Northwestern historian Leslie Harris started planning her escape to New York City at age 10.
It represented an idealized metropolis for her, a child born in the midst of the landmark Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s and whose omnivorous reading habits transported her into a world that seemed more vibrant, diverse, and culturally rich than her native New Orleans. It would take another decade before she reached the Big Apple, enrolling at Columbia University where she would come to discover the unsettling connections between these seemingly different locales.
Many would consider Harris’ hometown the iconic cultural melting pot and a standard bearer for innovations in music and cuisine, but she also saw it as a “surprisingly small community” with provincial attitudes that could be stultifying. Plus, New Orleans harbored a not-so-secret cruel past as one of the nation’s major slave ports, a fact that she says always presented a “struggle” for her.
“Today, New Orleans is known for its jazz and food and culture — all these things that erase in the minds of many people the labor and slavery aspects of its past,” says Harris, a distinguished scholar who joined Northwestern in 2016 after more than two decades on faculty at Emory University. “The story of slavery is oddly not as well documented in the public space.”
Instead, it’s the “feel-good aspects” of New Orleans that people most associate with what she terms a “downwardly mobile” city whose residents are largely economically dependent on tourism, a sector vulnerable to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. In fact, Katrina provides the backdrop for Harris’ current book project, one that melds her family history and the city’s history — with a focus on African Americans living there over the last two centuries. Exploring the complexities of such histories has been integral to Harris’ academic life.
Her earlier books, notably the 2003 text In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, documents an under-researched history of the black experience in this northern industrial center from colonial days into the antebellum period, providing a groundbreaking complement to scholarship that had more thoroughly examined slavery in the US South before the Civil War. In addition to co-founding and directing Emory’s “Transforming Community Project” — an initiative that used history to spur institutional dialogue about diversity and entrenched racial challenges in higher education — Harris contributed research insights to help shape the New York Historical Society’s pioneering 2005-06 exhibition, “Slavery in New York,” a program that included findings from a 1991 discovery of a huge 18th-century “negro burial ground” in Manhattan just two blocks from city hall and 20 feet below the busy sidewalks.
“For most historians, the big story about African Americans and slavery has been all about the South,” says Harris, who earned her doctorate in American history from Stanford. “If they think about African Americans in New York, they usually think about the Harlem Renaissance of the 20th century, and I was really curious about how this community lived in the city before that time.”
Her initial research focused more on free blacks and the antislavery movement during the antebellum period, a story that included significant attention to class relationships and labor history. Over time, though, she found herself exploring slavery’s role earlier in the nation’s history, discovering its pervasive influence throughout the country. Slavery had always been a backdrop of America’s development, from the early days of the Jamestown settlement in the Colony of Virginia and throughout the lucrative triangular trade that circulated sugar, tobacco, cotton, textiles, and enslaved people among Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Still, the more Harris looked, the more she found other deep-rooted connections between the North and South, including troubling economic relationships that linked New York City with the institution of slavery.
“What was surprising was how important slavery was to New York City early on, how extensive it was,” says Harris.
Many Americans may have an easier time summoning an image of enslaved bodies in the context of southern cotton plantations. Yet, the scholarship of Harris and others — including historian Ira Berlin, with whom Harris collaborated for the New York Historical Society exhibition — presents a more complicated picture of slavery as a ubiquitous presence and driving force in America’s development from the colonial period on. If farms in the South produced much of the nation’s raw trade materials, the North’s industrial infrastructure processed that material and shipped it abroad from northern ports. Northerners also produced and exchanged goods with the South, including shoes for slaves and even tools for punishing slaves.
Far from being confined to particular geographies, “slavery was everywhere, and was fundamental to everything from the founding to the exploration of the Americas,” says Harris. “It was very much an integrated system, without a hard line between North and South.”
In fact, she says, southerners loved New York and traveled there frequently, considering it one of the North’s “most southern” cities and finding that the locals shared a similar mindset about slavery. The historical record supports the claim. In 1703, some 42 percent of New York City households had slaves, mostly working as domestics. By 1740, about 2,500 people — or 20 percent of the city’s population — were enslaved, serving as laborers in construction and shipping or as artisans. “African-American labor was vital to everything we have today. It was essential to the nation’s economy, settlements, and very survival,” says Harris.
Of course, enslaved people were bought and sold throughout the South, including New Orleans, from the city center to posh hotel rooms. But northern maritime industry played a key role in the slave trade, too, with ships filling eager ports with human cargo several times a month: among them, Charleston, South Carolina; Baltimore, Maryland; and Savannah, Georgia — the subject of a 2014 book, co-edited by Harris, called Slavery and Freedom in Savannah. Elite families, including that of James DeWolf (1764-1837), a US senator from Rhode Island, made fortunes while fueling the slave trade.
‘Slavery is an Old Idea’
“It’s still difficult for people today to fully grasp just how much slavery underpinned the wealth of modern capitalism,” says Harris, who has helped reveal that history in her scholarly work and through projects such as her 2014 collaboration with the Telfair Museum’s Owens-Thomas House in Savannah, Georgia, a historic home that has reinterpreted its educational mission to better tell the story of the enslaved people who were once responsible for the property’s upkeep. “The newest literature on slavery is really connecting the dots in how we think about this economic relationship, but there is still a lot of mainstream resistance to those ideas.”
That resistance is partly because of a post-Civil War mythology that lionized the North as freedom-loving liberators who vanquished slavery, defined as a uniquely southern evil — a mythology that Harris’ scholarship helps complicate. “We’ve struggled for a very long time about how we claim these difficult times of our past,” she notes.
But Harris says that resistance to a deeper understanding of slavery’s role in American history also stems from more recent efforts by some to obscure that past and to erect hurdles to learning about it as part of the standard K-12 curriculum. She contrasts her own upbringing, going to an all-black Catholic grammar school in the early 1970s, where she readily encountered literature — even children’s books — that frankly addressed slavery and social justice issues.
“There was a real consciousness in that time about those histories,” she says. “The Civil Rights movement had just occurred and had encouraged this kind of momentous discussion and debate about what race means in society.” Today, though, Harris says that even many of her students express surprise when they first learn certain details about African-American history. “They can’t believe they’ve never heard these stories, which says something about the ways in which that history has been suppressed from the 1980s until now, in terms of high-school curricula and textbooks.”
Harris says that those advocating to minimize the deplorable aspects of US history often do so by claiming that talking about slavery or about the genocide of Native Americans would “instill shame into students.” However, Harris believes that such difficult conversations are imperative if America hopes to overcome its past and create a society that emulates its best ideals, ones that extol liberty and democracy. She acknowledges the difficulty of the task, in part because those ideals are actually quite new.
“I often tell my students: ‘Slavery is an old idea. It’s as old as human history.’ So it’s not surprising that we’re still struggling with what freedom means, with what equality means. Certainly racial equality, but also gender equality. How do we really live into these things and how do we square equality with difference? This is a struggle, but it’s a worthy struggle, and as a historian helping reveal how complicated our national narrative has always been, I hope to help us understand why it is so complicated now.
As these difficult conversations continue, she hopes that, over time, they will become increasingly constructive as more people understand the transformative potential of such engagement. “This kind of dialogue is not intended to disempower, but the opposite: to help us understand where we all come from and to try to move forward together into something better because of this greater consciousness.”