Nonwhites and Slavery: The Lies Our Teachers Tell Us

Have you read’s entry on Black Slave Owners? The source is Michael Johnson and James Roark’s 1984 Black Masters. See also the history of American Indian Slaveholders. The five “civilized tribes,” the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians, were fully integrated into the capitalist economic system and even assimilated into American settler culture, dressing in European clothing, speaking English, taking up Christianity, and buying and selling black people.

Marie Therese Metoyer was a black woman who owned more than 1,000 acres, with an estimated 287 slaves working the land.

I was never told any of this as a kid growing up or as a man in college—and I have an advanced degrees (including a PhD), so I have have been in a lot of college classrooms. Of course, I knew something about the history. When I have raised the matter with others, slavery practiced by nonwhites is routinely rationalized as a product of the corrupting effects of European colonization. But Africans practiced slavery in Africa before the colonization of Africa. And American Indians tribes held slaves prior to and during European colonization, with the tribes selling other Indians to Europeans (and Africans).

I was, however, told many falsehoods during my childhood, such as the falsehood that the Cherokee’s constitution-based government was the inspiration for the US Constitution only to later learn that it was the other way around. My teachers taught me this at Sequoya Elementary School in Knoxville, Tennessee. I heard this claim elsewhere, as well.

Choctaw chief Greenwood LeFlore owned 15,000 acres of Mississippi land (that’s his Mississippi home) and 400 enslaved Africans. 

Most people I discuss this history with don’t know any of it. Like me, they weren’t taught that black men and women and American Indians owned black people. They were never told that Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves on Indian lands because Indians were recognized as autonomous nations. The freeing of slaves held by Indians occurred later after extensive negotiations with the United States government—the same government that banned the importation of slaves into North America within two decades of America’s founding, sacrificed perhaps as many as a million Americans, mostly white Americans, to end chattel slavery, and abolished Jim Crow segregation.

Why is this history important to talk about? Does this mean that American Indians and Black Americans living today are responsible for what their ancestors did? Of course not. To suggest they are is an exercise in primitive blood guilt, an ethic that only racist authoritarians would claim to be virtuous. By the same modern rational standard of holding living persons responsible for the things they do while they are living and not for the actions of others living or dead, white Americans living today are not responsible for what their ancestors did, either. That’s why this is important.

Yet children are today taught that slavery was a practice established by white Europeans and for this, and for white supremacy, all whites enjoy a privilege and owe a debt to American Indians and black Americans. Children are not taught that Muslims established the world slave trade that Europeans inherited when world hegemonic power shifted to the trans-Atlantic sphere. Children are not taught that Africans captured and sold Africans to merchants from around the world. I had to learn all this on my own. Children are not taught these things so that the narrative portraying white people as “perpetrators” and American Indians and black Americans as “victims” can be sustained. This is what Critical Race Theory teaches, and its logic has become the basis of woke curricula in public schools.

When you stop and think about it, the facts of what children are taught and what is hidden from them blows up the assumption that white supremacy rules the day. Indeed, it blows up the assumption that white supremacy has been a significant force over at least the last half a century. For if this were a white supremacist nation, why would the education system, largely run by whites, defame white people while ignoring the history of American Indian and black American slavery? If this were a republic fueled by Christian nationalism, as we so often hear today, why is the role of Islam in establishing the world trade in Africans ignored or obscured?

Ironically, the bad history taught to our children betrays the lies teachers are telling them. And told us.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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