Hot off the press: our new book, “Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites”

Posted December 30th, 2014 by
Category: News and Announcements, Public History Tags: , , , , , ,

Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)Update: Interpreting Slavery is now back in stock at Amazon.

We’re pleased to announce the release of the Tracing Center’s new book, Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

“This seminal work … will make a significant impact.”

— Rex M. Ellis, Associate Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Interpreting Slavery, edited by Kristin Gallas and James DeWolf Perry, is the most visible product to date of a three-year Tracing Center project to develop and disseminate best practices in slavery interpretation. This project has also included surveys of the field, workshops at historic sites and museums, conference presentations and instructional sessions, as well as additional publications.

The book is a collaboration with seven leading public historians with deep expertise in navigating the interpretation of slavery:

  • Dina A. Bailey, National Center for Civil and Human Rights
  • Patricia Brooks, National Endowment for the Humanities
  • Richard C. Cooper, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
  • Conny Graft, Conny C. Graft Research and Evaluation
  • Linnea Grim, Monticello
  • Katherine D. Kane, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
  • Nicole A. Moore, Museum Educator and Historic Consultant

Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites aims to move the field forward in its collective conversation about the interpretation of slavery—acknowledging criticism of the past and acting in the present to develop an inclusive interpretation of slavery. Presenting the history of slavery in a comprehensive and conscientious manner requires diligence and compassion—for the history itself, for those telling the story, and for those hearing the stories—but it’s a necessary part of our collective narrative about our past, present, and future.
Read the rest of this entry »

Historical myths and coded slave quilts on the Underground Railroad

Posted March 29th, 2013 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , , ,

"Women's Quilts as Art"Historian Paul Finkelman writes at The Root about the discovery of a sixth-grade reading comprehension test, online from the Massachusetts Department of Education, which reiterates the old myth that coded quilts were used to warn runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad.

This old legend, about coded messages in quilts which told escaped slaves of safe houses and routes to freedom, is common in the United States. Historians agree, however, that there is no truth to these detailed assertions; as Finkelman puts it, this myth has long been known to be “totally fabricated.” Nevertheless, the story of coded slave quilts has frequently been written about as truth, and the story often appears in the interpretation of slavery for the public at historic sites.

This is an appealing myth for many Americans, blending as it does the horrors of slavery with the bravery of the enslaved, who are seeking their own freedom; in some versions of the story, the quilts are even made and displayed by progressive white southerners, doing their part to fight the injustice of their society.

At the Tracing Center, we believe strongly in the importance of separating truth from fiction in conveying the history of slavery to the general public. Myths like that of the slave quilt never contribute to a better understanding of this history or its legacy today, and often exist precisely because they serve to obscure historical realities that would otherwise challenge comforting notions that keep us from deeper understanding of our heritage and its consequences.

Read the rest of this entry »

A slave trading family on NBC’s “The Office”

Posted October 8th, 2012 by
Category: Popular Culture Tags: , , ,

DeWolf family treeWhen I sat down this weekend to watch last Thursday’s episode of “The Office,” I was quite surprised to discover that the plot largely revolved around the revelation that Andy Bernard, like me, is descended from slave traders.

As you might imagine, as someone who has wrestled with this family legacy, and who cares a great deal about seeing the public to terms with the legacy of slavery, I had mixed feelings watching this subject being addressed in a half-hour comedy show.

What did “The Office” get right?

What do I think the show got right about Andy’s suspicion that he was descended from slave owners, and his eventual discovery that his family were slave traders? Mostly the incredible awkwardness and uncertainty, for Andy, his family, and for everyone else witnessing the process of uncovering the truth about complicity in slavery.

Read the rest of this entry »

Lessons from the British commemoration of the abolition of the slave trade

Posted September 11th, 2012 by
Category: Public History Tags: , , , ,

Freedom! Sculpture; image copyright Christian Aid/Leah Gordon Recently I was reading an essay by Geoffrey Cubitt, senior lecturer in history at the University of York (UK) and co-investigator of the “1807 Commemorated” project, which analyzed visitor responses to the Bicentenary of the 1807 Act of Abolition in British museums.1 First of all, I want to acknowledge how amazing it was that the University of York spent two years studying how Britain commemorated, through exhibits, memorials, etc, the abolition of the slave trade. The team not only wanted to find out how the country remembered this history, but how visitors to these museums and memorials reacted to learning about this difficult time in the country’s past. The results of this study, chronicled in a separate volume titled Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums, shows an awesome feat of visitor studies and conclusions on how a country tries to remember what it spent so long trying to forget.

The lessons draw by Cubitt in his essay “Museums and Slavery in Britain” can serve as guide posts for the upcoming U.S. sesquicentennial commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Read the rest of this entry »

  1. The essay, along with others on international museums/commemorations of slavery and the slave trade, can be found in Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space edited by Ana Lucia Araujo. []

Civil War’s dirty secret about slavery

Posted April 12th, 2011 by
Category: History, News and Announcements Tags: , ,

We have an op-ed today at on how to understand the relationship of the North to slavery and race on the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

The essay, written by Executive Director Katrina Browne and Managing Director James DeWolf Perry, builds on our ongoing work around the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the enduring historical myths which blind us to the legacy of slavery and race today.

Here is how the op-ed begins:

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, a war that redefined national and regional identities and became an enduring tale of noble resistance in the South and, for the rest of the country, a mighty moral struggle to erase the stain of slavery.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on the beleaguered Union garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. By April 14, the fort had fallen and the war had begun in earnest.

By the time Fort Sumter was again in Union hands, following the evacuation of Charleston in the closing days of the war in 1865, the war had become the bloodiest in the nation’s history — and has not been surpassed. Yet the relationship of the North to the South, and to slavery before and during the war is not at all what we remember today. The reality is that both North and South were profoundly complicit in slavery and deeply reluctant to abolish our nation’s “peculiar institution.”

To read the full article, go to “Civil War’s dirty secret about slavery” at

Teacher Workshops in Rhode Island

Posted November 22nd, 2010 by
Category: News and Announcements Tags: , , ,

This fall the Tracing Center presented a series of special workshops for Rhode Island educators on the role of the North in slavery.

The history of Rhode Island’s complicity in slavery and the slave trade has been missing from the state’s classrooms for generations. The Rhode Island Department of Education mandated teaching about the state’s complicity in slavery/slave trade in its Grade Span Expectations (teaching standards) in 2008. Some teachers don’t know the history, other teachers are aware of the historical information, but are unsure how to teach it. The workshops covered content knowledge about Rhode Island’s complicity in slavery and the slave trade, as well as tools for how to effectively and sensitively teach the subject matter to students of all backgrounds. Through our training in content and pedagogy and the written resources provided for them, they returned to their classroom better equipped to teach about slavery and its legacies.

Read the rest of this entry »

Copyright 2010-2018 by the Tracing Center | All Rights Reserved | Website design and coding: James DeW. Perry