A brief history of slavery in the US

In The 1619 Project of the New York Times that I wrote about earlier, the opening piece that frames the rest of the magazine is by Nikole Hannah-Jones. She looks at the history of how slavery became embedded in the very legal fabric of the nation from the very beginning in August 1619 and she argues that it has been the struggle by slaves and their descendants to achieve basic decency that has resulted in so many of us having rights that the original slaves and their descendants were denied.

Those men and women who came ashore on that August day were the beginning of
American slavery. They were among the12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.

Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America. Those individuals and their descendants transformed the lands to which they’d been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. Through backbreaking labor, they cleared the land across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice. They grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity, accounting for half of all American exports and 66 percent of the world’s supply. They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the railroads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South — at one time, the second- richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island ‘‘slave trader.’’ Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities. It was the relentless buying, selling, insuring and financing of their bodies and the products of their labor that made Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector and New York City the financial capital of the world.

But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.

Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all

Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability right.

This is what really bugs me about so many of my fellow recent immigrants, especially from Asia, that we do not acknowledge the deep debt that we owe to the black community for the rights we enjoy but think that we somehow earned it ourselves because of our own hard work or ability or that it was freely bestowed on us. If doors are now open to us in the world of education and business, it is because they were forced open by generations of black people who were willing to suffer and die for the cause.


  1. Jenora Feuer says

    Before the abolishment of the international slave trade…

    And people forget when the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended: even in the U.S., importation of slaves was outlawed by 1808, and several states had started outlawing it thirty years earlier. Note that outlawing the slave trade and outlawing slave ownership were two different things. In particular, much of the U.S. support for ending the slave trade came from slave owners who realized that their ‘breeding stock’ would be much more valuable if no new slaves were arriving from overseas…

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