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Slavery in, Yes, the North

This article by Phyllis Maguire was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 18, 1998. All rights reserved.

It is important, cautions Susan Klepp, to remember

that black history — being celebrated throughout the nation this

month — didn’t end in the 18th century. "In the face of all

this tragedy," says Klepp, a professor of American history and

women’s studies at Rider University, "African Americans managed

to preserve some of their culture and family ties. Many of them, in

the midst of serious deprivation, did succeed. Slavery has its


and heroic aspects, as well as its horror." It is a perspective

she has tried to maintain through years of research. Her program,

"Slavery in the North: Family, Health, and Medicine," will

be presented at the William Trent House in Trenton on Sunday, February

22, at 2 p.m.

Klepp has always felt a fascination for the 18th century. There were

no eminent historians nor heirlooms in her family, and her keen


in the American Revolution wasn’t fostered during her childhood in

Chicago, hundreds of miles from the nearest Revolutionary War site.

"Perhaps it was a trip to Williamsburg that jelled the interest

I always had," she says.

A professor at Rider for over 20 years, Klepp graduated from Simpson

College in Iowa, earning a Ph.D. in American civilization from the

University of Pennsylvania in 1980. She is president of the


Historical Association and sits on the executive board of the


Center for Early American Studies at University of Pennsylvania.


extensively in books and journals, Klepp is the author of the


"The Diary and Artistry of Hannah Callendar Sansom" with Karin

Wulf, and of "The Infortunate: The Voyage and Adventures of


Moraley, An Indentured Servant" with Billy G. Smith. She lives

in Philadelphia where her husband, Phillip Rush, is an attorney; her

son is a junior at Kenyon College and her daughter a sophomore at

Abington Friends.

"I’ve spent my academic life looking at people who aren’t in


books, using quantitative methods like censuses and hospital records.

I first wanted to get an understanding of women’s lives, which led

me to different groups of poor people, artisans, and African


I look at many facets of 18th-century America, and slavery is one

of them." Klepp is one of a growing number of historians who have

begun to re-write one of America’s darkest chapters.

"Around the turn of the century, there was a flurry of interest

in slavery among historians," she says. "Much of that had

to do with the aftermath of the Civil War. Books published then


the South as pure evil and the North as benevolent, citing how


Northerners treated their slaves and how righteous we were to set

them all free. Now people view the issue with very different eyes

and see that slavery was just as harsh an institution here."

The civil rights movement, says Klepp, was crucial in revitalizing

— and revamping — an interest in black history. "Black

historians did a fine job pointing out to their white colleagues that

the prejudice in general society had seeped into the historical


shaping and misshaping what we thought we knew about the past."

Another component was the rise of women’s studies and "living

history" programs, ongoing attempts to fathom the lives of people

who left no written records.

One aspect of "living history" that has had

a public impact is research into the homes of historical figures —

like Thomas Jefferson and Monticello — and their families.


Manor has researched the slaves and servants living there," Klepp

says. "I recently took part in an Historic Hudson Valley


that looked at the enslaved and artisanal populations, people who

worked at the great houses and had to survive." One of those


homes, now Trenton’s oldest building, belonged to William Trent. What

will be the site of Klepp’s talk on Sunday was home to 11 slaves —

six men, one woman, three boys, and a girl named Nanny — listed

by their first names and market values in a 1726 estate inventory

made after the death of William Trent.

Born in Scotland, Trent was a prominent Philadelphia merchant who

trafficked in tobacco, flour, furs, rum, and slaves. In 1714, he


1,600 acres at the Falls of the Delaware River, purportedly


Scottish architect James Portues to design the Georgian brick building

that has since been restored to much of its original plan. In what

was predominantly wilderness, Trent laid out a settlement he called

"Trent’s Town," replacing the wooden mill established by


slaveholder Mahlon Stacy over the Assunpink with a stone one and


two more.

Though the estate was intended to be their summer residence, Trent

and his family permanently relocated in 1721; it is rumored he owed

considerable sums in Philadelphia, and since there was no extradition

between colonies, a move across the Delaware would erase his debt.

He served two years as Chief Justice of New Jersey and died of


apoplexy on Christmas Day, 1724. Thirteen years later, two Africans

were arrested for attempting to convince other slaves to poison their

masters. They allegedly cited as proof of the efficacy of their


poison — a combination of arsenic and "an unknown root"

— the deaths of William Trent and, later, of two of his sons.

If Trent and his sons were poisoned by slaves, they were only a few

of what Klepp calls, "a whole body of poisoning cases, in New

Jersey in particular." Slaves made up five to nine percent of

New Jersey’s population in the early 18th century; that figure hovered

near 16 percent in Burlington County, which included Trenton,


to a 1745 census. But "northern New Jersey in particular and parts

of southern New Jersey invested heavily in slavery," Klepp says.

"There were counties in New Jersey where enslaved populations

were as dense as any Southern colony." Even in areas with fewer

slaves, Klepp found no indication the institution was benign. Her

research on slavery in the North leads her to much grimmer


"Even though fewer Northerners owned slaves than Southerners,

it was harder here on enslaved people. In the South, where there might

be several hundred slaves on one plantation, they could form a


with fairly stable families. In the North, where it was very unusual

for slave owners to own more than a couple of slaves, slaves were

much more isolated. It was harder for husbands and wives to live


and for parents to keep children within a family group. Slavery in

the North stripped slaves of that basic human contact and, in that

sense, it was harsher."

Another cherished myth concerns the benevolence of masters who, the

theory goes, treated slaves decently to protect their investment.

Not so, says Klepp, who thinks slaveholders needed to preserve class

distinctions more than protect property. "People lived in very

small houses where there wasn’t much room, nor was there the kind

of material wealth available today," she says. "Whites had

to enforce power relationships within very small groups. They did

so by dressing slaves in rags, housing them in outbuildings or attics

or cellars, deliberately feeding them bad or spoiled food. All of

these factors helped produce the very poor health we see in Northern

slave populations."

A meager and starchy diet led to what Klepp calls, "high rates

of illnesses, particularly of diseases like tuberculosis. Research

also shows very high levels of vitamin D deficiencies among Northern

African Americans." Poor health was accompanied by much less,

not more, medical attention. Studying several decades’ worth of


from Pennsylvania Hospital in the mid-1700s, Klepp found much higher

death rates for African Americans than for whites. "It appears

masters waited until their slaves were on death’s door before they

took them to the hospital, delaying treatment until it was too


This disparity in medical treatment between blacks and whites


persists today; last month, the Federal Centers for Disease Control

and Prevention reported a widening gap in the incidence and treatment

of diabetes, asthma, infectious diseases, and several forms of cancer.

Death records for the city of Philadelphia, another of Klepp’s primary

sources, bear out that fatal distinction. "Death statistics don’t

give individual voices or personal reactions, but they do describe

material circumstances. And death rates for blacks in Philadelphia

during the 18th century were 50 percent higher than for whites. The

work I’ve done with health records has been largely confirmed by


at the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, one of whom said they’ve

discovered very old skeletons — but no old people. The remains

indicate very aged people, with arthritis and many injuries, yet they

are the skeletons of people who died in their 20s and 30s."

Klepp has also scrutinized medical journals and individual doctor’s

records — and travelers’ accounts, "which tend to be a very

rich source. People passing through a region notice daily life in

a way the people living there don’t. But when you find black voices

in the 18th century, they have often been taken down by whites,


through the prejudice or ignorance of the person recording the


It is not until the 19th century that we really get writings from

actual slaves, and those are very valuable."

Assailed by devastating conditions and denied medical treatment,


Americans tended to one another and made significant contributions

to American medicine. "We have records of slaves teaching whites

about smallpox inoculations and feeding lime juice to smallpox


We now know that lime juice has vitamin C, which is necessary for

the body’s recovery. That was an African practice that was brought


Snakeroot — the plant used in poisonings — was significant

pharmacologically. Klepp thinks Africans found related plants here

with similar properties to roots used in Africa, or that snakeroot

was brought to America by sailors. "Ship crews at that time would

frequently be of mixed race," she says. "It would have been

very common for sailors to have a medicine chest with native


While snakeroot could be given in lethal doses, "it was an


that proved to be very valuable against tuberculosis, and it was used

into this century." Six different plants entered American


based on African practices. "The contribution of African medicine

is a subject that remains largely unexplored, but it was considerable


The number of Northern slaves decreased in the 18th century as white

indentured servants became the cheap labor of choice; since they


purchased outright, they proved to be more economical. And ideological

opposition to slavery intensified during the Revolutionary War.


was when many Americans put two and two together and realized the

virtuous new country they were fighting for was an illusion if slavery

survived," Klepp says. "But there still was considerable


investment. Where that investment was high, attachment to the


remained strong." After the Revolution, different Northern states

enacted laws that mandated not emancipation, but slavery’s gradual

abolition. Such a provision was passed in New Jersey during the first

decade of the 19th century. It was the last of the Northern states

to do so.

"Gradual abolition freed no slaves who were alive when the act

passed. Slaves born after passage would be freed after working

a number of years. How many depended on the state; in some states,

differences were assessed between men and women. But generally they

were expected to work for their masters between 18 and 28 years."

Klepp points out that, with a life expectancy of about 40 years, many

African Americans born after the passage of gradual abolition spent

their lives as slaves. "Many masters did free slaves more quickly

than the law provided, so slavery was pretty much gone by 1800 in

the North," she says. "Yet many African Americans then became

indentured. They got technical freedom but they were still bound


sometimes to their former masters. You could go to a brokerage and

they still could be bought and sold."

Indentureship for blacks and whites continued to destroy families.

"In the 19th century, there was a large job market for black women

in cities as domestics and laundresses — but there weren’t any

jobs for men. Black men moved to the country as agricultural laborers,

leaving a preponderance of black women in urban areas. You see the

same inability to maintain families as during slavery because of


occupational opportunities. Even in freedom, African Americans in

the North faced substantial disabilities."

And where were those last pockets of slavery in New Jersey? Says


"A few years ago, I gave a course at Rider on the history of


where the university is located. Students looking through the town’s

manuscript census found two slaves living in Lawrenceville — in

1860. Evil survived in the North that long."

— Phyllis B. Maguire

Susan Klepp, William Trent House, 15 Market Street,

Trenton, 609-989-3027. "Slavery in the North: Family, Health,

and Medicine." Free with reservation. Sunday, February 22,

2 p.m.

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