Penn historian finishes work on slavery he started researching 40 years ago

Historians in the News
tags: Virginia, Jamaica, Richard Dunn, plantations

n the early 1970s, historian Richard Dunn ’50 tasked himself with a nearly impenetrable intellectual inquiry: to compare the conditions, trends, and quality of life in slave communities in the United States and the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th centuries.

During the next 40 years, Dunn, the Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor Emeritus of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, meticulously researched the broad arcs and reconstructed the fine details of the operations and lives of more than 2,000 slaves at Mesopotamia, a sugar estate on Jamaica’s western coast, and at Mount Airy, a tobacco and grain plantation in tidewater Virginia. The result is a richly drawn portrait that offers scholars a rare longitudinal view of bondage and its effect on families, as seen through the family trees of two enslaved women, Sarah Affir of Mesopotamia and Winney Grimshaw of Mount Airy.

Sifting through an unusually large cache of missionary diaries and records, including slave inventories kept by Mesopotamia owners, the Barham family, and the Tayloe family, who owned Mount Airy, Dunn was able to document the final three generations of slaves at the two plantations before slavery ended in both places.

“I’ve had a good deal of experience of writing history from the top down. But now, I’m trying to write history from the bottom up, with almost no personal documentation, so I had to figure out other ways of trying to bring people to life,” said Dunn of the difficulties he faced.

Dunn spoke Feb. 5 during a talk at the Harvard Faculty Club about his book “A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia,” recently published by Harvard University Press. He was introduced by Harvard President Drew Faust, a Civil War historian who studied with Dunn as a graduate student at Penn in the early 1970s. ...

Read entire article at Harvard Gazette

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