“My Family Never Owned Any Slaves”

I was reading a local Pennsylvania newspaper recently that had one of those all too common articles against the idea of reparations for African Americans and Native Americans that has come up in recent years. In the Wayne Independent Cal Teeple has an opinion article titled, “I Never Owned a Slave…,You?” Then out of curiosity I searched on a major search engine for just one typical white-generated phrase, “My family never owned any slaves.” Well, I got no less that 250,000 hits!
Teeple makes the usual argument:

I mean I never owned any slaves, and neither did you. My parents, grandparents, nor my great-grandparents owned slaves, neither did yours. And unless they come from a family line with Very Long-Lived ancestors, No One living today, nor their parents or grand-parents, were held as slaves!

He argues this takes whites off the hook for any kind of reparations for slavery. Basically the argument many whites make is that their families had no connection to the racial oppression of slavery. (Some whites also argue “my family never segregated any lunch counters,” which they too feel takes whites off the hook for the 350 years of racial oppression of this country.) The problem with all these arguments is that they only work because most whites do not know anything about the history of racial oppression in this country. They are signs of extreme ignorance.
Let me just trace out a little of this forgotten history. As every school child knows, the first task the European colonists undertook was to “settle the land.” This is the euphemistic phrase European Americans have long used for the theft of Native American land–which often required war, often genocidal war, because Native Americans did not comply. Once the land was stolen, the need for labor to work the land exceeded the supply of indentured and other white workers.
From the mid-17th century onward, enslaved Black laborers became ever more essential to the prosperity of the new white-dominated society, eventually becoming a major source of labor that generated significant prosperity for many whites. Black Americans were the only group of color that was internally central, as essential labor, to the prospering of the new North American colonies.
Huge numbers of whites worked in one way or another in the slavery economy. By the 18th century the slavery-centered North American economy and society involved not only economically successful slaveholders, in the South and the North (!), the owners of slave trading enterprises (mostly in the North), associated bankers, insurance brokers, and leading politicians supporting politically the plantations and the slave trade. Many of these white men were in northern cities. There was also a very large number of ordinary whites in all states, north and south, who worked in many occupations linked directly or indirectly to the slavery system. The latter whites included white-collar clerks and other white employees working for these various slave-related enterprises, the overseers on southern and northern plantations, the sailors on slave ships, the slave catchers who chased enslaved runaways, the small farmers who grew produce and other products for the plantations, lumber workers who cut timber for slave ships, ship builders, construction workers on roads for the trade in slaves and slave-produced products, fishers traded fish products to U.S. and Caribbean plantations, local and federal government workers policing enslaved runaways and processing slave-produced products for internal or external trade, and small farmers and urban entrepreneurs who rented groups of enslaved African Americans for temporary profit on their projects. And the list goes on and on.
In addition, all whites gained “racial capital,” either symbolic or material, from this oppressive system. A great many benefitted economically from the slavery-centered economic complex–which encompassed the slave trade, trade with and support of slave farms and plantations, the international trade in slave-produced products, and the great array of slavery-supporting occupations across the country and, indeed, across the Atlantic.
For two centuries slavery was the major foundation for this country, as an economy, a society, and a polity. If there had been no theft of Native American lands, there would be no United States. If there had been no African American enslavement, there probably would have been no huge North American wealth generation–and possibly no modern wealth-generating North America capitalism on the massive scale that developed over four centuries. Enslaved workers cultivating tobacco, rice, sugar, cotton, and other crops generated very large amounts of economic capital, much of which circulated through the European and North American economic systems generating much spin-off prosperity, including important industrial breakthroughs. Enslaved black Americans created much of the surplus capital (wealth) of this country for two centuries, half this country’s lifetime. Without slavery there is quite probably no United States and no U.S. Constitution–at least not when it happened in the 17th and 18th centuries–and thus no U.S. international empire later on.
In these early centuries the social relations of economic exploitation created much income and wealth for whites, which in turn provided much wealth for many later generations, to the present day. Thus, in North America white economic prosperity is racialized in its tap roots, although those tap roots are mostly left out of the national collective memory controlled by whites.


  1. GDAWG

    It’s really nauseating to have to keep revisiting this tired argument and obfuscation of responsibility for one’s wickedness via a system of racial oppression and such. Although their ancestors may have not have “owned” enslaved Africans, being white or of European ancestry in MAerica certainly benefitted ‘them’ though the disenfranchishment of African Americans humanity and liberty.
    For example, when African Americans were not allowed to attend ‘tax supported’ major American schools, some whites, unfairly, benefitted from their absence. Because, presumbably, an African American was denied admission when less qualified whites were not. Even in the allocatiom of financial loans of various sorts, and health care resources similar comparisons could be made. In any event, after slavery, the 100 year history of American governmental enforced racial apartheid certainly disabled most Black Americans, (Berea v Kentucky, Plessy v. Ferguson, to name a two) while benefitting most whites. Hmmm? No slave ownership involved in these instances but unearned white priviledge prevailed
    I could go on….. But Ira Katznelson book titled “When Affirmative Action was WHITE,” really sums up the duplicity of the system of racial oppression and its devastating effects on Blacks, while benefitting whites. Again, Slave ownership was not the issue. Systematic institutional and governmental racial oppression against Black Americans was.

  2. Seattle in Texas

    GDAWG–I thought you had left, so glad you’re still around. I agree about the bit of the argument being re-visited, but it is so true that the ignorance of many is so great that is has to be repeated again and again…*sigh*…. (It’s like that dumb joke: Pete and Repeat were sitting on the bench, Pete fell off and whose left?) Most importantly though, is that it’s being done in a manner that stretches far beyond the walls of the ivory towers–this is a very good thing. 🙂

  3. GDAWG

    Yup. Still here. But to the point. I think these people, in their attempt to minimized the brutality and inhumane nature of their deeds in the African enslavement program in all of its aspects, use this nauseating argument to assuage or mitigate their guilt from “knowingly” benefitting from the system white supremacy. And, somehow, legitimize the unfair advantage gained from ‘it’ based on their skin color alone, to this very day.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    I see what you’re saying and agree this likely applies to perhaps the overwhelming majority of white folks. My first experience in the South (and “not even ‘Deep South'”) has taught me a lot about the socialization of where I come from…. We don’t have that whole “North”/”South” thing going on–and probably for many reasons, some of which you hit on above (to deny historical responsibility–even though many of us have anscestry that ties back to both the North and South up there, roots of color, and various origins, etc.). We are taught to blame slavery on the “South” (yet, whose on our flag???). But it doesn’t stop there, ohhhh no. We have the so-called “colorblind” society where “Racism is behind us now and everything, at least here, all is equal” type of stuff (not true…illusions). I know at least where I come from, there is so much ignorance all up and down the West Coast and so I am very pleased this stuff gets repeated here and there, on here. The West Coast does not socialize their folks of any decent to relate to the North or South and the historical dynamics related to slavery and even Jim Crow (maybe most said for the Pacific Northwest?)–there is something extremely racial and racist about this (both sides actually–whether it be the absence as in our case, or the “North/South” mentality/identity, etc. encountered here). And nobody can tell me that people don’t benefit from their skin color alone and all of the unfair gains, etc. even in our liberal cities over there that “outlaw” discrimination, and so on–and those benefits do tie directly back to stolen land and slavery…. So, GDAWG, I agree with you’re saying. The only thing I see differently is the great ignorance of many who don’t really know and are white. Does it make it right? No. But, through an honest education, whether ir be formal or infomal, they can learn. And once that awareness kicks in, so does the personal and social responsibility for the past, present, and future–as I see it.

    Most excellent points you make GDAWG, as usual…. 😀

  5. Brady

    While institutional racism is part of America’s history, there have been reparations for the past 40 years. What do you think affirmative action has been? It’s helped 2 generations of black families attend college and get good jobs so they can move their families into better neighborhoods and make better lives for their kids. I think I want to be compensated because of Affirmative Action! It has denied me my equal rights as an American citizen to the pursuit of hapiness! (I’m being facetious)
    My point is, you can never make everyone happy. But what the author fails to acknowledge is the African and Muslim role in Slavery. Slavery existed in Africa THOUSNADS of years before the white man even set foot there! Arabs took slaves across the Sahara and had them work in salt mines. Their lives were far worse than the slaves who tended fields in the United States.

  6. GDAWG

    How about the European role in Slalvery of their own kit and kind? Serfdom?
    And let’s keep the discussion here on these shores, America, since the crime against my kit and kind occurred here. No more obfuscation. And finally, as pointed on numerous occasions here and elsewhere, it seems to me that if you are married to or related to a white woman you have benefitted from Affirmative Action, since the vast majority of recipents of these programs are white women. So, you have been compensated, in a way.

  7. Joe

    Brady, these are standard excuses whites often use to rationalize their role in racial oppression in the North American case, and they simply are wrong on the evidence. Most affirmative action historically, and today, is for whites. Even poorly qualified white men rise to the top, like George Bush, because of it. Only the top 1 percent of African Americans in education and conventional achievement have a chance, Like Senator Obama. Most of the big affirmative action programs historically, like the Homestead Act giveaway of 240 million acres of land (stolen from Native Americans mostly), operated almost entirely for white families, etc. And slavery was racialized only in North America, one of the worst systems ever. Oppression elsewhere never is a good rationalization for extreme oppression here.

  8. bluestmoon

    My family owned slaves. Did I own them? No. I’m so tired of blacks thinking everyone owes them something. There is NO WHITE GUILT HERE, and no one is getting any f*cking reparations.

  9. Joe Author

    Bluestmoon, have you ever thought about how much money, access, or privilege you have because you are white and inherited some such from your ancestors. What if you had been black and enslaved? Would you have the ses status you have today? Reflect a bit more, and read some books like Racist America (routledge 2000) and see if the data change your mind.

  10. I think what Brady, Bluestmoon and others who cling to the tired, “I never owned slaves”, argument fail to consider is that the struggle for equality was not magically won upon the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    It has ONLY been 40 years since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, per se, yet this is no where near sufficient to heal the wounds of nearly 250 years of slavery, racialization/racial indoctrination, subjugation and genocide.

    To deny this is equivalent to complicentcy in its persistence.

  11. BravesFan79

    Well i know my family NEVER owned slaves, and after having to drop out of college to pay off debts and take a job working the streets of Atlanta ….. all thoughts of white-guilt left after i was carjacked and almost Killed after doing a FAVOR for 2 black males that ended up being on the run for murder!
    We elected a half black/white president…. all is EQUAL! White shouldnt feel guilty for SHIT!!

  12. DC

    I find it interesting that the people who claim this country because white people built it are the same people who say that they didn’t own a slave and should therefore not be accountable to the decedents of slaves. You can’t have it both ways. Either you are responsible for what your ancestors did or you’re not. You can’t take credit for some things and not take responsibility for others. Either you are responsible for slavery and the consequences that continue to follow, or you have no ownership of what those before you did (founding the country included), and therefore are unfairly benefitting from a history of the inequality that the founders built into the development of this nation.

  13. BW

    So ok, my ancestors may or may not have owned slaves, and yes this country did benefit from oppressing minorities. Glance through history and see that most of the nations of today were founded or built from the suffering of people for their skin color or religious beliefs. It’s human nature be you black, white, orange, red or blue. The White man and/or European isn’t to blame…Humanity is to blame. To sit and think that only the White man is evil enough to do this is ludicrous. Man is Fallible…not just the white ones. Don’t forget the first lesson you learn in life….Life isn’t fair.

  14. DfromSeattle

    As a 51 year old African American Female, I
    would like, if some one who white, hates Blacks,
    feels no shame for the way blacks were brought
    here from africa to be property, bulid, plow, &
    “Serve (wait-on)” caucasion people, even if your family never did own slaves, yet the hated of black & brown color people, who’s
    skin color hue, was a creation of god, and from
    his own definitions of what he want in mankind
    to look like, first, if congress could enact it, would you favor, campagin, raise funds to see slavery in it’s original format, be legal again
    in the USA 2009? which would include every living man, woman & child (your one or two
    black friends, that you’ll only admit to your self
    and no one else (your white friends, family), you “like him or her” and couldn’t bear to see harm to them, ( like Emit Till, Meger Evers, the
    three civil rights workers found in a pond, the
    three little girls killed while worshiping in church.) Your son or daughter’s little favorite
    playmate at school, or down the street. Your
    wife’s favorive cashier at Target? all subject to
    the worst kind of treatment because you can now “own them, like cattle, “bring you a glass of
    water on a 22k gold platter? Could you sleep
    peacefully at night? Please Explain to me

  15. DfromSeattle

    I also have a question, as I read a comment
    about why does it seem like only white people
    are evil,? I don’t beleive you are, because It
    took a good chunk of white people to have elected president obama,including the “haters”
    of minorities. The recent bankrupting of the
    United States, not by “welfare queens, housing
    projects, food stamps, medicaid or from affrim
    ative action, or by people buying homes (that
    even I agree, couldn’t afford to buy, once the
    “promotional period was over”), not stick with black and brown skin people, as the “problem”
    we have only been able, through sports, entertainment, some TV news/Publishing, obtained some “measure of wealth”, only here
    in the last 45 years, blacks couldn’t be millionaires during slavery, Jim Crow, the
    civil rights movements of the late 1960’s. It’s
    a fact on paper that blacks brought here into
    slavery on ships from africa, barely had any
    form of clothing on, let alone wads of 100.00
    bills. And the slaves were brought here, for the
    primary reason, was for the owners to make
    money off from them. Blacks and Browns were
    only given, (by force at times) a decent living
    wage until, starting with the Boeing Company in
    1956.) then nothing else better other than Medical and Teaching jobs , till the Mid 1970’s,
    if you were not into sports or entertainment.
    So just what skin color hue, has been handling
    the “majority wealth of this county for 427 years. If your car, whether you’re black, white,
    brown, purple, lime green, “breaks down”, you
    take it to the dealer/Manufactuer, they charge
    you $300.00, to replace a headlight, it’s given
    back to you, after two weeks, with the claim
    given by the dealer, it’s fixed, you dive around
    for about a month, then ooops! now both
    headlights, plus one in the rear is also out, where should you take it now, ? don’t forget
    the warranty expired a year ago, and you still
    owe about 5 years on the payments? plus the
    parts needed all come from Hon kong special
    order, 6 weeks special order and cost double???

  16. siss

    Dfrom Seattle: what on earth are you talking about? I know my grammer is far from perfect but I couldn’t follow a THING you said. Could you be clearer in the point your attempting to get across? Also, I find it very offensive your suggestion of government induced slavery in 2009.

  17. Seattle in Texas

    DfromSeattle, I followed just fine and if I am wrong please correct me–I believe you are saying white supremacy in all forms, unjust privilege, etc., and hatred is evil. You’re in Dean and Obama territory–one of the only states (there were two others) where President Obama won every single county luvs. It’s true the majority of voters in Washington State were indeed white.

    It seems much different up there. We need some more voices from that area–whether we all agree or not. Welcome! I really hope you stick around on here.

    Take care

  18. DfromSeattle

    To siss Says: the point I was trying make, is since Obama won and the Sotamayor hearings,
    I ‘ve read some of the most vile, racist, hateful
    comments being made against Obama and Sotomayor, even against Obama’s two girls,
    coming from “red-faced” men like Rush,
    Hanity, Buchanan, 97% of the Rebublican
    Party, and those confederate states, all
    angry and very bitter!. To me there’s some
    kind of underling element still fueling , that
    hateful anger towards minorities still in our
    year of 2009, looking and sounding almost
    like 1809. My Question is, do many white
    americans still feel bitter about civil war,
    how it ened? and blacks were turned free,
    never to be returned to that lifestyle again.
    Is there residual bitterness from white people
    from mostly the south, that the slave trade
    that made many platation owners rich, would
    not stay, etched in stone for ever, including 2009? Thats my question, Would the sentiments expressed through hateful blogs,
    and judicial hearings, not be happening, if slavery still existed? You should not be offended in what could have been a rational
    way of life, affecting both you and I

  19. Dirty Third

    DfromSeattle, the hatred in the South is much more visible. It smiles and says hello, even hold a conversation at times. Every day you see a potential klansman looking at you weird or looking out for the intrest of his own. To me the North and South have two different looks on racisim. The answer to your question about the South being bitter about the Civil War, hell yes or they wouldn’t be reenacting it every year. I just seen them last year rehearsing in the back of a Denny’s. The South holds a much deeper hatred for blacks than the North. It must be nice to half ass get treated right up there. But I noticed that whites down here hate the North with a passion. Talk about sore losing. Being from Texas, I still don’t think its the worst state. We did vote 50-48 in the election for Obama. I would consider Mississippi or Alabama for the number 1 spot. I think we are still staying in a very racist society and denial isn’t going to fix the problem. And to be honest, I dont think nothing will. It is just something we have to live with cause people will forever teach their kids and so on. All america is racist to me. Why do we still allow hatred to be protested in the streets? This country seems like it thrives off hate and being better than the next person, like SISS wanted to make a ass out of someone because of grammar or hiding the fact that he or she doesn’t understand why the fuck we’re on this blog in the first place.


  1. “My family never owned slaves…” « Stuff White People Say
  2. racismreview.com » Blog Archive » Racism and Anti-Racism in Suburban New York
  3. #Should the U.S. provide reparations for slavery and Jim Crow? | THE PRESS
  4. Should the US provide reparations for slavery and Jim Crow?
  5. Should the U.S. Provide Reparations for Slavery and Jim Crow? -
  6. Should The U.S. Provide Reparations For Slavery And Jim Crow? | Fighting Missouri Court Abuses

Leave a Reply