Genealogy research is an endeavor that holds the promise of revealing who
we are today by learning something about our heritage. I believe our
general outlook on life is one of many characteristics influenced by the
past, and by better understanding from whence we came, we can better
understand why we hold certain attitudes today.
I have often observed our society and noticed striking differences in
people. Some people live their lives based on a desire to be helpful
and make valuable contributions to the common good. Others are
obsessed with obtaining power and wealth. Although America was
founded on the principal that "all men are created equal", it is apparent
that after nearly 230 years, we are still striving to instill that ideal
in the hearts and minds of much of the population.
While performing genealogy research on early American ancestors, it is
difficult not to notice how many of them owned slaves. Many of my
ancestors were slave owners in early Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee,
Kentucky and Missouri. As I thought about this, I became
perplexed because I could not conceive of the idea that those who built
this wonderful country held the opinion that they were so superior to
another race that they felt it was okay to treat them in such a harmful
and degrading manner. This motivated me to think more about the
"slave owner mentality" and to learn more about it.
I realize that when a person is born into a culture that holds certain
attitudes, these attitudes are almost automatically instilled within them
as being normal and good. There are exceptions, of course, but in
general, this is true. Slavery is a huge part of the human
story and to overcome the "slave owner mentality" is a monumental and
painstaking endeavor. After thousands of years of humanity we have
come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.
It would probably be helpful at this point to define what I mean by "slave
owner mentality". Here are a few characteristics that I believe fall
into this category:
The inherent belief that the white race
was more intelligent than other races.
The belief that the white race's way of
life was more civilized than that of other races.
The belief that only white people were
made in God's image.
The belief that blacks were not human and
they were here to serve the white race.
In some cases, the belief that it was
okay for white men to use black females as sexual slaves. This was
also a way of "breeding" in order to produce more slaves.
Slaves were considered to be nothing more
than property and this is proven by the fact that taxes were
levied based on the number of slaves owned.
In many cases, the slave owners believed
they were "taking care" of their slaves by the act of enslaving them.
They considered it a benevolent act of kindness to give the slaves
shelter, thinking they could not survive on their own.
As slave ownership in the new world continued, many people began to notice
that each new generation of slaves "seemed" more intelligent than the
previous generation. As white men bred with black females, the
multi-racial babies were believed to be receiving some of the superior
characteristics that they believed came from the white race. In some
cases, this eventually led slave owners to reach the conclusion that their
slaves were more equal to them than in the past. I
believe the northern states, in general, held this belief before the
southern states because the northern states had utilized slavery for a
longer period of time. Their slaves were more multi-racial and had
been in America longer than slaves who were in the south.
In other cases, people believed the slaves were more pliant because after
several generations of living as slaves their generational memory of
freedom had been erased. In other words, they believed the slaves
had accepted the belief that they were inferior and would remain loyal to
them no matter what happened. This attitude was more prevalent
in the south and they eventually learned that the generational memory of
freedom had not been erased.
Because slaves were used as laborers in the fields and homes of the slaves
owners, it was a huge advantage to the financial well-being of the slave
owners. In general, the northern states formed a less
restrictive attitude toward the black race long before the south, and
began to realize that slavery was wrong. Many of the northern slave
owners gave their slaves freedom upon their deaths, and as black people
became productive free citizens, this led to a more open-minded attitude
among northern people in general.
The south, being less open-minded, began to have a huge financial
advantage over the north. Eventually, this led to the Civil War and
abolition of slavery. Although it was touted as being the "right
thing to do", much of it was based on economics.
In writing this commentary, I am wary of coming across as having a
negative viewpoint of the white race. I am a white person and I'm
perfectly content with that, however, I can see some qualities of my race
that I don't like. If we look back on human history, the white race
in general has ruled everything. It was white men who were bent on
conquering their neighbors. Rarely was the black race involved in
such endeavors. It was the white race who came to America and
decided to take over the land that once belonged to the native American
Indians. It was a member of the white race who decided his race had
the authority to wipe out 6 million Jews. But - it was also the
white race who stopped him. In short, the white race is a mixture of
the worst and best of humanity.
Tonight I listened to a PBS program about William Clark of Lewis and Clark
fame. Through his writings we gain a sense of who William Clark was
as a human being. He was apparently a very well-liked and
compassionate man who loved his family more than all else. His
character was embedded with a deep sense of responsibility and honor, and
he grew to have great affection for his Indian translators. Clark
was revered by Americans for his great sacrifices and his attention to
duty. When he died in 1838, over one thousand people turned out for
the funeral. He was an American hero and icon. And yet, he was
a contradiction in many ways....
William Clark had a slave named York whom he had known from childhood.
He took him along on the expedition and York played a vital role in the
28-month trek from St. Charles, Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. He
helped in countless ways - hunting, cooking, setting up camp, rowing,
organizing and he obeyed the orders of his master. York followed
Clark around like a shadow, knowing his master's every need and desire,
and making sure his needs were met. When the expedition ended and they
returned home, York asked Clark for his freedom as repayment for his
efforts. Apparently, Clark was furious and denied York's request,
even though he had given freedom to another slave prior to that.
Later, the country honored the members of the expedition by granting them
land as repayment for their endeavors - every member of the expedition
received a land grant except York. Even the Indian translators
Throughout Clark's ownership of York, he was a strict master, punishing
York when he felt it was needed by ordering 50 lashes to make him tow the
line. This apparent contradiction in Clark's character is
perplexing, but if we were able to place ourselves in the year 1807 we
would have a close-up view of a culture that we could not imagine.
Slaves were not considered to be human. They were looked upon as
animals or ignorant sub-humans who were incapable of civility.
During Clark's career he played a vital role in obtaining millions of
acres of land from the Indians. He tried to see to it that they were
treated fairly, but whenever he had to choose between the welfare of the
Indians or the welfare of white people, he sided with the white people and
the government. Several years after his death, Pres. Jackson signed
the Indian Removal Act and the military began moving thousands of Indians
off the lands where they had lived for centuries because gold was found
there. Men, women and children were made to walk hundreds of miles
through difficult terrain and foul weather. Many died of hunger and
disease. It was a devastatingly cruel thing to do, but the white
man's attitude of superiority and their desire for riches took precedence.
America was founded on the premise that all men are created equal.
There was no mention of women in the official
documents. That's because women were placed in a category not too
far above slaves. Women were considered chattel of their husbands.
It was difficult for women to own land, unless they inherited it. It
was difficult for women to get a good education. It was difficult
for women to gain wealth because they couldn't own businesses that could
grow and hire people. Women had no say in the way they were governed
because they couldn't vote. Men looked at women as mere children who
needed to be taken care of. A lot has changed since America was
founded, but as a women I can attest to the fact that attitudes toward
women are still not based on equality.
Does the past shame me? Yes, in many ways it does, but I try to see
how far we've come in a relatively short time. There is so much more
to do. Similar attitudes - or attitudes based on the same mentality
- still exist in today's culture. American political and economic
history (and contemporary times) is full of attitudes of avarice,
power-grabbing and authoritativeness that harms others and harms the
earth. Our society still consists of three basic classes of people.
There are those at the bottom who live in poverty. There are those
in the middle class to are doing pretty well. And there are those at
the top who have most of the money and power. Is this just
part of humanity? Is this something that we must live with forever?
Or is it something that will eventually equal out?
Unfortunately, it is often those with the most power and money who have
the most influence in national policies. Why do I say this is
unfortunate? Because many of those people are endowed with
characteristics that flow from the slave owner mentality. There is
often (not always) an attitude of feeling more worthy than others and an
arrogance and self righteousness that tends to corrupt the values upon
which our country was formed. As America grows older, I'm concerned
that we will see more and more influence from the super wealthy,
"privileged" class and less influence from the working class.
It was the working class who built this county with their bare hands,
sweat and tears, and I include slaves in that class.
This great experiment we call America is an ongoing project. It
involves a delicate act of balancing the rights of people, the rights of
corporations, the environment, moral considerations and so much more.
Our civil rights must not be taken for granted, for the day we do that,
that's the day they will surely disappear. We must keep fighting the
good fight - to bring freedom and equality to all of our citizens.
We've come a long way but we are still in Kindergarten. America
tends to think of itself as the great moral beacon of the world, and yet
we have exploited other races and recently invaded another country on a
pre-emptive basis. This is dangerous territory we are entering.
It is reminiscent of the imperialism of earlier ages that caused the
suffering of many innocent people.
Considering the history of humanity, I'm very happy to be a part of this
great experiment. I have faith that our heritage has instilled
within us the qualities needed to see to it that results of this
experiment are unique in the history of mankind and not a repeat of past
"There is only one
force in the nation that can be depended upon to keep the
government pure and the governors honest, and that is the people
They alone, if well informed, are capable of preventing the corruption of
and of restoring the nation to its rightful course if it should go astray.
are the safest depository of the ultimate powers of government."
-- Thomas Jefferson
THE HISTORY OF SLAVERY IN AMERICA
Below are some excerpts from research by
others about the history of slavery in America. Reading these
commentaries is painful and yet, I believe we must remain aware of the
past so we may never repeat the mistakes that were made. We can see
from the chronology of events that attitudes toward slavery were a source
of continual conflict as the new country tried to solidify it's political
organizations by including all the states, even those states that believed
in slavery. Economics was the main reason slavery remained legal for
YEARS 1619 TO 1789
Virginia statute providing that "[c]hildren got by an Englishman upon a
Negro woman shall be bond or free according to the condition of the
mother". Throughout the late 17th and early 18th century, several colonial
legislatures adopted similar rules which reversed the usual common law
presumptions that the status of the child was determined by the father.
(See id. at 128 (citing 1706 New
York statute); id. at 252 (citing a 1755 Georgia Law)).
These laws facilitated the breeding of slaves through Black women's bodies
and allowed for slaveholders to reproduce their own labor force.
(See PAULA GIDDINGS, WHEN AND WHERE I ENTER: THE
IMPACT OF BLACK WOMEN ON RACE AND SEX IN AMERICA 37 (1984) (noting that "a
master could save the cost of buying new slaves by impregnating his own
slave, or for that matter, having anyone impregnate her"). For a
discussion of Race and Gender see Cheryl I. Harris,
Myths of Race and Gender in the Trials of O.J.
Simpson and Susan Smith -- Spectacles of Our Times)
Slavery in the United
States was governed by an extensive body of law developed from the 1660s
to the 1860s. Every slave state had its own slave code and body of court
decisions. All slave codes made slavery a permanent condition, inherited
through the mother, and defined slaves as property, usually in the same
terms as those applied to real estate. Slaves, being property, could not
own property or be a party to a contract. Since marriage is a form of a
contract, no slave marriage had any legal standing. All codes also had
sections regulating free blacks, who were still subject to controls on
their movements and employment and were often required to leave the state
(American Treasures of the Library of Congress:
MEMORY, Slavery in the Capitol,
Maryland Settlers pass law stipulating that all imported blacks are to be
given the status of slaves. Free white women who marry black slaves are to
be slaves during the lives of their spouses, Ironically, children born of
white servant women and blacks are regarded as free by a 1681 law.
(The Negro Almanac a reference work on the Afro American, compiled and
edited by harry A Ploski, and Warren Marr, II. Third Edition 1978
Maryland passes a law making lifelong servitude for black slaves mandatory
to prevent them from taking advantage of legal precedents established in
England which grant freedom under certain conditions, such as conversion
to Christianity. Similar laws are later passed in New York, New Jersey,
the Carolinas and Virginia.
(The History Place,
Early Colonial Era Beginnings to 1700 Chronology)
Slavery introduced into law in Maryland, the law also prohibited marriage
between white women and black men. This particular act remained in effect
for over 300 years, and between 1935 and 1967 the law was extended to
forbid the marriage of Malaysians with blacks or whites. The law was
finally repealed in 1967.
(Maryland State Archive, THE ARCHIVISTS' Record
Series of the Week, Phebe Jacobsen "Colonial Marriage Records" Bulldog
Vol. 2, No. 26 18
There had been a
number of marriages between white women and slaves by 1664 when Maryland
passed a law which made them and their mixed-race children slaves for
life, noting that "divers freeborne English women forgettfull of their
free Condicon and to the disgrace of our Nation doe intermarry with Negro
Slaves" [Archives of Maryland, 1:533-34].
AMERICANS OF MARYLAND AND DELAWAREINTRODUCTION By Paul Heinegg, firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the history of the free African American communities of Maryland
and Delaware during the colonial period as told through their family
Also see 1681.
of the colonial period, opposition to slavery among white Americans was
virtually nonexistent. Settlers in the 17th and early 18th centuries came
from sharply stratified societies in which the wealthy savagely exploited
members of the lower classes. Lacking a later generation's belief in
natural human equality, they saw little reason to question the enslavement
of Africans. As they sought to mold a docile labor force, planters
resorted to harsh, repressive measures that included liberal use of
whipping and branding. ("Slavery
in the United States," Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. Microsoft
characteristic which set American slavery apart was its racial basis. In
America, with only a few early and insignificant exceptions, all slaves
were Africans, and almost all Africans were slaves. This placed the label
of inferiority on black skin and on African culture. In other societies,
it had been possible for a slave who obtained his freedom to take his
place in his society with relative ease. In America, however, when a slave
became free, he was still obviously an African. The taint of inferiority
clung to him. Not only did white America become convinced of white
superiority and black inferiority, but it strove to impose these racial
beliefs on the Africans themselves. Slave masters gave a great deal of
attention to the education and training of the ideal slave, In general,
there were five steps in molding the character of such a slave: strict
discipline, a sense of his own inferiority, belief in the master's
superior power, acceptance of the master's standards, and, finally, a deep
sense of his own helplessness and dependence. At every point this
education was built on the belief in white superiority and black
inferiority. Besides teaching the slave to despise his own history and
culture, the master strove to inculcate his own value system into the
African's outlook. The white man's belief in the African's inferiority
paralleled African self hate.
(Norman Coombs, The Immigrant Heritage of America, Twayne Press, 1972.
CHAPTER 3, CHAPTER 3, The Shape of American Slavery).
When the vessels arrive at their
destined port, the Negroes are exposed naked to the eyes of all that flock
together, and the examination of their purchasers. Then they are separated
to the plantations of their several masters, to see each other no more.
Here you may see mothers hanging over their daughters, bedewing their
naked breasts with tears, and daughters clinging to their parents, till
the whipper soon obliges them to part. And what can be more wretched than
the condition they then enter upon? Banished from their country, from
their friends and relations forever, from every comfort of life, they are
reduced to a state scarce anyway preferable to that of beasts of burden.
In general, a few roots, not of the nicest kind, usually yams or potatoes,
are their food; and two rags, that neither screen them from the heat of
the day, nor the cold of the night, their covering. Their sleep is very
short, their labour continual, and frequently above their strength; so
that death sets many of them at liberty before they have lived out half
1790 TO EMANCIPATION
Add your Comments