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Tag: "slavery"

When Talking About Slavery, Words Really Matter

[ 148 ] July 11, 2017 |

This is a few days old, but it is still worth a mention. When archaeologists discovered Sally Hemings’ cabin at Monticello, NBC News and many other news outlets reported it the cabin of Jefferson’s “mistress.” The problem of course is that mistress implies some sort of choice, whereas Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s sex slave. Using euphemisms, whether to protect Jefferson’s reputation or simply by accident reinforces the racial equality at the heart of the American nation that so many white people either deny or don’t want to talk about. And that’s not OK.

Language like that elides the true nature of their relationship, which is believed to have begun when Hemings, then 14 years old, accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to live with Jefferson, then 44, in Paris. She wasn’t Jefferson’s mistress; she was his property. And he raped her.

Such revisionist history about slavery is, unfortunately, still quite common. In 2015, Texas rolled out what many saw as a “whitewashed ” version of its social studies curriculum that referred to enslaved Africans as “immigrants” and “workers” and minimized slavery’s impact on the Civil War. One concerned parent spoke out, forcing a textbook publisher to revise some of the teaching materials.

That same sanitization of history happened again with the Hemings news. On Twitter, some users defended the “mistress” label, suggesting, essentially, that Jefferson and his slave may have truly loved each other. One person even went so far as to wonder whether “Hemings’s exalted wisdom and beauty compelled Jefferson’s love” and whether “she was perhaps not a victim but an agent of change?”

Jefferson could have forced Hemings into a sexual relationship no matter what she wanted, though. And it’s impossible to know what Hemings thought of Jefferson. As with many enslaved people, her thoughts, feelings and emotions were not documented. According to, there are only four known descriptions of the woman who first came to Jefferson’s plantation as a baby on the hip of her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whom Jefferson also owned.

Jefferson, an avid writer, never mentioned Hemings in his work. He did, however, grapple with issues of emancipation throughout his life. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson spent a substantial section attempting to answer the question, “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence [sic] of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?” Despite fathering Hemings’s children, Jefferson argued against race mixing because black people were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

Other slave-owning founders rose above the times to change their minds about the dreadful institution — including Ben Franklin, who became an outspoken abolitionist later in life, and George Washington, who freed his enslaved servants in his will. But Jefferson did no such thing. He owned 607 men, women and children at Monticello, and though some argue that he “loved” Hemings, he granted freedom to only two people while he was alive and five people in his will — and never to her.

One can still argue Thomas Jefferson was a critical individual in the development of the United States and even that he had great and noble ideas and still note that he had a sex slave and was a massive hypocrite, even for his time. I won’t accept an argument that Jefferson was a good president because he was not, but sure, go ahead and try to make the argument. But none of this is served well by covering up for Jefferson’s long-term rape of a slave. The forced sexual labor of African slaves is as central to American history as the Declaration of Independence or any other idea developed by the Founders. We simply cannot understand the United States, then and now, without placing sex slavery at the middle of the conversation. Yet for many white people, even acknowledging this is a step too far to take.


This Day in Labor History: May 30, 1741

[ 20 ] May 30, 2017 |

On May 30, 1741, Quack and Cuffee, two slaves convicted of a conspiracy to burn New York and start a slave rebellion, were burned to death. Part of the New York Slave Conspiracy, the events of the spring of 1741 demonstrated both the racial and class tensions in New York, as well as the dependency of that city upon slavery.

Although in popular imagination slavery was a southern phenomenon, in the colonial period, New York was a major destination for slaves. In 1741, in the colonies that would become the United States only Charleston had more slaves than New York. The Dutch imported the first African slaves to New Amsterdam in 1626 and the first slave auction was held there in 1655. The British expanded the slave presence in the city significantly. By 1703, 42 percent of New York households were slaveholders. In 1711, New York established a permanent slave market at the east end of Wall Street, which operated until 1762. These slaves operated in a number of jobs, including household servants, dock workers, working for merchants, and doing much of the grunt work that went into creating that colonial center of commerce.

In March and April 1741, 13 mysterious fires started in Lower Manhattan, including one inside Fort George, where the colony’s governor lived. The Fort George fire, on March 18, burned several municipal buildings. The city freaked out. Some claimed they saw slaves celebrating the fires. In any case, suspicion fell on the city’s large slave population. The city starting trying slaves, offering leniency and even pardon in exchange for confession. The first slaves were hanged on May 11. These slaves, Caesar and Prince, had been convicted of robbing the home of a prominent citizen. Regardless of whether they even committed the robbery, they became associated with the conspiracy. Then on May 30 were the burnings of Quack and Cuffee. The confessed with the torch about to be applied and named names. There is no good reason to believe these were legitimate confessions; moreover, they were burned anyway. In the many arrests and “confessions” that followed, whites decided that there was a large-scale conspiracy to overthrow slavery in New York that would have led to Caesar being named the king of whatever city followed. They believed that the plan was for individual conspirators to start fires and then kill their masters in an orchestrated event.

By June, the New York population decided that it was bigger than just their slaves. No, their slaves were working in league with Catholics to allow the Spanish or maybe the French to invade the city. Tensions were high between the Spanish and English in the late 1730s and the frequent wars between these powers were real to everyday people, so thinking in these terms perhaps made sense, although how the Spanish would coordinate a campaign of slave arson remains a stretch to consider. So Catholics began to be targeted by the authorities as well. Finally, the star witness, Mary Burton, an Irish servant to a tavern owner who had been arrested for theft and who agreed to expose the conspiracy, began to say such ludicrous things, expanding her ever-increasingly accusations to leading white Protestant New Yorkers, leading people began to question the whole enterprise and the mania to subside.

About 150 slaves were arrested and tried for starting the fires. A few dozen whites were arrested as well, usually poor whites who worked with the slaves. The vast majority almost certainly had nothing to do with it. It’s entirely possible that no one was guilty at all. The weather that winter was very cold, making a wooden city very dry with lots of fires going on to keep people warm. There were always many ways fires started in a city constructed of wood. Slaves were frequently accused of plotting to burn buildings and it’s really impossible to know how true these accusations were. They ranged from entirely made up to very real. Media in the colonies frequently reported on slave uprisings, some of which were very real such as in Antigua in 1736. That the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina took place in 1739 made the slaveholders of New York even more nervous.

Even more relevant was that in 1712, slaves in New York had in fact set buildings on fire and then murdered nine whites fighting those fires. But any time slaves got together, whites saw it is as a threat. That could be in taverns, as was often the accusations in New York, or later it could be in churches such as Denmark Vesey’s or even in slave cabins and forests behind plantations at night in the antebelllum South. Forced labor had the downside of making slaveholders rightfully worried that people without other options would rise up violently to free themselves, or at least kill their oppressors. The visit of George Whitefield to spread his evangelicalism in what became known as the Great Awakening put New York slaveholders further on edge, as by 1740 he was openly arguing for better conditions for slaves, to the point that he was arrested in Charleston in 1741 for his arguments about slavery.

Not everyone thought this was a good idea. On August 8, an anonymous letter to Cadwallader Colden remonstrated him for his actions, comparing them to the Salem witch trials. The anonymous author urged Colden, “I intreat you not to go on to Massacre & destroy your own Estates by making Bonfires of the Negros & perhaps loading yourself with greater Guilt than theirs.” But such words would have little effect on a population paranoid over revolt from their slave laborers.

In the end, the bodies of two supposed conspirators, Caesar and the white cobbler John Hughson, whose tavern the slaves were supposed to have started the conspiracy, were gibboted and their corpses left to rot in public. Several slaves were burned at the stake. Overall, at least 30 blacks and 4 whites were killed. 77 others, both black and white, were deported from New York to Newfoundland, which was the British Empire version of being sent to Siberia, or the death traps of the West Indies.

Slavery continued for a long time in New York. Thousands of slaves followed the British as they left New York during the American Revolution. A New York law for gradual emancipation passed in 1799. The last slaves were not freed from New York until 1827, 51 years to the day after the nation declared independence from Britain.

This post borrowed from Eric Plaag, “New York’s 1741 Slave Conspiracy in a Climate of Fear and Anxiety,” published in the Summer 2003 issue of New York History. I have heard good things about Jill Lepore’s recent book on the issue, but I have not read it.

This is the 224th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Neocolonialism at its (Canadian?) Best

[ 102 ] May 4, 2017 |


So, clearly, I need to drop in soon with an update on this weekend’s French election. But, in the meantime, it turns out that France isn’t the only place where colonial history is back up for debate.

A constitutional scholar just published an apparently serious call for Haiti to relinquish its sovereignty–preferably to Canada.

The new Haitian Constitution should do something virtually unprecedented: renounce the power of self-governance and assign it for a term of years, say 50, to a country that can be trusted to act in Haiti’s long-term interests.

Since the US, France, and the UK have a bad record with Caribbean conquests,

The answer may be Canada, for years one of Haiti’s most loyal friends and foreign aid donors — and today one of the most popular destinations for the diaspora. Canadians today yearn for real influence in the world, and there may be no better way than building Haiti anew drawing from Canada’s values of equality, diversity, and compassion, and its unique expertise in humanitarian assistance. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is still looking for a major foreign policy achievement since his election in 2015, and this commitment could leave a legacy that would match his father’s own achievements as prime minister.

Now, this plan is not without its drawbacks:

The optics alone of a majority-white country running Haiti — even if in Haiti’s best interests — revive ghosts of the distant but never-forgotten past of slavery.

Really? In the place where the world’s largest successful slave rebellion resulted in the second independent republic in the post-Colombian western hemisphere? You don’t say.

Difficult times often yield impossible choices, and this would be an extraordinarily difficult decision for Haiti’s political leaders. Yet the greatest gift Haiti’s political class can give their fellow citizens is to give up the power to govern. This ultimate sacrifice would be a triumph of national over individual interests, and it would forever memorialize Haiti’s current leaders as the country’s modern founders.

I get that Haiti is in rough shape right now, but find it hard to see how a new imperial overlord would help things. I can’t even begin to imagine how Haiti’s revolutionary founders–and the thousands who fought with them–would respond to this. But this is what they said at the time:

It is not enough to have expelled the barbarians who have bloodied our land for two centuries; it is not enough to have restrained those ever-evolving factions that one after another mocked the specter of liberty that France dangled before you. We must, with one last act of national authority, forever assure the empire of liberty in the country of our birth; we must take any hope of re-enslaving us away from the inhuman government that for so long kept us in the most humiliating torpor. In the end we must live independent or die.

Histories for the Trump Era, Part 1

[ 97 ] February 3, 2017 |


Since the election, my daily historical reading has taken on a different tone. Not in the sense of what I am reading, which hasn’t changed. But rather, my reactions to it are quite different. The repeal of Reconstruction makes me even angrier than before, the failures of the civil rights movement to go further moved from hopeful that we can revisit it in the future to extremely tragic, the labor history more hopeless, the naked and ugly white supremacy of the 19th century newly relevant, the history of capitalism largely a capitulation to the system that often doesn’t challenge it, and the environmental history less relevant. Maybe this will change over time. But it’s all framed by what is happening right now. Given all of this, I figured that it might be useful to write up thoughts about the past that could address what is happening now. This could be an occasional series.

In the last few days, I have been wondering what is the next step in the protests against Trump. That’s especially true in the context of the continued Muslim ban that has affected the lives of tens of thousands of people in this country, not to mention those outside the country. We have made our anger and outrage well-known. It’s received a lot of attention. It also hasn’t made one difference to Trump and Bannon. That’s hardly surprising. Protest doesn’t make presidents change their policies. Rather, it builds momentum for larger movements that will elect people that will change those policies and influences politicians to move slightly toward what you want.

But I have to wonder where we go from here. Continued protests, less large but often in random places around the nation have kept some pressure on. If we hold another giant protest on Sunday, it would be great but it wouldn’t make America less fascist either. And this is an issue where we can’t necessarily intervene very easily. These are issues that happen behind security in airports. That’s hard to move upon directly.

However, I do think we need to be figuring out how to up the ante in these protests because that is going to be necessary. If the next airport protests ended up with the storming of the gates and the mass arrests that would create, that’s actually not the worst thing in the world, if the people doing are trained to do so. And I suspect but don’t know that some of that training is beginning to happen. Moreover, given the likelihood of increased deportations, we can think about how to resist that deportation directly. Eventually, physical intervention is going to be necessary to save our friends, family, and allies. And that’s something I want to encourage because it may well be the only way forward.

That brings me to the Fugitive Slave Act and the inability to implement it in Boston. The passage of that law in 1850 led to tremendous anger in the North. For most northern whites, they didn’t really care about the fate of slaves, but many more were outraged by the idea of someone being kidnapped off the streets and returned to bondage. In Boston, that anger led to massive physical resistance. And that’s worth remembering as a model on how to resist Trump’s deportations today, especially in light of security forces that may well be openly aligned with fascism.

As a slave owned by Charles Suttle of Alexandria, Virginia, Anthony Burns had many privileges. He was allowed to hire himself out. He supervised the hiring out of four other slaves owned by Suttle. He had the freedom to take on additional jobs, as long as he paid his master a fee. He joined a church, where he became a preacher. He learned to read and write. Still, Anthony Burns was not content. At an early age he had learned that “there [was] a Christ who came to make us free” and felt “the necessity for freedom of soul and body.” In 1854, he took steps to find freedom. While working in Richmond, Burns boarded a ship heading north, to the city of Boston.

Burns arrived in Boston in March — a fugitive, but free. This new-found freedom, however, would be short-lived. Soon after his arrival he sent a letter to his brother, who was also a slave of Charles Suttle. Even though the letter was sent by way of Canada, it found its way into the hands of their master.

A few years earlier, Suttle could have expected little help from a northern state in recovering a fugitive slave. Nine states had personal liberty laws declaring that they would not cooperate with the federal government in the recapturing of slaves. But with the recent passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, a component of the Compromise of 1850, the law was on Suttle’s side.

Suttle travelled to Boston to claim his “property,” and on May 24, under the pretext of being charged for robbery, Burns was arrested. Boston abolitionists, vehemently opposed to the Slave Act, rallied to aid Burns, who was being held on the third floor of the federal courthouse. Two separate groups met at the same time to discuss Burn’s recapture: a large group, consisting mainly of white abolitionists, met at Fanueil Hall; a smaller group, mostly blacks, met in the basement of the Tremont Temple.

The meeting at the Tremont Temple was quickly over. Those present decided to march to the courthouse and release Burns, using force if necessary. The meeting at Fanueil Hall lasted much longer. The group there debated the course of action. When the intentions of the Tremont Temple gathering were announced, however, the meeting abruptly ended. About two hundred citizens left Fanueil Hall and headed to the courthouse.

The crowd outside the courthouse quickly grew from several hundred to about two thousand. A small group of blacks, led by white minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, charged the building with a beam they used as a battering ram. They succeeded in creating a small opening, but only for a moment. A shot was fired. A deputy shouted out that he had been stabbed, then died several minutes later. Higginson and a black man gained entry, but were beaten back outside by six to eight deputies.

Boston inhabitants had successfully aided re-captured slaves in the past. In 1851, a group of black men snatched a fugitive slave from a courtroom and sent her to Canada. Anthony Burns would not share the same fate. Determined to see the Fugitive Slave Act enforced, President Franklin Pierce ordered marines and artillery to assist the guards watching over Burns. Pierce also ordered a federal ship to return Burns to Virginia after the trial.

Burns was convicted of being a fugitive slave on June 2, 1854. That same day, an estimated 50,000 lined the streets of Boston, watching Anthony Burns walk in shackles toward the waterfront and the waiting ship.

A black church soon raised $1300 to purchase Burns’ freedom. In less than a year Anthony Burns was back in Boston.

I don’t want to trivialize what physical resistance to Trump will look like. It’s not fun. There are real consequences for those involved. People doing this need discipline and training, not Black Bloc tactics that don’t help except when they are actually punching Nazis. But we are going to have to raise the stakes of protest if we are to match the forces that are coming. Learning how past protest movements have done that is important. And the physical resistance to the capture of Anthony Burns and the aftermath that effectively made the Fugitive Slave Act void in Boston is a good place to start.


[ 63 ] January 30, 2017 |


This is great:

It’s not the first time snowflake has veered from the natural world to the world of slang. In the 1970s snowflake was a disparaging term for a white man or for a black man who was seen as acting white. It was also used as a slang term for cocaine. But before either of those it was used for a time with a very particular political meaning.

In Missouri in the early 1860s, a “Snowflake” was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery—the implication of the name being that such people valued white people over black people. The Snowflakes hoped slavery would survive the country’s civil war, and were contrasted with two other groups. The Claybanks (whose name came from the colorless color of the local terrestrial clay) wanted a gradual transition out of slavery for slaves, with eventual freedom accompanied by compensation to slave owners; the Charcoals—who were also called Brown Radicals—wanted immediate emancipation and for black people to be able to enlist in the armed forces.

The available evidence suggests that this particular use of snowflake never moved much beyond the borders of Missouri or the era.

We should start calling Trump supporters snowflakes as a pejorative. Of course they will embrace it for themselves.

Also interesting that it was Fight Club that brought the word back in its modern negative context.

Early American Reading Lists

[ 12 ] December 21, 2016 |


Indigo Production South Carolina. William DeBrahm, A Map of South Carolina and a Part of Georgia London, published by Thomas Jeffreys, 1757

I know you all are a bunch of readers. And many of you are interested in early America. So instead of reading another hagiography about Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson, how about something actually interesting that is useful at understanding the period? Here’s an outstanding reading list on race in early America. Now this is some meat for you to chew on. Or tofu if that is your ilk.

2016’s Dumbest Argument

[ 97 ] December 2, 2016 |


That title suggests a high bar. As you might expect though, an essay in The Federalist is going to be able to clear it. And here we have this pablum telling liberals to stop whining about the electoral college. This is mostly just dumb for all the reasons you expect. And then this pops up about the Three-Fifths Compromise. Because, you see, it discriminated against slaveowners:

How does a specialist in constitutional law miss the word “compromise” in “three-fifths compromise”? How does one of America’s most-cited legal scholars fail to consider that five-fifths (that’s one) and three-fifths weren’t the only options available?

It wasn’t pretty that day around the Constitution. Northern and Southern states fought bitterly over how to count slaves, who couldn’t vote, in population numbers. Since population numbers determined legislative power, Southern states of course wanted to count slaves like they counted everyone else. Abolition-conscious Northern states wanted to eliminate slaves from population counts completely.

Northern states argued that if Southern states could count their property (slaves), Northern states could count theirs (horses, chickens, etc.). Because executive fiat by phone and by pen had not yet been invented, the two sides had no choice but to compromise. That’s why it’s called “the three-fifths compromise.”

As Reed points out, the three-fifths compromise “discounted” the value of slaves relative to white men, but it enhanced the power of slaves relative to white men in reducing by two-fifths the South’s power to preserve slavery legislatively. The Electoral College set the stage for legislative abolition of slavery, so you can say it was about slavery if you want, but tell the whole truth.

Yes, that is tragic to only allow the South to count slaves at 60 percent of a human when in fact the law did not even consider slaves human in any legal way! And this only allowed the Slave Power and their northern sympathizers to control nearly the entire federal government between 1789 and 1860! Why can’t you libs tell the whole story!!!!

On Tuesday, the last speaker in the amazing series of speakers I co-organized this fall at the University of Rhode Island on the theme of Inequality and the American Dream was on campus. This was the great Jelani Cobb. He noted that in fact after Reconstruction, southern whites actually benefited from Jim Crow more than they had from slavery. African-Americans couldn’t vote during either period, but during Jim Crow, apportionment counted 100 percent of black people instead of 60 percent. Thus the control of the South over the government after Reconstruction was at least as entrenched as during slavery. That’s effectively what this Federalist piece is longing for, even if it gives it a soft sell under the guise of modern Americans being stupid whiners. Finally, southern white men had their deserved power. And sadly, that’s the goal for all too many whites in Trump’s America.

I do not recommend searching for additional mangoes here.

This Day in Labor History: November 7, 1861

[ 19 ] November 7, 2016 |


On November 7, 1861, the U.S. Army occupied the South Carolina sea islands. Suddenly having to deal with the existence of thousands of slaves with no masters, the military engaged in what became known as the Port Royal Experiment. This precursor to Reconstruction is an important moment in American history, one that proved to skeptical whites that blacks would work without slavery and one that demonstrated the very real limits even for abolitionists in thinking about the post-slavery future in the South.

It’s a little hard to imagine the debates about black work in 1861. The idea that African-Americans were inherently lesser than whites was so ingrained, it was a real and open question in the North whether black people would work without white supervision. In part, this is what the Port Royal Experiment was about. What would black people do on the cotton farms without their masters? Moreover, the North really needed the cotton. It’s own textile factories had suddenly lost their raw supplies when the Civil War began and the U.S. had lost one of its leading export products to Britain, which Lincoln desperately hoped to keep out of the war. So a series of factors came together in South Carolina to create the need to figure out what a post-slave economy might look like.

By January 1862, the military was working with the black population to grow cotton for the army instead of for the slaveholders. General Thomas Sherman sent a request to the north for teachers to come and work with the slaves. The official beginning of the Port Royal Experiment was that April, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase appointed Boston attorney Edward Pierce to organize a relief effort and training program for the slaves that would include hospitals and schools and programs to allow the slaves to buy land and farm for themselves. By May, 53 missionaries and educators were on their way to South Carolina. The ex-slaves were employed in growing cotton for the wage of $1 for every 400 pounds they harvested. Edward Philbrick led the labor plan. He ended the slave system of gang labor, gave workers garden plots for themselves, and provided a variety of incentives for the workers. Ultimately, men like Philbrick wanted to implement the free labor ideology at the heart of the Republican Party in the South and teach it to the ex-slaves. As the government took over more plantations during the war, it began to implement Philbrick’s plan through its confiscated lands.

In 1863, President Lincoln built on this program by allowing for the limited confiscation of Confederate plantations and the division of the land among the slaves. Limited to 40,000 acres of abandoned plantations, most of the impact took place in the sea islands. The land was sold for $1.25 an acre. Although most African-Americans could not afford anything near this price, local freed slaves bought about 2000 acres of land with the money they could scrape together. Northern whites could also buy the land and did so, creating new plantations for themselves worked by paid laborers. The freed slaves also founded their first free town in South Carolina, Mitchelville, on Hilton Head Island. By 1865, it had 1500 residents. Largely these residents wanted to live away from white people, whether from the North or the South. They wanted freedom, autonomy, and independence to make their own decisions about life and work.

The government’s role in redistributing the land and taking care of the ex-slaves was, like much in the Civil War, deeply contradictory and filled with bureaucratic chaos. The soldiers under Sherman and the civilians sent down by Chase clashed constantly. The soldiers routinely beat and raped the slaves, stealing their food and their land. All of this outraged the missionaries and of course the freed slaves, but little was done, despite the official complaints. Congress never clarified what exactly should happen in the sea islands. Chase’s military men cared about getting the cotton in any way possible while his civilians wanted to teach citizenship to the ex-slaves. No cohesive plan ever developed and thus the success of the experiment was compromised from the beginning. The cotton did come, but not to the extent that it had before the war, in no small part because a lot of the ex-slaves did not want to grow cotton. A boll weevil epidemic also took a major toll on the crop. Philbrick himself believed the experiment a failure because the ex-slaves did not do precisely as he wanted them to do. He ended up selling off the plantation he had bought to the residents in small plots.

The Port Royal Experiment was tremendously successful in one way–it demonstrated to skeptical northerners that black people would work for themselves. Again, I recognize that this seems obviously self-evident but that was not the case in the early 1860s. Unfortunately by 1865, support for the redistribution of Confederate land to the ex-slaves had become very low throughout the North. Even among most Republicans and abolitionists, the sanctity of private property would be more important than economic redistribution. The suffrage became the key for abolitionists to lock in black rights, despite the fact that the first thing the ex-slaves wanted was access to land.

As for the land already redistributed in 1863, Andrew Johnson ordered it given back to the original white landowners in 1865, even after William Tecumseh Sherman had extended it through Field Order No. 15. The Port Royal Experiment came to a sad end. But not all of the land was claimed by the ex-owners and black landowning remained significant in the area well into the 20th century.

In the late 1930s, Sam Mitchell, one of the last remaining living people who lived through this told a Federal Writers Project interviewer, “I think slavery is just a murdering of the people. I think freedom been a great gift. I like my master and I guess he was as good to his slave as he could be, but I rather be free.”

The most complete historical discussion of the Port Royal Experiment is Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, which I recommend.

This is the 198th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Prison Labor: Modern Slavery

[ 75 ] September 7, 2016 |

Prison Farm

I don’t see how we in this nation can claim that slavery no longer exists. Because a state with 140,000 prisoners is forcing them to work for free without the ability to quit without punishment. The combination of a lack of payment and inability to quit your job is in fact the definition of slavery. That 68% of the prison population is black and Latino is surely coincidental, right?

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has the biggest prison population in the United States (over 140,000 prisoners) and the most prisons of any state (over 100). It is also known for being one of the most self-sufficient and profitable prison systems in the nation, thanks to prison labor.

Beef, pork, chicken and vegetables are raised, processed and harvested by prisoners. Soap and clothing items are manufactured through prison labor as well. Prisoners in Texas grow 24 different crops and tend to over 10,000 head of cattle. They also act as painters, electricians, maintenance workers, cooks, janitors and dog trainers.

It is wrong that this labor, which is managed by Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), is being forced upon prisoners, who are required to execute it for free. If they refuse, they receive discriminatory punishment and thus longer stays in prison.

That’s right: prisoners in Texas are working for free. Total sales for TCI in the fiscal year 2014 alone were valued at $88.9 million, and not one dime of it was used to pay those who produced this handsome reward. Whenever TCI is scrutinized by the public for this practice, they note that prisoners receive other rewards for their labor, such as time credits called “Good Time” or “Work Time.”

On paper, these credits are supposed to cut down the prisoner’s sentence and allow them to be released on mandatory supervision — earlier than they would if these credits didn’t exist. But in reality, mandatory supervision is discretionary. This means that the parole board doesn’t have to honor these credits. It can keep denying a prisoner’s release until they have served their entire sentence.

TDCJ claims that the prisoners’ free labor pays for their room and board, while the actual work gives them job skills to successfully seek and maintain employment upon their release. Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama are other states that utilize this money-making scheme. The other 46 states — one way or another — pay prisoners for their labor with funds that can be used to purchase items off the prison commissary.

Some prisoners work — for free — up to 12 hours a day. This is flat-out, modern-day slave labor and it will continue as long as society accepts the notion that prisoners deserve less.

Remind me how this is not slavery?

Nat Turner

[ 150 ] August 27, 2016 |


We recently passed the anniversary of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion. And we should remember it and celebrate the bravery of Turner and his followers to fight back against the horrors of slavery.* However, not to be overly pedantic, but the idea, as this piece in Time suggests, that we should take Nat Turner’s “confession” to a white man as literal or even anything close to truth, is highly questionable. We actually have no solid evidence that what was written down was anything Turner said or even really if even represented Turner’s thoughts. The individual who published it was a slaveholder named Thomas Gray. As was common in the southern elite class, Gray had a lot of debt and needed cash. He may well have fabricated all of it in order to pander to southerners freaking out about Haiti coming to Virginia. I’m surprised Time didn’t at least note this. It’s not super helpful to simply repeat lines from the Confession as the true words of Turner without noting that they may well not be.

*And please no one say that Turner and his followers were bad people for killing future slaveholding white children. As if we have the right to judge slaves for fighting for their freedom because they didn’t do it in a way to gain the approval of 21st century white liberals.

This Day in Labor History: August 21, 1791

[ 37 ] August 21, 2016 |


On August 21, 1791, the Haitian Revolution began. The largest and by far the most successful slave rebellion in world history, the Haitian Revolution transformed world history, foiling French imperial aims, leading to the expansion of the United States, placing fear into the hearts of slaveholders across the Western Hemisphere, and exposing the limits of the republican rhetoric of the Enlightenment. It’s also a story of the incredible bravery of the slaves themselves.

Immediately upon arrival in Hispaniola in 1492, Christopher Columbus instituted a forced labor system. This is the model Europeans sought from the very beginning. That island quickly became a center of colonial slavery, with populations brought over from Africa after indigenous peoples who the Spanish preferred to enslave died from disease. Between 1492 and 1494, one-third of the indigenous population died. Slaves always fought back, an important point not made often enough. As early as 1519, a slave rebellion took place there with both African and indigenous people rising up in revolt. Thousands of slaves started maroon communities during the colonial period, hidden from Spanish or French forces by the isolation of their camps deep within forests, mountains, and swamps.

In 1697, the French won the western half of Hispaniola from the Spanish. Soon it would become among the richest colonies in the world thanks to the sugar grown by slaves. It also became a huge coffee producer, producing 60% of the world’s coffee in 1789. But conditions for those slaves were utterly brutal. The enormous amounts of money in the sugar trade made it worse, because the labor costs to buy new slaves, while high for a Virginia tobacco farmer, was almost nothing for these sugar barons. They brought slaves from Africa and just worked them to death. These plantations were effectively death camps. Half of African slaves died within three years. Probably 1 million slaves died in Haiti during the period of French rule. If a slave ate some sugar cane, the slave would have to wear a tin muzzle while working.

There was a lot of discontent toward the French government in what was then known as Saint Dominigue by the 1780s. It was a tremendously wealthy colony. But the white population of about 40,000, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, were chafing at the centralization projects of Paris, including heavy import taxes. There were about 30,000 free blacks in Haiti, of which about one-half were mulattoes. Finally and most importantly, there were the 500,000 slaves whose labor created the wealth in the colony. In May 1791, the free blacks started a revolt when the island’s whites refused to acknowledge the French revolutionary decision to grant citizenship to free people of color, but it was the August slave revolt that targeted white slave owners that really brought Haiti to independence.

The slave revolt began with a signal from voudou priest Dutty Boukman on August 14, giving slaves a week to prepare. Within a few weeks 100,000 slaves had revolted. Quickly though, the revolution’s leader became Toussaint L’Overture, an ex-slave who was likely the son of a tribal king from modern Benin who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. L’Overture was freed in 1776 after his master allowed him to acquire an education. He became fairly wealthy himself. When the rebellion started in the north of the island, he was not involved, but he soon helped cement an alliance between the rebels and the Spanish in Santo Domingo. By 1792, L’Overture and his ex-slave troops controlled 1/3 of the nation. The French Revolution of course was happening at the same time. In 1794, the French abolished slavery throughout its colonies, but even earlier than this, L’Overture had invaded Santo Domingo in order to end slavery there. But by the time the rebellion ended, 100,000 of the island’s 500,000 slaves were dead, as well as 24,000 of the 40,000 whites. In 1801, he led troops to conquer Santo Domingo and ended slavery there when he succeeded.

The slave force had no hope to defeat the French in a decisive battle. But they did have a secret weapon: mosquitoes. When the French had first colonized the Caribbean, yellow fever did not exist there. But it soon migrated over from Africa. Europeans simply could not resist the diseases from these mosquitoes. In fact, effective European colonization of American tropics largely ended because of the migration of yellow fever. Malaria and especially yellow fever overwhelmed the French forces. The Haitians could just wait them out. Napoleon sent 43,000 troops to Haiti to retake the island and institute slavery. Those troops did capture L’Overture. He was sent back to France as a prisoner, where he died in 1803. But disease quickly ravaged those troops. Jean-Jacques Dessalines took over as the leader of the rebellion and defeated remnant French forces at Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803. This led Napoleon to come to terms and give up his dream of an American empire. He then sold his North American lands to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Meanwhile, Dessalines declared the nation of Haiti on January 1, 1804. France was the first nation to recognize its independence, although France also ensured long-term Haitian poverty by demanding incredibly high reparations beginning in 1825, when French warships showed in Haiti and forced the government to agree, effectively dooming it to long-term poverty.

The United States found Haiti an anathema. It believed in republicanism–so long as it only applied to white people. A slave rebellion? Well, this became an object lesson for southern planters, for whom this was their worst nightmare. This was literally their greatest fear and they spent the next 74 years talking about how to prevent it. When the British helped slaves escape during the War of 1812, when Denmark Vesey got angry that his church was being repressed, when Nat Turner revolted, when slaves played drums in the forests at night, slavers dreamed of the slaves rising up to massacre them in their beds. Given southern domination of the American politics through most of its history but especially before the Civil War due to the 3/5 Compromise, they made sure Haiti remained a highly isolated and impoverished nation. The U.S. forced it into international isolation and refused to recognize Haiti until 1862.

Today, due to many factors, but largely to this international isolation and enforced extreme poverty in its early decades, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world today. The French at the very least owe Haiti reparations today.

This is the 188th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Slavery and the Supply Chain

[ 29 ] July 4, 2016 |


Yet another way to celebrate American awesomeness today before you blow off your fingers and, even worse, put ketchup on your hot dogs, is to remember how we rely on global slavery and other forms of labor exploitation to make the products we use everyday, probably including what you are wearing right now, your fireworks, the bandages to be used when you blow off your fingers, etc.

I like reading corporate perspectives on these issues, which can be very telling. This is an interesting essay on slavery in the ASEAN nations, warning companies to be aware of the labor conditions in the individual countries where they choose to source their production because a lot of them are afflicted with slave labor that the company may not want to be associated with, regardless of the cost. Thus, the article suggests that Bangladesh might not be where a company wants to go. Instead, it suggests Vietnam and Indonesia and low-cost (nearly zero cost?) alternatives without a lot of forced labor that are better than those high-priced nations like Thailand and the Philippines. Of course, the idea that Thailand and the Philippines, two very poor nations, have labor costs that are too high is another reason why manufacturing simply is not going to lead to wealth for poor nations.

The U.S. government might be willing to make statements on these issues–so long as the nation in question isn’t actually very important to American trade. The U.S. is telling Ghana to clean up its act with regards to child slavery, or face some consequences.

n the 2016 Global Slavery Index, Ghana ranks 13 out of 15 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the 34th country with the most modern slaves out of 167 countries in the world. The United States government on Thursday warned Ghana to increase its efforts to end modern day slavery or risk losing millions of dollars in aid.

The county has been listed for the second year in a row as a Tier 2 Watch List country in the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report released on Thursday by U.S. State Department.

Child trafficking and forced labor remains a significant problem in Ghana with both the total number and the proportion of children in child labor increasing in recent years.

Data from the Ghana Statistical Service indicate that 1.9 million children aged 5-17 are engaged in child labor with 1.2 million of the children engaged in hazardous labor.

Ah, the Trafficking in Humans Watch List. Good thing the Obama administration is super consistent here, having jumped Malaysia from Tier 3 to Tier 2 so that it could include that nation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, immediately after a huge number of bodies of trafficked labor were found in that nation.

So maybe Ghana should be scared. After all, it doesn’t have a fancy trade agreement with the U.S. at stake.

Really, the Malaysia human trafficking score is one of the very worst moments of Obama foreign policy, in my view far worse than Honduras, where I guess Hillary was supposed to call for an invasion of that nation to restore the Zelaya government or something. I didn’t know that the left now supported U.S. invasions of Latin America, but in any case, while the Honduras case bathes Clinton or Obama in no great glory, there options were quite limited short of invasion, whereas in Malaysia, the Obama administration had lots of options and chose a very bad one.

Incidentally, the image above is by Darrin Bell, whose work you may find interesting.

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