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AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum

The New Myth of White Slaves in Our Slaveholding Republic
In Response To: Re: White slaves?? ()

Have any persons other than Africans ever been slaves throughout human history? Of course; at one time or another, most nations may have been eligible for enslavement to someone else. Were there Irish slaves? Surely - but not in the United States of America. Discussions of American slavery can easily tangle mismatched threads of race, color, and law. By employing conflicting definitions of race and color, folks can seem to debate historical issues while actually never engaging each others' arguments.

The Stephan Talty article, to which Art Thomas draws our attention, hopelessly confuses categories of race and slavery, as exemplified by Talty's sentence, "As light-skinned blacks sometimes gained their freedom by 'passing' as white, so did hapless Caucasians make the reverse journey -- proving that race and bondage were even more fluid concepts in antebellum America than we would like to believe." It proves nothing of the sort. The "concepts" of "race and bondage" were inseparably linked under the name "African slavery." Under that concept, whites were specifically ineligible to be slaves in the USA.

Talty is correct that, "In an era when human beings were the most valuable commodities available to thieves and slave traders, greed occasionally trumped the crucial myth that there was a strict dividing line between the races." But the possibility of a "white person" being simultaneously a slave in the USA is a contradiction of terms. A free person (of any color) could have been fraudulently sold as a Negro slave, but the fraud did not change his or her legal race. Whites as American slaves were not a "fascinating" and "forgotten" historical fact; they were a legal impossibility.

Talty cites Frederick Law Olmstead's writings to support the common existence of white slaves in the South, but in fact Olmsted clearly describes persons who were undisputedly slaves by descent from slave mothers, not illegally-sold whites. In one place Olmstead merely remarked that, "I am surprised at the number of fine-looking mulattoes, or nearly-white coloured persons, that I see." The closest Olmsted came to substantiating the "white slave" myth was in the following narration, while touring a Louisiana plantation with two overseers:

"One of them pointed out a girl -- 'That one is pure white; you see her hair?' (it was straight and sandy.) 'She is the only one we have got.' It was not uncommon, he said, to see slaves so white that they could not be easily distinguished from pure-blooded whites. He had never been on a plantation before, that had not more than one on it. 'Now,' said I, 'if that girl should dress herself well, and run away, would she be suspected of being a slave?' (I could see nothing myself by which to distinguish her, as she passed, from an ordinary poor white girl.)

"Oh, yes; you might not know her if she got to the North, but any of us would know her."


"By her language and manners."*

Olmsted includes a lengthy footnote concerning Violet Ludlow, who sued for freedom based on her claim to be a white woman descended from free white parents, who was illegally sold into slavery after being transported to Texas. This case only proves the rule: white-appearing complexion did not make a person white, but descent from a free white mother and father did. White persons could not legally be slaves, and claiming to be white was an argument for freedom.

American slavery in the United States was racial slavery, and to understand it, we must listen to the definitions that American lawmakers used to define race and slavery. By the time of the American Revolution, and until the end of slavery in 1865, lawmakers in those English colonies of North America that had invested most heavily in slaves shared three fundamental notions of slavery:
(1) That persons descended from sub-Equatorial Africans constituted a Negro race.
(2) That the natural condition of Negroes in America was slavery; therefore, all Negroes might be considered slaves until proven otherwise.**
(3) That the condition of slavery was inherited by a child if her or his mother was a slave.

This last idea first appeared in Virginia in 1662 ("all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother").*** The impact of this law on the subsequent history of America cannot be overestimated. In effect, it defined who could be a slave in America; it largely shaped who would be termed a Negro (regardless of physical appearance); it made paternity irrelevant to slavery; and, by extension, it made the nuclear family irrelevant to the condition of slavery. Certainly, in the 19th century, when whites talked about a "family of Negroes" they meant a slave mother and her younger children.

By the mid-nineteenth century, some states had declared only two other ways that a free person could legitimately become a slave: a free person of color found illegally within the borders of certain states could be sold into perpetual slavery; and a free person of color could petition a court for voluntary reenslavement. Note well that these provisions applied only to persons of color (returning, presumably, to their natural and proper state of slavery). No US state made a place for white people as slaves.

At this point we might as well add that there was a time when American colonists were not unanimous about who was "white." Talty interchanges the terms Anglo-saxons with Caucasians and whites as if they meant the same thing; however, Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751 that "the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth."****

The successful enforcement of African slavery required that the American definition of who was white be expanded to incude all Europeans. If states had adopted into law Franklin's definition of white people as exclusively Anglo-Saxons -- if Germans, Swedes and other Europeans were not allowed to be white -- racial slavery based on white privilege would have been a practical impossibility in America. The minority population of slaveholders could only buy the support of nonslaveholding colonists to enforce slavery by promising them "white" privileges and by promising them that only Negroes would ever be slaves. That bargain goes far to explain the legal focus on defining American slavery as African slavery where negritude (non-whiteness) was inherited hand-in-hand with slavery through one's mother.

(Even though a few men like George Fitzhugh thought slavery should be extended to working class whites, this concept was never politically feasible.)

When states erected constitutional citizenship for whites, some never bothered to define who was white. They merely defined everyone else as other-than-white; these "others" were described by subjective terms: Negroes, Indians, Mulattoes, Mestizoes, persons of color, etc. Whites presumably knew who they were and could distinguish themselves from persons of color. It was easiest to let the dual legal conditions of liberty (citizenship) and slavery stand as substitutes for social whiteness and color. This uneasiness with defining whiteness explains why so many antebellum citizens were uncomfortable with the presence of free persons of color who did not fit into these binary categories of liberty and slavery. The "free Negro" was a Southern reality, but a legal and social dilemma.

It was a huge loophole in the slaveholding republic's embrace of African slavery that legislators could find no satisfactory place for persons who were descended from free Negroes or from unions of Africans with white women -- in other words, people who were visibly non-white but who were also non-slaves. Virginia's colonial struggles with these social anomalies are reflected in the subsequent legal histories of all the slave states. The result was that none of the colonies or states could bring themselves to legislate that children of white women would be made hereditary slaves -- even if those children were called mulattoes. But free persons of color became increasingly regarded by Southern citizens as misfits in American society, to the point that in late antebellum years, some state legislatures debated expelling them from their states. The slaveholding republic never resolved the contradictions of a race-based society in which some Negroes were not slaves.

Look carefully at modern-day protests that "Irish were slaves, too." These facts are often presented hand-in-hand with arguments of American Black inferiority because Irish overcame their disabilities through hard work and superior character, but Blacks wallow in victimhood and refuse to "get over" slavery. For example, look at the rest of the website that hosts the book review to which Denise Oliver-Velez drew our attention:
Can you see the agenda?
Look at the explicit racial arguments in this website:

Arguments that, because Irish served as slaves in Barbadoes, descendants of African slaves in the USA need to "get over it," are fatally flawed. Descendents of Irish in America now generally consider themselves white, and have always been legally regarded as such. Most descendants of African slavery do not consider themselves white, and cannot realistically do so (Indeed, why would any well-educated person of good will volunteer for that identity?). Nevertheless, our elected Government in USA still insists that we legally adopt a racial identity for ourselves, although it is an artifact of slavery (whites as master and oppressive, blacks as oppressed and defensive). Since the very definition of white excludes anyone with alleged African ancestry, Negroes, Blacks, or any Persons of Colour can never be knowingly classified as white.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that Haiti's Papa Doc Duvalier told an American visitor that 95% of Haiti's population was white. The incredulous visitor asked how that could be! The dictator asked him how he defined black in his country, to which the visitor replied that anyone with the slightest African ancestry was Black. Papa Doc supposedly replied that in his country, anyone with a drop of white blood was white! The story illustrates that race is legally and socially, not biologically, defined. When whites truly educate themselves to that fact, and consider whether they want to continue being white, maybe we can "get over" slavery.

Those who argue that we can de-emphasize the experience of African slavery because "whites were slaves, too," are misstating the fundamantal origins and function of race in American history. White people, by definition, could not be slaves in a slaveholding republic dedicated to African slavery.


* Frederick law Olmsted (Arthur M. Schlesinger, ed.), The Cotton Kingdom; A Traveller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States (1953), pages 32, 458-9.

** The exception was Delaware, where by 1840 the state's high court ruled that, because 85 percent of Delaware's Negroes were free, the presumption of slavery did not hold.

*** Quoted and discussed in Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (1996), page 43.

**** digitized book available at

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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