Friday, December 21, 2012

black slaveowners, black millionaires, and the American myth

Listening to social justice warriors, you would think white = rich and black = poor, but the reality has always been more nuanced. Some black folks prospered from the earliest days of blacks in North America: In the 17th century, Anthony Johnson was the first black slaveowner; in the 19th, William Leidesdorff was the first black millionaire, and in the 20th, Madam C. J. Walker was the first female black millionaire.

transientandpermanent mentioned:
We discussed ownership of slaves by African-Americans. I dug up an old, but quite good, citation for you. Schwarz, Philip J. "Emancipators, Protectors, and Anomalies: Free Black Slaveowners in Virginia." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jul., 1987), pp. 317-338.

I used to assume that knowledge of black ownership of slaves was not well-known because it was suppressed by politically correct and African-American interests. Nowadays, I'm not so sure. Much of the true pioneering work in this area has in fact been carried out by African-American scholars. So I think perhaps a more plausible explanation is that this history is not well-known at least in part because it was researched by African-American historians and concerns African-American history. If it had been done by whites and involved more whites, I think it would be better known, both inside and outside the academy. Just a theory, it's hard to prove or refute, of course.
I think the theory is sound, and I'll offer two additions:

1. Ivy League historians get the most attention in the US.

2. The Great Capitalist Myth has the sins of our history coming from racism and sexism, and there's much symbolic truth in the idea that US slavery consisted of white people enslaving black people. To people today who accept the mythic history, seeking a nuanced understanding of power in the US can seem like attempting to deny that truth.

I couldn't find a free copy of "Emancipators, Protectors, and Anomalies: Free Black Slaveowners in Virginia" on the web, but googling it brought up Undergraduate Research Journal for the Human Sciences: Unspoken Reality: "Black Slaveholders Prior to the Civil War" by Yuliya Tikhomirova and Lucia Desir. It's filled with information that goes against the American Myth:
Koger (1995) argues that a great many freemen became slave masters themselves for the same reason as whites, to make use of slave labor for the sake of profits. He writes, "by and large, Negro slave owners were darker copies of their white counterparts." His research led him to conclude, "clearly the dominant pattern of the commercial use of slaves recorded in the documents indicates that black slaveholding was primarily an institution based on the exploitation of slaves rather than a benevolent system centered upon kinship or humanitarianism" (p. 101).

...Scholars including Woodson, point out that up to the 1860's, having economic interests in common with the white slaveholders, black owners enjoyed the same social standing: attended the same churches, same private schools, and places of amusement. They frequently lived on the same streets as white families.

....Despite changes in the law, blacks continued to hold slaves through the Civil War. Koger (1995) refers to the fact that "in 1860, some 3,000 blacks owned nearly 20,000 black slaves [in the southern states]. In South Carolina alone, more than 10,000 blacks were owned by black slaveholders."

...According to Salzman, Smith, & West (1996, p. 603), "eight of the wealthiest antebellum black entrepreneurs were slaveholders from Louisiana who owned large cotton and sugar plantations." The trajectory of Marie Metoyer, also known as Coincoin, from daughter of African-born slaves to wealthy slave owner is a case in point. After being granted freedom from her white master, she established an independent plantation in Louisiana, expanding her economic assets by purchasing slaves and additional acreage. Her offspring expanded on her holdings, making them the largest African-American slaveholding family in American history with holdings of 20,000 acres of land and 500 slaves. The widow C. Richards and her son P. C. Richards owned 152 slaves and a large sugar cane plantation. Another black slave magnate with over 100 slaves was Antoine Dubuclet, a sugar planter whose estate was valued at $264,000, when the mean wealth of southern white men for that year was $3,978 (Grooms, 1997).
Some black folks prospered from the earliest days of blacks in North America: Anthony Johnson was the first black slaveowner, William Leidesdorff was the first black millionaire, and Madam C. J. Walker was the first female black millionaire.


  1. Will, the Schwartz article is available online through JSTOR, if you have access to that database. If not, you can probably ask for an inter-library loan from your local public library. If those don't work, you'll have to hoof it: the nearest copies of that journal (produced by the Virginia Historical Society) are at ASU in Tempe or the Arizona State Library in Phoenix.

  2. Last time I checked, the local library didn't have JSTOR. The bums. But I'll research this a little further, most likely. Thanks for pointing it out!

  3. If you have a university or college library in your area, they usually have access to JSTOR if not a physical copy of the actual journal.

    Very interesting article BTW. I'd never heard about this (not my country, not my history and therefore covered only very superficially in school and college). It doesn't surprise me though, human nature being as it is.

  4. A friend just got a copy for me. I'll write it up in a day or three, most likely.