July 10, 2019
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky)—who said recently that he opposes paying government reparations to the descendants of American slaves—has a family history that is deeply entwined with that controversial issue: Two of his great-great-grandfathers were slave owners, U.S. census records show, according to an exclusive report by NBC News.
The two great-great-grandfathers, James McConnell and Richard Daley, owned a total of at least 14 slaves in Limestone County, Alabama — all but two of them female, according to the county “Slave Schedules” in the 1850 and 1860 censuses.
The details about McConnell’s ancestors, discovered by NBC News through a search of ancestry and census records, came in the wake of recent hearings on reparations before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, when none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea,”McConnell said June 18, a day before the House reparations hearing. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president.”
NBC News, in several phone calls and emails to McConnell’s office, asked if the senator was aware that his great-great-grandfathers were slave owners. The office did not respond to those requests.
Slavery experts have stressed that descendants of slave owners should not be held personally responsible for the deeds of their forebears. But they have also argued that the families that descended from slave owners, like McConnell’s, are likely to have benefited from the labor of slaves that propped up farm families in earlier generations — a point made by many reparations supporters, who have said that descendants of slaves were never compensated for the economic benefit their forebears made to white families.
“Smaller farms and plantations still benefited enormously from the unpaid labor of enslaved people, which likely helped them build multigenerational wealth,” Chuck Collins, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank in Washington. DC, told NBC News.
Collins’ assertion is supported by research done by two American professors and one Danish college professor, who found that the Southern slave owners were able to rebound more rapidly economically than non-slave owners after the Civil War.
“We see recovery for the sons of both small and large slaveholders, as well as in the counties that specialized in non-plantation crops,” wrote the authors of The Intergenerational Effects Of A Large Wealth Shock: White Southerners After The Civil War,” a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the nation’s leading nonprofit economic research organization.
McConnell has not mentioned—either personally, or in his 2016 autobiography, The Long Game—that his family owned slaves.
As a legislator, he generally has been supportive of civil rights measures—and he has said that his parents, whom he has described as “very enlightened Southerners,” opposed the rampant segregation that surrounded his family in northern Alabama
However, like most Republicans, he supported the narrowing of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013, and has also been an advocate for strong voter ID laws. Both positions have been criticized by current civil rights leaders for making it more difficult for minorities to vote.
A strong supporter of President Donald Trump, McConnell has repeatedly refused to take up bills in the Senate that have been passed by the Democratic-majority House—earning him the nickname, Grim Reaper, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California).
The slavery issue, as well as his reluctance to discussion reparations, will not aid his cause, as he stands for re-election in 2020 against Amy McGrath, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and combat pilot who says that McConnell is to blame for the dysfunction in Washington. Indeed, in her announcement video, McGrath said that the majority leader had turned the capital into “something we despise.”
Research contact: @NBCNews