Teaching about Slavery and Black Slaveowners

How leftist historians and educators devise a dishonest indictment of white Americans.

Recently, Education Next, spurred by The 1619 Project, “the subject of recent legislative efforts, heated debate, and extensive press coverage,” and the “post-George Floyd racial reckoning and the new Juneteenth federal holiday” presented a forum by seven historians and educators discussing the topic of teaching about slavery. They were asked to respond to the prompt, “How should K–12 schools teach about slavery in America? What pitfalls should teachers and textbooks avoid? What facts and concepts should they stress? Are schools generally doing a good or bad job of this now?”

The 1619 Project came out nearly a year before George Floyd died in police custody on Memorial Day weekend 2020, an event that spurred nationwide rioting and statue toppling. A study by the corrupt and disreputable Southern Poverty Law Center provided faux justification for bringing the historically warped 1619 Project into 3,500 schools immediately upon its publication with prepackaged lesson plans, discussion questions, and “quizlets.” It is now in three-quarters of K-12 classrooms. The creator of the Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, proclaimed that she was “proud” of her role in fanning the flames of the post-Floyd rioting, which left over 25 people dead.

Education Next’s prefatory comments signal the idea that a connection exists between slavery and Floyd’s death and that the aftermath was a justified “reckoning.” The statement advances The 1619 Project’s thesis that all tragedies and disparities within the black community have a direct link to slavery and the racism that justified it. This racism is in white America’s “DNA.” It is white America’s “Original Sin,” to quote The 1619 Project. The thesis is buttressed by Hannah-Jones’s fiction that slavery in America was an exclusively white practice, with whites “kidnapping” slaves from Africa and that no blacks owned slaves in Africa and America.

The result is a wholesale indictment of white Americans. In a word-analysis of Hannah-Jones’s lead essay, Lynn Uzzell found that in the 77 times the term “white” appears, 35 times white people are presented as holding “some kind of power or privilege (almost always unearned or illegitimate)” and in 32 cases, “the word is associated with oppression, injustice, or cruelty,” for example, “’widespread white violence.’” Consider this sentence: “In response to black demands for [their] rights, white Americans strung them from trees, beat them and dumped their bodies in muddy rivers, assassinated them in their front yards, firebombed them on buses, mauled them with dogs, peeled back their skin with fire hoses and murdered their children with explosives set off inside a church.” As Charles Love points out, “it wasn’t some whites who did these things, it was ‘white Americans.’ And the attacks were on all blacks.”

The anti-white, anti-American animus the Project conveys is reinforced by the “in-depth reading and reflection” questions in the ready-made lessons, such as:

  • What examples of hypocrisy in the founding of the U.S. does Hannah-Jones supply? What evidence can you see for how “some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy”?
  • How does Hannah-Jones expand on this quote [sic] from sociologist Glenn Bracey: “Out of the ashes of white denigration, we gave birth to ourselves”?

Hannah-Jones has risen to the heights of wealth and celebrity on the anti-racism circuit, where to question her claims brings charges of racism. After having ignored or insultingly dismissed numerous historians, she has carried on a Twitter war, tweeting out statements like “teaching that racism was embedded in the American legal system is not a ‘divisive’ concept, just historical fact” (taking as her source Gloria Browne-Marshall’s book on Critical Race Theory!). But as we shall see, when it came to slave ownership, the courts sided with black slaveowners—against the pleas of their slaves.

The seven contributors to the Education Next forum make no mention of black slave ownership, although a couple do point out the global and transhistorical nature of slavery. Allen Guelzo (Princeton) notes that “forced labor was the ‘normal’ condition of most people in the Atlantic world on the eve of the American Revolution” but that “between the Confederation and the new Constitution,” a shift was taking place, in which servitude and slavery were no longer seen as “inevitable.” As a result, we had the rise of the abolition movement for the first time.

David Blight (Yale) calls slavery “ancient,” something that “has existed in all cultures and in all times” (yet, oddly, it “is at the heart of our history, a main event, a central foundational story”).

Ignored is the fact that, while in sheer numbers black slaves owned by whites overshadowed the number of slaves owned by blacks, blacks, when given the opportunity, often eagerly purchased black slaves for exploitative purposes—sometimes upon the granting of their own freedom by their masters.

The knowledge about blacks enslaving other blacks goes far back. Frederick Douglass, while railing at white slave owners, also condemned the “savage chiefs” of West Africa who sold Africans to Europeans.     

Those brought over retained the memory of slave ownership and continued the tradition. While laws in seventeenth-century Virginia established that white people could not become slaves, it did not preclude ownership of black slaves by black owners. In fact, as I point out in Debunking The 1619 Project, the case of Anthony Johnson, one of the original arrivals from Africa, who in 1654 successfully sued his white neighbors who were harboring John Casor, a black man claiming that his term of indenture to Johnson was over and that he was a free man, was the first court ruling in Virginia on slave ownership.

And the late black historian, John Hope Franklin, whose forebears on his father’s side  were not owned by white people, but by Choctaw Indians, revealed in his 1943 monograph The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, that North Carolina law upheld the property rights of a black slaveowner in State v. Edmund (1833).

In 1830, 10,000 slaves in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana were owned by free blacks. While six percent of white Southerners owned slaves in the antebellum period, about two percent of free blacks did so for exploitative purposes—proportionally, a third as many as whites. (Some were also bought to protect loved ones.)

Another contributor, Dana Ramey Berry, History Department Chair at the University of Texas at Austin, brought up a currently favored teaching method of having students read primary documents. But would she include the letters reproduced in David Whitten’s 1970 article, “Slave Buying in 1835 Virginia as Revealed by Letters of a Louisiana Negro Sugar Planter” published in Louisiana History? These letters by Andrew Durnford, a black man on a slave-buying trip to Virginia, to his white factor, John McDonogh (ironically an abolitionist), describe how he had “bought a woman a stout able hand with three children, for $1026. One is a girl of 7 in Sepr. [sic] next, the second a boy of or going on 5 years, the last a girl of near three years old. The woman is pregnant.” In his records of slave purchases Durnford did not note family relationships or anything other than first names and ages of his slaves. Durnford complained to McDonogh about the high price of “people” and transporting them, and the loss of his investment in a boy “by a cart running away with him.” In 1858, Durnford and his wife donated “Wainy, a mulatoo girl, aged about 31 years, valued at the price and sum of $1000, and her daughter Merceline, aged about 12 years, valued at the price and sum of $500” to their daughter. There were even some black slave traders. Some black slave owners supported the Confederacy early in the Civil War.

While new information has been uncovered by those like David Whitten who wrote about Durnford in 1970 a code of silence has evolved.

One can understand the “psychological reasons” noted by Clyde Dill Wilson in 1905 as he attempted to track down individuals who would have had firsthand knowledge about black slaveowners. In his North American Review article, “Black Masters: A Side-Light on Slavery,” he commented, “Psychologically, after all we have read and heard of the pathos and tragedy of negro slavery, it is of strange interest and unaccountable inconsistency that negroes themselves should at times have had no apparent compunction in regard to buying their fellows on the block.”

But now, more than a century and a civil rights movement later, such silence seems unjustified—unless it be for political goals, such as the reparations and other racially redistributive schemes for which Nikole Hannah-Jones has been agitating.

Such a dishonest position also keeps blacks in an unimpeachable childlike state, incapable of sin. At the same time, school children are subjected to the inflammatory and divisive lessons of The 1619 Project beginning in kindergarten.

Yes, slavery should be taught—but in an age-appropriate manner and with complete honesty that reveals what real history reveals: the human propensity to sin and exploitation is not limited to one race.

Mary Grabar is the author most recently of Debunking The 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America.

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