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EP 2: Know Your History - Slavery & Turning People into Property

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

Season: Foundations

Episode 2: Know Your History: Slavery & Turning People into Property

"Genealogical research into slavery is extremely difficult- there are no two ways to say that."

What resources can Black Americans use to trace their ancestry? Expert guest, Dr. Kathryn Olivarius covers this question within the context of one of the biggest obstacles facing those looking to trace their African ancestry: slavery.

American slavery was a system of oppression that paradoxically built America, Land of the Free, on the backs of enslaved humans. Stripping a people of their humanity was the only way to propel such a brutal system. Because of this dehumanization, traditional archival records (e.g., census data, marriage certificates, and more) are nearly impossible to locate for most enslaved people. Those documents either did not exist or did not include humanizing details, like accurate names. Thus, their descendants must turn to other sources to find their ancestors, such as bill of sale records.

To contextualize the conundrums presented by slavery, this episode examines the peculiar institution in three ways:

  • first - we discuss the evolution of American slave laws to demonstrate the intention of the society to make slavery race-based, permanent, and inheritable;

  • second - we will discuss the importance that slavery had on the American economy as slave-racial capitalism shaped the nation; and

  • third - we will expose the fragility of a race-based system of oppression and reveal the toll it takes on a society.

Episode Resources:

  • Case Law: Morrison v. White; Scott v. Sanford; Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman.

  • What States Produced the Most Presidents?

  • Diary of Mary Chesnut - plantation mistress diary

  • Olaudah Equiano - African writer, abolitionist, kidnapped from modern-day Nigeria and sold into slavery

  • Loren Schweninger, "Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery," William and Mary Quarterly 71, No. 1 (January 2014): 35-62.

  • Kathryn Olivarius, "Immunity, Capital, and Power in Antebellum New Orleans," American Historical Review 124, no. 2 (April 2019): 425-455.

Dr. Kathryn Olivarius

Assist. Prof. of History, Stanford University

"I am an historian of nineteenth-century America, interested primarily in the antebellum South, Greater Caribbean, slavery, and disease.

My research seeks to understand how epidemic yellow fever disrupted Deep Southern society. Nearly every summer, this mosquito-borne virus killed up to ten percent of the urban population. But it also generated culture and social norms in its fatal wake. Beyond the rigid structures of race and unfreedom in Deep Southern society, I argue there was alternate, if invisible, hierarchy at work, with acclimated' (immune) people at the top and a great mass of 'unacclimated' (non-immune) people awaiting their brush with yellow fever languishing in social and professional purgatory. About half of all people died in the acclimating process."

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Hi Cha. Loved episode 2. You referenced the case of John Punch, fairly early in the pod. His actual family name was Bunch (b’s and p’s were somewhat interchangeable at that time). When you mentioned the good number of slave and racial casting laws later in the pod, it would have been interesting to mention the case of John Bunch and Sarah Sladen in 1705. This John Bunch was the great grandson of the first John Bunch whose punishment was a “contract for life” and whom you talk about in the episode. His great grandson was a free person of color and the family was fairly wealthy. The Slayden family was new to Virginia and very wealthy. Virginia has just…

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