25 May Are You a Descendant of the Sessions Family Slave?
The case for reparations is often made with the argument that governments and institutions owe African-Americans a collective debt for the enslavement and sale of their family members and the injustices black people still face every day because of this history. Suggested avenues for reparations include free education, covering living costs, personal reparations, and an acknowledgment of the U.S. government. Ta-Nehisi Coates argues for “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” in “The Case for Reparations”.
The History of Reparations
There is also the question about personally compensating the descendants of slaves for the abuses and crimes committed by whites during the slavery and segregation periods. In “Estimating Slavery Reparations: Present Value Comparisons of Historical Multigenerational Reparations Policies” Thomas Craemer, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut, put the value of all unpaid slave labor at 5.9 trillion based on estimated calculations of U.S. slave labor in the 89 years from the country’s founding until the end of the Civil War, assuming an average of 12 hours of work a day, seven days a week, wages at the time, and a 3% interest rate. Compensating the descendants of slaves on this scale would require a massive redistribution of resources and wealth in U.S. society. Such a concept of redistribution originates with the promise of 40 acres and a mule from General William Tecumseh Sherman, Special Field Orders No. 15. Sherman ordered the confiscation of 400,000 acres of land from Confederates in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and planned to divide the land into parcels of not more than 40 acres and then distribute this land to at least 18,000 freed slaves families living in the area. Sherman’s plan didn’t involve the same level of compensation as Cramer’s plan. But, even this plan didn’t take effect and the order was revoked by President Andrew Johnson. Likewise, most land that had been confiscated by the Union army was eventually returned to the original white southern owners.
Any form of government reparations would be an improvement in state treatment of Black people, but simple government reparations miss the aspect of personal acknowledgment and debt owed by the people that owned slaves. As a white person from the south, 150 years later, I still hear arguments that slavery was not wrong because, “that’s what was normal,” which signifies that slavery is still seen through rose-colored glasses.
The main argument against southern landowners paying reparations is that the Civil War and reconstruction destroyed the southern economy so much that these landowners would be unable to pay. During the War and Reconstruction, many wealthy southern landowners had their plantations destroyed by the Union Army and by the economic restrictions caused by the destruction of railroads and Atlantic blockade. They also lost their fortunes to the high federal taxes imposed during Reconstruction. This means that their descendants might not be in a position to pay personal reparations. Such former slave-owning families simply wouldn’t have the money. But what about the families of slave owners that could repay at least the monetary debt? Don’t the descendants of these slave owners, who reaped immeasurable benefits from the forced labor of their slaves owe the descendants of their slaves?
Reparations should not only be an acknowledgment and refund for unpaid work by the government. It should also be a conscious decision and monetary repayment by the descendants of white southern slaveholders to acknowledge the hardly believable harm endured by their ancestor’s slaves.
However, a prime example of a white southerner who both has the ability to pay, and owes his place in society to his family’s exploitation of Black slaves is Jeff Sessions.
What does Jeff Sessions owe the descendants of his family’s slaves?
One of the arguments that come up is that Southern families lost their money during and after the Civil War, and therefore do not have the funds to give personal reparations in this capacity. However, that is not true for all southerners. Jeff Sessions has a net worth of $7.5 million which is 20x wealthier than the average Alabaman with a net worth of 369,767. He was a Senator for 20 years, has outside income from oil leases, and could surely double his net worth after he retires as attorney general, consults in the private sector, earns money as a lobbyist, and gets a book deal from his time in the Trump administration. This also doesn’t count any investments he made in the 20 years Sessions was in Congress. Isn’t Sessions in a position to pay his reparations debt?
What Do We Know About the Sessions Family?
If we go back 6 generations, the Sessions family patriarch was John Sessions, born in 1780 in Charleston, South Carolina. He had three children- Martha Sessions, John. B Sessions (Jeff Sessions’ Great-Great-Grandfather), and William Jerrod Sessions. The Sessions patriarch was well educated, as evidenced by the quality of his beautifully even and loopy handwriting below.
By 1810, the entire Sessions family had migrated to southwestern Alabama for the cotton boom, specifically to the Wilcox, Lowdnes, and Monroe County border, and they stayed in that area for the next 150 years. John Sessions died in Lowndes County, while his son John B. Sessions lived in Wilcox County and died in Monroe County. The son of John B. Sessions, Johnathan James Sessions fathered Jefferson Beauregard the 1st in Monroe County (Jefferson Beauregard the 1st was Jeff Sessions Grandfather and Jefferson Beauregard the 1st died in Wilcox County where Jeff Sessions went to high school.)
By 1830, John Sessions was living in Lowndes, Alabama with 8 family members and 7 slaves. While the deed for the sale of the slaves has been lost, the average price of a slave in 1830 was around $250 or $6,345.41in today’s money. It is possible that the oldest female and oldest male made up a family unit. All slaves that were owned were listed on the 1830 census. John Sessions owned 1 male between 10 – 23, 1 male between 24-35, 3 females under the age of 10, and 2 between the age of 24-35. When John Sessions died in 1835, he split his slaves among his children and John B. Sessions received the oldest male slave who was recorded as still living in 1850. This isolated the oldest male slave from his peers and possibly his family.
It seems the Sessions family lost out in the “cotton rush” of the 1830s because John B. Sessions was never able to replicate the wealth or educational status of his father, as evidenced in the quality of his handwriting sample below. John B. Sessions’ handwriting has fewer even lines and is a mix of half cursive/half short-hand in his signature, showing that his education wasn’t as intensive or probably as long as his father’s.
The plantation class that owned 50 slaves or more was a small elite. “Antebellum North Carolina” points out that “28% of the population owned slaves, but only 3% of these slave-holding whites would have been considered in the planter class.” This planter class then came close to extinction after the economic destruction of the Civil War, loss of land, and loss of their slaves (which brought in 141,000 worth of labor per slave in 1860). The larger plantations kept better records of their slaves and of themselves, but it is clear that John and John. B Sessions were not part of the planter class in Wilcox County.
In 1820, John B. Sessions bought 39.81 acres in Wilcox County next to his brother William Sessions. By 1850, the farm was worth 5,000 or $150,518.92 in 2017 dollars. He owned 1 horse, 1 ox, 3 milk cows, 5 other cows, and 35 pigs. The farm produced 150 bales of corn, 40 bales of ginned cotton, 100 bushels of sweet potatoes and 50 pounds of butter. Because of the amount of work all this production entailed and the fact that John B. only owed one slave, the slave probably worked alongside the family in the fields. John B. died in 1857 just before the Civil War started and the trail of the John B. Sessions’ family slave is lost.
What is the case for reparations with the Sessions family to the descendants of the slave that John B. Sessions owned?
Descendants of slaves are also owned for the basic economic transactions of purchase, ownership, and labor produced by the 7 slaves owned by John Sessions, and the acquired ownership and labor of the male slave owned by John B. Sessions. Ideally, the descendants of the slave of John B. should be repaid the $6,345.41 for the price for which the slave was purchased, the unpaid servitude for at least 60 years, the emotionally cost of separation of the family members at the death of John Sessions in 1835, and the free labor on the 39-acre farm.
60 years (1790 to 1850) no death record exists
X 358 days per year (slaves were traditionally allowed the time between Christmas and New Year’s off.)
X 12 hours of work per day (at minimum)
X $7.25 per hour (minimum wage in Alabama) I used a modern minimum wage calculation because this is a modern issue and to take out compounding interest.
+$6,345.41 for the price of sale
= $1.94 million in reparations that should either go to federal reparations fund through his taxes. Then this money would be sent to the descendants of his family slave.
How much does Jeff Sessions owe for the one male slave John Sessions gave to John. B. Sessions in his will?
Thus, if your family is descended from the slave of John B. Sessions that is an estimate of how much Jeff Sessions owes for the unpaid labor of your ancestor… 25% of his total wealth.
The $1.9 million doesn’t account for Jeff Sessions’ multi-decade personal fight to withhold all rights from black people. It doesn’t account for his support of alt-right nationalist groups who continue to terrorize black people. In many ways, the continued terrorism against the black community that he supports means he will never be able to fully repay his debt to the descendants of his family slave. But he owes them anyway. Jeff Sessions has a net worth of $7.5 million and has the ability to pay descendants of the slave of his great-grandfather full reparations. While there are no public records of the names of his family’s slaves. Sessions may hold family documents that allow him to find the families, at which point he would put his 1.9 million into this reparations fund. Jeff Sessions is a prime example of how reparations should be addressed and the best payment Jeff Sessions could give is to stop his assault on black lives and contribute 25% of his total wealth to the descendants of his family’s slave, or to a reparations pool that would help support the black lives he has fought so hard to repress. If you are descended from the slave of Jeff Session’s ancestor, you should get a check of around $2 million dollars from the federal government in Jeff Sessions’ name.
How should reparations work?
The process should be “from each according to their ability.” We already know that not all slave owner descendants could give personal reparations. So all personal reparations should be taken in the form of a progressive tax on the descendants of slaveholders that goes into a federal reparations fund. Individual reparations from the descendants of southern slave-holders should come from a federal progressive individual reparations tax of 25% with a compounding interest based on how many slaves were owned. This tax would go into a federal reparations fund to pay each slave descendant $2 million for the labor of their ancestors from the white descendants of slave owners over the course of 150 years (based on how long Haitian reparations took to distribute). Descendants of slaveholders can be matched to their ancestors through the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules which show each head of the family and how many slaves they owned. Michael A. Gomez, a professor of history at New York University claims in Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, that most Black people in America are descended from slaves. To make it simple, there were 30 million Black people in 2010 and they should each receive $2 million in reparations.
An additional problem is that slavery wasn’t just a transaction of labor, as can be seen through numerous slave accounts that detail the constant fear and terror slaves experienced as part of their daily lives. Solomon Northup in his memoir 12 Years a Slave recalls:
“The number of lashes is graduated according to the nature of the case. Twenty-five are deemed a mere brush, inflicted, for instance, when a dry leaf or piece of boll is found in the cotton, or when a branch is broken in the field; fifty is the ordinary penalty following all delinquencies of the next higher grade; one hundred is called severe: it is the punishment inflicted for the serious offence of standing idle in the field; from one hundred and fifty to two hundred is bestowed upon him who quarrels with his cabin-mates, and five hundred, well laid on, besides the mangling of the dogs, perhaps, is certain to consign the poor, unpitied runaway to weeks of pain and agony.
Ten years I toiled for that man without reward. Ten years of my incessant labor has contributed to increase the bulk of his possessions. Ten years I was compelled to address him with down-cast eyes and uncovered head—in the attitude and language of a slave. I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes.”
In no way does the $2 million white descendants would owe to the descendants of his family’s slave account for terror, assault, sexual assault, starvation, malnutrition, genocide, withholding education, the wealth gap, institutional brutality, police brutality, Jim Crow, theft of Black-owned land, or, lack of personal and economic rights that the slave John B. owned and his descendants endured. It also doesn’t account for the psychological stress and trauma of slavery. Nell Painter, Professor of American History at Princeton University describes some of this trauma in Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present:
“Slaves were described as stutterers, as people who always looked down, who seemed depressed, who drank liquor excessively, who alternated between periods of withdrawal and outbursts of fierce, uncontrollable rage.
Some slaves suffered from what is now termed post-traumatic stress syndrome, and some inflicted their pain on their kin. But every slave was vulnerable psychologically, and every slave was at risk for falling victim to psychological trauma.”
To make up for the “pain, suffering, and trauma” of slavery, Black people should be given another reparations payment. This would be on a “per diem” basis, compensating every descendant for trauma on all the days that the slave worked. This would give each descendant another $2 million (paid out over the same 20 years) for all the days worked in pain and suffering. This would come from another progressive federal tax of 12.5% placed on white people not descended from slave owners to account for white domination after 1865, and the other 12.5% to come directly from the federal government.
However, in the current surge of white racial propaganda, it is unlikely that people or southerners would be willing to support this effort to make up for what reconstruction could not. The main way around this is a state or federal tax or a quota to make sure that descendants of slave owners either gives personal reparations to the descendants of their family’s slaves or contributes to a reparations pool if they don’t meet the income threshold.
Individual Reparations and History
Obviously, lots of denial and bullshit are still floating in the white ether. In “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America” Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, an author, and professor of sociology at Georgetown University makes the fundamental point that there should be an acknowledgment of historical responsibility by white people. He suggests that white people should keep an individual reparations account (I.R.A) to keep track of personal reparations they have made to Black people on a local and personal level. Examples of personal reparations include making contributions to your (I.R.A) through local donations to places like the United Negro College Fund, supporting scholarships for African-American students, and “paying the Black person who cuts your grass double what you might ordinarily pay.” However, while white people as a whole need to acknowledge the white privilege and guilt that gives us an exclusive leg up in everything we do, it’s not just “white people” as a whole who need to repay this collective debt it’s white southerners whose ancestors owned slaves. Many of these descendants still participate in the southern landowning oligarchy and still feel the economic benefit their families received.
To really grapple with the extent to which we as white people are entrenched in this system we must look back to what our families did and while many of us do not have the net worth of Jeff Sessions, we can have an understanding of what we owe. Reparations cannot be fully completed without government reparations, but they also cannot be given fully without the participation and great reckoning of white America. An individual reparations account is a start, but we need to think of it more as a tax. With taxes, we connect them to education and roads, but with reparations, we need to connect them to personal history.