Voices on Slave Street

Slave Cabins on Slave Street, Magnolia Plantation. Photo by the Author.

My family and I visited Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina last week during a winter holiday.    Our guide walked us down “Slave Street”, and seated us on open benches like summer campers ‘round the campfire hushed for the true ghost story that is America’s slave history.  Four of the original slave cabins remain, built in the 1850s.  The cabins consist of two single square rooms about fourteen feet square, one room each for an extended family of about eight enslaved people.  Light shone through the floorboards, open to the chilly December morning breezes.     Children slept on planks in the shallow attic above open collar beams. 

While these cabins were being occupied by slaves in the 1800s, my Jewish forebearers were being ground down by a succession of Cossacks, Czars, and the Fuhrer.   As a result, I don’t feel a direct connection to American slavery.     But sitting there in the shadow of the five hundred year old live oak tree on Slave Street, a question stirred.  The souls who’d laid their heads down here, toiling waist-deep in the flooded rice fields in front of me and the “big house” behind me, whispered from the garlands of Spanish Moss the title of our parashah this week:  ויגש… Vayigash… draw close”.    The unpleasant truth is that the Jews of the old South were among the slave owners and traders of Charleston.     The question I heard was this:

Would I have been different?   Would you?     

Professor Robert P George, a Princeton legal scholar, asks his students whether they would have been abolitionists in the old south.  He says, “They all say they would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.  Of course, this is nonsense. Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them—and us—would have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and happily benefited from it”   He follows with this challenge to his students:  which of them had personally sacrificed status, opportunities, abandonment by their valued peers or given up futures for a cause?.  Few or none answer in the affirmative.  

I’ll be reading this week from Vayechi, starting in Genesis 47, the last of the good years for Israel and his sons before “there arose a new Pharoah who knew not Jacob” and the trap of four hundred years of slavery sprang shut on Israel.   We Jews became a nation, not just one family, in Egypt.   The Passover Haggadah instructs us to tell the story of the bitterness of slavery “as though it happened to me”.   Yet rather than reject slavery, Moses codified rules for ethical ownership of slaves.   Torah instructs compassion for their lowly state and a goal of liberation but not the rejection of slavery.   Indeed Torah was cited as a proof text for the slave owners of the South.  

When I was in high school, our debate team was assigned to argue for and against American slavery:   slave owners vs. abolitionists.   No one wanted to argue “for” so I took the position alone.   I was both fascinated and repulsed by slaveholders.  How did they justify such an abuse as slavery?  I wanted to despise them but found that an ethical case, however repulsive to me, had been made by Southern slaveholders.   The merits of “liberty” were easily tarnished by comparing the abysmal state of workers, child labor, and “company towns” in the factories and mines of the free north, or by looking at a modern world in which even today in 2020, half of the nations on earth do not classify forced labor as a crime, 47 countries don’t even condemn human trafficking.  I won the debate.  I didn’t enjoy it.  

Almost eleven million enslaved people were taken from Africa.   African chieftains sold off their enemies.   Muslim North Africans & European profiteers kidnapped at gunpoint and trafficked slaves to the new world.   One and a half million of these enslaved people died in transit,  packed shoulder to shoulder below decks in two-month long sea crossings.  Of the 10 million that survived, most remained in South America or the Caribbean.   Four percent were taken north and enslaved in the US, about 400,000 enslaved people.   Congress made bringing slaves into the US illegal in 1808,  20 years after bitter debate on the future of slavery in the new nation at the 1778 Continental Congress.  Unfortunately,  that didn’t make slavery itself illegal and slave importation continued illegally to the south.   In the post-revolutionary war period, half of the wealthiest families in the country lived in and around Charleston in these plantations.  The source of their wealth was “Carolina Gold”.   Rice, that is.  Its production depended on slave labor.  Only heirloom farmers produce rice in the South Carolinas today.   

Since Charleston has the second oldest synagogue congregation in the United States,  I wondered what their disposition towards slavery was.     I trudged joylessly through “Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South 1789 – 1865: Bertram W. Korn’s 1961 study for the American Jewish Historical Society,  looking for clues to the history of Charleston’s Jews in relation to slavery.   Korn wrote that a fourth of Jewish southerners were slave owners, though since they were mostly not landowners, the scale of their slave ownership was relatively small.   But I found elsewhere the percentage of Jewish Charlestonians who were slaveholders was 83%.     Korn found records of incidents of cruelty by Jews towards their slaves: historical receipts of selling off of children from their parents, remanding slaves to severe lashings for stealing a loaf of bread, and of Jews who were sought after for their success at tracking runaways.    Jacob Levin was a prominent auctioneer and owner of the J. & L.T. Levin Auction House of South Carolina’s capital, Columbia.   They dealt in slaves.    He was not just an auctioneer, he was also the Rabbi of Columbia’s synagogue and an influential author and advocate for ideals of Judaism.   His writings were quoted in widely circulated Jewish publications in the north. Mordecai Cohen was one of the wealthiest Charlestonians.   A philanthropist and major donor to the construction of the magnificent Greek revival style Beth Elohim synagogue which stands today.   In the 1838 “Recollections of a Runaway Slave”, a slave named Jim details horrific and repeated beatings and incarcerations by the Cohen’s son David for minor offenses and attempted escapes.  

It is dispiriting that Korn finds no evidence of any southern Jewish abolitionists.  How could the Jews of the South sit at Passover seder each year and recall their liberation from slavery, yet prosper from it?      Before you judge the Jews of the American South before emancipation, consider this:  

You and I benefit every day from the fruits of modern slavery. (GSI) reports that as many as forty million people today live in slavery, one hundred times as many as the slaves that were forcibly brought to the US.    That slavery culture is such a pervasive part of the world economy that you, like the residents of the old south, don’t even question it.   From the chocolate you eat to the computers and cellphones you use, to the clothing you wear, slave labor is a fundamental part of these products’ supply chains.  Almost half of the world’s countries do not even classify human trafficking as a crime.   China, with whom we gleefully trade, is a Tier 3 human trafficker, the worst classification.    On the scale of causes that matter, forty million modern slaves should be at the top.  Yet it is blithely ignored.  It’s part of the fabric of life.   Let’s not flatter ourselves that the causes we may so loudly champion come close to the gravity of this problem.   

Can we excuse ourselves because it’s far away?    GSI says 400,000 people live under conditions of modern slavery in the United States, working against their will, wages withheld, or experience physical or sexual abuse.  $300 billion in US purchases involve slavery and forced labor.  The biggest area is computers and cell phones.  Do you want the high moral ground?   Throw away your cell phone.   

In the history of Jewish slave owners, there are some rays of light.   We find evidence of kindness and even affection between Jewish slave owners and their slaves.   In his will in 1806 Isaac Isaacs wrote “Being of opinion that all men are by nature equally free … I must enjoin upon my executors strict observance… of my will, that my slaves hereafter are made free.”  Sadly, their liberation was specified over a period of years, and freeing slaves became illegal before the dates arrived.   

There was love as well.   Isaac Cardozo was descended from the Jewish Cardozo’s who defended Charleston from the British in the Revolutionary War.   Isaac Cardozo had five children with a freed black slave named Lydia Weston.    In the convoluted norms of early 1800’s Charleston race relations, a white man of any creed would not marry even a free black woman.    The couple had five children together who all took his surname.    He remained a bachelor living with his parents until his death in 1855.   He cared for and educated the children.  His son Thomas Cardozo was the first black person elected to statewide office as  South Carolina’s secretary of State from 1868-1872.   Most famous until Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, I suppose.   Complicating our understanding of slavery in Charleston, his common-law wife, Lydia Weston, a freed black slave, owned several slaves herself.    I found several other instances of freed blacks owning slaves.   

I found a hopeful glimpse in a letter written in 1867, after emancipation,  by a former slave named Sarah P. Norris to her former owner,  Mrs. Emma Mordecai, who had moved away.   Sarah, the former slave, relays news of Mrs. Mordecai’s family and acquaintances and tells her that she and her husband are maintaining Mrs. Mordechai’s family’s graves.  “I never could forget my people.  I loved them then, I love them now”,  Sarah wrote. 

To my surprise, our guide mentioned that a number of freed black slaves remained in these cabins after emancipation.   And not just temporarily.   Descendents of slaves lived in these slave cabins until the 1970’s.   Digging through news articles I found Mr. Adam Bennet lived as a slave here and after emancipation remained in these cabins, rising to the position of garden superintendent. Johnnie Leach lived in one of these Slave Street cabins without running water for almost thirty years until 1970.    Afterwards he lived in a modern home on the plantation’s grounds,  passing away at the age of 93 a few years ago.   He put three sons through college living in a former slave cabin without running water.    One of his sons and grandsons still work in the gardens.  There is a lovely carved plaque and portrait of him in Magnolia’s extraordinary camelia gardens with his smiling visage reflecting the quote I found in a local news article about him:  “I’ve loved every day of my life here”.  

I haven’t got an answer for those long gone enslaved people whose voices I thought I might have heard, sitting on that bench on Slave Street. It would be easy to say that we’d have done better by them, but Professor George’s challenge is a stiff one.       David sang, “Blessed is the one who … passes through the valley of weeping, he makes it a spring. Psalm 84.6”   

I’d like to think I’d find a way to do the same.  


Some references about modern-day slavery:

Download the “Slave Free Buying Guide” here:  

Modern slavery:  Download the Global Slavery Index

Detailed Ethical Buying Guide.  I note that this highly detailed guide uses a ratings system the combine modern-day slavery concerns with unrelated political causes or animal rights issues with which you may find polarizing.   

Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South 1789 – 1865:    American Jewish Historical Society  Vol. 50, No. 3 (March, 1961), pp. 151-201, The Johns Hopkins University Press

About the Author
Steve Brown is a registered architect and has headed an architecture, environmental design, and construction firm in the Philadelphia, PA area since 1985, whose recent work includes several Net Zero Energy projects.
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