The African-American: A Journey from Slavery to
Freedom is an exhibit which shows America in crisis
and how that point in time was resolved. Slavery as an
issue in America was in constant conflict with the
founding Democratic principles of this nation. Slavery
therefore became the ultimate test of disunity within
the union of states which were already at odds in a
democracy espousing freedom for its people. At the
center of this conflict were the Africans who were
bought, sold, and used as workers on American soil.
The use of slave labor was a well known practice for
years in the world community.
slavery as a world-wide practice are covered in
hundreds of books and articles on the subject reaching
as far back to the ancient region of Mesopotamia
around 3500 BC.
For the Africans on American soil, that horrible
journey started with the developing territorial
colonies at a
time when workers were needed to keep
the economy of this new country solvent.
the use of indentured servants brought the first
Africans to America at Jamestown, Virginia. Poor
worked during this period as indentured
servants. A "contract" said that this service would
last from four to
seven years - thereby the said would
then become free. During this early period, some of
the first enslaved
Africans worked their way out of
this system and became free tradesmen and property
owners on American
soil. The quest for more land and
an economy based upon profit were two of the major
points that escalated
the demand for more slaves in
America. Therefore, Black slave workers became highly
in a system dependent upon lots of
manual labor. The entire southern American economy and
the states in
warm region needed laborers to work
on the plantations dealing with rice, indigo, tobacco,
and cotton. Other slaves labored as dock
workers, craft workers, and servants. Slaves in the
American region labored on small farms and as
skilled and unskilled workers in factories and along
as shipbuilders, fishermen, craftsmen, and
helpers of tradesmen.
Slavery on American soil grew at such a fast rate
that, by 1750, over 200,000 African slaves were here.
Fifty years later, that number grew to 700,000. In
South Carolina alone, African slaves outnumbered the
white population, and they made up more than one half
of the populations in the states of Maryland and
Virginia. The free Black American population did
expand to about 40,000 throughout the colonies by
The Slave System The system of slavery was so entrenched in the daily
routines on American soil that it had to be dealt with
as a National issue. Lengthy debates, political
compromises, moral dilemmas, slave rebellions, and a
Nation divided against itself suddenly had to face the
issue of enslaved Africans existing on American soil.
America condoned the "peculiar institution" of slavery
from 1619 up until the passage of the 13th Amendment
to the Constitution which abolished "slavery and
involuntary servitude" on December 18, 1865.
This period in American history left behind some of
the most unbearable scars on the African-Americans as
a people, but the free thinking decent people and
countless allies envisioned a broader, more humane
society - for they showed some of us the best of what
America should be. This exhibit: The African-American:
a Journey from Slavery to Freedom is about that
struggle and the historical events which lead up to
Most plantations were owner-operated and the planters themselves often worked in the fields. Of the total southern white population of 8,099,760 in 1860, only 384,000 owned slaves. Of these, 10,780 owned fifty or more. It was calculated that about 88 per cent of America's slave-owners owned twenty slaves or less.
The death-rate amongst slaves was high. To replace their losses, plantation owners encouraged the slaves to have children. Child-bearing started around the age of thirteen, and by twenty the women slaves would be expected to have four or five children. To encourage child-bearing (slave-breeding) some population owners promised women slaves their freedom after they had produced fifteen children. Young women were often advertised for sale as "good breeding stock".
Slave Market in America
THE BEGINNING OF SLAVERY
The first Africans in America arrived as Indentured
Servants via Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. From 1619 to
about 1640, Africans could earn their freedom working
as laborers and artisans for the European settlers.
Africans could become free people and enjoy some of
the liberties like other new settlers. By 1640,
Maryland became the first colony to institutionalize
slavery. In 1641, Massachusetts, in its written
legislative Body of Liberties, stated that "bondage
was legal" servitude, at that moment changing the
conditions of the African workers - they became
chattel slaves who could be bought and solely owned by
The Portuguese were the first to embark upon the slave
trade starting around 1562. The practice of slavery
grew to exponential proportions from 1646 up until
1790. A prime area for slaves was on the west coast of
Africa called the Sudan. This area was ruled by three
major Moorish empires Ghana (790-1240), Mali
(1240-1600), and Songhai (670-1591). Other smaller
nations were also canvassed by slavers along the west
coast; they included among them: Benin, Dahomey, and
Ashanti. The peoples inhabiting those African nations
were known for their skills in agriculture, farming,
and mining. The Africans of Ghana were well known for
smelting iron ore, and the Benins were famous for
their cast bronze art works. African tribal wars
captives which became a bartering resource in
the European slave market. Other slaves were kidnapped
by white and black hunters. The main sources of barter
used by the Europeans to secure African slaves were
glass beads, whiskey, ivory, and guns.
The rising demand for sugar, coffee, cotton, and
tobacco created a greater demand for slaves by other
slave trading countries. Spain, France, the Dutch, and
English were in competition for the cheap labor needed
to work their colonial plantation system producing
those lucrative goods. The slave trade was so
that, by 1672, the Royal African Company
chartered by Charles II of England superseded the
and became the richest shipper of human
slaves to the mainland of the Americas. The slaves
were so valuable
to the open market - they were
eventually called "Black Gold."
By the 17th century slaves could be purchased in Africa for about $25 and sold in the Americas for about $150. After the slave-trade was declared illegal, prices went much higher. Even with a death-rate of 50 per cent, merchants could expect to make tremendous profits from the trade. An estimated 15 million Africans were transported to the Americas between 1540 and 1850. To maximize their profits slave merchants carried as many slaves as was physically possible on their ships.
Chained together by their hands and feet, the slaves had little room to move. It has been estimated that only about half of the slaves taken from Africa became effective workers in the Americas. A large number of slaves died on the journey from diseases such as smallpox and dysentery. Others committed suicide by refusing to eat. Many of the slaves were crippled for life as a consequence of the way they were chained up on the ship.
Captured Africans were subjected to the worst forms of cruelty and inhumanity. Millions were crammed in the hulls of slave ships where disease ran rampant, where traders used any means of violence to subdue insurrection and as many as half died in transit.
The world will never know the exact number of enslaved Africans transported to America, but it is estimated that between 10 to 15 million were brought here, making it the largest forced migration in history.
But despite its immense significance, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is a subject only briefly discussed in our nationís classrooms. We must change that.
It is important for us to remember this dark period in our history and celebrate the efforts to bring it to an end, both to prevent such atrocities in the future and to confront the legacy of slavery that persists in this country to this day.