American slavery (fl. 1619-1865) is slavery as practised by the people we now call White Americans. It is so much a part of their history that it has even shaped the word “white”. It tore America apart in civil war in the 1860s. Some argue that “slavery by another name” went on after 1865 – the chain gangs, prison labour and so on. This post is about the sort that went on openly from 1619 to 1865 with the full support of the law.
White Americans bought at least 455,000 black slaves in the Transatlantic slave trade, mostly in the 1700s, mostly from West Africa. They also had some Native American slaves.
Slavery was not about race till the 1660s – before then it was about religion. And some blacks were not slaves but indentured servants like whites. There was no colour line. That came in the late 1600s to divide the working class to make it easier to control.
Slaves cooked, cleaned, took care of white children, cleared the land, drained swamps, grew tobacco, cotton, sugar, hemp and rice. They built the White House and the Capitol Building. They built much of the country and made it rich. But that wealth went to whites, not blacks.
Slaves could not own property, make much money, go to school, go to court, change employers, move, protect their families, send money to families back in Africa, strike or do much about working conditions. It was dangerous to show anger in front of whites or express thoughts of one’s own. With torn and bleeding hearts they smiled, as Paul Lawrence Dunbar put it.
White Fake Christianity approved: the Curse of Ham in the Bible said so! So did white science.
Whites believed that blacks were content as slaves – black song and dance proved it! But runaways and slave uprisings like Nat Turner’s told another story.
We have hundreds of written accounts by former slaves. They tell of rape, torture, sadism, overwork, family separations and too little food and clothing. They were not imagining it: an old African graveyard discovered in New York City showed that even children suffered from joint pain and torn muscles, presumably from being made to carry loads too heavy for them. Half of those in the graveyard were under 12, most of them not babies.
Except for the land, slaves were the main form of wealth in America. The top 10% of slave owners owned 93% of the wealth in the South. Of the richest people in America, two-thirds were slave owners.
Whites used slaves as collateral in business deals, gave them away as wedding presents. Washington, DC and every town in the South had a slave market. Whites sold over a million people – even their own children.
Northern states outlawed slavery between the 1770s and 1830s, but even they profited from slavery. They got rich from selling slaves, tobacco, cotton and sugar. That money went into banks, insurance companies, shipping firms and universities. They built factories to turn slave-grown cotton into cloth, the beginning of the industrialization of America.
Source: Nell Irvin Painter, “Creating Black Americans” (2006), mainly.
- Broader pictures of which American slavery is a part:
- Arab slavery
- Slavery by Another Name
- The Transatlantic slave trade
- slave patrols
- minstrel show
- Harriet Tubman
- American abolitionists
- Arguments about slavery:
- How slavery affects the white lens: