S is for Slavery
That title may have raised a few eyebrows, and I apologize. With my recent genealogy research, I have been thinking a lot lately about slavery. Not as in bad or good, or as in a concept of the past, but as in the actual people involved in the process—the slaves and the owners and their lives and relationships.
My family hails from the south—All Of Them. We’ve been in NC, TN, MS and AL since the 1600s. I think all but one of my greats, 2nd greats, and 3rd greats were born and raised in the south. And just like the majority of southern farmers, nearly all of my family owned slaves until 1863ish. What got me thinking about the topic in depth was recently finding a 1750 will of a grandfather who owned 800 acres and left at least 40 slaves to his descendants. 40? What a major financial investment and responsibility that was.
I also have other family history:
…a 3rd great grandfather who gave his slave 80 acres following the emancipation, and his descendants still live on that land to this day, next door to the grandfather’s descendants.
…a great uncle who sold his farm in 1865 to a black man named Tom Stennis. Later I found that this was a former slave of Adam T. Stennis, who bought my 4th great grandfather’s land in 1869.
…that same 4th great grandfather had $8000 of wealth in land and farming equipment in 1860—and had 13 slaves. Generally, a slave would sell for $1000 or more at an auction, so this was not a cheap or frivolous purchase. He was well-to-do with $8000 of land and livestock, but he had most of his wealth tied up in $13,000+ worth of slaves. Those are 1860 prices. I looked it up on http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/ and found the relative value of $13,000 in 1860 is up to $45 MILLION today. Holy Cow!
I am not negating the abuse of slaves at the time nor the emotional attachment people of today have to this issue. This is not a debate on whether slavery was good or bad. As intelligent human beings, we can all agree it was/is bad. I am, however, finding more and more evidence that the white plantation owners took good care of their slaves following the emancipation. So, that’s what got me thinking about it…on a human level.
If you own livestock, you probably don’t love them, but you do recognize your responsibility to feed them and take care of them. If you own something rare and valuable like a sports car, you would take very good care of it. If you are from the south, you have a greater sense of responsibility toward your neighbors and community than anywhere I’ve seen on this planet. Everyone knows the kindness and compassion of southerners is unsurpassed.
Now, if the government takes away your ability to make a living, as it did to plantation owners by taking the slaves away, what are you going to do? Easy, you get another job. But what if that action involves 40 people who work for you and depend on you? These were not employees who you hand a pink slip and send on their way. They are your property. Don’t you have a moral obligation to take care of the people in your charge, whether they were birthed or bought? When the slaves were legally freed, where could they go? What could they do?
The most logical idea I thought of was to give them 40 acres in exchange for them still working on your farm. That would help you maintain your income, while at the same time, helping them become free.
I’m wondering if Alex Haley’s “Roots” dug so deep in our collective conscious, that it created in us a mindset that all slave owners were evil, abusive tyrants. Perhaps they were, but I’m finding a lot of evidence to the contrary. This whole issue is swimming around in my head, so please comment if you have thoughts.