When Larry Kenneth Alexander ’73 was a child, he asked his older relatives why his great-grandfather was born a slave. “They shushed and offered no insights—they didn’t know,” he says.
Alexander went on to become a first-generation college student, majoring in history at Macalester as part of the Expanding Educational Opportunities program’s inaugural cohort. He earned a JD degree at the University of Iowa and had a distinguished career in both business and government as a commercial real estate developer and a planning commissioner for the City of St. Paul, before relocating to Texas.
But the unanswered question from his childhood stuck with him, and Alexander continued to reflect on the stories he’d heard of his great-grandfather’s life in Tennessee. “I was profoundly affected by the graphic accountings of the institutional devaluation of his humanity and by extension, all of black America,” he says.
For his second act, Alexander has turned his eye to social anthropology, critically examining the horrors of slavery through writing books, including Smoke, Mirrors, and Chains: America’s First Continuing Criminal Enterprise and King’s Native Sons, the story of James Somersett, a slave who was liberated by the English high court in 1772. Alexander’s third book, Hidden in a Book: $40 Trillion—Keep the Mule, posits that because slavery was never legally constituted, restitution—not reparations—is the proper remedy for this criminal wrong. “Early American black people were placed below the rule of law, and it’s a core ideal that laws must apply equally to everyone in a democracy, even the lowest of the low in a society,” he says. “Their legal status as Afro-Britons under British law entitled colonial blacks to liberty and due process upon the ratification of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that ended the Revolutionary War, but instead, they were disenfranchised and then exploited as slaves.”
An advocate for reconceptualizing U.S. political culture, Alexander founded The Obsidian Policy Colloquium, a non-profit think tank with a mission to educate and advance policy discussions, initiatives, and long-term solutions. He also recently collaborated with his Macalester history professor and mentor, James Wallace professor emeritus James Brewer Stewart, to present a forum on this provocative topic during Reunion last June. They hope to host a similar forum on campus during Black History Month in February. “The thesis that U.S. slavery was not legal creates cultural and cognitive dissonance—it necessitates a rewriting of America’s historiography,” Alexander says. “This has radical implications for academia.”