DNA and Our Slavery History

Pearl Duncan, who is descended from both enslaved black Americans and white slaveholders, has written an interesting piece on “How DNA is rewriting history”:


She points up the use of DNA testing to track some of one’s ancestors, in this case African Americans:


Thousands of African-Americans have discovered ancestors through DNA, genealogy and family stories, and in the process reconnected with a wide range of ancestral cousins around the world. I digested details about the Founding Fathers in my ancestry, emotional as it was. In 1787, President John Adams purchased a mansion as a summer house from Leonard Vassal, a wealthy New England slave owner. Leonard Vassal owned seven sugar plantations in Jamaica, including Content, where a few of my ancestors were enslaved. With the proceeds and wealth from his slaves and plantations, he built a historic house in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1734. The mansion is the historic Adams Mansion beautifully displayed on page 68 of Peter Mallary’s Houses of New England.


She found she has now cousins in both Ghana and Scotland. But she also found that some of her enslaved ancestors had helped John Adams with his housing. Adams is one of the few U.S. presidents from Washington to Lincoln who did not himself enslave African Americans, and he is often celebrated for that. But we can see even he benefited greatly from the slavery system. His famous mansion house was built with money made off the backs of a great many enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, and probably in North America as well.

Duncan then adds a comment on


Another plantation owner, one of my Scottish ancestors, used the proceeds from his six Jamaican plantations and the inheritance from his cousins’ “Founding Brother’s” tobacco plantations in Virginia to purchase an estate in Scotland where shale oil was discovered. Shale oil gave rise to the independent oil companies, which was organized into the multinational oil company, BP, British Petroleum.


Notice in both these accounts several things. First the North American and Caribbean slavery system was not just a bloody and rapacious system that benefited white plantation owners in the South and the Caribbean. It was something foundational to the country that became the United States, in its colonies/states, and it played a central role in making European countries politically powerful. Secondly, notice the great wealth that this slavery system created, not only for southern and Caribbean whites, both slaveholders and whites who worked for them, but also by means of reinvestments it created much economic development outside the slavery arenas—even the development of oil companies that became such as British Petroleum.


As John Donne said, “No man is an island,” and indeed the United States and the Caribbean region were not isolated from the great Atlantic economy, which was founded in and grounded in the enslavement of Africans. They are “founders” of the United States as much as any other group, but where are their great monuments in Washington, D.C.?


  1. bev

    This post is quite timely for me personally. I just finished “Inheriting the Trade” by deWolf and have been thinking a lot about the convoluted way white folks (from powerful slave traders, politicians, clergymen, etc., to small-town folks who didn’t even personally own slaves, both in the South and the North) benefited from the slave trade in some way, shape, or form. Whether directly or “indirectly.” (Quotes for a reason.) I will definitely check out Pearl Duncan’s piece.

    Also, to go along with what you were saying about the historic Adams Mansion, I recently found this book in a local DC bookstore: “Black Men Built the Capital: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C.” by Jesse J. Holland. I haven’t started it yet, but hopefully it’s a good one. Talk about slavery and racism being foundational to the U.S. … as ostensibly seen in the enslaved African and African American hands that built the most revered buildings (including the Capital and White House) which symbolized “freedom” for their white masters. Also, our National Mall was formally one the District’s busiest slave markets.

  2. Joe Author

    Well put, Bev, thanks for the insights.

    MOST whites benefited from directly slavery, they just do not get covered in the history books. Think about all the ship builders/carpenters/skilled workers, white collar clerks at banks/insurance companies insuring slave ships, barrel makers for rum, seamen, slave catchers, police patrollers, judges, etc…… Even all those poor white farmers who sent/sold produce to slave plantations for the enslaved to eat, etc……

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