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Slavery in America
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

Slaves in the New World
The first Africans to arrive in what would one day be called the United States had quite the adventure getting here. A Portuguese slave ship bound for the Caribbean was intercepted by British pirates who were then robbed by a Dutch warship that then made it's way to the British port at Jamestown. The name of this Dutch ship carrying "20 and odd negroes" sold its cargo and was lost to history.  In the early days, slavery was unknown in Virginia and this "human cargo" was treated no differently from the thousands of other white indentured servants who had been brought from England to work in America. Meaning they were treated like garbage. British society back then took a pretty brutal view of the poor. Indentured servants could be bought and sold, beaten, starved. Most never survived their contract period of seven years but if you did you were promised land and freedom. This was true of whites and blacks and there are records of black servants buying land and becoming plantation owners themselves. But somebody decided that why pay for indentured servants that had to be freed when you could permanently enslave people for life. The only problem was that it was illegal to enslave Englishmen and Christians. That pesky problem was solved with racism and within a few decades Africans were marked by the color of their skin and transformed into lifelong slaves. Pretty soon the whole Christianity thing was dropped and slave owners began justifying their evil institution by saying that Africans were just naturally inferior to whites. The color line had been created in America. 



By the end of the 17th century, things got even worse for African-Americans. Slave codes varied from colony to colony but generally said much of the same stuff; slaves could not testify in court against a white person, slaves could not be educated, slaves could not leave their plantation without permission, slaves could not own weapons and slaves had to carry passes. But the most damning law of all was that slaves and their children were the legal property of their masters. For the next two hundred year, African-Americans would find themselves trapped in the nightmare of slavery. American society became poisoned as whites used religion and questionable scientific methods to rationalize slavery. It was claimed that Africans were created inferior, less intelligent, and built for back-breaking work. This was simply nature at work. From then on slavery and racism became intertwined in a system that continues to poison American society.  



Africans had been kidnapped and brought to the Americas for one purpose: to work. Their entire lives were spent as field hands working in the rice, indigo, sugar, and tobacco plantations. They worked as domestics, cooks, drivers, dock workers. Their blackness defined them as subhumans meant to spend a lifetime in poverty and ignorance in order to enrich their masters. Barred from giving testimony in courts, African-Americans had no legal recourse to escape from the worst of the brutality and abuse that they suffered. But the scars from countless whippings, missing limbs, and broken bones told the story that they could not.


Life is full of irony and as far as slavery goes two events would come together to create one big super irony. After the American Revolution slavery seemed to be on the decline. Many, including Thomas Jefferson, predicted that soon the entire system would simply fade into irrelevance. Tobacco was harsh on the soil and along the eastern seaboard, many old plantations had become less productive meaning a declining need for slaves. But 1794, Eli Whitney invented a simple machine called a cotton gin that easily extracted the sticky seeds from the cotton plant. Up to this point, the process had to be done by hand making it totally a waste of time to grow the crop. But with this handy little machine cotton production exploded. Cotton plantations sprung up all over the deep South where the hot and humid conditions were ideal for growing the crop. Soon cotton became the number one southern export, literally transforming the southern economy overnight. The irony is that Whitney had thought that like self-serve check out machines at grocery stores it would replace human labor with machines. But he wrong, instead the demand for cotton and slaves boomed.


In 1770, there were only 700,000 slaves but by 1860 that number had mushroomed to 4 million. The second great irony is that as president Jefferson was able to ban the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which again he thought would spell the end for the evil empire. But all it did was increase the price for slaves. The old tobacco kingdoms of Virginia and Maryland began selling their excess slaves to the new cotton kingdom's leading to a new demand for home-grown slave breeding. Up until the Civil War slavery became so profitable that many whites thought it would be impossible to abolish it without a total collapse of the economy.



On the Plantation: The Slave
Slaves were property. They were bought and sold at auctions, traded in card games, and listed in their masters wills. Most slaves lived on plantations in shacks far from the main house. But since slaves were the ultimate status symbol, like owning a Gucci bag, some owners showed off their wealth by locating the slave cabins in neat rows along the driveway. Their homes were little more than whitewashed wood or tar paper shacks, occasionally they were made of brick. The inside was even simpler. Six to eight people slept on beds of rags or straw on the floor surrounding a wood stove. In the summer they were hot as ovens and in the winter it was impossible to get warm.

Mealtime showed the biggest divide between slaves and their masters. A typical meal thrown at a plantation dinner party can be seen by the Devereux family of North Carolina. “For a dinner of ten or twelve persons, including ourselves, there would be a ham at the head, a large roast turkey at the foot, a quarter of boiled mutton, a round of beef a la mode, and a boiled turkey stuffed with oysters.” Meanwhile, the slaves – at least those who weren’t busy doing the serving -  were taking their meal on the floor of their cabin or outside on the grass. Their dinner consisted of leftovers or discarded cuts of meat that the master did not want. Francis Henderson – a slave from Washington D.C– described one of the two meals that slaves could count on each day. One vindictive old mistress even made it a point to spit in the pots after the family was served to deny even the leftovers to her slaves. Sometimes slaves were allowed to hunt or fish. After working from sunup to sundown they often kept small plots of land called truck patches where they grew vegetables and beans to supplement their diet. Often, the daily lives of most slaves were spent on the edge of hunger.



Different Faces of Slavery

It can’t be said that there was such a thing as a typical life for a slave any more than you can talk about a typical slave owner. Some slaves were treated well by kind masters who didn’t use the whip and allowed slaves time off one day a week to attend church oor keepthe money they earned doing chores in town. Some masters refused to split up families. Some even gave gifts of new clothes and food to their slaves on Christmas and Easter. It’s hard to say what percentage of slave owners were kind or cruel. The idea of a benevolent master is kind of a oxymoron, after all you are literally forcing people to work for you for free, beatings or not. But it’s the sadistic ones that represented the very worst of an already corrupt and rotten system. The worst part of being a slave was the uncertainty of the system. A slave lived their whole life at the whim of another person and had they no voice to fight back or resist. Enslaving another human being inevitably corrupts the soul. If the master was cruel, beatings with a rawhide whip for minor offenses such as working too slow or breaking a dish could be expected. Rawhide, made from the skin of a cow, tore the flesh off a person’s back, leaving raw scars as a warning to other slaves. Slaves had to bear the brunt of their master’s cruelty, being punched, kicked, and degraded for fear of being sold off or killed.



Slave men had it bad but women had it even worse. Harriet Jacobs was a house slave who was sent to live with the Norcoms in their Edenton, North Carolina home. Once Harriet became fifteen years old her master began to subject her to constant sexual harassment. “My master began to whisper foul words in my ear.... He people my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of…” Harriet was among the unknown thousands of female slaves who were seually abused and victimized by their masters. Women were frequently raped and if they had children by their masters it was not only a constant reminder of the horrors that they suffered but their children were treated like property and rarely given special treatment. But even after the ordeal ended the woman’s suffering often didn’t end. The evidence of mulatto children told the story but often the mistress of the house lived in denial. The wives of slave owners were often powerless to stop the abuse and instead took it out on the slave women by treating them even more harshly. In this way slave women got the abuse from both sides even though they were powerless to stop it. But Harriet, did the only thing she could and in ran. Hunted by slave catchers Harriet  ran to live with her free grandmother hiding in a cramped attic with rats and mice. But even this she said was preferable to living as a slave.



On the Auction Block
Probably even worse than the lack of freedom and threat of beating for a slave was  the instability of the whole system. Your time wasn’t your own but neither was your family. At any time, without warning a slave could be torn from her family and friends and sent to live with strangers. There were many reasons why a slave owner decided to sell his slaves. Often the need to settle their debts or to raise some quick cash meant that a slave or two would be sold off. Sometimes slaves were purposefully bred like cattle so that their children could fetch a profit for the plantation owner. This style of buying and selling of human beings - called slave breeding - was big business, especially in states like Virginia and Maryland where slave breeding was more profitable than plantation agriculture. The price of a young, strong field hand could fetch up to $1500 in 1850 and $3000 ten years later. Compare that to the $120 the average farm hand or factory worker could expect to earn in a year and you get a picture of why slave trading was a powerful motivator for people willing to ignore their conscience.  In fact, Nathaniel Bedford Forrest –Confederate commander and founder of the Ku Klux Klan – made a mid-boggling $96,000 in just one year as a slave trader.



Slaves were given little notice that they were about to be sold. This made it easier for the owner by cutting down on those awkward emotional displays. An invitation to the “Big House” often was a time of great anxiety for a slave, especially if a white man arrived that no one had ever seen before. Word would spread quickly amongst the slaves that so-and-so was about to be sold and usually this was the only opportunity that a slave had to say goodbye to their family and friends. Sometimes a sale would be as simple as some strange white man coming up to a slave and saying “Get in this buggy - I just bought you.” When one slave asked his master if he could first say goodbye to his family, the jerk coldly replied: “You can get another wife in Georgia”.


Selling a slave could happen in one of two ways. The first was an informal sale to a friend or relative. Slaves were often given as gifts or left as inheritances in the master’s will. This is identical to the way people today give away a litter of puppies. The second way was more formal and showed how slavery had become its own big business. Unwanted slaves would be sold to a slave trader whose job it was to prepare the slaves for sale at auction. Slaves were prepped for the auction block by giving them fatty foods for a few days, making sure their hair and teeth were cleaned, their skin rubbed was with grease, and they were given a new set of clothes. The slave trader wasn’t doing this out of kindness for the slaves but knew that healthy merchandise always fetched a higher price. At the auction, the slaves were brought out either individually or in groups. Mothers, children, total strangers - they were all jumbled together.

Soon it became their turn to parade in front of the crowd of whites who inspected their teeth and pinched their arms and legs to check for muscle strength. In a high frantic voice, the auctioneer would talk about the “fine specimen “and call out bids.

“They ‘zamine you just like they do a horse; they look at your teeth, and pull your eyelids back and look in your eyes, and feel you like they you was a horse.” -Anonymous

Economic troubles almost always meant the selling off of slaves. The biggest mass selling of slaves happened in 1860 – the year the Abraham Lincoln became president – when talk of secession was spreading like wildfire throughout the South. It was an uncertain time to be a slave owner as no one knew if slavery would be allowed in the future or if the Confederacy would win the war. Those who felt sure that slavery was dead began to sell off all of their slaves to those who were confident slavery would endure forever under the Confederate States of America.

The separation of brothers and sisters and husbands from wives was difficult but nothing could be worse for a slave than seeing their own children ripped from their arms and sold off.  One mother even resorted to murdering her own children rather than watching them get sold. The following is from a story told by the son of a slave owner, Lou Smith, who retold a story that was told to him by his mother.

“My mother told me he owned a woman who was the mother of seven children,  and when her babies would get to about a year or two of age, he’d sell them and it would break her heart. She never got to keep them. When her fourth baby was born and about two months old… and one day she said, “I just decided that I’m not going to let ol’ master sell this baby; he just ain’t going to do it.” She got up and give it something from a bottle and pretty soon it was dead.”



Why it Matters

One hundred and fifty years after the Thirteenth Amendment America still bears the scars and shame of slavery. After emancipation America had a choice to make. It could have compensated the former slaves for their suffering with free land and education. Instead, the country took the path of segregation which denied African-Americans good paying jobs, decent schools, and the right to participate in a democratic society. For generations African-Americans have struggled to survive in a system that kept them poor and helpless. That system came to an end in the late 1960s, which if you think about it has only been a few generations that African-Americans have been truly free. Slavery created racism which America is still struggling to come to terms with. African-Americans are twice as likely to live in poverty than whites. They are half as likely to graduate high school. African-Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. And in a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center 84% of African-Americans felt that they were more unfairly treated by police. Whatever, the solutions are still up for debate but the fact is that the legacy of slavery still haunts our country well into the 21st Century.

Slave Ship


The Slave Code of Virginia written in 1705 went something like this:

"All servants imported and brought into the Country...who were not Christians in their native Country...shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion...shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master...correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction...the master shall be free of all if such accident never happened."
slave field hands
slave working a cotton gin
plantation cash crop map
slave cabin
plantation slaves
slave whipping
slave auction newspaper advertisement
Newspapers made big money selling advertisements for slaves. 
slave auction
What if Slavery Never Existed in America?
slave account

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