The Descendants: From slavery to Jim Crow, a call for 21st century abolition

Sheryll D. Cashin ’89, the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law, Civil Rights and Social Justice at Georgetown University, delivered the Francis Biddle Memorial Lecture at Harvard Law School on Feb. 28.

In 2019, the United States will mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in what would become America. In a talk titled “The Descendants: From Slavery to Jim Crow to Dark Ghettos, A Call for 21st Century Abolition,” Cashin focused her talk on the descendants of slavery and the history of race relations and inequality in America.

In her opening remarks, Cashin, a descendent of slaves and slave owners and the daughter of civil rights activists, said her lecture reflects ideas she is considering for her next book. “As in all my work, this lecture is personal,” she said.

Throughout the 17th century white bonded people provided by far the most labor to produce tobacco, according to Cashin. For the first six decades of the Virginia colonies, black slaves shared a similar status to indentured white servants. In the 1660s, the masters decided to transition from indentured white servitude to black chattel slavery as the main source of labor. When the masters faced resistance from white and black servants, who, Cashin says, had “a habit of alliance,” the masters opted to break that alliance by creating the legal framework for slavery.

Sheryll D. Cashin and Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Credit: Martha Stewart Cashin sat down with Tomiko Brown-Nagin, faculty director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, for a Q&A following the lecture.

“Whiteness was created to solve a class conflict between wealthy planters and poor white servants. It had a political function to divide and conquer, and this legacy of ‘dog whistling’ continues to this day. Colonial plutocrats who could afford to own a body or a contract attached to one began to create a color line by elevating indentured whites with protections against harsh treatment and other benefits, while stripping black slaves of privileges they had enjoyed.”

Passed down through generations, this ideology of white supremacy justified regimes of oppression that were essential to American capitalism and expansion, said Cashin.

Harvard Law School Dean John Manning ’85 introduced Cashin. After she delivered her talk, HLS Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin joined Cashin for a Q&A.

Her most recent book, “Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy,” explores the history and future of interracial intimacy. She is also the author of “Place Not Race” (Beacon, 2014), which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Non-Fiction in 2015, and “The Failures of Integration” (PublicAffairs, 2004), which was an Editors’ Choice in the New York Times Book Review.

She is also a two-time nominee for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for non-fiction (2005 and 2009). She has written commentaries for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Salon, The Root, and other media.

She is vice chair of the board of the National Portrait Gallery, and an active member of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. She also worked in the Clinton White House as an advisor on urban and economic policy, particularly concerning community development in inner-city neighborhoods.

Francis Biddle, the man for whom the lecture was named, served as U.S. attorney general from 1941 to 1945. A 1911 graduate of HLS, he began his career as private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and for 27 years worked for a law firm in Philadelphia. In the 1930s and ’40s, he served in a number of government roles, including as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and as U.S. Solicitor General, before being appointed U.S. attorney general during under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Biddle also was the U.S. member of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg.

After Biddle’s death in 1968, his widow Katherine Garrison Chapin Biddle endowed the Francis Biddle Memorial Lecture in honor of her husband. A proponent of civil rights, Katherine Biddle asked that the selection of lecturers reflect “that civil liberties and civil rights were of particular concern to my husband and thus particularly appropriate subject areas for the lectures.”