When Jews Owned Slaves

leadLiving in Savannah, GA, one can not really escape the horrid specter of slavery: I mean, if you are any kind of awake, you understand that this pretty little city, the South, this whole dang country wouldn’t be here if weren’t for the labor and skills of enslaved Africans.

While there may be reminders in Maya Angelou’s powerful words at the feet of nicey-nice memorials and clues in the thumbprints of brick buildings, the stories of these tortured men, women and children–let alone their actual names–rarely made it to the metanarrative of local history. But that is finally changing:

I wrote a cover story for Connect Savannah a few months back about how city archivists are using old records to document the local government’s participation in the slave trade. The results of the project are now available, providing primary sources for academics and anyone else interested in real history.

A recent article in The Atlantic by my friend Kris Monroe details the largest slave auction in American history that took place in Savannah in March 1859. Only marginally discussed on the trolley tours if at all, this terrible event known as “The Weeping Time” sold off 436 human beings and split apart hundreds of families. There’s a little plaque west of the tourist corridor that commemorates the Weeping Time, but few people outside of Savannah knew about it until Kris brought it to a national readership.

There’s also this piece by Susanna Ashton in today’s Forward that focuses on Charleston and explains why Savannah’s Jewish community–the third oldest in the U.S.–took a nose dive just eight years after it was established:

One important population influx took place in 1741, when a large contingent of Jewish families left their homes in Savannah, Georgia, to resettle in Charleston because trustees of the Georgia colony would not let them (or anyone else) hold slaves. The state of South Carolina, which had long embraced slaveholding, was thus a welcoming place for these families. By 1749, when Georgia rethought the ban and decided to allow slaveholding, it was too late.

Ashton’s article reminds that with the South’s historic Jewish communities comes a certain responsibility to the truth of that history: Much of the success and prosperity of those early families was built on the scarred backs of others. As a Southern Jew of more modest origins, I think it’s high time that Jewish communities researched the enslaved people who helped build the synagogues and businesses. Who were they? How can we remember and include them into our bigger story?
This weekend, Savannah is hosting The Slave Dwelling Project Conference, a gathering of academics and artists from all over the South who will discuss the preservation of slave history. Rumor has it that Kosher Soul chef and Afroculinaria blogger Michael Twitty may make an appearance, which would be a tremendous opportunity. (I’ve been trying to get him to my Shabbos table ever since his “Open Letter to Paula Deen” went viral!)
It’s an odd notion to consider for most of us, this Jews-owning-slaves business, considering our own past as slaves. Though it should come as no surprise for those with relatives who have been in America since the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even though I’ve scoured the family tree for any slaveholding branches and it’s come up empty, it’s times like this that I like to remind people: Hey, I married in.

6 thoughts on “When Jews Owned Slaves

  1. This could have been a good article, but you didn’t really say very much or give many details whatsoever. I’m really intrigued by this topic, so maybe you can rewrite your article and give more details or at least links to websites that do.

  2. For some more info, try ‘Jewish Pirates of he Caribbean’ by Edward Kritzler; also, once upon a time there was a book about some Southern banker who bank rolled the Confederacy. Hey Yo!

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