The problems with California's slavery reparations movement

The current movement in the United States to demand reparations for slavery is perhaps the most aggravating of all the unreasonable demands that have been made of the American people in the 21st century.  Slavery was outlawed approximately one hundred and fifty years ago.  There is no one to whom to pay legitimate reparations because no one in living memory has been affected by slavery.  There is also the factor of race, which presumes that Blacks are all descended from innocent slaves, while Whites are all descended from evil slave-owners.  This ignores a basic fact of American society: we are a land peopled by immigrants, many of whom came after the end of slavery and, therefore, don't even have a historical connection to slavery in America.

Nevertheless, activists in California are making another attempt to extort money from citizens who have nothing to do with slavery.  A state task force has been convened to study how to compensate descendants of enslaved people in California.  Since people who never owned slaves don't owe anything to people who never were slaves, it is difficult to see how any kind of reparations could be justified.  They're trying, though, and one of the possibilities being recommended is creating a school curriculum, based on the Charleston Syllabus, that will teach the history of slavery and its legacy in California.

The syllabus is a reading list about race relations, assembled after White supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine Black worshipers in a church in Charleston. Dylann Roof is a truly terrible person whose actions are completely indefensible.  The syllabus itself is a good idea for compiling thoughts about race and slavery in America.  However, a task force interested in the true history of slavery might consider making some additions to the syllabus to get a full picture of slave-owners in America.

One inclusion to the syllabus should be Larry Koger's book Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860.  Mr. Koger has exhaustively researched Black slave masters in South Carolina in general and Charleston in particular.  He documents not only sale records, but also tax records and Census records to show that although a few Blacks did indeed buy friends and family members to free them, most Black slave-owners bought slaves for the same reason that Whites did: they wanted to make money, and slave labor was the best way to invest money and to see a good return on their investment.

The history of Sally Seymour would make a good addition to the syllabus.  Sally Seymour was a Black woman and former slave who became a pre-eminent pastry chef in Charleston with the help of her own Black slaves.

Peter Prioleau should be included on the list, too.  He was a Black slave who betrayed Denmark Vesey, a Black man planning a slave revolt in Charleston.  Vesey was arrested, tortured, and executed.  Prioleau was freed as a mark of thanks for his service to the slave-owning community.

If the history of slavery is to be taught in this country, it can only be meaningful if the true history is taught.  Slavery in America was not just a simplistic matter of evil Whites enslaving innocent Blacks.  It was the same as slavery has always been, down through the ages, everywhere in the world.  Slavery in America was a matter of the powerful enslaving those over whom they had power.  It's not politically correct to recognize that Blacks, as well as Whites, were slave masters for financial gain, but it is the truth.  And while the number of Black slaveholders, like the number of Native American slaveholders, was small, their existence is another facet of America's complex racial history.

Pandra Selivanov is the author of Future Slave, a story about a 21st-century Black teenager who is sent back in time and becomes a slave in the Old South.

Image: Slaves waiting for sale in Virginia by Eyre Crowe.  Public domain.

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