A to Z Challenge – S is for Slavery

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.

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9 responses to “A to Z Challenge – S is for Slavery

  1. I think that, at the time, the options were really limited for the plantation owners. All those people had to have a livelihood, as you said. Giving up so many acres of your own is one way to help with that. It really was a hard place to be in.

    I heard that Dolley Madison’s family freed all their slaves on their plantation when the Quakers said to do so. They had been wealthy, but were suddenly unable to maintain their life as they knew it, since all their labor was gone. The family moved North in much reduced circumstances. Was it right? I think so. But the whole business was badly managed, on the whole. I wonder what great strides all the way around could have been made if the freeing of the slaves had been accomplished with a better plan?

    Thought provoking post!

  2. A plan would have helped, I’m sure. It certainly was a hard time in U.S. history–for everyone involved. Thanks for commenting. The whole issue is really stuck in my mind and heart today. I guess the thing bothering me is the vast difference between the abusive slavery picture the media has pushed for decades vs. what I’m finding in family history. Perhaps two sides of the same coin. One thing is for sure – you’ll never see ‘S is for Slavery’ on Sesame Street. 🙂

  3. P is for slavery too: PRIVATIZATION is our day and age equivalent of slavery, therefore totally unconstitutional: I just cannot understand how our great connoisseurs of the Constitution and scholars don’t see it, for what it is in its essence (I guess they got bussy with many unimportant, marginal issues)!
    The hardest time in our history are the times when we are confused by complicity and perversity and privatization, our times, indeed!

    Great posts Lori!

  4. Lori, thanks for a great post! I too hail from the South and slavery is a topic I’m always interested in, especially if it relates to family history. I’ve not found any slave owners in my family, but I can relate to the treatment of African Americans in our own lifetimes. Growing up I witnessed far more mistreatment of a different nature than slavery — the intentional deprivation of services, exclusion in the work place, etc. Your writing brings to light so much to think about.

  5. I was born and bread in the Great Southern Land (otherwise known as Australia), so I don’t really know much about slavery except what I see in the media. I have often wondered what happened to the freed slaves and to the families that owned them.

    I know that we had slavery in Australia but it’s not something we learnt much about in school, Aussies like to keep those bad memories hidden away. However, our history with it was a great deal shorter then America or the UK’s.

    I never think that people should run away from these discussions, memories and pieces of our history. Now do I think they should be taboo subjects. They should be open to discussion and review from both sides of the coin. It’s so easy to get bogged down on the “this was bad and here’s why, and everything related to it was bad and we should only focus on that.” I’ll be interested to hear anything else you may post on the subject.

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