What would happen in America if we told the correct history about who we are as a people and how this great land came into existence? Can America handle the truth about her history? America is influenced by the media, the scripts written and the stars selected to create the image and intent of the script. It is romantic to think and be told that we all came over here to the new world in search of religious freedom, and that we were good people seeking to do good things in a new place. The idea that most of us came over here in the bottom of boat and some of us in chains does not fit the image of praying settlers seeking peace and justice for themselves and willing to give that same justice to others. Slavery in America gives a more raw picture of our history, and the fact that we have worked to overcome so much of that history gives us the spiritual truth about who we are as a people and our still becoming vision.

Slavery in America: Historical Overview
By Ronald L. F. Davis, Ph. D.
California State University, Northridge

On the eve of the American Civil War approximately 4 million enslaved African Americans lived in the southern region of the United States of America. The vast majority worked as plantation slaves in the production of cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice. Very few of these enslaved people were African born principally because the importation of enslaved Africans to the United States officially ended in 1808, although thousands were smuggled into the nation illegally in the 50 years following the ban on the international trade. These enslaved people were the descendants of 12 to 13 million African forbearers ripped from their homes and forcibly transported to the Americas in a massive slave trade dating from the 1400s. Most of these people, if they survived the brutal passages from Africa, ended up in the Caribbean (West Indies) or in South and Central America. Brazil alone imported around five million enslaved Africans. This forced migration is known today as the African Diaspora, and it is one of the greatest human tragedies in the history of the world. (See the Map of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the Geography Section of this site.)

Slavery in North America differed significantly from slavery in the rest of the Americas. In the first place, far fewer slaves were brought into what became the United States, only around 500,000 compared to perhaps 12 to 13 million imported into the Caribbean and South and Central America. Most of these imports to North America ended by 1770, moreover, except for a burst of activity by a few southern states after the American Revolution. Secondly, the fact that the English people had little experience with slavery in comparison to the Spanish and Portuguese meant that little historical reference existed for them to draw upon in the early years. Initially, the first slaves in the Virginia colony were looked upon as workers rather than as property, and some of them were treated much like white indentured servants. The enslaved Africans often worked along side the indentured European laborers in the tobacco fields of the Chesapeake region. Nor were the Africans especially valued. It was cheaper in the early years to bring in white laborers from England as indentured servants than to pay for slaves. And most whites looked upon Africans as morally and intellectually inferior, in any case.

For complex reasons, the value and presence of enslaved workers from Africa began to grow after 1676 in the Virginia colony. For one thing, white indentured servants could easily run away. They also demanded to be treated like Englishmen, especially in terms of their rations of grog and time-off from labor. Importantly too, the supply of white indentured servants began to decline as more working-class whites found employment back home in British industries, commerce, and shipping. And the increase in the life span of indentured servants in the new world meant that many of them began to live long enough to claim the share of lands promised to those who had labored the full terms of their indenture-usually six years. Enslaved Africans, on the other hand, could not easily blend into the surrounding white population by escaping-and Native Americans were often employed as slave-catchers. Nor could they make demands upon their masters for humane treatment, justice, or land.

 

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