Macalester College history professor discusses modern slavery

Lecturer James Stewart reminds Maxwell audience that slavery takes many modern forms.

James Stewart doesn’t blink an eye when he tells you there may be as many as 40 million enslaved people in the world. Presenting the truth when everyone has been told a different story is what he does.

“I’m not an activist, although I’m very angry," he said.

Stewart spoke Monday afternoon at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship as part of the lecture series “Abolishing Slavery in Lincoln’s Time and Ours: Toward the Development of a 21st Century Abolitionist Movement.”

Stewart founded Historians Against Slavery, an abolitionist organization comprised mainly of historical scholars that seeks to combat modern slavery through education. He is professor emeritus of history at Macalester College, and is the author of Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery and Abolitionist Politics and the Coming of the Civil War.

He began his lecture Monday by stressing the importance of understanding the history of slavery in the United States.

“When we think about slavery, we think very particularly,” he said. Stewart summarized what he believes is the modern notion of slavery, focusing on race, color differences and “the emancipation of dark-skinned people… that cost our nation 675,000 dead people.”

Grasping “the enormity of the history of slavery,” Stewart said, is the only way one can get a clear picture of the problem as an institution. While the criminalization of slavery may be responsible for emancipating countless slaves, he emphasized that it still gave it new life as its own illicit industry.

“Slavery today is huge,” he said. “People believe sex trafficking is more profitable than the arms trade.”

Stewart went through the many forms modern slavery takes, saying, “It can be brothels in Thailand, or timber workers taking down the rainforest in Brazil to produce charcoal.” He cited slaves on cacao plantations in West Africa and trafficked emigrants from Central America. Lacking papers, they are forced into an indentured servant-like occupation in order to pay off fabricated debts, performing menial and oftentimes unpleasant tasks like disassembling chickens, he said.

Stewart repeatedly discussed the nature of the slaving industry as a global economic force. “It’s all around us, and it’s all about money,” he said. “In a sense, it’s no different from the drug trade.”

Stewart concluded by talking about what it means to be an abolitionist and how modern-day activists relate to their historical predecessors. He talked about how slavery continued to grow from the 1830s to the 1860s despite the abolitionists’ increasing efforts. Remaining steadfast, they continued fighting the small battles they thought they could win, which Stewart said he believes is imperative.

Said Stewart, “they made sure racism was fought in their local communities.”


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