Walter Williams sadly left us in December 2020. Like his very close friend, Thomas Sowell, he was an economist who would have had a Nobel Prize were it not for the prejudice against black conservatives. Both were/are brilliant teachers who educated us through their writing.
Walter Williams authored twelve books, all worthy of your time. In 2011, he published Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? Williams wrote in this book on a topic that I thought I knew well until he enlightened me. As a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, Mr. Williams was first and foremost an educator. He had the gift of communicating complex matters in understandable terms.
Professor Williams addressed the issue of American slaves learning skills. He writes about how slaves were often taught skills such as carpentry, blacksmithing, and farming by their masters. He tells detailed stories of individuals who learned these trades. He does not minimize the fact they were slaves, but he points out how some were able to improve their existence. They were obviously capable individuals and not how they were often portrayed as unintelligent beings incapable of learning skills beyond picking cotton.
These skills helped slaves become more productive workers. That allowed them to eventually achieve economic independence after emancipation.
Professor Williams instructs us that many slaves were able to read and write, even though it was illegal for them to do so. He establishes that this was because slaves were often able to learn these skills in secret, or from their masters. This fact again defeats the claim that they were not intelligent beings only able to do limited tasks under strict supervision.
Here are some specific quotes from Professor Williams book:
• “Slaves were taught a variety of skills, including carpentry, blacksmithing, and farming. These skills helped slaves to become more productive workers and to eventually achieve economic independence after emancipation.”
• “Many slaves were able to learn to read and write, despite the fact that it was illegal for them to do so. They were often able to learn these skills in secret, or from their masters.”
• “Slaves who learned skills were more likely to be able to find good jobs after emancipation. They were also more likely to be able to start their own businesses.”
I had read extensively about the civil war era, the elements leading up to the war and the slavery of the blacks who were brought to this country. As a member of a group who were noted slaves in the history of the world (Jews), the issue was of particular interest to me. What I had been exposed to was that the slaves in America were treated as lesser beings, not even human, and incapable of advanced knowledge and skills.
Professor Williams’s work on slave learning is an important contribution to the understanding of African American history. It challenges the stereotype that slaves were uneducated and unemployable, and it shows that slaves were often able to learn skills that helped them achieve economic success during their slavery period and after emancipation.
There is a new hysteria that has occurred in America. There is always a new hysteria being created by the Left as the last one begins to fade.
A controversy burst on the scene because there was a single line in a 216-page document on African American history standards that stated, “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” There was no statement that slavery was something beneficial to the slaves. There was just the statement that some of the people developed skills that not only benefited the despicable slave owners but provided them skills they could use once slavery ended. This is only a controversial statement to people who want to paint the darkest view of the period without any idea that the suffering souls attempted to preserve a modicum of humanity from their dreary circumstances.
When this issue became news, I was initially bewildered as I knew of this because Professor Willaims had educated me. Then a moment of reality occurred. Of course, the people attacking this one line did not know. The organized black community — you know, the alphabet soup of racist organizations — purposely stays ignorant of black scholars who do not toe the line. Have a discussion with a Leftist (black or white) and invoke either Williams or Sowell and you get a blank stare. Invoke Shelby Steele or Jason Riley and they roll their eyes.
Next time someone brings up this ridiculous issue, direct them to Professor Williams’ book and then remind them he was black.