The Price of American Enslavement

The Price of American Enslavement
Penny Panel which is part of the Memorial to the Enslaved People of George Mason on the Roger Wikins Plaza in Fairfax Campus of George Mason University

Slaveholders compelled enslaved girls and women to give birth to children. The mothers and their babies lacked legal and moral rights to their bodies. To see the clear link between this statement and George Mason IV, a typical slaveholder who worshiped at the nearby Pohick church, consider his words on the campus statue: “I give and bequeath unto each of my four Daughters, Ann Mason, Sarah Mason, Mary Mason, and Elizabeth Mason, and to each of their heirs for ever, ... the following Slaves with their Increase, respectively from the date of this my Will.... I confirm ...a Negro Girl named Penny to my Daughter Ann.”

Slaveholders defined Increase as future enslaved children. The financial worth of preconception, Partus Sequitur Ventrem, became the price of American slavery.

George Mason IV gifted to his own daughters a girl he owned in anticipation of the wealth that this enslaved female person could produce. He gave his sons enslaved girls and boys, hoping that individuals he held in inheritable bondage would preserve and enrich the Mason family legacy. For an illustration of Mason’s intentions, see the Wilkins Plaza memorial panel depicting Penny. The inscribed words read: “In 1795, Grandfather Eilbeck’s Last Will and Testament gave one enslaved child to each of George Mason’s six children. This is how Penny came to labor in Virginia. A bequeathed gift to young Ann (Nancy) Mason, Penny was taken from her enslaved community on a Maryland plantation to Gunston Hall. At the time, both girls were about ten years old.”

A deeply vulnerable child, Penny had rights of ownership imposed on her and any of her children yet to come. This was the world of American slavery. Slaveowners exploited Black maternity while extinguishing Black autonomy. George Mason and other Virginians like him enjoyed greater wealth because they could, as historian Daina Ramey Berry shows in The Price for their Pound of Flesh, commodify enslaved bodies, “Whether alive or dead.”

To learn more about these historical processes and perspectives, please take the course “Black Lives Next Door”: INTS 475-004, INTS 575-003, AFAM 390-007, HIST 387-005


Further Reading

Roger W. Wilkins, Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2014).

Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017).

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Race and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Jackson T. Main, “The One Hundred,” The William and Mary Quarterly 11, no. 3 (1954): 354–84.

Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Joshua D. Rothman, The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, First edition. (New York, NY: Basic Books, Hachette Book Group, 2021).

Eric Eustace Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961).



Dr. George D. Oberle III

Dr. Wendi Manuel Scott

Dr. Benedict Carton

Dr. LaNitra Berger

The Center for Mason Legacies, George Mason University