February 7, 2023

You may know about August, 1619. You may not.

By John Guy LaPlante

I did not.

We all know about October 12, 1492, don’t we….  About July 4, 1776. On and on. More recently, December 7, 1941. And who can ever forget 9 / 11 in New York City?

But 1619? Well, in August the ship White Lion arrived from far-off Africa and made landfall in Virginia, one of our colonial territories at that time.

And the White Lion left off some 20 captive black men and women. Did that in exchange for supplies and goodies to take back to Africa.

That day in1619 can be considered the real birthday of America.

Why? Because that modest financial but historically significant sale of some 20 black people ignited social changes. These great changes magnified and intensified for some 250 years, marking our very way of life as Americans.

It led to the Civil War which nearly split our country into independent, self-governing halves. The changes continued, affecting us in many ways, some bad.

Our black people have been afflicted severely. Here is just one example. It has been calculated that presently the average white family now has a net worth of $171,000. But the average black family has a net worth of a mere $17,600. Shocking, don’t you think?

And we’re so familiar with so many other differentials. Lower levels of education for blacks. Low ceilings for opportunity. More unemployment. Higher rates of broken homes and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Inferior housing.

The list continues. Higher crime rates and far more imprisonments. More people on food stamps. More on welfare. More homelessness. Poorer medical care. Shorter life spans. And so forth.

Yes, there is progress. But it has been s-l-o-w.

No wonder that the institutionalizing of slavery four centuries ago has been called “our original sin.” And how.

Yet interestingly, way back at that time there did exist a system that was more rational and more decent for poor newcomers to our shores.  Men, not women. White men, not blacks.  It was the system of indentured servitude. Here’s how it worked.

Hoping for a better life in America but too poor to buy a ticket across, they would sign a contract.

They would work for 4 to 7 years here for basically just room and board and clothing and that would pay for their long journey across the Atlantic and getting set up.

They did so in the hope that finally they could then get started on their own. And depending on their talent, their energy, and plain good luck they could also prosper in this new land.

But this is not what happened to those first black men and women in Virginia. No, no, no.

They were sold. Whoever bought them was a white man. Would always be a white man.

They would live wherever he put them. Would do whatever work he demanded. Would do that from morning till night, day in and day out if he so desired. Would eat whatever he fed them and wear whatever he gave them.

Not for just 4 to 7 years. For their whole life. Until they died.

They were chattel property, to be valued by their owner just like his horse or mule or tools and implements or anything else he owned.

He could mortgage his slaves. He could flog them for any reason. Brand them. He could sell them off to another white man. He could kill them if he judged them impossibly lazy or hopelessly ill. Or to punish them and intimidate other slaves. Lynchings became the final solution for behaviors considered offensive.

He could get sexual with them. He could rape them. No problem.

Well, know what? Studies have shown that the average black person today is 17% “European” / meaning 17% white. That’s how blacks got their “whiteness.”

If two of his slaves became “man and wife,” he could say okay if that profited him.

But if he felt it would work out better for him, he could sell the black man off, and the black woman also, both to the same slave owner or separately to different owners. He could do that arbitrarily, with zero discussion. Back talk was not tolerated.

And think of this. When a slave child was born, the child did not belong to its father and mother. Yes, they would raise the child but from birth the child became the property of the slave owner. It was a built-in guarantee of prosperity. The more babies, the richer the owner!

And consider this. Slaves were prohibited from learning to read or write. No way would they be allowed to become uppity.

Sure, some owners were nicer than others. But even with the nicest, a slave was a slave. Period.

One result of all this is that the words “slave” and “black” became synonymous. Automatically blacks were considered slaves.

Slaves became all-important to the development and prosperity of the South. They labored primarily in agriculture, notably in Georgia (cotton) and Mississippi (sugar).

Slavery was the granite foundation of the culture and the economy.

Slavery was considered such a good idea that it spread throughout the colonies. In New England and the Mid-Atlantic colonies, where agriculture was of minor importance, they were locked into working in the low-pay and long-hours jobs of the various industries that were rapidly developing.

Thanks to slavery, some of the wealthiest men in the colonies were men in the Northeast.

Think of this. Back in1860, slaves were estimated to be worth 3.5 billion dollars in the dollars of that time. That was more than the total dollar value of manufacturing and railroading combined, the two biggest industries up there..

Yes, our great and brilliant Founder Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal.” But he meant white men. But equal in what ways? How?

I don’t see much equality among us. You may say, well, equal in the right to vote. For white men but that’s been iffy since the start. It took many decades for women to get suffrage.

Jefferson owned slaves. They built his mansion, made his plantation the very successful business it was. But he was typical of slave owners. He cavorted with at least one of his slaves, and fathered at least one child with her.

It is commonly believed that years later President Abraham Lincoln started the Civil War to free the slaves. Wrong! He did it to keep the South from seceding.

He thought that slavery was an abomination, a necessary evil that had to be put up with.

In fact, just a few years earlier, he had seriously proposed as the perfect solution that slaves be sent back where they had come from. That was totally impractical, of course.

By the way, there were some 4.5 million people in the United States and 3.9 million were slaves. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it?

Finally Lincoln decided that slavery was just too evil to keep on the books. He drafted his great Emancipation Proclamation and got it passed, freeing the slaves and ending slavery officially.

And that is how he became the president that we honor today as one of our very greatest.

But true emancipation, meaning treating the blacks as equal to the whites, has still not been realized, with a long way yet to go.

So why am I writing about this? It was not on my blogs-to-do list. Blame the New York Times.

At the public library, I was reading the Sunday Times of August 18th. It included a 100-page magazine entitled “The 1619 Project.”

I dipped into it, began jumping around in it, and thought, “Wow, this is interesting!”

I was allowed to check it out and take it home, have found it full of fascinating revelations. And here I am blogging about it.

It is chock-full with more than a score of articles and essays and photos on every phase of this convoluted subject.

The Times has said it considers The 1619 Project so important that it is going to be publishing more about it during this anniversary year.

It is the impressive work of what seems to a hundred historians, scholars, journalists, and photographers, all of them black, I believe.

And it’s another tangible example of what I believe makes the New York Times our finest American newspaper and surely one of the world’s most important.

If my humble efforts today have interested you, I urge you to look up “The 1619 Project.”

But I must tell you about a follow-up by The Wall Street Journal. I stumbled on it in the Journal’s “Review” section of September 21-22.

Obviously it was inspired by the Times’ special report. Smart move by the Journal!

What interested me especially were two fine, major articles on two aspects not yet covered by the Times. Along with powerful photos and illustrations.

The first is headed, “The Long History of American Reparations.”

It’s the growing belief that today’s blacks should be compensated for the suffering inflicted on their ancestors which sadly has devolved on them. Very controversial. Many strongly argued angles.

The second covers a subject totally new to me. Incredible. Shockingly so.

It’s entitled, “When the Slave Traders Were Africans.” Meaning blacks enslaving blacks and getting them shipped off to America for sale to whites. Would you believe?!

But among some African tribes, that was considered smart and legit.

You can also look that up along with “The 1619 Project” at your library.

Despite these slow but steadily compounding gains over the years, there is reason to rejoice and be hopeful.

More and more blacks are rising to positions of eminence and success in every segment of our life and culture, across the very width and breadth of them, right up to the Obama White House.

Symbolic of this progress has been the opening at the Smithsonian in Washington of our National Museum of African American History, an outstanding museum, from everything I’ve read.

It was built under the direction of Lonnie G. Bunch III, its founding director, a black man, of course, an eminent scholar in his own right. In fact, he is now the director of all the Smithsonian museums.

And what an important matter of pride and encouragement is this progress to the younger blacks moving up. Indeed, to all blacks. The road up is getting easier.

Now a personal note.

It’s surprising how little direct exposure I have had to blacks over the years. I mean person to person.

How come? I’ve given this a lot of thought.

I have traveled to all 50 states. I have been to many of them many times. But consider where I have lived in our country for chunks of years. Rhode Island. Massachusetts. Connecticut.  Newport Beach, California. Now here in Morro Bay on the Central Coast of California.

And in all those places, in sections with a very light population of blacks.

Here in Morro Bay, a city of more than 10,000, I am not aware of a single black person. Mind you, there is no sign, real or suggested, that says, “Stay out!”

True of those other locales where I lived.

I am confident that any black or black family moving in here would be accepted. The big barrier, I believe, is the cost of housing. Personal prosperity is the solution to that. Blacks are doing better. Blacks will move in. Blacks will do okay here.

On the other hand I have gotten to know blacks in my travels abroad. Got to be friends with them. In Cairo, Egypt, and Nairobi, Africa, and Durban and Johannesburg in South Africa (the land of “apartheid”), and in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.  And one outstanding experience in my Peace Corps service in Ukraine. Wonderful experiences for me.

I would gladly welcome the same opportunity here. Or anywhere. It’s part of being a real American.

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