Point of Origin: The U.S. Domestic Slave Trade in the Public History Narrative

Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:50 AM
Room 310 (Hynes Convention Center)
Stephanie E. Yuhl , College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA
While the Transatlantic Slave Trade occupies a central place in the public history of slavery, representations of the domestic United States slave trade remain largely invisible. Still, few southern communities that exploit their plantation past through historical tourism highlight properties or venues associated with the domestic slave trade.  Through archival documents, oral histories and exhibit material, this paper examines why one of the largest forced dislocations in world history and one of the most central enterprises in U.S. history has been so neglected. The focus of this inquiry is the history of the only public museum in the United States dedicated to the history of the internal slave trade, the Old Slave Mart Museum (OSMM) in Charleston, South Carolina. Its very existence insists on the serious remapping of mainstream historical narratives – for Charleston, the South and the nation.  Allowing the plantation to be the commonplace starting point for understanding slavery obscures its essential transactional nature. Such an approach also mystifies the essential capitalist nature of the “peculiar institution” and the fact that it required constant and deliberate maintenance by white southerners.  A site such as the OSSM, however, places human trafficking as the new point of origin to reframe for public consumption the historical narrative of slavery.  It serves as an important corrective not only on the touristic, commemorative ground, but also to the historiography of the domestic slave trade.  However, the OSMM did not always serve as such an explicit intervention.  The museum’s history -- from its private founding in 1938 and its remaking during the modern Civil Rights Era, and the struggles connected to its recent reopening and management under city auspices—reveals the tense and changing relationship between race and memory in pubic history.