What Most North Carolinians Don’t Know About Slavery in Western NC

What Most North Carolinians Don’t Know About Slavery in Western NC

Asheville Reparations Provide Chance To Understand Its History Of Slavery

Asheville made national headlines earlier this week when its City Council voted unanimously to apologize for its historical role in slavery and provide reparations to its Black residents. The July 14 vote made the city one of a small but growing group of cities to approve reparations.

Asheville made history on Tuesday when its City Council approved a resolution on reparations.

The reactions to the resolution were generally as mixed as one would expect. But, curiously, there was a relatively common reaction that stood out more than others: “I don’t even think they really had slaves out there in the mountains.”

The comment is innocent enough. For better or for worse, it’s quite easy to let moral relativism creep into plenty of areas of life—even slavery.

At this point, it’s important to expressly avoid underemphasizing the fact that slavery in any community, regardless of how it compares to other communities, has left Black Americans crushed by centuries-old systemic inequality that won’t be remedied no matter the specific details of a city council’s resolution.

Even if one moves past that fundamental point, though, it seems this somewhat common belief that slavery wasn’t “as bad” in western North Carolina is the product of a historical misunderstanding of slavery.

The logic goes like this: there weren’t many plantations, so there weren’t many slaves. But there was plenty of wealth to be made on the backs of slaves. Slavery was prevalent on small farms, in hotels, mines, and plants, and even with professionals like lawyers and doctors.

Just because there weren’t as many plantations doesn’t mean there weren’t as many slaves.

But people aren’t just numbers. A good reminder of that is the January 1859 advertisement on the left for “4 LIKELY NEGROES.”

Asheville News, February 10, 1859. A reminder of why reparations are being paid.

It doesn’t take long for someone to mention, though, that Buncombe County’s slavery-related statistics are still historically better that others. That’s true. The U.S. Census of 1800 identified nearly 6,000 residents in Buncombe County. Of that number, just 107 residents owned just 300 slaves. When compared to the hundreds of slaves own by slaveowners in states like South Carolina, the common understanding of slavery is western North Carolina isn’t surprising.

The advertisement below—“Negroes Wanted. We want to buy from 100 to 500 LIKELY NEGROS for whom we will pay the highest cash prices.”—from a month later is a good reminder, too.

Asheville News, February 10, 1859. Newspapers.com
Asheville News, February 10, 1859
Image courtesy Newspapers.com

For decades, it’s been easy to minimize the history of slavery in communities like Asheville’s when comparing it to others. Fortunately, Asheville’s City Council didn’t take the easy way out.

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