The first slaves were brought to the New World in 1619. The last were freed in 1865, when the passage of the 13th Amendment abolished "slavery and involuntary servitude." Some slaves were American Indians, but most were of African descent. By the year 1860 (when the Civil War began) over 12 million slaves had been shipped from Africa to the United States. Only 8% of American families owned slaves, but slavery had come to form the backbone of the plantation system, on which the economy of the South was dependent.
The abuses and cruelties of slavery are well-known. And as the new country grew and established its identity, slavery conflicted with its stated goals of freedom and equality. The issue was divisive even before the Revolutionary War, and after the war, it became even more controversial. In 1819, the U.S passed laws outlawing the slave trade, which meant that no more slaves could be imported into the country. But slavery inside the country was not outlawed. In 1820, Missouri petitioned to be added to the Union--as a slave state--and a political crisis erupted over whether to allow slavery in new states. Eventually, a compromise was reached: Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, while Maine would be admitted as a "free" (i.e., non-slave) state.
This compromise clearly did not solve the problem. The situation grew ever more inflamed as the years passed, and a healthy and vocal abolitionist movement formed. Eventually, the issue would divide the nation and serve as one of the most visible causes of the Civil War. In 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and in April 1861, the Civil War began.
Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, granting freedom from slavery effective January 1, 1863. The Civil War ended in April 1865; and the 13th Amendment was passed outlawing slavery. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1866; this defines a citizen as anyone born in the United States (except Native Americans), and thus ensured the right of citizenship to former slaves.
Obviously, passage of these laws did not end racism. Slavery still casts a long shadow, socially and psychologically.
For a timeline of the major events relating to slavery in American history, click here.
Slave narratives recounted the experiences of those who had escaped from slavery and found their way to freedom in the North or in other countries. From 1760 to 1947, more than 200 book-length slave narratives were published in the United States and England, and over 6,000 are known to exist. Those narratives published in the 1700s and early 1800s played an important role in the abolitionist movement, and in shaping public opinion in general. Slave narratives emphasized the traditional Christian ideals by which most people in the country at the time professed to live--even slave owners. By showing themselves to be as devoutly Christian as any white person, they broke down the barriers between writer and audience, slave and non-slave, white and African. Slave narratives also emphasized the physical and psychological cruelty of individual slave owners--especially towards women and children--thus claiming the readers' compassion and providing an object for their anger. The slave owner is depicted as someone who is able to victimize and torure at will. His civilized veneer is stripped away, and we see the worst of human nature. The slave owner (and by extension, society in general) is thus degraded by the institution of slavery.
Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) tells us in his narrative that he was born in what is today Nigeria, and came from a happy, distinguished family. But at the age of 11, he was captured by slave traders and eventually brought to the United States. He was baptized a Christian and served several masters. One of these allowed him to earn money on the side, and he was finally able to save enough to buy his freedom. He lived in the West Indies and in Central America for a while, but was always in danger of being forced back into slavery, so he moved to England, where slavery was illegal by then, and he became active in the abolitionist movement.
Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) was born in Edenton, South Carolina. Her first few years were happy ones, but when she was 6, her mother died and she was taken to live in her mother's owner's house, away from her father. She says this was the first time she realized she was a slave. Her owner was a kind woman, but she died 6 years later and willed Harriet to her 3-year-old niece. This placed her under the authority of the girl's father, who is known as "Dr. Flint" in her narrative. He was a cruel man. He first insisted she have sex with him when she was 15, saying she was his property and was therefore "subject to his will in all things." In an effort to reduce his power over her, she entered into a relationship with an unmarried white lawyer, who fathered her two children. Eventually, fearing for the safety of herself and her children, she went into hiding at her grandmother's house until she could find a way to escape to the North. Her hiding place was a hidden room: nine feet long by seven feet wide by three feet tall at its highest point. She was given food through a trapdoor. Harriet drilled a hole in the wall to allow in some light in a desperate attempt to retain her sanity. She lived in this small room for nearly seven years. She finally escaped to the North where, some years later, her employer was able to purchase her freedom for $300.
Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895) was born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore, near Easton. He was taken from his mother as an infant. When he was 9, he was sent to Baltimore to work as a house servant, and his mistress taiught him to read. He was returned to the plantation at age 15, but he was rebellious and determined not to submit to the authority of the owner and his overseers. At age 21, in 1838, he escaped to Massachussetts. He attended an abolition meeting in 1841 and when invited to speak, was so eloquent that the Massachussetts Anti-Slavery Society hired him as a speaker. He toured the North for several years, speaking in favor of abolition, and in 1845 published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He toured England for the next two years, lecturing, and returned to the United States only after his freedom had been purchased. During the Civil War, he recruited troops for the Union Army. After the war, he was given a political position in Washington, D.C., and eventually served as U.S. Minister to Haiti.
For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1
2. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
3. Donna Campbell, "The Slave Narrative." American Literature Timeline. 2007. http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/slave.htm
4. Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. Eds. William L.Andrews and William S. McFeeley. Norton Critical Edition.
5. Harriet Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.
--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.