Friday, July 17, 2015

A Reader Writes: "It Turns Out That It Was Obviously Stupid to Think That There Was Never a Time in Which People in the North Owned Slaves" — Slavery and Racism as the American Original Sin

I find Annika's comment in response to my recent posting about my Southern roots and the Confederate flag fascinating. Annika writes

When I first got into genealogy a few years ago, I assumed that I had no real connection to slavery in any way. None of my ancestors (I thought) owned slaves, since they all lived in the North, but neither were any abolitionists, so far as I knew. No close relatives fought in the Civil War on either side. 
It turns out that 1) it was obviously stupid to think that there was never a time in which people in the North owned slaves and 2) many of my ancestors (as well as their siblings, cousins, etc.) owned slaves. In fact, my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather's brother David Rumsey was one of the last men in New York to own slaves and he was notorious for having "Slaves bought, sold, and bred" still painted on his barn even after New York abolished slavery. All adult slaves in New York were freed in 1827, but children born into slavery still served as indentured servants until they came of age. At the time of his will in 1829, he still owned four slaves. By the 1830 census, only 75 slaves remained in New York, four of whom were owned by my relatives.

Think about it: in a single thread responding to my posting, three different contributors, all with roots north of the Mason-Dixon line (in Shaun's case, with Canadian roots), share their surprise at having discovered that they had slaveholding ancestors or ancestors who supported the Confederacy. I'm always surprised when I see the surprise of people on television shows tracing folks' ancestry as they discover that they, too, had ancestors who held slaves or fought for the Confederacy.

In some cases, these are people who knew that their roots lay in the slaveholding South, and so I wonder what ever led them to imagine that their ancestry might be free of the taint of slaveholding. I also ask myself how Americans with roots outside the South can really ever have thought that the practice of slavery didn't implicate the entire nation.

Slaves built much of the infrastructure of New York City, and were essential to the operation of Wall Street in that economic powershouse's formative period. New York had a slave market rivaling that of Charleston, and yet, until now, there has been no call whatsoever to commemorate this history, and most New Yorkers are oblivious of it.

Slavery was their problem down there, their sin.

Descendants of the extraordinarily wealthy DeWolf family of Rhode Island, whose wealth was initially garnered via the slave trade, are now doing everything they can to educate the rest of us about how slavery was a national institution in the U.S., from which people in both North and South benefitted. 

Somebody had to own and operate those ships that plied back and forth from North America to Africa, picking up shiploads of human beings, bringing rum to New England and the coastal areas of the South from the Caribbean after some of the human cargo was unloaded in that part of the world. Bringing cotton to the busy factories of New England and England after more of the human cargo was unloaded in the American South . . . . The somebodies who owned and operated those ships and benefited tremendously in economic terms from the slave trade quite frequently lived not in the South, which was agrarian and focused on growing lucrative crops, but in the North, which was economically and industrially organized in a way far surpassing the economic and industrial organization of the South..

I say none of this to exonerate my own Southern ancestors for having owned slaves and operated plantations and farms with slave labor. I say it because it's too simple for us as Americans to locate the deep problem of our historic racism, which is grounded in our original sin of slavery, in one discrete part of the country — and to pretend that it's therefore someone else's problem.

Slavery implicates the entire nation, as does its aftermath, deeply embedded historic racism that continues to undermine the practice of participatory democracy in the U.S. We will never honestly and effectively address our sinful historic racism as long as we keep imagining it's someone else's problem and can't possibly affect us who descend from the people who set the shining lamp atop the hill on which they built the shining city to light the way for the rest of the world.

The photo of the Statue of Liberty was taken by a Wikimedia Commons user named Elcobbola, and uploaded there for sharing.

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