“It Happened Here”

A decade or so ago, I recall hearing historian David Blight give a talk during which he recounted an anecdote about a New-York Historical Society exhibit. The market poster–plastered around the city, including in subway stations–had “It Happened Here” in big letters. People wondering what happened had to get up close to find out: slavery.

Slavery in the United States is often (not always!) presented in terms of the Civil War — and as being practiced in the South with the North being free territory. Sad but true, this wasn’t always the case. One of the many history books in my possession is a companion book to the New-York Historical Society exhibit: Slavery in New York.

It’s a comparatively short book — vertically-speaking, not length-wise for it runs just over 400 pages and contains an introduction plus several chapter essays along with a number of illustrations. In point-of-fact, it doesn’t have as many illustrations as other exhibition books I’ve seen (there may have been a second, separate and more visual book for sale, I don’t know as I picked up my copy at a used book sale).

I picked it to write about today because the jacket cover includes the image from a daguerreotype taken circa 1850 of Caesar, supposedly the last enslaved person in New York to be manumitted. In the last 24-48 hours, I’ve read several articles about the Connecticut woman who is filing suit against Harvard for two other daguerreotypes of enslaved peoples from whom she traces her descent.

It’s important, in my mind, to remember the extent to which peoples enslaved others–in this country and without. The amount of time it took for number to recognize the wrongness and act upon it. The delays built in to manumission. The extent to which property rights trumped human rights.

We’ve got the materials for stories right at hand, all around us — fiction or non-fiction?

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