Mississippi was a slave-majority state

Published 12:39 am Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In Mississippi, in the year of the Confederacy’s founding, 55 percent of its people lived in bondage.

This slave-majority state was, of course, part of the slave-society of the Antebellum South, one of only five “great slave-societies” in human history.

These were those rare cultures in which slaves made up at least 20 percent of the population, in which the economy was largely dependent on slave labor, and in which hierarchical master-slave relations shaped all other social relations.

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This is in contrast to “societies-with-slaves” in which the percentages, levels of labor dependence and overall societal sway were much lower. But, statistically, how did the South compare with those other four slave-societies — Ancient Greece and Rome, early modern Brazil and the Caribbean?

Four million people were in bondage in the slave states of the American Union in 1860, making up about one-third of the population. That four million was about 10 times as many as were enslaved in Classical Greece.

And it roughly matched the maximum numbers in Brazil and the Caribbean islands put together. Only the Roman Empire, which enslaved about five million during its Golden Age of the 2nd century AD, can equal or exceed the absolute numbers in Dixie.

But absolute numbers don’t tell the whole story. The slave population in Rome was spread over an empire twice as large in land area as the combined slave states of the South. In the entirety of the Empire, slaves were only 8 percent of the total population.

It was solely in the Italian peninsula and Sicily that the percentages and economic importance actually rose to the rank of a slave-society. There, slaves were about one-third of the total population, similar to the proportion in the South. However, that percentage for the Antebellum South was maintained over an area about six times as large as Italy and Sicily.

But within the South, naturally, there were great differences across regions. In the border states, the percentages of slaves in the total population were below 20 percent. Slave-society percentages, though, were found in all the states farther south — from about a quarter in Arkansas and Tennessee, to about a third in North Carolina, Virginia and Texas. To near majorities in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. And a 57 percent majority in South Carolina, to slightly surpass Mississippi’s 55 percent.

Within Mississippi, the percentages of course varied greatly from county to county, but remarkably, in all but two, the slave population exceeded the 20 percent slave-society threshold. One of those, not coincidentally, was the soon-to-be “Free State of Jones.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, here in the plantation country, slaves were 72 percent of the total population in Adams County; they were 82 percent in Jefferson and Wilkinson counties. In the enormous cotton plantations otherwise known as Concordia and Tensas Parishes across the river, 91 percent of the people were enslaved. Of the 15 counties across the South in which 80 percent or more of the people lived in bondage, 12 were found in the Lower Mississippi River Valley between New Orleans and Memphis.  Slavery existed in many other places and times, but that repetitively cited truth can’t be allowed to obscure the larger, whole truth. In global, historical context, the system of slavery in the Antebellum South was truly extraordinary.

Statistics lie, we are told, but the numbers quoted here don’t lie. This nearly unprecedented slave-society that the Confederacy was created to preserve.

A Confederacy that was created, then, to preserve the enslavement of a majority of Mississippians, a Confederacy that is, perversely, celebrated on the Mississippi state flag today.

And that’s a damned truth.

Jim Wiggins is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.