To this point my review of Joel McDurmon’s new book on slavery has avoided the particular allegations that McDurmon makes against American slave owners. My critique has been restricted to what McDurmon says about slavery in general and his egalitarian sentiments, both of which have little to do with the Bible. The reason I wanted to address these first is because much of McDurmon’s book is about alleged atrocities committed by white Christians against blacks throughout American history. One could theoretically agree with all of McDurmon’s accusations against whites and still disagree with him on fundamental issues of equality and the justice of slavery in general. We could just as easily conclude that if whites are as evil and rapacious as McDurmon makes them out to be, then the solution is to repatriate blacks back to Africa with substantial compensation for the abuse that they have suffered so that they will be safely beyond the reach of hostile whites. McDurmon’s accusations don’t necessitate that anyone reject ethnonationalism or Kinism.
McDurmon’s accusations are indeed severe – so severe, in fact, that it would seem to lend credence to leftist rhetoric about the cruel nature of Christian morality. Leftists are eager to portray Christians as backward and reprehensible, and it would seem that this was indeed the case if white Christians in America really were as evil as McDurmon suggests. Is this true? Were white Christians really sadistic monsters who routinely raped, bred, beat, and even wantonly killed their slaves? There are a number of problems with McDurmon’s arguments that he uses to present his case. McDurmon relies heavily on anecdotal evidence from which it is nearly impossible to draw general conclusions. No one questions that abuses and even atrocities occurred, especially with regard to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Virtually all Southern apologists admit as much. This includes R.L. Dabney, whom McDurmon quotes to this effect. When crimes or atrocities against blacks or slaves did occur, they deserve and receive our unequivocal condemnation. The question is the extent to which such crimes or atrocities were systemic in nature, and anecdotal evidence is not sufficient to prove that white crime against blacks was indeed widespread.
McDurmon’s Use of Sources
Before we examine the specific claims that McDurmon makes about American slavery, there are a few comments that need to be made about McDurmon’s use of sources. McDurmon makes frequent use of the works of modern academic liberals. For example, he frequently employs the work of Marxist historian Eric Foner of Columbia University on the topic of the Reconstruction period. McDurmon holds Foner’s Reconstruction in particularly high regard, calling it “the most widely recognized single work on the larger political, as well as social, history of Reconstruction.”1 Eric Foner relies heavily upon the work of W.E.B. DuBois, who wrote Black Reconstruction in America in 1935. DuBois was an explicit adherent of communism, and Foner was described by Murray Rothbard (an actual libertarian, in contrast to McDurmon’s anarcho-Marxism) as a “Marxist-Leninist historian at Columbia University and the country’s most famous Marxist-Leninist historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Foner, as might be gathered, is fanatically anti-South and a vicious smearer of the Southern Cause.”
The same can be said for many of the other academics to which McDurmon makes reference. Throughout the book McDurmon alludes to several anecdotes that purportedly demonstrate the evil character of white slave-owners and whites in general. These anecdotes are often sourced to a modern academic work without the original primary source material being provided. This makes verifying McDurmon’s particular claims especially difficult unless one is willing to read all of the books that McDurmon read in order to track down the original source material.2
Particularly problematic is McDurmon’s selective and clearly biased usage of slave testimonies taken from 1936-1938 by the Works Progress Administration as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. These accounts, over 2,300 in number, were compiled and published by George P. Rawick under the title The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, which is published by Greenwood Press. These interviews contain overwhelmingly positive recollections of these former slaves toward their former masters and their families. McDurmon is aware of this and dedicates an appendix to addressing this at the end of his book.
McDurmon writes, “While some defenders of the Old South relish some of the material because it portrays slave life in a positive light, there are several reasons to treat such material with suspicion or caution…Defenders of the Old South appreciate a limited review of them because many do give the impression that slave life was benign and even somewhat pleasant, and slave owners benevolent, kind, and looking out for the best interest of the slaves.”3 McDurmon rehashes many of the talking points of John Blassingame in his article “Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves.”4 The reasons that McDurmon lists include the lack of black interviewers, the general mistrust of blacks for whites, the age and prospective memory loss of the slaves being interviewed, white lynching of blacks as a cause of fear among blacks of white retaliation, and earlier accounts that were published that were not positive in nature.
Blassingame’s comments aren’t without merit. There are issues with any collection of verbal testimony with bias, sample size, and sample selection. However, I doubt that McDurmon or Blassingame by extension has given any reason to seriously doubt the accuracy of this collection of narratives. Blassingame offers the example of Solomon Northrup, who wrote his own narrative account prior to being interviewed by the WPA. Both accounts are negative, but the earlier one is more detailed. Northrup doesn’t seem to have been fearful in relating negative experiences to his interviewers. There are enough negative experiences recorded in the WPA interviews to suggest that those who were interviewed were honest in their recollections to the best of their abilities.
McDurmon attempts to cast aspersion on the WPA interviews because of their generally positive nature in his appendix, but on other occasions throughout the book McDurmon uses them freely…only when they are negative. In fact, McDurmon praises the WPA interviews earlier in the book because they testify of cases of white-on-black rape: “What historical evidence do we have, then, of white men raping black slaves? We have slave narratives…a large batch of interviews of aged former slaves (over 2,300 first-hand accounts) compiled by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, and countless sporadic records. All of these are of greater or lesser value depending on their veracity.”5
The last sentence is unintentionally hilarious. The value of records varies depending upon how accurate they are? You…don’t…say! When the WPA interviews reveal possible instances of rape, they are praised as a “large batch” of “first-hand accounts” and numbered at their full 2,300, but later they are disparaged because these same firsthand accounts don’t paint the picture that McDurmon desires. One of the interviews that McDurmon references is of a former slave named Mary Armstrong who was living in Texas. In her interview, Armstrong describes witnessing her infant sister being beaten to death by her white mistress. “Former Texas slave Mary Armstrong recounted the height of such cruelties: when her nine-month-old sister persistently cried, as babies do, the mistress snapped and whipped the infant like any other slave, on the bare buttocks, ‘till the blood just ran . . . and it kilt my sister.’”6
McDurmon read this account in two contemporary sources,7 but the whole interview is available to read online.8 Reading the whole account of Armstrong’s experiences with William and Polly Cleveland reveals some oddities that could be attributed to failed memory in what Armstrong reported. Armstrong states that her sister who “old Polly devil killed” was born when “I was ‘bout four year old.” Later Mary Armstrong is about ten years old when she is bought by her owners’ daughter Olivia after she marries a kind man named Mr. Will Adams. Olivia treats Mary very well and protects Mary from her mother, who she says would try to beat her when she visited Olivia.9
One day old Polly devil come to where Mis’ Olivia lived after she got married, an’ tried to give me a lick out in the yard, an’ I picked up a rock ‘bout as big as half your fist an’ hit her right in the eye an’ busted the eyeball an’ told her that was for whippin’ my baby sister to death. You could hear her holler for five miles, but Mis’ Olivia when I told her, say, ‘Well, I guess mamma has learnt her lesson at last.’ But she was mean like old Cleveland ‘til she die, an’ I hopes they is burnin’ in torment now.
This is all very bizarre. It’s certainly plausible that the Clevelands were excessively cruel, but it strains credulity to believe that Mary Armstrong permanently maimed her former mistress and the only response that her mistress’s daughter Olivia has to this amounts to consoling Mary by telling her that her mother finally had learned her lesson! Mary’s experiences with the Clevelands occurred when she was very young. Armstrong was 91 years old when she was interviewed, so it’s entirely possible that she is misremembering what she said took place so long ago. Earlier Armstrong describes Wm. Cleveland rubbing salt and pepper on whipped slaves based upon what “mamma has tole me.” At the end of the interview Mary states, “But Law me, so much has gone out of my mind years ‘cause I’se 91 years old now an’ my mind jes’ like my legs,-jes’ kinda hobble ‘round a bit.”
Mary’s sister may have died for reasons that she didn’t understand. While Mary may have accurately remembered Polly Cleveland as a mean woman, it also seems likely that Mary, as a four-year-old girl, mistakenly blamed her sister’s death on her mean mistress. Her encounter with Polly years later is also suspect. It’s impossible to imagine Mary permanently injuring Mrs. Cleveland without any consequences at all, even with a kind mistress like Olivia.
The entire narrative is repetitive, with Mary referring back to earlier events on multiple occasions. The simplest explanation for this is that Mary Armstrong is innocently misremembering certain details about her early life in her old age. She likely remembered that the Clevelands were mean and that their daughter Olivia was kind, but the specific recollections about her sister’s death and her later retaliation are almost certainly inaccurate. It’s likely that McDurmon never read about these additional details because he probably didn’t read the whole interview, just the parts that were recorded in the books that he read.
One final example of McDurmon’s use of dubious sources is noteworthy. McDurmon argues for widespread white violence against blacks in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, in which notorious “black codes” enabled governments and law enforcement to abuse black communities. McDurmon writes, “The famous Memphis Riots in 1866 were sparked in part when free blacks who had formerly joined the ranks of the war clashed with Irish immigrants who comprised the local police force. When the freed black soldiers patrolled and protected their own community, the white officers received it as an offense and retaliated by arresting and abusing them for petty charges. Eventually, the affronts grew into mutual hostility and ended in a tragedy that left hundreds of mainly blacks dead or injured, robbed, and even raped. Scores of black homes and some churches were burned as well.”10
McDurmon cites a master’s thesis by Beverly Elizabeth Forehand.11 McDurmon recognizes that as a master’s thesis, “such a paper would normally not be recognized as an authority for purposes such as ours,” but not to worry, “as Master’s theses go, this one rose to All-Star level. . . . The scope of the work, devoted as it is to a narrow and neglected topic, and particularly its unprecedented nature at the time it was written, make it almost indispensable.” Sounds impressive, but immediately after this McDurmon offers this criticism of this “All-Star” thesis:
Its shortcomings appear in being highly repetitive, routinely lacking in primary source quotations for key claims, and often poorly written. The last charge refers to numerous paragraphs which do not follow their own thesis sentence, and some which lack general coherence altogether. The first charge becomes apparent about midway through the second chapter, which could have probably been shortened by half by editing this annoyance. The lack of primary sources besets the whole of chapter two, although in the instances in which the author checked the secondary sources cited, they both checked out and contained the type of primary references one would have hoped to have seen also in the thesis.12
Aside from the problems with McDurmon’s source, the specific claims of white people committing mass rape and murder during the Memphis riot in 1866 are ultimately traceable back to the report of the Freedmen’s Bureau that was issued in response to the violence that took place. The problem is that the Freedman’s Bureau was a notoriously corrupt institution. Even mainstream academics admit that the Freedmen’s Bureau “was riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and charges of misappropriation of funds. The agency also became the pawn of the corrupt Radical Republican government and was used to help maintain Republican control of the states occupied by federal troops.”
Bureau agents typically used their funding as a means for lining their pockets while keeping up the appearance of being helpful.13 This particular report undermined the administration of Andrew Johnson and swept radical Republicans into Congress in the midterm elections of 1866. These radicals then leveraged their political clout to initiate Reconstruction. The result was years of inept and thoroughly corrupt government. The Freedmen’s Bureau would finally be disbanded in 1872, and Reconstruction itself would end with the settlement of the presidential election of 1876. Given the history of corruption within the Bureau and their radical Republican sponsors, as well as the obvious motive for distorting the facts to further their political agenda, it behooves everyone to read this report with a heavy dose of skepticism. If that isn’t enough, it’s worth noting that Memphis newspapers were aware of the charges that were leveled against their city and vehemently denied all of them.
These are the reasons that readers ought to be skeptical about the specific claims made by McDurmon. His sources are almost exclusively from leftist academics that despise Christianity and biblical law. The next several articles will be dedicated to responding to the specific claims made by McDurmon throughout his book.
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 5258-5259). American Vision Press. Kindle Edition. Referring to Foner, Eric, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988). ↩
- This is the same problem that Thorin Reynolds addressed in his response to Anthony Bradley’s attack on Doug Wilson. ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 9712-9714, 9721-9723). American Vision Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- John W. Blassingame, “Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems,” The Journal of Southern History 41, No. 4 (November, 1975). The article can be read here if you register with JSTOR. ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 8836-8839). American Vision Press. Kindle Edition. Emphasis is mine. ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 8920-8922). American Vision Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Catherine Clinton, “Caught in the Web of the Big House: Women in Slavery,” in Walter J Fraser, Jr., et al., The Web of Southern Social Relations: Women, Family, and Education (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1985), 31 and Jeffrey Brooke Allen, “The Racial Thought of White North Carolina Opponents of Slavery, 1789–1876,” The North Carolina Historical Review 59, No. 1 (January, 1982): 55-56. ↩
- The account is also published here. ↩
- Interestingly enough, Mary Armstrong reveals that her second owners, Will and Olivia Adams, treated her with great kindness. Mary describes being freed at age 17 in 1863, and telling her former owners that she planned on moving to Texas to try to find her mother. Her former master and mistress furnish her with the appropriate documents to indicate that she is a free woman, and Olivia tearfully sends her off with so much food and clothing that she scarcely manage to carry everything with her. ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 4729-4734). American Vision Press. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Beverly Elizabeth Forehand, Striking Resemblance: Kentucky, Tennessee, Black Codes and Readjustment, 1865—1866 (M.A. Thesis, Western Kentucky University, 1996), 12-13, 36-46, 70-73. ↩
- McDurmon, Joel. The Problem of Slavery in Christian America (Kindle Locations 5377-5391). American Vision Press. Kindle Edition. Emphasis is mine. ↩
- This is a microcosm of virtually all federal government spending today. In addition to being corrupt, the Freedmen’s Bureau was also simply incompetent. ↩