Reparations Madness

What should be paid to the descendants of free blacks who owned black slaves?

To coincide with the day of celebration of emancipation, Juneteenth, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is holding a hearing today, featuring the plaints of millionaire movie star Danny Glover and MacArthur “Genius” Award winner ($625,000) Ta-Nehisi Coates, “to examine . . . the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.”

In other words, pay-outs to African Americans. It makes even less sense than it did thirty years ago when former Democratic Congressman John Conyers introduced the measure. Since then, historians have added to our knowledge about the complicated issue of slavery, including African Americans’ own participation in the practice. Additionally, their own voting records have instituted the discriminatory practices for which they now seek redress. Such facts add to the host of others being discussed, such as the impossibility of determining damages because some blacks have no slave heritage (including former President Barack Obama.whose Kenyan father enjoyed the privilege of studying in American universities), the number of whites who died in the Civil War that ended slavery, and white immigrants who had come to these shores long after slavery had been abolished.

Even the case Coates recently made in his New Yorker interview about the financial losses suffered by African Americans when they were denied federal housing loans and resorted to unscrupulous lenders does not stand up, though it appears to have the hallmarks of a case of limited and traceable losses due to discrimination—as was the case with the Japanese interned during World War II.

But Coates has gone back to his original call for reparations for slavery. Slavery, however, was an institution in which a surprising number of African Americans participated. As did white slave owners, they became wealthy by exploiting their fellow man. And, discriminatory federal housing policies began under a Democratic president who won his second, third, and fourth terms with a large majority of the black vote.

The ownership of black slaves by free blacks was a well-known fact. In 1830, by a conservative estimate (due to likely undercounting by the census), there were more than 3,500 slaveholders of African descent in the American South. According to David Lightner and Alexander Ragan, who reviewed census records and four case histories of black (or mixed race) slave owners, and published their findings in the August 2005 Journal of Southern History, “black slave owning was fairly widespread among the free black population.” In fact, the number of black slave owners was “startlingly large”: “almost exactly 2 percent of 182,070, the total free black population of the South.” The figure is considered to be large because only six percent of the white population (3,660,758) owned slaves: “Thus a southern white was just three times more likely to own slaves than was a southern free black.” African American historian Carter G. Woodson in his 1924 book, Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in the 1830s, maintained that such “ownership” was in name only, used only “to preserve family ties” and protect blacks. But Lightner and Ragan estimated conservatively that between 57 percent and 66 percent of black slave owners were exploitative.[1]

Indeed, more African Americans probably would have owned slaves if they could have if we read Loren Schweninger’s groundbreaking 1990 study, Black Property Owners in the South: 1790-1915, correctly. Schweninger, a friend of African American historian John Hope Franklin and coauthor of a book about runaway slaves with him, showed that the treatment of these slaves ran the gamut, from paternal benevolence to the selling off of a man’s own children.

Blacks began owning black slaves as early as 1646-47, a case in point being Virginian Anthony Johnson who “acquired . . . John Casor . . . his slave for life,” according to court documents. By the late eighteenth century, “a small group of profit-oriented black slaveholders was emerging in the South, especially in South Carolina, and along the Gulf Coast.” Even those who had “bought” loved ones also began buying blacks as slaves. At the time of the first U.S. census in 1790, in Charleston District, South Carolina, “[a]mong the approximately 155 free Negro families, . . . nearly one-third had entered the slaveholding class” and owned a total of 277 bondsmen and women.” Most black slave owners during this time were urban craftsmen and shopkeepers. Though the small number of free blacks who acquired large farms, plantations, and slaves, often got them from their white fathers, “those who survived into the early decades of the nineteenth century were often capable businessmen and astute planters,” and “were accepted by their white neighbors as persons of wealth and prestige.”[2] As the plantation system expanded, free blacks participated, purchasing field hands.

Sometimes slaves, through hard work and ingenuity, accumulated wealth and bought their own freedom--and bought and sold slaves. Jean Meullion, a former slave, “purchased Negroes on a regular basis, traveling to the slave market in Natchez, Mississippi, or making arrangements with a slave-trading firm in New Orleans.” Plaquemines Parish sugar planter Andrew Durnford complained that costs were so high that “’even the Negro traders are surprised at the prices demanded.’” His purchase of a “coffle of blacks” included some “’bargains,’” but many who were “’rotten’” and “diseased.”[3]

Alas, “[i]n their treatment of their bondspeople, [free blacks] differed little from white slave owners, ” according to Schweninger. Some kindly kept families together and provided them with “adequate food, clothing, and living quarters.” However, most saw their slaves as “chattel property. They bought, sold, mortgaged, willed, traded, and transferred fellow Negroes, demanded long hours in the workshops and fields, and severely disciplined recalcitrant blacks.”[4] Some sold their own children into slavery, or enslaved them themselves. When these children ran away, they advertised for their capture.

The descendants of these black slave owners continued to prosper even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, as African American journalist George Schuyler informed readers of his autobiography, Black and Conservative.  Schuyler had gotten his start as a journalist at the Harlem-based socialist magazine, The Messenger, in 1923, and by the following year was also writing for the black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. The Messenger folded in 1928, but even before then had largely abandoned its socialist mission. In it, Schuyler profiled black capitalists, including Harlem real estate agents and speculators who took advantage of overbuilding, buying cheap from white builders and selling dear and maximizing profits from rents. Much of the merry-making of the Roaring Twenties in Harlem occurred at “rent parties,” where admission was collected to pay the rent.

Schuyler also worked for the NAACP and was sent to report on abuses of black (federal) levee workers in Mississippi in late 1931. In preparation for his dangerous undercover investigation, Schuyler called upon “old friend Dr. Dumas, former president of the National Medical Association.” Dumas was “a distinguished, courtly, and wealthy mulatto who owned a large white mansion atop a double terrace, six blocks of downtown real estate and a big plantation.” Dr. Dumas, Schuyler writes, “was one of a considerable number of Negroes in the vicinity who were planters and slave-holders before the Civil War over on the Louisiana side.”[5]  

A Francis Ernest Dumas of New Orleans appears in Schweninger’s book. A “slave owner and landlord,” he was among “the ten wealthiest free persons of color in the South.” In 1854, his worth was estimated to be $250,000.[6] His brother seemed to be of similar means, judging by the manner in which he entertained Union army officer John William De Forest at his New Orleans home. Writing to his wife on September 29, 1862, De Forest described a feast ending with “’a collation of cakes, confectionary, creams, ices and champagne, followed by café noir, cognac and delicious cigars.’” The party for De Forest and “several of his fellow officers, Negro and white,” included piano-playing, singing patriotic songs, and dancing with “’very pretty ladies.’”

Admittedly, writes Schweninger, “Such social occasions were rare, even in New Orleans, but whites and free persons of color, especially those with substantial property, occasionally disregarded the prevailing taboos against interracial mixing.” Also, declining during the late antebellum period were the number of mixed “’marriages’” that previously had been “relatively common in some parts of the Lower South.”[7]

After Reconstruction Jim Crow laws were instituted, as resentment against the North festered. Yet, by the 1920s blacks and whites continued to mingle in some Southern communities. This is what Schuyler observed when he made a six-month tour through the South in 1925/1926 for the Courier. Although sometimes he would be welcomed with a large sign put out by the KKK as he stepped off the “colored” train car, other times he was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality of some white Southerners and racial integration in some communities. He told William Ingersoll during his oral history interview in 1960, “I remember once going to Galveston, Texas, and the minister there under whose auspices I had come said that I was going to stay with him.” His house happened to be on the main street, “where all the leading people lived.” Schuyler had also been in “blocks in Meridian, Mississippi, and Jackson, Mississippi, where there would be say 20 or 24 homes and half of them would be occupied by Negro families, whereas in many cities in the North you wouldn’t have found that. . . .”[8] (On his travels, he also noted such things as a black dentist in West Virginia treating white patients, along with black. In a 1948 series, audaciously titled “What’s Good About the South?” Schuyler reported on prosperous black farmers and owners of stores patronized by whites and blacks—as well as complaints about government-imposed segregation.)

As Schuyler asserted, de facto segregation was practiced in Northern cities. It was the same with ethnic groups, as Schuyler’s white Jewish friends, Isaac Don Levine and Sidney Hook, observed about Boston and New York, which had distinct Jewish, Italian, Irish, and German sections. Immigrants tended to gravitate toward neighborhoods with their own kind.

In the South, however, blacks and whites—unlike the Italians and Irish in the north—had lived closely together for a long time. At least some of the Southern communities practiced integration. But segregation became federal policy, with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—a massive government takeover of farming, housing, charity, retirement, and the workplace. All these programs, as Schuyler pointed out, discriminated against and harmed the black man. He became the real “forgotten man,” as the theme of the 1935 annual NAACP meeting indicated. That meeting featured tenant farmers telling their stories about facing starvation when the federal government paid (white) farmers to keep acreage fallow.

Schuyler railed against discrimination in PWA projects and complained bitterly for having to pay higher taxes and prices for consumer goods for make-work programs. The patronage system of wealthy whites who paid off black “leaders” became a function of the federal government.

In spite of such discriminatory policies, African Americans shifted to the Democratic Party in 1936. Roosevelt illegally used his “Black Cabinet” to campaign for him on the radio (whose licenses he allocated to those disposed to support him), bestowed gifts, such as a new chemistry building built by well-paid white WPA workers to Howard University (dedicated in October 1936). As Nancy J. Weiss, in Farewell to the Party of Lincoln, notes, “It was hardly an accident that . . . the establishment of the first CCC camp commanded entirely by black officers came in August 1936.”[9] Photos of the First Lady with black children gathered round her were distributed, though without a disclaimer stating that should these same children come down with polio they would be barred from FDR’s Warm Springs facility. As more of the economy became dependent on federal largesse, the black workforce suffered. African Americans lost jobs but increased their dependence on “relief,” outpacing whites proportionately. If they were given federal housing, it was housing officially segregated by the government—with no possibility of local communities deciding their own arrangements—as they had done in Galveston and Meridian.

The policy was passed on down as the federal government got into the mortgage business. As Coates rightfully complains, these policies were discriminatory and wrong. So were the WPA, the AAA, and Social Security—programs instituted by the party that is still overwhelmingly supported by African Americans. Slavery, of course, was wrong, as President Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural. But why should we be paying the descendants of Dr. Dumas who benefited from the forced labor of fellow African Americans? And how can we trust a massive bureaucracy that has done so much to muck up race relations to be a fair arbiter and dispenser of these funds?

NOTE: The author welcomes the nomination for a MacArthur Genius Award in order to pursue her research on the Dumas family in Louisiana.


[1] David L. Lightner and Alexander M. Ragan, “Were African American Slaveholders Benevolent or Exploited?” Journal of Southern History, 71 (August 2005),535- 558.

[2] Loren Schweninger, Black Property Owners in the South: 1790-1915, (1990), 23.

[3] Schweninger, 104-105.

[4] Shweninger, 105-106.

[5] George Schuyler, Black and Conservative (New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1966),  200.

[6] Schweninger, 118.

[7] Schweninger, 134.

[8] Ingersoll Interview, 192-193.

[9] Nancy J. Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 200-202.


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