The University of Pennsylvania library holds a notebook created in Southampton County, Virginia, between 1786 and 1791, according to the notations inside. It shows someone learning practical arithmetic through word problems like these:
An Overseer and 28 Negroes made 37660 lb. Tobacco, I Demand the Overseers Part, who was to have 1 1/2 Shares?A little thought reveals that the “Negroes” are irrelevant to the calculations. Which was the real problem, wasn’t it?
An Overseer and 50 Negroes made 1575 Barrels of Corn — 42000 Pounds of Tobacco — 3150 Bushels of Peas. I demand the Overseers Part, and what was left for the Employer, allowing the Overseer 2 1/2 Shares?
A page in the back of the book has “Southampton County” written on it several times. It also has the words “Hamilton County, Northwestern Territory” and, at top, possibly the name “Bennet.” James Bennett was one of the first members of the “Legislative Council” elected in the Northwest Territory in 1799. Had he come from Southampton County, Virginia? Was the student who used this notebook a member of his family? If so, by moving into the Northwest Territory the family gave up direct participation in America’s slavery system. But as the arithmetic problems show, that system pervaded nearly all parts of life.