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Region and Nation in American Histories of Race and Slavery will explore the role of regional and national histories of race and slavery in North America from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. The conference corresponds with the opening of the first major exhibition interpreting slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. This event marks the fourth in a series of important meetings sponsored by the Omohundro Institute on the history of the enslaved and slavery. It is co-sponsored by the Omohundro Institute and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.

Evocatively set at Mount Vernon in Virginia, the conference invites fresh examination of the role of regional histories of race and slavery and their contributions to a national history of “American” slavery. Preeminent in historical accounts of early British American colonial race and slavery, for example, studies of the Chesapeake’s regional culture, economy and laws of slavery shaped our understanding of race and racial slavery in America. Classic historical works on the origins and development of hereditary slavery tended to view the problem of labor and race in early Maryland and Virginia as an “American paradox,” or a “peculiar institution.” Yet slavery was not peculiar to America, and, far from paradoxical, was inherent to American development. By the time of the American Revolution, the Upper South held one of the largest slave populations in the Americas; their labor, and that of their descendants born into the system of hereditary slavery built by early Chesapeake law, helped fuel the expansion of the American nation in its first half century.

Questions the conference will attempt to address include those of how regional-into-national patterns of race and slavery have been reinvigorated by studies of the complex, non-linear development of racial ideology and the multiplicity of slaveries in the Caribbean, New England, New France, and the southwest. Is there still innovative potential for regional work after the global turn? How do regional studies now contribute to trans-Atlantic and trans-continental histories of American slavery? What might be distinctive about local experiences and practices of slavery that particularly affected social, economic, and cultural development in America more broadly? How did enslaved men and women influence the development of their communities, regions, and nation?

An opening night roundtable discussion of race and Slavery in history and popular culture, focused on the History Channel’s recent retelling of Alex Haley’s Roots, will preface two days of panels and discussions, all presented as plenary sessions, and a morning of closing observations offered by some of the leading scholars in the field.