeteries. All in the name of the Lost Cause, a myth promulgated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UNC) in the late nineteenth century.
The guide promotes another myth, showing Smith the tombstone of Richard Poplar, an African American said to be a Confederate officer. Smith’s research shows the Confederacy forbade Black officers. The Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) created this falsehood during the Civil Rights Era. The Southern Poverty Law Center says the SCV is connected to White supremacy and extremism.
This is more than junk history. Taxpayers have paid at least $40 million to build Confederate monuments, museums, heritage foundations, and cemeteries. All in the name of the Lost Cause, a myth promulgated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UNC) in the late nineteenth century. The Lost Cause argues the South was upholding the institutions of family and honor, and states rights. Smith points out that the constitution of the Confederate States is based on the defense of slavery. “The Lost Cause was no accident. It was a multi-pronged deliberate mis-remembrance and obfuscation of what the Confederacy stood for and the role slavery played in this country,” he says. The United Daughters rewrote history, creating a narrative that teachers included in their lesson plans and that made its way into textbooks.
Growing up in New Orleans, Smith had to walk past hundreds of statues of White men on pedestals and a hundred streets, parks, and schools named for Confederates. What would a child think about honoring those who wished to re-enslave him? Smith says these monuments reinforce White supremacy. This “campaign of terrorism” began in the late nineteenth century as Blacks began to organize politically. Today, people in the Deep South celebrate twenty-three Confederate holidays, such as Robert E. Lee’s birthday.
Smith realizes people commemorating the Confederate dead at Blandford are “honoring the story of their family and the story of their family is them.” “[But] just because someone tells you a story doesn’t make that story true.”
He investigates non-racist myths, too, like the one in which on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger announced Order Number Nine from a hotel balcony to the Blacks of Galveston that they were forever free. No evidence exists to verify the story. Order Number Nine did not free all of the slaves for their owners resisted. Free men were hunted down and shot or hung. There was no Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas as there was in Missouri to help transition former slaves into a new life.
The Sons of Union Veterans send re-enactors every year to continue the tradition on Juneteenth, an official Texas state holiday. Smith calls the re-enactment important “because it can liberate them [Blacks] from the social and emotional paralysis” and from the grasp of racism he felt as a youth. “The holiday gave agency back to me.”
The celebration in Galveston is essential, participants say, for it brings together the entire community—Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics. Officials work to include the youth and children so they can educate them. When the crowd sings what is called the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” the kids understand.
The General Granger reenactor whose ancestors include three Union soldiers, says, “Juneteenth isn’t a Black event, it’s an American thing.” Juneteenth, Smith decides, creates a new public memory. As one event organizer tells him, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t tell where you’re going.” This is crucial for Blacks because they are not able to enjoy their history the way European-Americans can when talk about their ancestors from the old country.
Smith punctures the myth of the Northerners as anti-slavery because they abolished it in 1827. Many may have been abolitionists, but they were heavily invested in the institution of slavery. He follows the money in New York City.
A woman tells Smith we must be proactive for each generation to preserve history. They must be told the story of slavery and freedom. That can be difficult. “Nobody wants to talk about it. But it is tearing our country apart, until we understand that it happened. Juneteeth is a day to celebrate all that Black Americans have overcome,” she says.
Smith punctures the myth of the Northerners as anti-slavery because they abolished it in 1827. Many may have been abolitionists, but they were heavily invested in the institution of slavery. He follows the money in New York City. His guide through Manhattan, Damaras Obi, explains, “Slavery in 1861 was a multi-billion dollar industry central to the U.S. economy.” Enslaved humans had become America’s most valuable asset, one worth more than the railroads and manufacturing combined. Slaves built the wall at Wall Street. At J.P. Morgan, slaveowners listed 13,000 humans as collateral on loans. Where the Bank of America and Citibank now stand was a slave market. Bank of America’s predecessor, the Southern Banks of St. Louis and Boatmen’s Saving Institute listed slaves as collateral for debts. Cotton was forty percent of New York’s export business. The shipping industry grew fat on the backs of slaves.
New York officials used the power of eminent domain in 1855 to destroy Seneca Village, an enclave of free Blacks and Irish immigrants, many of whom owned property there. They were forced out to create a recreation center for Whites later called Central Park. (Some 20,000 Black St. Louisans lost their homes and businesses in Mill Creek Valley a century later under the banner of urban renewal.)
Smith travels to Senegal to see historic Gorée Island off Dakar. Gorée has been a powerful symbol of the transatlantic slave trade as the point of departure for Africans to the New World. Those captured in tribal wars were kept in the House of Slaves until they were chained in cuffs and marched to waiting ships that would bring them across the Atlantic to America. The story has it that millions left through the famous Door of No Return. But a scholar tells Smith “that door probably never really led to ships.” Other scholars say only 33,000 shackled Africans passed through Gorée, not millions. Eloi Goly, the curator of the House of Slaves, says the building “crystallizes all of the slave trade… It’s a symbol.”
While their European captors argued the Africans had been captured in tribal wars, the only currency the Europeans accepted was human flesh, says Goly.
Smith recalls Yvonne Holden, director of operations at the Whitney, saying many of the enslaved in southern Louisiana came from the Senegambia region, and brought with them their knowledge of growing rice and indigo. She suggests the Whitney Plantation partner with the House of Slaves to illustrate the point of departure and the point of destination in the transatlantic sale trade.
Slavery and colonization, Smith theorizes, are not separate; they are “entangled in capitalism.” We should teach the entirety of slavery, not just a portion of it.
He quotes David Thorson, his guide at Monticello: “History is the story of the past, using all available facts, and nostalgia is the fantasy of the past using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory.”