Saturday, January 17, 2015

Imagine walking barefoot and in chains for over 1000 miles from Richmond, Virginia to Natchez, Mississippi. This was the graphic picture painted by Edward Baptist of Cornell University at a Community Trustbuilding Forum on January 15. The author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism read from documents that included the actual names of just one of the countless groups of people - more than one million in all - who endured the horrendous forced march to southern plantations.

Edward Ayers, Todd Culbertson and John Taylor (Photo: Grant Rissler)

Todd Culbertson, editor of the editorial pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch which hosted the event, welcomed the audience of nearly 200 people. “Everyone wants reconciliation, but we can't have reconciliation without truth.”

This month Virginia marks the 25th anniversary of the inauguration of L. Douglas Wilder as the nation’s first elected black governor. Todd noted that Wilder’s grandparents were slaves: “This is not ancient history.”

“Slavery was not an anomaly,” said Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a distinguished historian. It was in fact the “the engine” that drove the American economy. He called Baptist’s book “quite simply the fullest and most powerful account we have of the evolution of slavery in the United States.”

Before reaching the slave markets in Mississippi, traders would “fatten up” their captives for sale. Once on the plantations they were exposed to a process of “brutal learning and re-learning” to pick cotton at an ever faster rate. Baptist commented that he found it “hard to believe” that the constant focus in this country on increasing productivity (with little regard for the individual) “has nothing to do with this history of slavery.”

Edward Baptist (Photo: Grant Rissler)

Forced labor in the south produced cotton for northern mills and for Britain and produced enormous wealth. Garments made of the cotton picked by enslaved African Americans were worn around the globe. “Early investments are most important for long-term growth,” said Baptist. And wealth transfer driven by government policy continues. A typical white household’s wealth is 13 times that of an African American household.

Baptist suggested some ways that policies might address the issue of reparations, for example by supplying every child with a “baby bond” tied to family wealth to be used for education, starting a business or purchasing land. He also urged significant government investment in Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBUCs) since most old Historically White Universities and Colleges (HWUCs) were founded on wealth generated by slavery.

Baptist believes in the importance of helping people to “to cross the bridge of empathy.” For that reason he sees narrative as vital. “This great separation by force needs to be put on public record,” he concluded. “I see in Richmond a city that is engaging with its history in a potentially transformative way. There is long way to go but even longer in other places.” He wanted to “push Richmond” to reach out to people all along the slave trail from Virginia to Mississippi. Remarkably there are currently only four sites (three in Virginia) to remind people of “the great crime that took place.”