Money  /  Narrative

An Enslaved Alabama Family and the Question of Generational Wealth in the US

Wealthy planter Samuel Townshend wanted to leave this estate to his children when he died—an ordinary enough wish. The trouble was: his children were enslaved.

Like countless white men across the antebellum South, the unmarried cotton planter Samuel and his brother Edmund both fathered children with enslaved women they owned on their vast plantations. In his will, Samuel wrote that he wanted his sons and daughters to be treated exactly as though they were “white children,” giving them their freedom and an immense inheritance when he died. That was easier said than done. Because the law of slavery in the United States declared all children of enslaved women to be slaves themselves, Samuel’s five sons, four daughters, and two nieces were legally his property, and property wasn’t supposed to inherit.

The attorney Samuel hired, however, did the nearly impossible, and in 1860—four years and two lawsuits after Samuel’s death in 1856—the old planter’s will was declared valid, making the Townsend children their enslaver’s rightful heirs. Over the following decades, the Townsends would traverse the country, searching for communities where they could exercise their newfound freedom and wealth to the fullest. Through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow, the Townsends’ money and mixed-race ancestry granted them opportunities unavailable to most other freedpeople. Disbursements from Samuel’s estate allowed the younger Townsends, both boys and girls, to attend Wilberforce University in southern Ohio; after fighting for the Union Army in Mississippi, one son took his inheritance to the Rocky Mountains, where he used it to start a business as a barber and engage in silver mining; other members of the family homesteaded on Kansas’s Great Plains, building new lives as farmers, teachers, journalists, and lawyers. Samuel’s son Thomas Townsend even returned to Alabama and purchased part of the old plantation where his family had been enslaved—the first time one of Samuel’s former slaves would own his former master’s land. Samuel Townsend’s estate was greatly devalued by the Civil War, but the surviving Townsend children would inherit around $5,000 each, more than $130,000 each in today’s currency. Though members of the family often faced prejudice in the communities where they made their homes, this capital gave the formerly enslaved Townsends room to pursue social and economic mobility in a hostile society.