African Americans in Slavery
Some five hundred years ago, ships began transporting millions of
enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. This massive
population movement helped create the African Diaspora in the New World.
Many did not survive the horrible ocean journey.
Africans represented many different peoples, each with distinct cultures,
religions, and languages. Most originated from the coast or the interior
of West Africa, between present-day Senegal and Angola. Other enslaved
peoples originally came from Madagascar and Tanzania in East Africa.
The Triangle Trade
demands of European consumers for New World crops and goods helped fuel
the slave trade. Following a triangular route between Africa, the Caribbean
and North America, and Europe, slave traders from Holland, Portugal,
France, and England delivered Africans in exchange for products such
as colonial rum, sugar, and tobacco. Eventually the trading route also
distributed Virginia tobacco, New England rum, and indigo and rice crops
from South Carolina and Georgia.
The Growing Rift Between Slave States and Free States
Even though slavery existed throughout the original thirteen colonies,
nearly all the northern states, inspired by American independence, abolished
slavery by 1804. As a matter of conscience some southern slaveholders
also freed their slaves or permitted them to purchase their freedom.
Until the early 1800s, many southern states allowed these manumissions
to legally take place. Although the Federal Government outlawed the
overseas slave trade in 1808, the southern enslaved African-American
population continued to grow. (map)
Families on the Auction Block
strong family and community life helped sustain African Americans in
slavery. People often chose their own partners, lived under the same
roof, raised children together, and protected each other. Brutal treatment
at the hands of slaveholders, however, threatened black family life.
Enslaved women experienced sexual exploitation at the hands of slaveholders
and overseers. Bondspeople lived with the constant fear of being sold
away from their loved ones, with no chance of reunion. Historians estimate
that most bondspeople were sold at least once in their lives. No event
was more traumatic in the lives of enslaved individuals than that of
forcible separation from their families. People sometimes fled when
they heard of an impending sale.
To meet the growing demands of sugar and cotton, slaveholders developed
an active domestic slave trade to move surplus workers to the Deep South.
New Orleans, Louisiana, became the largest slave mart, followed by Richmond,
Virginia; Natchez, Mississippi; and Charleston, South Carolina. Between
1820 and 1860 more than 60 percent of the Upper South's enslaved population
was "sold South." Covering 25 to 30 miles a day on foot, men, women,
and children marched south in large groups called coffles. Former bondsman
Charles Ball remembered that slave traders bound the women together
with rope. They fastened the men first with chains around their necks
and then handcuffed them in pairs. The traders removed the restraints
when the coffle neared the market.
By 1860 some 4 million enslaved African Americans lived throughout
the South. Whether on a small farm or a large plantation, most enslaved
people were agricultural laborers. They toiled literally from sunrise
to sunset in the fields or at other jobs, such as refining sugar. Some
bondspeople held specialized jobs as artisans, skilled laborers, or
factory workers. A smaller number worked as cooks, butlers, or maids.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enslaved African Americans
in the Upper South mostly raised tobacco. In coastal South Carolina
and Georgia, they harvested indigo for dye and grew rice, using agricultural
expertise brought with them from Africa. By the 1800s rice, sugar, and
cotton became the South's leading cash crops. The patenting of the cotton
gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 made it possible for workers to ginseparate
the seeds from the fibersome 600 to 700 pounds daily, or ten times
more cotton than permitted by hand. The Industrial Revolution, centered
in Great Britain, quadrupled the demand for cotton, which soon became
America's leading export. Planters' acute need for more cotton workers
helped expand southern slavery. By the Civil War the South exported
more than a million tons of cotton annually to textile manufactories
in Great Britain and the North. Short-staple, or upland cotton, dominated
the market. An area still called the Black Belt, which stretched across
Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, grew some 80 percent of
the nation's crop. Simultaneously
cotton expanded into the new states of Arkansas and Texas. In parts
of the Black Belt enslaved African Americans made up more than three-fourths
of the total population.
This small plant
made slavery economically viable in the American South. Ginned cotton,
shipped to the textile mills of the North and Great Britain was turned
into millions of yards of cloth that, at an extremely cheap price, clothed
the rapidly growing populations of Europe and North America.
When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he reportedly remarked,
"So, this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great
war." Stowe's best-selling Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852,
focused national attention on slavery. She based her novel on runaway
slaves' memoirs including Josiah Henson's and abolitionist reports.
Slavery: A Chronology
First European contacts with West Africa
A Dutch ship transports 20 Africans to Jamestown, Virginia.
Colony of Massachusetts Bay legalizes slavery.
Virginia legalizes slavery
Delegates to Continental Congress in Philadelphia adopt the Declaration
of Independence, July 4.
The states draft the U.S. Constitution, which forbids Congress
from interfering with the slave trade before 1808. Enslaved persons
are counted as three-fifths of a person for the census
The U.S. Congress enacts the Fugitive Slave Act to protect the
rights of slave owners for retrieving runaways.
Haitians achieve independence from France after a 13-year rebellion
and abolish slavery.
Abolitionist: an individual who held strong anti-slavery views
African Diaspora: the dispersal of Africans in the New World
Bondsperson: a person held in servitude as human property to
Coffle: a group of enslaved individuals transported together
Conductor: one who helped escaping persons move from station
to station on the Railroad
Enslave: to force another into bondage
Manumit: to free
Maroons: runaways who escaped
Middle Passage: the name Africans gave to the trip across the
Atlantic Ocean to New World enslavement