We need to talk about slavery because the people of this nation have been lied to. To start this conversation, we need some context and contrast. Let us begin with something simple. You have probably heard the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Would it surprise you that our Founders included enslaved people in this idea? Would it surprise you that some of our Founders worked diligently to fulfill that promise for people of all colors? I know. That is probably not the narrative you were sold on. Well, perhaps it is time to change that narrative.
Let us continue by examining some of the words of the guy who inspired the Revolution. His name was Thomas Paine. Long before the Constitution or Declaration of Independence, Paine wrote amazingly influential pieces such as “Rights of Man,” “Common Sense,” and “African Slavery in America,” – which denounced the African slave trade. Paine’s work inspired many, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who were both fairly outspoken about the institution as well. Of course, Franklin was particularly against slavery, having spent much of his youth as an indentured servant himself.
The previous paragraph is probably enough to make most people confused. Well, I contend that as a nation, we should be proud that from the beginning of the United States, many people were proactively working to fulfill the promise of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence for ALL PEOPLE. Slavery is a terrible institution, but slavery in early America was not as one-sided as many have suggested it to be.
For the sake of conversation, let us ignore that slavery existed in Central America long before the Europeans arrived (because both the Mayans and Aztecs kept slaves) (University of Texas, n.d.). Let us also ignore that Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, with his African slaves by his side, and then captured about five hundred natives and shipped them back to Spain as enslaved people (Costly, n.d.). What is essential for us to understand is that Columbus was a Spaniard and that this was over 290 years before the United States would ever grace a map. It is also important to note that this went on for some time before the English arrived. The English did not have permanent settlements in the New World until more than a century after the Spaniards – where slavery was already well established. Of course, the British would continue the practice, but the point is that slavery existed in the Americas for hundreds, if not thousands of years before the United States was even a thought.
When the British did arrive, their first slaves were brought to the North American British colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. My next article will discuss forgotten truths about some of these slaves but understand that Jamestown was a colony of Britain and that colony was subject to the slave trade, which the British thrust upon them. While the colonists may have eventually owned slaves, it is critical to understand that slavery was a component of British economics, not necessarily an American idea.
Let me be abundantly clear in the idea that slavery in the Americas cannot be blamed on the United States, as the United States was not even a country during its (slavery) introduction or for the century and a half that followed. To further clarify, the U.S. would not be in a position to do anything about slavery for another 164 years because the United States was not a nation yet. However, when the country was in a position to do something about it, it did.
Indeed, many of those who would eventually be born (generations later) and become the Founding Fathers of the United States, these men were, in fact, British Colonists. Being British, some of them did participate in economic norms of the time, such as slavery. However, many did not like the institution of slavery and vocalized it repeatedly. It would take a war, separating themselves from British influence, and a bit of time to really get anything changed. That is life. Moreover, it is important to note that some of those would-be Founders would go on to be considered the Fathers of the Abolitionist movement.
The argument is often that the Founders ignored the evils of slavery. That is simply not true. Just take Thomas Jefferson, for example. Thomas Jefferson is often attacked today because he “engaged in slavery.” Many of the ignorant call him a racist bigot and have called to have his memorials destroyed based on this perception. Setting aside the idea that Sally Hemings (a slave) had at least six children who are now believed to have been fathered by Thomas Jefferson, we should know that Jefferson was anything but a racist, bigoted slave owner (Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2000). Moreover, these children were the result of repeated rapes.
In truth, Thomas Jefferson proactivity tried to do his part to end the institution of slavery. Before the Constitution was complete, Jefferson wrote directions for the different Western territories, saying, “That after the year 1800 of the Christian æra, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted to have been personally guilty (National Archives, 1784).” He would also encourage others to move this goal along. On July 14th, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Edward Rutledge and said, “I congratulate you, my dear friend, on the law of your state for suspending the importation of slaves, and for the glory, you have justly acquired by endeavoring to prevent it forever. This abomination must have an end, and there is a superior bench reserved in heaven for those who hasten it (Jefferson. 1787).” Does this sound like someone who ignored the evils of slavery?
And let us not forget this often ignored historical truth. Most Americans have not been taught about the deleted slave trade cause in Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence. Not only does Jefferson call out the hypocrisies of the Christian King, but Jefferson also made it very clear that slavery was an unwelcomed addition to the new world and actually encouraged slaves to rise up in insurrection against their slaveholders. That does not sound like the monster he is often portrayed as these days, and he should be celebrated for his attempts to bring the institution of slavery to an end.
Freedom-loving Americans understand what Freedom is – regardless of color. This has been a reality since the beginning and leading right up to the Civil War. Now, it may seem odd, but even many in the South were actually opposed to slavery, as well. In fact, something else you will probably not read about in your modern history books is that in 1856, Robert E. Lee wrote a letter to his wife saying slavery was “a moral and political evil.” Is it not a little odd how such words are rarely shared? Of course, he had not owned slaves in many years by the time the Civil War occurred, so it should make one wonder what he was fighting for in the first place.
If what I have shared thus far seems counterintuitive, or if you find yourself wondering why you were never taught this, then you are about to be shocked yet again. It may surprise many to discover that slavery was not a white-on-black thing. What most people choose to ignore is the fact that there were thousands upon thousands of white slaves, tan slaves, black slaves, and red slaves. On the other side of that same coin, there were white slave owners, tan slave owners, red slave owners, and yes… even black slave owners.
Ironically enough, the first “legal” slave owner in the new world was a black man named Anthony Johnson (PBS, n.d.). Moreover, statistics show that when freed from slavery, blacks became slave masters to a very high degree. Interestingly enough, disproportionately to whites (Grooms, 1997). For example, in 1830, nearly a fourth of the freed Black slave masters in South Carolina owned ten or more slaves, several of which owned more than 30. This far outpaced that of the white slave owners. Some blacks owned even more than that. Like Justus Angel and Mistress L. Horry, who each owned at least 84 slaves. In Charleston alone, 125 freed blacks owned slaves. North Carolina had at least 69 freed black slave owners.
This was not just a Carolina problem. Henry Louis Gates Jr., writing for the African-American website “Roots,” said, “In a fascinating essay reviewing this controversy, R. Halliburton shows that free black people have owned slaves in each of the thirteen original states and later in every state that countenanced slavery, at least since Anthony Johnson and his wife Mary went to court in Virginia in 1654 to obtain the services of their indentured servant, a black man, John Castor, for life (Gates, 2013).” I want you to take note of that last part, “indentured servant… for life” it will come up again soon.
The country’s leading African-American historian, Duke University professor John Hope Franklin, has shown that in New Orleans alone, over 3,000 freed blacks owned slaves, to the tune of over 12,000 slaves. At least six of those owned 65 or more slaves. One freed black (C. Richards) owned 152 slaves. This story repeats over and over and over throughout the southern states (Hall, 2014). You can read more about that by clicking here.
The question you may be asking yourself is, why? Well, the answer is quite simple; for the same reason, anyone else engaged in the business of slavery; economics. John Hope Franklin states this clearly in his book by saying, “There were instances, however, in which free Negroes had a real economic interest in the institution of slavery and held slaves in order to improve their economic status (Franklin & Higginbotham, 2011).”
The point is that it was a widespread problem and not just a white-on-black issue. Many would be surprised to learn about the plethora of black landowners, black slave owners, and so on. Of course, no conversation on black empowerment would be complete without discussing the Confederate William Ellison (Gale Library, 2008). He is said to be South Carolina’s biggest black slave owner and arguably the cruelest slave owner in American history due to the treatment of his slaves and his slave breeding practices. However, most are unfamiliar with his name.
The question we should be asking ourselves is, why is this not taught in our schools? Well, it is probably for the same reason that you are not taught that less than five percent of white Americans are even descendants of slave owners (Medved, 2007). Or perhaps it is for the same reason you are not taught that the Cherokee Indians fought for the Confederacy against the North in the attempt to keep their over 4600 slaves (Oklahoma History Center, 2009)(Parker, n.d.). The fact is that if you knew the truth, the establishment could not continue to lie or divide us, and you might start looking for the REAL problem.
Perhaps the point that should really be expressed here is that the United States was barely 74 years old when slavery was finally put to an end in this country. What I want you to understand is that for thousands upon thousands of years, slavery was the norm around the planet, and the United States was able to end it in a single lifetime. That is pretty amazing. And while people from every color engaged in the practice to a substantial degree, and even though the history of slavery spans nearly every culture, nationality, and religion, from ancient times to the present day; the United States led the way in stopping it, and many of our Founders (like Thomas Jefferson) wanted to be done with it well before this nation even started.
Something else to note is that while the colonists declared their independence in 1776, they did not actually acquire it until the peace treaty was signed in 1783. Then, after that, they needed to write a new Constitution, which was adopted in 1789. And it was not until 1791 that the Bill of Rights was even added to help guarantee unalienable rights. So as you can see, things took time back then. I am sure you can agree that the progress that was made was incredible nonetheless.
Yes, slavery was a dark time in history. Slavery was a dark time in our own history. However, slavery in the context of this conversation was also a very brief time in our history. What we must understand is that the U.S. (or its Founders) did not start slavery or ignore it – they ended it. As Thomas Jefferson said, it was an evil that was thrust upon the colonies. And while tragic, it was not like the U.S. was neck-deep in it either. You might be amazed to discover that the colonies received under 4 percent of ALL the African slaves shipped across the Atlantic. The Root – the same website mentioned previously – states that of the 10.7 million to have crossed and survived the Middle Passage, only somewhere between 388,000 and 450,000 Africans actually made it to the colonies or States (Gates, 2014).
Understand that this means that well over 96% of ALL African men, women, and children who were kidnapped, sold, and taken from their homes (by African or Islamic slave traders) – (define irony) were sent somewhere OTHER than U.S. territory. Let me also remind you that the majority of today’s U.S. population’s forefathers never even owned slaves of any color and that the REAL prosperity in this country actually came from states who had freed their slaves first. The narrative being sold to you is simply wrong. This nation was founded on neither slavery nor genocide.
Can you imagine how much more united this country would be if the TRUTH about slavery (white, black, and red) in America were taught? Can you imagine how empowered our communities would be if more knew these truths? Knowledge is indeed power, but perhaps we need a common truth to bring more people together, something our forefathers shared.
In my next article, I’ll discuss White Slavery.