We’ve all heard of Russian Roulette, but none of us has played it, I hope. But, unfortunately, whether we like it or not, all of U.S. have been playing this other kind of roulette.
It is a game that has big winners and big losers. It is a game of economics or asset building. American white males started the game and eventually American blacks and even the Native Americans got to play. And later, almost as an afterthought, women got to play too.
It is a game not unlike the one played in casinos across the country.
You know the one, where a wheel is spun, a ball is released that bounces around and lands in one slot of the wheel. If the bettor is lucky enough to have his chips in the right slot, he wins big and if he is unlucky enough to have his chips in the wrong slot he loses. Of course, in the casino game, the odds of winning are much higher, 2.63% if you bet the right number and lots of people just bet Red or Black where there is a 47.37% chance of winning.
But in American Roulette, that’s not really an option.
So, here’s how American Roulette has been played throughout history. Land owners owned the casinos. Slave owners had some of the most profitable ones around. Their wealth increased exponentially with slave labor. Others land owners, who had no slaves themselves, came to play. They traded with slave owners, bought their crops and made business deals with them. They may or may not have disapproved of slavery in principle, but they liked how the system worked to create wealth, so for the most part they played along.
And, of course, everyone refused to let slaves play, so slaves never won, and slave owners almost always won BIG.
You know the saying, “The house always wins.” If the house didn’t always win, then the house would go out of business. So, it just makes economic sense. Slavery continued because slavery was profitable. Slavery made slave owners wealthy.
In fact, with American Roulette, many Americans believed that slave owners had an unfair advantage over non-slave owners. So, as our forefathers were figuring out representation and taxation in the federal government, the politicians came up with a compromise. A slave would be legally counted as 3/5 of a person. Politically, it wasn’t a perfect compromise, but at least the slave owners had to pay a little more taxes even if it meant they had a little more pull in the government.
Morally, that’s a whole different story. This country decided (now remember blacks and women were excluded from this decision making process, so we should say, white men decided…) that slaves were not people in the sense that other people were people. They were less human than other people … white men, to be exact. Remember slave owners agreed to this but so did non-slave owners.
Then one day, the powers that be, led by the President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, decided that we shouldn’t be allowed to use people as tokens to play American Roulette any more. Through the Declaration of Independence and the civil war, we were able to finally declare legally that slaves were human beings and must be treated as such.
Great! But now what… The white males in charge didn’t know what to do with the millions of freed slaves. Fortunately, they also had confiscated hundreds of thousands of acres of land from the Confederate states.
So, Lincoln sent his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, to Savannah to meet up with the very successful Major-General, William T. Sherman, to figure it out. “Stanton and Sherman met with 20 men on the evening of Jan. 12. All were ministers or lay leaders from the city’s black churches, and 15 were former slaves. Stanton posed a dozen questions to the group. Asked to draw a distinction between slavery and freedom, 67-year-old Garrison Frazier, a former slave who had been selected to act as spokesman, responded
“Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.” (from the University of Maryland)
What they desired sounds eerily similar to the desire of Martin Luther King Jr. and even the desires of many impoverished African-Americans today: the desire to earn a living wage from their labor, to provide for their own needs and have adequate representation in the government and military to protect their interests for the long term success of African-Americans and the country as a whole.
With great discernment, when asked whether they would prefer to live interspersed amongst whites or to live segregated into all-black communities, Frazier spoke for 19 of the 20 men when he responded:
“I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over.” (from the University of Maryland) Little did he know that the prejudice he feared existed throughout the North as well. Sherman himself showed severe prejudice against the freed slaves and refused to have blacks join his army.
But, seeing an opportunity to resolve Lincoln’s concerns and find a way to get rid of the flocks of freed slaves that were following his army, he issued Special Field Order No. 15 four days after the meeting. This order gave up to 40 acres of confiscated Confederate land per freed slave for them to work until such time as the national government gave them the opportunity to purchase the land.
New communities sprung up quickly and as per the Special Order were completely segregated and self-governed. 40,000 ex-slaves were transplanted on 400,000 acres of redistributed land within six months of the meeting.