Historians Against (Today's) Slavery

After teaching the history of U.S. slavery for over 40 years at Macalester College, James Brewer Stewart has come to the conclusion that his profession is overlooking an important area of research: contemporary U.S. slavery.

January 26, 2011

After teaching the history of U.S. slavery for over 40 years at Macalester College, James Brewer Stewart has come to the conclusion that his profession is overlooking an important area of research: contemporary U.S. slavery.

So he established “Historians Against Slavery,” an organization that attempts to develop “abolitionism on our campuses and in our community.” Stewart is concerned that human trafficking and slavery are misunderstood issues worryingly absent from the national discourse. Historians can remedy that -- but have not, he says.

“You don’t feel it in the same way you do the movement around the animal rights, or abortion, or gay rights issues,” Stewart says. Yet over 10,000 people per year are trafficked into the United States for sexual or other types of slavery, and worldwide more than 27 million people are enslaved, according to Kevin Bales, a consultant to the United Nation’s Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking and president of Free the Slaves, an organization that campaigns against slavery in its current forms.

Stewart's study of history led him to conclude that outspoken historians can help change contemporary problems like this. That idea is consonant with views expressed at this month's American Historical Association meeting, where many stressed the need for historians to be more vocal in the public sphere.

For Stewart, models for his profession are John Hope Franklin, C. Vann Woodward, and Kenneth Stampp, historians who changed the national conversation about social justice. "That ember is fading," he says.

Stewart coordinates the work of Historians Against Slavery out of a small basement office at Macalester. So far, 240 historians have joined the organization, including Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution; Vincent Carretta, a University of Maryland English professor and a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow; and David Brion Davis, the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a renowned authority on the history of slavery.

The first goal of the group is to change how slavery is taught in the academy.

Stewart aims to “begin to put the problem of contemporary slavery into the things we teach, and the things we study, and to make it possible for people again who are working in the humanities -- especially in history -- to begin to understand the pertinence and salience of trying to understand the past,” he says. “It’s a matter of being able to find a better understanding of the problem today by being able to analyze comparisons and contrasts between then and now.”

That is a message many historians are responding to. “I think he will get great support from historians,” says Joyce Appleby, a former president of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians and a professor emerita at University of California Los Angeles.

Some Historians Against Slavery members are already considering how to incorporate this type of comparison approach into their teaching. Kathryn Tomasek, an associate professor of history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, says that she is "thinking about an assignment in which I will ask students to consider various methods used by antislavery advocates in the 19th century, think about possible analogs in the 21st century, and write a plan for contemporary action.”

"Students need not carry out such a plan, but they should take into account arguments they might encounter for and against contemporary abolition and how those would compare to such arguments in the nineteenth century," Tomasek wrote in an e-mail.

Another member, T. Mills Kelly, associate director of the graduate program in global studies and an assistant professor of history at George Mason University, hopes that an emphasis on the connections between past and present can lead to concrete policy changes. Discussing the State Department's efforts to stop slavery under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, he says: "If we go into a situation where we know that trafficking is occurring, and we say we’re going to spend millions of dollars to eradicate it in this country, we need to ask, 'What is the history of that? Why would someone defend a policy that people see as heinous?' "

One of Stewart's goals is to work with Not For Sale, Historians Against Slavery’s partner organization, on a series of new courses, piloting them at a handful of institutions. Not For Sale has had success at the University of San Francisco with a program that provides professors with information about local areas with suspected slave trafficking, so students can research there.

Stewart has created the Historians Against Slavery website, which Not For Sale maintains. Stewart intends to use the site as a hub to galvanize historians, share ideas, promote community, offer advice, and exchange resources and contacts. Currently, it has an extensive series of wikis dedicated to academic and NGO work on slavery.

For Stewart, such projects are a part of the practice of history, which in his view is a continuum encompassing both past and present. "The narrative of slavery ... is all part of the master narrative of America,” he says. “And we contest it over and over again.”


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