Checking sources to put race in context

July 15, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

The smart money says that Sun readers are smarter than the paper's writers. In last Saturday's column, I challenged Camille Cosby to cite sources to support her charge that our 18th president, U.S. Grant, owned slaves.

Two callers, Bill Larson and Martin McKibbin, called to report that Grant did indeed own slaves. Larson said Grant's wife, Julia Dent of Missouri, owned slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation didn't free her slaves, Larson said, because Missouri was a border state loyal to the Union. (The Emancipation Proclamation "freed" only those slaves in rebellion against the Union and, in essence, liberated no one. It only made official the freedom of those slaves who had flocked to Union lines and were already serving the North as laborers.)

"When his wife visited him in the South, she couldn't take her slaves with her," Larson said.

McKibbin added that Grant worked on his wife's farm "after he was cashiered out of the Army, [so] technically he was a slave-owner for a while."

But I challenged Cosby to provide sources for her information and said she was on shaky ground with her charge. Even with the additional insights of Larson and McKibbin, she still is. Checking sources tends to put things in context. In Cosby's article written for USA Today, she tried to paint as many people as possible with the "white racist" brush. Was she right about Grant? Let's see what kind of slave-owner he was.

The source is historian Gene Smith's "Lee and Grant." It's a Civil War buff's dream: a two-for-one deal that gives biographies of Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. (or Hiram Ulysses) Grant. Yes, Grant did marry a Missouri woman named Julia Dent. Her family owned slaves. On pages 66 and 67 of his book, Smith puts Grant's "slave ownership" in its proper context. That's more than Camille Cosby did. Smith lets readers know what became of Grant after he left the Army.

"Thirty-two years old, with no money and no trade, with a wife and two children, the ex-captain went to St. Louis. At the time of her wedding, Julia's father had given her sixty acres outside the city. Jesse [Grant, U.S.'s father] helped him out with money for seed and implements and animals, and Grant went to farming. He and Julia lived in a house belonging to one of her brothers while, with his father-in-law's promise to put up the money, he planned the building of a home. For ready cash, he cut wood on the acreage as he waited for his oats and vegetables to grow. He charged $4 a cord, cut, delivered and stacked in the shed of St. Louis [for] customers mainly secured because they were friends of Julia's family. He worked the land between making his deliveries, using such slaves of the Dents as he could get to help him. But he was a very poor slave driver and so he came to rely upon freed blacks that he hired on a now-and-then basis when he had the money. It was all very unpleasant. 'Colonel Dent' [Julia's father] was in the best of times a blustering coarse man, and his view of a son-in-law who had to be put to working with slaves in the fields was far from positive."

So according to Smith, the slaves Grant "owned" actually belonged to the Dent family - mainly Julia Dent's father, who Smith indicates was something of a boor. (He refused to lend Grant money for a uniform after U.S. rejoined the Army once the Civil War started, claiming his son-in-law should have joined the Confederate army.)

Grant wasn't so much a slave-owner as an overseer, and a very poor one at that. (Grant was a failure at almost everything he tried in his life.) As an overseer, Grant joined what must have been hundreds of other blacks of that era who were also overseers. See the book "Prince Among Slaves" for how slave-owners preferred African Muslims from the Western Sudan as overseers because they considered them more intelligent than non-Muslim Africans.

Grant obviously realized that folks worked best when they were paid for it. That he thought so even of free black laborers in the Missouri slave state of the late 1850s made him a flaming liberal on the race question.

This week, a gaggle of black journalists appeared on Kojo Nnamdi's public television show broadcast from Howard University. They praised Cosby's USA Today column. They offered not one word to challenge the "Grant as slave-owner" charge. They uttered nary a mumble indicating that poor black mothers who've had their sons murdered (and they're usually murdered by other young black men, not bigoted Russian immigrants) don't get to write about their sorrow and the reasons for their sons' deaths on the pages of USA Today.

It seems Camille Cosby isn't the only one incapable of putting race and violence in America in their proper context.

Pub Date: 7/15/98

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