Exploring the legacy of slavery within American society

Liverpool University’s Centre for the Study of International Slavery (CSIS) – a joint venture with National Museums Liverpool – held its second annual lecture at the Dr Martin Luther King Jr Building in the Albert Dock, Liverpool, on the evening of 24 February 2015.

The guest speaker, Annette Gordon-Reed, a Professor of Law and History at Harvard University, is widely recognised as one of the most distinguished US presidential scholars. Annette earned a place in history with her 1997 book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: an American Controversy”. In 2008, Annette received the National Book Award and, in 2009, the Pulitzer Prize in History for the “Hemingses of Monticello: an American Family”; two years later she received the National Humanities Medal and was named a MacArthur Fellow.

That “history is a model enterprise” was a message Professor Gordon-Reed stressed to her audience. In a talk exploring the legacies of slavery within American society, she drew out this universal truth and the importance of engaging with difficult pasts when trying to understand present day trauma. Prof Gordon-Reed also examined contemporary concerns over African-American citizenship by investigating the paradoxical nature of American claims to be the “land of the free” as embodied by its founding father, Thomas Jefferson.

“All men are created equal”, a phrase penned by Jefferson in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, is one of the most iconic in the English language. It was the foundation upon which the United States of America was built; yet the country’s history has been characterized by racial discrimination and inequality. Professor Gordon-Reed argued that the conflict between Jefferson’s dual role as slave-owner and champion of freedom, set a precedent for the questions over black citizenship that remained to this very day.

Annette’s research into the Hemingses of Monticello, a family of enslaved people owned by Jefferson who fathered several children with Sally Hemings, was also discussed. Annette argued that while Jefferson’s personal behaviour might seem at odds with his comments on racial segregation, his objection to a multi-racial society was grounded in fear of the tensions and resentments generated by the systematic exploitation of enslaved people.

In a highly thought-provoking discourse, Prof Gordon-Reed drew a direct line from Jefferson’s fears, through the racial violence of the Jim Crow South to the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garden in Ferguson and New York.

Annette Gordon-Reed concluded by telling the audience of Liverpool University staff, scholars, students, alumni and members of the wider community, including the Rathbone Greenbank investment team and their clients, that slavery was a vital part of the “grand American narrative”. The follow-on question and answer session clearly challenged the audience to reconsider the links between past and present.