The true history of slavery in America
August of 2019 marked the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first documented African slaves in the US The ship arrived near the Point Comfort port in the colony of Virginia and carried over 20 enslaved people from Angola, who were then sold to colonists.
This event continues to have an enormous impact on the country, but there are still many things misunderstood about American slavery from back then up until the present.
According to Karsonya Wise Whitehead, professor of Communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland, one piece of information that’s often left out of history books is how slaves rebelled. This omission propagates an Uncle Tom’s Cabin-inspired stereotype of the docile slave, depicting African Americans as weak and submissive.
In reality, many slaves rebelled in both big and small ways.
Rebellion in the midst of bondage
The largest slave revolt in the British mainland colonies was the 1739 Stono Rebellion, where 25 colonists and 35 to 50 Africans died. During another famous uprising, the two-day Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, slaves and free black people went to various plantations freeing slaves and killing around 60 white people, while white militias killed around 120 black people.
Enslaved people also often established their own churches and schools, grew their own gardens, and raised animals, according to Whitehead.
This “shows there was an incredible amount of agency they had,” she says. “There were a few things plantation owners didn’t take from them, and their agency was one of them.”
People also often assume that slaves who lived in the homes of plantation owners had it easier than those working in the fields. But those in the houses actually suffered from more physical and emotional violence because they spent more time with the plantation owners, according to Whitehead.
Some women and children were raped, and the children who came from these assaults often suffered abuse from plantation owners’ wives.
Living in the North did not ensure an easier time for African Americans either.
“Contrary to what you may commonly hear, slavery was not confined to the South,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of African American history at Ohio State University.
An institution found throughout the 13 colonies
It existed in all 13 original colonies, and even manufacturing businesses in the North that did not directly employ slaves profited from their labor.
“It wasn’t a southern thing; it was a national thing,” says Jeffries. “We pretend the North was always on board with racial equality, which almost no one was.”
Not even Abraham Lincoln, often heralded as the leader to free the slaves, was completely anti-slavery if you look at his writing, according to Whitehead. He once wrote in a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.”
His decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation largely stemmed from pressure from free black people, says Whitehead.
Many of the nation’s founders owned slaves themselves, and the myth of the “good slave owner” allows us to preserve a positive view of the founding fathers, says public historian Jason E. Allen.
“There’s this lie we tell ourselves when we have to believe the founders were good people when really they were human traffickers,” says Allen. “We think of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as good people, and that mitigates the condition of slavery. It’s hard to say somebody on top of the German government during Nazi rule wasn’t a bad person. Giving them this kind of omnipotence and omniscience is kind of silly when it’s the work of everyday Americans that keeps this country running.”
Jeffries agrees that there were really no good slave owners.
“As Americans, particularly white Americans, we want to think the system wasn’t as violent as it was, but it actually was,” says Jeffries. “If you are even threatening physical violence, separation of families, rape, selling people away, I don’t care if you give them a little extra ration — there’s nothing good about that. The only good master was a dead master.”
Emancipation leads to slow change
These cruelties did not end after the passage of the 13th Amendment. Even after slaves were legally freed, they didn’t own anything, so they had to work just to earn food and shelter and to pay plantation owners back for what they’d given them in the past.
“You were essentially working for free because your wages were owed to the plantation owner before you even got started,” says Whitehead.
The 13th Amendment didn’t even abolish all slavery, says Allen. Rather, it abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Allen argues that slavery continues in U.S. prisons, where black people are disproportionately put behind bars.
“As long as the 13th Amendment is with us, slavery is with us,” says Allen. And even if it’s not explicitly mandated, segregation has stuck with us as well.
For example, in many places, white kids disproportionately go to private schools while black kids end up in public schools, Allen points out.
Yet, many people still believe slavery is not only over but no longer affecting us.
This attitude is evident in Mitch McConnell’s recent comment: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president.”
Don’t worry, we fixed it?
Jeffries disagrees that any of this proves slavery’s legacy is over.
“Efforts to control black labor and black bodies and the justifications carried with it are echoes on the footsteps of slavery,” he says. “Mass incarceration and ideas about black criminality and black people being menaces to society — that is borne out of slavery, and you can see the direct connection from the past to the present.”
“There’s this sense by people that it happened so long ago, that it’s time for us to move forward,” says Whitehead. “But I think until we understand why it’s important and what happened until we understand how our lives have been so influenced by that period in history. Until our country restores the incredible injustice, slavery is going to always be this issue that we cannot seem to get past.”
These myths about slavery come from several places, including history classes, movies, and books.
“If you see slaves as singing and dancing and happy and docile, that shapes how we see that period,” Whitehead adds. “Previously, the history books always failed to add nuance to stories about enslaved people, and I think that there’s a lot of work that’s being done and that has been done to counteract this.”
Scholars like John Hope Franklin, Tera W. Hunter, and Henry Louis Gates, for example, have been writing about slavery in a more accurate way than is typically portrayed, often by using primary sources.
The good news is, “teachers really want to get this stuff right,” says Jeffries. “But they haven’t been prepared and trained to get it right, and that’s what we need to work on. It works in our favor that they are interested in this subject and they want to be able to teach it accurately and effectively, and so I think it’s incumbent upon us as educators, as scholars and academics, to do this work to help them to have the resources and proper approach to get it right.”
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