The elephant in the reparations room
A recent proposal for reparations for slavery in San Francisco has now become a part of the United States’ endless conversation about race, more specifically, the conversation in which whites are demonized as slave owners, and blacks are extolled as slaves. Of course, slavery was ended in the United States in 1865, one hundred and fifty-eight years ago, so no white person alive today in the United States is guilty of being a slave owner, nor are there any blacks alive today in the United States who have suffered as slaves, at least not in America, but let that pass. That is not the elephant.
The elephant that no black activist is willing to admit exists is the fact that black slave owners existed. And how can they admit that? They are demanding millions of dollars for blacks in San Francisco, on the ground that blacks in San Francisco have suffered from slavery. It doesn’t fit the narrative to ponder that there were plenty of blacks back in the day who owned slaves. It is inconvenient to bring up Anthony Johnson, father of American slavery, a black man who demanded that a court bind his black indentured servant, John Casor, a slave for life. The court obliged Mr. Johnson, and American slavery was born.
Image: Marianne Celeste Dragon, a black slaveholder in New Orleans.
It is even more inconvenient to bring up the many blacks who owned slaves all through the south. Nobody demanding reparations for blacks wants to admit that blacks owned slaves in each of the original thirteen colonies and every state that allowed slavery right up to the Civil War (something that shouldn’t surprise anyone considering slavery’s prevalence in Africa since time immemorial). In Virginia, blacks could even obtain white indentured servants.
What would happen to reparations for slavery if a black applying for money was found to be descended from, say, John Carruthers Stanly, a black man in North Carolina who had three plantations and 163 slaves? Or Andrew Durnford, a sugar planter in Louisiana who owned 77 slaves?
Black women were also slave owners. Sally Seymour built up a hugely successful pastry business in Charleston, South Carolina, with slave labor. When she died, her daughter Eliza inherited both the business and the slaves.
So, there’s the elephant in the reparations room. Should whites who had nothing to do with slavery in the United States have to pay reparations to the descendants of black slave owners? And what about the risk of paying reparations to the descendants of slave owners or slave dealers in Africa? Such a transaction would be rather like Russia demanding reparations from Ukraine for the soldiers who were killed invading the country.
Pandra Selivanov is the author of The Pardon, a story of forgiveness based on the thief on the cross in the Bible.