The Public History of Slavery in Boston

W.E.B. DuBois made the notable statement in 1903 that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” This declaration had much resonance for the 20th century and still is highly relevant in the 21st century. Historians James and Lois Horton identify the “nation’s most enduring contradiction: the history of American slavery in a country dedicated to freedom.”

A spring 2017 course for graduate students in public history, taught by Professor Martin Blatt, examined the difficult challenges in addressing slavery in public history venues. We reviewed an overview of the history of slavery in the United States but concentrated on how that history has been interpreted and distorted. We explored the public history of slavery over time and assessed several case studies involving commemorations, educational programming, tours, exhibits, and films. Several guest speakers enhanced the course content.

By the end of the course students developed an understanding of how slavery has been treated in public history contexts; had a clearer picture of how critical a role race plays in the American narrative; forged a solid grasp of controversies with respect to slavery and public history; and were exposed to a variety of approaches to address slavery in public history.

The final assignment was a digital essay focusing on the topics covered in the class or closely related subjects; each had to include a Boston focus and/or feature an aspect of Boston history. 

Below are the broad themes these essays encompassed with individual papers listed under the appropriate heading.

The Black Heritage Trail and the “Trails to Freedom” Initiative

Brittany Costello

Faneuil Hall: Cradle of Liberty, Funded by Slavery

Caroline Klibanoff

The White Savior Trope in Film

Rachel Schrottman

The Conversation About Reparations in the United States – A Historical Review

Jorge Caraballo Cordovez

An Uneven Spread: Race, Space and the Growth of the Modern University

Simon Purdue