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Rabbi Bertram Korn Speaks: Jews in the Slave Trade

Rabbi Bertram W. Korn
is the recognized Jewish expert on 19th-century American Jews. He speaks at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., in June of 1974 about the Jewish involvement in the slave trade, confirming the information and data in the Nation of Islam book series The Secret Relationship Between Blacks & Jews. The National Consultation on Black-Jewish Relations was jointly sponsored by the Department of Religious and Philosophical Studies at Fisk and the American Jewish Committee.

Hear Rabbi Dr. Korn: 




Dr. Benjamin Quarles, Fisk conference chair:

In the first session, Dr. [C. Eric] Lincoln[, co-chair of Fisk University’s First Consultation on Black–Jewish Relations,] pointed out that Blacks and Jews were no strangers to each other, and I think from the two presentations that we’ve already heard and the rich number of suggestions and responses that we’ve got from them, we would know that this was obviously true. Now, we’re now beginning to focus in in this third session on the New World experience, as contrast to the Old World experience of the first two [sessions], and moving more particularly to the American experience.

Now, when you come down to the Black–Jewish relations in American history, this, like the other topic as you can see, is extremely broad and there is much ground to cover. And I think we are very fortunate this afternoon to have such persons to cover this ground—two persons who are delivering original papers: [Dr. Leonard E. Barrett and  Dr. Bertram W. Korn]. Dr. Korn, as most of us well know, has written an authoritative book on American Jewry in the Civil War. He has been working for twenty-five years on the African slave trade to the New World and the Jewish relation thereto and African slavery in America, more particularly the United States and the Jewish relation thereto….It is therefore a pleasure to begin with Dr. Korn, whose topic you already have in front of you. Dr. Korn.

Rabbi Dr. Bertram Korn:

Thank you, Dr. Quarles. It is a pleasure to be associated with you in this effort to bring together what we know and to try to evaluate what we don’t know…

In this work in which I’ve been engaged for twenty-five years or more, I’ve had a lot of objections tossed at me on the part of Jews, scholars, and lay people, including my wife, who think that it’s best to sweep things under the rug. That the suggestion that any Jews owned any slaves or had anything to do with the slave trade is putting a gun in the hands of the enemy. This kind of attitude towards academic work is to me, to say the least, regrettable. And I think that if we achieve anything in our meetings this week, we’ll at least begin to come to an understanding of what the realities are. 

Jews are no enemies to misconceptions about themselves and Jews are not immune to self-righteousness. And I thought you might be interested in these three quotations with which the outline begins. Firstly on the part of Harold Isaacs in the New Yorker, quoted by the distinguished Horace Mann Bond: “I have had the small but faintly consoling thought that my ancestors, whatever other sins they might have been committing at the time, were sequestered in some Eastern European ghetto and could not have been among the slavers who waded out there on those ships.”

That may be true for Harold Isaacs’ ancestors who may have been eastern European Jews, but whatever Jews there were in the western hemisphere, for the most part, throughout the existence of slavery, were involved. 

A rabbi from Santa Barbara, Calif., writing with great indignation just a month ago: “Why should Jews be made to pay the price for past and present black disadvantages? After all, how many Jews owned slaves?” Etc., etc., of the presumption that Jews were not involved. Finally, Max Weitman, who ought to know a lot better, says quite categorically: “A small number of Southern Jews were involved in slave-holding.” He’s referring to the period of the 1850s, just before the Civil War.

I want to review very swiftly some material which I’ve gathered together, which is just the tip of the iceberg of a lot more material that’s in my files, and far, far beyond that material which I haven’t been able to uncover and no one seems interested in working on. During the colonial period, almost from the very beginning, Jews participated in the whole system of slavery. 

The inventory of the estate of the outstanding New Amsterdam Jew (it was New York by the time he died), Asser Levy, reported that he owned a black boy. Almost every stable Jewish household in the North or South of any substance whatsoever possessed at least one slave. To go into some detail, the Newport, Rhode Island, census of 1774 listing every Jewish inhabitant lists only 2 Jewish families without slaves. Of 41 wills of Jews probated in New York City—1704 to 1799, that have been published by the American Jewish Historical Society with full annotations—14 refer specifically to slaves, 3 of which provide for manumission. But this of course is no evidence that the others didn’t own slaves. 

To pick out three outstanding Jews of the colonial period: Jacob Rodriguez Rivera of Newport owned 12; Levi Sheftall of Savannah, 44; and Francis Salvador of South Carolina, 40. Sheftall and Salvador were both plantation owners—to answer a question that someone directed at me no more than 15 minutes ago.

Some Jews were involved in the slave trade. It’s difficult to tell you specifically how many because there’s been no totally exhaustive study of all the people who were involved. I give a few typical names here: Isaac Da Costa and Moses Lindo of Charleston; three people in New York City; and most disappointing of all, the outstanding Jew of Newport, Rhode Island, Aaron Lopez, perhaps the most outstanding colonial Jew of all the colonies, had at least one slave ship on the seas each year during the 1760s, more in the 1770s, as many as three a year. He used Negro workers in weaving and chocolate grinding, which were two of the many commercial enterprises in which he was involved, and had six domestic slaves in his home. He had customers who were black, both slave and free.

Altogether you can say that Jewish individuals in the colonial period revealed no record of ideological opposition to slavery. Even a synagogue, Shearith Israel of New York City, in 1729, hired two slaves from a widow and used other black people in the building of a new synagogue building. That’s a quick survey of the colonial period. Now, into the national period as quickly as I can manage.

In the 1790 census in South Carolina, there were 73 identifiable Jewish heads of households. Thirty-four owned one or more slaves to a total of 151 among them all, one of whom held 21 slaves. In the 1820 census, over three quarters of all of the Jews that we can identify in Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah owned slaves. One out of three [Jews] in Baltimore [owned slaves]; one out of 18 in New York. Of 74 identifiable Jewish houses in New York City, 21 included free blacks to a total of 29. And one of those who didn’t own any in 1820, Jacob Levy Jr., had already manumitted six slaves in 1817. I give some further data for the 1840 and 1850 census in two communities in which I’ve done a great deal of research, New Orleans and Mobile. Of 129 wills of southern Jews that are collected in the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, 33 refer to the ownership and disposition of slaves. And it’s entirely possible that others possessed slaves without referring to them in their wills.

Any Jew who was in business was almost guaranteed in the southern towns to have dealings with slaves in one way or another. As storekeepers they either sold to slaves or they sold to slave owners, auctioneers—all of these had dealings with slaves or in slaves—and commissioned merchants acting for plantation owners had a great deal to do with the slave system.

A few Jews were slave traders—may I say that none of them was nearly as big as the outstanding slave traders in the South but some of them were pretty prosperous. And I give the names of a few here, including one family of Jews mentioned by Harriet Beecher Stowe [the Davises, based in Virginia—reputed to be the largest Jewish slave dealers].

Surinam was the only place in the western hemisphere where black slaves or free blacks were converted to Judaism with any regularity. Matter of fact, they had their own synagogue there, probably because Jews were so large a proportion of the inhabitants of Surinam. But the constitutions of the Jewish congregations in Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans restricted their membership to white Jews. But in the North a black girl who was a member of Mikveh Israel [synagogue], was buried in the congregation’s cemetery, in 1838; and there’s a record of one Jewish black who regularly attended services in Charleston. These are the only specific cases I have—there may be others. Looking for such people is like looking for needles in a haystack but it’s got to be done to ascertain the facts.

It has to be stated without any attempt to cover up that leaders of Jewish communities participated in the slave system without apology.  Judah Touro’s father, the cantor of the Newport congregation in the colonial period, had slight investment in a slave voyage. Rabbi George Jacobs of Richmond, later of Philadelphia, rented slaves only because he couldn’t afford to own them. The acting rabbi of the Columbia, South Carolina, congregation, Jacob Levin, owned slaves and dealt in them. Israel Jones, the outstanding Jew of Mobile, president of the congregation for decades, while he was in the auction business, auctioned off slaves—all this without apology or without explanation. You can take it, in other words, as fact that most Jews prior to the Civil War in the South, most Jews in the North prior to the spread of the emancipation movement accepted slavery as the natural course of the events. 

Some Jews were active in the Pennsylvania and New York City abolition societies almost from the very beginning. In Philadelphia, for instance, a man named Benjamin Nones, who owned a slave of his own, freed him and by 1793 had become an active member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Manumission of Slaves and acted as a witness ten times at manumission ceremonies.

Matter of fact, he brought a family of Jewish refugees from San Domingue to the Society to free their slaves. It’s partly because manumission was in the air in Philadelphia in the 1780s and ’90s, and in New York City slightly later, so that Jews participated in this movement too. Moses Judah was an active member of the New York Society and Rebecca Hart was an officer for many years of the female antislavery society of Philadelphia. In the only situation of its kind that we’ve been able to turn up, 24 Philadelphia Jews as Jews sent a petition to the Senate in 1838 favoring the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. But on the other hand, in the South, a man like Henry Hyams, who ultimately became Lt. Governor of Louisiana in 1835, took part in anti-abolitionist activities.

The abolitionist movement of the 1850s was a strongly Protestant-flavored movement. And as such it would be likely to turn Jews away psychologically and spiritually. But some Jews were very strongly in favor of the abolitionist movement, as distinguished from the specific societies which were organized for abolition. And I mention a few of these people: Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, who had to flee Baltimore at the threat of his life in 1861, came to Philadelphia, where he became one of my predecessors at Kennesseth Israel congregation. Lewis Naphtali Dembitz of Louisville—the uncle of Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis—who translated Uncle Tom’s Cabin into German. Isadore Bush, who was a forty-eighter and a politician in Missouri and who was one of the most vociferous proponents of abolition in Missouri, of all places. The forty-eighter Michael Heilprin, who was one of the authors of one of the great encyclopedias of the pre-Civil War period. On the other hand you have Jews like Isaac Mayer Wise, who protested at the apparent indifference of abolitionist leaders to Jewish suffering.

The most famous Jewish pronouncement on the subject of slavery unfortunately was the sermon “The Bible View of Slavery” by Rabbi Morris J. Raphall of New York City in 1861, which was widely reprinted and quoted. Rabbi Raphall was something of a literalist, a Jewish fundamentalist. Let me quote a paragraph…: 

“How dare you denounce slave-holding as a sin, when you remember that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job, the men with whom the Almighty conversed, with whose names He emphatically connects His own most holy name, that all these men were slave holders. Does it not strike you that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy? And if you answer me, ‘Oh, in their times slave-holding was lawful, but now it has become a sin,’ I in turn ask you when and by what authority you draw the line? Tell us the precise time when slave-holding ceased to be permitted and became sinful.”

He tried to explain that the Jewish view of slavery in biblical times was somewhat different than the view of the Southern slave holders, but nonetheless he was a literalist and a fundamentalist, as you can see. He was roundly denounced by Rabbi Einhorn of Baltimore. Let me quote a few lines from Rabbi Einhorn: He asked “whether Scripture merely tolerates this institution as an evil not to be disregarded, and therefore infuses in its legislation a mild spirit gradually to lead to its dissolution, or whether it favors, approves of and justifies and sanctions it in its moral aspect?”

Einhorn was a great preacher. Let me read a couple of paragraphs: “Is it anything else but a deed of Amalek, rebellion against God, to enslave beings created in His image, and to degrade them to a state of beasts having no will of their own? Is it anything else but an act of ruthless and wicked violence, to reduce defenseless human beings to a condition of merchandise and relentlessly tear them away from the hearts of husbands, wives, parents and children?” So forth and so on. Rabbi Einhorn made one telling comment. He said, “Does a disease cease to be an evil on account of its long duration?”

Rabbi Michael Heilprin was another who attacked Rabbi Raphall roundly in the Jewish and the secular press: “I had read similar nonsense hundreds of times before. I knew that the father of truth and mercy was daily invoked in hundreds of pulpits in this country for a divine sanction of falsehood and barbarism. Still, being a Jew myself, I felt exceedingly humbled, I might say outraged, by the sacrilegious words of the rabbi. Have we not had enough of the reproach of Egypt? Must the stigma of Egyptian principles be fastened on the people of Israel by Israelitish lips themselves?” 

So you see, Jews were on both sides of this debate about the biblical view of slavery. We need not have had anyone but these historic figures who lived a century ago but to hear Jews quoting bible for their own purposes. Fact of the matter is that very few of these people spoke for the Jewish group as a whole. There are only two significant Jewish agencies in the day, of a national character—the Board of Delegates of American Israelites and the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith—and neither of them expressed any kind of uniform Jewish view and I think we need to understand that in that day and age no one spoke for the Jews.

I’m sorry we have so little time. I want to suggest very briefly that there’s very little documentary material that would help us to understand how blacks perceived Jews. Some blacks knew that Jews were their fathers. There were some Jews who lived with black or mulatto women. The most notable product of such a union, of whom I know, was Frances Cardozo, senior that is, whose father was either the great journalist [and] economist of South Carolina or his brother the custom house employee. But Frances Cardozo never wrote of his father, who tutored him for part of his childhood. We don’t know how he perceived him. 

We can very well imagine how some blacks perceived Jews who sold to them or bought from them. In 1773 in Charleston, a Jew was flogged for receiving stolen goods from a black slave but the black was executed for that. We do know that some blacks learned folk songs and spirituals that weren’t quite as complimentary as those that were quoted this morning: “Cruel Jews just look at Jesus. They nail him to the cross. They rivet his feet. They hanged him high and they stretch him wide. Oh, the cruel Jews done took my Jesus.” So there are two sides of the perception of Jews by blacks.

There is one unusual case, though, that I want to bring to your attention. That is the fact that one of the best known Jews of the antebellum period, Judah Touro of New Orleans, who left many hundreds of thousands of dollars to Jews and non-sectarian charities, had a mulatto clerk named Pierre Cazenove, whom he ultimately appointed as one of the executors of his will. This is something that I have not run across in print anywhere. It’s the most outstanding fact that I’ve found about the relationships of blacks and Jews in the antebellum period. That this man of extreme wealth in a place like New Orleans should have the guts, chutzpah in Yiddish, to appoint a mulatto as one of the executors of his will, bestowing the largess of philanthropy on every kind of Jewish and non-Jewish agency that we could possibly imagine. This is the Jew as patron. But I’m sure it wasn’t patronizing for him to behave in that way.

Finally, let me swiftly conclude. Those who know something about Jewish history understand that the Jew through most of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was so aware of his differentness, was so conscious of the ways in which he was regarded by the WASP civilization that he did not think of himself as being part of the majority. I don’t believe that most of the Jews who participated in the slave system thought of themselves as oppressors in anyway. To the contrary I suspect that they still thought of themselves as being among the oppressed and just adopting the ways and mores of the society, the environment of which they became a part. 

There was no such thing as a social action or a social justice teaching in American Judaism—with the single exception of Rabbi David Einhorn, to whom I’ve referred—until the late 19th century. Emil G. Hirsch and Joseph Krauskopf and Stephen Wise began something which has grown and grown enormously, thank God—that is, the capacity of the Jew to look at the problems of society from a Jewish prophetic viewpoint, which was hardly ever voiced prior to the time that Rabbi David Einhorn took his notable abolitionist stand just prior to the Civil War. It’s tremendously important for us to realize that an enormous amount of the energy of Jews in the western hemisphere up until today has grown into concern for Jewish victims everywhere in the world. And especially I need to call your attention to the fact that there were Jewish slaves on the island of Malta under the Knights of Saint [John]—. [end of recording]

See Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South – 1789-1865_text, by Rabbi Bertram W. Korn