How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America — Book Summary & Review

Written by Alistair Knight | 26 March 2022

We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.

How the Word Is Passed is a profoundly researched exploration of the history of slavery in the United States. Clint Smith’s reporting of key historical sites highlights slavery not as peripheral to the founding of the US, but to its centrality. From Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation to Galveston Island, Smith shows us how slavery wasn’t irrelevant to our contemporary society, but how it created it. Its history is in our soil, in our policies, and it must, therefore, be in our memories.

“At some point, it is no longer a question of whether we can learn this history, but whether we have the collective will to reckon with it.”

Buy on Amazon | Buy on Audible

Chapter 1 – Monticello Plantation: “There’s a Difference Between History and Nostalgia”

The Monticello is a 5,000-acre plantation where Thomas Jefferson, his family, and up to 130 enslaved individuals of African descent lived. Some of the slave families living at Monticello lived at the plantation for three decades.

When Smith approached the plantation, he was struck when he noticed how the majority of the visitors were white. The plantation had its ratios “reversed”.

The plantation sat at the top of a hill surrounded by a sea of sundry trees with rolling hills that traversed in multiple directions. The manor that Jefferson lived in took the slaves over 40 years to build and occupies 11,000-square-feet; 43 rooms. There is a graveyard at the bottom of the hill where 40 of Jefferson’s enslaved workers are buried. There are a few scattered headstones, though nobody knows the names of the people buried there.

Jefferson saw black people as “inferior to white people in the endowments of both body and mind”.

Jefferson’s relationship with slavery was transparent due to the farm book that kept records of each slave. These log books include the slaves’ names, dates of birth, date of purchase. The book also contains what they were allowed to eat. “Half a pound of meat, cornmeal, half a dozen salt fish”. Jefferson had big spending habits, and to pay off the debts he would sell, lease, and mortgage enslaved people like property.

Historian, Lucia Stanton, worked as a historian at Monticello and described how the “reconstruction of the lives of the slaves at Monticello is difficult. There are only six photos of the former slaves, and their words are kept in four recollections and a handful of letters”.

Some of these letters describe how the slave children would play on a Sunday afternoon during their day off, how they sang songs late into the evening, and the celebrations that took place when someone was married.

This perception has tainted school history lessons with a rose-colored lens.

“So many people — especially white people — often had understood slavery, and those held in its grip, only in abstract terms. They do not see the faces. They cannot picture the hands. They do not hear the fear, or the laughter. They do not consider that these were children like their own, or that these were people who had birthdays and weddings and funerals; who loved and celebrated one another just as they loved and celebrated their loved ones.”

In reality, the plantation echoes with past utterances of love, yet cries of evil. There was an unceasing desire to live a full life, a free life, one that would not be defined simply by their forced labor.

It was at the top of the hill at Monticello where Jefferson formed the idea of the Declaration of Independence. It was also the same spot where he beat Sally’s brother, James Hemings, the same spot where he lined up 100 slaves for auction.

Nail-making was in operation at the plantation, and an enslaved worker called Cary, a teenage boy, had been ordered to produce 1000 nails per day, or “be punished with pain if he did not meet his quota”. One of his friends, Brown Colbert, thought it would be funny to hide one of Cary’s tools as a joke. But there was nothing funny about hiding his tools. Out of fear, he became so angry that he hit his friend over the head with a hammer, putting Colbert in a coma. Jefferson didn’t know what to do with the boy. Should he be whipped? Starved? How would this impact his relationship with the other slaves in the Monticello community? Jefferson’s solution with Cary was to, “place him so far away he’ll never be heard from again, so that it will appear to the other nail-makers that he was killed”.

Jefferson was acutely aware of separating families, as he sold over 100 slaves, with some aged between 5-13 years old. He placed economic incentives over personal morality.

All to be separated to “posthumously pay off Jefferson’s debts”. Historian Edward Bonekemper estimates that over the course of chattel slavery’s existence, about one million enslaved people were separated from their families.

Even today, human behavior has repeated itself with the Trump administration separating 3,000 children from their parents at the southern border in July, 2018. Parents were reassured that their children were sent off to “the showers”, only to learn that they were displaced to an unknown place.

After Jefferson’s wife, Martha, passed away during his mid-forties, there is evidence that he had four decades of sexual involvement with his slave, Sally Hemmings (aged 16). Sally gave birth to four children — Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston — who survived into adulthood and gave accounts of their upbringing. Jefferson didn’t see them as his children, and showed “no fatherly affections”. His relationship with Sally demonstrates the insidious, tangled relationships with white men and their sexual dominion over enslaved women. Jefferson and his white friends could do whatever he wanted to Hemmings. There was no legal recourse, and both parties knew this.

When Clint Smith visited Monticello, there were 89 tour guides, and only four of them were black.

Smith interviewed the guides there, and found that they faced a lot of barriers and mistreatment by visitors, who would sometimes “say some pretty insensitive and unbelievable things”. These include harassment from visitors, people flirting with them, and even people asking if they were “related to Sally Hemings”. One time, a staff member was on a break in the cafe, and a white woman came up to her from behind and hugged her, weeping, and said, “I’m sorry for slavery”.

The guides said, “We very much feel that white people should be doing this work too”, but they “felt strongly that a museum centered on the experiences of Black people should be predominantly staffed by Black people.”

“David, Clint Smith’s guide, said he sees it as essential that every guide be able to find the balance between telling the truth and not pushing people so much that they shut down. He told me that when you challenge people, specifically white people’s conception of Jefferson, you’re in fact challenging their conception of themselves. ‘I’ve come to realize that there’s a difference between history and nostalgia, and somewhere between those two is memory’ he said. ‘I think that history is the story of the past, using all the available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory, which is kind of this blend of history and a little bit of emotion … I mean, history is kind of about what you need to know … but nostalgia is what you want to hear’.”

Chapter 2 – The Whitney Plantation: “An Open Book, Up Under The Sky”

“The Whitney exists as a laboratory for historical ambition, an experiment in rewriting what long ago was rewritten. It is a hammer attempting to unbend four centuries of crooked nails. It is a place asking the question: ‘How do you tell a story that has been told the wrong way for so long?’ For some, it is a place that doesn’t fully live up to its ambition, a scattered assortment of exhibits that fails to tell a cohesive story. For others, it is a necessary, even if imperfect, corrective against a history that has been misrepresented or ignored for so long, a place that does far more good than harm. From both perspectives, it has served as a catalyst for discussion around how plantations should reveal the truth of slavery in ways that few other places have.”

The Whitney Plantation was founded in 1752 and is located in Wallace, Louisiana. It started off as an indigo plantation. Both rice and indigo were the cornerstones of southern Lousiana’s plantation economy, due to the French ships coming back and forth from West Africa to North America, carrying both types of seeds as well as the people who knew how to cultivate them. Due to this demand for indigo and rice, 60% of Louisiana’s enslaved population came from Senegambia.

In 1795, there were nearly twenty thousand enslaved people in Louisiana. During Thomas Jefferson’s presidency in 1808, the US outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, though this didn’t stop the 331,000 slaves who were criminally trafficked between 1808 and 1860.

Clint Smith wrote, “Written on the wall in front of me was a quote from Julia Woodrich, born in 1851 and enslaved in Louisiana: ‘My ma had fifteen children and none of them had the same pa. Every time she was sold she would get another man. My ma had one boy by her boss that was my missis brother’s child. You see, every time she was sold she had to take another man. She had fifteen children after she was sold de last time’.” Sexual violence was omnipresent throughout slavery, and it followed women wherever they went.

Slave corpses were used in medical schools that propelled the entire field forward. They were constantly being exploited at every age, even in their death.

There are dozens of life-size clay sculptures dispersed across Whitney Plantation, intricately detailed from the contours of their lips to the bridges of their nose. They look real from a quick glance or from a distance. They wore slaves’ clothing and had hollow, tender eyes.

These sculptures are called “The Children of Whitney”, and were designed to confront the visitor with the reality of slavery, a reminder of those born into this sadistic system. By 1860, there were nearly four million enslaved people, 57% were under the age of 20.

Children under the age of 10 accounted for 51% of the total black deaths in 1850. There were 38% white deaths in comparison.

There were 22 slave cabins in the Whitney Plantation, and the decendents of the slaves inhabited them until the year of 1975.

To the right of the slave cabin was a large bell, with its color dulled by the years of exposure to the elements. Historically, there were two purposes of the bell. First, it was used to signal the start and end of each day, and second, it was to summon a slave that was about to be punished. Visitors are invited to ring the bell in honor of all the people who suffered. Smith said, “[When] I pulled the rope, the bell’s metal tongue swung inside its body, as its chime reverberated like a heavy heart”.

Chapter 3 – Angola Prison: “I Can’t Change What Happened Here”

At the entrance of Angola prison, an overhang with a black sign and bold red letters reads: ‘LOUISIANA STATE PENITENTIARY’.

To the right, there is a small white building with a long porch, which is the Angola Museum. As you walk into the museum, you will notice a photograph of two dozen black men being ordered by a white person on horseback into the field, each man carrying a digging hoe.

This photograph is the first thing visitors will see before entering the gift shop, which contains shirts, ash trays, sun glasses and shot glasses emblazoned with ‘Angola Prison’.

One room showcases the ‘inmates weapons’, which consisted of shanks made from old toothbrushes, or broken typewriters, and guns that inmates smuggled in.

Angola prison started in 1880, when Samuel James bought eight acres to house the State of Louisiana’s inmates. Some of the prisoners went to Angola, but many were subcontracted to work on levees and railroads under extreme, slave-like conditions. 10% of prisoners did not survive under Samuel James.

James died in Angola in 1894, and was one of the wealthiest men in Louisiana due to his control of convict labor. Angola was then run by Louisiana state from 1901. The inmates, overwhelmingly black, were starved, beaten, and housed in former slave quarters that belonged to Isaac Franklin, a man who owned one of the largest plantations in the US. A plantation that produced 3,100 bales of cotton each year.

Even today, nearly 80% of the 6,300 men warehoused in Angola are African American, 71% of whom are serving life sentences.

Prison employees and their families were entitled to free accommodation at Angola, and late into the 20th century, the employees used prison labor to their own personal advantage.

In a book on Angola, an employee’s child described how Angola was a “pleasant place to live”. “There would be a selection of vegetables that were wheeled around in the morning, and we had cooks, yard boys, house boys, and we could have two or three if we wanted”. History, repeating itself.

On the other side of Angola Prison, by a dirt road that had no end, there were buildings with tangled barbed wire. These buildings are known as the Red Hat cell block. They were built after the attempted escape in 1933 and were the home of prisoners who experienced the strictest, darkest housing facility that one could not imagine.

There are forty cells at this prison. If you walk into the cell, and stretch your arms out to the side, you would be inches away from touching the cell walls — length-wise. There was a toilet in the cell, where the water was kept off, so it never worked. Prisoners had to use a bucket, which would only be emptied every few days when inmates were let out of their cells for a shower, because the guards wanted them to “smell the stench of their own body waste when eating”.

The prisoners living in the Red Hat cell blocks were given leftovers from the other prisoners, which usually arrived in a wheelbarrow that looked like slop for pigs. Prisoners were beaten on a daily basis, and those who were not broken were dead.

Opposite to the cell blocks, was a single room building for the electric chair, which began operation in 1957. A black man who had murdered a white man would be sentenced to death. But in some cases, those who were innocent received the same treatment.

Willie Francis, a 17-year-old black boy from Saint Martinville, Louisiana, was mistakenly charged with possession of drugs. The case was dropped, but officers interrogated him for a separate case, the murder of a white pharmacist named Andrew Thomas. Eventually, the police got a signed confession from Willie, who pleaded not guilty in trial with a jury of 12 white people. Willie’s lawyers didn’t make an opening statement, didn’t call on any witnesses, and provided no objections. It took only 15 minutes for the jury to make a decision. Willie was sentenced to death via the electric chair. However, the chair was incorrectly set up by the two drunk guards earlier that day, and the currents didn’t kill him, but rather tortured him. Willie died a year later in an electric chair that did work.

Two-thirds of people on death row in Louisiana are black, and 1 out of 25 people sentenced to death are innocent.

The average sentence in Angola is 87 years, and the prisoners are paid two to seven cents per hour for their work.

The photograph in the Angola museum of two dozen black men carrying equipment on a field, can still be seen through the prison tour. History on repeat.

Mark King wrote a poem in 1992, highlighting the comparison between the brutality of slavery and modern-day conditions of the prisoners at Angola:

“A century of forced labor, blood and pain.

Lives wasted, buried in the shame.

Slavemasters oversee their daily tasks.

Hidden behind century-old sadistic masks.

The world has passed this deathly land by.

The inhabitants still ask why.”

Chapter 4 – Blandford Cemetery: “I Don’t Know if it’s True or Not, But I Like It”

Blandford Cemetery is a mass grave of 30,000 Confederates who were killed in the Siege of Petersburg (1864–65) during the American Civil War. The grounds covered 189 acres, the second-largest cemetery in Virginia.

The entrance of the cemetery has a large stone archway with the inscribed words: “Our Confederate Heroes”.

Slaves that were offered freedom to fight with the Union army, and would be considered as “the white man’s pawns on the front line”. During the civil war, thousands surrendered to the white confederates, who would show no mercy. They would torture, murder, and stack the slaves up on top of one another. Their message: “No such insurrection, inside or outside the confines of war, would be allowed.”

Cemeteries filled with the former enslaved have never received commensurate financial support.

On the street next to Blandford Cemetery, one will find a smaller, understated burial ground, known as The People’s Memorial Cemetery. Purchased by 28 members of Petersburg’s free black community in 1840, enslaved people are buried here; as well as black veterans of WW1 and WW2.

However, there are no flags ornamenting the graves, nor hourly tours available for people to remember the dead. There is history, but also silence.

In comparison to Blandford Cemetery, The People’s Memorial Cemetery is bare.

The white southerner’s commitment to the Confederate cause was not predicated on whether they could own slaves. The commitment was predicated on ensuring black people could remain at the bottom end of the social hierarchy.

Chapter 5 – Galveston Island: “Our Independence Day”

Galveston is a small island that sits off the coast of Southeast Texas. There is a long-held myth that on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger stood in a balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston, and read the order to announce the end of slavery. Every year since 1865, there is a reenactment where the Sons of the Union Veterans read the proclamation on the same balcony as the audience look on:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Clint Smith described the experience as “history pulsing through his body. The small island where the freedom of a quarter-million people was proclaimed”.

General Granger and his army traveled to Galveston two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation was to support the military strategy.

It was designed to showcase the Confederate states as anti-slavery, so that Britain and France would be put off from supporting the Confederacy. It also allowed the Union Army to recruit black soldiers, which led to the recruitment of 200,000 soldiers by the war’s end.

The Emancipation Proclamation applied to the eleven Confederate states, but despite the pressure, Texas was one of the states that ignored it. While many slaves were able to escape behind Union lines, many were held in bondage throughout the rest of the war.

As hard as the formerly enslaved people tried to become free, there were many whites who held the end of their chains tightly. Indeed, the mayor of Galveston rounded up Black “runaways” to send them back to their owners. There was nothing legal about what they were doing. One couldn’t be a runaway if they were, under the law, free. Many Southerners felt differently. To further complicate the matter, the Union Army officials did not consistently enforce the rights of formerly enslaved people.

It didn’t take long for the message of freedom to spread throughout Texas, from plantation to plantation, farmstead to farmstead, person to person.

Even when freedom came, it still felt like a million miles away. The financial support for the formerly enslaved was infinitesimal, with few resources to build economic and social mobility.

As Felix Haywood said, “We knowed freedom was on us, but we didn’t know what was to come with it. We thought we was goin’ to get rich like the white folks. We thought we was goin’ to be richer than the white folks, ’cause we was stronger and knowed how to work, and the whites didn’t and they didn’t have us to work for them anymore. But it didn’t turn out that way. We soon found out that freedom could make black folks proud but it didn’t make us rich.”

Per the 2010 census, Black Texans represented 12 percent of the state’s population and 32 percent of the prison and jail population, whereas white Texans made up 45 percent of the state’s population and 33 percent of the prison and jail population.

Of Black Texans, more than 20 percent live in poverty, compared to 15 percent of white Texans. The infant mortality rate of Black women in Texas is more than twice that of white women. The high school graduation rate is 87 percent for Black Texans and 94 percent for white Texans. The list goes on like this across almost every metric.

In 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Black Americans owned about 0.5 percent of the total wealth in the United States. Today, despite being 13 percent of the population, Black people own less than 4 percent of the nation’s wealth. Despite the role Black Americans played in generating this country’s wealth, they don’t have access to the vast majority of it.

Chapter 6 – New York City: “We Were the Good Guys, Right?”

New York City was originally founded by the Dutch as New Amsterdam in 1624. When the Dutch got there, they were met by the Lenape Native Americans, an Algonquian-speaking people who had lived on the land since 10,000 BC.

Originally, it is said, their interactions were friendly, but their relations deteriorated as tensions over land increased. Two years later, the Dutch West India Company “purchased” the island of Manhattan from the Lenape for a price of sixty guilders’ worth of goods, equivalent today to about a thousand dollars. Damaras held up a copy of the earliest known reference to the purchase, a letter from 1626 reporting the news to the Dutch government.

The red people from Manhattan Island crossed to the mainland, where a treaty was made with the Dutch, and the place was therefore called the Pipe of Peace, or in their language: Hoboken. Soon after, however, the Dutch governor, Kieft, sent his men out there one night and massacred the entire native population.

Only a few of them escaped, but they spread the story of what had been done, and this did much to antagonize all the remaining tribes against all the white settlers. Shortly after, Nieuw Amsterdam erected a double palisade for defense against its now enraged red neighbors, and this remained for some time the northern limit of the Dutch city. The space between the former walls is now called Wall Street, and its spirit is still that of a bulwark against the people.

The numbers vary widely, but historian Donald L. Fixico estimates that there were anywhere from a few million to 15 million Indigenous Americans living in North America upon Columbus’s arrival in 1492. By the late nineteenth century, the population had dropped to approximately 250,000.

During parts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were more enslaved Black people in New York City than in any other urban area across North America. Enslaved workers made up more than a quarter of the city’s labor force. As the city grew, so did the number of enslaved people. As the American Revolution began, about a sixth of New York’s population was of African descent, and almost all of them were enslaved.

Free black people made up a third of New Amsterdam’s total Black population. Many of these free Black people in the social life of the Dutch settlement; they married in Dutch churches, they engaged with the Dutch judicial system, and some took on Dutch names.

This did not mean that free Black people were equal members of society. “Freedom” for black people came with a conspicuous asterisk. While some blacks gained their freedom, that freedom had been granted to assure the safety of a society committed to African slavery. In 1664, the British ousted the Dutch and took over the colony — ridding any “freedom” black people had.

Men and women were separated from one another. Women were forced to stay in the city to care for the homes and children of their enslavers, while men were increasingly used as agricultural laborers outside the city.

The British in New York became increasingly dependent on the transatlantic slave trade to find new workers, importing an average of 150 enslaved people each year from Africa and the West Indies. According to historian David Brion Davis, around 40 percent of households in British Manhattan owned enslaved people. But the mortality rate of Black people in New York skyrocketed, as enslaved people were made to work harder than ever before and as an increasing number of Africans with little defense against new diseases were brought to the New World. Even before they arrived on the shores of New York, the death toll was staggering.

For every one hundred people taken from Africa, only about 64 would survive the trip from the region’s interior to the coast. Of those 64, around 48 would survive the weeks-long journey across the Atlantic. Of those 48 who stepped off the ship in New York Harbor, only 28-30 would survive the first three to four years in the colony. Berlin and Harris referred to New York at this time as “a death factory for black people.”

Slavery had grown so much in New York, that on the American Revolution, New York had the highest proportion of enslaved black people to Europeans of any northern settlement, with approximately 3000 enslaved people in the city and 20,000 more within fifty miles of Manhattan.

Slavery was introduced to Manhattan in 1626. By the mid-18th century approximately one in five people living in New York City was enslaved and almost half of Manhattan households included at least one slave. Although New York State abolished slavery in 1827, complete abolition came only in 1841 when the State of New York abolished the right of non-residents to have slaves in the state for up to nine months. However, the use of slave labor elsewhere for the production of raw materials such as sugar and cotton was essential to the economy of New York both before and after the Civil War.

Chapter 7 – Gorée Island: “One slave is too much”

From an aerial view, Gorée Island looks like a small hook. The Portuguese arrived on the island as early as the 1440s, and set up a trading post there not long after. Its position just off the west coast of the Senegambia region made it a place of strategic importance for trade, and a place where European ships could restock supplies before leaving the continent. European powers spent two centuries fighting for control of Gorée, which was occupied in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French.

As the island’s colonizers changed, so did its name. The Senegalese called the island Ber. The Portuguese called it Ila de Palma. The Dutch changed its name to Goede Reede, meaning “good port.” The French, who officially took charge of the territory in 1677 and who would largely maintain control until Senegalese independence in 1960, amended it to Île de Gorée.

The island was a site of the slave trade from the sixteenth century, when it was under Portuguese control and slaves were part of its economy, until 1848, when, under French control, France abolished slavery in all of its colonies. For decades Gorée Island was thought of as the central point of departure for enslaved people leaving West Africa and headed to the New World. It was also a place from which captured Africans could not easily escape, as the small body of land was surrounded by water.

So sweeping was its global reputation that in 1978 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Gorée a World Heritage Site. In the more than forty years since it received that designation, it has become an even more popular site of interest for tourists visiting the region and of pilgrimage for those attempting to reckon with the history of chattel slavery. It’s a place where one can learn more about the painful history of the slave trade, and to remind us of the need to remain vigilant on behalf of the rights of all humankind.

In 1981, Michel Rocard, who would later become the French prime minister, visited the House of Slaves, and after being shown the place where the bodies were said to be held before their final departure, he said, “It is not easy for a white man, in all honesty, to visit this Slave House without feeling ill at ease.”

Around 33,000 people were sent from Gorée Island to the New World.

The work of preserving history must be taken on proactively, that history must be cultivated and nurtured, or else we risk losing it. Every generation that has been taught about the killings and beatings need to keep telling the story in order for people to understand. Each generation has to know the story of how we got where we are today, because if you don’t understand, then you are in the position to go back to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Alistair Knight

Alistair Knight is an amateur athlete in boxing and the founder of Healthy Principles. He spends most of his time practising and learning more about boxing to ensure you get the best experience-based and evidence-based insights to learn. He also loves to read non-fiction books and has recently started writing book summaries. Learn more about Alistair Knight