Updated: Feb 21, 2021
The Peculiar Institution
In the 1400s, the Catholic Church divided the world in half, giving Portugal a monopoly on trade in West Africa and a slice of Brazil while Spain obtained the rights to the New World. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the “Inner Caetera,” which states out of the Church’s “sole largess” and “the authority of Almighty God” that the “kings of Castile and Leon, forever” had the rights to colonize, convert, and enslave the people of the Americas and Africa. Queen Isabella of Spain (Christopher Columbus’s patroness) ultimately rejected the enslavement of Native Americans, considering them Spanish citizens, and instead created a contract authorizing the direct shipment of human beings from Africa to the Spanish colonies. Eventually the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and England all joined in, trying to secure their own contracts to trade people and increase their power in the New World. The trade and forced labor of West African people was not a new concept by any means, but although people were traded across the Sahara to the Mediterranean for centuries, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a new form of slavery endorsed by all of Europe and based on race: white versus black. This system of slavery was commercialized with auctions and perpetuated by the laws of the land. Approximately 12.5 million men, women, and children from Africa were forced into the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Around 388,000 of them were brought to America.
The journey from Africa to the Americas took months, and the captured people remained in iron shackles virtually the entire time. Two to three times as many children could be transported as adults, so they were considered more economically advantageous. Overheating, starvation, rape, and lethal violence were common, and around 15% of each ship’s population would die before reaching the destination. Suicide attempts were thwarted by outfitting the ships with circumferential nets. Working-class white crew members also ran away or killed themselves to escape the brutality. One in 10 ships experienced full-blown mutinies from the captives.
In 1619, a Portuguese ship, the São João Bautista, left Angola in southwestern Africa with a cargo hold full of kidnapped men, women, and children. They were bound for a life of forced labor in Mexico. Almost half of the captives had already died by the time the ship was attacked by English pirates aboard The White Lion, and the remaining were taken to Point Comfort, a port near Jamestown, Virginia. Colonist John Rolfe (the guy who married Pocahontas after her name was changed to Rebecca), wrote that a ship arrived and “brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the governor and cape merchant bought for victuals.” These were the first enslaved Africans brought to American soil.
Indentured servants were poor European immigrants that traded four to seven years of servitude for passage to the New World. They had hard lives but had some rights, and their contracts typically included 25-acre land grants and up to a year’s worth of farm supplies, animals, and new clothes. The cost of indentured servants rose with time, and many wealthy landowners came to prefer the forced labor of captive Africans over that of indentured servants, as it was cheaper to never set someone free and honor a contract somewhat compensating them for their labor. Initially, both free and enslaved Black people and white indentured servants were treated mostly the same. But the protections of whiteness were solidified into American law beginning in the 1600s. In the 1640s, a Black man named John Punch escaped slavery with two white indentured servants. All three were caught, and while the two white men received several years of additional servitude, Punch was sentenced to slavery for life. In 1662, a law was created in Virginia creating the policy of slavery inheritance. The law stated that “all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother,” effectively locking generations of Americans of African descent into slavery. Other laws prevented free Black Americans from passing down their wealth to their children. Moving ahead in history, you will frequently see legislation limiting the movement, education, and gathering of Black people. This theme is recurrent throughout American history, wherein our laws (including the holiest document in the land, the Constitution) dehumanize and commodify Black Americans in order to maintain the economic and political power gained from their subjugation. Enslaver families kept meticulous records, and from one century to the next these families passed down the profits gained from the sale and forced labor of Black Americans, while torturing them and tearing their families apart.
Captured African people brought traditions and memories from their home kingdoms to America. Many Black men were talented woodworkers and blacksmiths. Black women made intricate quilts for art and to tell coded traditional stories. They also wove elaborate baskets used to separate rice grains using a traditional West African coiling method. They handmade colorful rugs, bowls, and pipes. Drums, gourds, rattles, and banjos were all made similarly to instruments found in Africa. Their musical traditions had an enormous impact on American music, founding multiple genres including gospel, blues, ragtime, and jazz. “Field hollers” or call and response singing were a form of music and communication during hard labor in the crop fields. Folktales and fables were critical to pass along traditional African symbolism and motifs. One example is the traditional trickster figure of the rabbit. The Brer Rabbit adventures gave enslaved people the chance to escape into an alternate world and pass along knowledge, coping strategies, and survival skills.
Bacon’s Rebellion occurred in 1676. This is a story that I learned all wrong in school but I don’t want to dedicate more space than necessary to white guys being violent racist jerks, so I will put the tale in the comments because it’s wild enough to be interesting but it is not the history I am trying to tell here. After Bacon’s Rebellion, wealthy white landowners became extremely nervous as they watched white and Black people alike revolt against the government. They began to slowly dismantle the system of white indentured servitude to eliminate one source of poor white angst passed more laws limiting free Black people and further trapping enslaved ones.
The largest Black uprising against slavery in the British colonies was the Stono Rebellion in 1739. It involved around 80 enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina. Led by an enslaved man called Jemmy, the freedom fighters killed two storekeepers and seized munitions from their store. They marched along the Stono River towards Spanish Florida, having been promised their freedom in exchange for becoming front-line soldiers against the British. On the way they were captured by the English army, and around half of the fighters were killed in the process. In response to this uprising, white lawmakers in South Carolina passed the Negro Act of 1740, which criminalized gathering and any form of education amongst the enslaved. They also passed a law that prohibited the beating of drums for fear their rhythm would incite another rebellion.
The Declaration of Independence begins with, “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.” At the time these words were written, half a million Black people were enslaved in America. Thomas Jefferson was a key author in the documents that defined our nation, and he was a lifelong enslaver. He inherited enslaved people, he fathered enslaved children, and he relied on forced labor for his riches and comfort. Sally Hemings is one of the “most famous and least known” Black women in American history. She was an enslaved woman at Monticello, Jefferson’s sprawling Virginia estate, and her six known children were suspected to be Jefferson’s. She was born to the same father as Jefferson’s wife, Martha, making her the first lady’s half-sister. She was brought to Monticello with Martha Jefferson as part of her inheritance. At the age of 14, Hemings moved to Paris with the Jefferson family, and although she was free while in France, she negotiated with Jefferson to return to Monticello in exchange for the freedom of all her future children when they turned 21. She did not negotiate legal freedom for herself. There are no known images of her, but her children were light-skinned, and three of them lived in white society as adults. In January 2000, DNA evidence conclusively linked Jefferson’s lineage to Heming’s second son Eston. Jefferson never acknowledged Heming’s children and did not often write about or speak of any of them, including Hemings, with the notable exception of his will which granted their freedom but no other families’. Jefferson talked a lot about how much he hated slavery, but he also openly stated that he considered Black Americans to be inferior to whites and argued they should be removed from the country. In 1791, Benjamin Banneker, a free Black mathematician and scientist, wrote a letter to Jefferson, who was at that time the secretary of state. Banneker condemned Jefferson’s slaveholding and urged him to correct his “narrow prejudices” and to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us.” Jefferson was unconvinced.
It is estimated that 9,000 Black soldiers fought on the American side during the Revolutionary War, which *spoiler alert*, allowed the United States of America to exist as a nation independent of England.
In 1781, the Articles of Confederation created the first national American government. The document didn’t touch the issue of slavery, leaving its regulation up to individual states. In May 1787, the state governments were sick of not being able to collect enough taxes so they sent representatives to secret meetings in Philadelphia to draw up the Constitution. A clear line of ideology and demands were drawn between the North and South, as the South heavily relied on forced Black labor for their main export crop of cotton, and compromises were made. The Three-Fifths Compromise allowed for each enslaved person to be counted as 3/5 of a person for population and thus congressional representation purposes, but without gaining any rights or representation themselves. This allowed the South to maintain considerable political power as white landowners would be overrepresented in Congress. The fugitive slave clause was also slipped into the new Constitution, which granted white enslavers the right to repossess any “person held to service or labor,” meaning they had the guaranteed right to pursue and capture escaped people indefinitely even if they escaped to a “free” state. Northern states allowed these clauses in exchange for shipping and trade concessions. The final issue was the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ten states had outlawed importing people for enslavement, but Georgia, North and South Carolina threatened to leave the union if that was officially added to the Constitution. Congress voted to kick the can down the road to 1808, protecting the legal trade of human beings until that time.
In 1780, the new Massachusetts Constitution stated, “All men are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right on enjoying and defending their lives and liberties.” Arguing that slavery violated that sentiment, a woman known as Mum Bett sued for her freedom and won. She changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman, and her precedent-setting case helped end slavery in Massachusetts. She is quoted as saying, “If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.”
During this time gradual emancipation occurred through legislation in some Northern states, but always with strings attached. In New York, Black children born after July 4, 1799 were legally free when they turned 25 (28 if they were male). The law was meant to compensate enslavers by allowing people to be held captive during their most productive years.
The Reverend Richard Allen was born enslaved and moved to Philadelphia after purchasing his freedom. There he joined St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, where he initially preached to integrated congregations but soon was directed to preach a separate service only for Black parishioners. Dismayed that Black people were still treated as inferiors in what was meant to be a holy space, in 1787 Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and started the Mother Bethel AME Church. For communities of free Black Americans, churches like Allen’s were places not only of worship but also of learning and civic organizing, providing critical resources to Black Americans in a clearly unjust society. Today at least 7,000 AME congregations exist globally, including Allen’s original church.
In 1794, Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin. The cotton gin made it possible to clean cotton faster and get products out for sale much quicker. But the land used to grow cotton was spent, so in 1803 Thomas Jefferson made a deal with Napolean Bonaparte and bought 830,000 square miles of land for $15 million dollars. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the U.S. and dramatically expanded both its capacity for cotton production and need for forced labor.
In 1808, Congress finally passed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which terminated the legal trans-Atlantic slave trade in America, but intensified the buying and selling of enslaved Black people already in the country. With the newly purchased land from the Louisiana Purchase and a lack of new imported labor, an estimated one million enslaved Black Americans were forcibly relocated to the Deep South to work in cotton, sugar, and rice fields. Increasingly, Black families were separated during this process.
On March 16, 1827, the same year slavery was abolished in New York, Peter Williams Jr., John Russwurm, and Samuel Cornish founded Freedom’s Journal, the first newspaper owned and operated by Black Americans. Their first editorial said, “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations.” At its zenith, the paper circulated in 11 states and internationally. By the start of the Civil War, at least two dozen Black-owned papers had followed in the footsteps of Freedom’s Journal, including Frederick Douglass’s paper, The North Star.
In 1831, Nat Turner led 70 free and enslaved Black Americans in a revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. He and his fighters freed enslaved people and killed almost 60 white men, women, and children. As the state militia closed in, Turner went into hiding but was caught and hung a few months later. Enslavers were frightened by the deadly and powerful act of resistance. Wealthy Virginian Eleanor Weaver wrote to her family: “We hope our government will take some steps to put down Negro preaching. It is those large assemblies of Negroes causes the mischief.” Yet another set of laws were implemented restricting both free and enslaved Black people, further limiting their ability to assemble, learn reading and writing, and move about the country.
Rhoda Phillip’s name was written down for the first time in 1832, the year she was sold. She was purchased when she was 1 year-old, along with her mother Milley and her sister Martha, for $550. The enslaver Thomas Gleaves left Rhoda to his family in his will, listing her value as $200. She remained enslaved until the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation. When she died, the Gleaves family ran an inhumane obituary reading, “Auny Rhody was raised by Mr. Gleaves and has lived with the family all her life. She was one of the old-time darkies that are responsible for the making of so many of their young masters.” The Gleaves treated this human being like a pet, an example of one of the many horrible iniquities of slavery.
In 1846, Colonel Henry W. Adams of the Virginia Militia started a slave patrol in Pittsylvania County. They would “visit all Negro quarters and other places suspected of entertaining unlawful assemblies of slaves… orany others strolling from one plantation to another, without a pass from his or her master or mistress or overseer, and take them before the next justice of the peace, who if he shall see cause, is hereby required to order every such slave… aforesaid to receive any number of lashes, not exceeding 20 on his or her back.” Patrols such as these were legally operated throughout the nation.
The abolitionist movement was comprised of people who wanted to end slavery everywhere. It was a diverse movement that included Black and white people, mostly religious but some not. There was typically an overlap between abolitionists and women’s suffragists. There were different opinions within the group, and not all of their ideas were good. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, proposed the idea of freeing enslaved people and sending them to Africa. The movement officially jelled in 1830, partially spurred by the Protestant revival known as the Second Great Awakening, which focused on morality and posited that the institution of slavery ran contrary to Christian teachings.
In 1850, Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Act, which required all U.S. citizens help capture Black Americans who had escaped slavery. This act created a legal obligation for all Americans to enforce the institution of slavery, regardless of how they felt about it. This legislation deepened the divide between abolitionists and enslavers and is an important philosophical milestone on the path to the Civil War. Black people could not testify on their own behalf in any case in any state, so if a white person incorrectly identified their free or enslaved status in court, they could be forced into slavery without any way to defend themselves. Additionally, a Black person’s freedom could be challenged at any time by any white person. A Black man from Virginia, Joseph Trammell, created a small metal tin in 1852 to protect his certificate of freedom, which carried everywhere and had to re-register for every few years in the Virginia courts. Even in free states, laws were in place to limit Black Americans. They could not own firearms, vote, or learn to read and write.
On March 7, 1854, Sally and her three daughters, Sylvia, Charlotte, and Elizabeth, were sold for $1,200. Sally was able to remain with her children for a short time, and then as happened to most enslaved women, she was forcibly separated from her daughters. The ability to bear children and “increase” gave a special value to Black women, and the American laws ensured a child born to an enslaved woman was the property of the enslaver to sell for profit or force to work. Rape was commonplace, and enslavers frequently sold their own children produced from these assaults. White women gave no alliance to the Black mothers and daughters they claimed as property.
Scott v. Sandford is widely considered to be the worst decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court. Dred Scott was an enslaved Black man who was held by the enslaver John Emerson of Missouri. Emerson was in the military and the family moved around a lot, including stints in Illinois and Wisconsin, which were free states. Scott married during this time, and his wife Harriet joined the family. They all moved back to Missouri, and Emerson died in 1843. Scott tried to buy his and Harriet’s freedom from Emerson’s widow, who refused, so he sued. His attorneys decided to push his case forward, and Harriet’s fate would be decided by his. A state court declared him free in 1850, but the decision was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852. This violated a long-standing legal tradition in Missouri of “once free, always free.” Emerson’s widow left Missouri and turned over her assets, including Scott and Harriet, to her brother, John Sanford, a resident of New York. Scott’s lawyers sued Sanford (incorrectly spelled Sandford on court documents) in federal court because the parties lived in different states. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1857 issued their 7-2 decision stating that no Black American could petition the court because they were not “citizens within the meaning of the Constitution.” This decision effectively stated that Black Americans were not and never would be citizens of the United States. It also invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which declared all territories west of Missouri were free. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney argued that Congress had exceeded its authority in the Missouri Compromise because it had no power to abolish slavery. This was another important milestone pushing the country toward Civil War. States’ rights regarding the institution of slavery were central to why the war started. Southern enslavers wanted to be able to take slavery with them everywhere they went, and Northern states wanted all new territories to be free. One Georgia newspaper said of the Dred Scott decision: “The Southern opinion upon the subject of Southern slavery is now the supreme law of the land,” and opposition to the practice is “morally treason against the Government.” Papers in the North exploded with condemnation of the verdict. Northern state courts upheld contrary decisions, for example Maine’s Supreme Court gave Black Americans the right to vote in state and federal elections. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that any enslaved person entering the state automatically became free and could not be re-enslaved. Several states followed suit and issued similar decisions freeing anyone who passed within their borders. Scott and his wife did eventually receive their freedom. They were purchased by the Blow family (who originally sold them to Emerson) and freed later that year.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected to the Presidency without a single Southern electoral vote. By this year, 4 million enslaved Black Americans were living in the United States. Over half lived in the cotton-producing states of the South.
When the Civil War began in 1861, enslaved Black Americans escaped north in droves to join the Union Army and fight for freedom. President Lincoln originally denied letting Black men join the military, but as the Union racked up casualties he cared less about the public’s acceptance of Black allies. In 1862 Congress passed the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, which allowed Lincoln to “employ as many persons of African descent” as he could. 180,000 Black men enlisted in the United States Colored Troops, nearly one-tenth of all soldiers during the Civil War.
The Emancipation Proclamation, officially issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, established that all enslaved people “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Juneteenth is the celebration of this document. The freedom did not extend to the millions of enslaved people in states that were not part of the Confederacy- Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware- or any state already under Northern control.
In April 1865, the end of the Civil War came when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. In December 1865, 246 years after the “20 and odd Negroes” were sold in Virginia, the 13th Amendment finally ended America’s horrific tenure as a slave nation. Although basic freedom had been secured, many of the laws limiting this freedom for Black Americans were still in place, and the next period of Black American history is fraught with injustice, inequality, and segregation.