Ira Berlin

    Professor Ira Berlin
    April 12, 1999

    Ira Berlin is a leading historian of southern and African-American life. He is Professor of History at the University of Maryland. Most recently he has published a book "Many Thousands Gone," which is a history of African-American slavery in mainland North America during the first two centuries of European and African settlement. He is also the editor of "Remembering," a book-and-tape set, which incorporates poignant voices of people who had been slaves. The recordings of interviews with former slaves were conducted by the Federal Writers Project in the early 1930s. The interviewers included such luminaries as Zora Neale Hurston and John Lomax, who talked to the ex-slaves about their relationships with their former owners and their relationships with other slaves. In addition, Professor Berlin has written or edited numerous other books on African-American history including, "Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South," "Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era" and "Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War."


    US It's a little after 10 in the morning on April 12, 1999, in College Park, Maryland. We are here with Professor Ira Berlin.
    Ques How long was the average time interval between capture in Africa and arrival in the plantation?
    Berlin There is no meaningful average. The Atlantic slave trade lasted over 4 centuries. And, of course, connected very different places in Africa and America. But throughout the trade's long history, the Atlantic crossing rarely took less than a few weeks. And, sometimes, it took many months. If viewed from the point of capture, travel from the interior of Africa to a plantation in the New World could be well over a year.
    Ques What percentage of Southerners were slaveholders?
    Berlin In 1860, the South had a population of 12-1/2 million. Of those, 4 milliion were slaves. The vast majority of the population was white. Of the whites, only 400,000 owned slaves. If the average slave-holding family contained 5 individuals, then only 2 of the 8 million whites held slaves or were members of families that held slaves.
    xena How about Northern percentages?
    Berlin First, slavery in the North was largely a 17th and 18th century phenomenon. The largest concentration of slaves in parts of the Middle Colonies: New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island never reached above 20% of the population. The vast majority of Northerners did not own slaves, either.
    gumby How influential was "The Liberator"?
    Berlin "The Liberator," William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, was an extraordinarily influential newspaper. It played a critical role in creating a cadre of young, northern men and women committed to abolishing slavery.
    bfloyd I know that Harvard University has completed a transatlantic slave trade data base. Is there now a more accurate assessment of how many Africans were transported to North America and which parts of Africa they come from. If so, can you give us a bit of information about that?
    Berlin Good question. The Harvard U. database is a monumental contribution to an understanding of the slave trade. It confirms the overall volume of the slave trade, but tells us many new things of who went where and when. So that, for example, we now know that slaves from the Nigerian interior largely populated the Chesapeake region. Low-country South Carolina, on the other hand, was peopled by Africans from Angola and then from Sengambia. This is akin to understanding that Boston in the 19th century was peopled largely by Irish and that Milwaukee in the 19th century was populated by German-speaking people. And shaped the culture of those two cities in very different ways.
    shs So was the culture of the South influenced by the slaves that populated different areas?
    Berlin In much the same way, the igbos peoples who populated Virginia in the 18th century, shaped that society differently than the Angolans influenced the development of South Carolina.
    shs After the Civil War, what did white America expect now former slaves to do?
    Berlin White Americans had many different ideas about how former slaves would be integrated into the nation. Those ideas shaped American politics for two decades. Some of the Abolitionist tradition believed that the integration should be complete and equal and rapid. But even those of the Abolitionist tradition differed among themselves as to whether former slaves should be given land, political rights, a social equality. And, of course, there were many white Americans who did not believe that black people should be given any of these. That they should be kept in a state of quasi-slavery and that they were not fully prepared to be part of the American republic.
    xena How were mixed-raced children looked upon?
    Berlin By law, children followed the status of their mothers. So that a descendant of a free man (white or black) and a slave woman would be a slave. Meaning many people of equal white or European descent were slaves and they were treated as slaves by their parents and other white people. However, throughout the period of slavery, the black community always accepted people of mixed descent a s part of their own community and incorporated them into African-American society.
    bfloyd Dr. Berlin, I'm a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. in the Information Technology section. We're always interested in how the Web enhances scholarship. In light of all of the new research on slavery, or early American history, are you participating in any activities to make that data freely available on line. If so, can you share that information with us?
    Berlin My recent book, "Remembering Slavery" which is an audio book composed of both text and tapes constructed from interviews done in the 1930s and 40s is being put online by its publisher, The New Press, and by the Smithsonian Institution, which was part of the Remembering Slavery project.
    Ques How common was it for slaves to revolt?
    Berlin Revolution is never common in the history of the world. Few of us are willing to risk all no matter how desperate our circumstances. However, there was an organized insurrectionary activities or rebellions in which slaves took place, as well as a host of other subversive activities, which ranged from violence against owners and mistresses, to running away, to breaking tools to peeing in the soup. Slaveholders understood they were never safe.
    BBFran Were there common forms of resistance...."work to rule" types of behavior that were common?
    Berlin Yes, many BBFran. In fact, the slaves' understanding and control of the productive processes, everything from growing cotton to making iron, was a great source of power which slaves used to prrotect themselves and to expand their independence within slavery.
    shs What was it like for a free African American in the South? Could they shop in town, interact with whites? How many free African American in the South were there?
    Berlin There were about 1/4 million free blacks. That is a larger number than lived in the so-called Free States. Free African-Americans in the south were constrained by law and custom in a variety of war. They could not sit on juries. They could not travel freely. They could not vote. They could not meet openly. But, they could work independently. They could accumulate property. They could control their own families... And this provided them a small modicum of independence upon which they created their own institutions: schools, churches, fraternal organizations, which gave meaning to their lives.
    gumby I've read that the Bible was used as a justification by some southerners to keep widespread was this and what was the role of churches — both black and white — during the 19th century in regard to slavery?
    Berlin The established church in the south of various denominations was controlled by slaveholders and articulated the pro-slavery argument. Nonetheless, slaves turned that religion to their own uses and developed an anti-slavery argument from the very same Christian apologies that slaveholders used. The notion, for example, of "free at last" could be used by slaveholders to indicate that slaves would be free, but in another world. And that on this earth they should respect and obey their masters. That idea, "Free at last," was used by slaves in precisely the opposite manner. That they would be free and that they, or perhaps their children, would celebrate the great jubilee.
    xena Did you see Oprah's movie "Beloved"....did you like it...think it was good or accurate?
    Berlin Oprah's dramatization of Toni Morrison's great novel is one understanding of slavery and the aftermath of slavery. Needless to say, there are many other interpretations. For the period following slavery, for many former slaves was a period of enormous liberation and transformation in which they took new names, established new residence, created new institutions, and put African-American life on a different footing.
    cyberdino Was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" read in the South? Did it make any difference?
    Berlin Yes, Uncle Tom's Cabin was read in the south. The reaction to Uncle Tom's Cabin in the south is really quite interesting. Among whites, there was a kind of double-take. At first, recognizing and confirming many of Stowe's insights into the nature of slave life. And then, coming to an understanding of Stowe's antislavery purposes turning away from the novel, rejecting it, ridiculing it, and even creating counter-novels which parodied Stowe's work.
    wryguy When did England outlaw did they view slavery in America?
    Berlin The British outlawed slavery within their own empire in 1833. Of course, at that point the United States was independent and the actions of the British Parliament had no effect on American slavery. Except to isolate the U.S. and make it clear that slavery throughout the world was on the defensive. The Somerset Decision outlawed slavery in England itself.
    Ques Were beatings common?
    Berlin Yes. Probably every slave experienced a beating or knew one who did.
    shs What about slavery in other parts of the world, or other parts of the British Empire?
    Berlin Slavery continued to shrink after emancipation in the northern states of the U.S. We've already discussed British abolition. Soon thereafter the French would abolish slavery in their colonies, and in 1888, Brazil, the last major slave state in the new world abolished slavery. Slavery continued to exist in other places and indeed gained new life in parts of Africa even as it was being abolished in the New World. And, in some places, slavery continues to exist today, although illegally and clandestinely.
    bfloyd The recent effort by Disney to create a theme park based on history (and to be located in Virginia) created quite an uproar in the scholarly community. As I recall, there was a lot of discussion about things like how the period of slavery and the Civil war would be interepreted. What made the Disney idea a difficult one to sell. And what, in your view, are some of the best ways to interpret history — for the public — museums, on-line exhibits, films?
    Berlin The Disney affair raised extraordinarily important questions about how the new scholarship on slavery is to be made available to a more general public. This is being done in a variety of forums. One of which is this. Another is Oprah's movie. The movies "Glory," "Amistad," etc. We want to display in these various other forums the same complexity that is represented in the scholarship. Meaning two things: First, the violence and imposition both physical and psychological that is part of slavery. That is the very essence of slavery. Second, the refusal of the slaves themselves to be dehumanized by the dehumanizing violence. And, instead to create an extraordinary array of new cultural forms, everything from music to cuisine, to theology, to language, which remade American society. So, slavery is two things. It is death and it is life. It is both our worst nightmare and our period of greatest cultural creativity. Any public exhibition of slavery should try to capture both of those parts of the slave experience.
    gumby Was there any argument made that since the founding fathers did not outlaw slavery, then it must be both legally and morally acceptable?
    Berlin The defenders of slavery drew upon the Constitution as they drew upon the Bible to defend their ownership of men and women.
    Ques Was chattel slavery created only because we failed to reflect on moral issues?
    Berlin Although some moral qualms about enslavement of fellow men and women (most especially the slaves themselves) always existed, no one seriously questioned of the morality of slavery into the mid-18ty century. Until that point, slavery was fully accepted in much the way we accept inequality today — Something to be regretted but natural. It was justified by the Bible, both old and new testaments; by the Koran, and e very other authoritized moral text. In short, at the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade , the enslavement was not a moral choice for either Africans or Europeans. It was, however, a choice. And there were other choices in finding a labor force for the New World: the enslavement o f Native Americans or Europeans rather than Africans; the use of short term slaves or indentured servants of various nationality, and the use of wage workers. This too would have made a difference in the development of the New World.
    bfloyd Dr. Berlin, is there any sense that the Africans who participated in the slave trade have any understanding of what was happening on the other side (the Americas).
    Berlin Interesting question. Yes, by the 19th century Africans like Europeans were crisscrossing the Atlantic. Some freed slaves were returning to Africa. This is true not simply for slaves or former slaves from the U.S., but from other countries, particularly Brazil. They brought with them a full appreciation of how the Atlantic economy worked and the role of the slave trade in it. Earlier, of course, there was not such an appreciation and indeed for the first Africans enslaved in the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a deep fear that their white enslavers were cannibals and would eat them.
    US A final comment from Professor Berlin
    Berlin It is obvious that slavery has captured the imagination of the American people. We can see it in the movies, museum exhibits, the TV shows, and so on. I believe that this represents a coming to terms wit h an important, if difficult, part of our history. Which represents itself a kind of maturation. Slavery is a difficult subject, but an essential one for us to understand if we are to understand who we are as a people and to address slavery's extraordinarily long-lived legacy.
    bfloyd Thank you for offering us this forum. I've enjoyed it. Thank you Dr. Berlin. Bianca — also a Maryland Un. Graduate in Black Studies — Class of 77. Couldn't resist.
    shs Thank you Professor Berlin. It was very interesting!
    US Thank you everybody for participating.

    Answers to More Questions

    These questions were submitted and answered in advance of the online session.

    Question Were there any points along the way from capture to plantation when interpreters were normally used?
    Berlin Yes. There were certainly interpreters, generally knowledgeable Africans, also Europeans, who served as interpreters in the African baracoons or factories and on ship. On the plantations of the new world, the same function was served by knowledgeable slaves — although planters doubtless picked up a few words of various African languages. More important in this process was the creation of new languages or so-called "pidgins" or "creoles" which were shared by Africans of many nations — indeed all the peoples who shared the Atlantic.
    Question Were any African languages maintained for any length of time after arriving in America? If not, was that because of insufficient numbers of speakers of any particular language, or because English was forced on the slaves? Who taught them English?
    Berlin Yes, we know African languages survived the middle passage from runaway advertisements — which designate fugitives by the languages they spoke. African languages could be heard along the docks and in the port cities of colonial America — which were extensions of the larger Atlantic world. And doubtless such African tongues were the language of choice within the slave quarter. However, very soon the languages began to mix, creating creoles — some of which survive today, as with the Gullah language in South Carolina and so-called Creole in Haiti. But African languages also influenced the development of Spanish, French, and English — their vocabulary, syntax, and grammars. Who did the teaching? Slaves taught themselves and each other.
    Question If the Mayflower had ended up in Virginia after all, would slavery have developed in a different way or at all?
    Berlin Sure it would be different. Any event or action changes the course of history. Would there still be slavery? Doubtless. Remember there was slavery in New England and that slavery in the Northern states lasted well into the nineteenth century.
    Question Was chattel slavery created only because we failed to reflect on the moral issues? Were there other choices that could have been made, other opportunities, which would have allowed the South to prosper without the institution of slavery?
    Berlin Although some moral qualms about enslavement of fellow men and women (most especially the slaves themselves) always existed, no one seriously questioned of the morality of slavery into the mid eighteenth century. Until that point, slavery was fully accepted in much the way we accept inequality today — something to be regretted but natural. It was justified by the Bible, both Old and New testaments; by the Koran, and every other authoritize moral text. In short, at the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, the enslavement was not a moral choice for either Africans or Europeans. It was, however, a choice. And there were other choices in finding a labor force for the New World: the enslavement of Native Americans or Europeans rather than Africans; the use of short term slaves or indentured servants of various nationalities, and the use of wage workers. This too would have made a difference in the development of the New World.

    Certainly the South could have prospered under another system — meaning there would have been economic growth. Would the same people have prospered, and to the same extent? (Would there have been a class of very rich and powerful planters?) That is another question. In the middle of the eighteenth century, slavery — as above — was viewed as a normal way of extracting labor and ordering a society by most in the Atlantic world. By the middle of the nineteenth century, most viewed it has a moral outrage, as a height of economic inefficiency, and an exemplar of political tyranny. What happened? How did this change? BIG QUESTION!

    Question Countries stemming from French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World and those areas of the U.S. heavily influenced by the French and Spanish seem to have a great deal of cultural and "racial" mixing compared to those areas of the U.S. and Canada settled by the British. Is there something particularly British which contributed to chattel slavery, intolerance and segregation?
    Berlin No. Probably the mixing — physical — of Europeans and Africans, slaveowners and slaves — was the same in the areas of the New World settled by Spain, France, and Britain. What was different was the willingness to recognize the products of that mixing. On mainland North America — what became the United States (although not other British colonies) — there was an unwillingness to recognize the product of these matches. This had more to do with patterns of settlement and demography, than proclivity to cultural intolerance.
    Question I love the story of Tony Johnson, an African who enjoyed equality with Europeans of many nationalities on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Jone, his daughter, married an Indian who also appears to have been treated as an equal. So, in the 17th century there was the start of an ethnically diverse, relatively tolerant society. How could the move to chattel slavery have been avoided?
    Berlin I love the story of Anthony Johnson too. But Johnson, recall, was a slave and when he gained his freedom, became a slaveowner. The story of Anthony Johnson is neither one of the creation of an egalitarian society nor of a tolerant one. Seventeenth-century Virginia was neither. It is, however, the story of a different kind of slave society. That is important. Things could have been different, although we may have been unhappy with that too.
    Question What were some of the differences between slaves on tobacco plantations and cotton plantations?
    Berlin Lots of difference, but how that difference is understood depended upon when. The labor demands were different, the size of plantation unit was different, and organization was different — which made for differences in the slave family, degree of independence the slave enjoyed, and so on. In general, however, eighteenth-century tobacco slaves lived in isolation, on small units call "quarters," and enjoyed a degree of autonomy that that isolation allowed; nineteenth-century cotton slaves worked on large estates — still small by New World standards — under masters who intruded into all aspects of their lives.
    Question What was the life expectancy for a slave?
    Berlin The life expectancy of slaves — like all of the history of slavery — changed greatly over time and place. Anthony Johnson lived to know his grandchildren. Most slaves who arrived in the new world during the height of the plantation revolution did not live to have children. Indeed they rarely had children of their own. They rarely survived a decade.
    Question What percentage of southerners were slaveholders?
    Berlin In 1860, the south had a population of 12.5 million, of whom some 4 million were slaves. Meaning the vast majority of the population was white, but of those white people only 400,000 owned slaves. Again, meaning that if the average slaveholding family was five individuals, only 2 million of the eight million whites owned slaves or lived as part of slaveholding families. Most of these, of course, were small holders, only one or two slaves. Only 50,000 individuals owned more than 20 slaves (minimum definition of a plantation); only 10,000 over 50 and could qualify as "great" planters.
    Question Our class just watched "Amistad" together. Was the uprising and trial a big thing at the time or only in this movie?
    Berlin Yup. A big thing, because abolitionists — who are portrayed very unfairly in the picture — made it a big thing.
    Question Was beating and whipping of slaves a common practice?
    Berlin Yes. Probably every slave experienced a beating in his or her life or knew of a slave who experienced the lash.
    Question I heard somewhere that African drums were banned because it was feared they could be used to communicate across plantations. Is this true? How concerned were southerners or other slaveholders with intercommunication among slaves? Are there other examples?
    Berlin Drums were banned in some places in the new world because slaveholders were preoccupied with the threat of insurrection. This is different than communication, which they — of necessity — encouraged. The purpose of slavery was not to isolate slaves, but to make them work efficiently — for this, communication was essential. Such communication could be revolutionary — and this, of course, was the slaveholders' dilemma.
    Question How many slaves escaped?
    Berlin Many.
    Question I have heard that at one time the slavery issue was debated openly in southern legislatures and that there were many moderates who wanted change. Do you think it possible that slavery could have been brought to an end by moderates rather than war?
    Berlin Given what we know about American politics, slavery could not have been ended in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century without violence.
    Question Our teacher told us in class that at one time there was a serious movement to ship slaves back to Africa and even Latin America. How big was this movement? How many slaves left the country? Want happened to this movement?
    Berlin There were many attempts to remove slaves from the United States and return them to Africa. The most important of these movements was called "colonization" and organized as the American Colonization Society, founded in 1817. the ACS would eventually found Liberia as a home for former slaves. However, the Colonization Society, in trying to gain the support from slaveholders, emphasized the deportation of free blacks — not slaves — which earned them the enmity of free blacks, who viewed the United States as their country too and wanted no part of Africa and came to think of the ACS as a slaveholder's scheme to make the U.S. safe for slavery.

    Few slaves were sent to Africa, probably no more than several hundred a year. Still, many white people thought deportation was a great idea — that the U.S. should be a country for white people only. The ACS lasted well into the twentieth century.

    Question What did Lincoln think about African Americans?
    Berlin Abraham Lincoln, in his public statements, shared the white-supremists views of most of his countrymen. That is, be believed white people were superior to black ones. He was a politician and it is would have been political suicide for him to say otherwise. There are a few shreds of evidence that he personally held different views, but the evidence is not strong. However, even in his public guise, Lincoln insisted that just because — and perhaps because — blacks were inferior to whites they should not be made into slaves. That they, like every other man and woman, should have an equal chance to support themselves, raise their families, practice their religion that was promised by the Declaration of Independence. It was this later view which brought him to the Republican Party and eventually to his historic role.
    Question When did slavery die out in the northern states? Were there any slaves living in the north at the time of the Civil War?
    Berlin The northern states began to end slavery during the American Revolution, and, by 1801, every northern state had committed itself to emancipation. However, it was a gradualist process. There were still thousands of slaves in the north in the 1820s and still a handful in the 1840s and 1850s.
    Question Could you tell me the role religion played in the lives of slaves? Were slaves ever allowed to go to church?
    Berlin Religion played a large role in slave life, especially the religion they carried from Africa and which they maintained in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — most refusing to accept the attempt to convert them to Christianity. When, at the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, they embraced Christianity, they infused it with their own sacred African heritage.
    Question "Uncle Tom's Cabin" opened northern hearts to the cruelty of slavery. Was it allowed in the south? Could it have made a difference?
    Berlin The appearance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" at first received a warm welcome in the south, but as southerners came to understand its implications, they shut it out, denouncing it, banning it, and often writing novels in opposition to it. In short, there was a kind of double-take in the reaction to the book.
    Question Looking at the slave codes that banned slaves from reading and writing, were these devised to limit the slaves' ability to communicate or from a desire to keep the two cultures separate?
    Berlin In their origins, the anti-education clauses of the slave codes were an attempt to stem insurrectionary activities, prevent the creation of an educated cadre among the slaves, and deny slaves knowledge of the world-wide movement against slavery — especially the growth of abolition in the north.
    Question What was it like for a free African-American in the south? Could they shop in town, interact with whites, own property? Didn't they have to be scared of bounty hunters?
    Berlin Yes to all of the above. Free blacks in the south lived constrained lives. They were denied the right to vote, sit on juries, testify in court, travel freely, carry guns, and so on. They were also subject to kidnapping by slave stealers. But they had the right to work, accumulate property, marry, practice their own religion — and with these rights they created lives of their own even on this dangerous terrain.
    Question I'm curious about the homogeneity of the black slave community. Were there ever cultural variations between the slave communities of various plantations? Did slave owners make a choice not to purchase slaves with the same cultural backgrounds or languages? Were slaveholders even aware of cultural differences?
    Berlin Slaves were not a single homogenous group, any more than black people today are a single homogenous group. Their society was as complex as any, and of course carried by nationality, occupation, religion and all of the other markers of diversity within our society. Slaveholders exploited these differences when they could, but of course all slaves recognized a common enemy.
    Question After the Civil War, what exactly did white America expect African-Americans to do? What did they do immediately after they were made free?
    Berlin White Americans had many ideas about emancipation. Those from an abolitionist tradition hoped for the full integration of former slaves into American society. But even abolitionists were divided as to how this might be done — give former slaves land and a share of the wealth their work as slaves had created, give them the vote, give them civil rights? All, some, many? Not all white Americans shared these ideals in whole or part, and many opposed them. Not surprisingly, the leading opponents were the former slaveholders.
    Question I really like American history and am thinking about studying it in college. My parents say that I won't make any money if I study history and they think I would be wasting my time. What do you think?
    Berlin Nothing is more interesting and important than understanding the past. Because it is so important, many people want to know about it, and because so many people — like yourself — are so interested, there are lots of ways to earn a living doing it. Some teach, some work in museums, some make movies, some lead tours, some write books — and some combine all of these interests with others — as today, combining knowledge of history with a knowledge of computers. There is a lot of evidence that historians will continue to eat in the twenty-first century.
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Meet the Historians

These renowned historians and experts chatted with students online. Read the transcripts.

Carol Berkin
Colonial Women
Ira Berlin
Joseph Ellis
Thomas Jefferson
James Loewen
Debunking History
Jon Nese
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Robert Regan
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Robert Remini
The Jacksonian Era
Brooks Simpson
U.S. Grant and Reconstruction
David Traxel
Errol Uys
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