Reference Entry

Inheritance and Slave Status

Roland Barksdale-Hall

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Inheritance and Slave Status

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Dialogue about slave status is relevant not only to a historical understanding of the development of slavery in America but also to contemporary racial issues. While scholars have continued to research the slave era, the findings sometimes have been less than well received. As late as the end of the twentieth century many trading centers attempted to dissociate themselves from any significant role in the slave trade. The reluctance of cities like Charleston, South Carolina, to recognize the part they played in the trafficking of human beings was perhaps a reflection of a twentieth-century perception of social responsibility coupled with the fear of potential adverse economic repercussions. Nevertheless, Charleston was a recognized slave-trading center, where Omar ibn Said, a Muslim from the Senegal Gambia region of West Africa and probably a war captive, arrived in 1807. Eight years later Ajar, another captive from West Africa, arrived in Charleston. Ajar's son Tony, who was held by a slave owner named Allen Little, is recognized as the great-grandfather of Malcolm Little, also known as Malcolm X. Slave status in the British colony of Barbados to some degree influenced the development of slavery in the American colonies. A precedent for slavery on a private scale was found in a British statute, the Vagrancy Act of 1547, which provided the enslavement of unemployed and idle English men and women, but within two years the practicality of private English slaves, who easily escaped and blended into society, came into question, proved a costly miscalculation, and was abandoned. During the seventeenth century Barbados established policies of racial slavery. In 1636 Barbados adopted measures to couple slavery and racial identity when it enacted legislation that Native Americans and Africans should be enslaved for perpetuity. Barbadians established elaborate policies regarding slave passes, slave courts, stiff penalties for fugitive slaves, and restrictions on slave business activities. Scholars remain unclear about the extent of African indentured servitude in the Virginia and Maryland colonies, the role of African indentured servants prior to slavery in the early to mid-seventeenth century, and the role slaves played in the religious tension in Maryland. Slave status in colonial Virginia was influenced by economic, social, and class tensions. Yet it is known that in 1676, two of every twenty participants in Bacon's Rebellion, which was deemed a popular English class uprising, were African slaves. The ruling white gentry and plantation owners were alarmed at the potential for greater collaboration between disaffected Englishmen and African slaves in the Virginia colony. In 1680 news of a planned Negro insurrection was followed by racial subjugation, through law and enforcement, to ensure white security. An effective wedge later was drawn between poor whites and African slaves in the form of a rigid social construct, based on racial slavery coupled with strict racial classification. Maryland, which devised a comprehensive slave code in 1689, provided that baptism did not liberate a slave and there was no requirement for record keeping of vital statistics for slaves. Slave Status Before the twenty-first century, scholarly literature regarding slave status focused on the relationship between the European master and the enslaved African. For the first half of the twentieth century a theory of the master's benevolence, promulgated by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, a southerner who taught at Yale, was generally accepted. In the mid-1950s Kenneth Stampp, author of The Peculiar Institution (1956), challenged the prevailing theory and emphasized slaves' status as exploitable chattel, a term that meant “movable property.” However, Eugene Genovese, the twentieth-century historian and author of Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976), argued that through informal property rights, based on custom and locale, slaves practiced resistance and attained a degree, granted it was small, of bargaining power. In 2003 the historian Dylan Penningroth argued in his book The Claims of Kinfolk for a more pluralistic interpretation of slave status and property rights based on a consideration of public recognition and availability within kinship circles. Penningroth's groundbreaking work, which provided African perspectives, joined a small but growing collection that identified slave property as contributing to an informal, underground economy. In America slave status was defined in terms of permanency, inheritability, and property rights. During the mid-seventeenth century the American colonies were establishing policies of servitude for life, which was a primary feature of what was known as racial slavery. By 1640 Africans in the Virginia colony were considered permanent servants, a condition that was inherited by the Africans' offspring. Thirty years later racial slavery was solidified, with clear distinctions made between European indentured servants and enslaved Africans. Just as important, making racial slavery an inheritable condition through the mother had significant economic and social ramifications. The emphasis on the mother's status represented a modification to British law, which typically held that a child inherited the legal status of the father. A 1655 Virginia court decision upheld the right to freedom of Elizabeth Key, also known as Black Bess, who was the daughter of Thomas Key and his African American servant. Seven years later the Virginia Assembly decided in a similar case that the mulatto child from such an interracial relationship must provide an indefinite term of service. In 1663 the Maryland Assembly enacted a law that children from the marriage of a free white woman to an African American slave became slaves to their father's master. In 1681 Eleanor Butler, a free Irish immigrant, married a slave named Negro Charles, and their descendants became subject to this legislation and entered into slavery. The subsequent repeal of the law prevented the enslavement of a white woman and her descendants and led to a series of lawsuits for freedom filed from 1760 into the nineteenth century. Property Rights Colonists sought further legal protection of their right to hold slaves. In 1690 Carolinians designated slaves as freehold property, which was a category of stationary properties, like buildings. Scholars disagree on the rationale for this early classification. Some have suggested the freehold classification was intended to ensure that on the death of a master the slaves remained together on the same site. In 1794 the Virginia Assembly enacted legislation stating that slaves were personal property that should be retained by the descendants of a slaveholder who died without a will, unless the proceeds from the sale of other personal property was not sufficient to cover the deceased's indebtedness. In 1800 the Kentucky General Assembly enacted a statute mandating that slaves be considered as landed property in issues pertaining to estates. Although the Magna Carta made no reference to slave status, its concept of property rights was an impassioned ideal that was brought from England to America and coupled with the concept of liberty. Over the protests of the colonial trustee James Oglethorpe, who held that slaveholding was incompatible with Christian beliefs, Georgians argued property rights and liberty as grounds for their entrance into slaveholding status. In 1755 the Georgia colony adopted a slave code that resembled that adopted by South Carolina in 1740. Slaves were property with few, if any, rights, as evidenced in the definition of a slave from the 1825 Louisiana Civil Code: “A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry, and his labor: he can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong to the master.” Chattel property or movable property, like livestock, became the accepted slave status, which facilitated business transactions in which slaves were hired out or rented, mortgaged, attached to satisfy debts, and included in estates. Institution of Slavery By the late eighteenth century slavery was established as a fixed American institution, though regional variations existed. Economic considerations contributed to the emergence of slavery in both the North and the South. In 1652 the General Assembly of Rhode Island Colony attempted to formulate a statute banning slavery. The attempt failed, however, because the influential delegation from Newport demonstrated its opposition by conspicuously absenting itself from the voting session. Newport was a slave-trading center well into the late eighteenth century. By the eighteenth century the emergence of racial preferences in the law was solidified. Before 1702 East Jersey's slave codes provided legal protection for slave owners, restrictions for slaves, and a separate legal system for trials of blacks. In the mid- to late 1660s Dutch settlers in New York, who received land inducements for importation of slaves, introduced a significant portion of the slave population to East Jersey, the eastern province of what later was known as New Jersey. In the first decade of the 1700s Pennsylvania Colony had a separate court for cases involving slaves and free persons of color. The Narragansett plantation owners of Rhode Island Colony, notable producers of quality livestock and among the largest slaveholders north of New York, greatly valued their slave property and enacted strict slave statutes and local ordinances that resembled those of the South. Slave owners' interests and the letter of the law as enacted by courts and legislatures for the public welfare were on occasion at odds. In the North slave owners voluntarily freed aged slaves whom they viewed as a financial burden, despite laws prohibiting the practice. In 1808 a slave named Baumfree, who was old and frail, was freed after the death of his master, despite New York law protecting elderly slaves against such dumping. Baumfree and his younger wife, Mau Mau Bett, who was freed supposedly to care for him, lived a pitiable subsistence-level existence in a basement. Colonial assemblies in both the Upper and Lower South constantly devised and revised strategies to balance slave owners' expression of property rights and public welfare. Regional Patterns In British North America slave laws followed regional patterns. The Massachusetts Bay Colony established a somewhat milder system that afforded slaves some legal rights. In 1641, almost ten years after the settlement of the colony, Puritans in Massachusetts Bay established legal codes, based on Mosaic law, legitimizing enslavement in cases of capture during war, voluntary or involuntary sale, and punishment for crimes. Within twenty-five years, the Connecticut and New York colonies had drawn up slave laws similar to those of Massachusetts Bay. Until the English seized New Netherland, later known as New York, in 1664, that colony's Dutch system of slavery—which provided legal rights, property ownership, protection of marriage, and acquisition of free status through an annual assessment—offered a stark legal contrast to the slavery system in the British colonies. The South, somewhat more dependent on slavery than its northern neighbors, devised elaborate means to protect its economic interests. Strict slave laws were in place in the Deep South, which had the largest African American populations. Georgia became a slaveholding state in 1755 to fulfill its desire to be competitive with neighboring South Carolina, whose accumulation of slaves represented material gains. The development of slavery in the Carolina and Georgia colonies was influenced by the laws and traditions of Barbados, the homeland of many Carolinians, both African and European. The settlement of slaveholding families' estates showed regional patterns. In the South, where husbands died relatively young, legal provision for the care of a widow with young children was made by granting her the right to assume ownership of her deceased husband's real property and the slaves required to maintain it. In 1830 the Virginia Assembly enacted a statute that provided relief for the widow of William Irby and her infant children, who would have been left without a means of support and education if Irby's outstanding debt had been collected. In contrast, slaves were not considered in the formulation of the inheritance provisions of widows in New England, where men lived longer than their southern counterparts and widows were afforded support from their grown children. Colonial assemblies were challenged by enslaved Africans' accumulation of wealth, which operated outside the purview of the law in some communities, though the material gains of industrious slaves were minimal. Enslaved Africans relying on local customs and traditions rather than laws came to hold varying degrees of material gains, as evidenced in generally accepted work arrangements, contractual agreements, narratives, and family memoirs. From the early eighteenth century until the American Revolution, for example, Elias Ball, a large plantation owner in South Carolina, provided slaves with token cash incentives to increase their production. In 1740 a female slave received two pounds and fifteen shillings from tobacco grown on her personal plot. Through self-hire, a controversial practice whereby slaves contracted themselves out and shared profits with their masters, slaves acquired some material gains, sometimes sufficient for self-purchase. However, because most enslaved Africans did not have legally binding wills, the benefit of slave production was rarely passed to subsequent enslaved generations or their descendants, who were therefore dependent on the charity of exploitive masters. See also Africa, Idea of; African Diaspora; American Revolution; Baptism; Black Codes and Slave Codes, Colonial; Black Family; Caribbean; Civil Rights; Class; Free African Americans to 1828; Fugitive Slaves; Gender; Indentured Servitude; Laws and Legislation; Louisiana; Marriage, Mixed; Muslims; Native Americans and African Americans; Race, Theories of; Resistance; Slave Trade; Slavery: Lower South; Slavery: Mid-Atlantic; Slavery: Northeast; Slavery: Upper South; Women; and Work. BibliographyBerlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.Morgan, Phillip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.Penningroth, Dylan C. The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.Wiecek, William M. The Origins of the Law of Slavery in British North America. Cardozo Law Review (May 1996): 1711–1792.

Reference Entry.  2298 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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