Day by Day

Sunday, January 08, 2006

My Ancestors Owned Slaves

In a nation with no shortage of liberal absurdity, the idea of paying reparations to Blacks to atone for sins none of us committed, to individuals that never suffered slavery, is easily the most absurd. Leaving aside practical considerations, i.e; Who should receive reparations? Should we pay reparations to successful Blacks like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Willie Mays, Michael Jordan, Sean "Puffy" Combs (my personal favorite example, of course), etc. What reparations are appropriate? Forty acres and a mule? In Death Valley? Malibu? Next to Barbra Streisand?

Even supporters recognize that proposing paying reparations for slavery raises many questions. Why should American taxpayers who never owned slaves pay for the sins of ancestors they don't even know? And what about those whose ancestors arrived here long after slavery ended? And how would the economy be affected? How do you put a price tag on 2 1/2 centuries of legalized inhumanity? In what form would reparations be paid? How would you establish who's a descendant?

Anyway, as I said, leaving aside practical considerations, the main questions about paying reparations is: Why?

Reparation implies recompense given to one as compensation for loss, suffering, or damage at the hands of another. By paying reparations to present Blacks could we atone for the lasting effects of their ancestor's slavery? Some supporters of reparations suggest that what is really fair is we pay Blacks for the wages their ancestors did not receive.

This is not totally a theoretical exercise on my part. As best I can determine, my first ancestor in America was one John Combs, who arrived from England at Jamestown, Virginia on the Marigold, May 20, 1619, as an indentured servant. At about that same time, maybe on that same date, Dutch traders brought 20 captive Africans.

Quite a while later, in a copy of the last will and testament of my great-great-great-grandfather William Combs Jr., (please scroll down about halfway to read his will) I find myself a member of the extremely small group of Americans whose ancestors were slave owners. In his will, William bequeathed a total of eight slaves to his wife Anna and their children.

As a descendent of slave owners, I have asked myself what is my fault, what is my shame, what are my responsibilities? As to fault, I have had nothing to do with introducing or maintaining an institution of slavery anywhere at anytime. Considering shame, since nine of our first twelve presidents were slave owners, and seven of the nine were Virginians like my ancestors, it looks like being a descendent of slave owners has been for the most part an accident of birth. So finally, we get to something I have control over, my responsibilities concerning slavery. What are they?

Since slavery in the United States has been illegal for over one hundred years, I obviously feel one of my responsibilities is to obey the law. During my youth President Eisenhower and Republican leaders worked very hard to erase vestiges of slavery, unlike the Democrats, particularly the Dixie Democrats, who to a large extent opposed Civil Rights legislation. Democrats like Robert Byrd, Al Gore Sr., and Richard Russell. I was a staunch Republican, and supported expanding civil rights protections of Blacks.

I would hope that to this point a fair jury would find I have grounds for opposing the taking of any of my own money to pay anything to someone regardless of whatever fate befell them, even at the hands of my ancestors.

This is from the supporters of reparations:

Facts: Emancipation brought freedom, but not parity. The civil rights movement knocked down Jim Crow, but vestiges remained. Affirmative action created opportunities, but racism persists.

So why shouldn't the great-great grandchildren of those who worked for free and were deprived of education and were kept in bondage not be compensated?

Indeed, why should we stop compensation with the distant descendents of slaves, when we have so many in the land of the free and the home of the brave who actually suffered atrocities first hand; atrocities which were not only immoral and against the laws of G-d and of man, but which we condoned and were even complicit.

What did we do to compensate Jews who escaped to America, only to watch us dither as their families were placed in bondage, stripped of their possessions, forced to labor under conditions unknown to slaves of the worst of all masters, and then slaughtered and disposed of in ways that must offend all mankind for all time.

In our lifetimes, with the nightmarish memories still fresh, the descendents of the Holocaust pursued education, found employment and started businesses in a strange land speaking a strange language, and by hard work and diligence rebuilt family fortunes. To a great extent, these were people who had been deprived of freedom and suffered many hardships for hundreds of years too. Yet look where most are now.

In an earlier post I presented the circumstances of Asian families arriving penniless and uneducated in an unfamiliar land, driven from their homeland by war and political/religious persecution. Since many found themselves in these circumstances because they had allied themselves with us, they should have a much more direct and immediate claim for compensation than someone only dimly aware of a slave ancestor, and unable to coherently explain why success or failure today is a result of that ancient history.

So what, according to the supporters of reparations, would be appropriate to repair the damage caused by the ancient wrong of slavery?

The thinkers are not talking about cutting government checks to individuals. Most have grander ideas--free college tuition to African Americans for generations and generations.

This is a grander idea? When you have a culture that can be characterized by ridicule of scholarship, why will its poor scholars suddenly blossom in college?

One idea, broached by Time magazine columnist Jack White, is to start a reparations fund--a kind of New Freedmen's Bureau--that would finance such things as school construction, housing and job training centers in areas where slave descendants are a majority. White figures blacks are owed $24 trillion, based on unpaid wages denied 10 million slaves, doubled for pain and suffering with interest added. Installments could be made to the fund over the next 2 1/2 centuries.

The details in this detailed plan make me wonder how such a stupid person could become a Times magazine columnist. Build it, and they will learn? It hasn't worked yet. That seems to be the liberal philosophy. When something doesn't work, do more of it. In areas where slave descendants are a majority? Where is that, and why would that be a good place to house and train people? To attract more people to areas that are already economically distressed? And how fair is that to the descendants who took initiative and sought a better life far from their slave ancestors' homes? Are they to be penalized for their industry, and slackers rewarded?


"My bottom line is the form of reparations that makes sense is an impassioned recommitment to closing the opportunity gap," says Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard law professor and an adviser to President Clinton on race relations. "That's the reparations we are due. Not 40 acres and a mule, but world-class schools for our kids."

In the final analysis, all our kids are due world-class schools. But if they don't have them, they still have lives to lead, lives they and we don't want wasted. While waiting for their reparations ship to come in, they would be best served putting some world-class effort into the opportunities they already have. The reparations ship may be a long time coming, and if it ever arrives, not worth the wait.

(Speaking of the Good Ship Reparations reminds of another post about the Cargo Cult, Reparations, and Casinos, which I probably should have sub-titled, "waiting for ships that never come in.)

2 comments:

Jeanne said...

Where do you get your "fact" of a very very small number of Americans whose ancestors owned slaves? How do you know that that number is small? Because I do genealogy, and the math doesn't work out. In 1850, families had large numbers of children. Then those children had large numbers of children. It's exponential. Yes, you can rule out people who are solely descendant from people who emigrated to the United States after 1864.

I only question your fact because I always thought there was no way my ancestors owned slaves because they were poor. I was wrong. Very wrong. One of my great great great grandfathers on my mother's mother's side served in the Revolutionary war and among other things received "free" land for his service. He used his pension to...guess what...buy a few slaves to work the land. But in the numbers, by the time I get back to his generation, I have 64 ancestors. That ancestor has many thousands of descendants living today.

So...if your fact is true, can you give me a citation?

Major Combs said...

Jeanne
The following statistics were easy to Google. As you will see, they amply support my statement that only a very, very small percent of our current population are descended from slave owners. The percent of the total United States population that were slave owners in 1860 was 1%, and even in the slave states (Southern and Border states) was only 3.8%.

Population before Civil War: Free states: 19.1 million; Border and slave states: 8.3 million; Total not slaves: 27.4 million
Total slaves: 3.9 million
At least 70% (19.1/27.4) were not slave owners just prior to the Civil War.

http://www.civilwarhome.com/population1860.htm

Delving deeper into the numbers,
from Wikipedia we find that:

“Fewer than one-third of all Southern families owned slaves at the peak of slavery prior to the Civil War. In Mississippi and South Carolina it approached one half. The total number of slave owners was 385,000 (including, in Louisiana, some free Negroes), amounting to approximately 3.8% of the Southern and Border states population.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantation_economy

The number of potential slave-owning families was greatly reduced by Southern Civil War deaths. The Confederacy suffered military losses of 95,000 men killed in action and 165,000 who died of disease, for a total of 260,000 out of a total white Southern population at the time of around 5.5 million. Based on 1860 census figures, in the South 18% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war.

Immigration after the Civil War greatly increased the proportion of Americans who were not descended from slave owners. Again from Wikipedia: “During the Gilded Age(1870’s and 1880’s), approximately 10 million immigrants came to the United States in what is known as the new immigration, some of them were prosperous farmers looking for fresh lands, and many of them were impoverished peasants looking for the American Dream in mills, mines and factories. Few immigrants went to the poverty-stricken South.”

The percentage of foreign born increased to roughly 14% in the late 1800’s after the Civil War.

I hope these are enough "facts" for you. I think they demonstrate that even most Southerners are not descended from slave owners.