African Slaves' Contribution in Building America

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        With the birth of a new nation, America broke free from its political ties with England and gained its independence. With this liberation came a hypocritical turn of events when America itself built its future on oppression and enslavement. With the sudden expansion of agriculture, African black slaves became an even more important key factor for English colonists. Staple and cash crops which were harvested by slaves not only helped sustain the colonists’ privileged lives, it pushed America towards economic growth agriculturally and it paved the way for America to prove to be one of the self-sustaining nations in its time.


        In the early 1600s the transatlantic slave trade gave way to a new beginning, the beginning of North America’s agricultural business. Africans were brought over in ships to Virginia, as indentured slaves along with white European servants who could not pay their way to America. Both black and white servants worked on fields side by side and both were granted freedom after a certain time of service was paid off [1]. But by 1650, because of racial differences, which led to segregation of the classes, black Africans were looked upon as low class people and therefore, were used as slave labor and their freedom was never granted [2]. Slaves were treated as real estate, therefore making slaves a very valuable commodity to a plantation owner’s estate [3]. Another element that played a big role in the rise of slave population was the fact that white servitude began to go down in number because of skilled workers, the prices for white laborers increased, thus many colonists turned to black slaves, which was more economical. Slaves were treated with inequality because of the color and because colonists thought the black race to be inferior; many whites argued that because of the inferior nature of the blacks, they were helping the black slaves by acting as a paternal figure [4]. Black slaves were put to difficult tasks such as laboring on tobacco, cotton, and rice fields [5]. Conditions were tough and many white slave-owners worked their slaves with long grueling hours and little thought went into the well being of the slave body. African slaves were the backbone to America’s agrarian industry, which not only boosted America’s power of exporting to other nations but also heightened America’s agricultural economy [6].


        In the Chesapeake, (Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina) tobacco farming was a major agricultural crop. Unlike cotton, harvesting tobacco needed slaves with much higher skills. The life expectancy for a slave in the Chesapeake was much higher than that of one working in cotton fields in the south; farmers valued the skills of male slaves, thus kept them under better conditions. Yet tobacco farms lacked the tolerance of keeping slave families together; the importance of a slave family was not valued [7]. Many women were kept for producing children, the results were often having black women fathering their white master’s children. These factors therefore, made it very difficult for African men who rarely could sustain a family because wives and children were often sold away. By using the labor of black African slaves, colonial America took its first steps in becoming an independent nation; it turned Virginia, which was on the brink of starvation, to an independent and successful exporter to England.


        In the mid 1700s, because of an over-surplus of tobacco and exhausted soils of the Chesapeake, tobacco saw a decrease in price and many plantation owners were left in deep debt. This resulted in many farmers selling their slaves off to southern plantations in order to pay off their debts, often splitting families and putting their financial needs ahead of the needs of the slave families [8]. In the South, UC with the cotton industry beginning to take off, demand for slaves was growing. Many plantations sought factory-like efficiency that would generate a mass production in cotton. Slave families were encouraged because collecting cotton was a strenuous but unskilled job and every hand that could be used to pick cotton was beneficial for the plantation owner, for the more cotton that was picked the more profit was earned. Because of the large slave family units there was an abundance of labor. Slaves were mistreated and abused and were forced to endure long hours picking cotton in the field in order to sustain the cotton production. Because of tough working condition life expectancy for black slaves in the South was much shorter than the slaves, who were working in the Chesapeake on tobacco fields; and because no skills were required to work on cotton fields, slaves were easily expendable.


        While the cotton industry was a profitable means for plantation owners, it was also a very time consuming task; the tedious task to pick and clean the cotton was done by black men, women and children. In the 1790’s, a young man by the name of Eli Whitney, who was a Yale graduate, left Massachusetts and headed south to Georgia in attempts to gain wealth. Seeing that plantation owners were struggling with processing cotton and were in dire need of a solution that would ease the removal of seeds from the cotton, Eli got to work trying to find the solution. Within a short while Eli configured a device called, the cotton gin. Now rather than picking the small seeds from the cotton by hand, the cotton would be driven through combed rollers that would clean the cotton of its seeds. One would think that a machine, which could do the task of many black slave hands, would lessen the demand for black slaves on cotton plantations. The result was quite the opposite; slavery grew even more. Whilst the cotton gin cut down the time in removing seeds from the cotton, the need to grow and pick the cotton increased as plantation owner seized this profitable opportunity to expand their plantations even more. Cotton plantations began to spread like wildfire. In 1790 there were only 6 slave states, by 1860 the number had more than doubled to 15 slave states (eliwhitney.org). At that time, America was producing three-quarters of the world’s supply of cotton; and the south was supplying three-fifths of America’s exports (eliwhitney.org). One could imagine how much profit was being brought in, but not a single penny went to the black slaves who vigorously worked on these fields.


        After the fall of the deerskin market, South Carolina turned from Native Indian laborers to African slaves. Rice was brought over on ships along with slaves from Africa. When rice was first introduced many attempts were made by farmers in planting the rice but inadequate techniques did not allow rice to flourish with an abundance. Black slaves from the western region of Africa were specifically imported to America because of their knowledge and expertise with growing the indigenous crop [9]. With African slaves cultivating rice in swamps, rice suddenly became the most profitable business there was; it was given the name “golde seeds”. In South Carolina, the black slave population suddenly rose from three thousand in 1710 to twenty thousand in 1730 [10]. After changes were made in the Navigation Acts in 1730, exporting ships were no longer required to make stops and pay duty in England, the drive to export rice became even greater and many plantation owners began to turn to more labor-intensive ways to yield larger quantities of rice [11]. The change led slaves from inland swamps to floodplain tidal rivers. Slave mortality rate rose as well from dangerous working condition; many were being affected by disease such as malaria, heat strokes, and dealt with dangers of swamp wildlife (ex: crocodiles and snakes). Rice exporting was a secure and stable means of living, and early colonial American gained immense profit from rice plantations, which were built and maintained by black slaves [12]

Rice Export from South Carolina 1695-1774 

        In January 1808, the importation of slaves into America was banned [13]. While the south depended on slavery agriculturally and economically, the North, UC was slowly eradicating slavery and depending more on industrialization. The nation was splitting into two- the south that defended slavery and the north that opposed it. Many slaves ran away to the North to seek a better life and a possibility to find jobs. In 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was created by Congress to serve the interests of both the North and South; the law required all run-away slaves to be returned to their white masters and it forced members of free states to abide by this law [14]. There were a few cases where white colonists would kidnap free blacks and present them as slaves and sell them for profit. Often times even if blacks carried papers as proof, whites would ignore that fact that they are free and turn them in to jail or to slave-owners in the south. Many abolitionists in this time extended their hand to blacks; often times they would lend their homes as a safe-haven for free and escaped blacks. Many citizens of free states who opposed this act would insult slave patrols and would not cooperate with the law enforcers who tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act [15].

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        As slave population grew many began to question politically and morally the nature of slavery. After the Revolution, the Northern states had already seen a decline in slavery. There were many religious reasons people turned away from slavery stating that it was unjust and morally wrong and did not follow the Christian ways. There were many political aspects as well as to why the Northern free states wanted to end slavery. Representation in government was based on population and because the South had such a dense black population, the Northerners feared of unjust representation from the government body. The Northern free states feared a “slave power conspiracy” [16]. Many consider the Civil War’s main reason to be that of the issue of slavery, but President Abraham Lincoln, the president of the Union during the Civil War, had argued that they were fighting for the unification of the Union. In fact, the Congress in 1861 passed a statement stating that they were “disavowing any intention of interfering in what were euphemistically called the domestic institutions in any region” [17]. The North had opposed slavery and wanted to end it for political benefit and advancement; many northerners were racist and feared that freedom would result in blacks settling in the north, therefore, taking job opportunities of the whites. When President Lincoln was faced with political pressures from his party members and when President Lincoln realized that the Confederates had a military advantage because of the use of black slaves, only then did President Abraham Lincoln turn his attention to the issue of slavery and that was when he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted black slaves, from the ten states which were still in rebellion, their freedom [18]. The announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation benefitted the Union to a great extent; for the English and French suddenly diverted their attention from the Confederates to the Union, realizing that the North’s efforts, to abolish slavery, was far greater than that of the Confederates; therefore, Britain and France gave their support to the Union during the Civil War [19].


        After the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln felt that the end to slavery should have a more protected notion in the constitution. In 1865, Lincoln therefore, presented the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere. For many this was a time of celebration, but many others like Fredrick Douglas argued, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot”.[20] Douglas’s reference was that of equal rights for blacks before the law.

        To see any further repeals, in 1866, the Republicans decided to pass another constitutional amendment: the 14th amendment. This amendment stated as the following, the amendment defined American citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside”. And forbade any state to dispossess “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. [21] It specified for relative reduction in a state’s congressional representation if it denied suffrage to any male citizens regardless of race. It also eliminated all ex-Confederates to run for state and national office. But again the amendment focused mainly on southerners and since the north already was looked upon as free, little was being done to bring equal rights and stop black suffrage [22].

        The next amendment, which was created to stop black suffrage, was the 15th amendment. Although the amendment stated that there should be no discrimination based on “race, color, nativity, property, education or religious beliefs” to vote but southern whites found loop holes and would deny blacks the right to vote by placing “literacy tests, property qualifications, and poll taxes” [23]. Although the government had passed laws, they had failed to implement and enforce the rules and regulations due to their own personal political gains.

        As many fled England in the 17th century, whether it was for religious or political freedom or to improve quality of life, people were seeking a life free from oppression. Duplicitously colonists built America’s foundation on enslavement and repression. Early colonial America was in dire need of a way to show its capability as a unified nation and it turned to slavery. With the labor of slaves, America built its economic growth through agriculture. It became one of the world’s leading exporters in tobacco, cotton and rice. The weight of America’s establishment was put upon the backs of the black African slaves.


[1] Galenson, David W. “White Servitude and the Growth of Black Slavery in Colonial America”.

[2] Harrel, David E. “Unto A Good Land” 1900”.

[3] Mancall, Peter C.“Slave Prices and the South Carolina Economy, 1722-1809”.

[4] Cheathem, Mark R. Review: The Domestic Slave Trade and the United States Constitution. “Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War” by David L. Lightner.

[5] Cheathem, Mark R. Review: The Domestic Slave Trade and the United States Constitution. “Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War” by David L. Lightner.

[6] Nicholson, David. 2013. "First Slaves First Hope".

[7] Kulikoff, Allan. “Tobacco and Slaves: the Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800”.

[8] Kulikoff, Allan. “Tobacco and Slaves: the Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800”.

[9] Carney, Judith. “Rice Milling, Gender and Slave Labour in Colonial South Carolina”.

[10] Carney, Judith. “Rice Milling, Gender and Slave Labour in Colonial South Carolina”.

[11] Sawers, Larry. “The Navigation Acts Revisited”.

[12] Carney, Judith. “Rice Milling, Gender and Slave Labour in Colonial South Carolina”.

[13] Harrell, David E. “Unto a Good Land”.

[14] Harrell, David E. “Unto a Good Land”.

[15] Fogleman, Aaron S. “From Slaves, Convicts, and Servants to Free Passengers: The Transformation of Immigration in the Era of the American Revolution.”

[16] Harrell, David E. “Unto a Good Land”.

[17] Harrell, David E. “Unto a Good Land”. pp. 486.

[18] Finkelman, Paul. “Slavery, the Constitution, and the Origins of the Civil War”.

[19] Harrell, David E. “Unto a Good Land”.

[20] Harrell, David E. “Unto a Good Land”. pp. 514

[21] Harrell, David E. “Unto a Good Land”. pp. 520

[22] Harrell, David E. “Unto a Good Land”. pp. 520

[23] Harrell, David E. “Unto a Good Land”. pp. 524