Durham County

‘Enslaved people,’ not ‘slaves’ at Stagville State Historic Site

Nicole Moore, a museum educator from Virginia Beach, hurries across the yard to get back to her cooking at the Horton Grove slave quarters. Hundreds visited the Historic Stagville State Historic Site in Durham County in 2013 to see how enslaved and free black people prepared meals during antebellum times.
Nicole Moore, a museum educator from Virginia Beach, hurries across the yard to get back to her cooking at the Horton Grove slave quarters. Hundreds visited the Historic Stagville State Historic Site in Durham County in 2013 to see how enslaved and free black people prepared meals during antebellum times. mschultz@newsobserver.com

The words “enslaved people” have replaced “slaves” among many public historians.

Public historians engage visitors outside of academic settings, such as at museums and historic plantation sites like Stagville State Historic Site in Durham County.

Other words and phrases: bondsmen, bondswomen, people/person held in bondage.

Michelle Lanier, executive director of the N.C. African American Heritage Commission, says these words emphasize the humanity of people living under bondage. They reinforce that enslaved people had skills, craftsmanship, families and dreams.

“One of the worst parts of slavery was that it tried to strip people of their autonomy,” Lanier said. “Using these words is a reminder to look at human experience.”

“The word slavery is nameless.”

This change has been almost universally adopted by public historians, Lanier said, but is still debated among academics.

In 2010, on the HNET internet forum, historian Jenny Shaw of the University of Alabama said she’d seen the phrase “enslaved people” in a revised version of “Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South” in which historian Deborah Gray White of Rutgers University argued for the term. She asked if it was a better term to use.

Academics who oppose using “enslaved people” generally argue that the word “slaves” preserves historical accuracy.

“It makes some historians uncomfortable,” Lanier explained, “because they are concerned with accurately reflecting the brutality and inhumanity of slavery.”

Lanier says she prefers to use enslaved but uses the word “slave” at times, typically in a somber tone as with any reference to subjects like trauma, or abuse.

“We don’t think it’s right to force this kind of view on anyone. People have the right to choose their own vocabulary,” she said. “We just want people to be curious about the context surrounding slavery: the people who were enslaved, the families who enslaved them and what systems were at play to keep them enslaved.”

Sean Jones: 703-955-6959

Historic Stagville, a state historic site in northern Durham County, has shifted its focus over the last 10 years from the life of the Bennehan-Cameron family that owned the plantation to the realities of slavery. A survey team is working beneath

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