Bill Ward column: The legacy of John Hope Franklin
By Bill Ward
For the Salisbury Post
When Dr. John Hope Franklin died recently, he left a valuable legacy to us all. An imminent historian of Duke University fame, Dr. Franklin had many years earlier delved into a subject area that numerous of his colleagues considered taboo: Free blacks owning slaves.
Here’s a challenge for those who feel they’re reasonably history literate: Look in your child’s history book from school; search most encyclopedias, or ask most teachers about black slave owners. Tremendous volumes of literature and most white historians have ignored the subject, and many history teachers have never heard of it.
College professors who know about black-on-black slavery consider the subject verboten, because that is the politically correct policy, albeit unwritten, of their institutions. I have communicated with young professors who have expressed concern for their jobs and their very careers if they deviate from the PC “popular” version of U.S. History that typically contains omissions and distortions.
But Dr. Franklin was one of those rare breeds of historian who felt that all history should be exposed to enlightenment, not just that which panders to certain groups for political purposes.
Others before Dr. Franklin, such as Carter G. Woodson, whose grandparents and father had been slaves, had explored the subject (“Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830,” published in 1924), along with people such as Michael P. Tremoglie (“The Black Roots of Slavery”). Tremoglie, discussing black slave owners, revealed that “[M]any free blacks lived in the American colonies. They were enfranchised and as early as 1641, men such as Mathias De Sousa were elected to the legislatures.”
However, it was Franklin who wrote of slavery’s realities: “[F]ree Negroes had a real economic interest in the institution of slavery and held slaves in order to improve their economic status.” But Franklin also unerringly emphasized the frailty and hollowness of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Franklin focused much of his attention and research on Louisiana and New Orleans. The census of 1830 lists 965 free black slave owners in Louisiana, owning 4,206 slaves. In 1860, at least six blacks in Louisiana owned 65 or more slaves. A widow Richards and her son, P.C. Richards, who owned a large sugar-cane plantation, owned the largest number of slaves at 152. Another Negro slave magnate in Louisiana, with more than 100 slaves, was Antoine Dubuclet, a sugar planter whose estate was valued at (in 1860 dollars) $264,000. That year, the mean wealth of Southern white men was $3,978.
Lincoln wrote in his Proclamation: “[F]rom the day first above mentioned, [I] order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
“Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans)…. As the Proclamation continued, the areas Lincoln placed in parentheses, including the 40 counties of West VA, and Norfolk and Portsmouth, VA, were all areas of the South where the Proclamation did not apply.
As to the other states, Lincoln himself expressed doubt as to the very legality of his actions. The EP was a wartime measure, one that the legislature of his own state of Illinois condemned and called “diabolical.”
So the widow Richards and her son, Antoine Dubuclet, and others got to keep their slaves under the watchful eye of the Union Army. But then, so did all the other slave owners of the North and South. The constitutions of a few Northern states even forbade free Negroes from living within their boundaries.
Closer to home, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, in “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation,” revealed deplorable conditions under ruthless black slave masters.
Franklin wrote that North Carolina can claim “The largest black slaveholder in the South … John Carruthers Stanly of [New Bern] North Carolina. [Stanly] faced a number of problems in the 1820s in dealing with a slave labor force on his three turpentine plantations in Craven County.” With a total of 163 slaves, Stanly was a harsh, profit-minded taskmaster, and his field hands often would run away. Stanley dealt with runaways through his two white overseers and with a spy network that included a few trusted slaves.
In 1860, black slave owners numbered 69 in North Carolina. In South Carolina, a former slave turned businessman and slave owner, William Ellison, was counted among the top 10-percent of wealthy men in the state.
In his memory, Dr. Franklin is owed a debt of gratitude for helping reveal that slave owners were not just a bunch of old, bourbon-soaked, white Southerners, and the many fallacies of the Emancipation Proclamation.
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Bill Ward is a historian, writer and public speaker living in Salisbury.