Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 4: Slavery or, “America’s Original Sin”

Welcome back to “a very special episode” of Anti-Social Studies! Remember when TV shows did that back in the 90s? There would be a “very special” episode of Boy Meets World where Shawn joined a cult. That’s not a joke. That was a real episode. 

But today we do actually have a special episode because, before we go any further down the road of American history – which, spoiler alert, is coming to a fork in the road called the Civil War – we need to stop and talk about slavery. Now, I’ll be honest, if I was more skilled I would have found a way to weave the story of slavery seamlessly into our previous episodes. I don’t like the “Black History Month” approach to history because black history is American history. But I do think that it can also be impactful to focus in on one specific topic and trace that over a long period of time. So that’s what we’re doing today. Because before we get into sectionalism and compromise after compromise over the issue of slavery – which is vague and doesn’t actually force us to consider the very real, very human face of this system – I want to make sure we’re all clear on exactly what we’re talking about when we say “slavery.”

Now, let’s also address the big white elephant in the room. Am I the best person to preach about the atrocities of slavery and the problems of racism? Well, it’s a podcast so you can’t see me but I’m not. I’m a white girl from a very white neighborhood in the still-quite-segregated city of Austin, Texas. There are people and podcasts far more qualified than me to dive into the daily experiences of enslaved people. For example, the New York Times has started a new podcast called “1619” that goes in depth across multiple episodes about slavery. I’m honestly not sure if I can do justice to the daily life of an enslaved African American so in today’s episode I’m focusing, like I usually do, on the big picture. 

Where did slavery and racism come from? How did it get established in the American colonies and how was the institution of slavery impacted by the historical developments we’ve already discussed, like the Revolution? And how did enslaved people react to and resist enslavement? Today’s episode is all about Slavery or, “America’s Original Sin.” This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in, and let’s go back in time…

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) and either William Hackwood or Henry Webber; “Josiah Wedgewood…produced the emblem as a jasper-ware cameo at his pottery factory. Although the artist who designed and engraved the seal is unknown, the design for the cameo is attributed to William Hackwood or to Henry Webber, who were both modelers at the Wedgewood factory.” ( PBS]) [Public domain]

Act 1: Hey Siri, where does racism come from?

I really hope that set off your Siri. I like to imagine Siris all over the world frantically scrolling through their robo-rolodex like, “Wait… why IS racism a thing?”

But seriously. Why is racism a thing? Because it doesn’t have to be. But it’s so ingrained in us that it exists that most of us never consider that there was a point in history when it didn’t exist. Now, I want to be clear: xenophobia is basically as old as civilization. The Greeks called foreigners barbaros, which is where we get the label “barbarian.” (Fun fact: the word came from them imitating the sound of a foreign language “barbarbarbar.”) And it makes sense that when you’re in an ancient civilization just trying to grow wheat and appease the gods, amongst only people you’ve known your entire life, who look like you and speak the same language as you, it makes sense that you would be nervous if a stranger walked into your river valley with new customs, clothing, and language. But today I’m not talking about the general “us vs. them” mentality that arose amongst civilizations, which was sometimes delineated along ethnic lines.

No, I’m talking about “white vs. black” racism. That rose up during the 16th and 17th centuries and we’ve been paying for it ever since. To be more accurate, people of color have been paying for it ever since. 

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

So first, a little bit about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When the Europeans began looking for a new labor source in their American colonies, they turned to Africa. Why? I addressed this in more detail in season 1 – go check out Episode 107 for a lot better explanation – but, basically, Africa had been a major source of slaves for hundreds of years. They were traded, often by powerful African kingdoms, to the Islamic caliphates to be enslaved in the Arabic and Asian world, sometimes being sent across the Indian Ocean to East and Southeast Asia. But the numbers traded per year, as far as we know, were relatively low (compared to what’s about to happen on the Atlantic) and the type of slavery was different. It was still awful and still slavery, but as we’ll come to see in a second, American-style slavery was arguably the worst version of slavery we’ve seen in world history. 

But even with a slave trade already functioning in Africa, it wasn’t a racially-based system. People weren’t enslaved because they were black; they were enslaved and most of them happened to be black. But we also see evidence of enslaved Arabs, Asians, and white Europeans. The word “slave” actually comes from the Middle English “sclave,” which relates to the Greek sklabos for “Slavs.” So it’s generally believed that the word for “slave” is directly related to the Slavic people of Eastern Europe, because many of them were sold into slavery around Europe and Asia. So what changed to make “slave = black” around 1500?

Well, for one, the slave trade exploded. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were forced onto ships and taken to the “New World.” At least 1.5 million didn’t even make it to the Americas because they died on the ship, euphemistically named the “Middle Passage.” So now you had exclusively black people serving as enslaved labor, which created the false rationale amongst colonists growing up in that world to believe that “slave = black.” But this wasn’t an accident. So let’s dive into the worst myth that exists around slavery – and teachers, fair warning, it’s probably something you’ve been saying in your classroom for years (I know I have.)

The Myth of the Necessity of Slave Labor

“After indigenous people died of disease or refused to work, Europeans increasingly turned to enslaved Africans to work on the New World plantations. Already exposed to ‘Old World’ diseases, they were better suited to fulfill the increasing demand for labor in the Americas.” Sound familiar? Yeah. That’s the way we explain it. Enslaved Africans filled the labor void that Native Americans couldn’t fill. And they were better suited because they weren’t dying of disease like the natives. And is it factually correct? Yes. But here’s the thing: the myth lies in the inevitability of it. The way it’s taught in schools, the Europeans had no other option – they needed people to work on their plantations and the natives kept dying or running away, yadda yadda yadda, they enslaved tens of millions of Africans and their descendants. That’s insane. There were SO many other options.

Option #1: I would argue that if your line of work – i.e. cotton farming – requires so much labor that you literally have no other option besides enslaving other human beings, then maybe you should find a different line of work or, I don’t know, scale back on your business model? But that’s just me. 

Or, Option #2:  just pay people to work on your plantation? Minimum wage doesn’t exist yet and you’re making enough money to buy nice wigs, ship wine over from France, and – oh yeah – BUY SLAVES. You’re telling me you can’t just use some of that money to instead pay for workers? But then you would have to treat them well enough that they would stay, so I guess that’s an issue… 

But seriously, they did have other labor sources at the time. Most notably, they already had a long history of both indentured servitude and serfdom in Europe. Indentured servitude, in this context, meant that someone couldn’t pay their way to the Americas so they got a wealthy person to pay their expenses and then promised to work off their debt for a set amount of years – normally five to seven. So the financier got free labor and after the debt was paid, the worker now was in the New World, often able to get their own land for cheap and start building up their own wealth. That’s option #3

Or, slightly worse but way better than slavery, Europe had a millennia of experience with serfs. Serfs were laborers who were tied to a piece of land, unable to leave. But they were still viewed and treated as human beings, allowed to work their own plot of land, raise a family, etc. as long as they remained on their lord’s land to work the fields. South Carolina actually set up a system similar to serfdom – they wrote a law in 1686 establishing slaves as “freehold property,” meaning that they could not be moved or sold. So they were still enslaved, but they would be tied to that land – which also meant that they would have been better able to establish roots, a family, and intergenerational connections. But within 10 years, they reversed that decision in favor of Option #5…

So I’ve explained four solid options that are better than what we came up with. And what we came up with was horrifying: because behind “Door #5” was chattel slavery.

Chattel Slavery

“Chattel” is similar to the word “cattle” because they share an origin, along with the word “capital” (meaning, wealth.) So chattel slavery is when an enslaved person is no longer seen as a human being, they are considered property similar to a cow. Slaves in general were often referred to as “Black Gold” – they weren’t even a living, breathing cow, they were a precious metal. About 50 years after being founded, colonies started writing laws that established slaves as property that could be moved, sold, and – crucially – whose offspring would also be enslaved. 

So enslaved Africans were no longer treated as people. As write Dr. Molefi Kete Asante put it, “As you would not consult your dog, you would not consult a chattel slave. As you would not concern yourself with the comfort of a tool, a plough or a hammer, you would not concern yourself with an enslaved African’s comfort. What is chattel is not human in the mind of the enslaver.” And even though there were plenty of laws to regulate the use of enslaved people, in the colonies the enslaved person had no rights under the law. 

For example, in some colonies if a white person murdered an enslaved person it was a misdemeanour punished by a small fine. Meanwhile, an enslaved person could only attack a white person in defense of his enslaver’s life. When I first read that I thought, “Oh wow. Self defense law?” And then I re-read it. No, an enslaved person could not attack a white person defending their own life, only if their enslaver’s life was in danger. Obviously, there were also laws that prohibited enslaved people from assembling in groups, learning to read or write, destroying crops in protest, or dressing in fabrics “above the quality” of a slave. 

So now that we know the type of slavery that was established in the Americas, let’s get back to our original question: where does racism come from? Now this is a murky topic because racism can be a highly individualized sentiment. So I’m not asking “When was the first white person racist against a black person?” because I could never answer that question. What I’m asking is “When did ‘white people’ start identifying themselves as one group that was diametrically opposed to another group of ‘black people’?” And we do know that answer: it’s the 17th century. The same century that the American colonies were founded – coincidence? Yeah no way.

The Invention of “Whiteness”

So think about this for a second: “White People” is a made up thing. What does it mean to be “white?” If I asked you that, you would say something like, “well, they have light skin.” And then I would ask, “How light? Light relative to what?” Is an Egyptian white? Because their skin is lighter than other Africans’ skin? What about a Chinese person? Many Chinese peoples’ skin color is essentially the same as a western European’s, but somehow, they are not “white?” The answer is that in the 17th century Europeans began using the phrase “white people” or “white race” directly in relation to people of color – black Africans, Latinos and Native Americans. “White” just meant, “not black or brown.” Biologically, the only major differences between people of different “races” is their skin pigmentation. If you don’t believe me (because I can hear some of you talking back to me in your car right about now) I’ve posted a ton of scientific research on my website. Don’t believe in science? Find another podcast. 

So “whiteness” is an invented label that Europeans created for themselves. And think about that in the context of world history for a second: the English and the French HATED each other. They had gone to war with each other for centuries, but they very quickly lumped themselves in the same group – “white” – so that they could be united against something else. And at first, other European groups were excluded from this label – Italians, for example, were not considered truly white. Was it because they were Catholic? Or had more Mediterranean culture – and that was too close to Africa and the Middle East? 

“Whiteness” was invented as a category to describe, originally, Protestant northwestern Europeans. This category of “whiteness” will expand over time – it is flexible enough to include southern and eastern Europeans, even Russians, over time – but it will always exclude the ambiguously titled “people of color.” The entire idea of “color” being a stigma that separated a person from “civilized” society was invented in the 1600s. (Again, I’ll refer you to the rest of world history in which those people “of color” were considered the height of civilization while “white” Europeans were digging in their medieval dirt – Hey, China, India, and the Abbasids. Oh hey, Mansa Musa, and Ashoka, and Suleiman the Magnificent, and Kubilai Khan. You get it.)

Speaking of emperors and Magnificents, why was it that race became more important than other identifying factors, like religion or wealth? Why did an English king relate more to a French peasant as a “white person” than an African ruler, who was much closer to himself in lifestyle and status? Why would an English settler more readily enslave an African nobleman than an Irish peasant? We could say religion, but the Irish were Catholics which, to many Protestants at the time, was essentially non-Christian. And then why didn’t this end as soon as Africans adopted Christianity (which they did – both black kings in Africa and enslaved Africans in the Americas)? 

Which came first: slavery or racism?

OK. So this gets to the heart of my question: Which came first – slavery or racism? And the definitive answer is slavery came first. I already mentioned how “slaves” had come from all over the world before the 1600s. Basically, institutionalized racism – again, I can’t give the history of every individual person’s feelings about other skin colors – but racism on a systemic scale, rose up after slavery had existed for centuries as a way to justify and preserve the type of slavery that the Americas created. 

So again, why were black Africans the ones who were enslaved? We’ve come up with so many other answers to this question over the years – they had different cultures that we saw as “uncivilized,” they weren’t Christian, they didn’t have united governments to resist, they weren’t intelligent enough for any other line of work, they were physically stronger and could work more than white people – and all of these explanations have fallen apart under scrutiny. They became Christian; they had massive, well-organized empires; there is no genetic difference between “white” and “black” people that makes one smarter or stronger than the other. I could go on, but the answer is racism, plain and simple, because racism was manufactured for the express purpose of continuing the practice of slavery long after Europeans had become “Enlightened” on so many other truths about the nature of humanity. 

Why did Europe “need” slaves?

Lastly, you might be thinking to yourself at this point (I hope you’re thinking this): why? Why was it so important for Europeans to build a system that kidnapped and abused millions of Africans, and then enslave every child born to those Africans, for almost 300 years? There’s no good answer to this question, but when in doubt, whenever you’re looking at the world and wondering “Why are they doing this?” the answer is almost always wealth. Just think of Woodward and Bernstein and “follow the money.”

Now, I’m not going to get into a whole lecture about European competition for colonies and mercantilism, because that’s world history and you should just check out Season One. But basically, the Europeans stumbled upon two entire continents that – in their eyes – were completely unsettled and open for business. Think about this: the Europeans had come out of their Middle Ages looking for a way to create more wealth but they were hemmed in on all sides (I mean, Britain was a freakin’ island). From their perspective, all the good land had already been conquered by the Muslims, Indians, and Chinese – they’d called “dibs” and there wasn’t anything left for the Europeans, who had missed the boat (literally) after they fell apart and started torturing each other when Rome fell.

They were desperate to get in on the trading action, which meant getting to China and India, but they were blocked by powerful Italian city-states and Islamic empires that were still a little salty about the Crusades. They were so desperate that they were just sending ships off into the abyss and keeping their fingers crossed that someone would come back with something. And oh my God, it worked. When the New World was discovered it was like a lifeline for powerful European monarchs who were looking for some way to distinguish themselves against the competition. They had to claim the land, settle the land, and start working the land – fast – before another king could get there first. 

All of the other options I listed earlier? Keeping your business model proportionate to the labor you have available? “Boring and slow.” Finding workers to travel across the world and pick cotton for money? “That sounds hard, no thank you.” Indentured servitude? “So I’m going to pay for them to come over here and then they leave after five years and I have to start all over? That’s exhausting.” Serfdom? “Tempting, but still slow.” Enslaving millions of Africans and forcing them to come work on your plantation and then – bonus – having a continuous supply of slaves as they have children? “That’s more like it,” said the Europeans. It was fast, it was effective, and the only problem was that it was astonishingly inhumane. But, as we’ve seen, they took care of that hiccup with racism and the rest was history. They made millions or billions off of the new triangular trade from the colonies, racism became entrenched and – mostly – unquestioned, and the system worked entirely too well for the Europeans for the next few centuries. 

I said “mostly unquestioned” because it is important to point out that not every “white” European was on board with slavery. See: Roger Williams from Episode 1 of this season. There were groups, like the Quakers, that understood from the beginning that this was a terrible thing and fought against it. And there were other truly Enlightened thinkers who saw that the development of ideas like rights, liberty, and a voice for the people were incompatible with enslaving others: I’m talking about Lafayette, bless him. But, overwhelmingly the system of slavery, and the racism that came along with it, was generally accepted in the Americas. And we really can’t understand US history without understanding this truth.

Act 2: Slavery in the Colonies

OK. So enough theory. Let’s get to American history. I mentioned this in the first episode, but slavery began basically as soon as the American colonies began. In 1619, “20 and odd” enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia and that same year a ship was launched from Massachusetts carrying a group of imprisoned Native Americans to go back and be sold in Europe. So the slave trade traveled both directions, at least for a little while until the Native Americans along the east coast had died of disease. If you want more detail on this, you should check out my episode on Thanksgiving from Season 2 where I go in depth about the life of Squanto, a Native American who was part of this slave trade.

If I asked you to guess which was the first colony to formally legalize slavery, which would it be? Shout it out! Virginia? Good guess, but no. South Carolina? Nope. It was Massachusetts. Yep. Puritan, “City Upon a Hill” Massachusetts. They passed the first code legalizing slavery in 1641. And this is an important point: today we’re going to spend most of our time in the American South because that’s where the enslaved Africans ended up. But the North was also complicit. Although their geography wasn’t suited for massive cash crop plantations, it was ideal for trading. And in ports all along New England, enslaved Africans arrived, were sold off, and sent down South. Remember that there were those who tried to abolish slavery – like Roger Williams in Rhode Island – but no colony formally outlawed slavery until the American Revolution. 

So slavery had been established as the M.O. for plantation labor in the Middle and Southern colonies. But it still had to be enforced. The colonies went to work setting up structures to keep slavery around long-term and this is a metaphor I’m going to come back to throughout the episode: essentially, since the 1600s, the Americans started building a structure to keep enslaved people imprisoned. Each code, or law, or societal attitude that we discuss is a brick that strengthens this prison. And inside this structure is every person of African descent – the slaves are chained to the walls, but even free black people are often stuck inside. 

And the law that served as the foundation for this entire structure was the 1662 Virginia law that decreed that children “shall be bond or free according to the condition of the mother.” This meant that all children born to slaves were also enslaved, and on and on. Again, this is an important element of chattel slavery that distinguishes the American system from other forms of slavery around the world. Even sometimes compared with other European colonies in the Americas – like the islands in the West Indies or Brazil – which were mostly economic, as opposed to settler colonies. The only white people living there were the ones managing the plantations – they didn’t want to settle there permanently – and they typically brought over mostly male slaves that would just work the land. So other colonies around the Americas had to continuously bring newly enslaved Africans over to replenish their workforce. To be clear – the children of enslaved Africans born in the Caribbean, for example, were also enslaved – but plantation owners much preferred grown men who could immediately work in the fields. This had the impact of keeping alive African heritage and tradition more in those colonies and it’s why black culture in the Caribbean or Brazil, for example, is way more rooted in African traditions than in the United States. Because in the U.S., the purpose was permanent settlement. 

After the colonies were established, white families starting moving to Virginia and South Carolina and they intended to stay. So they needed domestic servants – enslaved African women to work in the home and care for the children – and they capitalized on this by enslaving all of the children born to those enslaved African women, as well. They still participated in the slave trade, but over time, the American slave population replaced itself naturally – through childbirth. Many slaveowners also began to see buying newly kidnapped Africans as a last resort, because they were harder to control and they tended to revive a sense of history and heritage in their own enslaved people that made them more dangerous – as we’ll see in a second. 

All of this is to say that after a few generations, enslaved African Americans were just that – they were mostly born in the colonies, raised in slavery, and forced to assimilate to many aspects of “white” culture. And so from almost the beginning African Americans have been in a unique position straddling two worlds: clearly not “white” and, thus, barred from entering white society, but also disconnected from their African heritage which could have been an important source of unity within the early African American community – both free and enslaved – during these centuries. What we’ll see is that African Americans still successfully created their own communities even within the confines of white rules and expectations – an important fact that points us to the main idea of this episode: nevertheless, they resisted.

So often, when we talk about oppression and atrocities we only talk about things happening to the oppressed people. The Romans persecuted Christians; the Nazis murdered Jews; the Europeans enslaved Africans. All of these frame the oppressed people as the objects of oppression, without giving them any agency – without making them subjects in their own narrative. The way we can add this part of the story back in is by focusing less on what the white Americans did to the African Americans, and instead talk more about the ways in which the African Americans resisted and pushed against those structures of oppression.

Bacon’s Rebellion

As early as 1676, there was massive organized resistance to the hierarchy that had been created in Virginia, and it cut across racial lines. In Bacon’s Rebellion, a wealthy white property owner named Nathaniel Bacon disagreed with the colonial governor’s policies toward Native Americans that made it more difficult for landowners to expand westward – something that was much desired by middle- and lower-class colonists who hoped to gain land and raise their status. And Bacon recognized that he had an opportunity to unite the lowest classes of people together in opposition to the governor. He organized a militia of indentured servants (mostly white, but some were black) and enslaved black people, promised them freedom, and then launched a rebellion. After months of conflict, the mixed-race militia captured Jamestown and burned it to the ground. 

Only after Bacon died of a fever did the rebellion fall apart and the Virginia government was able to regain control but an important lesson had been learned. The colonies needed to do more to distinguish between poor whites and poor, or enslaved, blacks. It was at this point that Virginia lawmakers began to make the first distinctions between “white” and “black” inhabitants. They abandoned the practice of indentured servitude – recognizing that once their servants were freed they became a threat to their power. And they began to determine status, and thus, legal rights, based on skin color. They passed laws that gave poor whites more rights, more opportunities to own land, and hints of social status, based on their “whiteness.” And they clarified that slavery was reserved exclusively for people of African descent and that even free blacks – of which there were a few in Virginia, even – didn’t have the same status as any white person.

And thus, racism became an important tool of the wealthy elites in “dividing and conquering” lower-class members of American society to keep all of the poor people from looking around and going, “Wait. There’s more of us than there are of the rich people in charge.” By dividing along racial lines and giving poor whites an incentive to support racist policies – because they would then always be above someone else in the hierarchy – they maintained their power and brought poor whites to their side, even though the poor white peoples’ lives and problems much more closely resembled that of people of color. Side note: politicians are going to use this tool of dividing the masses along racial lines forever in American history (I’m looking at you Nixon.)

Beyond joining with poor whites to rebel, there were other ways that enslaved Africans – and sympathetic whites – were pushing against the structures of slavery. In 1691 Virginia passed the first anti-miscegenation law prohibiting marriage between whites and non-whites. This means that there were enough interracial couples entering into relationships and even getting married that the colony felt it necessary to pass a law about it and that’s important. Side note: this law wouldn’t be overturned until the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision in – wait for it – 1967. 300 years later.

We also know that some slave owners were freeing their slaves through the act of manumission. Slave owners freed their own slaves for a variety of reasons, but often it was after the enslaved person had passed an age of usefulness (they could no longer work in the fields, for example). This practice was uncommon – the vast majority of enslaved people lived their entire life enslaved – but it was clearly happening enough that Virginia felt the need to pass a law discouraging this practice. Again, throughout early American history (and kind of, all American history) the elites are terrified of the lower classes so the idea of having freed African Americans walking around their colony was unacceptable and could disrupt the social order. In 1691 they passed a law making it financially risky for owners to free slaves – the law said that a newly freed slave had to leave the colony within six months and the owner was responsible for paying for the trip. So now, you couldn’t just set an enslaved person free and be done with it. You had to get the money and arrange transportation to get them out of Virginia. Most of the few slave owners who might have considered freeing some of their slaves began to see it as too much trouble. Eventually they passed more laws saying that an enslaved person could only be freed after going through a judgement process by the governor and a council. Good old-fashioned bureaucratic red tape!

This is a good place to note that there were freed slaves in the southern colonies. A great example is Anthony Johnson, a man who was freed by his owner and went on to own land and even own slaves himself. This is a really fascinating insight into the social hierarchy that shows that it’s more complex than I’m making it seem. The courts recognized that Anthony Johnson, a black man, was legally allowed to own slaves, even though this was typically a sign of high social status. What we can gather from this fact is that the Virginia government, above all else, wanted to preserve the right to own slaves – even if that meant recognizing that a black man had that same right. But it’s also important that Anthony Johnson had this right recognized very early in the colony’s history – the mid-1600s. He probably would not have had that same experience even just 50 years later as racism entrenched itself into every aspect of 18th century southern society. 

We’ve been focusing on Virginia but we should note that similar trends were happening around the Middle and Southern Colonies. Typically, after one colony adopted a law governing slaves, most of the other colonies took note and adopted something similar very quickly. One of the more extreme colonies regarding slave laws was South Carolina. For example, in many other colonies enslaved people were allowed to “hire themselves out,” with their owners permission. This meant that in what little spare time they had, they could go work for someone else for money. This was common in more urban areas where there were more opportunities, especially if an enslaved person had a particular skill, and it was only if their owner allowed them to do so, but this was one way that some enslaved people could actually buy their own freedom. Again, this was rare and was completely up to the slave owner, but there were some enslaved people who saved up money to “buy themselves” and, sometimes, family members. South Carolina, however, banned the practice of “hiring out” – only slave owners could hire out their slaves to others, and they would be the ones to get the profit. 

The Stono Rebellion

South Carolina was particularly harsh on its slave codes in part because the enslaved population was very high in the colony. By 1708, African Americans outnumbered European Americans in South Carolina – and this fact would remain true well into the 20th century. And their fears of the majority overtaking the elite came true in 1739 with the Stono Rebellion.

Just one year earlier, Spanish Florida had promised freedom to runaway slaves, inspiring many in the South to attempt to escape now that there was somewhere on the continent where they could be safe. (British Canada wouldn’t end slavery for another 100 years.) In addition to this fact, South Carolina had just passed a law requiring all white men to bring guns with them to church. So enslaved people realized that on Sundays, essentially all of the white men, and their weapons, would be away from the plantation. God bless guns in church. 

The rebellion was led by Jemmy, a literate slave, along with a group of Kongolese men who were new to the colonies. All of this is going to reinforce the “danger” of educating enslaved Africans and the benefits of relying mostly on enslavement through childbirth, instead of buying newly enslaved adults from Africa. It became the largest slave rebellion in the colonies as they sacked and burned an armory and killed 25 white people. Another 50 black people were killed as the colonial militia ended the rebellion, but its impact was huge. 

South Carolina passed a ton of new codes to both reduce provocations for rebellions and increase control over the enslaved. So on the one hand, they penalized slave owners who imposed “excessive work or brutal punishments,” which is ridiculous considering any work done by an enslaved person is “excessive.” They also started schools so that enslaved people could learn Christianity in an attempt to pacify the population.

At the same time, they imposed a tax on newly imported slaves – recognizing how dangerous they could be to the tenuous stability that had been established in these colonies – and required a ratio of one white person for every ten black people on a plantation. The Negro Act of 1740 prohibited enslaved people from growing their own food, assembling in groups, “hiring themselves out,” and learning to read. 

So people, mostly black and some white people, had been pushing against the system of slavery since the very beginning. Every time they found a weakness in the walls of their prison, they pushed. And every time, the colonists responded by strengthening those walls with new rules, new codes, new ways to keep black people subjugated. But nothing tested the strength of this structure more than the American Revolution.

Act 3: “All Men Are Created Equal?”

Slavery has often been referred to as the “original sin” of the United States and nowhere is it more confounding and sinful than in the moments when we proudly proclaimed our fight for freedom, independence and human rights, while simultaneously enslaving millions of men, women, and children. 

And there were those who recognized the hypocrisy. In the 1770s, the decade when the Revolution began, we saw an explosion of abolitionist activity. In 1772 the first autobiography of a former slave was published in English. Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, better known as James Albert, detailed his life in Nigeria, his kidnapping and experience in the West Indies, and then his life of poverty in England after obtaining his freedom.

Just one year later, Phillis Wheatley became the first published African-American poet when a collection of her poetry was published while she was still enslaved. That’s amazing. Purchased by a Boston family at the age of seven after being kidnapped from her home in West Africa, she was one of the relatively rare enslaved people who was taught to read and write by her owners. They freed her after her book of poetry was published and she became a sensation – that’s nice of them I guess. All it takes for white people to see an African-American as a human is for them to write a world-class book of poetry, I guess.

So 150 years after slavery began in the Americas, there were enough educated – or at least literate – black people, some formerly enslaved, some born free, to begin to create a unified voice. And every time a black person told their story – ideally in the “civilized” style of literature – it slowly chipped away at societal attitudes that were convinced black people were somehow biologically inferior to white people. But it would be over a century before the majority of the nation came to the right side of history.

Black Abolitionism in the 1770s

In general, the 1770s sparked a growing sense of freedom and independence amongst all Americans, including African Americans. The first fully separate black church was established in South Carolina in 1773; the first abolition society was founded in Philadelphia in 1775, and in 1777 Vermont became the first state to ban slavery outright and give all adult men the right to vote. 

We also began to see enslaved Africans using political means to push for their freedom. In 1773, a group of Massachusetts slaves represented by an unknown slave named Felix, petitioned the government using a religious argument. They wrote, “We have no Property. We have no Wives. No Children. We have no City. No country. But we have a Father in Heaven.” As the rhetoric of freedom and liberty permeated the colonies, African Americans used that to their advantage and similar petitions flooded the colonies in the early years of the Revolution.

Most of these petitions were thrown out, but one resulted in the abolition of slavery in the entire state of Massachusetts. In 1781 Elizabeth Freeman, sometimes known as Mum Bett, and another Massachusetts slave successfully sued their master for freedom. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court acknowledged the judge’s decision, it effectively ended legal slavery in the state. Keep in mind that this is during the American Revolution. Sometimes it’s easy to think that everything else is put on pause when we’re fighting a war but that’s not true. And really, we should see all of these actions by African Americans as part of the Revolution. Similar to what will happen in World War II, as white Americans are fighting against tyranny and oppression “abroad” (at least, against a foreign country), black Americans will be fighting their own domestic revolution against tyranny and oppression at home. 

Black Soldiers in the Revolution

That’s not to imply that black people didn’t also actually fight in the Revolution. Crispus Attucks, a free black man, was one of the first colonists to die in the American War for Independence when he was killed at the Boston Massacre. Side note: it is believed that his father was an enslaved African and his mother was a Natick Indian so the first person to die for the creation of our country was an indigenous black man. That seems like something we should bring up more in history class, doesn’t it?

Black soldiers served in the first battles at Lexington and Bunker Hill. For example, we have fourteen letters written by officers to the Massachusetts legislature commending a former slave named Salem Poor for being a “brave and gallant soldier” at Bunker Hill. We don’t know exactly what he did, but for so many high-ranking white men to feel compelled to request that he be rewarded, it must have been pretty dang impressive. But, like most other slave owners, General George Washington was terrified at the idea of arming black men – whether they were free or enslaved. Out of concern that the southern states might not join the war effort if black men were allowed to fight, the Continental Army specifically banned black men from joining. But as the war went on and they needed troops, free black men were allowed to join, sometimes serving alongside white soldiers but eventually being segregated into all-black units. Throughout the war, ⅕ of the northern Patriot army was black. 

One of the other reasons Washington reversed his decision on free black men in the military was because the British had used this divisive issue to their advantage. The British Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation promised freedom after the war to any slave who left his master and fought with the British. Within a month over 300 formerly enslaved Africans had managed to join Dunmore’s troops; he nicknamed them his “Ethiopian Regiment.” Terrified that black people all across the colonies might join the British, Washington allowed free blacks to join. There were also some instances in which slaves fought in the place of their master (all of their pay went back to the owner and they were not guaranteed freedom if they survived the war), but overall, the colonists did not actively recruit slaves to fight. 

So, black men are fighting in the Revolution and black people at home are using the war as a justification to push the boundaries of their own freedom. By 1804, soon after the Revolution was over, all northern states had either abolished slavery or put in place plans to gradually end the practice.

Why was the abolitionist movement more prominent in the North?

  1. The northern states just didn’t have as many enslaved people. Their land was not as suitable for large plantations and so when families did own slaves often it was “only” a few to serve in the household or to work on their small family farm. (You should know that I hate saying they “only” had a few slaves. It’s still too many.) Also, by the end of the 18th century, most of the northern states were building up their wealth and reputation in trade and manufacturing, rather than agriculture. So, cynically, the northern states had an easier time abolishing slavery because slavery wasn’t a very useful labor source to begin with.
  2. The northern states were also growing more urban. This meant that free blacks living in the north had an easier time connecting and creating unified communities that could push against societal norms. Living as a free black anywhere in the U.S. was still a difficult life – they were rarely accepted into white society, some states applied their slave codes to free blacks as well, not to mention the fear of being kidnapped and forced into slavery, regardless of your legal status. But, being a free black in the North provided more opportunities than in the South: opportunities for community, education, and advancement. For example, in 1787 the first black fraternal organization, the African Mason Lodge, was founded by black activist Prince Hall in Boston. Along with other community organizations, they provided services to the black community, including education for children, and formed an important base of support for the fight against slavery and racial discrimination. 

Despite the fact that it was clear to those paying attention that African Americans were equally capable – whether it was fighting in the war, working in the growing economy, or writing freakin’ poetry – the Founding Fathers chose not to end the practice of slavery when they wrote the Constitution. And I want to make something clear: it was on the table. I’ve talked with some people over the years who believe that no one ever really considered slavery to be bad until right before Lincoln gets elected and hopefully we see by now that’s not true. And the Founding Fathers ardently debated the issue of slavery at the Constitutional Convention. But in the end, they were too concerned that the brand new nation might break apart before it even had a chance to exist and so they did what the federal government is going to do on the question of slavery for the next 75 years: they punted the ball. 

In the next episode we’re going to detail compromise after compromise that pushed back the date when politicians would finally have to take a stand and make a decision on slavery. The first examples of this are found in the Constitution. 

OK. First, a few facts about the status of slavery in 1789 (the year the Constitution was written):

  • 8 states allowed slavery while 5 did not.
  • Slaves made up ⅓ of the total Southern population, with almost half of all enslaved people in the U.S. living in Virginia. 
  • In the two decades after the Constitution was written, the southern slave population exploded – thanks to the last few years of the international slave trade + the exponential growth that comes from high birth rates. By 1810, there would be over 1.1 million enslaved people in the Southern states. 

Constitutional Questions on Slavery

So what did the Founding Fathers have to say on slavery, considering that the Southern slave population accounted for 1/7 of the nation’s population? Spoiler: none of it’s great.

Well, in the Constitution, the main question relating to slaves was: Would they count as part of a state’s population? Remember that the Great Compromise had been that your state’s number of representatives in the House would be based on total population. So, slave-owning states wanted slaves to count as people. It’s horribly ironic, right? The same people who saw their enslaved population as cattle – literally – wanted them to count as equal citizens so that they, white voters, could have more representation in Congress. Free states argued that that made no sense because, well, it didn’t. Their argument was that since slaves had no legal rights in that state, especially the right to vote, they shouldn’t count as part of the population. But, not wanting to anger powerful southern states, especially George’s home state of Virginia, they created the Three-Fifths Compromise. Each enslaved person would count as ⅗ of a free person for the sake of the population count. And so, with a fraction and a stroke of a pen, we somehow managed to quantify racism. 

In the years after the passage of the Constitution, a few other laws were passed that clarified some other questions.

1. How would we handle escaped slaves who made it to a state that had abolished slavery? 

The 1793 Fugitive Slave Act said that a slaveholder had the right to “recover” an escaped slave, even if they had made it to a free state. And the slaveowner or the bounty hunter only had to verbally acknowledge in a court that the black person in question was an escaped slave – no other proof was needed. This leads to some horrible instances of free black people being kidnapped on the pretense that they were escaped slaves – like in Twelve Years a Slave. This law will get strengthened in 1850 with another Compromise.

2. Could people of color become citizens (a process called “naturalization”)?

No. At the time there were some states where free blacks who were born in the U.S. were considered citizens but that was up to the state to decide. And the Naturalization Act of 1790 specifically said that only white men could apply to become naturalized citizens of the U.S. This obviously impacted more than just free black people.; it meant that Asians, Latinxs, Native Americans, and anyone else who couldn’t prove their “whiteness” could not ever become a US citizen.

3. Could free blacks serve in the military? 

No. Basically the government was like, “Thanks for your service in helping us win our independence, but now we’re good.” Black men wouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military until the Civil War and even that was allowed begrudgingly by Lincoln.

Sally Hemings

So before we wrap up, I want to address the elephant in the room: the fact that Founding Father – Mr. “All Men Were Created Equal” himself – Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Even he acknowledged throughout his life how problematic this was. In a letter in 1820, Jefferson basically argued that maintaining slavery was a necessary evil declaring, “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” So, basically he argued that it was an unjust system, but there was no good way to safely end the system without the nation falling apart. And I guess he was right – but in hindsight, it seems like the nation was going to fall apart over slavery at some point no matter what they did. So ending it in the Constitution might have at least pushed up the Civil War by 75 years and saved generations of black people from enslavement? Or maybe the U.S. wasn’t strong enough to withstand it in the 1780s like we would be able to in the 1860s? It’s hard now to know for sure what would have happened.

It’s clear though that many slave owners, especially those who considered themselves otherwise “enlightened,” had a very complex relationship and moral stance on slavery. And we can see this complexity play out by looking at the most famous enslaved woman in American history and her relationship to Thomas Jefferson: Sally Hemings. 

Before I get into her life – which is fascinating – I want to briefly address a topic that I have specifically chosen not to address. Make sense? Great. There was a whole other element to enslavement for women. Chattel slavery reaches its worst iterations when it relates to female bodies and the belief by slave owners – and other complicit white men – that an enslaved woman’s body is property that can be “used” however he sees fit. In the same way that I didn’t think I could successfully convey what the experience of being a slave was like in this podcast, I also don’t think this is the best medium to discuss sex slavery. But, I do want to make sure we all acknowledge that this was a routine and regular occurrence in the life of an enslaved women.

In fact, enslaved women of child-bearing years were expected to be pregnant or nursing a new child at all times. Again, they were treated like breeding stock. And since the status of the child depended on the status of the mother – all children born to that enslaved woman, regardless of whether the father was another slave or the white slave owner or his teenage son, all children born to that women were also enslaved. So even though we’re going to look at one exceptional case of an enslaved woman’s experience in which she actually gained some informal power and agency, I needed us to acknowledge the millions of women whose names aren’t remembered and whose lives didn’t end up like Sally Hemings’.  

Who was Sally Hemings? Her mother was a slave and her father was her owner, believed to be Martha Jefferson’s father (I want that to sink in for a second – she was half-sisters with Martha Jefferson, Thomas’s wife.) Thomas Jefferson inherited her from his father-in-law soon after his wife Martha died. And growing up, Sally served as a household servant for Jefferson’s daughter (technically her half-niece? Martha’s daughter?). 

When Sally was 14, she traveled to Paris with the Jefferson family to accompany the daughter. This must have been an insane experience considering that Paris was a massive city, home to over 1,000 free blacks, and – oh yeah – slavery was illegal in France. I wonder what that was like for her – did she ever try to escape and request some form of asylum? Did she know that Jefferson was too high profile for the French to let that happen? All of it reminds me of scenes from the Handmaid’s Tale – being so close to freedom but unable to make it there. 

It is generally believed that Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson entered into a sexual relationship in Paris. From here on out I’m going to call it their “relationship” just because I don’t have a succinct term for “an inherently non-consensual relationship between a future president and his slave that possibly had some emotional connection behind it but there’s no way to know because she wasn’t allowed to tell her story because oh yeah she was a 14-year-old slave.” So, for expediency, I’m just going to call it their “relationship” but obviously it’s way more complicated than that. 

Apparently, after becoming pregnant for the first time, Hemings used this as leverage against Jefferson. She refused to return home to Virginia without guarantees from him that included “extraordinary privileges” for herself and the guaranteed freedom of any of her future children. Jefferson agreed that all of her children would be freed at the age of 21 – how nice of him – and Sally returned home with the Jeffersons. Although their first child died soon after birth, Sally had at least five other children with Thomas Jefferson. Four survived into adulthood – and it’s through them that we know anything about this relationship.

Jefferson held up his end and freed all of their children when they entered adulthood, but Sally herself was never emancipated during Jefferson’s lifetime. When he died, his daughter Martha unofficially freed her when she was probably in her late 50s. She lived for ten more years with her two younger sons in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of them – Madison Hemings – would later go on to tell his and his mother’s story.

So what happened to their children? Well, Jefferson never recognized them as his own, obviously. I mean, the two youngest were born WHILE he was the President of the United States. That would not have gone over well. But rumors of this relationship were already being circulated by his opponents before he was elected.

The two older children – Beverly and Harriet Hemings – both were apparently light-skinned enough to pass into white society after being allowed to leave Monticello and they did not ever speak of their connection to Jefferson or their “African blood,” which would have excluded them from general society.

But the two younger surviving children that we know of eventually embraced their complicated heritage. They lived with their mother Sally in Charlottesville after she left Monticello and then they both moved to Ohio after she passed away. Madison Hemings immersed himself in the black community there. At the age of 68, he gave an interview to the local newspaper claiming that his father was the former president and telling his mother’s story. The article garnered international attention but scientific proof that confirmed his identity wouldn’t exist for another 100 years. 

The youngest, Eston Hemings, became a well-known professional musician in Ohio. He eventually ended up in Wisconsin where he changed his last name to Jefferson, as well as his racial identity – essentially when he moved he stopped identifying as half-black and he and his family entered white society. His descendants, including two sons who fought for the Union in the Civil War, all identified as white. 

OK. So the question I get asked by students a lot is “Did they love each other?” Now I understand why this question comes up. We want them to have been in love because that makes this story less horrible. So let’s see… Did they love each other?

My answer to this question is, “We don’t know and it doesn’t matter.” Seriously it doesn’t matter. Because no matter what their feelings might have been throughout their decades-long “relationship,” it was never consensual because she was his slave. He was one of the nation’s wealthiest and most influential political minds; he was thirty years older than she was; and he literally owned her. If she had any positive feelings toward him, then I’m happy for her but it’s still Stockholm Syndrome. She had no choice in any part of the relationship and the fact that she was able to negotiate her children’s futures is a testament to her own intelligence, strength of character, and savvy than it is to Jefferson’s love or “generosity.” 

But this relationship gets to the heart of the difficulty of talking about our history of slavery. Because as much as we can simplify it down to laws and codes and rebellions and notable freed blacks who “made it,” it’s not that simple. For every Sally Hemings, there were millions of women who couldn’t guarantee their child’s future. For every Phillis Wheatley, there were millions who weren’t taught to read or write. For every Crispus Attucks there were tens of thousands who fought for our country and will never be remembered. And the vast majority of enslaved people did not experience these “notable” events in our history – of pushing against the institutional structures of slavery through petitions, escape attempts, or rebellion. Most of the millions of enslaved people were born, lived, and died in slavery and there’s no way to make that not a terrible fact in our nation’s history. Sorry. 

The other point: from the beginning of slavery, there has been resistance to slavery. Slavery was not inevitable, it was not the obvious choice, it was not “just the way things were back then” – from the beginning there were many voices pointing out the wrongness of slavery and enslaved Africans were pushing against the societal structures that kept them enslaved. By 1865, it had been 246 years since the first slaves arrived in the U.S. (it’s only been 154 years since slavery was abolished. Meaning, it will be 100 more years before America’s history will be longer without slavery than with it.)

Also, slavery and racism were man-made. It’s terrible – human beings manufactured differences between each other and then hatred for those differences to serve their own desires for wealth and power. But there’s also a part of it that makes me hopeful – because if we created it, then we can also deconstruct it. But it takes acknowledgement, especially on the part of white Americans listening, to understand that slavery didn’t “just happen,” which means that it also can’t just “end” with a proclamation or Constitutional amendment.

Slavery was an elaborate and complex structure that was built over hundreds of years – it was the prison I referenced at the beginning of the episode. This massive complex included the legal system, government at all levels, economics, cultural discrimination, and societal exclusion. And just because over the next few episodes African Americans will be unshackled from the walls of that structure doesn’t mean it’s over. Even after slavery will end in the 1860s, they will still live inside this complex structure that we built. And over the late 19th and the 20th century, we are going to slowly work to take apart that building. But to think that it’s completely gone is to ignore history. So let’s keep working, people.


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David Olusoga, “The roots of European racism lie in the slave trade, colonialism – and Edward Long,” The Guardian, 9/8/2015

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“Was there race before modernity? The example of ‘Jewish’ blood in late medieval Spain” (PDF), in Eliav-Feldon, Miriam; Isaac, Benjamin H.; Ziegler, Joseph (eds.). The Origins of Racism in the West. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 232–264. Retrieved 16 September 2014.