When we think of American slavery today, we tend to see things in black and white. But if you study the primary documents — the census records, the tax records and the court cases — you’ll see that there really wasn’t any racial divide at all.
“We all know that slavery is absolutely wrong,” says Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D., author of The Lincolns in the White House: Slanders, Scandals, and Lincoln’s Slave Trading Revealed, published next month by Dallas-based Pangaeus Press. “What we forget is that thousands of Czech, French, German and Irish people were shipped over here from Europe and sold into slavery, too.”
It started in the seventeenth century, when the Yankees of New England imprisoned white religious dissenters, mostly Quakers, and sold them into slavery in the Caribbean, Johnson says.
In fact, the slave traders of New England never discriminated, Johnson says. “They enslaved anybody they could get their hands on.” Already by 1784 the English tourist John Ferdinand Dalziel Smyth remarked on the number of white slaves in America. And for half a century after President Thomas Jefferson outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, Yankee slavers turned their attention to Europe.
By 1817 the Yankee abolitionist Jesse Torrey in his American Slave Trade reported his surprise that a white man, quite “decently dressed”, was a slave. Immediately before the War the Scots poet Charles Mackay, visiting New Orleans, was surprised when a man who “seemed as white as myself” stood up in a slave market “and asked me to buy him.”
There was a steady supply. “They’d dock their ships in Hamburg or another European port and offer passage to America in exchange for indenture,” a contract to serve with no pay for a certain number of years. When the ships reached our ports, the captains would auction off the indentures to slaveholders who just kept the people for life. “There was no way to enforce the indenture,” Johnson says. “Parents and children, who were sold separately, had no legal recourse.”
That practice led to cases like that of the slave Sally Miller of New Orleans, born Salomé Müller in Alsace. When her identity was rediscovered, she resisted emancipation, having been raised in servitude since an infant.
But the oddest part of Miller’s case is that her owner argued in court that the German girl was in fact African. Nobody dismissed that claim on the basis of appearance. Because white slaves intermarried with black, and because the law dictated that African Americans couldn’t testify in court, archives are full of inquests to determine race. “That wasn’t at all unusual, either,” Johnson says. “It was impossible to connect race and servitude then, just as it’s impossible now to determine whose ancestors were subjected to slavery on the basis of apparent race alone,” he says.
That works both ways. Many of the largest slaveholders in the United States were themselves full-blooded African Americans. The census of 1830, Johnson says, “shows that in New York City there were eight ‘free men of color’ who owned seventeen slaves among them.” But of course the largest black slaveholders lived in the South.
William T. Johnson of Natchez earned his own manumission and then bought himself a plantation and enough slaves to work it — “and he left a fascinating diary about it all, which should be better known,” Johnson says.
In 1860 Charleston, 125 free African Americans owned slaves; six held 10 or more, more than double the average of their European-American counterparts. There were more than 3,000 slaveholders among the 10,689 free African-Americans in New Orleans. Only one tenth of 1 percent of Southerners owned 30 or more slaves, but the 1860 census lists some prosperous African-American planters owning more than 50.
In Sumter, South Carolina, the former slave William Ellison had 70, ranking him in the top 1 percent of slaveholders in the United States at the time. Others in Louisiana such as Antoine Dubuclet or Auguste Donatto owned from 70 to 100. But the record goes to the African-American Ricaud family of New Orleans who owned 350 slaves, more than anybody else in the U.S., to work their sugar plantations.
Blacks weren’t the only persons of color to own slaves. Native Americans were enslaved too, of course, and owned slaves. Greenwood Le Flore of Malmaison plantation near Greenwood, Mississippi, owned scores of slaves of various races and was himself the last chief of the Choctaws east of the Mississippi.
“Slavery is unquestionably wrong by its nature, an atrocity that can never be made right,” Johnson says. “But if we get the facts straight about American slavery, we see that neither guilt nor victimization was restricted to any particular race. It was never segregated. It was a lot worse than most of us know.”
The Lincolns in the White House is available for pre-order exclusively at Pangaeus.com and lincolnsoldslaves.com.