"Four hundred years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia"

‘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.’ - Mum Bett

People were kidnapped from Africa, forced into slavery, labor, and production of crops such as tobacco and cotton in the American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. Mid-19th century, America's westward expansion and the abolition movement caused great debates over slavery leading up to the Civil War. Union victory freed the nation's four million slaves. However, the legacy of slavery continued to influence American history and the civil rights movement that emerged a century after emancipation.

Slavery in America began in 1619, when the privateer The White Lion seized 20 Africans from the Portuguese slave ship Sao Jao Bautista and brought them to the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. By the 17th century, people in North America enslaved Africans as a cheaper labor source than poor European servants.

After the American Revolution, many colonists who did not depend on slavery for the agricultural economy linked the oppression of enslaved Africans to their own oppression by the British and thus called for Slavery's abolition.

In 1793, Eli Whitney, a Yankee schoolteacher, invented the cotton gin that could efficiently remove the seeds from the raw cotton fibers. As lands used for tobacco were exhausted, a large-scale transition from tobacco to cotton production further reinforced dependence on slave labor. As the Northern regions had completely abolished slavery between 1774-1804, the south remained dependent on it. By 1808, the U.S. Congress outlaws the African slave trade, but the enslaved population kept growing reading approximately 4 million by 1860.

Prior to the Civil War, enslaved people filled one-third of the Southern population. To make the slaves further dependent on their masters, they were prohibited from learning to read and write, and their activities were heavily restricted. Sexual liberties were taken from enslaved women, awards were given to obedient behaviors and all who rebelled were punished brutally.

‘Brethren, arise, arise! strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. ... Let your motto be resistance!’ - Henry Highland Garnet, 1843

One of the most famous revolts was led by Nat Turner in Southhampton County, Virginia in August 1831. Within two days, 75 blacks, murdered 60 whites before militia forces overwhelmed them. This event led to the slave owners using it as evidence that the blacks require an institution such as slavery to keep them under control and the slave codes became more strict to limit education and activities.

Between 1830-1870, the more African people were repressed in the South, the more the "Abolitionist movement" grew strong. Groups led by free Africans such as Frederick Douglas, white supporters such as William Lloyd Garrison (founder of The Liberator), Harriet Beecher Stowe (published antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin) strengthened the movement. Enslaved people of the south were helped to escape by northerners and free Africans via a loose network of safe houses starting in the 1780s. Known as the "Underground Railroad" an estimate of 40,000-100,000 slaves reached freedom.

The abolitionist feeling grew in the North as well as the tension between them and the South. Missouri compromise was made in 1820, admitting Missouri to the union as a slave state, Maine as a free state and all western territories north of Missouri's southern borders to be free soil. This was a wat to maintain an even balance between slave and free states. In 1850, after the Mexican-American War, the Kansas Nebraska Act opened all new territories won post-war to slavery leading to further bloodshed and conflicts between them and the anti-slavery forces.

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This led to further tension in the North, leading to the downfall of the old Whig Party and the birth of the Republican Pary. In 1857, the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court repealed the Missouri compromise, ruling that all territories were open to slavery. This was due to an enslaved man suing for his freedom when his master had taken him to a free territory.

In 1859, abolitionists and 22 men, including five black men, three of John Brown's sons occupied a federal arsenal, which led to the death of 10 people and Brown's hanging. This event, known as John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, made Brown to be known as a martyred hero in the north and a mass murderer in the South.

The Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln was elected as president in 1860. Lincoln's anti-slavery views were clear. However, the Central Union war at first only aimed to preserve the United States as a nation considering within three months after the Lincolns election, seven southern states withdrew from forming the Confederate States of America and four more after the Civil War began. As anti-slavery grew further in the North as well as the self-emancipation of many people fleeing enslavement as Union troops swept through the South, Abolition became a goal.

Lincoln issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation on September 22, 1862. On January 1, 1863, he made it official that “slaves within any State, or designated part of a State…in rebellion,…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” At first, slavery did not completely end until the passage of the 13th Amendment on December 18, 1865, after the Civil War as 186,000 black soldiers joined the Union Army and about 38,000 died. However, the post-war South remained precarious, and thus further challenges were faced during the Reconstruction period.

‘I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with 3,000 others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation.’ - Frederick Douglass

From the Smithsonian's Museum of African American History and Culture

Eventually, the enslaved people received the rights of citizenship and the “equal protection” of the Constitution in the 14th Amendment and the right to vote in the 15th Amendment. However, these provisions of the Constitution were often violated. Further violations were faced, such as the rise of the racist organization "Ku Klux Klan" in the South during reaching its peak by 1877. The "Civil rights movement" of the 1960s, almost a century later, helped achieve the greatest political and social gains for African Americans since Reconstruction.

‘The story of the African-American is not only the quintessential American story but it’s really the story that continues to shape who we are today.‘ - Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution






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