Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The One Drop Rule

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been on fire recently, with a series of extremely thoughtful posts on the Civil War. Check out his recent archives. I want to do a more comprehensive post on the Civil War later this month, but Coates' "Honoring CHM: One Drop" features some stories about recently freed slaves in a photograph. Here are three of the most striking tales:

Charles Taylor is eight years old. His complexion is very fair, his hair light and silky. Three out of five boys in any school in New York are darker than he. Yet this white boy, with his mother, as he declares, has been twice sold as a slave. First by his father and "owner," Alexander Wethers, of Lewis County, Virginia, to a slave-trader named Harrison, who sold them to Mr. Thornhill of New Orleans. This man fled at the approach of our army, and his slaves were liberated by General Butler.The boy is decidedly intelligent, and though he has been at school less than a year he reads and writes very well. His mother is a mulatto; she had one daughter sold into Texas before she herself left Virginia, and one son who, she supposes, is with his father in Virginia. These three children, to all appearance of unmixed white race, came to Philadelphia last December, and were taken by their protector, Mr. Bacon, to the St. Lawrence Hotel on Chestnut Street. Within a few hours, Mr. Bacon informed me, he was notified by the landlord that they must therefore be colored persons, and he kept a hotel for white people. From this hospitable establishment the children were taken to the "Continental," where they were received without hesitation.

Augusta Boujey is nine years old. Her mother, who is almost white, was owned by her half-brother, named Solamon, who still retains two of her children. Mary Johnson was cook in her master's family in New Orleans. On her left arm are scars of three cuts given to her by her mistress with a rawhide. On her back are scars of more than fifty cuts given by her master. The occasion was that one morning she was half an hour behind time in bringing up his five o'clock cup of coffee. As the Union army approached she ran away from her master, and has since been employed by Colonel Hanks as cook.

Wilson Chinn is about 60 years old, he was "raised" by Isaac Howard of Woodford County, Kentucky. When 21 years old he was taken down the river and sold to Volsey B. Marmillion, a sugar planter about 45 miles above New Orleans. This man was accustomed to brand his negroes, and Wilson has on his forehead the letters "V. B. M." Of the 210 slaves on this plantation 105 left at one time and came into the Union camp. Thirty of them had been branded like cattle with a hot iron, four of them on the forehead, and the others on the breast or arm.

It's difficult to to imagine the horrible reality behind these tales. It's staggering and humbling.

I'm glad that some bloggers writing on the Civil War, including Coates, Dennis G and Hart Williams, have discussed class in addition to race and region. I wish more people looked at the class issues in the Civil War, and up to the present day. However, Coates' post is a stark reminder that, as crappy as being a mill worker or dirt farmer or conscript could be - and those experiences matter, too - slavery wins the prize for exploitation and cruelty.

Thomas Jefferson, a man of many contradictions (as was his fellow Virginian and fellow slave owner General Robert E. Lee), once said, in reference to slavery: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever."


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