Opinion: Commentary: Black History and Economic Case for Reparations

Opinion: Commentary: Black History and Economic Case for Reparations

Alexandria's outstanding Black History resources will soon be tested by a post-pandemic surge in educational travel, augmented by Americans (and others) who learned belatedly from last summer's events that their own traditional schooling had omitted some central truths about U.S. history. Our unique facilities, artefacts, documents, and tours will all be called upon. It's to be hoped also that Alexandria will be a hub for advancing Reparations, to balance the cruelties so pitilessly inflicted by the slave auction firms that once pocked Duke Street.

We've been able, locally and elsewhere, to eliminate a few of the many offensive residues of racism, though I can't help mentioning that my own street, Taney Avenue, named for the author of the incomparably evil Dred Scott decision, remains an ugly remnant. But we shouldn't, in going after Confederate- and Jim Crow-era monuments, perpetuate the "Good North versus Bad South" model that disserved us for so long. Groundbreaking research in the last few decades has shown that slavery itself was quite common in the North. Admittedly, it usually took a mitigated form: enslaved people in the North had important rights not available to those in the South. They could petition courts for their freedom, could marry, enter into contracts, testify against white people in court, learn to read and write, serve in the military, and attend church even as members. Only in southern New England, in parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut, was the climate warm enough to sustain the plantation slavery prevalent in the South.

Generally, research has found, a Northern family would have only one or two slaves, who lived in the household like hired hands, and who were called "servants." In the 1771 tax valuation of my native town of Taunton, Massachusetts, eleven residents are found to have a single slave; two owned 2 slaves; one owned 3; five owned 7; one owned 8; and one owned 10. We may eventually find that enslaved labor was used more variously in the North than is now realized. In Taunton, for example, a baronially wealthy family in the ironmaking business had a "gang of slaves" and a "slave house" in the first decades of the eighteenth century, according to a Taunton historian's 1912 book.

It was common in the North for ministers to own enslaved persons. Presidents of Harvard (Rev. Increase Mather), Yale (Rev. Eliza Stiles), and Princeton (Rev. Jonathan Edwards, the much admired Great Awakening evangelist) had "lifelong servants," to use the euphemism of legal records. Abigail Adams's father, a minister in Weymouth, Massachusetts, owned slaves, a fact which may help explain Abigail's anguish over the continued existence of slavery. Abigail's son, President John Quincy Adams, became Congress's leading anti-slavery activist, and in 1838 he also privately raised money to buy the freedom of Dorcas Allen, the enslaved wife of a free black man employed as a waiter at Gadsby's Tavern on North Royal Street. Under tragic circumstances, Dorcas was being held in Alexandria's slave prison. (We now know, however, that President Adams felt obliged to tolerate the presence of enslaved persons owned by his wife's Maryland family in his own household.)

Still, it was certainly in slave trading rather than slave holding that Northerners usually made their fortunes. This began early, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630. During its first decade, ever more Puritan immigrants, some of them well-to-do, came to Massachusetts to escape religious persecution in England; and settling and provisioning them supported a solid economy. When the environment for Puritans improved in England in the 1640s, however, the emigration stopped. Massachusetts merchants then looked to the West Indies, which had a huge demand for labor for its brutally difficult sugar refining processes. Barbados was becoming the jewel in the crown of British colonies. The West Indies islands were far richer and more than twice as populous as New England, and they needed the timber and food that New England could supply: livestock, corn, beans, and of course fish -- herring and mackerel for slave food or bait, the better fish consumed locally or sent on to the Catholic markets of Europe. Even the impoverished adjacent Plymouth Colony benefitted: Plymouth raised horses for export to the Caribbean.

And then there was the slave trade itself. The Bible didn't forbid slavery, and the Bible was the basis of the Puritan law code of Massachusetts. The booming sugar industry of the West Indies required the strongest and fittest slaves, and it was customary to keep all slaves in the Caribbean area for a period of "seasoning," habituation to the abuses and physical demands they'd now be facing. In graded lots they'd then be sold along the Atlantic coast, with the least hardy being brought up to New England for its less exacting labors.

At its height, from the 1720s to 1807 (when importation of slaves was banned), the New England slave trade was centered in Rhode Island, especially Newport, with its excellent harbor. Small ships were used to enable river travel inland from the west coast of Africa and also, of course, to maximize profits; these ships could be built on local wharves, offering a valuable source of income. The necessary timber, hemp, flax, and iron were available close by. Vessels left Rhode Island with holds full of rum to be exchanged for kidnapped Africans; these victims would be brought, though with a steep loss of life, to the Caribbean islands. There they would be traded for molasses to bring up to Rhode Island for distilling. Rhode Island was proud to have knocked off French brandy as the favored liquor in Africa, and to be able to shrink the perennially outsized colonial debt for English manufactures. Of course a great deal of rum was consumed at home, at a time when hard liquor was considered vital for strenuous physical labor. Massachusetts soldiers in the French and Indian War, for example, were rationed a cup of rum a day. In 1750, rum was New England's main manufacture, and the tiny, thousand-mile-square patch of Rhode Island, with a population under fifty-eight thousand, had more than thirty distilleries in 1764, operating at stratospheric profits.

These profits are among the numbers on which discussions of Reparations should dwell. It's in the nature of capitalism that sums of money, once generated, reproduce and multiply. The wonderful amenities we see all around us are, quite literally, the end product of slavery. In the 1950s, Rhode Island capital bailed out the then-bankrupt textile company where my mother and grandfather had worked in a town next to Taunton; in fact, most of the town's businesses had been established with Rhode Island funds.

In 1835, an itinerant Christian minister who preached in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island suggested that slavery could be ended peacefully if Southern slaveholders were to put a price on their enslaved workers and Northerners paid it. It would be honorable to end slavery in this way, without bloodshed. Let the North and the South both sacrifice, he said, without adding the obvious fact that both had grown rich from slavery for centuries.

It's often said that slavery is America's Original Sin. But unlike the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, it's one in which posterity has, perforce or otherwise, been complicit, not just punishable. It's a violation that can be expiated only by the satisfaction of Reparations.