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THE FOUNDING OF THIS country is burdened by two original sins, both racial. In writing about the unquestioned fact that slaveholders fathered children on slave women, Jonetta Rose Barras (“Color Blind,” 1/27) had to generalize for the sake of brevity. But it needs to be said that not every African-American of mixed ancestry is descended from a slaveholder. Anyone who looks at newspapers and court records of the era can confirm that there were also white women who had children by slaves. In doing so, they offended against the racist philosophy of slavery, and paid the penalty.
They also cheated the slaveowner out of some of the returns he expected on his investment. Slavery operated by law, and by law the condition of the mother determined the condition of the child; a child born to a slave woman was born into slavery even if the father was free, or white, or both; but a child born to a free woman, black or white, was free, even if the father was a slave. When a free-born white woman permitted a slave to see his children born free, theslaveowner imagined himself to have been robbed.
That white women had children by slaves is proven by the fact that laws were enacted to prevent it. In 1664, Maryland passed a law that reduced to slavery any white woman who consorted with a slave. To the horror of the legislators who were trying to stop the blending of the races, the law had the unintended effect of accelerating it; slaveowners were encouraging their slaves to marry white women, who then became slaves themselves. Maryland repealed the law in 1681.
Some African-Americans were then able to go to court, show that they were descended from a free white woman, and win their freedom. By this means, in Maryland alone, the Rounds, Thomas, Shorter, Savoy, Proctor, Harmon, Fletcher, Hollands, Days, and Butler families escaped from slavery. Having been free for generations when slavery was abolished, they were indeed set apart from the majority of African-Americans, for the reasons outlined by Barras in her article. The original sins of this country show their effects to this day.