The Ancestors I Found Hanging in My Closet

With the recent reevaluation of racist images throughout American culture, from confederate statues to Aunt Jemina syrup and Uncle Ben’s rice, I took a look in my own closet to see what racist ghosts might still live. When I first graduated from college and got my first real job in Chicago, I set out to establish a professional business wardrobe. Like most young professionals, I wanted something that would set me apart with a certain sense of style. I thought — what’s more stylish than Brooks Brothers. The oldest clothing brand in the United States that’s outfitted presidents (Lincoln wore a Brooks Brothers suit to Ford Theatre the night he was assassinated and Barack Obama frequently stepped out in their brand – Figure 1). Brooks Brothers defined the look of diplomats and millionaires for generations, so of course I wanted that look. I later found however that the ageless style I was seeking was built on another tradition in American vogue — racism and slavery.

Figure 1. President Barack Obama outfitted by Brooks Brothers

My first suspicions of Brooks Brothers’ connections to American slavery came when I visited a traveling exhibit called Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865 at the Illinois Holocaust Museum last year. The importation of slaves from Africa to America was abolished in 1808 after An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves was passed by Congress the previous year. Although the importation of new slaves was prohibited, existing slaves were still traded within the borders of the US as the country expanded to the lower south and west in places like: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The logistics of moving thousands of displaced bound men, women, and children ripped from each other required skilled planning, mechanical execution, and coordination between the public and private sectors. Groups of slaves or “coffles” were transported for miles on foot chained for days on extensive hikes past onlookers from town-to-town until they reached their destination at slave auction sites like New Orleans’ resplendent St. Louis Hotel. Others were packed into ships where waterways were utilized to deliver the human cargo and dispose of the bodies that didn’t complete the journey.

An extensive network of companies were involved in orchestrating this vast human supply chain, from slave trading firms like Virginia-based Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard, that had auctioning and multimodal transport of large quantities of slaves down to a science. Insurance companies, like New York Life, protected slave owners against loss of “property” and railroad companies delivered slaves to their final destination along the nations young rail corridors. Governments, municipalities, and lawyers all collected fees for licenses, transfers, permits, etc. in the process in this public-private partnership. Banks, like subsidiaries of JP Morgan Chase were also involved. They accepted slaves as collateral for loans and mortgages from headquarters in New York and London. Some of the banks involved had ties to Wall Street in New York City — also a slave auction site. Thomas Jefferson mortgaged 150 of his slaves through one of these banks to build his architectural masterpiece, Monticello[1].

When I searched my closet to see if I could find the vestiges of America’s racist legacy, I was reminded of Tiya Mikes’ piece “Municipal Bonds: How Slavery Built Wall Street” published in The New York Times’ 1619 Project. Tiya writes, “New York factories produced the agricultural tools forced into southern slaves’ hands and the rough fabric called “negro cloth” worn on their backs.” Isabel Wilkerson in Caste recites the South Carolina Negro Code of 1735 in her watershed book Caste, “[Slaves] were banned from wearing ‘any sort of garment or apparel whatsoever, finer, other or of greater value than Negro cloth, duffels, coarse kerseys, osnabrigs, blue linen, check linen, or coarse garlix, or calicoes,’ the cheapest, roughest fabrics available to the colony” (Caste, p. 161). The threads that Brooks Brothers produced for slaves was a cut above negro cloth however. Erin Greenwald, a curator at the Historic New Orleans Collection in New Orleans, LA describes that Brooks Brothers was “top of the line clothing” worn by doormen or coachmen in elite positions (Figure 2) (Smithsonian Magazine, Retracing Slavery’s Trail of Tears, November 2015).

As I studied my collection of Brooks Brothers suits, seaters and accessories, I looked into a time-machine at my ancestors working on plantations and in homes 150 years ago wearing the same label that I wore on the downtown streets of Chicago today. I asked myself, was I wearing Brooks Brothers or was Brooks Brothers wearing me?

Figure 2. 19th century Brooks Brothers plantation coat that could have been worn by an enslaved carriage driver or doorman from the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Staring at the iconic label that once evoked pride, I felt sick, bewildered and angry. How could I have invested so much in a brand that directly profited from slavery by using the cotton that slaves produced on southern plantations (America’s most valuable export by the eve of the civil war[2]) and selling the finished product produced in their textile mills in Manhattan back to slaveholders in the south to outfit my ancestors.

Figure 3. Brooks Brothers suit in The Rookery Building in downtown Chicago. The building was first commissioned by Brooks Brothers in the 19th century and a retail store still remains.

Needless to say I jettisoned these brand-named shackles from my wardrobe like unwanted heirlooms from America’s not-so-distant past. My daily commute still takes me by The Rookery building — an architectural wonder of it’s day designed by legendary architect and city planner Daniel Burnham and partner John Wellborn Root for their client, the Brooks Brothers in 1888, with profits from the system of slavery. At the street level of this opulent edifice sits the gleaming glass and brass doors of the company’s downtown boutique that welcome onlookers and shoppers on the corner of LaSalle and Adams Street to this day. Well-dressed mannequins for every season wink at me in my imagination as I walk by (Figure 3). Their stare tells of an American company that placed capital over human beings and saw the trafficking in black bodies as an opportunity for financial gain.

[1] Mehrsa Baradarn. Fabric of Modernity: How Southern cotton became the cornerstone of a global commodities trade. The 1619 Project. The New York Times. 2019. Page 37.

[2] Matthew Desmond. In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation. The 1619 Project. The New York Times. 2019. Page 32.

Published by Kelwin Harris

Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.

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