Black History Month

Black Troops in Union Blue

Black Troops in Union Blue

Nearly 180,000 free black men and escaped slaves served in the Union Army during the Civil War. But at first they were denied the right to fight by a prejudiced public and a reluctant government. Even after they eventually entered the Union ranks, black soldiers continued to struggle for equal treatment. Placed in racially segregated infantry, artillery, and cavalry regiments, these troops were almost always led by white officers.


Native Louisiana Guards volunteered for the Union Army and formed the first  unofficial units of black troops. (Wikimedia Commons)

‘We Are Ready and Would Go’

As soon as the Civil War began, many free black men in the North wanted to fight for the Union cause. Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become a famous abolitionist leader, stated “We are ready and would go.” But prejudice against black people — both free and slave — was strong and deep in the North as well as the South.

Most white Americans at this time thought of black adults as children, lacking in mental ability and discipline. Slavery had stripped black men of their manhood, so the thinking went, making them dependent and irresponsible. These stereotypes led most whites to assume that a black man could never be trained to fight like a white soldier.

During the early part of the war, President Lincoln opposed accepting blacks into the army. He said that this would push border states like Missouri over to the Confederacy. In effect, both free black men and escaped slaves were banned from the Union Army.

Major General Benjamin Butler commanded the Union forces that had captured and occupied New Orleans in the spring of 1862. The Confederate government of Louisiana had formed a militia consisting of free black men led by their own officers. This all-black militia came to Butler and volunteered to join the Union Army. He transformed the Confederate militia into the First Regiment Native Louisiana Guards led by black captains and lieutenants. He later went on to form two more black regiments, which were commanded by white officers. These became the first, though unofficial, units of black troops in the Union Army.

In July 1862, Congress passed a law permitting black men to enlist at a pay rate of $10 per month ($3 less than the pay of a white private). But Congress left it up to the president to determine the duties of black volunteers. Lincoln decided that any blacks enlisting into the army were to be used only as laborers and not trained as combat soldiers.

By the end of 1862, it was clear that the war was not going to end quickly. As this harsh reality began to sink in, the number of Northern white volunteers dropped considerably. Moreover, Lincoln realized that once the war ended and the Union was restored, slavery could never continue. As Frederick Douglass had argued all along, slavery was “the source and center of this gigantic rebellion.” For these and other reasons, Lincoln made a dramatic shift in Union war policy on January 1, 1863 when he announced the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation liberated slaves in those areas still in rebellion. It went on to announce that free black men “will be received into the armed services of the United States....”

In the spring, the War Department organized the Bureau of Colored Troops. The bureau began a massive army recruitment program aimed at free blacks in the North and emancipated slaves in Union-held Southern territory. All the new regiments of U.S. Colored Troops were led by white officers, recruited from existing regular army units.


A banner of a unit of black troops. (Wikimedia Commons)

Proving Themselves

In May and June 1863, black and white Union regiments fought for the first time in major battles at Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend on the Mississippi River. One unit fighting was Gen. Butler’s First Regiment Native Louisiana Guards led by black officers, including one 16-year-old lieutenant who was killed in action. Some of the white officers expressed surprise at how fiercely the black troops fought. But black soldiers were fighting for much more than restoring the Union. They were fighting to liberate their people.

Black soldiers soon got to prove their fighting ability even more dramatically. On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry led the assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold guarding the entrance to Charleston Harbor. The 54th Infantry Division was made up mainly of free Northern black men (including two of Frederick Douglass’s sons). The regiment was commanded by an idealistic 25-year-old white officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Despite heavy artillery and rifle fire, the men made a furious charge on the Fort and engaged its Confederate defenders in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Finally driven back, the 54th suffered 40-percent casualties. Col. Shaw was killed during the charge and was buried with his men. Reported widely in Northern newspapers, the story of the heroic actions of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry at Fort Wagner helped to turn public opinion around in favor of blacks in the Union Army.

Combat for both black soldiers and their white officers was doubly dangerous. When captured by the Confederates, black captives could be returned to their previous owners, sold into slavery, or even hanged. Their white officers were considered “outlaws” and might be executed upon capture, rather than kept and treated as prisoners of war.

Despite their proven record as effective, courageous combat troops, African-American men still faced a long struggle for equal treatment. During the Civil War, black troops were often assigned tough, dirty jobs like digging trenches. Black regiments were commonly issued inferior equipment and were sometimes given inadequate medical treatment in racially segregated hospitals. African-American troops were paid less than white soldiers. Some black units, such as the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, refused to accept any pay as long as the rate remained unequal. The Lincoln administration and Congress dragged their feet on this matter until they finally established equal pay near the war’s end.

Other inequalities plagued black troops. Few African Americans were commissioned as officers and black troops remained in segregated units throughout the Civil War. In fact, African-American troops were not integrated with their fellow Americans until the Korean War nearly 100 years later.

Despite the inequality, the black troops in Union blue had proven themselves to be courageous, effective soldiers. Black soldiers, including more than a dozen Congressional Medal of Honor winners, fought in 449 Civil War battles. More than one-third of them died during the war. Through their courage and sacrifice, these black men helped press the African-American fight for equality.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Why do you think Lincoln objected to the enlistment of black men into the Union Army at the beginning of the war? Why do you think he changed his position in the Emancipation Proclamation?
  2. In what ways were black soldiers not treated equally in the Union Army?
  3. What important things do you think black soldiers proved in the Civil War?

For Further Reading

Cornish, Dudley Taylor & Herman Hattaway. The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861–1865. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle, The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: The Free Press, 2000.


Frederick Douglass’s Paper

During the Civil War, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass produced a newspaper called Frederick Douglass’s Paper. In this activity, the class will write and publish an issue of Frederick Douglass’s Paper, reflecting some of the important controversies concerning black troops in the Union Army.

A.     Form six editorial teams. Each team will be responsible for writing one of the following newspaper articles:

  1. A news article reporting Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
  2. A first-person account of a black soldier’s experience in combat
  3. A petition to President Lincoln by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry listing arguments for equal pay
  4. A letter to the editor from a white Union Army officer criticizing the Confederate prisoner of war policy regarding black troops and their white officers
  5. A U.S. Army recruitment advertisement aimed at free black men and emancipated slaves
  6. An editorial by Frederick Douglass concerning the equal rights that black people should be guaranteed once the war is over

B.     The six parts should be typed and reproduced in a simple newspaper format for all the students in the class to read.

C.     Each editorial team should report to the class the most important thing the members learned about their particular topic.

Return to Black History Month Home Page

Moving Toward Equality Under Law

Moving Toward Equality Under Law

The Constitution failed to express the ideal of equality found in the Declaration of Independence. Intent on forming a new system of government, the framers of the Constitution basically left slavery for future generations to deal with. At the time, many believed that slavery would simply fade away. It didn’t. And the issue of slavery increasingly divided the nation.


Dred Scott sued in federal court seeking his freedom. His case reached the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a notorious decision that helped spark the Civil War. (Wikimedia Commons)

As new states entered the union, Congress tried to maintain a balance. For each new slave state, it admitted a free state. When Missouri petitioned to join the union as a slave state in 1819, the balance stood at 11 each — slave and free. The North objected to upsetting the balance and to spreading slavery outside the South. This opened a dispute over slavery that rocked the nation. Finally, in 1820 Congress adopted the Missouri Compromise. Missouri entered the nation as a slave state. In return, Maine, which had been part of Massachusetts, entered as a free state. It was also agreed that, except for Missouri, no new slave states would be formed out of any part of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri’s southern border. This compromise kept Congress quiet on the slavery question for 30 years.

But the nation itself kept growing more divided on the issue. In the North, anti-slavery societies sprouted. In time, a strong abolitionist movement developed, demanding an end to slavery. Abolitionist presses churned out anti-slavery literature. Thousands of slaves escaped to freedom through the Underground Railway, a secret network of people and safe houses that guided slaves to the North. In addition to running away, slaves often resisted by sabotaging work, pretending to be ill, committing crimes, and even openly rebelling on rare occasions.

Southern states responded by tightening their control over slaves. They banned anti-slavery literature. They passed even harsher “slave codes,” laws regulating slaves. They grew especially ruthless following a slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1831.

By 1850, the nation had grown to 30 states — balanced at 15 slave and 15 free. The South recognized that if slavery were to survive, it would have to expand into the West. The Compromise of 1850 allowed California to be admitted as a free state. But in 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This declared that voters in each new state would decide whether their state allowed or prohibited slavery. The act overturned the Missouri Compromise, which had restricted slavery to the South. It also caused a mini-Civil War in Kansas as pro- and anti-slavery settlers flooded the state and took to arms.

The presidential election of 1856 took place amid this turmoil. After a bitterly contested campaign, a Southern Democrat beat a contender from the newly formed Republican Party. Committed to stopping the spread of slavery, the Republicans garnered their support from the North.

As tensions mounted, a U.S. Supreme Court decision inflamed the nation. The highest court in the land, the Supreme Court decides cases appealed to it from lower courts. It determines what the Constitution and other federal laws mean. Its decisions can actually overturn laws if they conflict with the Constitution. In 1857, the Supreme Court heard the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Scott was a slave whose master had taken him to live for several years in Illinois, a free state, and Wisconsin, a free territory, before bringing him back to Missouri. On Scott’s return, he sued in Missouri courts for his freedom. He argued that under state law a slave who resided in a free state was entitled to freedom under the principle of “once free, always free.” The trial court agreed, but on appeal the Missouri Supreme Court made a highly questionable ruling against Scott. Scott then sued for his freedom in federal court. His case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court ruled 7–2 against Scott. Chief Justice Roger Taney, a strong believer in slavery, wrote the opinion of the court. He stated that the Missouri Supreme Court — not the U.S. Supreme Court — determined Missouri law, and according to that court, Scott was a slave. If Taney had stopped there, the decision would have been unremarkable. But he said much more. He denied that Scott had a right to sue in federal court because no African American — free or slave — was a U.S. citizen. Further, Taney’s opinion ruled that Scott had never been free, because the federal government did not have the power to outlaw slavery. The opinion thus concluded that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. In one decision, Taney tried to settle all the questions of slavery. But the decision, widely considered one of the worst Supreme Court decisions ever, left no room for compromise and made conflict over the issue of slavery almost inevitable.

When Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, most Southern states tried to secede from the Union and soon the Civil War began. As the bloody war ground on, Lincoln in 1863 issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the rebelling states. It didn’t end slavery in the few slave states that remained loyal to the Union. But it gave power to the abolitionists’ belief that the war should end slavery, and it furnished Union soldiers with a noble cause to fight for. At the war’s end, three new amendments were added to the Constitution. As a condition of readmittance, the Southern states had to agree to ratify each amendment.

These amendments at long last wrote into the Constitution the ideals of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. (This is the only place in the Constitution where slavery is mentioned.) The 14th Amendment made everyone born in the United States a citizen. It also banned states from limiting the rights of citizens, from denying people equal protection under the law, and from depriving them “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The 15th Amendment outlawed denying anyone the right to vote on the grounds of race or color.

These amendments expressed the ideals of equality, but it would be along time before the ideals became real.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What were the Civil War amendments? What methods did the South use to get around them?
  2. What is the role of the U.S. Supreme Court?
  4. If the Supreme Court had decided Plessy v. Ferguson in Plessy’s favor, do you think the decision would have been enforced? Why or why not? When making a decision, do you think the Supreme Court should consider whether it will be enforced? Explain.

For Further Reading

Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 2008.

Nelson, Bruce. Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2001.

Return to Black History Month Home Page

Slavery in the American South

Slavery in the American South

O Lord, O my Lord!
O my great Lord keep me from sinking down.
— From a slave song

No issue has more scarred our country nor had more long-term effects than slavery. When we celebrate American freedom, we must also be mindful of the long and painful struggle to share in those freedoms that faced and continue to face generations of African Americans. To understand the present, we must look to the past.


A painting depicts George Washington and workers on his plantation. (Wikimedia Commons)

Buying and Selling Slaves

Before the Civil War, nearly 4 million black slaves toiled in the American South. Modem scholars have assembled a great deal of evidence showing that few slaves accepted their lack of freedom or enjoyed life on the plantation. As one ex-slave put it, “No day dawns for the slave, nor is it looked for. It is all night — night forever.” For many, the long night of slavery only ended in death.

In 1841, a bounty hunter kidnapped Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York, on the pretext that he was a runaway slave from Georgia. When the bounty hunter sold him into slavery, Northup lost his family, his home, his freedom, and even his name.

Solomon Northup was taken to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was put into a “slave pen” with other men, women, and children waiting to be sold. In “Twelve Years a Slave,” a narrative that Northup wrote after he regained his freedom, the citizen of New York described what it was like to be treated as human property:

Freeman [the while slave broker] would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel of our heads and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth.... Sometimes a man or woman was taken back lo the small house in the yard, stripped, and inspected more minutely. Scars upon a slave’s back were considered evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit, and hurt his sale.

By law, slaves were the personal property of their owners in all Southern states except Louisiana. The slave master held absolute authority over his human property as the Louisiana law made clear: “The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry, and his labor; [the slave] can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong to his master.”

Slaves had no constitutional rights; they could not testify in court against a white person; they could not leave the plantation without permission. Slaves often found themselves rented out, used as prizes in lotteries, or as wagers in card games and horse races.

Separation from family and friends was probably the greatest fear a black person in slavery faced. When a master died, his slaves were often sold for the benefit of his heirs. Solomon Northup himself witnessed a sorrowful separation in the New Orleans slave pen when a slave buyer purchased a mother, but not her little girl:

The child, sensible of some impending danger, instinctively fastened her hands around her mother’s neck, and nestled her little head upon her bosom. Freeman [the slave broker] sternly ordered [the mother] to be quiet, but she did not heed him. He caught her by the arm and pulled her rudely, but she clung closer to the child. Then with a volley of great oaths he struck her such a heartless blow, that she staggered backward, and was like to fall. Oh! How piteously then did she beseech and beg and pray that they not be separated.

Perhaps out of pity, the buyer did offer to purchase the little girl. But the slave broker refused, saying there would be “piles of money to be made of her” when she got older.

Slave Labor

Of all the crops grown in the South before the Civil War including sugar, rice, and corn, cotton was the chief money-maker. Millions of acres had been turned to cotton production following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. As more and more cotton lands came under cultivation, especially in Mississippi and Texas, the demand for slaves boomed. By 1860, a mature male slave would cost between $1,000 and $2,000. A mature female would sell for a few hundred dollars less.

Slaves worked at all sorts of jobs throughout the slaveholding South, but the majority were field hands on relatively large plantations. Men, women, and children served as field hands. The owner decided when slave children would go into the fields, usually between the ages of 10 and 12.

The cotton picking season beginning in August was a time of hard work and fear among the slaves. In his book, Solomon Northup described picking cotton on a plantation along the Red River in Louisiana:

An ordinary day’s work is two hundred pounds.... The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as if is light in the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see.... The day’s work over in the field, the baskets are “toted,” or in other words, carried to the gin house, where the cotton is weighed. No matter how fatigued and weary he may be ... a slave never approaches the gin-house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short of weight ... he knows that he must [be whipped]. And if he has exceeded it by ten or twenty pounds, in all probability his master will measure the next day’s task accordingly.

Only when the slaves finally finished working for their master could they return to their own crude cabins to tend to their own family needs.


An illustration of slave’s life from a song book published in 1881. (Wikimedia Commons)

‘The Quarters’

Slave families lived in crowded cabins called “the quarters.” Usually bare and simple, these shelters were cold in winter, hot in summer, and leaky when it rained. Slave food was adequate but monotonous, consisting mainly of corn bread, salt pork (or bacon), and molasses. The master also usually provided a winter and a summer set of clothes, often the cast-offs of white people. Sickness was common and the infant death rate doubled that of white babies.

The lives of black people under slavery in the South were controlled by a web of customs, rules, and laws known as “slave codes.” Slaves could not travel without a written pass. They were forbidden to learn how to read and write. They could be searched at any time. They could not buy or sell things without a permit. They could not own livestock. They were subject to a curfew every night.

Marriage among slaves had no legal standing and always required the approval of the master. Generally, slaves could marry others living at their plantation, or at neighboring ones. Solomon Northup discovered the following rules during his enslavement in Louisiana:

Either party can have as many husbands or wives as the owner will permit, and either is at liberty to discard the other at pleasure. The law in relation to divorce, or to bigamy, and so forth, is not applicable to property, of course. If the wife does not belong on the same plantation with the husband, the latter is permitted to visit her on Saturday nights, if the distance is not too far.

Slave Resistance

In “Twelve Years a Slave,” Northup reported one instance in which a young slave woman named Patsey was brutally whipped for visiting a neighboring plantation without permission:

The painful cries and shrieks of the tortured Patsey, mingling with the loud and angry curses of Epps [the slave master whipping her] loaded the air. She was terribly lacerated — I may say, without exaggeration, literally flayed. The lash was wet with blood....

13th Amendment (1865)

Neither slavery not involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

How did the slaves react to the whippings, the endless labor for others’ profit, the lack of freedom? Some like Nat Turner rebelled. In 1831, he led a slave revolt that left nearly 60 white persons dead in Virginia. Such insurrections were relatively rare in the South. White people outnumbered slaves in most places, possessed firearms, and could call on the power of the government to suppress rebellions. Nevertheless, slaves everywhere found other ways to resist their bondage. They sabotaged tools and crops, pretended illness, and stole food from the master’s own kitchen. The most effective way that a slave could retaliate against an owner was to run away. It is estimated that 60,000 black people fled slavery before the Civil War.

Solomon Northup attempted to run away but failed. Then, in 1852, a white carpenter with abolitionist sentiments met Northup and learned about his kidnapping. The carpenter wrote several letters to New York state officials on behalf of Northup. In response, the governor of New York sent an agent carrying documents proving that Northup was a free black man. After a court hearing in January 1853, a Louisiana judge released Northup from his bondage. He finally returned home to his wife and children.

When Solomon Northup wrote the narrative of his experiences in 1853, he left little doubt about his feelings toward slave owners: “A day may come — it will come... — a terrible day of vengeance, when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.”

For Discussion and Writing

  1. In 1850, a Southern slave owner might have said something like this: “Our slaves are like children who need to be cared for and disciplined. They are content and are actually better off than free white laborers working in northern factories.” How do you think Solomon Northup would have responded to these remarks?
  2. What was the legal status of slaves and their families?
  3. The 13th Amendment was finally ratified in 1865, long after most other nations in the world had abolished slavery. Why do you think slavery lasted so long in the American South?
  4. Today practices such as slavery seem to us unjust and unthinkable. When students of the future read about our world in their history books, will they be horrified by any of the conditions we find acceptable? What causes public opinion to change?

For Further Reading

Boles, John B. Black Southerners, 1619–1869. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.


Runaway Slaves

1. In this activity and based on the reading, the class will create narratives of six slaves who have run away from different southern plantations in 1850. After forming small groups, assign each group one of the following profiles. Each should work cooperatively to write a narrative of one of the following runaway slaves:

Jackson, age 25, a field worker with many scars on his back.

Polly, age 18, a field worker who is 8 months pregnant.

Eliza, age 15, a house servant whose mother was sold to another master one year ago.

Thomas, age 12, a stable boy who wants to learn how to read and write.

Hattie, age 45, a cook whose master recently died.

Marcus, age 70, a coachman and butler who has worked for the same family all of his life.

2. The following questions are intended to help the groups develop their slave narratives. Every response should be written in first person as if the runaway slave had answered himself or herself.

a.     What is your name and how old are you?

b.     What was it like to be sold?

c.     What was your work day like?

d.     What was your family life like in the slave quarters?

e.     What was it like to be punished for violating a slave code regulation?

f.     What was it like to resist your master without his knowing it?

g.     Why did you run away?

3. Someone in each group should now take on the role of the runaway slave and read the group’s first person narrative to the rest of the class.

4. After all the narratives have been read, hold a class discussion on what seemed to be the worst part of slavery in the American South. This could also be the subject of an essay assignment.

Return to Black History Month Home Page

The Constitution and Slavery

The Constitution and Slavery

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.
— Declaration of Independence, 1776


Thomas Jefferson presented the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress in 1776. (Wikimedia Commons)

When the American colonies broke from England, the Continental Congress asked Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. In the declaration, Jefferson expressed American grievances and explained why the colonists were breaking away. His words proclaimed America’s ideals of freedom and equality, which still resonate throughout the world.

Yet at the time these words were written, more than 500,000 black Americans were slaves. Jefferson himself owned more than 100. Slaves accounted for about one-fifth of the population in the American colonies. Most of them lived in the Southern colonies, where slaves made up 40 percent of the population.

Many colonists, even slave holders, hated slavery. Jefferson called it a “hideous blot” on America. George Washington, who owned hundreds of slaves, denounced it as “repugnant.” James Mason, a Virginia slave owner, condemned it as “evil.”

But even though many of them decried it, Southern colonists relied on slavery. The Southern colonies were among the richest in America. Their cash crops of tobacco, indigo, and rice depended on slave labor. They weren’t going to give it up.

The first U.S. national government began under the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781. This document said nothing about slavery. It left the power to regulate slavery, as well as most powers, to the individual states. After their experience with the British, the colonists distrusted a strong central government. The new national government consisted solely of a Congress in which each state had one vote.

With little power to execute its laws or collect taxes, the new government proved ineffective. In May 1787, 55 delegates from 12 states met in Philadelphia. (Rhode Island refused to send a delegation.) Their goal was to revise the Articles of Confederation. Meeting in secret sessions, they quickly changed their goal. They would write a new Constitution. The outline of the new government was soon agreed to. It would have three branches — executive, judiciary, and a two-house legislature.

A dispute arose over the legislative branch. States with large populations wanted representation in both houses of the legislature to be based on population. States with small populations wanted each state to have the same number of representatives, like under the Articles of Confederation. This argument carried on for two months. In the end, the delegates agreed to the “Great Compromise.” One branch, the House of Representatives, would be based on population. The other, the Senate, would have two members from each state.

Part of this compromise included an issue that split the convention on North–South lines. The issue was: Should slaves count as part of the population? Under the proposed Constitution, population would ultimately determine three matters:

(1) How many members each state would have in the House of Representatives.
(2) How many electoral votes each state would have in presidential elections.
(3) The amount each state would pay in direct taxes to the federal government.


In 1787 after months of debate, delegates signed the new Constitution of the United States. (Wikimedia Commons)

Only the Southern states had large numbers of slaves. Counting them as part of the population would greatly increase the South’s political power, but it would also mean paying higher taxes. This was a price the Southern states were willing to pay. They argued in favor of counting slaves. Northern states disagreed. The delegates compromised. Each slave would count as three-fifths of a person.

Following this compromise, another controversy erupted: What should be done about the slave trade, the importing of new slaves into the United States? Ten states had already outlawed it. Many delegates heatedly denounced it. But the three states that allowed it — Georgia and the two Carolinas — threatened to leave the convention if the trade were banned. A special committee worked out another compromise: Congress would have the power to ban the slave trade, but not until 1800. The convention voted to extend the date to 1808.

A final major issue involving slavery confronted the delegates. Southern states wanted other states to return escaped slaves. The Articles of Confederation had not guaranteed this. But when Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance, it a clause promising that slaves who escaped to the Northwest Territories would be returned to their owners. The delegates placed a similar fugitive slave clause in the Constitution. This was part of a deal with New England states. In exchange for the fugitive slave clause, the New England states got concessions on shipping and trade.

These compromises on slavery had serious effects on the nation. The fugitive slave clause (enforced through legislation passed in 1793 and 1850) allowed escaped slaves to be chased into the North and caught. It also resulted in the illegal kidnapping and return to slavery of thousands of free blacks. The three-fifths compromise increased the South’s representation in Congress and the Electoral College. In 12 of the first 16 presidential elections, a Southern slave owner won. Extending the slave trade past 1800 brought many slaves to America. South Carolina alone imported 40,000 slaves between 1803 and 1808 (when Congress overwhelmingly voted to end the trade). So many slaves entered that slavery spilled into the Louisiana territory and took root.

Northern states didn’t push too hard on slavery issues. Their main goal was to secure a new government. They feared antagonizing the South. Most of them saw slavery as a dying institution with no economic future. However, in five years the cotton gin would be invented, which made growing cotton on plantations immensely profitable, as well as slavery.

The Declaration of Independence expressed lofty ideals of equality. The framers of the Constitution, intent on making a new government, left important questions of equality and fairness to the future. It would be some time before the great republic that they founded would approach the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What were the ideals of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence?
  2. Why was slavery so important to the South?
  3. Do you think the framers of the Constitution could have limited or banned slavery? Why or why not?

For Further Reading

Horton, James Oliver. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press. 2006.

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Harvard College. 1998.

Return to Black History Month Home Page

The Slave Trade

The Slave Trade

Ironically, the first ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic went from west to east. During his second voyage to America, Columbus captured 500 Caribbean Indians to take back to Spain. About 200 Indians died during the Atlantic crossing and were thrown into the sea.

The Spanish failed in their experiment to make American Indians into slaves. When forced to work on sugar plantations in Cuba and the West Indies islands, they died by the hundreds.

Small numbers of black African slaves were introduced into Spanish America as early as 1501. Since the Africans seemed to survive longer than the native Indians, the Spanish began to look eastward for a new source of slave labor. In 1518, King Charles V of Spain granted the first license to sell African slaves in the Spanish colonies of America. The West African slave trade had begun.


This building on the coast of Africa once was a headquarters for the British slave trade. (Wikimedia Commons)

Buying Slaves in Africa

How did an African become a slave? At first, white slave traders simply went on kidnapping raids, but this proved too dangerous for the Europeans. Instead, they established hundreds of forts and trading stations along Africa’s West Coast. Local African rulers and black merchants delivered captured people to these trading posts to sell as slaves to European ship captains.

About 50 percent of the slaves were taken as prisoners during the frequent tribal wars occurring among the West African kingdoms. Another 30 percent became slaves as punishment for crimes or indebtedness. The remainder were kidnapped by black slave traders.

An African trader usually transported his slaves to a coastal trading station by binding them around the neck with leather thongs, each slave about a yard distance from each other. There were often 30 or 40 in a string. The factor living at the trading station negotiated a price between the African slave trader and the slave ship captain.

After making a deal with the factor, the traders transported the slaves in large canoes to the ship, riding at anchor just beyond the thundering surf. The factor supervised the branding and loading of the slaves onto the ship. For land-bound Africans who had never seen it before, the ocean was a terrifying sight. Some slaves tried to escape by jumping into the sea, only to be devoured by sharks.

Gustavus Vassa, an African slave who later gained his freedom and wrote an account of his life, described his experience boarding a slave ship:

I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me.... When I recovered, I found some black people about me. I asked if we were to be eaten by these men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair.


This diagram shows how slave ships were packed. It was presented to a committee of the British House of Commons in 1790. (Wikimedia Commons)

The ‘Middle Passage’ to America

Once on board, men and boys were stripped naked and shackled two-by-two at the wrist and ankle. They were then prodded into the dark, unsanitary hold of the ship. Alexander Falconbridge, an English slave ship doctor, wrote this description of typical slave quarters:

They are frequently stowed so close, as to admit of no other posture than lying on their sides. Neither will the height between decks ... permit them the indulgence of an erect posture; especially where there are platforms, which is generally the case. These platforms are a kind of shelf, about eight feet in breadth, extending from the side of the ship towards the center. They are placed nearly midway between the decks, at the distance of two or three feet from each deck. Upon these the negroes are stowed in the same manner as they are on the deck [floor] underneath.

Women and children remained unchained and spent the voyage in separate quarters. All slaves slept on bare, rough wood. This, combined with the turbulent motions of the ship, often caused the skin on their elbows to wear down to the bone.

Two different loading philosophies were popular among slave ship captains. The “loose packers” believed that by carrying fewer slaves, more would survive to be sold in America. The “tight packers” argued that more money would be made by overcrowding the slaves on board the ship, even if this meant some would die due to poor health conditions.

In good weather, and only during the day, the crew allowed the slaves on deck. A slave’s diet consisted of two meals, usually boiled rice, yams, or beans and a daily ration of one pint of water. Should the slaves refuse to eat or drink, the crew sometimes used hot coals to force a slave’s mouth open. Sometimes a slave could be subjected to force feedings by having his jaws separated for him by a device. Members of the crew entertained themselves by whipping the slaves to make them sing and dance. Slave captains encouraged this activity under the premise that it prevented suicidal thoughts and even scurvy among the slaves. After all, in order to maximize his profit, the captain needed live and healthy Africans at the end of the middle passage.

Many Africans died during the middle passage due to smallpox, measles, malaria, and dysentery. During shipboard revolts, some slaves were killed. Those who went insane were thrown overboard. Others took their own lives or surrendered their will to live. On a typical voyage to America, about 10-15 percent of the Africans died; the longer the voyage lasted, the higher the death rate. Estimates vary, but up to 2 million died.

Selling Slaves in America

Before selling his slaves, a captain did everything he could to improve the price he would get for them. The Africans received increased food and water rations, and their skins were rubbed with palm oil to give them a healthy appearance. The ship’s doctor tried to hide scars or evidence of disease, sometimes using cruel or painful cosmetic techniques.

There were two main methods of selling slaves in the West Indies. The sick and weak were sold at auction “by inch of candle.” Bids on these slaves were accepted until an inch of a candle had burned down; the usual price was about $5. The strongest and healthiest slaves were sold by the “scramble” method. Before a sale, the ship’s captain and buyers agreed on an equal price for all slaves, often several hundred dollars a piece. These slaves were then assembled in a large yard. On a signal, the buyers burst into this yard to grab the best slaves. Fighting often ensued between excited buyers over a particularly good “specimen.”

End of the Slave Trade

The United States almost ended its role in the slave trade during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Most of the convention delegates, including slave owners like George Washington, wanted a provision in the Constitution prohibiting the importation of slaves. Representatives from slave-importing Georgia and South Carolina, however, threatened to leave the union if prohibition was included. To solve this dilemma, delegates put a compromise in the Constitution that prevented Congress from passing any law against slave trading for 20 years.

After 1800, the slave trade came under increasing attack in Europe and the United States. In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed a law outlawing the importation of slaves for the purpose of selling them in the United States. A few weeks later, the English Parliament followed our example and passed a similar law. By 1820, most other European nations had banned slave trading.

Illegal slaving went on for about 50 years. In 1860, Nathaniel Gordon, one of the last American slave ship captains, made a voyage to West Africa and loaded his ship, the Erie, with 900 Africans, 600 of whom were children. As the Erie left Africa to begin its long homeward trek, an American warship intercepted it about 50 miles from the African coast. Captain Gordon was arrested and taken to New York for trial. The court found Gordon guilty of breaking the U.S. anti-slave trading law and sentenced him to hang. The infamous Captain Gordon remains the only American slave trader ever to be executed by the United States.

The West African slave trade, with its tortuous middle passage, lasted nearly 400 years. During this time, more than 11 million Africans found themselves sold into slavery. Of this number, about 5 percent or 500,000 ended up in the United States. Most of the rest ended up in the West Indies or the Caribbean Islands.

Looking back on this period, it is difficult to believe, and even harder to admit, that people could be so cruel as to trade human lives for profit. This despicable business meant a loss of some humanity to everyone involved. John Newton, a former slave ship captain, wrote in 1786 that the slave trade “gradually brings a numbness upon the heart, and renders most of those who are engaged in it too indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow creatures.”

For Discussion and Writing

  1. Assume you are an African on a slave ship in the middle passage. Write a diary describing one day of your experience.
  2. Luke Collingwood and Nathaniel Gordon were both slave ship captains. How were their experiences similar to one another? How were they different? In your opinion, was either man really a criminal? Why or why not?
  3. Assume you are a member of the English Parliament in 1807. Write a speech giving your reasons why slave trading should be outlawed.
  4. What do you think John Newton meant when he said slave trading “gradually brings a numbness upon the heart?”

For Further Reading

Conneau, Theophilus. A Slaver’s Logbook or 20 Years’ Residence in Africa. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1982.

Berendt, Stephen D. & James A. Rawley. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History, Revised Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Return to Black History Month Home Page

<< Start < Prev 1 2 3 4 5 6 Next > End >>

Page 5 of 6