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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
"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
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
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
Trenton, 609-989-3027. "Slavery in the North: Family, Health,
and Medicine." Free with reservation. Sunday, February 22,
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