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Previously in Politics & Prose:

Playing Politics With the Planet (April 1999)
A forecast of the 2000 election predicts squalls and continued global warming.

How Big Business Got a Soul (March 1999)
A recent book by Roland Marchand shows how the hated monopolies of the late nineteenth century used advertising to give themselves a makeover -- and to shape public opinion to their advantage.

What Work Costs Us (February 1999)
Richard Sennett's The Corrosion of Character examines the demoralizing effects of the new "flexible" economy.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.


Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Related feature:

Inheriting Slavery (February 1998)
Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, winner of the National Book Award, set out to reckon with the legacy of his ancestors' plantations.

Slaves' Wages
A work of history puts a price on slave labor -- and could be used to determine modern-day reparations

by Jack Beatty

May 12, 1999

That Swiss banks are paying compensation to the families of Holocaust survivors is a welcome precedent for African-Americans and the muted cause of reparations for slavery. Just as money or valuable property was stolen from the Jews, so a vast deal of labor was stolen from black slaves. The whole economy benefited from that labor. But this very fusion of slave labor with economic progress makes it next to impossible to calculate how much slave descendants should be owed. A new book tracing the contributions of slave labor to one sector of the economy helps to concretize the reparations question.

In Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction, Scott Reynolds Nelson, who teaches history at the College of William and Mary, shows how slave labor built both the intrastate railways of the antebellum South and the South's first interstate railway system, a wartime project of the Confederate government in Richmond. Nelson shows that after the Civil War freedmen working on the rails became the object of Ku Klux Klan violence and corporate betrayal.

Nelson begins with the railway mania that seized the South in the mid 1800s. "Between 1855 and 1865, 375 miles of track were laid out each year in the southern states," he writes. In the North, privately incorporated railroads could pay for construction by selling stock, especially to merchants and others along their rights-of-way. The southern states could not adopt this formula. Slaves were not consumers. Settlements were scattered, retail stores few, and customers rare. The South, consequently, was not attractive to northern railroads or to northern and European railway investors.

Instead, as financiers of last resort, state governments in the South had to pay for their own railroads. They did this by issuing state bonds and by using slave labor. They paid some plantation owners with state-backed securities for the use of their slaves. (As commodity prices slumped planters were more and more willing to rent slaves to the railroads.) One railroad, the Charlotte & South Carolina, openly boasted of its labor policy. "By the application of slave labor to the performance of almost the entire work," the line's directors wrote in 1848, "railroads in the southern states are built more cheaply than in any other portion of the Union." The work was punishing in the extreme. To "make the grade" -- that is, to keep the track at an even level -- slaves had to blast through rocks, losing fingers and eyes in explosions, and shovel mountains of dirt.

Most of the state-financed lines ran intrastate (from the coast inland) not interstate; southern state legislatures were reluctant to pay for infrastructure that would benefit citizens of other states. After secession, the Confederate government, desperate for foodstuffs from the deep South to reach the battlefields of Virginia, set about building an interstate railroad. The Confederate Congress chartered a corporation, the Southern Express Company, to perform the work. Twelve-hundred slaves were leased out to the railroad from Virginia alone. The government used armed force to coerce them, and many were worked to death. One in every three escaped. Those recaptured were either maimed or shot.

The railroad the slaves gave their lives for came too late to affect the outcome of the war, though it did cut the time of a mail run from Atlanta to Richmond, from more than a week before the war to two or three days after it. And the iron rails through Virginia, the Carolinas, and into Georgia made a permanent addition to the post-war economy.

A new interstate system along the "Confederate corridor" in the uplands of the Piedmont was pieced together after the war, this time by the largest corporation in the United States, the Pennsylvania Railroad. Georgia opened its prisons to supply free convict labor to this enterprise. The prisons were full of black sharecroppers arrested for "crimes" like stealing shovels or breaking contracts with their white landlords. The construction company building the line for the Pennsylvania Railroad, Nelson writes, "sometimes ... whipped convicts nude for minor offenses."

The Ku Klux Klan came into existence in the Carolinas to fight the northern railroad because they saw it as a threat to a southern way of life built around black subordination. Klansmen terrorized freedmen working on the line. Hooded terrorists mounted on hooded horses would whip a man, then, piling agony on pain, rub persimmon sticks into his raw back. As Reconstruction ebbed in the South, the holding company acting for the Pennsylvania Railroad made peace with Klan leaders through bribes and the issuance of stock. "The Southern Railway Security Company posed as the inheritor of the Confederate state by putting up former Confederates as officers ... recruiting the very Klansmen who were destabilizing the region to be its employees, and supporting the end of Reconstruction," Nelson writes. Capitalism is infinitely flexible.

* * *

Who should pay for this exorbitant theft of labor? The plantation owners who rented their slaves are no more. The Confederacy is gone with the wind. The Pennsylvania Railroad went bankrupt long ago. That leaves the state governments of the southeastern states. Unlike the other parties, they still exist. They are continuous with the state governments that built the pre-war railroads. They are analogous to the Swiss bankers. Indeed, in one respect they are more like the Nazi government than the bankers -- they perpetrated the theft. They stole human labor, dignity, and lives. Pain and suffering weigh in the reckoning of their liability.

With modern methods of scholarship it should be possible to find descendants of the slaves from whom these states stole everything. One can imagine a kind of class-action suit brought by these descendants on behalf of the whole class affected -- the slaves of the southeast who built the state railroads in the antebellum years. Considered strictly as a legal matter, the case for reparations to the descendants of slaves has lacked plausibly liable targets who are still in a position to pay damages. Nelson's book fingers some flush targets, and the Swiss banks have not only established a relevant precedent but also given us a chance to get used to the idea of trans-historic liability as a formula of justice.


Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of
Post & Riposte.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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