Justice  /  Book Review

A Reckoning With How Slavery Ended

A new book examines the ways white slaveholders were compensated, while formerly enslaved people were not.

In 1955, C. Vann Woodward, the nation’s preeminent historian of the South, published a brief history of Southern segregation that Martin Luther King Jr. would call “the Bible of the civil rights movement.” The Strange Career of Jim Crow, as the book was titled, was intended to counter a common defense of segregation at the time—that it had “always been that way.” By showing that legal segregation emerged only in the 1890s, and only after attempts at interracial democracy during Reconstruction were overthrown, Woodward provided civil rights activists with a usable past: a short but rigorous history that could serve the cause of desegregation.

Kris Manjapra’s brief and important new book, Black Ghost of Empire, fits squarely within the usable past genre. To make the case for reparations in its broadest sense—not just for monetary compensation but also for a genuine repair of the relationship between Black and white people—Manjapra examines not slavery itself but the inequalities that arose during emancipation. Manjapra, an accomplished historian of race and colonialism at Tufts University, argues that wherever one looks, the legal process of emancipation was more or less the same: Slaveholders, not slaves, were given monetary compensation when slaves were freed, and new forms of racial exploitation emerged that only “prolonged and extended the captivity and oppression of black people around the world.” By highlighting the long afterlife of slavery—and the many new forms of racial oppression that emerged in slavery’s wake—Manjapra takes direct aim at the idea that abolishing slavery was enough.

A great strength of this book is its sheer sweep. Manjapra details how emancipation unfolded not only in the Northern United States and then the entire nation but also in Latin America, Haiti, the British empire, and Africa. The gradual emancipation that began at the state level in the U.S. North, he argues, provided the template that other European colonies and states in the Americas would follow. In 1780, Pennsylvania enacted the nation’s first gradual emancipation law, in which slaveowners were compensated not with cash payouts but with the prolonged service of enslaved Black people. Only enslaved children born after the law went into effect were freed, and only after serving for 18 years.