An Environmental History of Slavery: An Interview with David Silkenat

“A day’s work ended,” 1887 (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

In today’s post, Adam X. McNeil, a regular contributor of Black Perspectives, interviews Dr. David Silkenat on his new book, Scars on the Land An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South (Oxford University Press, 2022). Silkenat is a Senior Lecturer of American History at the University of Edinburgh. A native of New York City, he received his undergraduate degree in History from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. After several years of teaching high school in Florida, Silkenat returned to North Carolina for graduate study at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. From 2008 to 2013, he taught at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. He is the author of three additional books: Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (UNC Press, 2019), Finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize; Driven from Home: North Carolina’s Civil War Refugee Crisis (UGA Press 2015), winner of the North Caroliniana Society Book Award; and, Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina (UNC Press, 2011), winner of the North Caroliniana Society Book Award.

Adam X. McNeil (AXM): Scars on the Land is a major departure from your prior works that largely engaged the Civil War era. What sparked you to write a monograph on the environmental history of slavery in the United States South? 

David Silkenat (DS): Scars on the Land is something of a departure from my first three books, though there some connections with my second book on Civil War refugees. Writing this book required me to read deeply in lots of new areas. While I was broadly familiar with the scholarship on slavery in the American South, I needed to dive deeply into environmental history. Part of what Scars on the Land attempts to do is put these bodies of scholarship in conversation with each other.

On a personal level, Scars on the Land grew out of my long-standing interest in racial and environmental justice. I was researching and writing the book when the Black Lives Matter movement and the global climate crisis dominated the headlines, which undoubtedly influenced my thinking. I was also inspired by reading Charles Ball’s Slavery in the United States (1837) with my students here at the University of Edinburgh. Ball had a particularly keen eye for observing nature and linking the brutality of slavery with damage done to the ecosystem.

AXM: Each chapter focuses on a particular characteristic of the environment. Why did you structure Scars on the Land in this manner?

DS: Figuring out how to structure this book was a real challenge.  I considered lots of different structures initially: chronological, geographic, thematic, etc. One of the big themes in Scars on the Land was how the expanding enslaved frontier transformed the Southern landscape over two hundred years and how environmental devastation drove slavery’s expansion. I also wanted to end the book with a chapter on emancipation. So, showing change over time was very important. But so was geography — recognizing the diversity of ecosystems within the South and how those differences shaped the lives of enslaved people. Ultimately, I decided that a thematic approach was the least messy option, though there are chronological and geographic structures embedded within individual chapters.

AXM: Slavery in the Appalachian South, despite the critically important works of Carter G. Woodson, William H. Turner, John Inscoe, & Wilma Dunaway, remains an underdeveloped subfield of slavery studies. Scars on the Land, in my opinion, contributes to this body of scholarship. What does your book ultimately tell us about the nature of enslaved people’s experiences in Appalachia and their relationship with the land during enslavement?

DS: One of the big themes of Scars on the Land is the ecological diversity of the South and how enslaved labor could be used to extract value from a variety of different environments. In Appalachia, enslaved labor was used in agriculture but was also heavily involved in mining and lumbering. In the gold mines of North Carolina and Georgia, enslaved miners toiled underground to extract ore and above ground to separate the gold from the ore with mercury, processes that were extraordinarily dangerous to the miners and devastated the landscape, poisoning the land and the water. Indeed, some of the most profound transformations I document in the book were outside of the plantation belt.

AXM: As a scholar interested in enslaved people’s resistance in the Appalachian Mountain South, this statement caught my eye: “In evading slave patrols, fugitives hid in loblolly forests, pocosin swamps, alligator-infested rivers, and Smoky Mountain caves.” How did enslaved people use the Appalachian environment to resist slavery?

DS: One of the central themes of Scars on the Land is how enslaved people used their environment as sites of resistance. They often took advantage of landscapes that enslavers did not value. They went into swamps and forests to hunt and trap, to meet with friends and loved ones, and to escape. They cultivated a corpus of environmental knowledge that allowed them to survive the horrors of slavery and sometimes to flee from it. In Appalachia, this meant that enslaved people who knew how to navigate through dense forests, streams, and mountains could evade pursuing slave patrols and dogs.

AXM: How does Scars on the Land help readers understand the historical roots of our current global ecological crisis? 

DS: Probably the most important lesson that we can learn from Scars on the Land that’s applicable to the present is that the fights for racial and environmental justice are not competing priorities but part of the same struggle. As countless examples demonstrate (Hurricane Katrina, Cancer Alley, the Jackson water crisis, etc.), Black communities have suffered and continue to suffer disproportionately from environmental disasters. The climate crisis cannot be tackled in isolation: we need to recognize who benefitted most and who suffered most from the environmental choices of the past and bring everyone to the table.

AXM: Lastly, what microstory from the book did you find the most fascinating or compelling that you want to leave the readers with? 

DS: The story of North Carolina’s turpentine industry encapsulates many of the themes of the book. Enslaved workers extracted turpentine from longleaf pines by cutting V-shaped gashes into the tree, cuts that periodically had to be refreshed, leaving the trees with a series of scars on their trunks. This was difficult, dangerous work that left enslaved lumbermen caked with dried sap and inhaling noxious vapors. When demand for turpentine exploded in the 1830s and 1840s, enslavers pushed for greater and greater extraction, which they knew would ultimately kill the trees. Within a generation, millions of acres of longleaf forest disappeared. This environmental destruction reflected a common belief among enslavers that the environment was disposable and that short-term profits trumped sustainability.

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Adam McNeil

Adam McNeil is History PhD student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick focusing on 17th and 18th Century Black Women’s History and slavery. Secondarily, he focuses on Black Appalachian histories of slavery and freedom.