Thanksgiving Special Issue: Stolen Land, Stolen Labor Revisited


The following article, “The Case for Reparations: America’s Real Debt”, updates Our Time Press’ award-winning “Stolen Land, Stolen Labor: The Case for Reparations”, published in December 1997. Inspired by the messages of Queen Mother Moore at the First Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana (1971) and Congressman John Conyers’ introduction of a reparations bill in 1989, the article examines America’s unacknowledged Slave Age – more important than the 19th century Industrial Age or current Technology Age — as the foundation of the wealth in America.

The original article won the Investigative Reporting Award in 1998 from the New York Association of Black Journalists.

Randall Robinson’s book, “The Debt”, published two years later in the year 2000, continued the argument.

Now, as a new generation of readers discover Our Time Press, this Thanksgiving we offer another look at a story that must continue to be told, particularly in these times when conversations begin to center around the unbanked, the disenfranchised, the poor, the desperate – and what to do about them and where to move them…

Another century is ending with African-Americans still finding themselves called beggars and criminals and locked in the cellar of the very house they built, the America that others call home.

Here at the beginning of 1998, it remains obvious that the question of race continues to be an “American Dilemma”, with no one wanting to admit that America was built on the backs of Africans and at the expense of Native Americans, that Africans in the Americas are full Americans, too.

America’s 400-Year Slave Age: Era of U.S. Wealth-Building

The questions that should be asked are: “What was it like for Europeans to enjoy Affirmative Action quotas of 100% in every area they wished for a couple of hundred years?” “Why did they do it?” “What were the economic benefits to Europeans of owning African-Americans as chattel property?”

Historians talk about the Industrial Revolution starting in 18th-century England, and the Computer/Information Age of today. Left out is the Slave Age, that period of the dark days of the golden age of white supremacy. This was the time when the United States, an emerging nation at the time, dealt most efficiently with the supply and cost of manual labor.

The combination of stolen land, stolen labor and the industrial age made the United States, in those early years, the greatest ground-floor opportunity of all time, a ground-floor that was constructed and financed by the labor of Africans and the land of the Indigenous People.

More money was invested in slaves than all stock in trade, including bank stock, incorporated funds and more. This is indicative of the value placed on an unpaid labor pool and with good reason. The land was virgin territory, which is useless in a money-based value system.   The land had to be worked and transformed into infrastructure like roads, piers and railways; into products like tobacco, rice, cotton and indigo. It was the slave workforce that released the value of the land connected to ports in Brazil, the Caribbean and North America.

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the first estimate of national wealth of the United States is found in “Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America”, 1806 edition by Samuel Blodget, Jr. (See Table 1)

Of the $2,505 million dollars ($2.5 billion) of national wealth, $1,661 million was in land stolen from the Indigenous People, and $200 million was the value assigned to the slaves. Blodget writes, “Slaves are rated too high till they are better managed, everything else is below the mark”.   The Historical Statistics of the United States notes that, “No statement is made by Blodget as to the source material underlying his tabulations”.

By going out of his way to degrade the worth of slaves, Mr. Blodget is telling us he may have something to hide, so we checked his figures.

Stolen Land, Labor and Liberties

Taking the census of 1800 and averaging it with the 1810 census (not available to Mr. Blodget), we find him pretty accurate, and arrive at a slightly higher figure of 1,042,732 slaves. Mr. Blodget may himself have extrapolated from the 1800 census.   In any event, knowing how much difficulty the Census Bureau had counting the descendants of the slave population in 1990, it is possible that these census figures are themselves “below the mark”.

Secondly, we turn to “American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as determined by the Plantation Regime” by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (1966, p. 370), and find this: “The range for prime slaves, it will be seen, rose from about $300 and $400 a head in the upper and lower South, respectively, in 1795 to a range of from $400 to $600 in 1803…”

By using these figures, we find that the minimum amount of money invested in slaves was $521,366,000 in 1805.   Therefore, the total national wealth could be more accurately calculated as $2.8 billion ($2,826,366,000), adding an additional 300 million to Blodget’s figure.   This means that 77% of the total national wealth of the United States of 1805 ($2,182,366,000) was based on holding African-Americans as property to work the land stolen by Holocaust from the Indigenous People.

By 1856, there were 3,580,023 slaves, according to an average of the 1850 and 1860 census counts.   Bear in mind here that in 1813 Congress laid a direct tax on property, including “houses, lands and slaves”. This meant that there was now an economic motivation to undercount this part of the owner’s property– the fewer slaves reported, the less taxes paid. Slaves were easier to hide than houses or land. This is coupled with the natural inclination of the census to undercount the Black population.   The evidence is clear in the General Population Statistics, 1790-1990.

By 1860, the “percentage increase in Black population over preceding census” averaged 28.8% since 1790. In the 1870 census, the percentage growth was only 9.9%.   So, what happened to the other 18.9% of the expected population? They disappeared in 1865 with the Emancipation Proclamation. No longer having a value attached to them, these 859,000 African-Americans were lost. It’s been 120 years, and judging from the low-count controversy of the 1990 census, the bureau hasn’t found them yet.

We can safely regard these census counts as the way-down-low end of an actual population estimate.

Child Abuse: Broken Backs, Broken Bones

Before a final figure can be determined of the debt due on this slavery phase of the African Holocaust, some account should be taken of the working conditions.   You can get an impression by looking no further than the evidence found in the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, New York. Here, recent analysis of the remains held at Howard University shows that children as young as 7 years old were worked so hard that their bodies were misshapen and their spines driven into the brain from carrying heavy loads.

Ulrich Phillips, in “American Negro Slavery”, says of J.B. Say, an economist working around the turn of the 18th century, “Common sense must tell us, said he, that a slave’s maintenance must be less that of a free workman, since the master will impose a more drastic frugality than a freeman will adopt unless a dearth of earnings requires it. The slave’s work, furthermore, is more constant, for the master will not permit so much leisure and relaxation as a freeman customarily enjoys”.

This is why we include the entire slave population as laborers, and we leave it to others to argue why we should not.

By 1856, the advertised prices for European-owned African-Americans on a Railroad Contractor’s Credit Sale of “a choice gang of 41 slaves” ranged from a high of $2,700 for Anderson, a “No.1 bricklayer and mason”, and $1,900 for George, a “No. 1 blacksmith”, to $750 for Reuben, even though he was labeled “unsound”. The average cost for this lot of people was $1,488.

As a second reference for this number, we can look at the chart for the cost of Prime Field Hands and find that it is pretty accurate.   By multiplying the census count of slaves by the average advertised price, we arrive at a value of $5.3 billion ($5,327,079,968).

This may not look like a lot of money now, but compare it to other figures of the day. The National Wealth Estimate for the entire nation in 1856 was $12.3 billion ($12,396,000,000). [Note: All figures come from Tables in the cited U.S. Bureau of the Census publication] Total Bank Savings Deposits in 1856 were $95.6 million. Manhattan Island, Land and Buildings were worth only $900 million dollars, less than one-fifth of the value invested in African-Americans. The 1855 total capital and property investment in railroads was only $763.6 million dollars.

Why the $5 billion-dollar investment in slaves?

Nation’s 1st Wealth Builders Invested Billion Unpaid Hours

African-American slaves were the critical workers of the Industrial Age in the United States. In the same way that programmers transform computer code into products, so the labor of slaves transformed raw materials and land into products that would allow the Industrial Age to flourish in this hemisphere. Information technology has grown into the largest industry over the last thirty years. Slavery was the largest industry from the time such things were first measured in 1805, until African-Americans were freed to be paid labor in 1865.

At $865 billion a year, information technology represents about 12% of the 1997 Gross Domestic Product of $7,214 billion. In 1805, slave labor represented as much as 20% of the national wealth. By the 1850’s- 60’s, that figure rose to as high as 40%. If a 12% industry like information technology can affect the entire nation, how much impact does a 20-40% industry have? Let’s take a look at the 1850’s and the effect of slave labor on the economy.

According to J.D.B. DeBow, writing in the “Seventh Census 1850 Statistical View, Compendium”, published in 1856, “The total number of families holding slaves by the census of 1850 was 347,525. (See U.S. Census Table XC below). On the average of 5.7 to a family, there are about 2,000,000 persons in the relation of slave owners, or about one-third of the whole white population of the slave states; in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, excluding the largest cities, one half of the whole population”.

In his work, “History of American Business & Industry”, Alex Groner observes, “In the sense that they were large and complex producing units, the big plantations were the South’s factories. The hundreds of slaves included large numbers of production workers -the field hands- as well as such specialists and skilled artisans as carpenters, drovers, watchmen, coopers, tailors, millers, butchers, shipwrights, engineers, dentists and nurses…Because virtually entire families could be put to work in the fields for most of the year, the slave economy proved ideal for cotton culture.

The price of a good field hand, about $300 before Whitney’s invention, doubled in twenty years. Poor whites, who could afford neither slaves nor land at the higher prices, moved West in mounting numbers and soon dominated the Southwest……It was not only the plantations of the South but also the factories, shipping merchants and banks of the North whose economies became tied more and more closely to cotton.

What North and South had in common was the prosperity resulting from the growth of cotton production. The size of the crop climbed steadily, from 80 million pounds in 1815 to 460 million, or more than half the world’s output by 1834, and to more than a billion pounds by 1850… From 1830 until the Civil War, cotton provided approximately half of the nation’s total exports”.1

At an average of 400 man-hours per 400-pound ginned bale of cotton (based on census averages), these billion pounds required a billion hours of unpaid man-hours.   These were supplied by African-American men, women and children, working as slave labor under threat of torture and death.

Banking on Slavery

Thus produced, the cotton crop traded hands on exchanges like the largest one in New York. Longevity counts in business, and many banking institutions trace their founding origins back to that time, including Bank of Boston -1784, Brown Brothers Harriman-1818, Chase – 1799, First Maryland Bancorp – 1808, Fleet Financial Group, Inc.-1791, J.P. Morgan Co., Inc.-1838, to name a few. U.S. Trust of New York (1853) was only a gleam in some banker’s eye at the time, and Price Waterhouse, the famous accounting firm, had just gotten its start in 1849. These banks and other businesses participated in cotton transactions that were all handled as they usually are, for a fee.   And so the brokers, traders, lenders, etc. all profited first. Then came the employees of the firms, the landlords, the washerwomen, the street vendors, messengers, haberdashers, milliners and all their families, and mortgage holders and service providers in an even wider circle.

Slave-Produced Crops Totaled more than 60% of U.S. Exports

Now traded, cotton found its way to 25 of the 35 states and territories for manufacturing. We don’t have to assume how the product was distributed, we can look at the 1850 list of cotton manufactures. (See U.S. Census Table CXCVL) Here, we see there were 1,064 businesses directly employing over 92,000 people across the country. Leading the way is Massachusetts, using 223,607 bales of cotton while employing over 29,000 people. It is also interesting to note that the export of slave crops cotton, tobacco and rice totaled over 60% of all the nation’s exports.   This meant that the shipping industry, the dockworkers and the factories on both sides of the Atlantic, all made a living from the peculiar institution of African-Americans working as slaves.   It was possible for people throughout Europe to work in cotton factories or peripheral industries in their home countries, save their money and book passage to America. Here, the newly arrived immigrant could get off the boat and work selling apples on Wall Street to the employees of the Cotton Exchange. A seamstress from English mills could come and find work making dresses for the wives and mending the coats of the men who worked in the financial district.   Maybe you’ve heard stories like these before.

When an industry produces over 60% of the national exports, it reaches farther than can be seen from the docks or from the fields. And there were other crops as well. There were 2,681 sugar plantations and 8,327 hemp planters.   In 1850, there were over 20 million bushels of sweet potatoes, 3 million bushels of Irish potatoes, 7 million bushels of peas and beans, and 8 million pounds of wool, all produced in slave-holding states. The African-Americans that Europeans called nere-do-well, helped clothe and feed this nation when the Europeans couldn’t.

Money Pump: Government, White Families Profited Most

The government profited most of all. The export of slave-produced crops allowed this emerging nation to import, from the more industrialized countries (with tariffs applied), without incurring a trade deficit.

Also, slave-intensive industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and transportation comprised over 60% of the total private production income at the time. In one way or another, this money was taxed. The slaves themselves were taxable as property beginning in 1815.   The Federal Government profited by first placing a tax on the slave as a unit of property, and again when taxes were paid on the land the slaves improved.   Taxing authorities, whether federal or local, made their money at some point in the trading of cotton and again when salaries found their way into taxable areas.   The government uses a myriad of ways to raise the money it needs to do what it has to do – to build the infrastructure of the nation.   To build the roads, forts and pay the federal marshals. This was done, in a large part, with slave dollars flowing like an irrigating stream, watering national, state and local governments at various stops along the way.

Thus, assets were being used to develop the country for the benefit of Europeans and their heirs.   And now today, the United States stands as a money pump with $7 trillion worth of pressure, creating jobs for Joe Blow in Idaho, and millionaires and billionaires with fortunes that span the globe. But it is a pump that was primed with the blood of African and Indigenous people.

Mother Moore -1971, John Conyers -1998

Speaking Truth to Power

In recognition of the wrong done, in 1989 Congressman John Conyers sponsored a bill to lead to reparations, H.R.40: “A bill to acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865, and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies and for other purposes.”

Forty-six years ago, Queen Mother Moore was at the First Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana.   There she stood in a hotel lobby, crowned with a gold Gele and African dress, handing out literature and accepting hugs while shouting, “Reparations. Reparations honey, get your reparations. They got to pay you”.

The Queen Mother was right. It is in the context of reparations that the nation should be discussing Affirmative Action as part of the mix of options a moral nation would consider paying a long-overdue debt.

And $5 trillion dollars is not a lot of money for the harm done.

This number is only a fraction due for the human hours expended during the slavery phase of the African Holocaust. It does not include the theft of intellectual property rights, inventions and patents.

It certainly does not include damages for pain, suffering and the return of lost lives. Until this debt is acknowledged and paid, America will forever be paying the interest and never touching the principal.