This post is by no means exhaustive. But I offer a bit of context by way of my visits to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, April 2019, and to Washington, DC in September 2019 to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Though I spent many hours in each museum, I did not spend an entire day in either one. However, in my brief visits to those places I learned more about the enslavement of Africans in America beginning in 1619, than in all of my formal K-12 education across three states (PA, OH, MA).
Just as important as the story of enslavement is the story of resistance. Across the South some slaves organized rebellions against slaveholders. In response, severe slave codes were enacted to control every aspect of a slave’s life. Yet Blacks defied oppression with words and weapons, everyday actions, and impassioned agitation. They built families, communities, and institutions. They kept alive African traditions and created new traditions that define what it means to be African American.
More on that follows below.
From 1619 to 1865 millions of people were enslaved in the United States. They were hunted and trapped in West Africa, ripped from their families and communities, crammed into the bowels of slave-ships for transport, and brought to colonial America.
And from that moment — the moment the first African laborers stepped ashore in Jamestown VA in 1619 — slavery became part of American culture.1 The exploitation of human beings, bought and sold as commodities for enormous profit, fueled America’s founding and expansion. It was the heart of southern agriculture and the foundation of northern industrial success.
The enslaved were brought to Virginia to support tobacco cultivation and agricultural work. By law, enslaved Africans and their descendants had no civil rights. Whites believed that Africans were inferior and that this justified their enslavement, as well as the laws and brutality that maintained it. Working conditions for the enslaved were brutal and merciless wherever they were brought, and they were brought up and down the East coast for a variety of brutal agricultural work.
- In 1622, 60,000 pounds of tobacco was being exported, most of it to Britain
- By 1639, more than 1.5M pounds of it was exported
- In 1641, Massachusetts legalized slavery and one by one other colonies followed
- By 1660 there were 2,920 enslaved people producing 20M pounds of tobacco annually
- By the end of the century, the enslaved population had grown to 27,817 and Britain was importing more than 20M pounds of tobacco per year
Tobacco production was at it’s zenith up to the Revolutionary War and slave labor had grown in tandem. Growth of indigo, rice, and sugar cane joined with tobacco to lock in an agricultural capitalist economy for southern plantation slaveholders.
After the colonies won independence, Britain no longer favored American products and considered tobacco a competitor to crops produced elsewhere in the empire. Additionally, tobacco proved a fickle commodity for growers as it was beset by price fluctuations, weakness to weather changes, and it exhausted the soil’s nutrients. But even as tobacco waned in importance, another cash crop was showing promise: cotton.
Slavery became legal in all 13 colonies and by 1770 460,000 people were enslaved in the United States; tobacco was the colonies’ main cash crop. In 1775, the Revolutionary War begins and both Britain and the colonies offer the enslaved their freedom in exchange for their service. Thousands of black men join the fight.
The new nation is thus founded on principles of equality and freedom. Yet, when the Declaration of Independence is signed in 1776, there are more than 539,000 enslaved people — 20 percent of the new nation’s population.
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
Slavery stood in stark contrast to the ideals laid out in the founding document, but America depended on slavery, so lawmakers justified it by creating a system of bondage that turned people into property and stripped them of their human rights.
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, they were split on the moral question of human bondage and man’s inhumanity to man, but not on its economic necessity.
Enslaved Africans never accepted their fate. Some resisted in subtle ways, through quiet acts of defiance or by holding onto their customs and traditions. Others made bold bids for freedom and “stole themselves” by running away. Still others used guns and weapons against slaveholders. Free blacks also fought. They argued against slavery in pulpits and newspapers, and helped fugitive slaves reach safety.
For nearly 250 years, the labor of the enslaved built the economic foundation of a new nation. Gradually, northern states abolished slavery and some slaves were freed (in PA, CT, RI, MA, NH, VT, ME). Enslaved people sought freedom by escaping to these states.
Elsewhere, fugitives formed independent “maroon settlements” in the Wilderness. In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance was established declaring slavery is illegal in the new territory. However, slaves escaping to the territory must be returned to their masters.
By 1800, there are 890,000 people enslaved in southern states and territories. In 1803 the treaty established between the United States and the French Republic resulted in the Louisiana Purchase — this new land is available for slave-based agriculture. The debate over the morality of slavery grows. In 1808, citing “violations to human rights”, Congress bans the import of captives from Africa. However, the slave trade within the US continues to grow.
With Whitney’s cotton gin agriculture is revolutionized in the South and cotton becomes more profitable than tobacco. Thousands of enslaved people are sold South to meet the demand for labor. Families are torn apart. Cotton cultivation and slavery expand West.2
By 1820 there were 1,500,000 documented slaves in the United States. Congress attempts to balance power between slaveholding and free states through tariff taxes, which drove a political and economic wedge between the North and South. Abolitionists gained influence in Congress.
Southern Whites strictly prohibited slaves from reading and writing, fearing literacy would inspire and spread word of rebellions, and they did not want slaves to be able to forge passes or free papers. By the 1850s, Southerners believed a peaceful secession was the only path forward.
Investment in “human property” exceeded investment in all of America’s banks, factories, and railroads combined. By the time of the Civil War, America had nearly 4,000,000 slaves *worth* more than $3B in 1860 dollars.
America’s success was built on the backs of the enslaved. Its continued success depended on slavery and traders around the globe profited. Northerners, who slowly abolished the practice of slavery, did not need to own slaves to grow rich from the institution:
- Rhode Island shipping tycoons outfitted nearly a thousand slave voyages bound for West Africa
- New York bankers insured ships that brought captives to Charleston, South Carolina
- Massachusetts distillers imported molasses from Caribbean plantations and distributed rum to Africa
- And English textile manufacturers turned Alabama cotton into cloth.
Slavery made America one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Header image: View of the Shenandoah Valley taken at sunset atop the Confederate Breastwork, Highland County VA, September 2018 ~ mas
1 Though there is documentation that there were already captive Africans in the Americas as early as the 1400s and as early as 1526 in the region that would become the United States.
2 The irony is that many thought the gin would reduce the need for slaves because the machine could supplant human labor. But in reality, the increased processing capacity accelerated demand. The more cotton processed, the more that could be exported to the mills of Great Britain and New England. And the invention of the cotton gin coincided with other developments that opened up large-scale global trade: Cargo ships were built bigger, better, and easier to navigate. Powerful navies protected them against piracy. And newly invented steam engines powered these ships, as well as looms and weaving machines, which increased the capacity to produce cotton cloth.
Note: Publishing this in honor of Juneteenth, a contraction of June 19, the date celebrated by African Americans as Freedom Day: When Major General Gordon Granger brought official word of the emancipation from slavery in the United States to Galveston, Texas in 1865 (two-and-a-half years after the fact).