Infrastructure built by slaves continues to generate massive wealth for state economies
American cities from Atlanta to New York still use buildings, roads, ports, and railroads built by slaves.
The fact that centuries-old remnants of slavery still support the economy of the United States suggests that reparations for slavery should go beyond government payments to ancestors of slaves to account for profit-generating and built infrastructure. by slaves.
Debates over compensating black Americans for slavery began shortly after the Civil War in the 1860s with promises of “40 acres and a mule.” A national conversation about repairs has resumed over the past decades. The definition of reparations varies, but most proponents view it as a two-part calculation that recognizes the role of slavery in building the country and directs resources to communities affected by slavery.
Through our Geographic and Urban Planning Fellowship, we document the contemporary infrastructure created by enslaved black workers. Our study of what we call the “race landscape” shows how the dominant world economy of the United States dates directly back to slavery.
Looking at the railroads again
Although difficult to calculate, researchers estimate that much of the physical infrastructure built before 1860 in the southern United States was built with bonded labor. Railways were particularly critical infrastructures.
According to “The American South,” an in-depth history of the region, the railroads “offered solutions to the geographic barriers that divided the South,” including swamps, mountains and rivers. For the inland planters who had to get their goods to the port, trains were “the basic prerequisite for better times.”
Our archival research for Montgomery, Alabama, shows slave laborers built and maintained the Montgomery Eufaula Railroad. This 81-mile-long railway, started in 1859, connected Montgomery with the Central Georgia Line, which served both the fertile cotton region of Alabama – cotton picked by slaves – and the textile factories of Georgia.
The Eufala Railroad also gave Alabama commercial access to the Port of Savannah. Savannah was a key port for the cotton and rice trade, and slavery was integral to the city’s growth. Today, the deepwater port of Savannah remains one of the busiest container ports in the United States. Among its main exports: cotton. The Eufala Railway closed in the 1970s. But the company that financed its construction – Lehman Durr & Co., a major Southern cotton brokerage – existed well into the 20th century.
By examining court affidavits and city records located in the City of Montgomery Archives, we learned that the Montgomery Eufaula Railroad Company had received $ 1.8 million in loans from Lehman Durr & Co. major backers. Lehman Durr & Co.’s fundraiser founded Lehman Brothers Bank, one of Wall Street’s largest investment banks until it collapsed in 2008 during the US financial crisis.
Slave-built railroads also spawned Georgia’s largest city, Atlanta. In the 1830s, Atlanta was the terminus of a railroad line that extended into the Midwest. Some of these same railway lines are still the engine of the Georgian economy. According to a 2013 state report, the railroads that passed through Georgia in 2012 transported more than US $ 198 billion in agricultural products and raw materials needed for industry and manufacturing in the United States.
Savannah, Atlanta, and Montgomery all show how, far from being an artifact of history, as some repair critics suggest, slavery has a tangible presence in the American economy. And not just in the South. Wall Street in New York is associated with stock trading. But in the 18th century, slaves were bought and sold there.
Even after New York City closed its slave markets, local businesses sold and shipped cotton grown in the slave south. Geographic research like ours could inform thinking about monetary reparations by helping to calculate the current financial value of slavery.
Like scientific research linking slavery to modern mass incarceration, our work also suggests that direct payments to individuals may not really capture the modern legacy of slavery. It points to a broader concept of reparations that reflects how slavery is integrated into the American landscape, always generating wealth.
These reparations could include government investments in aspects of American life where black people face disparities. Last year, the city council of Asheville, North Carolina, voted for “repairs 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 for bridging the racial divide in healthcare.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to calculate the total contemporary economic impact of slavery. But we see recognition that enslaved men, women, and children have built many of the cities, railways, and ports that power the American economy as a necessary part of such accounting.