“It’s going to get grim really fast,” warned Walter Johnson, Harvard’s Winthrop Professor of History and professor of African and African-American studies, early in his talk at Radcliffe. Using the words of former slaves and slaveholders, Johnson painted a harsh and violent picture of the pre-Civil War Mississippi Valley region.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

The landscape of slavery

5 min read

Unsettling accounts of those in Southern bondage echo across time

For 45 minutes, Harvard historian Walter Johnson read from a chapter of his forthcoming book at the Radcliffe Gymnasium. An uneasy stillness filled the hall at the conclusion of his presentation.

It was Johnson’s topic that prompted the crowd’s strained reaction.

“It’s going to get grim really fast,” warned Harvard’s Winthrop Professor of History and professor of African and African-American studies early in his talk on Wednesday (Dec. 15). Using the words of former slaves and slaveholders, Johnson painted a harsh and violent picture of the pre-Civil War Mississippi Valley region.

Johnson wove his inhumane tale using the narratives of people such as John Andrew Jackson, a slave from South Carolina who eventually escaped to freedom in Canada; Solomon Northup, a freeman from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery; John Parker, a former slave from Virginia who became part of the Underground Railroad, as well as stories about slave owners.

“I soon heard the dogs with their frightful baying and the men howling at the top of their voices, ‘Stop … or we will shoot you,’ ” Johnson read in the words of Jackson who was pursued by slaveholders.

Johnson’s research has focused on slavery, capitalism, and imperialism. His 2001 book “Soul by Soul” explored the day-to-day workings of the antebellum slave market. As the Evelyn Green Davis Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, he is using his fellowship year to complete his book “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery, Capitalism, and Imperialism in the Mississippi Valley’s Cotton Kingdom.”

Johnson also directs Harvard’s Project on Justice, Welfare, and Economics, an initiative founded in 2001 that aims to develop scholarly research by faculty and graduate students on issues pertaining to economics and the other social sciences, as well as law and ethics.

The chapter that he read “tries to treat a cotton plantation as a way of organizing nature, as well as a way of organizing labor,” Johnson told the crowd. He said he wanted to explore the dynamic between the land and man, between freedom and slavery.

The actual physical layout of a cotton field became a type of prisonlike grid, he said, which allowed slave owners to keep watch over their slaves.

A landscape once populated with forests had been replaced by rows of cotton that provided “a field of visual mastery” for slaveholders. Parker said that Johnson described how the disappearing forest and increased population “made it more difficult for the fugitives to pass through the country successfully, since there were many eyes and fewer hiding places to conceal.”

“The land, as Parker presented it,” Johnson said, “was not a backdrop to slavery. It was not some empty soundstage upon which the master-slave relationship could be immaterially transacted. The land was the thing itself, the determining parameter of his condition as a slave. … The labor of the slave made the land into an agro-capitalist landscape. The landscape made the human being into a visible and thus vulnerable slave.”

That landscape was made even more menacing through what Johnson called human/animal/ecological hybrids, such as a field of cotton watched over by a slaveholder on a horse. Horses afforded overseers a high vantage point, an easy means of overtaking a slave on foot, and added element of terror.

“It is the unpredictable, uncontrolled character of horses that makes them especially terrifying to those against whom they are deployed,” read Johnson, offering accounts of slaves being tied by a noose to a horse, or tied directly onto its saddle.

Dogs also terrorized escaping slaves, said Johnson. While horses struggled in the uneven terrain of a swamp, or branch-laden forests, dogs had no such trouble. Trained from their earliest days to hunt slaves, dogs were “inexorable, implacable enemies.”

“Each moment, I expected that they would spring upon my back, expected to feel their long teeth sinking into my flesh, there were so many of them I knew that they would tear me to pieces,” in the words of fleeing slave Northup.

Slave owners also cooperated to recapture their property, creating a linked landscape of common concern.

“It often appears to me that the slaveholders and Southerners generally are much more regardful of their neighbors’ property and interests than the people of the North. I cannot account for it in any other supposition than the very peculiar character of the property,” Jackson recounted. “If slaves were like money, simply transferrable by the owner, I presume it would be quite different. But inasmuch as it often takes legs and runs away, it becomes a matter of mutual interest for each to protect his neighbors’ rights in order to render his own more secure.”

Johnson also led listeners into the landscape of law. Slave owners would attend legal proceedings against their charges who were accused of violent crimes to determine if their confessions — usually obtained through torture — would stand in court. Though the slave owners could have carried out the ultimate punishment themselves, noted Johnson, only an execution “sanctioned by the state would mean the slave owner would be reimbursed for the value of their dead slave.”

An audience member told Johnson she was speechless for a number of moments following his talk, saying, “It’s so powerful and overwhelming, what you have written, and so extremely upsetting.”

Another thanked Johnson for his efforts to explore such a difficult topic. “This kind of material, we continue to need to archive and work through,” she said,  “and it’s difficult.”