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Neglected Gems: Richard Wade And Lisa Tolbert

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, books, urban history



Richard Wade. 1964. Slavery in the Cities. The South, 1820-1860New York: Oxford University Press.

Lisa Tolbert. 2017. Henry, a slave, v. State of Tennessee. The public and private space of slaves in a small town. In Clifton Ellis and Rebecca Ginsburg, eds., Slavery in the City. Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North AmericaCharlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, pp.140-152.

If urban historians have neglected the ways cities have shaped the economy of cities, they have compensated by telling us a lot about their social dynamics. For Americanists, the slave experience and its legacy has always been a major concern, but even here the specific impact of the urban environment, and urban size, has not always been well-appreciated.

In that context, some readers will wonder about the suggestion that Richard Wade, one of the towering early figures in the field and a founder of the Urban History Association, has been neglected. Doubtless, students of slavery, in particular, read him still. But that is not a subject that most urban historians seem to be thinking about these days, as our interests have shifted increasingly to the twentieth century, and in many cases into the postwar period.

Admittedly, I am largely ignorant of the history of slavery, did not read Wade’s book until July of 2019, and do not presume to judge how well his account has stood the test of time. But that doesn’t matter: it is above all his question that deserves attention. Wade asks how an institution and a people defined by the plantation were able to adapt to the urban setting. The last chapter of Slavery in Cities is an eloquent summary of the challenges that that institution, which is to say the white slave owners, faced. When work was done, slaves gathered in homes, churches, and grog shops, where “the worlds of bondage and freedom overlapped.” Trouble! Wade quotes a Southerner: “The city is no place for niggers. They get strange notions in their heads, and grow discontented.” Or, as Frederick Douglass put it, “slavery dislikes a dense population.” The city has often been described as a place of freedom, where minorities and new ways of living can thrive. Wade in effect argues that, albeit in a very particular way, the history of slavery illuminates that claim.

 

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