The call for slavery reparations is reverberating throughout the land once again. It will be entertaining to watch the Democratic presidential candidates for 2020 position themselves on this topic. They must know the very idea is irrational and entirely impractical, but at the same time they will worry that one candidate or another will endorse the idea and leave them outflanked.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has already introduced a bill that would create a commission to study the issue of reparations. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren likes the idea of reparations not only for American blacks but also, not surprisingly, for American Indians. She must be counting on her share of the largesse for her possible 1/1024th Cherokee heritage. California Sen. Kamala Harris thinks reparations might be a course of action to help lift blacks out of poverty. Former Texas Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, like Cory Booker, wants a commission to study the issue. Former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro is out in front of them all, declaring monetary reparations should be issued to those who have slave ancestors. “If under the Constitution we compensate people because we take their property, why wouldn’t you compensate people who actually were property?” he asked CNN host Jake Tapper.
There’s a tacit assumption in all this: The U.S. government—i.e., the American taxpayer—is the one who should be paying the reparations. The U.S. government, however, never owned any slaves. Moreover, the U.S. government fought a war, though not initiated to abolish slavery, which ended the evil practice. The casualty figures for the Union forces are staggering, upwards of 400,000 killed and probably 300,000 wounded. Now descendants of these dead and maimed soldiers are, through taxation, supposed to pay descendants of the slaves freed by those same soldiers.
Black slavery was established in North America long before there was a United States. The U.S. didn’t come into being until 1788 when the Constitution was ratified. People who talk about “250 years of slavery,” whether they know it or not, are not talking about the United States. Slavery existed in the United States for only 77 years. Before that was the brief period of the Confederation government and the Continental Congress, and before that we were the British North American colonies.
The 250-year claim comes from the sale of a handful of African slaves in 1619 in the British colony of Virginia. The slaves were sold by the captain of an English privateer, sailing under Dutch authority, which intercepted and captured a Portuguese slave ship in the Caribbean en route from Africa to Mexico. The captain knew better than to try to sell the slaves at an island port in the Caribbean and instead sailed north to Virginia. But this was not a typical event.
European slavers normally purchased slaves at a port in equatorial West Africa from a tribal chieftain in exchange for rum and other European trading goods. Africans most often were enslaved as a consequence of losing a war to a more powerful tribe or being captured in a raid—or being sold by their own families to cover debts. One could say European slave traders, and later Americans, who were engaged in the despicable business never enslaved anyone but merely changed the location of enslavement. Logic would therefore suggest that reparations be sought from the descendants of the more powerful tribes of equatorial West Africa, who attacked and enslaved their weaker neighbors mercilessly.
The best evidence suggests Africans had been enslaving each other for thousands of years by the time Europeans arrived on African shores. By then, Arabs had been trading for slaves from equatorial West Africa for several hundred years. Instead of loading slaves onto ocean-going ships, Arab slavers took them up the Niger River or on overland trails to Timbuktu, the point of departure for caravans that crossed the Sahara Desert to Egypt and other points east.
Europeans transported slaves in the opposite direction, westward across the Atlantic to South America, especially Brazil, and to the Caribbean and Central America. Only a small minority of the slaves came to the British North American colonies. Yet, the largest population of blacks in the Western Hemisphere today is in the U.S.
There’s a reason for that. The voyage to Brazil was relatively quick and easy, making slaves there fairly inexpensive, which meant they were expendable. The opposite was the case for the voyage to Virginia. Slaves were expensive and became more so when American participation in the international slave trade was ended in 1808, as required by the Constitution. Slaves were far better fed, clothed, housed, and treated medically on these shores than they were in other places, particularly Brazil, simply because an owner would lose a bundle of money should a slave die.
None of this is to condone or justify slavery in the American colonies or later in the U.S., but it is to say that the treatment of slaves varied greatly in the Americas, and given the abominable institution, the planters of the Old South were generally far more concerned with the welfare of their slaves than were their counterparts elsewhere. This concern did not extend to white laborers, who were hired when a job was considered too exhausting or too dangerous for a black slave.
Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of New York’s Central Park, traveled throughout the South on the eve of the Civil War and was surprised to find, again and again, that Irishmen were used instead of slaves for the work of draining swampland, felling trees, digging ditches, quarrying rock, and clearing forests because “it was much better to have Irish do it, who cost nothing to the planter if they died, than to use up good field-hands in such severe employment.”
At a landing on the Alabama River, Irish deckhands caught and stowed heavy bales of cotton after they had come hurtling down a long chute from a towering bluff. When Olmstead asked why slaves were not doing the work, the ship’s captain replied, “The niggers are worth too much to be risked here; if the Paddies are knocked overboard, or get their backs broke, nobody loses anything!”
The death rate among Irish laborers was shocking and had been for several decades before Olmstead toured the South. The New Basin Canal, which connected New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, was built by Irish labor during the 1830’s. The Irish workmen dug the canal with hand shovels, excavating more than half a million cubic yards of earth. Lacking dynamite, they used axes to fell huge bald cypress trees along the route. They were paid $20 a month and given room and board.
Tyrone Power, a famous Irish actor of the period, visited his countrymen and described the scene in 1834, saying he found:
. . . hundreds of fine fellows labouring here beneath a sun that at this winter season was at times insufferably fierce, and amidst a pestilential swamp whose exhalations were fetid to a degree scarcely endurable even for a few moments . . . mid-deep in black mud . . . bearing burdens it made one’s shoulders ache to look upon; exposed meantime to every change of temperature, in log huts, laid down in the very swamp. . . . Here they subsist on the coarsest fare . . . often at the mercy of a hard contractor, who wrings his profits from their blood.
More than 10,000—some estimates put the number as high as 30,000—Irish workers died in the process. They died of cholera. They died of yellow fever. They died of alligator attacks. They died of water-moccasin bites. They died in accidents. They were buried where they fell, often in mass graves. White privilege.
Meanwhile, there were more than a quarter-million free blacks in the South and nearly 4,000 of them were slavemasters who owned more than 20,000 black slaves. William Ellison, only one of several hundred black slaveholders in South Carolina, owned 63 slaves as recorded in the U.S. Census of 1860. In Charleston, 125 free blacks were slaveholders, and in Charleston City, the port city for Charleston, the largest owner of slaves was a black woman. Black partners Justus Angel and Mistress Horry owned 84 slaves each and were notorious for slave trading. In neighboring North Carolina, 69 blacks were slaveholders. The most prominent of them was John Stanly, who owned three plantations and 163 slaves.
One of dozens of black slavemasters in Maryland, Nat Butler owned a farm but made his real money from slave trading. He lured runaway slaves to his farm and then, depending on the size of the reward, either returned them to their owner or sold them to plantations in the Deep South.
The largest concentration of black slave owners was in Louisiana. Marie Metoyer owned 287 slaves and more than 1,000 acres of land. The widow C. Richards and her son P.C. Richards had 152 slaves working their sugar plantation. Antoine Dubuclet had 100 slaves on his sugar plantation. Cotton planter Auguste Donatto owned 70 slaves, as did Antoine Decuire. Verret Polen owned 69. Dozens of other blacks owned 30 or more slaves.
Every one of the 13 states and most of the major cities that would become part of the Confederacy had substantial numbers of black slaveowners. New Orleans by both numbers and by proportion had the most. A staggering 28 percent of free blacks in the Crescent City owned slaves. With the Civil War imminent, free blacks in New Orleans pledged their support of the Confederacy, declaring:
The free colored population of Louisiana . . . own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land . . . and they are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism; no love for the North, but they have plenty for Louisiana. . . . They will fight for her in 1861 as they fought in 1814-1815.
Black slavemasters are omitted from most textbooks in American history or mentioned only as having bought a family member to free him. That occurred, but only in a minority of cases. Moreover, if that were the intention of the black slaveholder, why was the family member not immediately manumitted but instead listed as a slave in census data?
Also, regularly omitted in discussions of American slavery is the person who established the precedent for it all: Anthony Johnson. He was one of those slaves sold in 1619 in Virginia. By law, though, he was sold as an indentured servant. When he had served his term of indenture, he was freed and awarded with land. He became a successful tobacco farmer and bought indentured servants, both black and white, to work his land. When he refused to release black field hand John Casor from indenture, a white neighbor, for whom Casor wanted to work, supported Casor in suing for his freedom. Johnson argued Casor had never signed a contract of indenture but had always been a slave, and therefore Johnson was under no obligation to release him. In 1654 the court decided in Johnson’s favor, making him—a former black slave from Africa—the first legal slaveholder in the American colonies.
If blacks owned thousands of black slaves so, too, did American Indians. By the middle of the 1700s, various tribes, especially the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast, began to acquire black slaves. By the end of the century the Cherokee owned nearly a thousand and the Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw several thousand more. The numbers grew sharply during the early nineteenth century. When the tribes were removed to Indian Territory, mostly during the 1830s, they took thousands of black slaves with them.
Accompanying the Cherokee on their “Trail of Tears” were some 2,000 black slaves. They were put to work on Cherokee farms in the new tribal home, raising cotton, corn, and garden crops, and tending hogs and cattle. “As far as they are able . . . even the very poor Indians will manage to get possession of one or two negroes to perform their heavy work,” noted Henry C. Benson, a Methodist minister to the newly relocated Indians. “Indians are known to cherish an invincible disgust for manual labor.”
The tribes enacted their own slave codes that grew progressively harsher as the years of the 19th century passed. The Cherokee constitution of 1827, for example, prohibited slaves from owning property, selling goods, marrying Indians, voting, or consuming alcohol. The Cherokee subsequently adopted laws that prohibited teaching blacks to read, instituted the death penalty for a slave who raped a Cherokee, and prohibited free blacks from living within the Cherokee Nation. Slaveholders were given great latitude in dealing with their chattel property. While some masters were lenient, others were brutal. One Cherokee buried a slave alive as punishment for robbery. Other slaves were beaten to death or maimed as punishment. After a black slave killed his Choctaw master in a conspiracy of sorts, the slave and his aunt, also a slave, were tied to a wood pile and burned to death.
The Five Civilized Tribes cooperated fully with the enforcement of the fugitive slave laws, whether this meant returning slaves to white owners or to Indian slavemasters. In 1842, in an organized action, some 20 black slaves stole firearms and ran away from their Cherokee owners. Stealing horses and mules along the way, they headed south into the Creek Nation and were joined by another 15 runaway slaves. The combined group came upon a white man, James Edwards, and his Delaware Indian sidekick, Billy Wilson, who were returning some runaway slaves to the Choctaw—and killed them both. Meanwhile, a force of Cherokee and Creek, in an unusual instance of cooperation, were hot on the runaways’ trail. They captured them near the Red River. Five of the slaves were later found guilty of the murders of Edwards and Wilson and put to death. The rest were returned to their owners. What punishment they suffered is unknown.
During the antebellum decade, slavery reached its peak among the Five Civilized Tribes. The Cherokee, numbering only about 20,000 themselves, owned nearly 5,000 black slaves; the Choctaw 2,500; the Creeks 2,000; and the Chickasaw and Seminole about a thousand each. To protect their slave property, the Five Civilized Tribes, except for a few dissident factions, sided with the Confederacy when the Civil War erupted. “The war now raging,” declared the Cherokee, “is a war of Northern cupidity and fanaticism against the institution of African servitude; against the commercial freedom of the South, and against the political freedom of the States.”
Nearly 20,000 Indians from the Five Civilized Tribes served in more than a dozen Indian units in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The more prominent of the units included the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, the Thomas’ Legion of Eastern Cherokee, the Cherokee Cavalry, the Chickasaw Cavalry, the Chickasaw Infantry, the Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles, the Choctaw Cavalry, the Creek Mounted Volunteers, and the Seminole Mounted Volunteers. In 1864 the Indian Cavalry Brigade was organized and commanded by Cherokee Nation leader Brig. Gen. Stand Watie. Watie did not surrender his brigade until June 1865, making him the last Confederate general to surrender.
American Indians not only served in the Confederate Army but also in the Confederate Congress. One of several to serve in both was Elias Cornelius Boudinot. He was a lieutenant colonel in the army, fighting in the battles of Pea Ridge, Locust Grove, and Prairie Grove, as well as the Cherokee delegate to Congress.
The 13th Amendment, ratified during the fall of 1865, abolished slavery in the U.S. as a whole but not among the Five Civilized Tribes. Although the Indians were “under the protection of the United States,” it was unclear how the Constitution applied to them. As a consequence, blacks remained as slaves in Indian Territory until July and August 1866 after the U.S. government had negotiated new treaties with the individual tribes that included specific clauses prohibiting slavery. Even then, some slaveholders among the Five Civilized Tribes didn’t comply until 1867.
Unfortunately, these complexities and uncomfortable facts of slavery in the United States are unknown to the majority of Americans today. I suspect those now talking about reparations are among them.