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Like most of us, I’ve got a car. It’s a blue Saturn SL2 that cost me about $12,000 when I bought it. A lot of times, I look at it and wonder: Should I keep it or unload for whatever I can get? It is after all my personal property. I’ve got the papers to prove it, and I can do whatever I want to.
I’m thinking about personal property, like my car, because I’ve been thinking about my great-great-grandfather. You see, he wasn’t legally a person. He was personal property.
His name was Dick. He belonged to Edward Scruggs, a plantation owner who died in 1850 without a will. His probate filing listed his belongings: 11 plows, five bushels of wheat, 200 barrels of corn, 4,000 pounds of bacon. And several families of “negroes.” There, at the bottom of the estate inventory, I found my great-great-grandfather with his mother and siblings.
The court created a trust fund for Edward Scruggs’ youngest children. My great-great-grandfather was placed in that trust; he was valued at $550.
Today, he’d be worth about $12,000 — the price I paid for my car.
Sometimes I wonder: did Edward Scruggs treat my great-great-grandfather the way I treat my car? Did he cut back food rations to save money — the way I only buy a half-tank of gas? Did he put off fixing slave cabins — the way I put off buying new tires? Did he figure how long he could keep his slaves in the fields — the way I figure whether I can get another 10,000 miles from a 10-year-old car?
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. The Scruggs slaves could have slept on featherbeds, eaten their fill and dressed in silk. Their lives still would have been abhorrent.
The shame in slavery was not how folks like my great-great-grandfather were treated, it was in what they were.
They were commodities to be bought and sold, taxed and assessed. They walked and talked, lived and loved, but they were property nevertheless. Personal property.
Like my car.
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