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Scholar: Effects of Slavery Still Reverberate


African Americans have been freed from slavery for 150 years, but the racism inherent in the system that dehumanized them can still be felt today, Annette Gordon-Reed, Ph.D. said at a discussion.

Gordon-Reed, the Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, Professor of History at Harvard and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, spoke at length on Saturday, Feb. 9 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan.

Annette Gordon-Reed Photo by Patrick Verel

Her talk, Memorializing American Slavery, was co-sponsored in part by Fordham’s department of African and African-American Studies, as part of the its year-long Emancipation Series, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

For her work on The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W. W. Norton, 2008), Gordon-Reed won a Pulitzer Prize for history, becoming the first African American to do so.

While researching the book, which details the relationship that Thomas Jefferson had with Sally Hemings, a mixed-race slave who was also his wife’s half-sister, Gordon-Reed found that the stories that were told about them were given more credence when they were told by whites.

“African American enslaved people were the only people who I think were made to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the things that happened to them in slavery,” she said.

“The sympathy always tended to be with the people who were in power, that is to say southern slaveholders, doing things to make their descendents feel less guilty about what went on. That was a huge part of what was going on with the Jefferson-Hemings story.”

The biggest fallacy that Gordon-Reed aimed to dispel was the notion that enslaved African-Americans did not value family ties. As an example of how the countries’ legal system was stacked against them, she noted that the term that was used for illegitimate children such as Hemings, whose father was a slave master, was filius nullius, or “child of no one.”

“What historians have done is take that legal definition and acted as if it were true, as if we can’t possibly know who their fathers were, and therefore Sally Hemings could have had children with anyone who was around,” she said.

Although DNA testing in 1998 and a 2000 report by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation corroborated Professor Gordon-Reed’s conclusions that Madison Hemings was telling the truth when he said that he and his three siblings were the children of Thomas Jefferson, the suspicion that his paternity claim was greeted is indicative of a mistrust of blacks to be truthful.

“People criticize the black family and criticize us, but it’s outsiders who imposed from the time of slavery this notion of the non-existence of black family, that the ties weren’t there. That kind of attitude is something that has helped shaped the way people view the black and unfortunately the way we see ourselves. Because white supremacy is not just about white people. If it’s powerful enough, it affects the way black people view one another. So we have to constantly fight against this, not just on the outside of the community, but in the way we view ourselves,” she said.

“This is an opportunity to show that when African American people tell you what happened in slavery, that it’s truthful, and you should pay attention to it.”


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