Book Review: Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory

Marc Howard Ross. Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory, 2018 University of Pennsylvania Press.

Slavery in the North: Forgetting History and Recovering Memory by Marc Howard Ross is a smart choice for anyone interested in the history of slavery in the American North or the study of collective memory. The book does a thorough job surveying recent work in the field and dispelling the myth that northern slavery was small in scale, benevolent, or historically insignificant. It focuses on why northern slavery was forgotten and how it is being publicly remembered in the twenty-first century, especially on the landscape.

Slavery in the North would be excellent assigned reading for students as young as high school or as experienced as graduate school and is sufficiently detailed and nuanced to be of value to those deeply immersed in the field. It provides an eye-opening overview of slavery in the American North and a thorough introduction to the concept of collective memory – its preservation, its loss, and its restoration.

Ross readily shares that he is a memory scholar and a political scientist by training, not a historian. To prepare for this book, he spent ten years traveling throughout the American North and South visiting commemorative landscapes and building relationships with people and communities still dealing with the legacies of slavery, especially in his hometown of Philadelphia. Ross also readily states that he has not done his own primary source research for this project but has broadly surveyed the field to create a summary of the work. He meticulously credits many slavery scholars, both well- and lesser-known. His list of works cited fills 14 pages and is a wonderful tool for anyone interested in delving deeper into northern slavery.

Most significantly, Ross builds on the groundbreaking work of Joanne Pope Melish, that convincingly describes the ways New England purposely forgot its slaveholding past. As a memory scholar, Ross asks and investigates how the North has been trying to rectify that situation since the publication of Melish’s book (1998). He uses case studies exploring recent work that restores slavery to the North’s local and regional histories as well as its historic landscapes. Some of the projects he considers, including the creation of a visitor center at George Washington’s house in Philadelphia, have a national appeal, while others, like the memorialization of enslaved people in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, are local in scope. Ross’ inclusive and respectful analysis of local projects alongside projects of national importance is refreshing and may inspire other small communities to do similar work.

The ‘Introduction’ sets out the two questions Ross pursues throughout the book: First, why and how was the collective memory of 250 years of northern slavery forgotten so widely and for so long?  And second, why and how has the awareness and collective memory of northern slavery been recovered in recent decades? Ross writes that his “focus is on the interplay between collective forgetting and recovering memories of enslavement in the North, especially as they involved the changing narratives, rituals, and visible displays on the public and commemorative landscapes that serve as critical repositories for society’s collective memories.” (p. 31)

Chapter 1, ‘Collective Memory’, provides a thorough introduction and historiography of collective memory, especially useful to students of history and the public humanities. Chapter 2, ‘Surveying Enslavement in the North’, is an excellent summary of old and new histories of northern slavery appropriate for collective memory scholars and a useful “first read” for history students.Chapter 3, ‘Slavery and Collective Forgetting’, acknowledges that the North has forgotten its 200+ years of slavery history and takes the next logical step to explain how and why this happened. Ross explains it is due to the absence of “all three ways to facilitate memory recovery – narratives, ritual expression and enactments, and visible public and commemorative landscapes.” (p. 77)

The next four chapters describe projects at historic sites that show how the twenty-first-century North is remembering its forgotten histories of slavery and explore the struggles that ensue when remembering begins. Chapter 4, ‘Enslaved Africans in the President’s House’,looks at the controversial telling of the slavery story at George Washington’s Philadelphia House. As a community member, Ross invested a great deal of time and energy documenting each stage of this project and the differing opinions of the many people involved. He shares detailed first-hand accounts that would be difficult to find elsewhere. Importantly, Ross includes brief biographies of the people enslaved at this site. Chapter 5, ‘Memorializing the Enslaved on Independence Mall’, a continuation of Chapter 4, focuses on the challenges of public interpretation when serving a broad audience with differing perspectives and priorities. Ross points out some shortcomings in the finished interpretation at The President’s House/Slavery Memorial and makes connections to present day issues of race. Chapter 6, ‘The Bench by the Side of the Road’, compares Ross’ visits to the numerous sites of slavery in the South with the fewer available sites in the North. He describes the varying degrees of progress made in the last two decades on northern sites of slavery and early-Black history. Chapter 7, ‘Burial Grounds as Sites of Memory Recovery’,looks at efforts to locate, preserve, and interpret African burial grounds throughout the North, with a special focus on projects in Philadelphia. 

Chapter 8, ‘Overcoming Collective Forgetting’,explains why and how the North began remembering its slavery history through a “series of partially related events that launched and slowly strengthened the memory recovery process” (p. 238). These events include (in very simplified terms) a slowly rising concern regarding racial injustices; increasing encounters, often in the media, with Black elites and members of the middle class; and a shift in the work of historians to include underrepresented peoples. I was surprised to see my own research on enslaved people in Little Compton, Rhode Island, mentioned here along with many other efforts to remember northern slavery. Ross notes that these “shifts in narratives, ritual expressions and enactments, and visibility in the public and commemorative landscape” (p. 253) have made only modest progress, and that most people still know nothing about northern slavery.

Then, in an epilogue, Ross recounts his first visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and favorably describes its interpretation of slavery in the America Northeast despite the scarcity of objects and personal histories.

This truly excellent book does have one shortcoming in that Ross touches on Indigenous slavery in only the briefest of ways, in part because so much work in this area is recently published, and in part because his focus was intentionally on African Americans. For readers who would like to learn more about the enslavement of Indigenous peoples in New England, I recommend Brethren by Nature by Margaret Ellen Newell (2015).

For anyone interested in the history of slavery in the American North, its purposeful forgetting, and its very recent and still imperfect remembering and commemorating, Ross hits all the “must knows.” From the classic scholarship of Melish; to small community organizing and commemoration efforts like those in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; to new interpretations of physical sites of slavery like the Royal House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts; Ross introduces his readers to the key concepts, interpretations, and commemorative sites of northern slavery.


Works cited

Joanne Pope Melish. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780-1869. (Cornell University Press: 1998)

Margaret Ellen Newell. Brethren by Nature by Margaret Ellen Newell (Cornell University Press: 2015)