Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom

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James Brewer Stewart
Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2010 - History - 279 pages
"A stunning collection. Venture Smith is a very important historical figure; his memoir is the only first-person source that narrates the entire arc of an African American's life from childhood in Africa through enslavement and emancipation to old age in North America. This volume will serve as a model of how collaborative and cross-disciplinary research can unpack a single documentary source to reveal a rich and intersecting array of insights into the meaning of a distant historical life in its own context as well as its meaning for our own lives and times."---Joanne Melish, author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England

This book originated in the summer of 2006, in the burial ground of the First Church of Christ, Congregational, of East Haddam, Connecticut, where a team of forensic scientists began excavating the graves of two emancipated slaves, Venture Smith (d. 1805) and his wife, Marget (d. 1809). Those requesting this remarkable disinterment were the Smiths' direct descendants, members of the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh generations, who were determined to honor the bicentennial of their founding ancestor's death by discovering everything possible about his life. Opening burial plots in the hope of recovering DNA for genealogical tracing proved a compelling first step.

But what began as a scientific inquiry into African origins rapidly evolved into an unparalleled interdisciplinary collaboration between historians, literary analysts, geographers, genealogists, anthropologists, political philosophers, genomic biologists, and, perhaps most revealingly, a poet. Their common goal has been to reconstruct the life of an extraordinary African American and to assay its implications for the sprawling, troubled eighteenth-century world of racial exploitation over which he triumphed. This volume displays the rich results of that collaboration.

A highly intelligent, deeply self-motivated and immensely energetic slave transported from Africa, Venture Smith transformed himself through unstinting labor into a respectable Connecticut citizen, a successful entrepreneur, and the liberator of other enslaved African Americans. As James O. Horton emphasizes in his foreword to this volume, "Venture Smith's saga is a gift to all who seek to understand the complex racial beginnings of America. It helps to connect the broad American story with the stories of many Americans whose lives illustrate the national struggle to live out the national ideals."

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About the author (2010)

James Brewer Stewart is James Wallace Professor of History Emeritus at Macalester College. He is author of Abolitionist Politics and the Coming of the Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008) and other works on the history of abolitionism.

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