The history of slavery in the United States lasted for centuries, and is the nation’s original sin, a permanent stain on American history that the blood of 750,000 killed in the Civil War did not wash away.
But slavery becomes more and more complicated the more you study it. There’s quite a lot of detail in the Census that the Constitution requires be taken every ten years. We know that in 1860, about 390,000 families in the US held in total almost four million Black people as slaves (there were an additional half million free Blacks).
One seeming anomaly is that the information shows that about 3,500 free Black people owned slaves. That is hard for contemporary Americans to wrap their minds around: Blacks who owned Black slaves?
It turns out that there was a form of what might be called compassionate slavery. That sounds like a contradiction, compassionate slavery?
Here’s how it worked. Virginia is the main example. Virginia law allowed owners to free their slaves, a legal process called ‘manumission.’ Free blacks still suffered a great deal of discrimination, but they were free and so were their children. Virginia had been deathly frightened by Nat Turner’s bloody rebellion in 1830. One result was that the state passed a law requiring that Blacks freed after 1830 leave the state within one year, or be re-enslaved.
That would have meant the break-up of families or their emigration to some unfamiliar place. An unintended result of the law was that free Black men—usually men—bought their relatives and did not legally free them, to avoid having to move out of Virginia. Before the law, it was not uncommon for an ambitious slave to accumulate enough money to buy himself from his owner, and then to buy his wife and their children, or brothers and sisters, or parents, and free them.
So after the law, those kinds of emancipatory purchases continued, but the technicalities of legal freedom were left alone, and a man might have a wife and three or four children legally slaves, but in reality a real family. The condition would have been perilous, because slaves were considered property, and could be seized to pay debts. However, this very odd kind of family slavery accounts for almost all the slaves owned by Black Americans in 1860.
There are a few known accounts of Black owners driving their slaves as hard as any White owner, in order to make a living or achieve wealth.
There is also the special case of mixed-race slave owners in the French-influenced areas of Louisiana. The French settled Louisiana in the early 1700s, with one feature being the settlers were primarily men. They fairly often married slave women, usually freeing them. The mixed-race children inherited plantations with slaves, some of them being large plantations. The children were sometimes educated in France, and they came to form a class of mixed-race slaveholders in parts of Louisiana.
It’s unclear if mixed-race slaveholders in Louisiana were any kinder to their Black slaves than the typical plantation owner.
What is clear is that American slavery turns out to be a more complicated subject than many Americans think.
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