NORTH ADAMS -- To understand how late 19th century prominent mill owners in North Berkshire were complacent with building their textile empires through investments in the southern slave trade, one must understand the underlying racism in New England, according to author and historian Gene Dattel.
"The question I continuously ask throughout my book, "Cotton and Race in the Making of America," is what did people think about slavery and what did they think about black people? For example, Ben Franklin was an abolitionist at the end of his life, but he also wrote that a national police force should be created to control the black populations and that blacks should be trained only to perform the lowest of jobs," Dattel said during a lecture, hosted by Brill Gallery Productions, on local connections to the slave trade at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Church Street Center on Wednesday.
While slavery was eventually abolished in New England, the region’s complicity with slavery in the south was both tied to white attitudes toward blacks and profits from textile manufacturing, he said.
"Cotton knitted this country together -- from 1803 to 1937 it was our greatest export," Dattel said. "About 35 to 40 percent of the profits from cotton ended up in New York City, which was known as the capital of the south before the Civil War. Most people don’t know that New York City was a huge international slave trading market -- slaves weren’t sold there, but it financed ships that went to Africa and then sold the slaves in places like Brazil."
Industrialists like Albert C. Houghton, owner of the Arnold Print Works and the city’s first mayor, and the Plunkett family in Adams, who owned the Berkshire Cotton Mfg. Co., weren’t alone in the practice of supporting southern slave practices through financial investments.
"Once cotton left the black hands that picked it and entered the ledger book, it was sanitized. The biggest manufacturer of the cotton gin was Bridgewater. ... There were a lot of places in the north doing business with that environment," Dattel said. "This was also a time when charity became philanthropy and a lot of these industrialists donated funds to their communities. I’m sure this college was started with money that was made off of cotton."
One audience member questioned how connections between slavery and New England were being made -- such as last year’s revelations that Harvard University and Brown University had received funds from New England slave owners -- when records had reportedly been expunged.
"How much documentation is available?" he asked.
Ralph Brill, director of Brill Gallery Productions, said that while it is known that most documents in Massachusetts and Rhode Island were burned, that information has surfaced in letters and papers found by descendants.
"We’re hoping some [graduate] students will take this issue up and do some research," he said.
Dattel said "historical amnesia" isn’t uncommon.
"Historical amnesia requires a scapegoat, and the south is the scapegoat," he said. "But at the same time, we need to understand that New England was fundamentally complacent with slavery in the south. Nobody in this region was saying ‘I don’t want to buy your cotton.’ In terms of the south still having those records, they were commercial transactions. It was about power and grandiosity there."
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