Recent conversations about racial injustice, inequality, and inequity often refer to the notion of white privilege, which refers to the idea that whites have greater access to power and resources than people of color do and that they might not even be attuned to this “leg up” they have. Some people believe that white privilege is a legacy of slavery, which began in America around 1619. In 2015, President Obama commented, “What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.” The idea is that slave ownership, and acquiescence of or participation in the economic system developed out of it, has led to advantages experienced by white people today. California Newsreel states,
“Affirmative action in the American “workplace” first began in the late 17th century when European indentured servants – the original source of unfree labor on the new tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland – were replaced by African slaves. In exchange for their support and their policing of the growing slave population, lower-class Europeans won new rights, entitlements, and opportunities from the planter elite…When slavery ended, its legacy lived on not only in the impoverished condition of Black people but in the wealth and prosperity that accrued to white slaveowners and their descendents [sic].”Retrieved from http://newsreel.org/guides/race/whiteadv.htm
Where are the discussions about the contributions to social disparities and access to power and resources – that is to say, privilege – associated with slave ownership by blacks? Do people even realize that blacks owned slaves? And once they do, what considerations should be made about the possibility that the descendants of black slaveowners enjoy special advantages today because of the economic decisions their ancestors made over 150 years ago? Let’s explore this a bit.
There is ample evidence of slave ownership by people of color in states across America, but I’ll just focus for a moment on Louisiana, since that is my mother’s home state. In an article about free people of color in Louisiana, Michael Taylor, Curator of Books for LSU Libraries, explained that they used the same strategies that their white counterparts did to establish and maintain their economic power, one of which was slavery. He reported that the first free person of color in southwest Louisiana was documented in 1766 and that, just eight years later, he was found in a census of the Opelousas District owning two slaves and fifty cattle. Taylor further noted that, in 1818, Marie Simien employed nine slaves to work her more than 7,500 acres of land in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. In a summary of census data collected for St. Landry Parish in 1830, a time of great prosperity for Louisiana free people of color, Christophe Landry demonstrated that there were quite a few slaveowners of color. Of the 631 slaveholders listed in Landry’s abstract, 41 of them were designated as Free People of Color (FPOC), and, as a group, they owned approximately 373 slaves (interestingly, sixteen of the FPOC resided in Bayou Teche and owned a total of 176 slaves). Martin Donato, of Plaquemines Brûlées, outpaced the rest of the group with a holding of 75 slaves, followed most closely by Jean Baptiste Meullion, of Bayou Teche, who owned 53 slaves.
Several of my direct ancestors were listed as heads of household in that 1830 Census, and two of them were free people of color. Laurent Malveau(x) (as well as his brother Jean Baptiste) had been freed from their white, French-born owner, Jean Baptiste Malvo(t) at the time of his death in the first decade of the 1800’s. Their mother, Catherine, had been manumitted prior to that time for good and faithful service. Their father’s name is unknown, but they are always identified in records as free negroes rather than mulattos, indicating that their father was a black man (and not Jean Baptiste Malvo(t) as some would think; this was confirmed when Henry Louis Gates explored that possibility on the episode of his show Finding Your Roots that featured award-winning journalist Suzanne Malveaux). Shortly after being freed, Laurent bought several slaves, including the mother of his children, Constance Chretien; however, he didn’t just buy his own family members. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s database of slave transactions in Louisiana shows that Laurent purchased slaves who weren’t related to him, including Henry, bought in 1816, and Dick, bought in 1818. In fact, as census records demonstrate, by 1830, he owned 18 slaves.
Laurent obviously wanted to move far beyond the animalistic bondage under which he had lived previously. As a free man, Laurent did and became what he saw was necessary in order to earn capital, influence, and clout…and to be able to pass those on to his children. Indeed, his children (and his brother’s children) intermarried with other free families of color, thereby giving his descendants a chance that his enslaved comrades didn’t have. Fast forward to today…I reflect on my education, socioeconomic status, and values and wonder what kind of advantages I enjoy because of the unpaid labor that slaves provided to Laurent. I have wondered over the years if I have any responsibility or duty to those men and women that Laurent owned. Have I contributed unwittingly to the social problems and gaps in access to resources that exist among blacks simply by being a descendant of a black slaveowner? And if I have, what do I do to right the wrongs – should it be a symbolic gesture or practical action?
I have lots of questions about the impact of Laurent’s slave ownership! Was it “okay” that Laurent owned slaves if he treated them well and saved them from a potentially more ignominious life managed by a white slave owner? Should I feel ashamed and guilty because of what Laurent did and live my life differently because of that shame and guilt? Does the fact that I have many more enslaved than free ancestors make up for the damage that Laurent did to the slaves he owned? Do I get any credit for being and living black? I don’t have all of the answers, but these are questions worth pondering, if you happen to be a black person with an ancestor who was a slave-owning person of color. In fact, even if you are a black descendant of a white slaveowner, you might consider these questions. Let me know in the comments about how you have researched and thought about your ancestors who owned slaves – I’d love to hear your thoughts.