The study of slavery is one of the most contentious issues in contemporary America. But frequently this history is abused by thinkers across the spectrum to score political points. To understand the complexity of such an institution, we must desist from underestimating the role of minorities such as African Americans and Native Americans in it. For much of history, slavery was the norm, and by downplaying nonwhites’ involvement, we diminish their humanity. Pursuing one’s self-interest to acquire profit or power is consistent with human nature. Depicting minorities as innately virtuous relegates them to the status of infants. Instead, we should aim to highlight their autonomy as rational agents who sought to fulfill specific objectives in the context of a slave economy. Blacks and American Indians possessed the capacity to be just as calculating as white slave owners, and it is patronizing to suggest that they failed to perform as self-interested actors.
One of the earliest reports on black slave owners was pioneered by historian and activist Carter G. Woodson. Woodson advanced what is widely known as the theory of “benevolent slaveholding.” According to this view, black slaveholders primarily purchased relatives and friends from white masters to provide them with a better quality of life. To curtail the growth of the free black population, restrictive laws were instituted, thus making it difficult for black slave owners to manumit slaves without approval from the state. In South Carolina, for example, after 1820 free blacks who bought relatives, spouses, or friends had to receive permission from the state prior to manumitting enslaved Americans. Hence, purchasing black slaves from white owners was a strategy used by free blacks to secure a greater degree of freedom for their loved ones. Indeed Woodson’s thesis remains popular among academics, as adumbrated by Philip J. Schwarz: “Increasingly restrictive legislation, stringent economic conditions, the choice of many free blacks to own other blacks only temporarily, and perhaps the aversion of other Afro-Americans to human bondage guaranteed, that free black possession of human property would be significant only as an anomaly, not as a typical experience.” Though Woodson’s theory is still influential, many have charged that he minimized the materialistic tendencies of African American slave owners.
Larry Koger in his groundbreaking text Black Slaveowners: Free Black Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860 disputes the dominant narrative propagated by disciples of Woodson:
When Carter G. Woodson asserted that free blacks purchased slave relatives and friends, he was quite correct. However, free blacks who held loved ones bought other slaves to be exploited for profit. To classify these transactions as benevolent would be a mistake. Even though these slaveowners usually demonstrated benevolent behavior towards their slave relations and friends, a commercial and materialistic exchange existed between them and their slaves purchased as investments. In fact, the free blacks who maintained a dual relationship with their slaves had no universal commitment against slavery. To them, slavery was an oppressive institution when it affected a beloved relative or a trusted friend, but beyond that realm, slavery was viewed as a profit-making institution to be exploited.
Other scholars implore us to not be shocked that blacks in America expressed an interest in owning slaves, as summarized by Calvin Wilson: “The Negroes brought with them from their native land African ideas and customs. Many of those brought thence to America had been slaves in their own lands. Others had been owners of slaves in Africa. In both cases, they were used to slavery. It did not, therefore, seemed unnatural for a Negro in America to hold his brethren in bondage when he had become free and able to buy his fellows.”
Also, like their white peers, some black slave owners were notorious for their brutality. Ronald E. Hall in his landmark publication An Historical Analysis of Skin Colour Discrimination: Victimism among Victim Group Populations challenges the assumption that black owners were always humane using the example of William Ellison: “William Ellison is prominent for both his wealth and the cruelty toward his black slaves, for which he was known among Southern blacks and whites. Historians for whatever reasons have attempted to justify his version of victim-group discrimination perhaps as a matter of political correctness.”
Yet if you assume that Hall’s commentary on Ellison is an anomalous case, then maybe this condemnation of black slave owners by a Louisiana slave featured in Frederick Law Olmstead’s Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom will alter your perspective: “You might think, master, dat dey would be good to dar own nation; but dey is not. I will tell you de truth, massa; I know I’se got to answer; and it’s a fact, dey is very bad masters, sar. I’d rather be a servant to any man in de world, dan to a brack man. If I was sold to a brack man, I’d drown myself. I would dat—I’d drown myself! Dough I shouldn’t like to do dat nudder; but I wouldn’t be sold to a coloured master for anything.” Clearly, Woodson’s thesis is untenable.
With greater potency than most writers Hall discredits the position that black slaveholders were mainly motivated by humanitarian concerns:
In most instances of black slave ownership, the records suggest that blacks who owned black slaves did so for the same reasons as whites: profit….Astonishingly, in 1860 there existed at least six Negroes—likely light-skinned—living in Louisiana who owned 65 or more slaves. Among them C. Richards and P.C. Richards who owned 152 of their black brethren as slaves to work their sugarcane plantation. A similarly impressive Louisiana free Negro Antoine Dubuclet owned in excess of 100 dark-skinned black slaves. He was also in the sugar business and boasted an estate estimated to be worth in (1860 dollars) $264,000. To put Dubuclet’s wealth in context, the mean calculation of wealth for Southern white men at the time averaged $3,978.
Similarly, Native Americans were also players in slavery, and it must be noted that the institution existed before the arrival of Europeans. According to the scholar Joyce Ann Kievit: “Many North American Indian tribes practiced some form of slavery before Europeans arrived in North America. The status of slaves varied from tribe to tribe. Some slaves were exploited for labor, others were used for ritual sacrifice, a few provided for the needs of women whose husbands had been slain in war, and many were adopted into the tribes.” However, with the introduction of plantation slavery by European settlers, Native Americans became alert to the financial opportunities that could be gained from this venture.
Barbara Krauthamer shrewdly dispels the notion that Native Americans had less interest in exploiting black slaves for monetary benefit:
From the late eighteenth century through the end of the U.S. Civil War, Choctaw and Chickasaw men and women held people of African descent in slavery. Like their white Southern counterparts, Indians bought, sold, owned, and exploited black people’s labor and reproduction for social and economic gain. Choctaws and Chickasaws purchased slaves—men, women, and children—to work on their Mississippi farms and plantations and to serve in their homes…Choctaws and Chickasaws understood that slavery allowed for the accumulation of personal wealth.
Neither should we entertain the fable that Indian slave owners were universally generous. R. Halliburton in an intriguing book, Red over Black: Black Slavery among the Cherokee Indians, argued that the treatment meted out to black slaves ranged from kind to excessively atrocious, indicating that generalizations about slave masters are often inaccurate.
To imply that only white people have a vicious ability to calculatingly pursue their interests at the expense of others is insulting to blacks and American Indians. Inherent in humans is the passion to achieve distinct objectives even when they are inconsistent with the goals of the wider group. Romanticizing the history of minorities to portray them as saints is quite dehumanizing. The racist subtext is that white people are uniquely human because they possess the fortitude to outwit competitors.