Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery by Adam Rothman

Adam Rothman’s new book Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2015) brings to light the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children on the eve of and during the Civil War.

Rothman follows the case of Louisiana’s enslaved woman Rose Herera and her three young children Joseph Ernest (6), Marie Georgiana (4) and Marie Joséphine (2). The book shows how by the middle of the nineteenth century, even in urban areas like New Orleans, the boundaries between freedom and bondage were often blurred. The book emphasizes the importance of slave families, but also shows how slave mothers had little control over their children, submitted to the will of their masters.

Beyond Freedom’s Reach is divided into five chapters, in addition to a prologue and an epilogue. The first chapter explores the parish of Pointe Coupée, where Rose was born, as the child of an enslaved mother. Although about 150 miles from the “cosmopolitan” New Orleans, by the mid-nineteenth century, the institution of slavery in this parish had many elements in common with other large slave societies. Among others, there was high mortality and low birth rate among the slave population. Like in other areas (such as Brazil) where the slave trade from African had been prohibited in 1850, in Pointe Coupée, the slave population was increasing, but through the domestic slave trade. The growing slave population in the area was connected to the blooming of sugar and cotton production that was replacing tobacco and indigo production in the area. In Pointe Coupée, in 1850, two thirds of the population was enslaved.

Then the second chapter moves to New Orleans, where Rose, and consequently her three young children (who by the law could not be separated from their mother) were sold. There she passed through the hands of various owners, and ended up sold to James De Hart, a dentist married to a woman named Mary De Hart. New Orleans had a large population of color, but slaves were a minority. The city had also a huge population of foreigners and was the largest slave market of the United States by 1850. This is an important chapter to understand the dynamics of urban slavery in the US South and especially the working conditions of domestic slaves. It demystifies the idea that domestic slaves benefited from good treatment by their masters.

The third chapter explores the explosion of the Civil War and how it affected the lives of the free and enslaved population of New Orleans, especially Rose and her children. In New Orleans things were becoming increasingly difficult for black residents and black travelers.

Among the enslaved population, there was hope of being freed by the federal troops that took control of the city. Thousands of black soldiers entered the military service on the Union side. Slave insurgency was visible at various levels and this raised great concern among the masters, especially the mistresses who gradually saw the seeds of revolt among their slaves. The picture described here is the very opposite from what viewers saw in the film Gone with the Wind.

In this turbulent context, Rose (now married to a free man) and her young children were sold to the aunt of Mary De Hart (James De Hart’s wife), probably to avoid him having his slave property seized. Weeks later, James De Hart left New Orleans to Havana, in Cuba. Slavery was well alive in Cuba and ships carrying slaves from Africa continued to arrive at its shores. Merchants and businessmen from Havana and New Orleans were involved in this trade. Now that her husband was gone, Mary had to convince Rose (along with her children) to follow her family to Cuba, leaving behind her husband and the hopes of freedom. In December 1862, about two weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation, Rose was thrown in jail. Mary De Hart failed to convince Rose to leave New Orleans. She then kidnapped Rose’s three children and brought them with her to Havana.

The next two chapters, “Justice” and “Reunion,” explore the consequences of this drama in Rose’s life in the context of the end of the Civil War until the final abolition of slavery in 1865. Freed people were looking for their relatives, a dramatic moment explored by Heather Andrea Williams in her book Help to Find My People (2012). Rose fought to recover her children. Her defense used various arguments, including the 1829 law and previous codes that prohibited the separation of enslaved children under ten years old from their enslaved mothers. Among others, by the time the children were kidnapped, the Second Confiscation Act of 1862 had already passed. Moreover, when Rose’s lawyers defended these arguments in April 1865, the new constitution of Louisiana had abolished slavery, anyway making Rose and her children free.

Rose’s story and her fight to recover her children shed light on many elements that characterized slavery, and especially the experiences of enslaved women, in other part of the Americas. In New Orleans, like in Brazil for example, paternalism was an important feature of the discourses of lawyers and slave owners, who claimed that enslaved children were treated well like they were members of the master’s family. Rothman’s book also highlights the nefarious relations between mistresses and enslaved women. Although Mary De Hart was not the legal owner of Rose and her children, she was the one who committed the crime of kidnapping and the one who was sent to jail.

Rothman shows how emancipation was a very long and complex process. In the South of the United States, unlike Cuba and Brazil and other parts of Latin America, there was no Free Womb Law. Children remained legally enslaved until the final abolition of slavery in 1865, after the end of the Civil War. Several years after the abolition of slavery, fears and rumors of re-enslavement and kidnapping continued to spread.

The book is an exemplary work of micro-history. It examines many important aspects for historians working on slavery in the North and the South Atlantic worlds. It explores the problem of slavery borders, the issue of the illegal slave trade, re-enslavement, and enslavement of free persons. It raises questions about the limits of motherhood under slavery as well. The book also contributes to the understanding of the crucial role of enslaved women in fighting for freedom during and after the Civil War. It provides elements to study the enslavement of children, aspect that only recently has gained attention from scholars of slavery.

The book is in dialogue with several recent works of scholars working on similar issues in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. As I am most familiar with the scholarship of Brazil and Latin America, I think especially of Camilla Cowling’s latest book Conceiving Freedom: Women of Color, Gender, and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro (2013) and Gerald Horne’s The Deepest South (2007). The book is also in dialogue with the works of several Brazilian scholars. Here I think especially about the works of Keila Grinberg, Karl Monsma,  Lisa Earl Castillo, Luciana Brito, and Maria Clara Sampaio.

Scholars, graduate, and undergraduate students will love this book that really reads like a novel. Moreover, beyond its scholarly scope, the general public can easily read and enjoy Beyond Freedom’s Reach, without having to pay attention to the well-documented endnotes.

A New “Slavery” Museum in the United States ?

Ana Lucia Araujo*

In a famous interview of 1989, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison pointed out that her book Beloved (1987) was a site of memory of slavery as sites of the slave trade like New York City and Charleston were not at all highlighted in the landscape of the United States. Since 1989, this situation dramatically changed. The end of the Cold War benefited subaltern groups who now could assert their own identities. Also, the year 1992, marking the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas  encouraged the discussion about the importance of the Atlantic slave trade in the construction of the Americas. Probably one of the most important initiatives derived from this new interest was the development of the Slave Route Project, launched by UNESCO in 1994.

In the United States, one of the first projects underscoring the US slave past was the traveling exhibit Back of the Big House curated by John Michael Vlach. Unveiled in 1995 at the Library of Congress, the exhibition generated controversy and was shut down some days later. This was only one indicator of how difficult is to address the slave past in the United States. If other initiatives were developed over the next years, and this includes the discovery of what would become known as the African Burial Ground in New York City, it was after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that the largest number of initiatives underscoring the importance of slavery in the history of the United States emerged. Several of these initiatives were developed in Washington DC. But in the US South, the development of these projects was not (and still today is not) easy, as local groups often oppose or resist these projects intended to memorialize slavery and the Atlantic slave trade.

As I discuss in the third chapter “Places of Disembarkation” of my new book Shadows of the Slave Past: Memory, Heritage, and Slavery, it took almost two centuries for Jamestown to timidly recognize the site as the place where the first Africans were disembarked in the United States, and to gradually acknowledge this fact in the several public initiatives developed in the area. A similar situation occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, the port where the largest number of enslaved Africans brought to the United States was disembarked, which I also discuss in my new book. Unlike Salvador and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, which together imported more than 2 million Africans, Charleston imported about 150,000 enslaved Africans, about 40 percent of the total US slave imports. After the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade to the United States in 1808, the city continued to be an important point of the internal trade as well.Also a tourist destination, Charleston’s population, estimated at 122,000, is much smaller than the populations of Rio de Janeiro (about 6 million) and Salvador (approximately 2.6 million). Despite these elements, like other slave ports, Charleston has avoided to highlight its slave past, a situation that started to change in the 1990s, including a number of initiatives like the attempts to create a monument to honor Denmark Vesey. Until then, the Gadsden’s Wharf was not at all highlighted as the site of arrival of enslaved Africans, but some initiatives were developed in the Sullivan’s Island where they were put into quarantine. In 2008, as part of the project a “bench by the road” (launched two years before) by Toni Morrison, a bench was unveiled in Charleston.

It was then a nice surprise to see in the news  that the plans to construct a new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, the major slave port in the United States, are now progressing fast. The funds to develop the project are still being raised and few details about the project were released. It is important though to understand that the creation of such museum is the result of a broader process that started several years ago at the international level in other former slave ports (Liverpool, Bristol, Nantes, Bordeaux, New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador), and that already had important repercussions in Charleston.

According to the news released, the new museum is being announced as the most important in the country, even though it is going to be created after the unveiling of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC (planned to be opened in 2015). One of the elements justifying the importance of Charleston’s new museum is that the institution will occupy the very heritage site of arrival of enslaved Africans in Charleston, the Gadsden’s Wharf. Curiously, the authorities refer to the “discovery” of the site, but the site is well known and up to these days nothing was done to highlight it, to the point that part of the land was sold to a family who plans to build a restaurant in the site ! But here too, there is nothing new, as all over the Americas, many sites where Africans were disembarked were now transformed into expensive condos and fancy restaurants that do not contain any reference to the tragic history of the Atlantic slave trade. Also according to the news, the new museum will be designed by Ralph Appelbaum, the same company that designed the exhibits of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and the new Visitor Center of the US Capitol (that also honor former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth). Although the initiative is certainly important, several questions remain unanswered. What is the role of the African Americans of Charleston in the planning of the new museum? What will be the place of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in the museum, considering that there is no slavery museum in the United States? Finally, there are also two other important questions: What are the implications of the fact that the same company is designing monuments commemorating slavery and the Holocaust? What are the impacts resulting from the fact that the same company is designing different exhibitions on slavery-related issues? In other words, as slavery is officially recognized and memorialized in the public space does this also mean that this memory is being controlled and that the multiple voices that characterize this memory are ultimately being silenced or at least losing their diversity?

* Ana Lucia Araujo is a historian and author. Her work explores the history and the public memory of slavery. She is Full Professor in the Department of History at Howard University (Washington DC).