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History of US Slavery

HISTORY OF US SLAVERY                                           REFERENCES                                      ON-LINE INFORMATION
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20 Africans first came to the colony of Virginia in 1619 and were sold into slavery.  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.

Enslaved Africans 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. In addition to working in the field, enslaved Africans 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.

The enslaved also worked as house servants.  Sometimes plantation owners would take into their home children they had fathered with enslaved women as companions for their white children, or as maidservants and cooks.  Generally this did not mean a change in slave status; nor were house servants exempt from the laws that forbade the enslaved the right to read, write or assemble.

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 enslaved 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!

Africans worked on small farms with only 2 or 3 enslaved, on huge plantations with as many as 150 - 200 enslaved and on middle-size holdings. Some of the enslaved 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.  All were subject to being separated from their family by sale without notice.


Organized large scale 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).  Read more.


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


Some of the enslaved 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 enslaved people made it to freedom on their own, 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 or re-enslavement. Others joined free black communities in the North like those in Columbia, Christiana or York PA.

Escape was never easy and often dictated by circumstance such as a plantation's financial or emotional upheaval.  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 what came to be known as the Underground Railroad. 

Underground Railroad

And who was this Underground Railroad?  It was field hands who sang a warning, enslaved folks 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, sailors who ferried boats and worked on the waters, 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.

Black Music

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 enslaved folks 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.


Your local historical society is a source of invaluable information.


David Blight, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives Of Emancipation. Harcourt Inc 2007


Charles Blockson, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Flame International Inc, 1981


W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Harvard university Press, 1997.


Betty Deramus, Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories From the Underground Railroad. Atria Books 2005

Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States. Citadel Press, 1953


John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. Oxford University Press, 1999


James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson, The Books of American Negro Spirituals. Viking Press, 1925


Bernard Katz, Ed. The Social Implications of Early Negro Music in The United States. Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969


James Mellon, Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember: an Oral History. Grove Press, 1988


Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. Harper, 2011


RC Smedley, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania. Stackpole Books, 2005


Eileen Southern, The Music of Black American: A History. WW Norton & Co Inc, 1971


Eileen Southern, Ed. Readings in Black American Music. WW Norton & Co Inc, 1971


William Still, The Underground Railroad. Echo Library, 2006


William J Switala, Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Stackpole Books, 2001


William J Switala, Underground Railroad in Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia. Stackpole Books, 2004

Black Classic Press 

Black Classic Press is devoted to publishing obscure and significant works by and about people of African descent. We specialize in republishing works that are out of print and quite often out of memory. We began publishing because we wanted to extend the memory of what we believe are important books that have helped in meaningful ways to shape the Black diasporic experience and our understanding of the world.

On-Line Information

The Underground Railroad

William Still (Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, 1872)

Published seven years after the Civil War and the official abolition of slavery in the United States and written William Still, the son and brother of fugitives, Chairman of the Acting Vigilant Committee of the Philadelphia Branch of the Underground Rail Road, and connected to the Anti-Slavery office in that city. The testimonials in most cases are first-hand accounts, given by the actual fugitives themselves.


Uncovering William Still's Underground Railroad

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has begun work on a new digital history [that] weaves new connections between the manuscript journal and published book of William Still, known as the "Father of the Underground Railroad." This effort provides extraordinary insight into the experiences of enslaved individuals and families who passed through Philadelphia between 1852 and 1857 and the covert networks that aided their escape.


Underground Railroad and Quilt Codes

Thank you to FiberArtist Aleeda Crawley, for your generous sharing of quilting information and making the quilt used in Singin.

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Record of Fugitives

In 1855 and 1856, Sydney Howard Gay, the editor of the weekly abolitionist publication, the National Anti-Slavery Standard and a key operative in the underground railroad in New York City, decided to meticulously record the arrival of fugitive slaves at his office.


The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition

Yale University, New Haven, CT. A part of the Center for International and Area Studies at Yale, dedicated to the investigation and dissemination of knowledge concerning all aspects of chattel slavery and its destruction.


Amistad Research Center

The nation's oldest, largest and most comprehensive independent archive specializing in the history of African Americans and other Ethnic Minorities.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Opened on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati in 2004, the mission of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is to reveal stories of freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps of freedom today


Transatlantic Slave Trade - United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO)

"The transatlantic slave trade, often known as the triangular trade, connected the economies of three continents. It is estimated that between 25 to 30 million people, men, women and children, were deported from their homes and sold as slaves in the different slave trading systems. In the transatlantic slave trade alone the estimate of those deported is believed to be approximately 17 million. These figures exclude those who died aboard the ships and in the course of wars and raids connected to the trade."


The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database

"Information on more than 35,000 slave voyages that forcibly embarked over 12 million Africans for transport to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. It offers researchers, students and the general public a chance to rediscover the reality of one of the largest forced movements of peoples in world history."


Slave Rebellions: A Timeline

Slave owners lived in fear of slave revolts, a fear which was far from unfounded: from the Amistad mutiny to the Underground Railroad, American slaves—led by themselves or with the help of abolitionists—staged many instances of revolt and resistance.


Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage

William Loren Katz. 2012.

History book for ages 10 to adult that traces relations between Blacks and American Indians since the time of the conquest.


The WEYANOKE Association: Red-Black* History & Culture from Our Own Perspective

The Weyanoke Association promotes research in, and the sharing of, Black (African and American African) and Red (Native American or Indian) history and culture, and the places where they intersect.


The Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery,

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem, NY

The Center's mission is to generate and disseminate scholarly knowledge on the slave trade, slavery, and anti-slavery pertaining to the Atlantic World. The Center supports the work of researchers with long-term and short-term fellowships. Given the centrality of Atlantic slavery to the making of the modern world, the Lapidus fellowships ensure that slavery studies are a cornerstone of the Schomburg Center’s broader research community.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The Schomburg Center is recognized as one of the leading institutions focusing exclusively on African-American, African Diaspora, and African experiences. Begun with the collections of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg more than 85 years ago, the Schomburg has collected, preserved, and provided access to materials documenting black life in America and worldwide.


The National Park Service Network To Freedom

A national Underground Railroad program to coordinate preservation and education efforts nationwide and integrate local historical places, museums, and interpretive programs associated with the Underground Railroad into a mosaic of community, regional, and national stories.


The UnderRound Railroad in Brooklyn


The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR) Adventure Cycling Association

Pedal along the 2,007-mile corridor that traces the Underground Railroad route from the Deep South to Canada, passing points of interest and historic sites. Beginning in Mobile, Alabama, — a busy port for slavery during the pre-civil war era.


National Park Service Underground Railroad Map

Most freedom seekers began their journey unaided and many completed their self-emancipation without assistance. Each decade in which slavery was legal in the United States saw an increase in active efforts to assist escape.


Underground Railroad Sites


David Walker, Radical Abolitionist

David Walker was born in the 1790’s Wilmington, North Carolina, to an enslaved father and a free mother; therefore he was free. He became a tailor and an abolitionist. Out of his tailor shop in Boston, MA, he printed David Walker's Appeal, In Four Articles: Together With A Preamble To The Coloured Citizens Of The World, But In Particular, And Very Expressly, To Those Of The United States Of America, (1829), which urged slaves to fight for their freedom. This document, sometimes sewed into the lining of sailor uniforms and thereby disseminated up and down the East Coast, was one of the most radical documents of the antislavery movement.


Canada and the Underground Railroad

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