The concept of Uncle Tom didn’t just crop up out of thin air. Some point to the Meritorious Manumission Act, a law passed in Virginia back in the 1700s, as the propellant that spurred Black people to snitch on one another to get into the good graces of white people.
Under the law, slaves could earn their freedom by performing “good deeds” that impressed their slave owners. Some Black activists say this law not only caused Black people to turn on one other but ultimately resulted in the creation of Black politicians who played along with the establishment instead of disrupting it. Some sources note that the law was passed in 1710, while other documents about the history of the government of Virginia say it was passed in 1782.
Manumission is the formal process by which a slave owner can give his slaves their legal freedom. Slave owners used the promise of manumission to “ensure their slaves’ obedience and often rewarded faithful servitude with manumission,” according to Encyclopedia.com. The U.S. was not the only slave society to use manumission. It has been used throughout history in regions of the world that held slaves.
New York Assemblyman Charles Barron wrote in the New York Amsterdam News on Dec. 3, 2020, that the Meritorious Manumission Act “developed a culture of snitchin’ and pro-establishment negro leadership.” Barron has been a community activist for more than 49 years and has represented the 60th district of the New York Assembly since 2015.
The Meritorious Manumission Act was the legal act of freeing an enslaved African for “good deeds,” as defined by the national public policy. Freedom “could be granted to an enslaved African who saved the life of a white racist colonial enslaver or his property, invented something from which a white racist colonial enslaver could make a profit, or ‘snitched’ on a fellow enslaved African who was planning a rebellion or running away,” Baron wrote in The New York Amsterdam News.
Referring to historic papers from the Virginia General Assembly, Encyclopedia Virginia defines the Meritorious Manumission Act as being “enacted by the General Assembly in May 1782.” It “allowed slaveholders to manumit their slaves at will, without government approval. The law also mandates that anyone manumitting their slaves shall provide support for those over or under a certain age and that slaves pay the taxes and levies required by the state.”
The act encouraged enslaved Africans to gain their personal freedom by keeping their masters informed on fellow enslaved Africans who were planning and executing revolts and rebellions.
This behavior has trickled down to the modern day and persists today, Barron wrote. “We still have some ‘meritorious manumission’ Black leaders running around here today who prioritize their personal ambition and rugged individualism over the liberation of the masses of our people from colonial capitalism and its by-product called poverty.”
Even civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called out these so-called Black leaders. King labeled them “manufactured leaders,” created by the white power structure in order to maintain control over the Black vote, politics, economics, and social movements in the Black community, Barron wrote.
The manumission mindset is so ingrained in Black culture that some experts say slave behavior will not disappear.
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“The [Meritorious Manumission Act] enabled slaveholders to legally free a slave for good deeds. A slaveholder could grant freedom to a slave who saved the life of a white person, designed or invented something that enriched the life of a white person or snitched on other Blacks who were resisting or contemplating a revolt. The policies were intended to keep Blacks non-threatening and under control,” wrote forensic historian Dr. Claud Anderson in his book, “A Black History Reader: 101 Question You Never Thought to Ask,” as reported by The Westside Gazette.
“Meritorious Manumission rewarded Blacks who, for personal gain, would thwart, openly or nefariously, the efforts by other Blacks to alter the racial status quo [of keeping Blacks as a group on the bottom]. Meritorious Manumission behavior is often observed in the ranks of Black elected officials, ministers, civil rights leaders, athletes, and entertainment personalities,” Dr. Anderson wrote in “A Black History Reader,” which was published in 2017.
He continued, “They abandon their own people in exchange for public attention, financial resources, and personal comfort. They eagerly support public policies that subordinate the interest of native Black Americans to the interest of white women, LGBT, immigrants, and other fabricated minorities.”
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