After the 1619 Project and Black Lives Matter, this year’s Black History Month is especially auspicious as the nation wrestles with the contradictions of its founding as both a republic and a slave society. American Jews mostly arrived here decades after slavery ended. With their own history of oppression and persecution, Jews have difficulty acknowledging themselves as an oppressor class. Our own national narrative is one of bondage and liberation, yet we all know that the Hebrew Bible tolerated slavery even as it fastidiously regulated it. That Jews in our recent past might have been slave masters is discomfiting.
The history of the Jewish South, including North Carolina, suggests that perhaps we might have good reason for discomfort. The pioneering scholar of American Jews and slavery, Rabbi Bertram Korn, observed that “any Jew who could afford to own slaves and had need for their services would do so.” That point has been validated by research which shows that southern Jews as slaveholders varied little from their neighbors of similar class and location. Thus, in 1830 in Charleston 83 percent of Jews owned slaves while 87 percent of Christians did so. Historians now emphasize that slavery far from being the “peculiar” custom of the South was linked indelibly to global capitalism. The New York financiers who underwrote the cotton economy, including firms like Lehman Brothers, supported the plantation system, counting investment in slaves as collateral.
North Carolina’s early Jews certainly did not quarrel with slavery. The Newport Sephardic merchant Aaron Lopez, who sent 37 cargo ships to North Carolina from 1761 to 1775, included slaves among his merchandise of rum, mules, and wine. Extended family members served his interests in ports like New Bern and Wilmington. The Mordecais of Warrenton, who arrived in 1792, were scholarly, enlightened Jews, proprietors of a renowned female academy and synagogue stalwarts, but they were also slave owners. Sons Moses Mordecai and George Mordecai married wealthy Christian plantation families in Raleigh which made them prominent owners of slaves. Their sister Rachel, who married the Jewish merchant Aaron Lazarus, complained that slaves were the “pest of Wilmington,” and she expressed contempt for their “notions of independence.” After complaining to her husband that their cook Sarah was disagreeable because of “the great difference in our religions“ — allegedly the cook was frustrated by kosher laws — Aaron sold her. When fears arose of a slave revolt, he patrolled Wilmington’s streets as captain in the civic guard. Three of Aaron’s thirteen slaves were accused of rebellion, and though he and his son Washington defended them, two were convicted and then shot or hanged. Washington Lazarus in 1830 owned thirty slaves while his brother Gershon owned five. In coastal Beaufort Joel Henry, a rabbi’s son, was listed with ten slaves. His son Jacob Henry, elected to the state legislature in 1808, delivered a stirring defense of liberty when his right to serve as a Jew was challenged, but his eloquent defense of freedom did not prevent him from owning twelve slaves. When Abraham Moses of Waxahaw filed his will in Mecklenburg Country in 1821, he left his wife Nancy his “Negros John & Betty” and his daughter Esther “the Negro Wench Violet.” (He also left $25 to the Charleston synagogue.) In 1830 Isaac Hyams & Co of Mecklenburg County owned thirteen.
Few Jews owned plantations, which required numerous field slaves, and, excepting the coastal plain, North Carolina had but a modest plantation society relative to neighboring states. Jews migrating from German-speaking lands after 1820 were mostly peddlers and merchants, who would not have needed chattel labor. If they owned slaves, they mostly were house servants while some Jewish businesses might own slaves as part of a store or warehouse’s merchandise. A common practice was to own a slave artisan who could be rented out, with the slave keeping a cut. In 1860 A. Bauman of Washington “bought a Negro” for his store.
North Carolina Jewry counted at least one slave dealer. In 1850 brothers Ezekiel and Myer Myers, from a well-established Richmond family, “traffic in slaves” from their general store in Salisbury, advertising in 1853 they were “now in the market to purchase ONE HUNDRED NEGROES.” Jacob August, identified in credit reports as a Jew, advertised in Warrenton in 1859 that he had “Eight Valuable Family Servants” for sale at public auction. German historian Anton Hieke, who studied Jewish migration to the American South, could identify only one Jewish company in Wilmington in 1860 that owned slaves, Kahnweiler & Bro., although a number of wealthy Jewish individuals could well afford them. In Charlotte’s much smaller community, numbers of Jews held slaves including David Elias with six, Levi Drucker with four, and Siegfried Frankenthal with three.
A few Jews, while remaining loyal southerners, opposed slavery. Jews generally distanced themselves from the abolitionists, who tended to be evangelical Christians often tainted with anti-Semitism. Southerners were well aware that the Hebrew Bible tolerated slavery and frequently cited prominent New York rabbi Morris Raphall whose published sermons affirmed that Judaism sanctioned slavery. (Personally, Raphall was a Unionist who disdained southern slavery as inhumane.) A rare Southern Jewish abolitionist was Marx Lazarus, grandson of Jacob Mordecai and first Jewish graduate of UNC. Lazarus, a socialist, wrote a polemic “The True Principles of Emancipation,” condemning the “manifold cruelties” of slavery and railing against the “outrages sanctioned by prejudice against color.” He signed his article, “A Native of North Carolina and a Citizen of the World.” That did not stop Lazarus from returning to the South when war erupted and joining the Confederate Army. In the 1850s UNC professor Henry Harrisse, a French Jew of Russian origin, was derided by students and driven from Chapel Hill allegedly because of his abolitionist views. Found in his papers was an essay “Individual Influence” by slave poet George Moses Horton. Michael Grausman, a German immigrant with rabbinic training, led Raleigh’s budding Jewish community as an educator and prayer leader. A merchant tailor who supplied uniforms to the Confederate army, he refused on principle to own slaves but hired free-black labor. He built a home on his property for his family’s nanny and tutored her children. Grausman paid nursing-school tuition for two of his employee’s children, who became the state’s first African American trained nurses.
Given their small numbers, Jewish slave owning or trading was not consequential in the broader slave economy. Southern history would have been the same if Jews had not settled here. One Richmond firm alone is estimated to have sold 10,000 slaves, far exceeding the total Jewish involvement in the trade. Yet, that Jews willingly owned, sold, and bought slaves reveals them to be unexceptional Americans.
The history of America and the history of slavery are inextricably linked. What our ancestors did–including Jews of the South–cannot be redressed until it is first acknowledged.
Images: Eliza Mordecai with the slave Leanna, Lazarus Home in Wilmington, Marx Lazarus, Henry Harrisse