HISTORY

A Very Brief History of US Slavery

20 Africans first came to the colony of Virginia in 1619 and were sold as slaves.  Their expertise in tropical farming and ability to withstand tropical weather and European diseases made them suitable workers for the tobacco industry.  Both the slave trade and the tobacco industry subsequently exploded.  Africans were sold without regard to family, language or cultural ties.  While some Africans may have worked as indentured servants for a time, slavery was formalized into lifetime servitude by the 1660's, accompanied by the development of racism as its justification.

African slaves were not only responsible for the success of the tobacco industry but also for the cotton industry which was intertwined with the success of the mills and factories in the North. 

African slaves were not only responsible for the success of the tobacco industry but also for the cotton industry which was intertwined with the success of the mills and factories in the North. In addition to working in the field, African slaves skilled in carpentry and other crafts were hired out by their owners and sometimes allowed to keep a portion of their fee for themselves.  Eventually they were able to purchase their own freedom and freedom for their families which contributed to the development of free black communities in the South during the slave era.  A few of these free blacks even became slave owners themselves.

Slaves also worked as house servants.  Sometimes plantation owners would take into their home children they had fathered with slave women as companions for their white children or as maidservants and cooks.  Generally this did not mean a change in slave status; nor were they exempt from the laws that forbade slaves the right to read, write or assemble.

As slavery developed, more and more stringent laws governing every aspect of slave life also developed.  For instance laws were passed which determined freedom for newborns through the mother's status.  This meant that plantation owners were free to rape slave women without fear of reprisal or responsibility for their offspring.  In contrast, laws outlawing the partnering of white women and black men were stringent, the penalty often death.  Miscegenation laws existed in  was not overturned until 1967!

Africans worked on small farms with only 2 or 3 slaves, on huge plantations with as many as 150 - 200 slaves and on middle-size holdings.

Africans worked on small farms with only 2 or 3 slaves, on huge plantations with as many as 150 - 200 slaves and on middle-size holdings. Some slaves were manumitted (freed) upon the death of the owner; sometimes the relatives even honored this.  The living and working conditions varied from plantation to plantation, the constant being the state of slavery on each.  All were subject to being separated from their family by sale without notice.

Armed Rebellions

Organized armed rebellions, though ultimately betrayed and/or defeated, did occur.  The most famous of these were Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), Nat Turner (1831), and white radical abolitionist John Brown (1859). Read more.

Escape

Some slaves risked life and limb to find family that had been sold away from them.

Some slaves risked life and limb to find family that had been sold away from them.  Some ran further South and joined free black communities in port cities where they could anonymously earn money and perhaps return to the plantation and their family after a time.  Some escaped and joined Maroon societies, free "outlaw" black communities in the South.  Some Africans refused to be enslaved and jumped overboard on the Middle Passage or mutinied.

Many slaves made it to freedom on their own, singly, in twos, families of 10, or loosely formed groups of as many as 15 - 20. Some  trekked all the way to Canada where they feared neither extradition or re-enslavement. Others joined free black communities in the North like those in Columbia, Christiana or York PA.

Escape was never easy and often dictated by circumstance such as a plantation's financial or emotional upheaval.  A few spectacular escapes included Henry "Box" Brown who mailed himself to freedom or Ellen Craft who rode to freedom on a train posing as a white planter with her husband William as her servant.   Others came by way of established routes with guides or "abductors", Harriet Tubman being the most famous of these.  Still others depended on their own knowledge, planning and friendly faces along the way along what came to be known as the Underground Railroad. 

Underground Railroad

And who was this Underground Railroad?  It was field hands who sang a warning, slaves who met in secret at night to practice religious freedom and passed along a little food and information about which roads to avoid, Maroons who gave harbor, fruit sellers who conducted their "helpers" to freedom, men and women who drove wagons, ferried boats, who put a fugitive in touch with organized "conductors" of the Abolitionist movement.  Some of the more famous of these include blacks like William Still of Philadelphia as well as Quaker Thomas Garrett of Wilmington, DE and other freedom-loving whites.

Black Music

And what of the black music of the slave era?  Drums were recognized as a means of communications and outlawed as early as 1755.  Nonetheless, despite having to overcome language and cultural barriers, Africans developed a unique music, from an amalgam of sources, in the form of work songs, field hollers and spirituals.  Spiritual and religious expression was heavily supervised so some slaves held clandestine meetings in the woods at night in pursuit of their religious freedom.

 While a few spirituals like "Wade In De Water" , "Follow De Drinkin' Gourd" or "Oh, Freedom", have been lauded as escape and freedom songs, the primary function of the spirituals was seen until recently as expressing solely religious and spiritual sentiment, and indicating a willingness to wait for reckoning in the hereafter.

Read More

Remember to look at your local library and historical societies.

David Blight, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives Of Emancipation. Harcourt Inc 2007

Charles Blockson, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Flame International Inc, 1981

Betty Deramus, Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories From the Underground Railroad Atria Books 2005

Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States. Citadel Press, 1953

John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. Oxford University Press, 1999

James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson, The Books of American Negro Spirituals. Viking Press, 1925

Bernard Katz, Ed. The Social Implications of Early Negro Music in The United States. Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969

James Mellon, Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember: an Oral History. Grove Press, 1988

RC Smedley, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania. Stackpole Books, 2005

Eileen Southern, The Music of Black American: A History. WW Norton & Co Inc, 1971

Eileen Southern, Ed. Readings in Black American Music. WW Norton & Co Inc, 1971

William Still, The Underground Railroad. Echo Library, 2006

William J Switala, Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Stackpole Books, 2001

William J Switala, Underground Railroad in Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia. Stackpole Books, 2004