Margaret Mitchell’s Tara has faded from the landscape and the memories of most, but the pre-bellum plantations of the South have moved northward. The plantations of enslaved people have migrated to our inner cities, festering with drugs, violence, ignorance, squalor and with as little hope for escape as the slaves, mired in the deep South had, before President Lincoln emancipated them.
Slavery had then and has now in the countries in which it was and is still practiced one fundamental reason for existence. It’s the economics of it, stupid. Free or virtually free labor is a better deal for the farmer or manufacturer than paying people a minimum wage – whatever that amount might be. Slavery has nothing to do with racism. It’s all about the almighty dollar or dinar or rupee.
In some ways, life was safer and better for blacks in America under the dreadful old slave conditions, as horribly violent as some slave owners were, than what they have on the new plantations of our inner cities as presumably freed people. As “property” they had economic value. They could be bought, sold or bred to create more property and increase the slave owner’s balance sheet. Even the most heartless slave owner realized that destroying his own property, other than to make an example for others, was a poor economic decision.
When Europeans traveled to Africa and abducted or bought subjugated people from other tribes who had vanquished them, it was because they had developed a taste for something called sugar. More bodies were required to harvest the sugar cane and sugar beets to satisfy the ever increasing demand for that product. And if blacks could harvest sugar cane they could do the same with cotton and tobacco. In an agrarian society there was no better source of labor than that which merely needed modest upkeep by way of food and housing and which could reproduce itself.
The South may have lost the Civil War but they had not given up the fight. The newly freed slaves, many of them grateful for the political party whose head had freed them from their bonds, became Republicans. The slave owners were Democrats. And they were organized. And so the KKK was born in the late 1860’s – originally as an effort to overthrow the state Republican governments in the South where blacks now sat as freed men and legislators. It was squelched in 1871 to be reborn around 1915, this time with a hate agenda primarily devoted to a program of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. This incarnation also died out only to return in the 1950’s, both of those agendas still in mind, but with a primary focus on anti-black terrorism. The cross burnings and black murders which most Americans think of when they think of the KKK comes from that third incarnation.
Inherent to maintaining slavery wherever it exists is perpetuating a culture of ignorance among the slaves. A law passed in North Carolina’s 1830-1831 legislative session is fairly typical of how the slave states dealt with the potential of educating slaves:
Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this state: Therefore
Be it enacted by the General Asembly [sic] of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that any free person who shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any slave within this State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, Shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in the State having jurisdiction thereof, and upon conviction shall at the discretion of the court if a white man or woman be fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two hundred dollars or imprisoned and if a free person of colour shall be whipped at the discretion of the court not exceeding thirty nine lashes nor less than twenty lashes.
Be it further enacted that if any slave shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any other slave to read or write the use of figures excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace and on conviction thereof shall be sentenced to receive thirty nine lashes on his or her bare back.
Two decades after the North Carolina law was enacted, in 1852 Massachusetts became the first state to pass a bill mandating the education of all children. In 1918, Mississippi became the last state to adopt similar legislation.
But passing laws does not effectively dictate morality – or the Ten Commandments would get more respect. Blacks may have been freed but their former owners merely looked at them as property which had been purloined from them. And they weren’t afraid of showing their disdain for these former slaves whom they believed should never have been granted freedom, let alone citizenship. So in that climate, many of these blacks migrated north to former free states to resettle themselves hoping to find an environment with a more welcoming, understanding populace.
For the most part, those hopes were not fulfilled.