How Slavery Really Ended in America: The Power of Expertise in Culture Making

“Shall we now end the war and not eradicate the cause? Will not God demand this of us now [that] he has taken away all excuse for not pursuing the right?”

– Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler

Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washinton, and Samuel S. Jackson helped tell the remarkable story of America's first black regiment

Glory (1989) tells the story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) leader of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment—the first all-black volunteer company in America.

However, it was the moral courage and legal brilliance of another Massachusetts military leader that changed the course of history and provided a compelling reminder of how culture change is accomplished, not only by courage and conviction, but also carefully honed expertise.

How Slavery Really Ended in America

Historian Adam Goodhart’s fascinating article in the New York Times recounts how “On May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel. Fort Monroe, Va., a fishhook-shaped spit of land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, had been a military post since the time of the first Jamestown settlers.”

A tiny island on the Chesapeake Bay would mark the beginning and the end of slavery in America (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

By what could have been something akin to divinely orchestrated coincidence, the island where the slaves took refuge was the exact spot “where slavery first took root, one summer day in 1619, when a Dutch ship landed with some 20 African captives for the fledgling Virginia Colony.”

It would also become the spot where slavery first ended in America, not by the courage of Lincoln or other politicians, nor even the conviction of Abolitionists.   Instead, the unusual expertise of a lawyer pressed into military service provided the legal argument that would free not only these three men, but an entire nation of slaves.

Continue reading