A new book exposes the impact of slavery in the north

In her recently published book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, Christy Clark-Pujara examines the impact of the business of slavery from the colonial period through the American Civil War, from the experience of slavery to the process of emancipation to the experience of black freedom in the north.

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In her recently published book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, Christy Clark-Pujara examines the impact of the business of slavery from the colonial period through the American Civil War, from the experience of slavery to the process of emancipation to the experience of black freedom in the north. By using Rhode Island as the lens through which to view the topic, she shatters long-held myths about slavery in northern states. 

The assistant professor in Afro-American Studies and affiliate in history is already at work on another book — From Slavery to Suffrage: Black on the Wisconsin Frontier, 1740 to 1866 explores how the practice of race-based slavery, black settlement and debates over abolition and black rights shaped white-black race relations in the Midwest — and teaching two African American history courses this fall. 

Please tell us about your areas of focus. 

My research focuses on the experiences of black people in French and British North America in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. I am particularly interested in retrieving the hidden and unexplored histories of African Americans in areas that historians have not sufficiently examined — small towns and cities in the North and Midwest.  

I contend that the full dimensions of the African American and American experience cannot be appreciated without reference to how black people managed their lives in places where they were so few. Furthermore, an absence of a large black populace did not mean that ideas of blackness were not central to the social, political and economic development of these places. 

My courses explore the origins, practice and decline of the institution of slavery in the British colonial America and later the United States, as well as how slave holding and rise of free wage labor were utterly independent and how slave labor was central to the modern capitalist rise of the United States as an industrial power. 

What are the biggest misconceptions about northern slavery? 

That it was not widespread and was mild or gentle. In other words, that northern slavery was rarely practiced and when it was enslaved people were treated like “beloved servants or family.” 

Why did you decide to focus your book on Rhode Island? 

My focus on Rhode Island was rather serendipitous. I began researching slavery and emancipation in the North a few years after Ruth Simmons, the first African American to lead an Ivy League university, commissioned the report on Brown University and its connections to the institution of slavery in 2003. After reading about Rhode Island’s overt investments in slavery, I was surprised to find out that no one had written a history of how those economic ties to the business of slavery had shaped the lives of the enslaved and curtailed the freedom of their descendants … I dedicated myself to reconstructing the lives of black Rhode Islanders from the colonial period through the American Civil War. 

What do you hope readers get from your book?

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I hope they come away with a greater understanding of how the institution of slavery shaped the northern colonies and states — specifically, that the economy beget experience and that a full accounting of the institution of slavery in the Americas necessitates a full accounting of the business of slavery, which was concentrated in the northern colonies and states. 

I also hope that my work contributes to scholarly literature combatting the myths that northern slaveholding was rare, that slavery was mild or that emancipation was quick and free blacks were fully incorporated into the new nation.

These myths are powerful and dangerous, as the erasure or marginalization of the northern black experience allows for a dangerous fiction — that the North has no history of racism to overcome.