400 Years: Slaves in Our Family

A cleansing ceremony at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Va., on Aug. 24 during a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia.

Today at 3:00 p.m, bells across America will toll for 4 minutes to remember the 400 years since the first Angolans were captured in 1619 by British slave traders and brought to English-speaking colonies on the ship White Lion. They landed at Point Comfort, today’s Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.

In 2012, I wrote an essay for Sojourners magazine about my own family owning enslaved people. I reprint it here today.–Rose Marie Berger

[From Sojourners, February 2012]

My family held slaves.

Among my maternal grandmother’s papers there is a 1820s deed of sale. In the list of farm equipment and livestock are the names of two “negroes.” The right-hand ledger column lists their dollar value.

That branch of my family is from Louisiana. In that same region, there were several slave uprisings, including the Pointe Coupee conspiracy in 1795 and the Cane River rebellion in 1804.

In 1793, Father Jean Delvaux, a priest who served the Catholic parish in Campti, Louisiana (where more than 100 years later my grandmother would be baptized), was deported to Cuba by his bishop for leading “seditious movements” proclaiming the abolition of slavery and “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the motto of the French Revolution.

On my family’s deed, the price for two human beings—chattel slaves—was about $1,000.

“THE AVERAGE PRICE of a human being today,” says researcher Kevin Bales, “is about $90.” That’s the price averaged across the global market. In North America, slaves go for between $3,000 to $8,000. In India or Nepal, you can buy a human being for $5 to $10.

But didn’t slavery disappear after abolition? Isn’t that what the Civil War was all about?

Bales, author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, has a succinct response: “Thinking slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation is like thinking adultery stopped with the Ten Commandments.”

However, Bales also wants to make clear that the 27 million people enslaved today represent the smallest percentage of the global population ever to be in slavery. And the $40 billion generated by slavery into the global economy each year is the smallest proportion of the global economy ever represented by slave labor.

Slavery is now illegal in every country in the world; it’s shifted from being universally accepted to universally condemned. But, as abolitionist Wendell Phillips preached nearly 160 years ago, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

ONE SLAVE ANYWHERE is an affront to human dignity, a moral outrage. But slavery, in its most pernicious forms, has always been about profit.

When, as is true today, the richest 10 percent own 85 percent of the world’s wealth and the poorest 50 percent live off the crumbs of 1 percent of the total global wealth, you’ve created a market where slavery will thrive.

Wherever he goes around the world, says Bales, the story is the same. Someone came to the village. They stood on the back of a truck shouting, “I’ve got jobs! Who needs a job?” The person was “suspicious,” but her kids were hungry. She tells Bales, “I had to do anything I could to earn some money.” So she climbed in the back of the truck. “They take [the dangerous working conditions] for a little while,” says Bales, “but when they try to leave—bang!—the hammer comes down. They discover they are enslaved.”

Economist Elizabeth Wheaton writes that within the next 10 years human trafficking is expected to surpass drug and arms trafficking. “As people become vulnerable to exploitation and businesses continually seek the lowest-cost labor sources,” Wheaton explains, “trafficking human beings generates profit and a market for human trafficking is created.”

During the Pointe Coupee conspiracy in 1795, a French school teacher and abolitionist named Joseph Bouyavel was accused of reading to slaves from The Declaration of the Rights of Man. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” he told them. “These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”

What liberating word do we bring to slaves today? If our Christian good news doesn’t free the captive, then it’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. French poet Placide Cappeau put it this way, “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother. And in His name all oppression shall cease.”

Rose Marie Berger, a Catholic peace activist and poet, is a Sojourners associate editor.

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