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Commemoration of abolishment of slave trade provides history lesson

ATHENS, Ohio (March 6, 2007) -- Participants in Ohio University's two-day commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade were given a thorough history lesson.

Emory University professor David Eltis began his keynote address on Thursday evening by asking, "What is the significance of the abolishment of the slave trade?"

Eltis said history shows us the U.S. abolishment of the slave trade in 1807 in reality didn't end the slave trade and he used his new online database to show that more than three million slaves were transported from Africa after Congress abolished the slave trade in 1807. The numbers reveal that the U.S. was a minor player in the slave trading business, well behind Spain, Uraguay, Portugal, Brazil and France.

"The United States wasn't responsible for a large part of the slave trade," Eltis said. "The Dutch transported more than two times the amount of the U.S., the Spanish four times as many and the English and French about 10 times more."

Eltis said more than 12.5 million slaves were exported from Africa during the approximately 360 years of the slave trade, with about 3.1 million transported between 1807 and 1867.

"The idea that people changed their attitudes toward African slaves is fascinating," Eltis said. "One must wonder how people who once condoned slavery, eventually decided it was immoral." 

Eltis' database, which he debuted off campus for the first time, has records from more than 35,000 slave voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and will be made available to the public in the near future.

On Friday, the commemoration included a morning workshop hosted by Eltis that allowed participants to search his database. It was followed by two sets of presentations based on the slave trade and slavery.

The first panel discussion included faculty research presentations on Thomas Jefferson, and the effect slavery had on U.S. western expansion, Africa and Brazil.

Department of History professor Brian Schoen told the audience that Thomas Jefferson is sometimes viewed as a hypocrite because of his contradictory nature.

"Thomas Jefferson believed slavery was unjust, but moved slowly to abolish it," said Schoen. "He failed to imagine a pluralistic multiracial society where blacks and whites live together."

Department of African Studies professor Robin Jenkins talked about the impact the slave trade had on Western expansion in North America. She described how vagrancy and poverty laws often hindered the migration of non-whites to the new territories.

Department of History professor Mariana Dantas shared the details of the Brazilian slave trade.

"Slaves were vital to the economic development of Brazil because they worked in the sugar and gold industries," Dantas said. Dantas said that according to the numbers in Eltis' database, Brazil was involved in about 45 percent of the total African slave trade.

Department of History professor Nicholas Creary spoke about the slave trade's effect in Africa. He said at one point in history, about 30 to 50 percent of the population in the Sudan in West Africa was slaves. He also presented Liberia as a destination point for freed slaves involved with the American Colonization Society. "Liberia was a tremendous example of colonization," he said.

During the second set of presentations, Ohio University administrator Charles Fox shared his family's story centered on a slave-breeding plantation in Jefferson County, W.Va., called The Bower. He said his great-great-grandmother Mary was a brood woman at the plantation who was beaten to death because she hid her children from the plantation's master so that they wouldn't be sold into slavery. Fox has been tracing his family's history through books, documents and stories provided by outside sources, and stories from his family and the Dandridge family, owners of The Bower.

Deanda Johnson, coordinator of Ohio University's African American Research and Service Institute, provided a glimpse into her large-scale research project titled "The African-American Presence in the Ohio River Valley." She showed interviews from area black family reunions of people talking about the history of slavery in their family. "I hope this research project gives a voice to the nameless, faceless black people in the area," Johnson said.

African American Studies Chair Vibert Cambridge ended the commemoration by saying, "We have only just begun taking a closer look at the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade." Cambridge said the commemoration runs through August 2008.

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Media Contact: Media Specialist George Mauzy, 740-597-1794 or mauzy@ohio.edu

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