Slave-built infrastructure still creates wealth in US, suggesting reparations should cover past harms and current value of slavery

Recognizing that enslaved men, women and children built many of the cities, rail lines and ports that fuel the American economy is a necessary part of any such accounting.

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SOURCEThe Conversation

American cities from Atlanta to New York City still use buildings, roads, ports and rail lines built by enslaved people.

The fact that centuries-old relics of slavery still support the economy of the United States suggests that reparations for slavery would need to go beyond government payments to the ancestors of enslaved people to account for profit-generating, slave-built infrastructure.

Debates about compensating Black Americans for slavery began soon after the Civil War, in the 1860s, with promises of “40 acres and a mule.” A national conversation about reparations has reignited in recent decades. The definition of reparations varies, but most advocates envision it as a two-part reckoning that acknowledges the role slavery played in building the country and directs resources to the communities impacted by slavery.

Through our geographic and urban planning scholarship, we document the contemporary infrastructure created by enslaved Black workers. Our study of what we call the “landscape of race” shows how the globally dominant economy of the United States traces directly back to slavery.

Looking again at railroads

While difficult to calculate, scholars estimate that much of the physical infrastructure built before 1860 in the American South was built with enslaved labor.

Railways were particularly critical infrastructure. According to “The American South,” an in-depth history of the region, railroads “offered solutions to the geographic barriers that segmented the South,” including swamps, mountains and rivers. For inland planters needing to get goods to port, trains were “the elemental precondition to better times.”

Our archival research on Montgomery, Alabama, shows that enslaved workers built and maintained the Montgomery Eufaula Railroad. This 81-mile-long railroad, begun in 1859, connected Montgomery to the Central Georgia Line, which served both Alabama’s fertile cotton-growing region—cotton picked by enslaved hands—and the textile mills of Georgia.

Sepia-toned lithograph of six Black men and women in sunhats and overalls in a cotton field
Picking cotton outside Savannah, Ga., in 1867. Library of Congress

The Eufala Railroad also gave Alabama commercial access to the Port of Savannah. Savannah was a key cotton and rice trading port, and slavery was integral to the growth of the city.

Today, Savannah’s deep-water port remains one of the busiest container ports in the U.S. Among its top exports: cotton.

The Eufala Railroad closed in the 1970s. But the company that funded its construction—Lehman Durr & Co., a prominent Southern cotton brokerage—existed well into the 20th century.

Examining court affidavits and city records located in the Montgomery city archive, we learned the Montgomery Eufaula Railroad Company received US$1.8 million in loans from Lehman Durr & Co. The main backers of Lehman Durr & Co. went on to found Lehman Brothers bank, one of Wall Street’s largest investment banks until it collapsed in 2008, in the U.S. financial crisis.

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Slave-built railroads also gave rise to Georgia’s largest city, Atlanta. In the 1830s, Atlanta was the terminus of a rail line that extended into the Midwest.

Some of these same rail lines still drive Georgia’s economy. According to a 2013 state report, railways that went through Georgia in 2012 carried over US$198 billion in agricultural products and raw materials needed for U.S. industry and manufacturing.

Black and white image of an old train depot
The 1872 Vicksburg & Brunswick Depot, a passenger and freight station in Eufala, served the Eufala and Georgia Central rail lines, among others. Library of Congress

Rethinking reparations

Savannah, Atlanta and Montgomery all show how, far from being an artifact of history, as some critics of reparations suggest, slavery has a tangible presence in the American economy.

And not just in the South. Wall Street, in New York City, is associated with the trading of stocks. But in the 18th century, enslaved people were bought and sold there. Even after New York closed its slave markets, local businesses sold and shipped cotton grown in the slaveholding South.

Black-and-white lithograph of a wide street lined with large buildings
Wall Street around 1850. New York Public Library

Geographic research like ours could inform thinking on monetary reparations by helping to calculate the ongoing financial value of slavery.

Like scholarship drawing the connection between slavery and modern mass incarceration, however, our work also suggests that direct payments to indviduals cannot truly account for the modern legacy of slavery. It points toward a broader concept of reparations that reflects how slavery is built into the American landscape, still generating wealth.

Such reparations might include government investments in aspects of American life where Black people face disparities.

Last year the city council in Asheville, North Carolina, voted for “reparations in the form of community investment.” Priorities could include efforts to increase access to affordable housing and boost minority business ownership. Asheville will also explore strategies to close the racial gap in health care.

It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to calculate the total contemporary economic impact of slavery. But we see recognizing that enslaved men, women and children built many of the cities, rail lines and ports that fuel the American economy as a necessary part of any such accounting.

Joshua F.J. Inwood, Associate Professor of Geography Senior Research Associate in the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State and Anna Livia Brand, Assistant Professor, University of California, Berkeley

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Joshua Inwood is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and a research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute. He recieved his PhD from the Department of Geography at the University of Georgia and before coming to Penn State was a faculty member at the University of Tennessee and Auburn University. Josh is committed to understanding the material conditions of peace and justice and is engaged with these concerns through a variety of research and teaching projects. At its heart, his research seeks to understand the social, political and economic structures that make human lives vulnerable to all manner of exploitations, as well as how oppressed populations use social justice movements to change their material conditions. Most recently he has worked on the movement to address human wrongs through truth and reconciliation commissions, specifically the burgeoning truth movement within the United States. This National Science Foundation funded research has engaged with a truth and reconciliation commission that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina in the late 1990s. Other research projects that he has been involved in connect Civil Rights and labor struggles in the U.S. South following the end of segregation, and the way legacies of racism, violence and social activism continue to frame contemporary anti-racist struggles. Josh contributes to literatures on urban spaces, political geographies, justice and historical and cultural geographies as well as others. Recently Josh was given the Stanely Brunn Young Scholar Award. The award is given to an individual, in honor of contributions that have opened up new areas of inquiry for political geographic research. In 2015 Josh received the Glenda Laws Award for outstanding contributions to geographic research on social justice issues. Anna Livia Brand’s research focuses on the historical development and contemporary planning and landscape design challenges in Black mecca neighborhoods in the American North and South. She is investigating how redevelopment paradigms in the 21st century reflect ongoing racialization and her work interrogates the gendered, racialized and resistant constructions of the built environment over time. Her work on post-Katrina New Orleans examines how racial geographies have been reconstructed after the storm through disciplines like urban planning. Her comparative work on Black mecca neighborhoods traces historical and contemporary productions of racial landscapes and resistance to these constructions in New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago and Washington D.C.. Anna received her PhD in Urban Planning from MIT and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

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