Slave Owners in Chief? How many were there?

Dear Friends,

With Presidents Day already upon us (i.e., the amalgamation of George Washington’s Birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday) in the midst of Black History Month and on the heals of Valentine’s Day, wouldn’t you love to take a few minutes to reflect on the most seminal relationship between American presidents and people of African heritage—slavery?

I know that many of us are immigrants--first generation Americans. Or we may be permanent residents (Welcome!) to the United States. In short, many of us did not have to wade through two semesters of high school American History. While some of us with deeper roots in North America were “enrolled” in the class (i.e., we had to pass American History to graduate from high school), we may not have been particularly interested at the time or we may have found that the way in which we were taught American History was simply unpalatable.

Whatever the case, here is a list of the first 18 chief executives of the United States of America who served from 1789 to 1877:

George Washington

John Quincy Adams*

James Polk

John Adams*

Andrew Jackson

Zachary Taylor

Thomas Jefferson

Martin Van Buren

Millard Fillmore*

James Madison

William Henry Harrison

Franklin Pierce*

James Monroe

John Tyler

James Buchanan*

Abraham Lincoln*

Andrew Johnson

Ulysses S. Grant

Twelve of the first eighteen presidents of the United States owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 African heritage people. George Washington enslaved 200 people of African descent. (At his funeral, George Washington was eulogized by his military comrade Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” We could not add “first in ownership of enslaved people” to that list, but George Washington held more African heritage people in bondage than 10 other presidents.) Ulysses S. Grant, the last in this list, received one enslaved person from his father in law in 1857 whom he emancipated in 1859. His wife, however, controlled the lives of four enslaved people (received from her father) during the Civil War and she chose to emancipate them in 1863.

·      The average cost to purchase an enslaved person in 1860 was $800.00 (approx. $40,000 in today’s money). The majority of United States wealth in 1860 was in the nearly 4 million enslaved people of African descent. (The U.S. population at the time was approximately 31 million.) Most of the enslaved people of African descent in the United States in 1860--men, women and children—were engaged in agriculture (i.e., clearing land, planting and harvesting crops, tending livestock). Others were domestic servants, skilled crafts persons, and construction labor.

·      In addition to individuals who owned enslaved people of African descent, various educational institutions also owned enslaved people. Georgetown University, for example, a Jesuit Catholic school, sold more than 200 of its enslaved people of African descent in the 1820s to avoid bankruptcy. Slave labor and the funds earned from slavery and the slave trade were instrumental in the establishment and development of many American educational institutions including Harvard University, Columbia University, and Brown University. Many institutions of higher education, especially in the southern United States, refused to admit people of African descent as recently as the 1960s—i.e., within the lifetimes of many of us.

·      Many of the professions and industries in the United States during the first century of its existence as an independent country were involved in slavery or the slave trade. Agriculture, education, law, banking, transportation, shipping, health care, textiles, and insurance were all closely linked to slavery or the slave trade.

·      The Statue of Liberty which stands in New York harbor and is one of the most well-known symbols of the United States and American values and aspirations was a gift to the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people of African descent. Over time the statue has also become a beacon of liberty and opportunity for immigrants from Europe, Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America.

February has become a customary time in American popular culture to reflect on the history and contributions of people of African descent to the United States. What comes to mind for you when you reflect on these facts? What issues or legacies of this fundamental relationship between the majority of early presidents and African heritage people seem worthy of discussion?

--Pizza & Social Justice

*Presidents who did not own enslaved people.

P.S. Don’t forget that Pizza & Social Justice is “on the road” Tuesday night, February 18, at the Glen Ellyn Public Library. We are screening a documentary film, “An American Story: Race Amity and the Other Tradition”, at 7pm, followed by a discussion. And One Community is hosting a “Neighbor to Neighbor” gathering at Glen Ellyn Public Library, Thursday evening, February 27 at 6:30pm.