Just a few months ago, I found myself in rural northwest Louisiana near Haynesville crawling through barbed-wire fences to see the remains of an old mill my great-great-great grandma Piety Sansing Adkins had run successfully for decades after her husband died. In fact, she was known as quite the businesswoman in those parts as she worked with her sons—one was my great-great grandfather Jefferson Adkins on my Ladd side—with her sister's help. They also had assistance from a small number of enslaved Black people they had inherited from her father Charles Sansing, who at one time had owned a decent-sized plantation in South Carolina, powered by slave labor.
She was the second grandma, in fact, that I had discovered who had become a successful businesswoman for decades after her husband died. My great-great-great grandmother (on both sides; it's complicated) Elizabeth Steen Earnest had herself descended from slave owners (likely the ones who founded Florence, Miss., then called Steen's Creek). She managed slaves running a Neshoba County farm for decades after her husband Isham died in Jackson at the old Insane Asylum—on the site of the University of Mississippi Medical Center—and was buried there in an unmarked grave.
This woman-powered slaveholding phenomenon was the just the latest jolting revelation for this white woman who grew up the child of illiterate parents in Neshoba County who picked up metal at the county dump to sell for groceries. Like probably most white people in Mississippi, it was drilled into me that "we were too poor to own slaves," but it turns out that the "we" back then often owned at least one or two.
I come from plenty of folks who did own some people and who probably aspired to purchase more. Enabling white people such upward mobility was a stated goal of the Confederacy, which