Slaves in Our Family

My family held slaves.

Among my maternal grandmother’s papers there is a 1820s deed of sale. In the list of farm equipment and livestock are the names of two “negroes.” The right-hand ledger column lists their dollar value.

That branch of my family is from Louisiana. In that same region, there were several slave uprisings, including the Pointe Coupee conspiracy in 1795 and the Cane River rebellion in 1804.

In 1793, Father Jean Delvaux, a priest who served the Catholic parish in Campti, Louisiana (where more than 100 years later my grandmother would be baptized), was deported to Cuba by his bishop for leading “seditious movements” proclaiming the abolition of slavery and “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the motto of the French Revolution.

On my family’s deed, the price for two human beings—chattel slaves—was about $1,000.

“THE AVERAGE PRICE of a human being today,” says researcher Kevin Bales, “is about $90.” That’s the price averaged across the global market. In North America, slaves go for between $3,000 to $8,000. In India or Nepal, you can buy a human being for $5 to $10.

But didn’t slavery disappear after abolition? Isn’t that what the Civil War was all about?

Bales, author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, has a succinct response: “Thinking slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation is like thinking adultery stopped with the Ten Commandments.”

However, Bales also wants to make clear that the 27 million people enslaved today represent the smallest percentage of the global population ever to be in slavery. And the $40 billion generated by slavery into the global economy each year is the smallest proportion of the global economy ever represented by slave labor.

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