Chapter 36: What If Bonded African Americans (Slaves) Had Benefitted from Gradual Emancipation with Training and Freedom from Political Agendas?
By Barbara G. Marthal of Tennessee, M. Ed., S. I. S. H,
The subject of this chapter is too vast to permit a comprehensive treatment of the question posited in the title. But our author knows that great success would have followed a sincere program of gradual emancipation with training and freedom from political agendas. People of full and partial African descent arrived on our shores numbering only 600,000 (equal to the population of Baltimore, MD today). In spite of that small number they raised families and played a major role in building America – yes, in building America. Of that accomplishment all of their descendants, living today, should take great pride. If you are still in school, listen up while our storyteller, Barbara Marthal, speaks to your heart and mind.
A History Seldom Taught
Hello students. I am Barbara Marthal. Much of my ancestry is derived from Africa. I have a great passion for teaching history but my major was not History; it was Sociology with a minor in Anthropology. I have a Master of Education with a concentration in Reading and Story Arts. My knowledge of African American History is driven and informed by my research as a storyteller. That research has provided me with a history of African Americans that I have seldom seen published in school history texts.
I have strong opinions on what is needed in telling the History of people of African descent in colonial America and the 1800’s. We should require textbooks that reveal the lives of slaves and free people of color – capable, intelligent, talented, living and breathing people – books that connect the contribution of their labors, skills, talents, and ethnic cultures to the making of this nation and to the building of our country.
In general, most texts about African Americans are rather informative, but do not sufficiently illuminate their achievements – just a continuation of the same old story – about how our African ancestors were victimized and how the great political, social, and economic structure of America dehumanized and degraded them until the crusade of President Lincoln and his Federal army.
Some recent texts include the North in this process of victimization, but, as a teenager, you need to understand that slavery was an accepted worldwide legal institution and that in spite of that institution, slaves of African, European, and New World descent, through the use of their labors and skills, helped to build a country that was committed to a concept of freedom that up until the end of the 1700’s had not existed anywhere in the world.
I will tell a few stories that are generally omitted from the standard school textbooks. We start with William Ellison who was born a slave and apprenticed to a carpenter and cotton gin maker. After purchasing his freedom in 1816, Ellison set the course of his life, becoming known as a master cotton gin builder and planter and one of the richest men in South Carolina. There was William Tiler Johnson born a slave; yet, when apprenticed and given his freedom in 1820, he became a successful Natchez, MS barber and planter. In 1801 there is the documentable history of “Black Bob,” a slave who owned a tavern and inn in Nashville, TN, which was so successful he solicited his most influential white clients to petition the state legislature for his freedom and changed his name to Robert Renfro. Where in today’s texts do we hear of the slave, Dr. Jack, who in 1830, doctored on members of his community that were free, slave, male, female, black and white, in Maury County, TN? There are surprises in state archives such as the account of a Tennessee free black man, who, in 1832, petitioned for the right to marry a white woman with the signatures of his white male neighbors affixed.
What about the history of Elizabeth Keckley, who authored her 1868 biography, Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House? Keckley was the highly skilled seamstress whose clients included Mary Todd Lincoln, Varina Davis (wife of Jefferson Davis), and other elite women of the Washington D.C. governing class. And let us not forget the story of the African American slave woman, Marie Thereze Coincoin of Natchitoches, LA, who, when freed at some point in the late 1700’s, established the Yucca Plantation (today known as Melrose Plantation) which eventually encompassed 18,000 acres of fertile land, which was tilled by hundreds of slaves owned by Marie and her descendants. You can visit the Coincoin plantation as well as the home of William T. Johnson.
No story is more inspiring than that of Booker T. Washington, the African American educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881. He and his faculty believed in a skill and trade based program that would make people self-sufficient. They believed in the philosophy of cooperation and cultural solidarity. They built their community with the aide and respect of their white neighbors. If this mutual respect had been nurtured in the absence of a war torn society and absent of divisive political agendas, more institutions such as Fisk University and Howard University could have prospered.
The history shared above and many others are too numerous and important to be excluded from our school history texts. Historians: we need inspired students with a thirst for scholarship that propels them into the process of research and deliberation, if we are to conscientiously tell the history of this nation and the opportunities that it held out to all people in spite of having to come to grips with the institution of slavery. By producing textbooks that include stories such as those mentioned above, students will begin to understand that if you are thorough with your historical research, you will discover that all people are descended from serfs, slaves and free people, all of whom they can be proud.
Now to address the subject in the title of this chapter, gradual emancipation and training, free from political agendas. When reading the title, many historians will immediately dismiss it as speculation and chide the author with “There is no place in the science of History for speculation!” The author’s response: if you can find evidence that supports a point of view, that evidence should be researched and tested, thus transitioning it from the shadow of speculation into building a reasonable hypothesis worthy of exploration. Let us proceed.
The Anti-Slavery Examiner, of New York, published in 1839 an article titled “On the Conditions of the Free People of Color in the United States.” In it we read that in 1840, African Americans made up approximately 5% of New York City’s population. Racial discrimination barred them from most crafts or professions and forced blacks to work as servants, waiters, seamen, dock workers, or at menial jobs that rarely paid enough to support a family. “… There is a conspiracy, embracing all the departments of society, to keep the black man ignorant and poor. As a general rule, admitting few if any exceptions, the schools of literature and of science reject him – the counting house refuses to receive him as a bookkeeper, much more as a partner ….”
It is not an overstatement to say most white Northerners and a substantial number of white Southerners supported such restrictions on African Americans and certainly Abraham Lincoln did. That is why during all of his political career, he supported the American Colonization Society which was committed to freeing slaves and shipping them all out of the country. In Lincoln’s ideal America, there was no place for African Americans to live in our country as free people because they took jobs away from white men.
Now, let us examine conditions of African American slaves and free people of color in the South. Although their story is far from ideal, you see a significant difference when looking at the typical Southern attitude. A story about John Berry Meachum, a free black man in Missouri, is helpful. “… [B]orn a slave, in Goochland county, Virginia, May 3d, 1789. I belonged to a man by the name of Paul Meachum who moved to North Carolina … He was a good man and I loved him, but could not feel myself satisfied… So I proposed to him to hire my time… By working in a saltpeter cave I earned enough to purchase my freedom.” John went on to purchase and free his father, his wife, his children, and men not related to him. He inspired those men to purchase land and to establish businesses. In 1821 he was ordained and became pastor of the African Baptist Church in St. Louis.
John Berry Meachum’s story is not unique. Throughout the south, during the era of our study, stories similar to his can be documented. The point is, the South had a running successful track record of freeing slaves and integrating them into society. Albeit the timing was far, far too slow, and many times limiting, but it was a proven record. More free successful black people lived in the south during antebellum times than anywhere else in the United States. Many of them owned land which was illegal in most Northern states. A few owned large plantations with slaves, others owned small farms that made them self-sufficient.
Self-sufficient, that is the key word. In the South, an owner had to appear before a panel of his peers to assure his fellow white neighbors that the person being freed was of good character and could provide for himself/herself and any future family members. The slave usually had a skill that would secure his/her future and many times that was a skill almost monopolized by free people of color. It was a system that had worked for generations in the South and there is no reason to believe that Southerners would have abandoned that system if a devastating army had not invaded, thus disallowing the option of gradual emancipation and training of slaves.
One last word on training: the myth that the majority of slaves were without skills is just that, a myth. Many slaves were skilled craftsmen and mechanics. Others were the best skilled and qualified people, both physically and mentally, in the industry of farming anywhere in this country, skilled and productive at agriculture (plant and animal husbandry), the industry that was the foundation upon which America was built. And on successful farms and large plantations (contrary to what is usually taught: antagonistic whites as overseers and drivers), a significant number of those positions were filled by competent free people of African descent or by slaves.
Now, we have a very feasible working hypothesis. Slavery was a legal intuition throughout the countries of North and South America. And this is key – Every single one of those countries with the exception of Haiti, ended slavery without a war. Had the Republican North not invaded the Democrat South and had politicians not used slavery to promote the personal agendas of conflict and competition, the South could have produced more men and women such as those at the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington. It is even feasible (some believe probable) that integration and racial tolerance, elements which were already present within the Southern Antebellum culture, would have progressed and flourished more rapidly had the South not suffered a catastrophic war and Political Reconstruction.
We hope your heart and mind were stimulated by Barbara Marthal’s stories and commentary. Now, a look at some numbers – of the 3,653,770 people of African descent living in the Confederate states, 3.6% were free, the remainder slaves (1860 census). Between 5% and 11% in three states were free; less than 1% in five states. Together, people of African descent (slave and free) were 33% of the total population of the south. In a famous 1858 debate with Senator Stephen Douglas, Illinois Republican Party leader Abraham Lincoln predicted more than 100 years would pass before all Southern slaves would be free. Of course, that was cut to “8 years” by his WBTS, a horror that took the lives of 1,000,000 people – sailors, troops and civilians of all races. We authors believe that, if the Confederacy had been allowed to go its own way, avoiding that horrific war, all Confederate slaves would have been free by 1890 (Brazil freed its last in 1888).
The student is encouraged to open his or her mind to the possibility of saving the 1,000,000 lives lost in the WBTS and exploring an alternate path to freedom for 3,521,010 Confederate African American slaves. Reflect on Ms. Marthal’s stories and revelations during your discussions.
Suggestions for Class Discussion
Discuss how a program of gradual emancipation, with appropriate training, would have influenced the lives of Confederate African Americans and of subsequent generations, from 1861 up to today. Let Barbara Marthal’s stories and revelations help you “think from the heart and from the mind.”