On September 19, 2013 approximately 120 registrants gathered in Cincinnati’s National Underground Freedom Center for a conference sponsored by Historians Against Slavery (HAS). The event marked a radical departure from the usual academic gatherings to which historians have long been accustomed. Although organized by scholars of antebellum slavery and antislavery, the conference’s agenda spoke explicitly to the present, not just to the past. In addition to historians, its participants included leading antislavery activists, high school teachers and their students, survivors of enslavement, a law enforcement official, two former prison inmates, a prominent antislavery prosecutor for the European Union, a well-known Latino labor organizer, and a nationally acclaimed investigative journalist.

The conference’s mission was to combine the knowledge of historians with the practical wisdom of on-the-ground activists in support of a powerful campus-based movement in opposition to the “new” global slavery. With HAS sponsorship this movement is growing on college and university campuses across the nation. In the spirit of the pre-Civil War abolitionists, its aims are to motivate students and faculty to acquire antislavery knowledge and embrace antislavery action.

A new study estimates that as many as 30 million people are currently enslaved around the globe.

That’s more than twice the number transported from West Africa to the Western Hemisphere during the entirety of the Atlantic slave trade.

The need for such a broad based movement could not be more self-evident.

As the title of our 2013 conference, Crossing Boundaries, Making Connections: American Slavery and Antislavery “Now” and ‘Then’” suggests, none of the sessions featured scholarship “for its own sake.” Instead, the proceedings reaffirmed a famous provocation issued to the HarvardUniversity faculty and student body in 1883 by the great abolitionist Wendell Phillips: “Timid scholarship either shrinks from agitations or denounces them as vulgar and dangerous” he warned. “I urge college bred men to set aside cold moonlight reflection on older civilizations and instead to lead in the great social questions that stir the age.”

Historians Against Slavery takes up Phillips’s challenge. Historians Against Slavery is rapidly growing.

  • Joining Historians Against Slavery is free
  • You do not need to have a history degree to join Historians Against Slavery
  • Historians Against Slavery already counts active chapters on a dozen campuses

It has established a substantial partnership with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with which it jointly ventures in holding conferences, in website development, in supporting campus activities, in documentary film production, in the design of short antislavery web videos, and in building partnerships with leading activist organizations. HAS’s book series Slavery Since Emancipation with Cambridge University Press is its venue for generating original scholarship. Its speaker series offers colleges and universities the outstanding exponents of academic antislavery. Overflowing HAS sessions are becoming standard features at meetings of professional historians. It is directly involved in developing a foundation-supported Center on Modern Slavery and Antislavery. Its website features THE FREE PROJECT, a powerful but user-friendly tool for establishing campus-based antislavery societies, particularly by offering answers to the most important abolitionist question of all: “What can I do that will make a real difference?”

Why would well-established historians of antebellum slavery and antislavery feel compelled to establish HAS? Answers involve a searching examination of what these academicians most value about their ethical commitments as teachers, scholars, and citizens.

Historians Against Slavery (HAS) began taking shape in 2011 when its founders came to the disturbing realization that slavery thrives today. They also encountered indisputable evidence that the enslaved today are uprooted, transported, trafficked, exploited and abused, much they had been before the Civil War. As it was “back then” enslaved labor creates an enormous number of products that we, the unenslaved, rely on every day. The only difference is that today these products deluge us from many international sources, not solely from our own economy. Coffee, tea, clothing, electronics, food products of all sorts, cosmetics, automobiles and household furnishings only begin a much longer list. And as it was “back then,” slavery today wrenches children from parents and wives from husbands. Now, as “then,” wherever one finds it, slavery is rife with sexual exploitation of women and children.

These facts shock any person of conscience. Yet founders of Historians Against Slavery (HAS) found this information particularly disturbing because it challenges their deepest moral beliefs and intellectual commitments as educators. For the past three decades, they had been anchoring their teaching, scholarship, and service to the public in their profound moral objections to the historical enslavement of African Americans and others. Now, they realized, the alarming perpetuation and persistence of slavery all over the globe was mocking the values that inspired them as teachers and scholars.

Like so many other historians of their generation the founders of HAS have been deeply influenced by the Civil Rights and feminist struggles of 1960s and ‘70s. They felt moved to pose these questions: “Where, why and how did the terrible racial injustice and estrangement between black and white originate? Who and what has been responsible for continuing it over the centuries? What have Americans done in the past to oppose it and what were their successes and failures? How was slavery finally eliminated? Was it truly ended at all? What legacies has our history of slavery and emancipation bequeathed to our own time?”

When answering these questions the HAS founders joined a much larger cohort of like-minded historians in a project, seemingly successful, that has revolutionized our understanding of slavery in the nation’s past and the place of African American experience in American history. Accounting for this transformation are these scholars’ innumerable books and articles, frequent appearances in PBS documentaries, influence on museum exhibits, success in shaping secondary school curricula and in their teaching of countless undergraduates and graduate students. Except for those belonging to racist hate groups, most Americans now acknowledge the brutal realities of enslavement, identify with the struggles of the enslaved, and identify positively the with American abolitionist movement.

A cursory look may make it appear that historians like those who founded HAS have carried the day. After all, U.S. Postal Service stamps commemorate Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Black History Month revs-up each February. A new Smithsonian Museum of Africans American History is under construction on the Capitol Mall. But, to put it bluntly, carrying the day seems a dubious claim considering today’s headlines—the “achievement gap”, the “school to prison pipeline,” the “prison industrial complex,” “racial profiling,” “stand your ground laws,” “stop and frisk,” the rollback of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the curtailment of affirmative action, and ever-widening income gulf between people of darker and lighter completions. At the precise moment when the “new slavery” began challenging their most basic academic values,” HAS founders also realized that ongoing trends in “race relations” ran in profound opposition to the fundamental goal of their original historical project— social justice.

The HAS response to this double-barreled challenge is a modern antislavery movement that is expansively global and intensely local. Its goal is to sustain broadly based, campus driven action against the new slavery AND the destructive legacies of the old. The application of historical perspective to this broad spectrum of challenges is, above all what HAS abolitionism advocates.

Why is this perspective so necessary? Are not activists across the United States and all over the world finally gaining traction against today’s slavery? On first blush, it seems so. Highly developed NGO’s are working against slavery all over the globe. Since 2008 no fewer than 30 new antislavery books have been published, two dozen antislavery documentary films produced, and an exceptional array of informative digital resources made available on line on the challenges of slavery the world over. Talented journalists such as Nicholas Kristof and media celebrities such as Emma Thompson and Brad Pitt have highlighted the global problem again and again. Thanks to sensational headlines, the public is well aware that police and prosecutors are targeting sex-trafficking rings and enslavers of immigrant laborers.

But while these developments reflect growing public awareness, the truly pressing question is whether or not “awareness” makes an enduring difference that can be translated into effective activism. Can it blossom as a serious abolitionist movement or will it amount to little more than hand-wringing, sending money, and mistaking “clicking and joining” for authentic engagement? Answers emerge once we consider, as historians, how today’s antislavery is presented to the American public and how this presentation can be challenged.

Access any webpage for the leading antislavery- non-governmental organizations (Free the Slaves, the Polaris Project, Not For Sale, the International Justice Mission) and television networks (Al Jeezera and CNN) and look hard for historical perspectives. Search the books and films just mentioned. You cannot find any! The focus is exclusively fastened on NOW because “NOW” is all that counts when working at close quarters and in short time frames to liberate the enslaved and prosecute their oppressors. So no matter what the area of concern —India, South East Asia, Brazil, Eastern Europe, West Africa, Northern Florida, Chicago, Minnesota’s Red Lake Indian Reservation, etc., information offered by activist groups that portrays today’s slavery is bereft of historical context. Ordinary Americans find it difficult to connect descriptions of today’s slavery with their reflexive understanding of the place of African American bondage in our national history. Hence whenever today’s antislavery activists complain (as they so often do) about the widespread (presumably ignorant) American belief that slavery was permanently abolished in 1865 they are actually demonstrating their profound historical blindness.

After all, emancipation arguably marks the central watershed event in our national history. Is this not what Tony Horowitz advocates so eloquently in his recent Lincoln film? It took an enormous civil war that cost the lives of over 675.000 dead left an additional 400,000 wounded in order to emancipate 4,000,000 people in what was the largest governmental appropriation of private property until the Russian Revolution. Its legacies, just listed above, continue compounding the racial agonies of today. Little wonder that the vast majority of Americans believe that all the enslaved were black, their owners all white, and that slavery vanished forever in 1865. A mention of slavery today leads Americans to fasten instinctively on Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, Gettysburg, Martin Luther King, post-Katrina New Orleans, the “prison industrial complex”, the “achievement gap” reparations, Trevon Martin, and Barack Obama.

For this reason, today’s manacled woodcutters in Manaos Brazil or prostituted women trafficked in Bangkok and St. Louis are, to most Americans, unrecognizable as truly enslaved people. However, perspectives that historians can supply provide effective remedies for this “blindness.”

To demonstrate:

Imagine yourself caught in the following fantasy: You are obliged to speak on “the challenges of the new global slavery and the need for a new abolitionist movement” at Tougaloo College, Jackson Mississippi, and birthplace of the Freedom Riders Movement in the late 1950’s. Your audience is entirely black and they trace their genealogies to enslaved ancestors. What would you tell them?

You’d quickly realize that if you failed to connect the “new” slavery with the “old” your audience would conclude that the history they consider central to their lives and the slavery you want to talk about exist in separate universes. They might also suspect that you harbor certain racial insensitivities. Knowing this, you’d immediately address the obvious differences between “then’ and “now.” Wise decision.. You are about to demonstrate the power of African American history to illuminate the terrible realities of the new slavery.

On to your main points:

  1. The old slavery was legal, highly visible and widely considered a respectable practice. Abolitionists attacked it from close range and caused enormous controversy. Today’s slavery is illegal and universally condemned as morally indefensible. Having no public advocate for slavery, today’s abolitionists have no one to argue against. How can an abolitionist movement thrive in the absence of controversy?
  2. Back then slavery, in aggregate, constituted the nation’s second largest capital asset. Controversy over slavery involved incredibly high-stakes. Though enormously profitable, the enslaved today are treated as cheaply purchased “disposable people. Their labor has no visible impact on our formal economy. In today’s economic terms, who cares?
  3. Because of their skin color yesteryears’ enslaved were easy to distinguish. Though racism and ethnic hatred often motivates slaveholders today, slavery is involves so many races and ethnicities the enslaved themselves can be much harder to identify.
  4. Yesteryears’ enslaved troubled the white nation by rebelling, fleeing and becoming formidable abolitionists. Today’s enslaved are isolated, sequestered, seemingly quiescent and therefore all but invisible.
  5. Back then, slavery divided our nation. Abolitionists fought against geographically defined opponents and to the enslaved escaped from their masters across those same geographical boundaries. To day’s slavery is no respecter of boundaries. Traffickers and those they buy and sell across them remain out of sight. How can we fight for enslaved people if we cannot see them?

By contrasting the new slavery with the old you’ve just prescribed historical perspective as the cure for “blindness.” Your audience now can begin to understand why the enslaved today had until now, been so difficult for them to respond to empathetically. Your comparisons drawn from the African American experience also make manifest the deepest truth about slavery no matter its location, its historical chronology or its varied its manifestations. What is inescapable in every instance, past and present, is slavery’s detestable brutality and the categorical imperative to assist those ensnared in it..

Wrapping up your Tougaloo presentation, you address the “double barreled challenge” that undergirds the HAS mission– to sustain campus driven action against the new slavery and AND the consequences of the old. Recalling the profound influence of Civil Rights Movement on the ethical commitments of its founding scholars, you emphasize the fundamental conviction of HAS cited earlier: “A new abolitionist movement must combat the legacies of the old slavery as a central part of its mission. Otherwise it forfeits its ethical integrity and can never be truly effective in combating the new slavery.” This leads next the overlooked subject of the enslavement of African Americans after emancipation. Here there are striking similarities to bring forward between the enslavement of African- Americans after 1865 and so many forms of slavery today.

The emancipation of 4,000,000 people was incontestably an epoch-defining moment in African American history.

Yet as the work of Pete Daniels, David M. Oshinski and Douglas Blackmon document so graphically, former masters recreated slavery after 1865 by instituting brutalizing debt peonage and by trafficking fraudulently indicted African Americans as enslaved convict-lease laborers. These blatantly illegal practices ensnared tens of thousands and remained entrenched until the end of WW II. The most important point here is this—If transported back to the 1880’s today’s slave masters and human traffickers would instantly recognize exactly what their historical counterparts were up to and would eagerly join in. As it turns out, in many instances, enslavement today and the enslavement of African Americans in the post-Civil War South appear as close fraternal twins. This near- symmetry begins to make clear why HAS takes on the “double barreled” mission of opposing the legacies of the “old” slavery and combating the “new.”

The slavery of the post-emancipation South will seem sickeningly familiar to today’s antislavery activists. The repayment of impossible sums for services rendered is precisely what enslaving traffickers the world over demand from undocumented people after smuggling them across national borders. Because repayment is impossible, the penalty is enslavement for sexual exploitation and/or for brutalizing factory/farm labor. The Southern convict lease system lives on elsewhere because unscrupulous governments and private recruiters the world over enslave “guest workers” after luring them with promises of employment. What actually awaits them is enslavement in public works projects and private industries. Similarities multiply once one recalls that debt peonage (a word of Spanish origin) has paved the way for newer forms of enslavement the world over. It is no accident that the Central American nations, the British Caribbean Islands, Haiti and the Philippines, each a major exporter of “enslaveable” people today, has a significant history based in “old” slavery followed by decades of debt peonage. In China and India, of course, debt peonage enslaves millions, many of whom flee only to be re-enslaved elsewhere. Undocumented labor as a springboard to enslavement is hardly a closed chapter within the United States either. In Florida, for instance, exploitative fruit and vegetable growers have made that area infamous as (quoting the Justice department) “ground zero for slavery.” In light of all the foregoing, does the African American experience illuminate the plight of the enslaved today? Once again, the question answers itself.

We’ve hardly exhausted the topic of slavery in the United States since emancipation and its value as history in combating slavery today. How, for example, might the widespread enslavement if Indigenous North Americans before the twentieth century connects to the succession of atrocities that make today’s Indian Reservations epicenters of sexual enslavement? How might the history of slavery in the Far West, frequently labeled as “guest worker” and “coolie labor” programs, help account for the enslavement of undocumented immigrants today? How might late nineteenth century “white slavery” involving immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe illuminate our ongoing plague of sexual enslavement of women and children? Lacking space we return to post-Civil War convict lease system. Here lie the roots of our sprawling Prison Industrial Complex, the infamous system of incarcerated labor, overwhelmingly dark-skinned, where some of slavery’s ugliest legacies are impossible to ignore.

The Facts:

  • The United States today has 5% of the world’s population but incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners.
  • 1 in 106 white men, 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 15 black men are currently incarcerated.
  • White people make up 72% of illegal drug users and are eight times more numerous in the population than blacks. Yet black Americans incarcerated for drug violations outnumber whites 4:1 since whites convicted usually receive probation.
  • As crime rates have plummeted, incarceration rates have skyrocketed. The two largest private prison corporations post combined profits annually of close to $5 billion annually.
  • Imprisoned laborers averaging 25 cents per hour manufacture nearly all the clothing and other small scale items that outfit our armed forces and items for Victoria’s Secrets, Chevron, Boeing, IBM, Motorola, Honda, Toys R Us, Compaq, Dell, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macey’s Pierre Cardin, Target Stores and AT&T, to cite only some. Political Scientist Michelle Alexander lays all these facts bare in her highly disturbing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. (2010)

Is this slavery? While granting unequivocally that serious criminals need incarceration, HAS’s answer is yes, simply because conviction and sentencing rates are catastrophically biased against people of color. Judged by abolitionist Kevin Bales’s definition that slavery requires the “violent control of labor” it is clear that many of these inmates have been forcibly seized and incarcerated not for serious crimes, but for the raw monetary value of their dark-skinned bodies. But whatever one’s answer to the question of incarceration as enslavement, this massive revival of the convict lease system requires HAS to oppose it, to demand justice for those exploited by it and to work against the bigotry and avarice that sustain it.

Ann Terry Green Phillips, the formidable Boston abolitionist and wife of Wendell Phillips once enjoined her famous husband to step forward and take action: “Wendell! Don’t Shilly-Shally!” Historians Against Slavery takes her advice to heart. We revise syllabuses, sponsor and build networks of campus antislavery societies. We have redirected our research in order to build the emerging field of Modern Slavery and Antislavery Studies. We organize conferences and symposia, partner directly with on-the ground activist, collaborate with secondary school educators and inform the public at large. We are, in sum, abolitionists who have prepared themselves and who empower one another to face down the terrifying evil of slavery in our time.

This article was written by James Brewer Stewart (Founder of Historians Against Slavery) and James Wallace (Professor of History, Emeritus at Macalester College). All rights are reserved by Historians Against Slavery.