Historiography = a historical narrative
► Three specific works shaped the way
slavery was viewed by most historians and
scholars in the 20th century with the latter
two undermining many of the claims of the
Three dominant studies
► Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A
Survey of the Supply and Employment of Negro
Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime,
► Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery
in the Ante-bellum South, 1956.
► Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American
Institutional and Intellectual Life, 1959.
Studies prior to these three
► Before Phillips most accounts of slavery had
been written prior to the civil war.
► They were polemical, diametrically opposed
accounts that emphasized the pro or antislavery cause.
► Phillips purported to be neutral. He wrote
five decades after the Civil War. His study
was recognized for being more scholarly
and comprehensive than earlier accounts.
► Slavery was basically benign.
► Slave owners behaved paternalistically, providing
for slaves’ needs in exchange for labor. Slaves
were largely well-treated and content.
► Slavery civilized and Christianized the slave.
► Mutual affection existed between many slaves and
► Slavery made possible a great elite culture.
► Slavery was economically successful.
Phillips seen as corrective to biased abolitionist historians.
Praised for doing an empirical study based on voluminous
plantation data and focusing on the effects on individuals.
However, he chose his evidence selectively to reinforce his
own prejudices and white supremacist attitudes.
Sample comment: “Negroes ... for the most part were by
racial quality submissive rather than defiant, lighthearted
instead of gloomy, ingratiating instead of sullen, and [their]
very defects invited paternalism rather than repression.”
Dismissed and disregarded slave testimony such as slave
► The study was highly influential.
► Accepted by white historians and white
Americans in general because this benign
picture helped ease guilt, made it easier to
rationalize continued second class status of
blacks and conformed to the popular
conception of blacks in white American
folklore: “docile, gentle, happy-go-lucky and
Stampp’s 1956 book challenged most aspects of Phillips’s
He also drew on plantation data but uncovered and
emphasized many harsh aspects of slavery.
Writing as the civil rights movement was winning legal
victories, he rejected Phillips preconceived ideas of racial
“In documenting the widespread resistance to slavery,
Stampp deflated the myth of a docile, infantile, contented,
happy-go-lucky slave” (Nuruddin).
► Writing a few years after Stampp, Elkins revived
the “Sambo” image of the slave presented by
► His condemnation of slavery was even harsher
than Stampp’s, but he argued that the effect of
slavery was to create the Sambo type.
► Phillips had said blacks were Sambos by nature
so they functioned best in slavery. Elkins said
slavery turned blacks into Sambos, and that this
Elkins first to use “Sambo” label
“...The characteristics that have been claimed for the type
come principally from Southern lore. Sambo, the typical
plantation slave, was docile but irresponsible, loyal but
lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; his
behavior full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with
childish exaggeration. His relationship with his master was
one of utter dependence and childlike attachment: indeed it
was the very key to his being. Although the merest hint of
Sambo’s ‘manhood’ might fill the Southern breast with
scorn, the child, ‘in his place,’ could be both exasperating
The above is Elkins’ summary of the Sambo type
The Elkins Thesis
► Slave owners ruled without checks on their power.
► Slaves were cut off from African culture and
language and were prevented from forming their
own enduring family ties.
► Acting out powerlessness and servility (i.e.
behaving as a Sambo) was a means of survival,
but the result was internalization of degradation.
► Elkins compared situation of slaves to
concentration camp prisoners.
The Elkins Thesis
► Underlying thesis—Slavery damaged the
African American psyche and created a
dependent, pathetic person who identified
with the white owners or was too frightened
► Later scholars who accepted Elkins
compared this idea to the Stockholm
syndrome where a kidnapped person
identifies with captors.
Elkins work was both praised and
► Combined history and sociology so created
► The book became “required reading” in graduate
► But in time, the thesis was both over-simplified
► Came into conflict with political realities. Black
Americans looking for strong leaders and to claim
power in 1960’s and 70’s reacted negatively to
this book (and later to Styron’s novel).
Rebuttal to Elkins
► “The Southern aristocracy created the image of
Sambo to ease their own fears. They desperately
needed to believe in Sambo so that they could
sleep easy at night“ (Nurrudin).
► Nurrudin claims the same argument applies to
those who were frightened by growing black power
movement in the 1950’s and 60’s. They wanted to
believe in docile blacks under slavery so they
didn’t have to fear black violence and could
believe integration could be staved off.
► John Blassingame’s The Slave Community, 1972,
1979 presented a rebuttal as well.
► B. challenged Elkins by writing about creativity and
resilience of slaves and their culture.
► They could sustain family and cultural ties despite
► The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, by
Herbert Gutman extended a similar argument.
► Meanwhile Herb Apethker’s study of slave revolts
argued for more extensive black resistance.
More recent scholarship
► In the 1980’s writers questioned the somewhat
utopian views of slave culture and family life
argued by Blassingame and Guttman. Slavery did
weaken or damage these institutions, but not
entirely destroy them.
► Some ties to African language and cultural were
retained, but these were usually fragmentary.
► Slaves did establish families but autonomy was
threatened always by the power of the master.
More recent scholarship
Eugene Genovese and Eliz. Fox-Genovese argued
Slave’s sense of degradation could be mitigated by sense of place
in master’s family—wished to think well of masters as children do of
parents even when abusive
Slaves retained sense of dignity by developing their own cultural
identity yet still living within master’s norms. This might mean
adopting servile role while remaining courageous and resourceful
Stampp, Bertram-Wright and Nuruddin all suggest that the
Sambo response is more a mask, a ritualized response
that the slave performed, than something that became
internalized. Nuruddin disputes whether Sambo was the
primary personality type.
Sources for this report
Nuruddin, Yusuf. “The Sambo Thesis Revisited.”
Socialism and Democracy online 34. 18 Jan. 2004
“A Survey of Slave Trade Historiography.” Encylopedia of
Historians and Historical Writing. HistoryOnline.com 1999.
18 Jan 2004
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. “The Mask of Obedience: Slave
Psychology in the Old South.” 18 Jan. 2004