Slavery: An anniversary and examination

Published 12:01 am Thursday, January 24, 2008

One of the ironies of U.S. history is that this great experiment in democracy and freedom was born wedded to a shadowy and shameful twin: a system of chattel slavery forced upon thousands of people of African descent who were denied the most basic freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness even as these were being guaranteed to other Americans. The founding fathers in 1787 agreed on a compromise that would allow the international slave trade to continue for 20 years.

Two centuries ago this month, on Jan. 1, 1808, the legal importation of enslaved people into the United States ceased, but the institution of slavery continued to grow and spread with the explosion of cotton planting in the southern states, in the Mississippi Territory, and in portions of the vast lands of the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase.

To meet the demand for labor, an internal slave trade developed between the older states of the Atlantic coast and the developing lands of the Deep South. Slaves torn from their families were brought by ship around Florida and up into the Mississippi River at New Orleans, or were walked in long lines of shackled humanity down overland routes such as the Natchez Trace.

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By the 1830s, these routes led to the Forks of the Road slave market area along the northeastern city limit of Natchez, hardly a stone’s throw from some of the finest mansions of the white planter class. Monmouth, Monteigne, Melrose, Linden and Woodlands were home to a network of families who wielded legal, judicial and political clout while deriving economic benefit from their cotton and sugar plantations: the Turners, Quitmans, Conners and McMurrans.

Most of these families shared another commonality: their participation in the spiritual community of Trinity Episcopal Church. The men contributed financial support while serving as Vestry members, wardens and delegates to the annual diocesan councils. The women also made significant monetary contributions. John McMurran, Edward Turner, George Turner and Eliza Quitman were the primary persons pledging financial support to establish an Episcopal bishopric in Mississippi.

The wealth of these families was based primarily on the labor of hundreds of enslaved workers in a host of occupations on the plantations. The magnificent homes were built and maintained with the expertise of slave labor. Every aspect of the households, from cooking and cleaning to tending children, waiting at table and driving carriages, was performed by enslaved domestic laborers who, by definition, were deprived of basic human rights.

The Episcopal Church in the United States has taken a theological stand against unquestioningly accepting this heritage of social and economic injustice. It has condemned the legacy of slavery that takes the form of racism, which is prejudice coupled with power. This was clearly stated in a 1994 Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops on the sin of racism as a violation of basic Christian principles.

Most recently, Resolution A-123, adopted at the church’s 2006 General Convention, defined slavery anywhere in the world as a “sin and a fundamental betrayal of the humanity of all persons who were involved.” It acknowledged the church’s participation in the sin and “the deep and lasting injury which the institution of slavery and its aftermath have inflicted on society and on the Church.” Finally, the resolution called for “every Diocese to collect and document … (a) the complicity of The Episcopal Church in the institution of slavery … and (b) the economic benefits The Episcopal Church derived from the institution of slavery.”

This weekend, Episcopalians from across Mississippi will gather at the Natchez Convention Center for their annual diocesan council meeting. At 2 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 25, a pre-conference session will present Mississippi’s first preliminary findings in response to Resolution A-123 regarding the church’s involvement with slavery. This session will be held at Trinity Episcopal Church on the corner of Washington St. and South Commerce St. All Episcopalians and the general public are encouraged to attend. There is no registration fee.

On Friday, Charles Reagan Wilson of the University of Mississippi will explore the roots of the diocese in southwest Mississippi and its first bishop, William Mercer Green. Edward Bond of Alabama A&M University will report on his findings from the council journals of the antebellum period.

The Rev. Brooks Graebner of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, N.C., will tell of similar efforts in North Carolina. The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray III, Bishop of Mississippi, will share his vision for the diocese on this subject. For more information, contact the Rev. Chip Davis, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, at 601-445-8432.

Kathleen Jenkins BOND is a Vestry member and senior warden of Trinity Episcopal Church.