Wednesday, June 2, 2021

You Can't Found Legitimacy on Illegitimacy

One of the biggest lies of the current era is the idea that chattel slavery is/was a separate economy from the current one, even as we’re surrounded by buildings and institutions built with slave labor and people holding generational wealth that traces back to the slave trade. If you take profits from illegal activity and funnel it through a legitimate business, it’s called money laundering and it’s a crime because the legitimate business doesn’t change the fact that the source of the investment capital for the business was illegally obtained.

The modern U.S. economy is an attempt to make legitimate the profits of genocide and slavery. We have to constantly avoid discussion of reparations because delving into that topic exposes how the enslavement of Africans and their descendants is the investment capital of the whole system. —Bree Newsome

I've had two separate posts I wanted to write for a while, and this quote from Bree Newsome ties them together to become one.

The first started when I was looking into the history of a fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi. One of my nephews is a member, and I wondered what kind of fraternity it was, so I looked it up. It was started in 1845 at Yale by three young men. Two of them were Southerners, plantation (forced labor camp) owners, one from South Carolina and one from Louisiana.

I haven't yet found much on the Louisiana founder (though his father "helped open the disputed territory of West Florida and made it part of the U.S," according to the Wikipedia), but the South Carolina founder, Louis Manigault, has a big paper trail even on the interweb. He's descended from the wealthiest man in the British North American colonies, and also from the largest trader of enslaved people during the early 18th century.

Louis's papers are collected at Duke University. They contain details on how he and his brother ran their rice labor camp, Gowrie Plantation on Argyle Island,

including instructions to overseers, records of provisions and care of slaves... There is also material reflecting the difficulty of working the plantations after the Civil War, particularly troubles with free labor. ... Civil War letters pertain to... the discipline of slaves. Three of the volumes in the collection relate to Louis Manigault's management of Gowrie plantation.

Here's a bit of information on what life was like for enslaved people at Gowrie Plantation under Louis's father's management and early in the time Louis was managing it (he began in 1850, not long after he left Yale).

I note that Omarosa, of Donald Trump fame, has the last name Manigault. I don't know if it's a common name otherwise, but it made me wonder if her family is descended from people enslaved by Louis's family.

The white Manigault family of today appears to have kept its wealth after the 19th century. Descendants are still prominent in Charleston and one of them owns the daily newspaper there (since 1896). The Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity survives with 179 active chapters, having built social capital for thousands of men (almost all white men, we can bet) in the 176 years since its founding.

The other post I've been meaning to write is about land grant universities, which I always thought were one of the few unassailable goods in this country. This extensive report from High Country News makes it clear that assumption is not true.

Like many land grant universities, the University of Minnesota has a building called Morrill Hall. Guess where the land that was "granted" in the 1862 Morrill Act came from? That's why HCN dubbed their story "Land-Grab Universities." Unfortunately, their story was published just as COVID was sweeping the country in late March 2020, so it didn't get the attention it deserved.

In their thorough research, HCN found that 10.7 million acres were taken from 250 tribes, bands, or communities in 160 land cessions that used or implied violence. That land was turned into college endowments, which remain on the universities' books today. And 12 states still have the actual land in their possession, including mineral rights that are producing current revenue.

In total, the U.S. paid $400,000 for all of the land, though a quarter of it was taken for nothing. How did that relatively modest amount of money pay off? Even by the early 20th century, the "land grants" had created $17.7 million for the universities' endowments. HCN estimates that, adjusted for inflation, the land was worth half a billion dollars when it was taken at that low price.

Chances are you have heard land acknowledgements recited at many of these universities, formal statements that recognize the Indigenous peoples who formerly possessed the lands those colleges now stand on. What many of these statements miss is that land-grant universities were built not just *on* Indigenous land, but *with* Indigenous land. It’s a common misconception, for instance, that the Morrill Act grants were used only for campuses. In fact, the grants were as big or bigger than major cities, and were often located hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their beneficiaries.

In Minnesota, land taken in the coerced 1851 Dakota Cession was appraised at $5–10 an acre, though the Dakota were paid less than 2.4¢ per acre. Some of it was assigned to the University of Minnesota in 1868, and it was money from this sale that brought the University back to life after it closed because of debt during the Civil War:

For every dollar the United States claims to have spent to purchase Dakota title, the Morrill Act heaped $250 into the University of Minnesota’s coffers — a return of 250 to 1. As a result of exile and war, many Dakota live today in communities in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Montana and Minnesota. In fiscal year 2019, the University of Minnesota’s endowment was valued at $2.5 billion.

And it wasn't just the University of Minnesota that benefited from that Dakota land:

No other Indigenous cession provided land to more universities. Nearly 830,000 acres from this treaty — an area almost three times the size of Los Angeles — would help fund the endowment of 35 land-grant universities. Mni Sota Makoce furnished one out of every 13 acres redistributed under the Morrill Act.

The other thing that stuck out for me in the HCN report was how much Cornell University benefited. While some other universities came close in how much acreage they got (Penn State, Ohio State), Cornell made by far the most money, the majority of it from land in the San Joaquin Valley in California.

So when any of us thinks of all the things that land grab universities have accomplished, the "economic engines" they have been in our states, we have to remember that they are built on this. They would not be what they are without this. The University of Minnesota, for instance, might not exist, and definitely would not have existed for as long and in the same form, if it hadn't had that money.

Meanwhile, we have elected representatives in our state — and in control of our State Senate — who won't even have a conversation about using the Dakota word for the name of the confluence between the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers on a building. Or about removing a painting at the State Capitol that commemorates the signing of the 1851 coerced treaty that took all that land away from the Dakota.

Yet this and the forced labor and torture of slavery are the sine qua nons of this country — wealth built through enslavement and stolen land. So forces of the Right are in a pitched battle to deny that neither one is true, or if true in some small way, that they have no real significance compared to what they think is the much larger story of white male ingenuity and individual bootstrapism. 

The rest of us need to keep telling the stories, as HCN did, and amplifying other people who tell them from their own experience. And vote the people out who deny them.

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