Slavery's complicated history

I read the Dec. 27 article, “Lawmakers will consider whether to replace Lee statue in US Capitol” by Patrick Wilson of the Richmond Times Dispatch, that was published in The News & Advance.

The article concerns legislation in the General Assembly to replace the statue of Robert E. Lee in the U.S. Capitol because he was a Confederate general and “fought for the preservation of slavery.” The other statue that represents Virginia in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall is of George Washington. From the logic of the proposed legislation, one would also make the case that the statue of George Washington should be removed since he was a slaveholder and owned 123 slaves at his death in 1799.

Reps. Donald McEachin and Jennifer Wexton wrote, “We must strive for a more complete telling of history by raising up the voices, stories, and memories of minorities and people of color ... .”

The institution of slavery and the racism that is its modern-day legacy are truly indelible stains on America’s character. However, I would like to present some rather unpleasant and inconvenient historical facts that press never addresses and most Americans are not aware of.

Dr. Henry Luis Gates, an African American and the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, wrote of the slave trade in 2010, “While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. Historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of slaves shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.”

Thomas Sowell, the brilliant economist, historian and philosopher who happens to be black writes: “Of all the tragic facts about the history of slavery, the most astonishing to an American today is that, although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century.” Sowell also wrote: “The region of West Africa ... was one of the great slave-trading regions of the continent — before, during, and after the white man arrived. It was the Africans who enslaved their fellow Africans, selling some of these slaves to Europeans or to Arabs and keeping others for themselves. Even at the peak of the Atlantic slave trade, Africans retained more slaves for themselves than they sent to the Western Hemisphere.” The bottom line is that slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike.

Slavery was officially and legally established in Virginia in 1654, when Anthony Johnson, a black man, convinced a court that his servant (also black) John Casor was his for life. Johnson himself had been brought to Virginia some years earlier as an indentured servant (a person who must work to repay a debt, or on contract for so many years in exchange for food and shelter), but he saved enough money to buy out the remainder of his contract and that of his wife. The court ruled in Johnson’s favor, and the very first officially state-recognized slave existed in Virginia.



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