While there are few U.S. citizens of any age who deny that this country was founded— allowing for and prospering by—the purchasing and enslavement of Africans via the Atlantic slave trade, much of our current debate about African Americans, "race," racism, and the roots in slavery still fail to cover huge portions of that history, and fail to link the current economic status
of blacks in the U.S. to that past.
We will never end racism in this country as long as people continue to deny that it is still firmly rooted in the not-so-distant time of enslavement.
I've discussed why everyone should study slavery here before, and will continue to highlight many facets of that past that often go overlooked. Key in understanding the insidious and long-term effects of U.S. slavery is looking at how its economics benefited the growth and wealth of this nation. Too often, when we hear the words "slave trade," we think of the trans-Atlantic trade. But after that practice was curtailed and ended, the U.S. embarked upon a solution to continue to supply enslaved humans to fuel the profits of plantation owners in the south and mill owners in the north.
That solution was the development of what is called the domestic slave trade, or the internal trade, and the production of humans for sale via breeding programs.
It is fitting that Virginia, home to slave-holding Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe (who owned members of my extended family), Harrison, Tyler and Taylor, is host to a major exhibition, To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade, which opened October 27 and runs through May 30, 2015.
From To Be Sold:
One of the darkest episodes in the history of Richmond, Virginia, and the nation, the American slave trade is also one of the most important to our shared history and collective identity. To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade offers a frank exploration of Virginia’s role in the business of the second middle passage—the forced relocation of two-thirds of a million African Americans from the Upper South to the Cotton South in the decades before the Civil War.
Follow me below the fold for more.
The Out of the Box blog from the Library of Virginia Archives currently has four detailed posts relating to the To Be Sold series, including The Williams and Ivy Slave Trade Scheme:
This is the first in a series of four blog posts related to the “To Be Sold” exhibit which opens on October 27 at the Library of Virginia. Each post will be based on court cases found in LVA’s Local Records collection and involving slave traders. These suits provide insight into the motivation of individuals to get into the slave trading business, as well as details on how they carried out their operations. Even more remarkably, these records document stories of enslaved individuals purchased in Virginia and taken hundreds of miles away by sea and by land to be sold in the Deep South. The following narrative comes from Norfolk County Chancery Cause 1853-008, Thomas Williams vs. William N. Ivy, etc.
In 1838, Thomas Williams and William N. Ivy formed a partnership “for the purchase of slaves to be sent to Louisiana.” Their plan was to first hire out the slaves for about a year to local businesses, then to divide between them the wages earned by the slaves and a free African American they employed as an apprentice. Once the hiring-out period ended, the slaves would be sold, or “disposed of” as Williams called it, for a profit. To finance their venture, Williams and Ivy received a loan of $5,000 from the Exchange Bank of Virginia at Norfolk. Ivy left for Louisiana to make arrangements for the arrival of the slaves, leaving Williams in Norfolk to purchase the slaves.
The second part is Elizabeth’s Story
, which tells the tale of an enslaved little girl with epilepsy:
The following is the story of a slave named Elizabeth (also known as Lizzy or Betsey) found in Norfolk County Chancery Cause 1853-008, Thomas Williams vs. William N. Ivy, etc. As told in last week’s blog post, Thomas Williams and William Ivy formed a partnership to purchase slaves in Virginia, transport them to Louisiana, hire them out to a local timber company for a year, and then sell them for a profit. Elizabeth was one of the slaves purchased by Williams and placed on a ship headed to Louisiana where Ivy was awaiting them. When Ivy received the first shipment of slaves, he was not happy to see the slave girl Elizabeth coming off the ship. He could not understand why Williams purchased her. “(She) could be of no service to the concern in Louisiana & was in fact purchased by the said Williams in manifest opposition to the intents and interests of the concern.” In order to spare the partnership a financial loss, Ivy sold Elizabeth to Ethan Allen for $480 at a public auction in Franklin, Lousiana, on 15 February 1839. In the sale agreement, Ivy declared that Elizabeth was “free from all mortgages or encumbrances, and the defects termed redhibitory” (that is to say, she was in perfect health).
Elizabeth’s story does not end there. The very next day after purchasing Elizabeth from Ivy, Allen sold Elizabeth to John Johnson who then sold her on 8 March 1839 to William B. Lewis for $613. On 4 April 1839, Lewis sold Elizabeth to a relative named Thomas H. Lewis for $650. Thomas H. Lewis brought Elizabeth to his home in Opelousas, Louisiana, 85 miles north of Franklin, to work as a house servant for his family. About two weeks after being purchased by Lewis, Elizabeth had “a most violent fit that lasted nearly three hours, it incapacitated her from work for three or four days. She had several fits afterwards. She was often deranged, and forget [sic] everything told her.”
The third part is titled Beasley, Jones, and Wood: Virginia Slave Traders
From 1834 to 1845, Richard R. Beasley and William H. Wood were business partners “engaged in the trade of negroes [sic], buying them here [Virginia] & carrying them to the South for sale.” It was a partnership that was renewed every twelve months. Over the next decade, other individuals such as Robert R. Jones invested in the partnership but Wood and Beasley were the primary participants. The slave trade enterprise was funded by the personal capital of the partners, as well as loans from banks and private individuals. For example, in 1838, Beasley invested $5,800 and Wood $2,343 and they borrowed $6,905 from the Bank of Virginia and private individuals for a combined total of $15,048. In 1844, the total investment by the partners was $27,213 with over $24,000 invested by Beasley alone.
The partnership generally operated in the following manner: Beasley purchased the slaves in Virginia and Wood managed the transportation and selling of the slaves in the towns of Natchez and Port Gibson, Mississippi, and in New Orleans, Louisiana. The slave trade proved to be very successful, bringing in large profits to the partnership. In 1836, Beasley and Wood purchased in Virginia 19 male slaves, 12 female slaves, and one child at a total price of $27,601 and sold them in Port Gibson, Mississippi, for $43,626. Expenses for transportation, clothing, food, etc., were $1,955, leaving a net profit of $14,070 to be divided among the partners. In 2014 dollars, that would be almost $303,000. (I used the Federal Reserve Bank Consumer Price Index (Estimate) calculator for this figure) The partnership experienced great losses following the Panic of 1837. However, beginning in 1840, they were once again enjoying huge profits until Wood’s 1845 death, which ended the partnership. William H. Wood died in Gainesville, Alabama, while transporting slaves to sell in Mississippi.
The final part is Hester Jane Carr’s Story
, which follows a woman who was free and sold into slavery:
While reviewing all the names of the slaves purchased and sold by Beasley and Wood, there was one name that stood out. In the 1836 list of female slaves sold by Wood in Port Gibson, the last name on the list was Hester. She was purchased in Virginia for $750 but unlike the other slaves listed there was no selling price. Also, by her name was written the word “Free.” Towards the end of the account book, I found this notation: “The girl that’s claiming her freedom by the name of Hester Jane is also in the concern if recovered.”
Most of my enslaved ancestors whom I've been able to trace were from Virginia
. I've never been able to find those who were sold off as a cash crop, although I know some of their names.
Along with the history of the domestic trade is another topic that is currently evoking controversy—for years a number of scholars have refused to look at the reality of "slave breeding" to feed the trade, when a cheap, and replaceable crop was no longer available after the trade from Africa was abolished.
Dennis Williams, born enslaved
abt.1847 in Virginia.
I once wrote about myself that "I am the product of a bicentennial of breeding farms." Some of my enslaved ancestors looked whiter than many "white" people, like my great-grandfather, Dennis Williams. They were not descendants of Irish indentured women who had children with black indentured men. They were born out of the rape of their mothers by overseers and/or owners.
In Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, Gregory Smithers takes on the naysayers:
For over two centuries, the topic of slave breeding has occupied a controversial place in the master narrative of American history. From nineteenth-century abolitionists to twentieth-century filmmakers and artists, Americans have debated whether slave owners deliberately and coercively manipulated the sexual practices and marital status of enslaved African Americans to reproduce new generations of slaves for profit.
In this bold and provocative book, historian Gregory Smithers investigates how African Americans have narrated, remembered, and represented slave-breeding practices. He argues that while social and economic historians have downplayed the significance of slave breeding, African Americans have refused to forget the violence and sexual coercion associated with the plantation South. By placing African American histories and memories of slave breeding within the larger context of America’s history of racial and gender discrimination, Smithers sheds much-needed light on African American collective memory, racialized perceptions of fragile black families, and the long history of racially motivated violence against men, women, and children of color.
We have no way to come up with actual numbers of enslaved women forced or coerced into reproducing for the benefit of their owners. We can, however, track those births that were not counted in the slave census as "black." In the 1850 slave census
, 2,869,681 enslaved people were listed as "black" and 255,208 were counted as "mulatto (mixed)." By 1860, 3,340,097 were "black" and 417,051 were "mulatto." They certainly didn't get European ancestry by osmosis.
In American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnessees, abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld used the words of Virginia's white elites to castigate them for their practices:
Mr. GHOLSON, of Virginia, in his speech in the Legislature of that state, Jan. 18, 1832, (see Richmond Whig,) says:
"It has always (perhaps erroneously) been considered by steady and old-fashioned people, that the owner of land had a reasonable right to its annual profits; the owner of orchards, to their annual fruits; the owner of brood mares, to their product; and the owner of female slaves, to their increase. We have not the fine-spun intelligence, nor legal acumen, to discover the technical distinctions drawn by gentlemen. ‘Partus sequitur ventrem’ is coeval with the existence of the rights of property itself, and is founded in wisdom and justice. It is on the justice and inviolability of this maxim that the master foregoes the service of the female slave; has her nursed and attended during the period of her gestation, and raises the helpless and infant offspring. The value of the property justifies the expense; and I do not hesitate to say, that in its increase consists much of our wealth.”
Hon. THOMAS MANN RANDOLPH, of Virginia, formerly Governor of that state, in his speech before the legislature in 1832, while speaking of the number of slaves annually sold from Virginia to the more southern slave states, said:—
“The exportation has averaged EIGHT THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED for the last twenty years. Forty years ago, the whites exceeded the colored 25, 000, the colored now exceed the whites 81, 000; and these results too during an exportation of near 260, 000 slaves since the year 1790, now perhaps the fruitful progenitors of half a million in other states. It is a practice and an increasing practice, in parts of Virginia, to rear slaves for market. How can an honorable mind, a patriot and a lover of his country, bear to see this ancient dominion converted into one grand menagerie, where men are to be reared for market, like oxen for the shambles.”
Professor DEW, now President of the University of William and Mary, Virginia, in his Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature, 1831–2, says, p 49.
“From all the information we can obtain, we have no hesitation in saying that upwards of six thousand [slaves] are yearly exported [from Virginia] to other states.’ Again, p. 61: ‘The 6000 slaves which Virginia annually sends off to the south, are a source of wealth to Virginia.’—Again, p. 120: ‘A full equivalent being thus left in the place of the slave, this emigration becomes an advantage to the state, and does not check the black population as much as, at first view, we might imagine—because it furnishes every inducement to the master to attend to the negroes, to ENCOURAGE BREEDING, and to cause the greatest number possible to be raised. &c.”
“Virginia is, in fact, a negro-raising state for other states.”
Relevant to this whole discussion is the book, Breeding a Nation: Reproductive Slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Pursuit of Freedom
Law professor and activist Pamela D. Bridgewater argues that the lawmakers who wrote the Thirteenth Amendment with the intent of ending slavery understood that human breeding—forcing women to have babies—was a central element of slavery. Knowing that it was politically dangerous to name reproductive slavery in the amendment, they framed the amendment with enough scope to restrain the government from ever again requiring women to give birth, or preventing them from doing so.
In other words, to limit or completely take away reproductive freedom is not only unconstitutional—it reinstitutes slavery.
Breeding a Nation explores a much-denied episode in US history—the deliberate "growing" of humans as a crop for sale. In 2008, two hundred years will have passed since the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed—ironically a victory that caused massive escalation in reproductive coercion. Once the flow of Africans to the United States was cut off, the only way to maintain the economy was to aggressively, even systematically, breed new “slaves” from the men and women already enslaved here. Some plantations even stopped growing crops so they could focus entirely on slave-breeding. In essence, slave-breeding became a vital feeder industry for agribusiness, and the massive wealth it produced undergirds America’s position as a global superpower in the world today.
Far too often I hear people say, "Slavery has nothing to do with me, my family didn't own slaves," or "we were poor immigrants, we came here long after slavery ended."
The truth is, everyone who came to America benefited from the wealth torn from the wombs of enslaved women and stripped off the backs of men, women, and children.