Reparations: The Government Owes Us For The Railroad

Over the last few decades, the U.S. government has faced increased demands for reparations for Black Americans. After all, Foundational Black Americans physically and culturally built this country. We made the White House and increased American wealth due to our subjugation and forced free labor. 

Recently, HR-40 emerged in Congress as a bill setting up a study about reparations. In this article, I want to make a case for reparations by examining American companies that benefited from my ancestors’ forced free labor and subjugation. 

Due to Biden’s Build Back Better plan, infrastructure is also a hot topic in American culture. Biden hopes to fix many of the roads, bridges, waterways, railroads, docks, airports, and communication systems that are decrepit across the country. However, it is important to note that enslaved Americans played a crucial role in building the original railroads, steamships, and canals that industrialized this country. Infrastructure highlights the direct and damning ties between federal, state, and local governments, major corporations, and the slave trade. 

Railroads owed much of their profits to the evolution of the slavery industry. In his book titled “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom,” Walter Johnson wrote that steam engines were more prevalent on the Mississippi River than in the New England countryside. Railroad tracks and steamships existed throughout the South because industrialized companies in the North needed to extract the raw resources of cotton, tobacco, and sugar from plantations. 

 In 2005 CNN released an article where Wachovia bank apologized for having slave ties. Wachovia owned a Georgia railroad and banking company with around 162 slaves. Theodore Kornweibel, a historian at San Diego State University,  argued that 75% of southern railroads utilized slave labor. He also estimated that over 10,000 enslaved people a year worked on railroads in the South. Build more railroads, move more cotton. See how that works? Slave owners were making money hand over fist with free Foundational Black American labor. 

In 1957 Louisiana State University social scientist and historical scholar, Merl Elwyn Reed wrote a thesis paper on Louisiana’s Transportation Revolution. He utilized the original railroad companies and the state legislative records to construct his study. New Orleans and Nashville railroad companies were built primarily with free Foundational Black American labor. The federal government offered land grants and price reductions on steel to foot the bills for railroad construction. Railroad company owners gained investment from enslavers and the New Orleans City Council. The railroad charter reserved 5,000 shares of stock for New Orleans because directors petitioned the City Council to subscribe for the stock. In January 1836, the City Council assented and paid for the stock in full by issuing bonds for $500,000 through a deal with Union Bank of Louisiana. The state-issued bonds of credit and the legislature authorized loans to five railroad companies. The New Orleans and Nashville, The Mexican Gulf and the Clinton and Port Hudson took advantage of this legislative generosity. That legislation put taxpayers on the hook if the railroad companies did not pay the investors. The total of Louisiana’s aid to railroads was $1,100,000 in loans and $40,000 in stock.  The state granted the railroad companies long-term tax exemptions and the power of eminent domain over private property. 

The state rented thousands of Foundational Black American slaves to create the railroad. In fact, in 1838, the state purchased 150 FBA slaves for public works projects such as railroad and steamship companies. In 1835 the corporate directors of The New Orleans and Nashville Railroad company purchased several slaves to forestall further disappointments resulting from labor scarcities. The Pontchartrain Railroad Company frequently brought FBA slave labor to perform some of the unskilled tasks in constructing the railroad. The company bought twenty-two slaves for $20,000 in the years surrounding 1835. 

As you can see, Foundational Black Americans were indeed foundational to creating this country in a physical and economic sense. The federal government teamed with local governments and major corporations to take advantage of slave labor. The government gave money and land to railroad companies across the country. Many of the investors in these railroad companies were slave owners looking to diversify their wealth. The companies purchased or rented enslaved black people to build the railroad tracks in the South. Importantly, the government-sponsored the railroad expansion into the South because they wanted the raw materials grown on plantations to be easily accessible to factory owners in the North. The entire American economy was built upon this partnership that exploited Foundational Black Americans. When asking yourself, “should black people get reparations?” Remember that the country was built on the backs of our ancestors, and they did not get paid a dime.

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Dawaun Davis
Executive Director at The Commoner | + posts

Dawaun Davis is an activist and political writer from Baltimore, MD. Davis is a proud Foundational Black American, and he hopes to use his growing platform to help young Black people with their struggles.

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