Monday, October 27, 2014

When we finally have that “conversation” about race. . . let’s tell the whole story

I was probably in my 30s or 40s before I found out that before the Civil War freed blacks in the U.S. owned slaves. I don't recall that was covered in American history in high school or college. But it wasn't until Prof. Henry Gates (Obama's friend in Boston and PBS host) wrote about it, that I learned that free blacks owned slaves at a much higher rate than whites, something like 25% compared to about 1.5%. Some of course, bought their wives and children after they bought their own freedom, although those were still counted as slaves in the census.  But many owned large numbers and nice plantations that needed slave labor. Also, Gates reported that only a very small number of African slaves ever came to colonies that became the U.S.--most of the 10+ million went to South America or the Caribbean where they died in huge numbers and had to be replaced. Free American blacks were voting before the Revolution and most likely helped ratify the amendments and send the men to Congress. There were very wealthy free blacks who owned a lot of property as well as small businessmen and craftsmen of all manner of the arts in the South.

To sustain their economic activities, free people of color acquired increasing numbers of slaves. Urban artisans--carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons, mechanics-purchased black apprentices, hod carriers, and helpers; merchants and business people bought haulers, carters, and stock boys; plantation owners purchased house servants, cooks, mechanics, and field hands. By 1830, approximately 1,556 free black masters in the Deep South owned a total of 7, 188 slaves. Representing about 42 percent of the black owners in the South, they owned 60 percent of the black-owned slaves. In the Charleston District, 407 owners held a total of 2, 195 slaves. In New Orleans, there were 753 free black owners, including 25 who owned at least 10 bondsmen and women and another 1 16 who owned between 5 and 9 slaves. Although some of these slaveholders owned members of their own families, or loved ones, unable to free them by law, in 8 rural Louisiana sugar and cotton parishes, 43 Creoles of color ( 1.2 percent of the black slaveholders in the South) owned a total of 1,327 blacks, or lout of 9 slaves owned by blacks. In St. John the Baptist Parish, 3 plantation owners held 139 blacks in bondage-an average of 46 slaves each; in Pointe Coupee Parish, 8 planters held 297 slaves, an average of 37 slaves each. In 1830, approximately lout of 4 free black families in the region was a slaveholder.  “Prosperous Blacks in the South, 1790-1880”

More recently, the Cherokee nation has expelled descendants of their black slaves which since the Civil War had been considered part of the nation according to a treaty they had with the U.S.  Before being forcibly removed to Oklahoma, over 7% of the Cherokees owned slaves--more than the whites in the same states and they took their slaves with them on the “trail of tears.” I suspect that the action had much more to do with money than racial animosity--there was a huge government settlement to be divided up a few years ago. Imagine thinking your family was Cherokee since 1866, and then you get exiled from the tribe over a few billion dollars.

What this really shows is that slavery, which exists in larger numbers today than in the 18th century, is a human problem, not a white American problem.  Africans enslaved and sold people of other tribes, and the Arab Muslims were the middlemen to get them to the coast for the Europeans to sell.  Cherokees and other Indians had slaves long before the Europeans stepped ashore, and saw no problem in buying and selling black Africans.

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