Yuvan Sharma
27 June 2021: A History of Slavery in the United States
27.06.20215 Min Read — In History

Origin of Racism and Slavery

The origin of systemic racism against African-Americans in the United States has numerous potential explanations. Generally speaking, racism stemmed from different religions and the globally accepted norm of owning slaves who were of a different faith. In the United States specifically, it is thought that the white landowners wanted to have an advantage over African-Americans in terms of resources, and these acts of self-interest slowly started to be justified by the development of racist ideas. Therefore, the mistreatment that black people faced during the slavery era and beyond that did not start from pre-existing racist ideas. Rather, the white landowners needed justification for enslaving blacks and this need for justification led to racist ideas and centuries of anguish for African Americans.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Africans were brought into North America through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which was the systematic import of African men and women into the Caribbean, South America, and later North America to work as slaves. The largely agricultural nature of the region was the chief factor that drove the demand for slaves, as they provided cheap labor for the huge agricultural fields that were extremely profitable to the rich landowners. It is important to note that Americans were never the leaders in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which lasted from the 16th century to the 19th century. Rather, the slave trade to North America was only a fraction of the entire picture. The Portuguese and the Spanish settlers in the Americas were the ones who drove the majority of the slave trade. About 10 million Africans reached the Americas from Africa throughout the slavery era, but only about 388,000 of them reached North America. Instead, most of them were taken to Spanish territories in Central America, or the British and Dutch areas in the Caribbean, and the Portuguese territories in Brazil, which received about 4.8 million slaves. Initially, Portugal and Spain dominated the slave trade. Slowly, the British and Dutch slave trade increased, and the United States also joined in. The most troubling aspect of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade wasn’t the slavery that came after it. In fact, it was the journey from Africa to the Americas. The Africans were kidnapped, forcibly taken from their homes, or even bought from African kings in exchange for European goods and put onto ships with others like them. They were crowded below deck in pathetic conditions, resulting in a huge number of them dying due to hunger, thirst, and disease.

In addition to the inhumanity of slave trade, it had another disastrous side effect. Slave trade involved taking away the ablest section of Africa’s working population, young men, women, and children. This resulted in a long-term decline in population as well as economic productivity, though some experts argue this damage was largely limited due to the profit that African kings received from the slave trade. The United States abolished the import of slaves into its territory in 1808, but some illegal slave trade still continued till the late 1850s. Slave trade to the Americas ended totally in the 19th century as different regions gradually abolished it.

The Slavery Era, Southern Secession, and the Civil War

The Africans who did survive the journey to the United States lived a life full of cruelty, punishment, and hatred on part of their white masters. As explained before, slavery eventually led to the establishment of racist ideologies, and as a result, slaves had to deal with mistreatment on a daily basis. They had to work in the fields all day and were not given proper food, water, or shelter. They would be abused, flogged, and lynched for small wrongs, and female slaves would often be raped by their masters. Slaves were treated as animals, not as humans, and any slave who could read and write would be severely punished. The belief was that black people were not deserving of an education, and their place was below their white masters. Slaves were mainly in demand in the South, as the southern states were largely agriculture-dependent as opposed to the northern states which had been industrialized. As a result, the southern states were in support of slavery and it was legal in these states, but it was banned in some northern states. The information that we have today of slave life is through slave narratives, the narrations of slaves who ran away from their masters and succeeded in chronicling their stories. A noteworthy example is Solomon Northup, who was a free black man living as a violinist in New York when he was kidnapped and made to work as a slave for 12 years in Louisiana before he eventually managed to be freed. Northup wrote about his experience in detail in his memoir 12 Years a Slave. He wrote about how he would often be beaten up or flogged, and how another female slave, Patsey, who became his friend, would often be raped by their indifferent master. Northup’s candid memoir also showed how not all white masters were oblivious to the racist nature of slavery, as he writes about a previous master of his too, who was kind, treated him with respect, and even gave him a violin to play.

In 1860, when Abraham Lincoln won the election, seven Southern slave states seceded from the United States and formed the Confederacy. The main reason for the southern secession was the issue of slavery, as Abraham Lincoln was against it and wanted it to be abolished in any new territories America occupied. This secession led to the American Civil War, where the Union fought against the Confederacy of the southern states to try and reunite all the states of the country. The war began in 1861 and ended in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy. All the states once again became part of the Union. In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, which abolished slavery, except as a “punishment for crime,” a clause that has far-reaching impacts today in the criminal justice system and the “prison industry”.

Social Reconstruction

Social Reconstruction was the phase from 1865-1877 when the federal government made several changes to policy to address the inequality that had existed before the abolition of slavery. Reconstruction was made necessary by the newfound freedom of about 4 million black people who had previously been enslaved. As a result of this freedom, there were several economic, political and social changes that had to be made to integrate these ex-slaves into American society. As part of these changes, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were adopted, often known as the reconstruction amendments. The 13th amendment abolished slavery except for criminals, the 14th amendment secured citizenship rights for slaves and minority groups and the 15th amendment secured voting rights and prohibited discrimination in voting rights on the basis of race, color or previous status of servitude. Jobs and homes were created for ex-slaves through the introduction of sharecropping, which allowed landowners to rent land to them. However, sharecropping was often misused by landowners and black people were often unofficially used as slaves. After President Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became President. He was a Southerner and had a much more lenient stance to those who had formed the Confederacy. He addressed the problem of integrating the South back into the Union by allowing them to jon on terms favorable to them. The South was divided into five different military districts which were placed under Union generals. In 1877, after a closely contested election which yielded no clear winner, the Democrats and the Republicans made a deal known as the Bargain of 1877. The Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, would be made President in exchange for the removal of Union generals from the South. This deal effectively ended Reconstruction and ushered in the era of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, which would only end in the 1960s with the civil rights movement.