Getty Old Congress
A new Washington Post database detailing all of the members of Congress who were slave owners offers insight into how history has at times celebrated those who owned other humans as property — some of whom served as recently as the 20th century.
As the Post notes in its sprawling compilation, slavery "was deeply rooted among the wealthy families most likely to send someone to Washington." The Post project concludes that 1,715 members of Congress were slave-owners at some point in their lives, "including at least one lawmaker who held Native Americans in bondage."
One lawmaker — Rep. John T.H. Worthington — was listed as being "the enslaver of 29 people in the 1840 Census while he was representing the Baltimore area in the House," the Post reports. Worthington at one point sold his own enslaved daughter to a man looking for a slave to bear his children. The price: $1,800.
Among the project's many findings is that some former lawmakers who have been celebrated throughout history as being progressive thinkers were actually slave-owners themselves.
Sen. Rufus King, for instance, is noted as an anti-slavery activist in the country's early history. Yet in 1810, the Post reports, King himself owned a slave.
Even after Reconstruction, people who had previously been slaveholders continued to serve in Congress — sometimes well into the 20th century. Suffragist Rebecca Latimer Felton, the Post database notes, was the first woman to ever service in the Senate when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in Georgia in 1922. Felton, then 87, was a former slaveholder.
America's history of slavery has increasingly led activists to call for reparations for Black Americans. These advocates say that the institution of slavery has led to inequality that persists to this day, pointing to studies like one by the research group Brookings Institute, which said in a 2020 briefing that the average white family holds about 10 times the wealth today as the average Black family.
Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, is lead co-sponsor of a bill that would establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.
"Our nation has not yet fully acknowledged and grappled with the painful legacy of slavery, white supremacy, and systemic racism that tainted this country's founding and continues to persist in deep racial disparities and inequalities today," Booker said in a 2021 press release. "It's important that we right the wrongs of our nation's most discriminatory policies that halted the upward mobility of African-American communities for generations, and we cannot truly move forward without first fully documenting the extent of the harms of the past."