Henry Louis Gates on Free Blacks and the Confederacy

I am going to feature this video with just a little commentary. Some of what Gates says here is just bizarre. Free blacks were “unmolested” by the Confederacy. Tell that to historian Clarence Mohr. In addition, according to Gates, the “dirtiest little secret in African-American history is that a surprisingly high percentage of the free Negros in the South owned slaves themselves.” Perhaps one of you can tell me what “high percentage” means in this context.

However, the strangest claim made by Gates is that free blacks in North Carolina formed an entire regiment. This clip was just uploaded to YouTube earlier today, but the discussion was held back in 2009. If you begin the complete presentation at 1:25 mark you will hear Gates go on to cite the well known cover of Harper’s Weekly and Frederick Douglass’s reference to blacks serving in the Confederacy as evidence that these men existed.This is around the time that Gates was working on his documentary about Lincoln and memory.  Filming took him to Raleigh, where he observed an SCV ceremony honoring the descendants of the slave, Weary Clyburn, for his honorable service in the Confederate army. At some point Gates spent time with Earl Ijames, who is a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History and is responsible for pushing the myth of the black Confederate soldier. Perhaps that explains it.

There are a lot of people who are going to just love this video.

36 comments… add one

  • John Tucker Feb 5, 2014

    Maybe this was the same time he also found out that thru DNA, he was NOT black but by-racial.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2014

      I can’t speak to that and I really have nothing to say about how Professor Gates classifies himself along racial lines.

  • Gregg Kimball Feb 5, 2014

    Woodson’s work on the 1830 Census estimated that about 2 percent of Free Negroes owned slaves. While that hardly seems a “high percentage,” David L. Lightner and Alexander M. Ragan point out that only 6 percent of whites owned slaves. They also argue that this percentage is likely an undercount. There are also clear differences in the average number of slaves held in the Upper and Lower South.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2014

      Hi Gregg,

      Thanks for the references. The other issue, of course, is how we go about identifying black slaveowners.

      • Gregg Kimball Feb 5, 2014

        Yes, Larry Koger’s research in South Carolina local records showed that there was a clear undercount in the census. The other major point of debate is the nature of black slaveowning, mostly along the lines of “benevolent” (owning family members to prevent resale or expulsion from the state) versus “exploitative” (for purely economic reasons). Of course, in many cases such distinctions could have been easily blurred.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2014

          I am sure Johnson and Roark also say something about this in Black Masters. Let me be clear that I have no problem with Gates bringing up the subject of black slaveowners for the reason he mentions. I just wish that when he does so that he gives his audience more than a “gotcha moment.” As for the regiment of black North Carolinians I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about. Perhaps he meant to refer to the Louisiana Native Guard, whose members eventually joined the Union army in large numbers.

    • Elizabeth O'Leary Feb 9, 2014

      An aside: what strikes me as often missing in the discussions of ownership percentages, whether white or black owners, is the number of people who hired/rented enslaved people. The Richmond antebellum ads are filled with notices by agents for yearly placement. Would like to see that fact introduced more often as a variable.

      • Margaret D. Blough Feb 9, 2014

        One of the best treatments of the economic importance of slave-trading, including leasing, is the Frederic Bancroft’s “Slave Trading in the Old South” (Originally published in 1931; it was reprinted in 1996 with an excellent foreword by Michael Tadman. It’s available at http://www.amazon.com/Slave-Trading-South-Southern-Classics/dp/1570031037. It was quite common for men to bequeath slaves in their wills to their dependents (women and minor children) for the express purpose of the slaves being rented out to provide a regular income for these heirs.

        In addition to the family members who benefited directly from the titular owner’s slaves, there was a considerable economy of those who provided goods and services to the plantations and the slave trade itself.

        • Gregg Kimball Feb 10, 2014

          John Zaborney’s recent book on slave hiring in Virginia supports these points and is one of the few recent studies on the subject. http://www.amazon.com/Slaves-Hire-Enslaved-Laborers-Antebellum/dp/0807145122

          • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2014

            I’ve seen the book. Looks like I will need to check it out. Thanks, Gregg.

        • Alyssa Feb 10, 2014

          Very interesting. Was there any information presented on the importance of slavery to the Northern economy? For example, any data relative to the quantity and dollar volume of, say, slave-produced cotton that the New England textile manufacturers purchased? What about data corresponding to the number of jobs and livelihoods that were dependent on those purchases? Perhaps the quantity and dollar volume of, say perhaps, the slave-produced sugar that was purchased by the Philadelphia sugar refineries was discussed? What about the Northern insurers, brokers, wholesalers, retailers, and bankers who profited from slavery? Any information at all on the importance of those aspects regarding the Northern integration in the slave economy? What about the Northern machine tool and hardware manufacturers who happily sold merchandise to the slavers (for a tidy little profit)? Any information there? And did this information include slavery in what would become the Union slave states of Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, Maryland,and West Virginia? And lastly, did the information include a presentation of the enduring financial advantages the North obtained through the international slave-trade?

          • M.D. Blough Feb 10, 2014

            Alyssa-What is your point? You appear to believe that, if you can point enough fingers away from the slave states that ultimately rebelled, it somehow or other absolves those states from responsibility for the decisions they made. Everyone involved in perpetuating the Peculiar Institution, including the Framers who decided to kick the can down the road by putting protections for slavery in the US Constitution while cloaking them in euphemisms, has his and/or their decision(s) and action(s) to answer for. If you actually care about what’s in the book, here’s a description from its current publisher, The University of South Carolina Press. https://www.sc.edu/uscpress/books/1996/3103.html

          • Gregg Kimball Feb 11, 2014

            I assume your questions are merely rhetorical from your tone, but I’ll answer. (Of course, you could actually look at the book, but I doubt that will happen.) The study is mainly concerned with the interstate domestic trade from roughly the Revolution to 1860, so not surprisingly the coverage of the international slave trade is cursory, although it is covered. Yes, there is an entire chapter on Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri and also one on the District of Columbia. Western Virginia is part of the Virginia story, although a minor one, and rightly so. If I recall correctly, Bancroft does give dollar amounts for the cotton produced as well as quantities. I’m not sure about sugar. There is no mystery about where the cotton was going. There are plenty of classic works on the connection, such as Lords of the Loom: the Cotton Whigs and the coming of the Civil War by T.H. O’Connor. For a more recent study, see Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. The cotton connection is well worked into public history exhibitions and interpretation at major sites such as the Lowell National Historic Park. I guarantee you won’t find anything comparable in Richmond on the domestic slave trade.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014

              Thanks for the comment, Gregg. I just want to follow up by pointing out that the history of slavery and the slave trade in the North is well documented and has been the subject of numerous books and public exhibitions. The notion that this history is being suppressed is absurd.

            • M.D. Blough Feb 11, 2014

              One of the greatest values of Bancroft’s research is the interviews he conducted with people involved in the slave trade both directly and indirectly. He conducted his research at a time when many were still alive, white and black, who had been a part of it as adults in a variety of capacities including those blacks who had been enslaved.

            • Alyssa Feb 11, 2014

              Unfortunately, the description you offer relative to Northern involvement in the economics of slavery is incomplete. For a more thorough analysis I recommend “South Wealth and Northern Profits”, by Thomas Kettell (though I doubt you’ll actually read it).The work makes it abundantly clear, through a careful quantitative methodology, that the economics of slavery fully embraces both North and South. While Kettell does provide a thorough analysis, he largely overlooks the legacy capital generated through the Northern role in the international slave-trade( I forget how many hundreds of thousands Northern slave-traders brought over in chains) And I’m dissapointed to learn that Bancroft doesn’t examine the Northern Sugar refineries, inasmuch as it was a very profitable business and provided employment and livliehoods for a great many Northerners. I know you won’t find any information on it in Philadelphia.

              • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014

                You are asking us to read a 19th century political economist? I suspect that you are woefully unfamiliar with recent scholarship on slavery.

                • Alyssa Feb 11, 2014

                  Interesting criticism, and acerbic too. I noticed you offered no such acerbic criticism of M.D. Blough, who offered a book published in 1931. Why not?

                  • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014

                    You are correct, Alyssa or should I say, Clarissa, Reed, Jennifer Cotton, etc.?

                    • Alyssa Feb 11, 2014

                      I think I understand. While studying the Civil War, no 19th century documents are allowed. Good policy. But tell me, does this policy also apply to the Emancipation Proclamation? And when studyng the American Revolution, are 18th century documents permitted? Ya know, like the Declaration of Independence?

                      PS-You are an insufferable, unlettered jackass, and a miserable hypocrite. C ya.

                    • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014

                      Perhaps, but at least I have the courage to post everything that I write on this site and elsewhere under my real name. Good day.

              • Gregg Kimball Feb 11, 2014

                Kettell is interesting as a polemical period piece but there have been a few books on the connection between the Southern and Northern economies since then. :-) Kettell was ahead of his time in asserting that the Southern economy had more manufacturing and industrialization than was long supposed and in taking a comparative regional approach. His larger thesis however was pretty much wrong. The idea that the Northern economy would stagnate or collapse without the profits extracted from the South was tested during the Civil War, and guess what–it didn’t happen. Analyzing census numbers doesn’t tell the whole story. His assertion that the North had insufficient raw materials seems bizarre in terms of resources like coal, where the Pennsylvania anthracite fields were already displacing Virginia coal, for instance. A major problem, in my view, was relative accummulation of capital. Check out John Majewski, “A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia Before the Civil War.” Northern manufacturers had ready markets in the immediate hinterlands of their cities–free, white farmers and their families–which fueled production of consumer goods, manufacturing diversification, and capital growth. Southern manufacturing was largely intensive processing of raw materials, and the presence of slavery limited the “home” consumer market. Thus Majewski shows that Philadelphia’s bankers could fund large, regional infrastructure projects that would give them long term comparative advantages while Virginia (and the South’s) infrastructure remained disjointed and limited. Having so much of their capital tied up in owning enslaved people didn’t help either. Labor elasticity and all that.

                • Jimmy Dick Feb 11, 2014

                  It certainly makes you think that the Southern elites were still thinking as mercantilists of that economic school. It would fit with the way they viewed capital.

      • Elizabeth O'Leary Feb 10, 2014

        Thanks Margaret and Gregg for these great references. And, Gregg, I know of your excellent discussion of slave hiring in “American City,Southern Place.” I was recently looking at Taliaferro papers at VHS with invoices from P.M. Tabb & Son for years of acting as agent for dozens of slave placements in Richmond. Easy to trace some of the distinctive names between 1829 – 1859. Struck me that the individuals to whom these folks were hired, consumers of slave labor, could vanish today into that statistic of southerners who were not slave owners.

        • Gregg Kimball Feb 10, 2014

          Thank you, Beth. I think your absolutely right, hiring was growing and was another way that slavery insinuated itself into the fabric of Southern society. The Tabb material sounds fascinating.

  • Andy Hall Feb 5, 2014

    Gates has made his public career out of telling “untold” stories, ones that challenge old, traditional historical narratives. There are lots of opportunities to do that, mining the African American experience in this country, and that’s a good thing.

    At the same time, though, I think that role predisposes him to be over-credulous about some things, and willing to buy into narratives that, as is common with advocates of Black Confederates often claim, “historians don’t want you to know.” There’s a real appeal in that, one that fits very well with Gates’ other work. Unfortunately Gates, like his colleague John Stauffer, doesn’t seem to have done much of his own research on the subject beyond Googling around, and talking to folks like Ijames, whose work is of dubious value. Gates and Stauffer lend big-name academic heft to the Black Confederate narrative, without actually contributing anything of their own to it.

    Finally, a personal note to Kevin: you and Michaela may want to switch to bottled water, because there’s definitely something bad coming out of the tap in the Boston area.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2014

      That is the worst part of Gate’s supposed facts. He is spouting off the very same points that Confederate apologists routinely cite. No research. Nothing.

      When are you coming to Boston? :-)

  • AD Powell Feb 5, 2014

    Why are you surprised about Gates? He’s made a career out of padding the “black” racial resume by claiming whites and other non-blacks (Anatole Broyard, for example) for his “race.” He has made false statements claiming that there is a federal law forcing anyone with a “drop” of “black blood” to call themselves “black.” His PBS special on Latin America did nothing but condemn other nations for NOT adopting a “one drop” definition of “black.”

  • London John Feb 6, 2014

    I believe some Confederate states had laws to the effect that any free black person found in the state could be enslaved and became the property of the finder. Combined with the one-drop rule this could lead to embarrassment. But it’s not what I’d call “unmolested”.
    Virginia was one of the first English colonies in America, and I gather that when slavery began there it was not yet fully racialised, which perhaps is why it was a bit different from other southern states in the aspects discussed (as was La for other reasons, of course).
    I wonder why Prof Gates calls the existence of Black slaveowners a secret? I already knew that with no specialist knowledge whatsoever, so I guess everyone with any interest in slavery does.

  • M.D. Blough Feb 6, 2014

    Another important thing is to identify when the alleged slave-owing by free blacks occurred and WHERE. One simply can’t extrapolate things that occurred in Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, to the Southern states who were colonized by the British. The French and Spanish were totally different in their treatment of the offspring of white men and enslaved black women than was the practice in the English-speaking areas. The free blacks of New Orleans and environs were primarily these offspring, freed by their fathers and given some recognition, and their descendants. They formed a distinct caste, oriented towards whites and had privileges that were totally dependent on the whims of the whites. Ira Berlin deals with the sub-regional differences on which blacks were freed and how free/freed blacks were treated in “Slaves Without Masters”.

    • Lyle Smith Feb 7, 2014

      I get what you’re saying and agree with the thrust of your point, but free blacks were also quite successful far away from New Orleans. For example there was wealthy free black family or families from the Red River valley (around Natchitoches, not far from Colfax) that offered to serve the Confederacy. There were also free blacks from the St. Landry and Avoyelles Parish area that actually were actually enlisted into service into Louisiana regiments until some one recognized them as being “black” and the officers were forced to remove them from the muster rolls.

      And then the one black Confederate at Gettysburg was from Opelousas. He held himself out as white though and apparently was accepted as such, or his pards just didn’t really care about how black he was.

      Then of course there were the successful planter free black South Carolinians who offered to serve the Confederacy. That might have been a French thing too though with all the French Huguenots that settled in coastal South Carolina.

Leave a Comment