The Legacy of Slavery is Not Simply Black and White

It would seem impossible for Yale University’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. to surpass his The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross explaining U.S. slavery but he approaches doing so in his documentary The Black Church about the institution created by slaves to persevere through servitude and serfdom—and provide the hope and determination necessary to become free.

Gates has long been a speaker of truth on slavery and its horrors but also unafraid to speak about its complexities, calling it a “remarkably messy history” beginning with the  complicity of black leaders in Africa in selling their enemies to European slavers, now confirmed by DNA showing U.S. slaves came from a narrow number of oppressed tribes. He even argued that “the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted.”

Dealing with such complexities divides the black community. On the one hand, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” argues that after “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy” America will never be “whole” until it faces up to the still “compounding moral debts” resulting from slavery, calling for a generous set of reparations. Adding, “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

On the other hand, Washington D.C. community activist Robert Woodson just published a book questioning the provocative New York Times “1619 Project” that claimed slavery as the most fundamental principle of the American founding, and even opposing the policy of aggressive racial affirmative action. Woodson explains the purpose of his Red, White and Black—written with a score of other experts—is to “debunk” the Times’ “myth that slavery is the source of present-day disparities and injustice” afflicting today’s African Americans. Rather he argues blacks’ future cannot be determined by others but only by themselves.

In assessing the debate, Columbia University book contributor Professor John McWhorter asks that at the very least both sides must not “abjure complexity” when discussing and arriving at a rational conclusion regarding such a multifaceted issue. Confronting the facts about slavery and its legacy could lead to a more rational discussion about race generally and reparations particularly.

Slavery in the Americas

Slavery in the Western hemisphere actually preceded the arrival of both Africans and Europeans. And afterwards both Africans and Europeans experienced slavery under Native Americans, who were in turn enslaved by competing tribes beforehand and afterwards. Historically, slavery was nearly universal, with the exception of what Alexis de Tocqueville claimed was the basic elimination of slavery in Europe for the 1,000 years before the Age of Discovery. Even setting 1619 as the arrival of Africans in the present-day U.S. was preceded by an earlier century of black slavery in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies further to the south.

Interestingly, the first non-native slaves in today’s U.S probably arrived even earlier than 1619. To satisfy his imperial ambitions and enabled by England’s first mass vagrancy act creating  surplus prisoners, Walter Raleigh dispatched settlers, who were mostly white, near-slave, and indentured prisoners but perhaps also black slaves, to Roanoke Island, Virginia as early as 1584. Both free and unfree survivors were ultimately abandoned to disappear from recorded history. 

Jamestown was not settled until 1607 and seemed headed for the same fate until 1609 when John Rolfe introduced the commercially viable crop of tobacco. This required hard labor and resulted in the arrival of involuntary indentured servants from the English penal system. Displaced serfs arrived and signed contracts for set periods of service (who if deceased before the contract expired bound wives and children). As the Times reported, 1619 saw the arrival of 20 African slaves in Jamestown, Virginia but it was not until four decades later in 1661 that Virginia (and in 1664 Maryland) legalized black slavery and adopted its first full slave code in 1706.

Without such laws the first Africans in the U.S. were officially indentured servants with limited terms or simply held by brute force. In a revealing new history based on Maryland archives, William G. Thomas III discovered that many members of a slave family named Butler actually won cases in Maryland courts in the 1790s by proving they were originally indentured servants descended from a white mother rather than legal slaves. Hundreds of mixed race slaves won verdicts granting freedom from mostly non-slave owner juries (predominantly against minority Catholic owners) or by manumission (mostly from Quakers). A majority of African Americans in Annapolis (the town but not the county) actually were legally free by 1840, two decades before the Civil War. Archivist Jane Wilson McWilliams also found that the indentured were often mistreated worse than slaves in Maryland because of the perverse incentive to get maximum use before their contract ended, unlike slaves who served for life and were an asset (if an unjust and evil one) to be conserved as resources for a lifetime.“Many researchers now consider race to be a fluid social construct rather than a scientific system of categorization—and the decennial census, with its shifting labels, provides evidence.” But fluid or not it remains an important social and individual identification.

History Ireland’s records show England entering late into the Caribbean only after conquering Barbados and Montserrat, inheriting their African slavery. From the 1630s, these slaves were supplemented by the Irish who were kidnapped by English press-gangs and had to serve seven years, from which only a “small handful” survived to eventually hold their own property. Oliver Cromwell’s early suppression of Ireland in 1649 sent military prisoners to Barbados and over the “following years thousands of military prisoners were sold in perpetuity to plantation slavery to work in the fields effectively as slaves.” During the 1650s, Cromwell sent 40,000 Irishmen “into Connacht, where they could be effectively corralled and controlled. The common soldiers of an ‘inferior sort’ provided a lucrative source of revenue for merchants with shipping at their disposal. As the war drew to a close, the parliamentarians, anxious to rid the country of hostile soldiers, licensed military entrepreneurs to transport large numbers [of Irish] into Spanish service.”

As Gates demonstrates, even colonial and U.S. African Americans owned slaves as early as 1654, and that “In 1830, the year most carefully studied by Carter G. Woodson, about 13.7 percent (319,599) of the black population was free. Of these, 3,776 free Negroes owned 12,907 slaves, out of a total of 2,009,043 slaves owned in the entire United States. So the numbers of slaves owned by black people over all was quite small by comparison with the number owned by white people,” of whom one-fifth owned slaves (mostly fewer than ten). Over 40 percent of blacks with slaves only owned one, most of whom could thus be assumed to be rescuing a family member. Gates concluded: “Nevertheless, it is a very sad aspect of African-American history that slavery sometimes could be a colorblind affair, and that the evil business of owning another human being could manifest itself in both males and females, and in black as well as white.”

Black and White?

In spite of this complex history, slavery, race relations and reparations are most often discussed in journalism in binary terms simply as black and white. Or should we say, Black and White since most mainstream journalism now recommends such capitalization should be used when matters of race are discussed in the U.S.? But as the Washington Post itself explained, there was some ambivalence about making this change even among African Americans.

Black leaders have long pushed for changes in how their community should be described. For centuries, enslaved Africans and their descendants were referred to as “colored” in the eyes of the law as well as in common parlance. In 1900, the term “negro” appeared in Census Bureau instructions for the first time, a change the federal agency justified by the growing acceptance of the term.  In the 1920s, W.E.B. Du Bois led a letter-writing campaign to publications urging the use of the capitalized “Negro.” In the wake of the civil rights movement, “black” and “Afro-American” became more widely used. In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson led a campaign to standardize “African American,” which had long been used in scholarly circles to emphasize a connection to the continent.

Still, many preferred “black,” arguing African American was imprecise. The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) was recently asked how best to transcribe the term “black”, and they recommended capitalizing it “whenever a color is used to appropriately describe a race,” but also expressed concern that white extremists often capitalize “white.” This led many to avoid capitalization for either. But the Post and Times replied that they would follow Du Bois and use capitalization for both. Kristin Roberts, vice president of news at McClatchy, responded that capitalizing Black can put “the word on equal footing with other capitalized descriptors of people and culture, such as Native American, Irish American and Hispanic.” But “White is not a description of culture but of a skin color, and when ethnicity is relevant to the story, we will ask the source his/her ethnicity (of Italian descent, Russian heritage, etc).”

But given the NABJ concern about capitalizing the word white, she added, “Please note that we will continue to discuss this issue.” Ms. Roberts recognized the complexity. Is it race or culture or ethnicity or descent or heritage or something else? Actually the Census with all of its resources has recently found it difficult to identify race. As reporter Jo Craven McGinty put it,

Since 2000, residents have been able to check off more than one race on the decennial census. But the option to provide that level of detail has lent confusion as well as clarity to the question of how multiracial the nation really is. Why? Because people change their answers from one Census to the next….Had Dr. [Caroline] Liebler [had access to] all of the [Census] forms, she estimated the number who changed their answer would have climbed to 8.3%, or 23 million people—and even that might be an undercount.

She concluded “Many researchers now consider race to be a fluid social construct rather than a scientific system of categorization—and the decennial census, with its shifting labels, provides evidence.” But fluid or not it remains an important social and individual identification.

A recent experience in the U.K. well illustrates the pitfalls of using imprecise racial descriptors. The British Parliament created a minority-dominated Race and Ethnic Disparities commission in 2020 chaired by Tony Sewell who managed a charity that coached black school children in math and science. The report found continuing disparities between the races but also found that whites were not the most advantaged group for all of its measures. Black Caribbean children did the worst in U.K. schools but all other ethnic groups including “non-Caribbean African blacks” performed better than the white average score. Family structure was the main factor affecting performance with 63 percent of Caribbean black children coming from single-parent homes, compared to only 14 percent for the population as a whole and 6 percent for India origin families.

The report recommended ending the description of the British population as simply black, Asian, minority ethnic, and white. Three percent of the population actually was black but only one-third of these were Caribbean and disadvantaged. Seven percent were Asian but Chinese were less than one percent of them with the rest from the Indian subcontinent. And the latter were divided into prosperous Gujarati and poorer Indian regions, and poorer Pakistanis too. Rather than Asian, black and minority, the commission suggested using geographical national background as more sophisticated measures of cultural factors and differences.

U.S. election data show a similar pattern, especially concerning the term Hispanic including the Census, where it was measured independently of race. It is much more important to know whether a voter identified as Cuban in Florida, where he or she originated in Texas, or to identify with their actual country or region of origin, mainly in Central and South America, than to get either to identify with the broader term Hispanic.

In Census self-identification, few Americans of European heritage volunteer the term white to describe themselves but identify as German, Italian, Irish, English, or by other cultural designations. Middle Easterner Dalia Azam complained the Census now includes Lebanese and Egyptian as White. Blacks with their history of slavery have for the most part been deprived from identifying a specific country of origin but do differ by class, regional history, and other cultural backgrounds. Jesse Jackson’s capitalized African American might deserve reevaluation as the most accurate choice for a general identification.

Understanding facts about slavery, or slave-ownership, or the diversity of cultural backgrounds among whites and blacks may not get us very far in resolving whether Coates’ belief that reparations from whites or Woodson’s black self-help are the proper directions for future race relations; but they might help us understand the inherent complexities of these important issues.


William L. Garrison statue, Commonwealth Ave. , Back Bay, Boston, MA, USA

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