From Slavery to Segregation to Institutional Racism: How the Story is Passed

 By Eric Segall

I grew up forty-five minutes from Manhattan and worked for two summers as a law firm messenger in New York City. I also have studied, taught, and written about race my entire career. Yet, before reading Clint Smith's excellent new book How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, I knew little about New York's substantial role in the slave trade (which I discuss towards the end of this post). My purpose here is not so much to review Smith's pathbreaking book but to make a plea for everyone to read it. 

In How the Word is Passed, Smith visits numerous places where slavery and segregation thrived and through fascinating stories, interviews, and reflections demonstrates with beautiful prose (the author is also a poet) how our present institutional racism is derived from our racist past. The book made me gasp out loud numerous times.

The book starts with Smith visiting Monticello, the estate that Thomas Jefferson built. This chapter immediately grabbed me because it wrestles with a fundamental question raised by American history: How could Thomas Jefferson, one of our most important Founding Fathers, write such beautiful prose in the Declaration of Independence, and be a man of such great spirit and talent, and yet be a ruthless enslaver. 

According to Smith's recounting of his discussions with a tour guide, Jefferson "sold, leased, and mortgaged enslaved people--often in an effort to pay off debts ... and preserve his standard of living." Several hundred enslaved people did the work needed for Jefferson to thrive, and over the years he sold more than 100 of them, often breaking up families. As he does in all his chapters, Smith talks to other people visiting Jefferson's home and details their reactions, which are quite varied, to the beauty of Monticello, to Jefferson's great deeds, and to his personal involvement in buying, selling, and keeping human beings as chattel slavery. It is the merging of past and present that makes How the Word is Passed so powerful and important.

After Monticello, Smith visits the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, an hour from New Orleans. The major point of this chapter is captured in the following paragraph:

The Whitney Plantation is unlike almost any other plantation in the country. In a state where plantations remain the sites of formal celebrations and weddings, where tours of former slave estates nostalgically center on the architectural merits of the old homes, where you are still more likely to hear stories of how the owners of the land 'treated their slaves well' than you are to hear of the experiences of actual enslaved people, the Whitney stands apart by making the story of the enslaved the core of the experience.

This chapter includes a discussion of how medical schools used the cadavers of enslaved people for medical experimentation, which led Smith to observe that the "bodies" of Black people were "exploited at every age, even in their death." At this plantation, like most such places, the owners would often enslave their own children. This rich account of the horrors of plantation life, passed down over the years through stories and oral histories, amount to painful "legacies [that] are living well inside of African-Americans today." 

Next, Smith heads to the infamous Angola prison, also in Louisiana. This horrific place, once a working plantation, was used by white southerners after the Civil War to help with the business of "convict leasing." In the 1870's, the former Confederate states enacted so-called "pig laws" imposing long sentences on people (read former enslaved persons) for relatively minor crimes. In 1880, Louisiana changed its criminal laws to allow convictions by non-unanimous juries (a practice struck down by the Supreme Court just last year). As Smith documents, this change allowed the state to put a few Black people on juries to satisfy legal requirements but also permitted the convictions of thousands of formerly enslaved people who would then be forced to work for little or no pay under conditions just as brutal, and often worse, than their or their forebears' conditions while enslaved. 

The reason for the change from unanimous to non-unanimous jury verdicts was not hidden from the public. At a state constitutional convention in 1898, when the change was made constitutional, those lawmakers responsible for it stated with terrifying clarity the purpose of the shift: "To establish the supremacy of the white race." That convention occurred thirty years after the Reconstruction Amendments were enacted.

This chapter is, in my reading, the most powerful one in the book. Smith shows the direct connections  between yesterday's racism and today's racism. The prison today is a maximum security jail and houses mostly black men. Before a 2013 lawsuit, the conditions at Angola were torturous. The suit claimed that during the Summer of 2011, the heat index in the prison would often be 195 degrees. For eighty-five consecutive days between May and August 2012, the index rose above 126 degrees. Although a lower court ruled these conditions illegal, the Fifth Circuit overturned much of the decision. 

Angola prison stands where a plantation once existed, with the bodies of enslaved people resting under the ground. Smith describes this atrocity as follows:

If in Germany today there were a prison built on top of a former concentration camp, and that prison disproportionately incarcerated Jewish people, it would rightly provoke outrage throughout the world. I imagine there would be international summits on closing such an egregious institution. And yet in the United States such collective outrage at this plantation-turned-prison is relatively muted.

The most compelling part of this chapter is Smith's visit to the gift shop at the prison. Yes, I said gift shop. On the wall was a painting of Black men "being marched into the fields, each of them carrying a long black hoe.... To their far right was a white woman on horseback, her long ponytail extending from beneath her black cap...." This twenty-foot wide image was hung below the words "Louisiana State Penitentiary." Smith connects the dots between Louisiana's sordid racist past, the prison, and mass incarceration today largely at the expense of Black people ... today. 

In the rest of the book, Smith visits a cemetery where Confederate soldiers were buried, Galveston Island, Texas, where the people of Texas first learned that slavery was formally abolished, Goree Island in Africa where people were kidnapped and sent into into slavery, and New York City. The merging of past and present is a continuous, powerful theme. 

The Chapter on New York City was truly surprising. According to Smith:

During parts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were more enslaved Black people in New York City than in any other urban area across North America. Enslaved workers made up more than a quarter of the city’s labor force. As the city grew, so did the number of enslaved people. As the American Revolution began, about a sixth of New York’s population was of African descent, and almost all of them were enslaved.

Smith talks about a small plaque located in the financial district between Pearl and Water Streets, not far from Trump's building at 40 Wall Street, where I worked as a messenger for Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam, and Roberts in 1975. I walked those streets countless times but never noticed a plaque which details that on the ground on which it sits there was a slave market from 1711-1762. At that time, roughly one in five people living in the city was enslaved. 

The rest of the chapter details how JPMorgan Chase, our county's largest bank, was deeply involved in the slave trade, how even after New York abolished slavery in 1827, "slave catchers" still roamed the streets looking for fugitive enslaved people to return to their enslavers in the South, and how Central Park was built for free black people in the nineteenth century but was eventually turned into one of the most famous green spaces in the world. Today, the park sits over the remains of those early Black inhabitants of the land.

This post barely skims the surface of this wonderful, inspiring, beautifully written book. The last sentence of the book sums up Smith's overall thesis: "At some point it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it." 

Just so.