Henry Louis Gates Jr., of ‘Stupid Cambridge Cop’ / Beer Summit fame is an angry, angry man. A bigger ‘racial’ chip on a shoulder you’ll never find. In “Free Blacks Lived in the North, Right?“, he discovers yet another piece of The Narrative that is false.
Most of us know that before the American Civil War there were so-called slave states and free states. Knowing this, our minds fill in the map with logic. If such a line as “Mason-Dixon” existed (actually, there were a series of lines drawn by “compromising” Congresses throughout the first half of the 19th century), slaves must have resided below it and free black people above it, with every man, woman and child in chains trying to escape to the North just as soon as they could — following the proverbial North Star to a new life of unbounded opportunity — while those already up there remained vigilant against being kidnapped back into slavery down in the South…
Of his own ancestors:
As if this weren’t surprising enough, it was another fact that drove me to re-read Ira Berlin’s book about freed slaves. All of these people, and their descendants, continued to live in slave-holding Virginia, even during the Civil War. (Their part of Virginia would join the Union as the state of West Virginia in the middle of the war, but they had no way of knowing this when they decided to remain there, rather than flee.) Why didn’t my great-great-great-great-grandparents run away to safety in the North, rather than remain in the Potomac Valley region of slave-holding western Virginia, about 30 miles, as a matter of fact, from where I was born? Free Negroes headed north just as soon as they could, right? Didn’t my ancestors’ decision to stay put in the Confederacy run counter to what we all understood about the history of slavery?…
Gates’ jaw then hits the floor:
I was astonished to learn that my ancestors’ presence in the South and their decision to stay put during the war were not as uncommon as I had imagined…
In that raging year of Lincoln’s election and Southern secession, there were a total of 488,070 free blacks living in the United States, about 10 percent of the entire black population. Of those, 226,152 lived in the North and 261,918 in the South… Let me break that down further: A few months before the Confederacy was born, there were 35,766 more free black people living in the slave-owning South than in the North, and removing D.C. from the equation wouldn’t have shifted the result. And they stayed there during the Civil War.
Back in 1993, at the evil racist American Renaissance site, Gedahlia Braun wrote a piece called “Forgotten Black Voices“, which highlighted positive recollections of the slavery days from… former slaves. The article was a review of George Rawick’s 19-volume collection called The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Braun writes:
Several books have been based on these interviews, and a few years ago I read one called Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves. It was edited by Belinda Hurmence, and published by Mentor (Penguin) in 1990. I recall that of these 48 interviews only two could be called hostile to former masters, slavery, or whites. Some were more or less neutral, but certainly the largest number expressed a positive attitude toward former owners and to slavery.
Patsy Mitchner, age 84 when interviewed on July 2, 1937:
Before two years had passed after the surrender, there was two out of every three slaves who wished they was back with their marsters. The marsters’ kindness to the nigger after the war is the cause of the nigger having things today. There was a lot of love between marster and slave, and there is few of us that don’t love the white folks today. . . .
Slavery was better for us than things is now, in some cases. Niggers then didn’t have no responsibility; just work, obey, and eat.
Betty Cofer, age 81:
The rest of the family was all fine folks and good to me, but I loved Miss Ella better’n anyone or anything else in the world. She was the best friend I ever had. If I ever wanted for anything, I just asked her and she give it to me or got it for me somehow. . . . I done lived to see three generations of my white folks come and go and they’re the finest folks on earth.
Adeline Johnson, age 93:
That was a happy time, with happy days. . . . I’ll be satisfied to see my Savior that my old marster worshiped and my husband preach about. I wants to be in heaven with all my white folks, just to wait on them and love them, and serve them, sorta like I did in slavery time. That will be enough heaven for Adeline.
Mary Anderson, age 86:
I think slavery was a mighty good thing for Mother, Father, me and the other members of the family, and I cannot say anything but good for my old marster and missus, but I can only speak for those whose conditions I have known during slavery and since. For myself and them, I will say again, slavery was a mighty good thing.
Simuel Riddick, age 95:
“My white folks were fine people. . . . I haven’t anything to say against slavery. My old folks put my clothes on me when I was a boy. They gave me shoes and stockings and put them on me when I was a little boy. I loved them, and I can’t go against them in anything. There were things I did not like about slavery on some plantations, whupping and selling parents and children from each other, but I haven’t much to say. I was treated good.
Sylvia Cannon, age 85:
Things sure better long time ago then they be now. I know it. Colored people never had no debt to pay in slavery time. Never hear tell about no colored people been put in jail before freedom. Had more to eat and more to wear then, and had good clothes all the time ’cause white folks furnish everything, everything. Had plenty peas, rice, hog meat, rabbit, fish, and such as that.
Wait. What?! (Again)
As I reflect on these interviews, they remind me of what I find now among non-Westernized Africans. They like and respect whites because, generally speaking, whites treat them better than their fellow blacks do.