Providence College Professor Investigates Slavery And Banking

May 10, 2018

What happens when people can be mortgaged like property? Sharon Ann Murphy, professor of history at Providence College, has received an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship for her project "Banking on Slavery in the Antebellum South." She spoke with RIPR's Chuck Hinman about her research.

Murphy specializes in the history of finance and while working on a book about banking and money as it developed from the founding of the United States up to the Civil War, she noticed a lack of research regarding slavery and the banking system’s involvement in it.

“I decided I needed to start examining,” she said. “Seeing if there was anything there.”

There was. Murphy found bank records, court records, letters and other primary sources that reflected a highly developed system of using slaves as collateral for loans, collateral that was often seized when a loan was not repaid.

“The same archives you go in to check on the history of the house you’re purchasing today,” said Murphy, “they have those records for slaves being used as loan collateral in the 19th century as well.”

Murphy said so far she has not found any bank or financial institution that appeared to be apologetic for its profits from slavery, but she did run across a letter from Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States. With branches across the country, he was concerned about what his Philadelphia investors might think about some of this activity.

Murphy quotes Biddle’s letter: “We probably don’t want them knowing what is going on down in Mississippi because they might not be happy about these relationships.”

Murphy said that was unusual, though, because most banks involved were local, where slavery was a way of life, and were not bothered by it.

Emancipation, when it came, threw the system into some turmoil. Slaves being used as loan collateral were now supposed to be agents of their own destiny and not inanimate property to be distributed according to a debt contract.

Now, Murphy said, the question became, “Who takes the hit on that debt?”

Disputes between debtors and creditors caught in this situation ended up in courts throughout the south. Court records have proven to be helpful to Murphy in tracking what happened to many of the slaves.

“I’m trying to put together a data base of these slaves as well as the slave holders,” she said.

Murphy is looking forward to at least a year of work on her research. “This is going to be the first major monograph, first major book, on this topic,” she said. “I’m hopeful it can shed some light on a new aspect, the financial aspect of slavery.”