As I have researched more and more enslaved ancestors, I have become more immersed in researching the history of slavery. I have learned so much. Most genealogists are not professional historians. But we can benefit from being familiar with some of the evolution in slavery studies.
I encourage anyone researching enslaved people to read at least one of these works. I haven’t gotten through them all but I’m working on it!
“American Negro Slavery” by Ulrich Phillips, 1918
Typical of the times, Ulrich’s racism was front and center. Ulrich believed in the inferiority of blacks and the fantasy of the Old South.
He wrote that slavery was not financially profitable and that it was done mainly to benefit blacks and maintain white supremacy. In line with beliefs of the time, he wrote that slaveowners treated, fed and clothed their slaves well. Amazingly, this was the prevailing view of slavery for almost 30 years. (although W.E.B. DuBois vocally challenged his findings.)
“The Peculiar Institution” by Kenneth M. Stampp, 1956
Stampp, in this groundbreaking work, was the first to counter Ulrich Phillips’ school of thought in several areas. He showed that slavery was not benign but a cruel and brutal system of labor exploitation and control.
His book argued that slavery was indeed a profitable system. He illustrated the extreme suffering of slaves and discussed slave resistance. Stampp also described how becoming a slave owner was a part of a social system which allowed whites to enter the upper class and gain status in the community.
“Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life” by Stanley Elkins, 1959
Elkins was the first historian to look at the psychological impact of slavery rather than just the economics. He compared southern slave plantations to Nazi concentration camps.
This book asserted that slavery was so brutal and inhumane that it stripped slaves of their African heritage. Elkins called this a “social death.” He believed the experience transformed slaves into docile, submissive figures.
The most famous thesis was Elkins conclusion that the system of infantilized slaves, making them “Sambos.” By this, he meant that slavery reduced them to a dependent, child-like status.
Many of Elkins’ arguments have now been rejected, this single book caused a firestorm and a huge outpouring of responses by other historians.
“The Slave Community” by John Blassingame, 1972
Blassingame presented one of the first slave studies from the perspective of the enslaved. He contradicted historians like Elkins and his “Sambo” thesis. Through the lens of psychology, Blassingame used 19th century fugitive slave narratives as sources. These sources showed that a rich and unique culture developed among American slaves, with plenty of evidence that African practices survived.
Historians criticized Blassingame’s use of slave narratives. They questioned his neglect of the WPA slave interviews but the book remains an important contribution.
“Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” by Eugene Genovese 1974
This book attempts to decipher, from a Marxist perspective, the world of antebellum slavery. Genovese believed that slaves created a rich culture, both African-American and uniquely southern. He raised some new arguments and presented a dizzying array of footnotes and examples.
Sometimes he can lose the reader with his ruminations on social theory. Neverthless, this is an engaging read from an enigmatic American historians.
“The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925” by Herbert Gutman, 1976
In this classic text on black family life, Gutman argues that slavery did not break up the black family. That belief became widespread as a result of the 1965 Moynihan Report.
Gutman was a labor historian who studied workers and social history. In this work, he illustrates that most black families remained intact despite slavery. They remained that way during the first wave of migration to the North after the Civil War. However, Gutman remained open to arguments about black family collapse in the 1930s and 1940s. Gutman’s work was widely praised.
There is so much rich work in this space. I could add works by Deborah Gray White on enslaved women (“Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South”) and Ira Berlin (“Many Thousands Gone” and “Generations of Captivity”). I’d be remiss without mentioning John Hope Franklin (“From Slavery to Freedom” and “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”).
In telling the stories of our ancestors, perhaps nothing looms larger and more complex than slavery.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
I am so glad I found your blog, I just stared researching my family history a year ago and I think your site will be helpful.
I am so glad I found your blog, I just stared reaching my family history a year ago and I think your site will be helpful.
I’ve been an amateur genealogist for years and I recently begun helping some African-American friends with their genealogy. This has been a powerful journey for us all. Some of my ideas about slavery have been upheld, while others were “blown away.” I’ve managed to plow past the 1860 brick wall in many cases, but my trail eventually hits an “end.” DNA is the next step. I have learned, in the cases I studied, that slavery (while very wrong) was a vast, “mixed-bag” of system and ideology. In rural Alabama, Mulattoes, while rare, had a very unique place in history. Finding these ancestors of my friends has become a passion. They MUST have their voice in history.
Thanks for sharing the list – I’ll definitely see if I can pick a few of these up at the library! I am not very well versed in slave historiography, but my favorite that I’ve read to date is Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South by Stephanie M.H. Camp (2004).
Thank you for the overview!