A Very Brief History of U.S. Slavery


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


African slaves were not only responsible for the success of the tobacco industry but also for the cotton industry which was intertwined with the success of the mills and factories in the North. They worked on small farms with only 2 or 3 slaves, on huge plantations with as many as 150 – 200 slaves and on middle-size holdings. Some slaves were manumitted (freed) upon the death of the owner; sometimes the relatives even honored this. The living and working conditions varied from plantation to plantation, the constant being the state of slavery on each.

In addition to working in the field, African slaves skilled in carpentry and other crafts were hired out by their owners and sometimes allowed to keep a portion of their fee for themselves. Eventually they were able to purchase their own freedom and freedom for their families which contributed to the development of free black communities in the South during the slave era.  A few of these free blacks even became slave owners themselves.

Slaves also worked as house servants.  Sometimes plantation owners would take into their home children they had fathered with slave women as companions for their white children or as maidservants and cooks.  Generally this did not mean a change in slave status.

Laws Governing Slavery

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

Slave owners feared rebellion and many laws were passed to try to prevent it. Laws forbade slaves the right to read or write and for anyone to teach them.  Neither could they assemble in groups that were not supervised by a white person.


Organized armed rebellions did occur.  The most famous of these were Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), Nat Turner (1831), and white radical abolitionist John Brown (1859).

Smaller rebellions also occurred regularly. Resistance was a daily part of life and took on many forms, including escape.


Escape was never easy and often dictated by circumstance such as a plantation’s financial or emotional upheaval. Some slaves risked life and limb to find family that had been sold away from them. Some ran further South and joined free black communities in port cities where they could anonymously earn money and perhaps return to the plantation and their family after a time. Some escaped and joined Maroon societies, free “outlaw” black communities in the South. Some Africans refused to be enslaved and jumped overboard on the Middle Passage or mutinied.

Many slaves made it North to freedom singly, in twos, families of 10, or loosely formed groups of as many as 15 – 20. Some trekked all the way to Canada where they feared neither extradition nor re-enslavement. Others joined free black communities in the North like those in Columbia, Christiana or York PA. As escape became more prevalent, laws were developed, like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slave owners to track fugitives to their new northern homes.

A few spectacular escapes included Henry “Box” Brown who mailed himself to freedom or Ellen Craft who rode to freedom on a train posing as a white planter with her husband William as her servant.   Others came by way of established routes with guides or “abductors”, Harriet Tubman being the most famous of these.  Still others depended on their own knowledge, planning and friendly faces along the way along what came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

Underground Railroad

And who/what was this Underground Railroad?

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


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

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