Agitation and Activism: The Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass

Freedom Center Voices
February 14, 2021

Agitation and Activism: The Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born enslaved in or around 1818 on Maryland’s eastern shore. As is the case with many enslaved people, Douglass was unsure of his exact date of birth. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Douglass writes:

“I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.”

It was after Douglass escaped enslavement in 1838 that he chose his own birth date—February 14th. Later in the 20th century, historian and “Father of Black History” Carter G. Woodson timed his annual “Negro History Week” (the predecessor of Black History Month) to the second week of February to honor the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

So, in honor of Black History Month, let’s examine one of America’s most famous—and my personal favorite— abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

Early Life

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (the name of his mother), Douglass was separated from his mother as an infant. He lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey until he was “hired out” to work in the home of Hugh Auld in Baltimore. It was while in Baltimore that Douglass was able to teach himself how to read and write based off of lessons he observed from some of the poor, white children in the area. He then began to teach other enslaved people how to read, teaching lessons every Sunday.

Douglass circa 1847-52, around his early 30s. Image source: Samuel J. Miller; American, 1822-1888 - Art Institute of Chicago

At one point, Douglass recounted teaching up to 40 enslaved people from neighboring plantations how to read. When his owner, Thomas Auld, learned what Douglass was doing, he was sold to Edward Covey, a slave owner and farmer with a reputation for brutal treatment of enslaved peoples. Douglass was roughly 16 at the time and later wrote that he was “broken in body, soul, and spirit.”

Escape From Slavery

Douglass attempted to escape slavery twice before finally succeeding in 1838. After his second attempt, he was arrested and sent to Baltimore by his master to work in the city’s shipyards. Douglass became determined to reach New York and ultimately, freedom. He later wrote, “I felt assured that if I failed in this attempt, my case would be a hopeless one—it would seal my fate as a slave forever.”

Yet his case wasn’t hopeless. With the knowledge he gained from working on the shipyard for two years, Douglass was able to disguise himself as a free Black sailor. Armed with a uniform and a sailor’s protection pass that could substitute for “free papers,” Douglass jumped aboard a moving train headed north from the Baltimore and Ohio railroad station. Despite the many obstacles he faced, Douglass arrived safely in New York nearly 24 hours after leaving Baltimore. Abolitionist and anti-slavery activist David Ruggles sheltered Douglass until Anna Murray, Douglass’ soon-to-be wife, met him in Baltimore. Murray was a free Black housekeeper Douglas met while enslaved by the Aulds. It wasn’t long before the couple married and would go on to have five children over the span of their marriage.

Anna Murray Douglass, 1860. Image source: Rosetta Douglass Sprague, "My Mother As I Recall Her," 1900.

The Birth of Activism: Abolitionist Years

Soon after Douglass and Murray were married, the couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The couple met Nathan and Mary Johnson there, a freed married couple. The Johnsons inspired the couple to adopt the new surname of Douglass after a character from the Sir Walter Scott poem, The Lady of the Lake.

Douglass became active in the abolitionist movement during their time in New Bedford. He attended anti-slavery meetings that connected him to a variety of notable abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison. Upon hearing Douglass’ story of enslavement, Garrison encouraged him to share his story with others in the community.

Douglass did so and by 1843 he was one of the many abolitionists involved in the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” project, a six-month tour through the United States. Along the stops of the tour, Douglass was repeatedly attacked by pro-slavery supporters. One incident in Pendleton, Indiana left Douglass with a broken hand; the injury never fully healed and impacted the function of his hand for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless, a determined Douglass continued to travel and share his experiences with others. In 1845, Douglass traveled to Ireland and Great Britain to speak about American slavery. He also published the first and most famous of his three autobiography’s that year—Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Within four months of its release, nearly 5,000 copies were sold and six new editions were published between 1845 and 1849. Douglass would go on to write two other autobiographies—My Bondage and My Freedom (1881) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892).

When he returned to the United States from England in 1847, Douglass began publishing an abolitionist newspaper called The North Star. Sold by a subscription fee of $2, The North Star acquired more than 4,000 readers in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean before merging with the Liberty Party Paper in 1851.

Activism for All: Douglass’s Role in the Women’s Suffrage Movement

In addition to Douglass’ work as an anti-slavery advocate, he was also a staunch supporter of the women’s movement. At the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, he was one of only a handful of men in attendance and the only African American present. In fact, it was Douglass who persuaded the convention to support Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s resolution asking for women’s suffrage.

“In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”

— Frederick Douglass, Seneca Falls Convention, 1848


Douglass continued to support the cause of women’s suffrage throughout his life, even after many suffragists abandoned the idea of universal suffrage with the passage of the 15th Amendment.

The Great Agitator and the Civil War

During the American Civil War, Douglass found his pivotal role in agitation and activism. He continued to pressure politicians for the full emancipation of enslaved individuals. In fact, Douglass’ constant agitation of President Abraham Lincoln helped usher in the terms of the emancipation to come. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the document which ensured freedom to those enslaved living in the South. In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation had no legal standing, as the states in secession no longer recognized the authority of the United States. However, the document did what Douglass had been encouraging Lincoln to do since the eve of his election—send a message that the Civil War will not be won until all are free.

Douglass believed that African Americans, both formerly enslaved and legally freed, had a moral obligation to join the Union Army and fight for the cause against slavery. Because of this, he was a strong proponent of allowing African American troops to serve in the Union Army. Douglass served himself as a recruiter for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment—the second African American regiment in the Civil War.

Douglass spent the remainder of the war traveling around the North, encouraging African Americans to enlist with the Union Army. His efforts did not go unnoticed. In total, African Americans made up 10% of the Union Army, with numbers totaling close to 200,000.

Later Life and Legacy

During Reconstruction, Douglass served in many positions within the U.S. government including a stint as president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank. In 1889, President Harrison appointed him to the posts of “Minister-Resident and Consul-General to the Republic of Haiti” and “Chargé d'Affaires for the Dominican Republic.” This made Douglass the first Black man to hold “high office” in the United States.

In 1882, his wife of 44 years, Anna, died after battling a long-time illness. Two years later, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white suffragist and abolitionist twenty years his junior who served as his secretary. The controversial couple were married for 11 years until his death, traveling extensively around Europe in 1886 and 1887.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center). Image Source: National Park Service.

Frederick Douglass died of a heart attack on the evening of February 20, 1895 after attending a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C. Throughout his life, Douglass remained a vigilant activist, agitator and supporter of human rights. In the 1907 biography on Frederick Douglass, scholar and African American historian Booker T. Washington says of Douglass:

“While it is true that Frederick Douglass would have been a notable character in any period, it is also true that in the life of hardly any other man was there comprehended so great a variety of incidents of what is perhaps the most memorable epoch in our history.”

Katie Bramell, Director of Museum Experiences
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Katie’s passion is sharing the untold stories of history, and she loves to think of new, creative ways to engage museum visitors. She is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University (Masters of Public History) and the University of Central Missouri (Bachelors of History). Her primary fields of study include the Underground Railroad, human rights, and early 20th century American History.

Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part II

Freedom Center Voices
January 25, 2021

Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part II

“In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”

Matthew Desmond, 1619 Project

The above quote crystalizes the idea that, while racial slavery was abolished in the 19th century, many aspects of that system continue to shape our economy if not also persist under different names. In this second blog post for Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I emphasize the importance of explicitly connecting the past and present when it comes to worker’s rights and the persistence of unfree labor.

Why does this connection matter? When human trafficking is treated as a new (and distinctly different) problem from historical slavery, we can lose touch with how the demise of slavery continues to shape economic and social relations. As a result, we move further away from reckoning with the living legacies of slavery as central to contemporary social justice struggles. The reality is we are still very much living in a world shaped by the African slave trade and European colonialism.

While much has changed since the 16th and even the 19th centuries, there continues to be an enduring and evolving reliance on unfree and low-wage labor. This is particularly obvious in the legacy industries of plantation slavery like the agricultural sector. In the U.S., this reliance started in the slave-based economies of the past and transformed as the institution of chattel slavery was formally abolished. While it became illegal to trade and own people, it was not illegal to expect that certain forms of labor be done for very little pay and under a certain degree of coercion. For example, Southern white land-owners in particular did not want to give up the economic benefits of unfree labor, although industry in the north also was dependent on repressed commodity prices made possible by that same labor. The challenge was how to rebrand unfree labor as something other than slavery. Consequently, new categories of labor and labor contracts emerged in order to feed the demand for unfree and low-wage labor. It is crucial we remember that the continued under-valuing and de-valuing of the racialized labor once performed by Black slaves is a legacy of African slavery.

New Systems, Similar Results

An example of a new labor category was the convict lease system used by local governments, white farmers and corporations. The system essentially replicated a slave labor force by using so-called Black Codes (in effect anti-Black codes) to incriminate newly freed African Americans for anything from walking on the “wrong” side of the train tracks to vagrancy and unemployment. Many are familiar with the impact of the Black Codes on the ongoing criminalization of Black life in America, especially in regard to policing and sentencing.

When we consider how anti-Black racism has contributed to the over-incarceration of African Americans in the U.S. prison system, it is not hard to see how a form of convict leasing still operates today. Prison labor is a multi-billion dollar industry, and while different from the convict leasing system in important ways, it is still the one loop-hole in the 13th Amendment that technically allows for slave labor. Incarcerated workers can receive important training and job skills, but they are one of the most vulnerable and exploitable work forces in our system. They are asked to fight fires, make PPE during a pandemic, and recycle waste yet are frequently unable to set the terms of their labor contracts. Furthermore, the impact of incarceration on someone’s prospects for work once they are released is still highly detrimental, from wage decreases to outright refusal to be hired. Some businesses and municipalities are “banning the box” as a way to advance the rights of formerly incarcerated people.

Convict Leasing of Children, 1903, Library of Congress, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, another dimension of that legacy is the ongoing racialization (and criminalization) of select laborers including non-white and migrant workers. U.S. immigration law has a long history of racism and abuse that is relevant to understanding the enduring legacies of slavery here and globally. While systems of migrant labor contracts existed before slavery was outlawed, our dependance on migrant and immigrant labor significantly deepened after emancipation.

Along with increased demand for cheap labor, there were shifting rationalizations for why certain ethnic groups were “better” able to perform certain jobs. These rationalizations were used to validate migrant labor contract systems (such as the Bracero program) which also gave legitimacy to repressing wages. It was harder to reduce the wages of white farmworkers than non-white and non-U.S. citizen workers. Thus, it benefited the farm owners and corporations to have low-wage migrant laborers. At the same time, migrant and immigrant workers were subject to virulent racist backlash both in their local communities and from the federal government. The Chinese Exclusion Act is an early example of that backlash and its impact is still evident today with examples of anti-Asian racism. Another example is the criminalization of immigrants, migrants and refugees from Central and Latin America and Mexico.

The struggle for farmworker’s rights has a long and vibrant history in the United States that intersects with other civil rights movements, including Black freedom struggles and Indigenous rights movements. While recent attention to human trafficking has increased awareness of the essential yet often vulnerable labor of farmworkers, it is important to contextualize these more recent anti-trafficking efforts in this broader history because migrant farmworker activism is and has been the primary engine behind advancing worker’s rights in the agricultural sector. From the coalition of Mexican and Filipino American workers who led a nation-wide strike of grape growers in Delano, California in 1965 and birthed the modern farmworker movement, to the recent Fair Food boycott of fast food chains who refuse to ensure migrant farmworker rights on tomato farms, farmworker-led organizations are essential to abolishing unfree labor. This context also is important because as attention has grown in the U.S  for what is called “domestic trafficking” (a term used to describe sex trafficking of U.S. citizens and legal residents) and cast as “modern day slavery” “in our own backyard” attention has turned away from an injustice that has long been in our own backyards – the exploitation of migrant and immigrant labor.

Source: Coalition for Immokalee Workers

It is vitally important that anti-trafficking efforts recognize the connections between unfree labor and the history of slave economies and racist immigration laws. When human trafficking is treated as a contemporary aberration rather than as intertwined in the legacies and endurance of old systems, then efforts to advance human rights may in fact undermine them. As we learned from Silvia Perez and Uriel Zelaya-Perez of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers during our webinar on January 22, human trafficking and slave-like conditions exist on a spectrum of labor exploitation including wage theft and gender-based violence. We must address the entire spectrum in order to create a more just and equitable food system and one that does not operate in the long shadow of African slavery. This is relevant more than ever as we depend on farmworkers as essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. They risk their lives in order to ensure food stays on our tables. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers as well as the Ohio-based Justice for Migrant Women have COVID-relief campaigns for farmworkers. Supporting farmworker-led organizations is one of the most important ways to fight human trafficking.

Read Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part I

Dr. Jennifer Suchland (she/her) is an associate professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality and the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures and our 2020-2021 Scholar-in-Residence. Her research, teaching, and activism are focused on critical human rights, intersectional and transnational feminism, and the intersection of law and culture. She is an avid gardener, loves to cook, bike, and go hiking with her friends and family. You can find her work online and on Twitter @mightykale.

Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part I

Freedom Center Voices
January 11, 2021

Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part I

"This month, we rededicate ourselves to stopping one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time. Around the world, millions of men, women, and children are bought, sold, beaten, and abused, locked in compelled service and hidden in darkness. They toil in factories and fields; in brothels and sweatshops; at sea, abroad, and at home. They are the victims of human trafficking – a crime that amounts to modern-day slavery. As Americans, we have long rejected such cruelty. We have recognized it as a debasement of our common humanity and an affront to the principles we cherish.  And for more than a century, we have made it a national mission to bring slavery and human trafficking to an end."

— President Barack Obama, speech in 2010

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 2010, President Barack Obama issued his own proclamation declaring the month of January “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.” President Obama’s speech, quoted above, crystallized a rhetorical and ethical link between transatlantic slavery and “modern day slavery.” He also connected the history of abolishing chattel slavery with the contemporary fight against human trafficking. These are powerful connections, and they illustrate how the historical struggle to abolish slavery is called on to amplify political and public concern for human trafficking today.

Connections or Tensions?

However, drawing equivalence between historical slavery and human trafficking can be problematic too. The comparison implies that the historical enslavement of Africans is only relevant today as an analogy for something else. Moreover, the growth in attention and resources to combat human trafficking have not brought greater awareness to the enduring and evolving legacies of chattel slavery, including cultural and institutionalized forms of anti-Black racism on African Americans. Yet, the historical fight to abolish slavery is often used to give ethical gravitas to the work of anti-trafficking. This unevenness begs the question, “What are the connections between human trafficking and the legacies of slavery?”

There is an urgency to that question because of unremitting anti-Black violence perpetuated by routine police shootings, the criminalization of Black life, and the system-wide failure of the criminal “justice” system. The struggles against that violence reached a fever pitch this past summer and the outrage continues as white supremacy is validated even at the highest levels of political office. What connections are there between these struggles and the issue of human trafficking?

Source: Nicole Baster via Unsplash

In the spirit of human trafficking awareness month, I delve into two connections that raise the important if not also thorny issues for aligning the struggle against human trafficking and the ongoing struggles for racial justice. In Part I of this series, I address the problematic issue of how anti-trafficking efforts often align with, rather than challenge, racial violence. In Part II, I discuss the legacy of slave economies on unfree and exploited agricultural labor. These topics also are the focus of two virtual conversations organized by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and for which I will be a guest host. Join us for these live conversations!

Carceral Human Rights

There has long been a human rights deficit at the center of anti-trafficking. The problem is that the criminal legal system is used as the primary mechanism for combating human trafficking. While human trafficking should be against the law, anti-trafficking strategies are narrowly focused on what scholars and activists call a “carceral” approach to human rights. A carceral approach heavily relies on policing and the criminal legal system to promote human rights. As a result, a carceral approach brings considerable collateral damage because “human rights” are marshalled to reinforce and intensify the policing, surveillance, and arresting of populations who are already over-policed, surveilled and incarcerated – Black folks, Indigenous people, people of color, immigrants, and folks facing financial and housing insecurity. Moreover, carceral human rights assume that justice for the victim/survivor hinges primarily on adjudicating the harm of trafficking and not also addressing systemic racism, poverty, heteropatriarchy, transphobia and white supremacy.

It also should be noted that prosecuting trafficking is very difficult. Arrest rates for trafficking may go up with awareness, but prosecution rates remain relatively low. Ultimately, while a difficult truth to swallow, anti-trafficking agendas today implicitly support systems of oppression and violence endemic to policing, border control, prisons, and detention centers.

Criminalizing Survivors

The incarceration of survivors of gender and sexual violence is routinely ignored if not silenced in mainstream anti-trafficking organizations. Yet, it is evident from the struggle to free Joanne Little in the 1970s to the recent mobilization for Bresha Meadows that women, girls and femmes who are Black, Indigenous, immigrant or people of color are more likely to be criminalized for having defended themselves from gender-based violence. This is especially the case for queer, non-binary, and trans folks whose experiences often are erased in mainstream social justice efforts. Organizations such as Survived & Punished, a national coalition of survivors, organizers, victim advocates experts and formerly incarcerated people are advocating for the decriminalization of “efforts to survive domestic and sexual violence, support and free criminalized survivors, and abolish gender violence, policing, prisons, and deportations.” Anti-trafficking organizations are often silent about the incarceration of survivors, yet their work reinforces a policing and legal system that criminalizes BIPOC women and girls. Thus, connecting anti-trafficking to the decarceration of self-defense and survival is a critical way that advocates can re-focus their attention to forge a racial justice mission in the work of combating human trafficking.

The recent granting of clemency to Alexis Martin in Ohio is an example of how anti-trafficking organizations can re-direct. Ms. Martin was charged in a murder at the age of 17 and was only 15 when the events occurred. Her attorney did not seek protection under Ohio’s Safe Harbor Law (a law that grants protection for juveniles involved in potential sex trafficking). The fact that she was treated as an adult in the case illustrates the insidious power of racialized gender biases that contribute to higher rates of incarceration for girls of color. In particular, Black girls are treated as adults and thus not given the “benefit of the doubt” of being innocent. This case is an example of why anti-trafficking organizations should advocate for criminalized survivors. Beyond that, anti-trafficking strategies need to more directly take-on anti-racism and anti-oppression work as central to trafficking prevention which includes a broad agenda for the decarceration of survival strategies including consensual sexual labor.

Artwork by Amanda Maisel (#FreeSurvivors: Make Art for Abolition)

Re-evaluating Risk

It is often remarked that anyone can be a victim of trafficking but that some groups are more “at risk” than others. Yet, this understanding of risk treats the problem of trafficking as something that is best (or primarily) addressed at the individual rather than structural level. This is glaringly evident in the case of trafficking and sexual and gender violence against Indigenous women and girls. Indeed, treating Indigenous women and girls as a “high risk” group does little to address the root causes of oppression including the ongoing effects of U.S. colonialism on Indigenous and Native tribes and peoples.  According to legal scholar and advocate Sarah Deer, colonialism introduced rape as a war tactic against Indigenous peoples. For example, the Sioux Uprising in 1862 was related to the failure of the encroaching white settler state to investigate the sexual mistreatment of Indian women by white men. That history finds a contemporary manifestation in the fact that tribal courts do not have full jurisdiction to prosecute or enact tribal-centric resolutions to gender and sexual violence on tribal lands when non-Natives are the perpetrators. This means that non-Native perpetrators do not answer for their crimes.


Anti-trafficking agendas should align more directly with Indigenous-centered approaches to gender violence that seek to restore and protect tribal sovereignty as the best protection from/remedy for human trafficking. That means that the problem of trafficking cannot be disentangled from the problem of colonial sexual violence. Similarly, the risk factors for exploitation are connected to structural forms of oppression that have roots in historical slavery and colonialism. But there is much that anti-trafficking agendas can do to be in the service of social justice including looking beyond carceral human rights.

Read Human Trafficking Awareness Month: Making Connections to Social Justice Part II

Dr. Jennifer Suchland (she/her) is an associate professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality and the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures and our 2020-2021 Scholar-in-Residence. Her research, teaching, and activism are focused on critical human rights, intersectional and transnational feminism, and the intersection of law and culture. She is an avid gardener, loves to cook, bike, and go hiking with her friends and family. You can find her work online and on Twitter @mightykale.


Celebrating Kwanzaa

Freedom Center Voices
December 26, 2020

Celebrating Kwanzaa

Dr. Maulana Keranga founded Kwanzaa in 1966 after being inspired to bring unity to the nation after years of civilian turmoil and cultural detachment in African American communities. It is a holiday celebrated in the United States, for one week, from December 26th to January 1st each year mostly by African Americans. The holiday is guided by seven principles, one chosen for each day of the week-long celebration. These principles guide celebrators to practice philosophies that channel positivity in our lives. These seven principles are unity, self-determination, collective work, responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Each day of the week gifts are shared to represent the different principles.


In the past, some were apprehensive to celebrate because they feared it conflicted with Christmas, a traditionally Christian holiday. “Kwanzaa” is derived from the Swahili language, while the seven principles are typically represented in Swahili as well. The founder of this celebration Dr. Keranga, yearned for the Black communities across America to have stronger cultural ties and traditions since many African traditions were stripped from Black Americans through the duration of slavery. During the week of celebration seven candles are lit. Specific crops and harvest are chosen to represent the holiday. They are laid out across tables in homes to represent what the word Kwanzaa means, which is “first harvest.”

You don’t have to be African American to celebrate Kwanzaa, especially not to share in its purpose. Rather than being a religious holiday, Kwanzaa celebrates culture and tradition. So, no matter your beliefs anyone can honor this special time, bringing together family to try out new traditions such as African head wrapping or dancing. Kwanzaa is celebrated across countries all over the world, not just in the United States. Kwanzaa’s origin language of Swahili is spoken in the African countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

Asia Harris, Youth Programs Manager
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Asia is an alumna of Hampton University. Her background in English encourages her to constantly dive deeper into literature to learn how historical knowledge can shape and empower the American youth of today. She enjoys cooking, summer traveling and cuddling up with a good book.

Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin – A Mixed Legacy

Freedom Center Voices
December 8, 2020

Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin – A Mixed Legacy

“Progress has different meanings for different people… what was progress for white people was enslavement and further degradation for African Americans.”

— Margaret Washington, Associate Professor of History, Cornell University

Eli Whitney is thought of by some as the Father of American Technology. Throughout his life, he had a talent for creating things people needed – nails, hairpins, canes, muskets and more. However, his most well-known patent – the cotton gin – also had the devastating effect of expanding the institution of enslavement; making it even more profitable. By 1850, cotton was 50% of our GDP, and a multi-billion dollar institution worth more than all the manufacturing and railroad companies combined.

"Eli Whitney," portrait of the inventor. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Early Life

Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765. After his graduation from Yale College (now Yale University) in 1792, he considered becoming a lawyer. First, however, Whitney decided to work as a tutor to pay off his school debts. Although the tutoring jobs he was offered ultimately didn’t work out, one of the positions took him to Georgia where he was invited to spend time on the plantation owned by Catherine Greene, widow of Revolutionary War general, Nathanael Greene. There, he met a fellow Yale grad, Phineas Miller, who managed Greene’s plantation at the time and later became Greene’s second husband.

While living on the plantation, Whitney witnessed the difficulties of growing short-staple cotton that had to be picked and cleaned by hand. He took the problem as a challenge and designed a cotton “gin” (derived from the word “engine”). The gin could remove the seeds from cotton quicker and more efficiently than the plantation’s enslaved labor. Whitney and Miller became business partners and, with the financial support of Greene, began to manufacture the gin for general use. Whitney and Miller patented the cotton gin in 1794.

“Cotton is King”

The cotton gin revolutionized cotton production in the United States – benefitting Southern plantations, Northern textile mills, financial institutions, shipping companies and multiple other businesses and individuals connected to the institution of slavery. An enslaved person could produce approximately 5 pounds of lint cotton a day.  Whitney’s hand powered cotton gin could produce approximately 50 pounds of lint cotton a day.  By the time of the Civil War, steam powered cotton gins were producing approximately 2,500 pounds of lint cotton a day.  Soon cotton became the South’s most important crop and the leading U.S. export. Yet the cotton gin also had a significant human cost. Although cotton production became more efficient with the cotton gin, more enslaved labor was needed to plant and harvest the cotton as the number and size of plantations grew to keep up with demand.

Eli Whitney s Cotton Gin Patent Drawing, 03/14/1794 [National Archives Identifier: 305886]; National Archives and Records Administration Records of the Patent and Trademark Office Record Group 241

Westward Expansion

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 opened the Mississippi River Valley to agricultural development.  However, millions of acres of land in this area, as well as the southeast, legally belonged to Native Americans.  In order to remove Indigenous people from their ancestral lands, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  At least 50,000 Native Americans were forcefully moved to lands west of the Mississippi, River.  This forced removal, that killed thousands of men, women and children, is known as the “Trail of Tears.”  Following their removal, massive numbers of enslaved people and planters from Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee moved onto this land to produce cotton.

As slave owners benefited from the success of cotton, the lives of the enslaved people they owned were often made even more challenging.  Tobacco farmers who now found their crop in less demand were able to sell their enslaved property to cotton plantation owners for higher prices. Cotton farmers, who may have considered freeing their enslaved property, found them too valuable to lose. Northern slave owners, who lived in states that were gradually abolishing slavery, chose to sell them south for a profit, rather than lose money from their legal emancipation.  Even the lives of free African Americans in the North were made more precarious as they faced the risk of being kidnapped and sold to Southern plantation owners with few repercussions.

Impact on Enslavement

In 1790 there were six slave states in the U.S. By 1860, the number of slave states grew to 15 and more than one third of the U.S. Southern population were enslaved. During this time period, the enslaved population grew from roughly 790,000 to 4,000,000, and annual cotton production grew from around 2,000 bales to 4,800,000 bales. Approximately one million enslaved people were sold from northern states and the upper south to the lower south to meet the demand for producing cotton.  This process became known as the internal slave trade. The internal slave trade became the largest forced migration in American history, and led to the destruction of numerous families.


It is impossible to remember Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin without also recognizing his contribution to antebellum slavery in the United States. His legacy therefore, will always be tarnished with his impact on slavery.

However, it is important to note that Whitney also figured out how to manufacture muskets by using a machine method, making the parts interchangeable. This technique also proved to be revolutionary, allowing for the mass production of muskets beginning in 1798.

The National Archives says it best, “If [Whitney’s] genius led King Cotton to triumph in the South, it also created the technology with which the North won the Civil War.”

Recommended reading:

  • In Search of the Promised Land:  A Slave Family in the Old South, by John Hope Franklin
  • The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist

Lyn Martin, Docent
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Interpretation and History’s Demands on the Present

Freedom Center Voices
November 28, 2020

Interpretation and History’s Demands on the Present

“I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.” 

— Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother (2007) 

There are many dates that school children learn when they are taught U.S. history. Notable among them are 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed and formally outlawed slavery. While important, the dates alone do not convey the foundational significance and living legacies of slavery. The problem is not with the dates, but with the interpretation of history that they are asked to convey. 

Interpretation is what museum professionals call “the practice of communicating their collections to the public.” It is a process that broadly speaks to the importance of how we grapple with the personal and cultural relevance of any story, art object, or historical record. During my residency at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, I engage this question of interpretation to untangle the power and problem of drawing comparisons between the history of Black enslavement in the U.S. and the use of the phrase “modern day slavery” to refer to human trafficking. In a series of blog posts and public conversations, I will grapple with these tensions and reflect upon the multiple meanings of abolition today. 

My place of departure for the blog series starts from the observation made by Dr. Saidiya Hartman that “we” are living in the future created by slavery. Taken from her magnificent book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, the sentence resonates beyond its complex implications for the descendants of slaves. Hartman interprets slavery as part of  both the past and present. She treats slavery as an inheritance, not only a chronology of events that fatefully ends with its demise. It is still difficult for many Americans, particularly white Americans, to grasp the many ways that we and our society continue to be structured by slave economies, colonialism, and the gravitational force of racism and anti-Blackness. In fact, many white Americans are unable to or refuse to connect slavery’s past to contemporary social justice issues.

The living legacies of slavery and colonialism are not hidden to Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the United States - it is white America that struggles to collectively reckon with our national DNA. For any significant grappling with the past as an inheritance, we white folks need to face the reality that slavery and colonialism continues to be in the DNA of us and our present moment. Yet, there continues to be strong, even virulent resistance to and fatigue about reckoning with that inheritance.

For many there is intense discomfort with the idea that white supremacy still has a structural hold on society. The refusal to see that stems, in part, from the long tradition of allowing guilt and shame to orchestrate white folks’ moral response to the living legacies of slavery and colonialism. When guilt and shame rule white consciousness about the past, we do not actually divest from white supremacy, but rather re-invest in the flimsy distinction between “good” versus “bad” white people. This is insufficient and actually perpetuates white supremacy, rendering it a matter of individual choices and acts. Like the material of genetic DNA, however, white supremacy self-replicates over time, although it may not look identical to earlier generations. And, like DNA, white supremacy is a trait we can not simply refuse: it requires active mitigation. The problem at the center of structural racism is the inability to dismantle white supremacy. 

In 1964, James Baldwin travelled to San Francisco to witness Black American life in what was and continues to be regarded as a liberal and cosmopolitan city. That trip is documented in the film Take This Hammer and is as piercing today as it was then in its depiction of the structural undermining of Black communities through the denial of employment and housing. At the start, Baldwin, in his quintessentially eloquent and biting way, muses that people can only pay their dues if they realize that is what they need to do. He often spoke of debts in relation to white America as he accurately saw how white superiority operates at the expense of others. Interpreting slavery as an inheritance possessed by white Americans requires ways of thinking and living that are not yet normalized or perhaps even really grapsed. As white Americans, we do not need to make a spectacle of guilt or shame or to just accurately identify the “bad guys.” We need to be willing to scrutinize our lives with humility and vulnerability and to be willing to interpret history as an inheritance that is alive in small and big ways, today.  

As I scrutinize my place in a society made by slavery, I have become wary of the moniker “modern day slavery.”  I understand that for many, naming human trafficking as “modern day slavery” is an expression of concern and ethical outrage. The phrase immediately conveys a message about injustice that perhaps is missed with the technical term “human trafficking.” Yet, the rhetorical usefulness of “modern day slavery” to convey the existence of human trafficking also has problematic material effects. That is to say, the problem with “modern day slavery” is more than a semantic issue. 

For example, while there is increased political concern for victims of trafficking, that concern has not translated into addressing the remaining debt that society still owes to the formerly enslaved and their descendants. The claim that slavery has a modern form suggests that there is an equivalency between chattel slavery and trafficking. While the idea that trafficking is modern slavery relies upon the metaphorical and moral power of the abolition of chattel slavery, that idea displaces and even conceals our responsibility to the living legacies of slavery.  As such, the term also clouds the fact that we are still operating within racial capitalism, a system produced by slaving economies. Furthermore, it is alarming that with the expansion of the anti-trafficking field, different social justice claims appear to compete rather than intersect. This tension is most apparent in regards to the role of the criminal legal system. While most anti-trafficking efforts validate and center the role of policing, courts, and incarceration these same institutions are viewed by a growing majority as the source of injustice.  

What would change if we sought out the intersections between the living legacies of slavery and colonialism and human trafficking? Likewise, how would our understanding of human trafficking change if we saw chattel slavery as not a metaphor for the present but as in the DNA of the present? Leading up to Human Trafficking Awareness Month (January) I will engage these and other questions.

Dr. Jennifer Suchland (she/her) is an associate professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality and the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures and our 2020-2021 Scholar-in-Residence. Her research, teaching, and activism are focused on critical human rights, intersectional and transnational feminism, and the intersection of law and culture. She is an avid gardener, loves to cook, bike, and go hiking with her friends and family. You can find her work online and on Twitter @mightykale.

What is GivingTuesday and Why Does it Matter?

Freedom Center Voices
November 24, 2020

What is GivingTuesday and Why Does it Matter?

The creators of GivingTuesday describe it as a “global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world.” Created in 2012, GivingTuesday had one goal in mind—create a day that inspires people to do good. Over the past seven years, it has grown into a global movement that inspires hundreds of millions of people to give, collaborate, and celebrate generosity.

This year, our community, nation, and world have faced great challenges. We’ve navigated a global pandemic and witnessed a country coming to grips with the reality of systemic racism. A spirit of unity is needed for us to move forward. Our institution serves as a beacon of hope in the ongoing struggle for inclusive freedom and we are fierce advocates of equity and justice. A donation to the National Underground Freedom Center will help us fight for a brighter, more inclusive future through education that inspires action.

Your donation will allow us to serve our community through educational programs, thought-provoking exhibitions and more. We’ve taken many of our initiatives virtual this year, propelled by the support and engagement from the community. Your donations help us to continue these conversations, allow us to preserve the artifacts in our collection, and continue to bring together diverse thought leaders to inspire action.

Your gift will power our dream of inclusive freedom for all. We would be honored to be selected as your organization of choice for GivingTuesday. Our community, nation, and world needs us both.

To make your gift, please visit our website on December 1 at

Jarrod Williams, Development Officer
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Jarrod is a development professional committed to creating a culture of philanthropy. He is a graduate of Wright State University whose career in fundraising ranges from arts, media, and social services. He recently was awarded 101.1 the Wiz radio station’s 30 under 30 award in the City of Cincinnati.

Veteran’s Day Reflection: Woodrow Keown, Jr.

Freedom Center Voices

Veteran’s Day Reflection: Woodrow Keown, Jr.

"My military career began the historic moment my proud dad (a WWII and Korean War veteran) pinned my bars onto my uniform, making me the first commissioned officer in our family’s history.  Just a few years earlier he had refused to sign papers to allow me to enlist in the Navy because he said he wanted a better future for me and believed I had greater potential.  He was right.  Military service opened doors of opportunity I could never have imagined growing up in an impoverished area on the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas. I began experiencing a bigger, more diverse world; learned the importance of leadership, teamwork and accountability; earned a government-financed advanced degree (MBA); and, importantly, I gained a more personal appreciation of the meaning of freedom and justice…for ALL. On this day that we recognize our veterans, I salute my dad, Woodrow Keown, Sr., for inspiring me to do more, and be more, than I thought possible."

Woodrow Keown, Jr.

President & COO
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center


Meet Our Scholar-in-Residence: Dr. Jennifer Suchland

Freedom Center Voices

Meet Our Scholar-in-Residence: Dr. Jennifer Suchland

My name is Dr. Jennifer Suchland. I am an Associate Professor at The Ohio State University and am honored to be in residency this academic year at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. This opportunity is made possible by a Scholars & Society fellowship from the American Council of Learned Society and Mellon Foundation.


The aim of the fellowship is to partner scholars with non-university organizations for mutual growth and to advance the arts and humanities in society. I am excited to learn from the museum and contribute to its mission to preserve and reveal the stories of the underground railroad and inspire the public to engage in racial and social justice issues today.


This is a critical moment in America. We face multiple crises including the Covid-19 pandemic and the political, economic, and ethical crises wrought by systemic racism, staggering inequities, and heterosexism. Now more than ever, people turn to universities and museums for accurate information, inspiration, guidance, and opportunities for respectful dialogue. The role of the arts and humanities is vital to the work of individually and collectively grappling with our national and global conditions and essential for imagining otherwise. I strongly believe that classrooms and museums are the democratic epicenters for encouraging critical reflection and thus are instrumental to social change.


The broad theme of the fellowship is “Abolition Today,” which sets the stage for me to explore the multiple meanings of abolition in today’s world. For instance, those who call themselves neo-abolitionists in the fight against human trafficking (i.e. “modern day slavery”) leverage the ethical and emotional archive of the historical struggle to abolish chattel slavery in the United States. Many advocates approach anti-trafficking as the newest example of anti-slavery activism.

At the same time, other advocates are working towards prison abolition, seeking to dismantle a system that is the living legacy of Black enslavement. For them, prisons are a modern form of slavery.

As public consciousness only grows about critical issues such as mass incarceration and human trafficking, the tensions and intersections between these two abolitionist claims demands greater public reflection. Not simply an issue of semantics, the meanings of abolition today speaks to present-day ethical demands made by U.S. slavery and the political imagination needed to move beyond carceral human rights.

On a personal note, I also reflect on my position as a white cis-gendered queer middle-class woman in the context of abolition today. I want to dig deeply into the radical history of anti-slavery to better understand what it means to be abolitionist today.


Currently I am working with Christopher Miller, Senior Director of Education and Community Engagement, Novella Nimmo, Education Coordinator, and Asia Harris, Youth Programs Manager. In particular, Asia and I are working on revising and adding to the museum’s k-12 curriculum. I already have learned a lot about public education and the significant role that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center plays in public education. There is a lot of demand for rigorous and thoughtful curriculum that illuminates the past and that can connect to people’s lives today. I hope to bring my scholarly expertise, which thematically is on critical human rights, as well as my experience in collaborative arts and humanities practices to the museum in this residency.

Sharing the Journey

Over the course of the academic year, keep an eye out for periodic updates here on the Freedom Center Voices blog. We invite you to follow along as I share more about my research and other topics related to the project. I’m honored to have the opportunity to connect with the Freedom Center family and excited to see where our collaboration goes.

Dr. Jennifer Suchland (she/her) is an associate professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality and the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures and our 2020-2021 Scholar-in-Residence. Her research, teaching, and activism are focused on critical human rights, intersectional and transnational feminism, and the intersection of law and culture. She is an avid gardener, loves to cook, bike, and go hiking with her friends and family. You can find her work online and on Twitter @mightykale.

National Native American Heritage Month

Freedom Center Voices

National Native American Heritage Month

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center would like to recognize all the diverse Native American cultures throughout this country, to honor their many freedom heroes, and to educate our guests about their rich history.


November is National Native American Heritage Month, also known as National American Indian Heritage Month. Although Congress designated this month in 1990 under President George H. W. Bush, in reality it was the persistent work of indigenous people starting in the early 20th century that inspired Congress to officially honor Native Americans in November. Individuals like Dr. Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), Rev. Sherman Coolidge (Arapahoe) and Red Fox James (Blackfoot) are just a few examples of native people who campaigned to educate all Americans about the value and contributions of Indigenous cultures.

We at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center recognize their past and present, their hardships and sacrifices, their perseverance and resiliency, their culture and wisdom, their devotion and kinship, and their physical and spiritual connection to this land.  We see you and we hear you.

One of the best ways we as Americans can recognize America’s first people is to acknowledge their traditional land. The following statement comes from the Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition.

As a step toward honoring the truth and achieving healing and reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples who were affected most by the Doctrine of Discovery and broken treaties, we acknowledge the traditional Shawnee and Myaamia lands we now stand on, and on which the city of Cincinnati was built.


We also want to honor all of our Native American freedom heroes, past and present.  We honor Wahunsenacawh (Powhatan), Tecumseh (Shawnee) and Tatanka-yotanka (Hunkpapa Lakota), who fought bravely to protect their people and land. We honor the Native People that aided freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. We honor Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, Eddie Benton Banai, and George Mitchell (founders of American Indian Movement (AIM)) who risked their lives fighting for Native rights while occupying Alcatraz and Wounded Knee. We honor Bridget Tolley and all the other women who fight to raise awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. We honor all Native women and mothers who give life and connect us all to that which is sacred.

American Indian Movement Trademark


One of the best ways to bring people and cultures together, build empathy, and understand the experiences of others is to educate ourselves and center their voices in our learning. Native Americans have been the stewards of this land for 20,000+ years. There are more than 6 million Native Americans still living in the United States today.

We recommend the following resources to help you learn more about Native American history and their experiences today:




  • National Museum of the American Indian | Washington, D.C.
  • Southwest Museum of the American Indian | Los Angeles, CA
  • Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | Santa Fe, NM

Historic Sites

  • Fort Ancient | Oregonia, OH
  • Serpent Mound | Peebles, OH
  • Hopewell Culture National Historical Park | Chillicothe, OH


James Harrington, Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center