No one needs to tell you that slavery was kind of a big deal in the United States. It’s taught almost every year in American History classes, and at the very least students learn a lot about how it was ended when the Confederacy lost the American Civil War. Even still, while we know a lot about slavery it’s hard to really know it in a way that we understand just how poisonous it’s been for race relations in this country and how its legacy lives on in our politics, laws, culture, entertainment, even our language. Slavery is such a huge part of our history and yet its reality is incomprehensible. Most of us today can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a slave, or a slave owner, or someone fighting against the institution. But in order to understand black history in America, it’s vitally important to understand the foundation on which that history was built.
Hopefully, the best way to properly understand slavery in the United States is by defining its edges — when it started and ended; how far it spread and why; how it worked in practice; how it affected everyone it touched. We can gain a proper perspective of the institution and just how deeply it runs through American culture by these definitions. By knowing what slavery was in America and how it was codified into law through the colonies, we can form a basis through which all kinds of historical events can be tied right back to this practice.
The institution of slavery was one in which human beings from Africa were considered the property of others and forced to provide free labor on farms, in factories, businesses, and houses. While the slave trade in Africa had been going on for some time, slavery as a recognized institution lasted from 1565 all the way to 1865, some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment would be ratified in December of that year. During this time, 350,000 Africans were shipped to the United States and sold. This comprised around 3% of the 12,000,000 Africans forced to endure the Middle Passage, but it’s still a whopping number.
Think of it this way: the Middle Passage stole a population equal to the entire country of Belgium and forced it into slavery. Most of these people were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean, but the number of people sent to the United States? That would be equivalent to the current population of New Orleans, LA — or Arlington, TX. From that 350,000 came 4 million slaves in the United States by the year 1850 — or roughly the population of Los Angeles.
Slavery was common practice in the North American colonies even before the formation of the United States and its subsequent rebellion. St. Augustine, Florida was the first permanent settlement in the New World to include African slaves — as early as 1565. While many colonists considered Africans who had converted to Christianity as ‘indentured servants’ and gave these Africans their own land and supplies when the period of servitude had ended, legal distinctions between Africans and Europeans were being made as early as 1640. That year, a Virginia court decided that John Punch, an African indentured servant, would be punished by slavery for attempting to flee his servitude. The two European servants who fled with him were only given an extra year of indenture and an additional three years’ service to the colony. Slavery was legal in every colony right up to 1776, though by that time it was beginning to fall out of favor in the North.
This was because the North’s economy was largely industrial, so skilled labor was the most important thing there. The South, with its largely agrarian economy first dependent on tobacco and staple crops — then cotton with the invention of the cotton gin — depended on physical labor to sow and reap the crops for its cash. Since the sheer manpower needed to tend the fields would make profitability impossible for honestly paid laborers, there was a huge incentive to keep slavery around as much as possible. The Southern economy would not have grown so much, so fast, without its ability to treat people as property; that influx of money brought a lot of political influence and financial capital, which ensured the institution could be calcified in state legislatures, local laws, and business practices. Most Presidents between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln owned slaves, and of the few that didn’t none were elected to a second term. The whole “three-fifths of a person” you hear about in the Constitution was negotiated by James Madison of Virginia, who wanted slaves included in a state’s population by that ratio. Black people in early America were only counted in the political process as a means to tip the balance of representative power towards the Southern states, and they could not exercise that power directly.
Slavery was extended through the South with the Westward Expansion. The original Colonial States wanted to maintain the balance of power they had as more territories became states, so they lobbied hard for Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and other frontier territories to join their side. At the same time, a surplus of slaves in one part of the South necessitated a migration to the Deep South where more labor was needed. From 1815 – 1860, a “second Middle Passage” was devastating the population of slaves. Families were broken up, slaves were sold to horrendous owners, and abuses were commonplace. Even in states where the slave codes — laws governing the relationship between master and slave — forbade the mistreatment of enslaved Africans, the law was rarely enforced. At the same time, men and women alike were whipped one lash for each pound of cotton under quota they were on any given day.
Africans taken from their home and the descendents they bore were not allowed to read or write in most places. They were not allowed to practice their own religion or speak their own languages. They were not allowed to marry, and women were treated as sexual objects just as readily as workers. They were forced to adopt Christian beliefs, which were warped to justify their own enslavement. They were not allowed to own land or property. If they escaped, other states were bound by law to return them to their owners. An entire people were denied personhood for generations, legally according to the highest codes in the land.
Four million black Americans were considered nothing more than property in 1850. They had no legal rights. They couldn’t press charges for abuse. They couldn’t appeal their status. They weren’t allowed to read or write. They weren’t allowed to keep the culture of their ancestors. Their lives were entirely dependent on the whims of their masters. Rebellions were quashed quickly and retaliation claimed the lives of many innocents. Women were beaten, abused, raped. This happened, over the course of three hundred years, to a population equivalent to every man, woman and child currently living in Los Angeles. And it was done so that the people who owned the land worked by these slaves could make more money.
The legacy of slavery has a long shadow. There are six states in the United States with more than 25% of its population comprised of black Americans, and they’re all former slave states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina, Alabama. Of these six states, four of them are in the top 10 for state imprisonment rates — and imprisoned felons are one of the few classes of people in the US where slave labor is essentially legal. These states also have fairly strict disenfranchisement and voter ID laws, preserving the historical barrier of black citizens from participating in the political process of the states they call home.
This is the foundation of racial relations in the United States. For three hundred years, most black Americans were considered not people, but property. Even the freemen among us were considered inequal in the eyes of the law and could not count on its protection. During that time, we were subjected to systemic cultural erasure, legally-codified abuse, backbreaking labor, disenfranchisement, dehumanization, rape, murder, the dissolution of families, the denial of education and opportunity. And while we’ve come a long way since then, the spectre of this period in our history still haunts us today, in just about every aspect of our lives.
There’s a reason many black Americans are angry and disillusioned with the idea of American exceptionalism. Our history is a direct refutation of the idea everyone has access to the American Dream, that anyone can ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ to achieve anything they want. We have first-hand historical experience telling us this is not so. It’s no surprise to us when a police officer is acquitted for murdering black Americans in cold blood. It’s no surprise that income inequality and government policies disproportionately affect people of color. This is the way it’s always been, since before there was a United States. And even today, there are people who will deny these facts, deflect and dismiss them, instead of sitting with the reality of them.
The descendants of the people who have benefitted from slavery are still reaping the benefits of racist laws, bigoted practices, unfair institutions, generational wealth and access. While they’ve done nothing to build these injustices, their denial of them ensures they’re perpetuated down to this day. Until we can look at the reality of slavery and its long, long legacy, we’ll continue to ignore the pain it causes even now.