Feature: The Worth of Black Men, From Slavery to Ferguson
The following piece is from the New York Times. It was written by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.
By: Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
The paper, stained in spots, has yellowed, its black ink faded to a dull brown, but the horizontal lines printed on the page are still a fine blue. Some scribe took great care preparing this page, first dragging a piece of graphite along a straight edge to make two pairs of twin columns. Sometimes the pencil marks skip, disconnecting from the line before joining the page again. Once ordered, the table received its data: numbers rendered by hand but with a machinelike uniformity.
One column is titled “Ages — Years Old”; the other, “Valuation.” The first begins in infancy at age 1 and continues to 60, the age of infirmity for an enslaved person after a lifetime of work. In the second column, corresponding prices ascend steadily, beginning with the youngest slave, valued at $100, and climbing by increments of $25 or $50. The chart peaks at age 20 and $900. From there it descends, by the same increments, until ending with the 60-year-old slave worth only $50. This is the “Scale of Valuation of Slaves,” from the papers of Tyre Glen — a prosperous North Carolina slave trader and tobacco planter who was, paradoxically, also an abolitionist and antisecessionist.
The economist Robert Evans Jr. noted in 1962 that “the slave market performed for the antebellum South some of the functions now performed by the New York Stock Exchange, i.e., it served in the eyes of the public as a sensitive reflector of current and future business prospects.” Calculating the profitability of slaves as compared with other investments circa 1850, Evans estimated that the purchase of 1,000 20-year-old male slaves — held for 20 or 30 years and accounting for standard rates of depreciation and death — was greater than investments such as the “three- to six-month bankable paper money market in Boston,” or stock in the Northern and Southern railroads.
The lingo of the slave trade only emphasizes the importance of these black bodies to the market. In 1860, a Virginia trader valued 20-year-old slaves as “extra men” and “extra women,” worth $1,500-$1,600 and $1,325-$1,400, respectively. A second tier of high-value souls were known as “No. 1 men,” worth $1,400-$1,500, and “No. 1 women,” worth $1,275-$1,325. After depreciation by age, abuse and overwork, they were demoted to what Evans termed “once-prime.” The equation by which Evans arrived at a rate of return on slave investments indicates P as the price of slaves, k as the number of years the investor holds the slaves, H as the yearly rent for male slaves age 20 to 50, N as the number of male slaves alive at midyear and r as the internal rate of interest.
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