I recently asked students in my US History course whether they believed Wisconsin had slaves. Of twenty-two students, fourteen predicted the Badger state did at some point in time have slaves and eight did not. One student correctly predicted that I would not ask such a question to the class if it was not true. Touché, young wise-one.
Yes, Wisconsin did have slaves. We spent the class investigating online sources to determine when, how many, their origin, their owners and type of life and work these northern slaves endured. We were surprised by our findings. We found that between 1725-1840, there were somewhere between 100-250 slaves within the area now known as Wisconsin. French and English officials owned slaves but most were brought in by southern owners. Even one of Wisconsin’s founding fathers, Henry Dodge, owned slaves. A large concentration of slaves worked in the mining region located in southwest Wisconsin but there is little that we gleaned to indicate how slaves lived. This history when combined with the state’s better known abolitionist roots and pioneer black communities presents some interesting classroom questions that we will continue after Christmas break.
I shared this question of local slavery with my class to augment a small textbook section on slavery but also because of the important work that Joe McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project in South Carolina has done to preserve slave dwellings and their memory. Joe’s blog, lectures and website show the importance of structures and place to remembering the story or slavery in the United States. I am very excited that students taking part in the 2014 MUHS Civil War Adventure will be spending three days with Joe. Our group will sleep in two sets of actual slave quarters and in the Old Charleston Jail. It will truly be an once in a life time experience for the group.
During the spring semester I plan to dive deeper into the story of Wisconsin slaves so our summer group can compare as best we can the life of slaves, North and South, and how they are remembered in each region. I expect there is no built memory of slavery remaining in Wisconsin but the place/landscape remains and a group of students and I plan on visiting as many of these locations as we can locate. One question I asked the students is whether the lack of any “built” reminder detracts from the memory of a place or landscape? What do you think?