Facts about the Tayloe family’s slaveholding past

I don’t think you can sue people for telling a true story.

Edward Dickinson Tayloe II is is the descendant of a “First Family of Virginia,” a euphemistic way of saying white, rich, socially prominent before the American Revolution and—through the Civil War—slaveholding.

The Tayloes’ legacy as one of the largest slaveowning families in the state is well-documented. Amidst nearly 30,000 historical papers donated to the Virginia Historical Society by the family itself are plantation ledgers detailing the expansion of the Tayloes’ enslaved work force over the 19th century, an evidentiary accounting of how the exploitation of free black labor allowed the family to amass wealth, land, and political power.

Which they passed down through the generations, which is why Edward Dickinson Tayloe II is not working in a chicken processing plant today.

Facts about the Tayloe family’s slaveholding past—including the regularity with which it engaged in the heartless practice of splitting up enslaved families—appeared in a brief profile of Edward Tayloe published this March by the Charlottesville, Va., newspaper C-Ville Weekly. In response, Tayloe employed a strategy once frequently used by those of means to silence critics that’s seen a resurgence in recent years: He filed a lawsuit alleging defamation and demanding a fortune in damages.

The profile of Tayloe was a brief section in a longer article about the plaintiffs in Monument Fund v. Charlottesville, another piece of litigation in which he is involved. In March 2017, roughly one month after the Charlottesville City Council voted to take down a local Confederate monument, Tayloe and 12 other co-plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the city to prevent the marker’s removal.

That of course is the statue that summoned the neo-Nazis to descend on Charlottesville and shout “Jews will not replace us!” where reporters could hear and record them. That is Tayloe’s Glorious Cause: a statue of a general who fought to preserve the “right” to own slaves.

Along with the monument plaintiff profiles, the C-Ville Weekly piece briefly quotes Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia associate professor, public historian and well-known African-American activist in the Charlottesville community. After a lengthy list of cruelties the Tayloes forced upon their enslaved laborers, including using family separation as a punishment policy for their enslaved laborers, often sending “rebellious slaves” far from their loved ones as a warning to other enslaved laborers, Schmidt is quoted as saying, “For generations this family has been roiling the lives of black people, and this is what [plaintiff Tayloe] chooses to pursue.”

And that’s why he’s suing her.

So I suppose his lawyers will have to argue that generations of slavery didn’t roil the lives of the people subjected to it? That seems like a tall order.

This time the ACLU gets it right.

Schmidt’s defense is being handled by the ACLU of Virginia. Provence and C-Ville Weekly / C-Ville Holdings, LLC are represented by attorneys Mara J. Gassmann and Jay Ward Brown of Washington, D.C., firm Ballard Spahr. The newspaper, Provence, and Schmidt all declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. In court papers, the ACLU labels Schmidt’s remarks “political speech at the very core of the First Amendment’s protections.” The filing goes on to describe Tayloe’s defamation claim as a form of legal payback, meant to have a chilling effect on Schmidt’s free speech. “It is intended to send a clear message to others who wish to opine on matters of public concern in which Plaintiff is involved,” the ACLU writes, “disagree or critique Plaintiff Tayloe, then you, too, will face the threat of a lawsuit.”

Let’s learn more about the Tayloes.

In addition to vast landholdings in Virginia and the District of Columbia, by 1851 the family owned “at least seven plantations in Alabama” worked by more than 450 enslaved people who were “valued at $334,250”—or the equivalent of more than $11 million in 2019. Enslaved laborers were rotated amongst Tayloe properties and frequently sold off, with historian Eric Burin writing that “the Tayloe slaves were always being torn from loved ones.”

At the outset of the Civil War, Edward Dickinson Tayloe II’s great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, was rumored to be the wealthiest man in America. A year later, the U.S. federal government paid him $1,095 as compensation for two enslaved women he was forced to emancipate under an 1862 law—making him one of the nearly 1,000 white enslavers who received the only slavery reparations this country has ever paid.

That’s right: nobody ever paid the actual slaves a dime in reparations.

There are multiple monuments to Confederates in Charlottesville — including the statues of Lee, who never visited the town, and Jackson, who passed through post-mortem, as his body was carted to its final resting place—but just one plaque to the majority of people who lived there in that era, a small text-only sign set in the ground: “SLAVE AUCTION BLOCK: On this site slaves were bought and sold.”

So tell us more about how Tayloe is the victim here.

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