June 25, 2020
To understand what happens in the present, I often look to the past.
This is common human behavior, hence the phrase “past performance is no guarantee of future results”, however, sometimes I feel that on challenging issues such as racism, perhaps we don’t look into history enough, but we should, for it is layered with stories and context which I feel help us better understand the current world around us.
I start my journey in the 1600’s – the beginning of the Slave Trade and, in chronological order, I cover significant moments up until the 1900s, unearthing stories and characters from the era.
This is a difficult and complex topic that deserves more words than I’ve laid onto this page, however, to keep this from turning into a book, I’ve chosen to stick to the major moments and do my best to shed light on what happened in those moments.
In an attempt to better understand why America is currently struggling through issues of race and economic disparity amongst classes, I’ve thrown myself into all that American History has to offer.
It’s almost inconceivable to think that slavery existed in the US for centuries and it’s impossible to ignore the impact this has had on modern society. In 1619, 20 African slaves were brought to the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, having been seized from a Portuguese slave ship called the Sao Jao Bautista.
The 17th and 18th centuries were a dark period for African people, with many being kidnapped from their own country and forced into slavery in American Colonies, where they were forced to be servants and work labor in cotton and tobacco crops. Given the time period, exact figures are impossible to obtain, however, according to some historians, approximately 7 million+ people were forced into slavery during the 18th century alone.
7 million people, ripped away from their families and sent to a foreign land, forced into work and to endure unimaginable conditions:
There’s more, but I won’t go on – you get the picture.
As we move through the 18th century, we see the south-facing economic hardship, as tobacco crops are nearly exhausted, a moment which nearly quelled the American Slave trade. At this unique point in history, England had experienced a substantial change in its textile industry through the process of mechanization, an advancement that led to a surge in demand for American Cotton.
Interestingly, southern crops couldn’t meet this demand, as their production was limited by the farming practices of the time – removing seeds from long-staple cotton fibers by hand was a tedious task. This all changed in 1973 when Eli Whitney invented a mechanized device called the ‘cotton gin’. Through using this device, the efficiency of seed removal drastically improved, and as his device became widely replicated, the south would see its production focus move from Tobacco to Cotton, so English demand could be met. Unfortunately, this bolstered the region’s desire to use slaves and kept their reliance on slave labour strong.
Now, I’ve talked a lot about the south, but not the north…that’s because slavery wasn’t particularly widespread in the north, although the wealth generated through such horrific practices in the south was certainly realized in the north region. Interestingly, by 1804, the north had abolished slavery, but it remained an integral part of the south and the slave trade continued to grow, reaching nearly 4 million by 1860.
There were several slave rebellions but one that’s a significant moment in history was led by Nat Turner.
Nat Turner was born in Virginia on a plantation owned by Benjamin Turner. His rebellion occurred in August 1831 and his group of 70+ strong slaves murdered 60+ whites until they were outnumbered by militia forces, who eventually overwhelmed them.
After this rebellion, white militia groups retaliated hard. Over 170 slaves and free blacks were executed in the aftermath as punishment for the rebellion. The south also saw new legislation passed which prohibited the education of slaves and free black people.
According to Stephen B. Oates, a former professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, this retaliation was a typical pattern, where whites would overreact to blacks fighting for freedom. He goes on to further maintain that African Americans across the board regard Turner as a hero for their people and his actions were necessary, given the injustices happening to African Americans at that time.
The abolishment of slavery wouldn’t have been possible without help from free blacks and antislavery northerners.
Records show that even before 1780, people in the north were helping slaves in the south escape from plantations via the ‘underground railroad’. Interestingly, the network wasn’t underground or a railroad but was named so because it was so effective in making people disappear. According to John Rankin, an abolitionist and one of Ohio’s first and most active ‘conductors’ in the network –
It was so called because those who took passage on it disappeared from public view as really as if they had gone into the ground. After the fugitive slaves entered a depot on that road no trace of them could be found. They were secretly passed from one depot to another until they arrived in Canada.”John Rankin
Activity throughout the ‘underground railroad’ gained significant traction in the 1830s, with estimates putting the numbers down at 40,000-100,000 slaves who escaped plantations in the south via this network.
For many slaves, making the decision to flee their plantations was a difficult decision, because it typically involved abandoning family and heading into an environment littered with danger and uncertainty. The threat of being found by slave catchers and their sniffer dogs was always high and if caught, they’d be sent back to their plantation where they’d be punished through beatings, branding, and sometimes, killed.
Some other fascinating facts about the network is that the ‘conductors’ (those responsible for transporting fugitives between stations) only knew their specific part of the network – they would never know the full network, something that likely limited the risk of the network being discovered and exposed. Users of the network also communicated in code, further complicating the operations, and reducing the chances of information being leaked. A great example of this is when a stationmaster would receive a letter about incoming escapees from a plantation, but the escapees would be referred to as ‘parcels’. Conductors also sometimes pretended to be ‘slaves’, so they could enter plantations and arrange escapes from the inside.
Notable figures involved in this system include Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William H. Seward, and the already mentioned John Rankin.
Harriet Tubman, far left, with family and neighbors at her home in Auburn, NY, circa 1887 - New York Times
The mid-19th century was a period in which the United States was experiencing significant growth and with it, came rising tensions between the north and the south.
As previously explained, the two regions had opposing views on slavery, and a major contributing factor to this difference of opinion was down to labor. In the north, their agriculture was typically small-scale and their manufacturing industry was well established, however, in the south, they had built their economy through large-scale cotton and tobacco farming, with these plantations requiring substantially more human resources…their solution? Slave labor.
With a difference in economics, coupled with the growing abolitionist sentiment in the north, post-1830, which extended into some Western territories, tensions started to rise. Many southerners feared that Slavery would indeed be abolished and if so, their economy would be devastated.
Two notable events occurred pre-1830, the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
As America expanded westward, a fierce debate arose over slavery, particularly around its existence. Northerners and southerners already had strong opposing views of Slavery and its role as America expanded West and as this expansion grew, it became swept up in national politics.
The federal government had always played a role in mediating between the slave and free states, specifically around African American rights and stronger unions, and by 1819, the compromise gained significant attention when Missouri petitioned to join the United States as a Slave State.
At this moment in time, the United States was made up of 11 free and 11 slave states, so when Missouri petitioned to join the United States as a Slave State, there was the immediate potential for imbalance.
Congress debated fiercely over whether or not to control the decision of new states and this debate was in dead-lock until Henry Clay brokered a solution called the Missouri Compromise. Passed in 1820, the Missouri Compromise admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, thus keeping the balance.
Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
The Missouri Compromise was eventually superseded by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which ultimately determined that any new state could exercise its sovereignty in favor of or against slavery.
The passing of this act was supported in the south but loathed in the north and like all things in life, it didn’t last forever – on January 29, 1861, anti-slavery settlers were successful in drawing up a new constitution and Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.
This is where we see the start of the civil war, a pivotal moment in American history.
General Kearney, Battle of Chantilly
Beginning in 1861, the Civil War was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America (eleven southern states that left the Union in 1860/61).
Decades of tension came to a peak when troops from the South Carolina Militia bombarded Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861, and fought with the United States Army – a battle that would last 34-hours and mark the official start of the Civil War.
Interestingly, at this point in time, the Confederate Army didn’t technically exist. It was officially formed on February 9, 1861, after former U.S Senator and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis was elected President by the Confederate constitutional convention.
For four, long years, American blood stained the soil as troops from each side battled, their beliefs on the rights of free and slave men and women held tightly.
An important factor that greatly impacted the outcome of the war was each territory’s demographic going into the battle. At the start of 1861, approximately 22 million people lived in the north and 9 million in the south, noting that of this 9 million, approximately 4 million were slaves. For the north, a greater population granted them more wealth, better infrastructure, and access to more supplies.
Many argue that the south wasn’t without its advantages, stating that they were fighting on land they knew well and land that was vast, meaning the north would have to occupy large parts at once. Furthermore, the Confederates controlled some of North America’s best ports.
Of the Civil War’s 150 battles, 50 were significant, with the most brutal being the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
The Civil War impacted all parties, but as a whole, the Confederate states fared worse than the United States Army. Heavy troop forces took their toll as consumption of livestock and crops applied added pressure to the Confederate campaign – this was particularly evident for the Confederate soldiers at Vicksburg, Mississippi. To alleviate this pressure, an invasion launched by General Robert E. Lee took place against the north in the Summer of 1863 near Gettysburg…General Lee’s plan was to secure vital supplies for his troops and to also draw troops away from Vicksburg.
This invasion saw approximately 51,000 men killed, wounded, or missing in action and after three grueling days, General Lee was defeated. Whilst vital supplies were in fact secured, troops weren’t drawn away from the battle taking place at Vicksburg and on July 4, 1863, this fell to Federal troops.
The battle of Gettysburg isn’t only significant due to the number of people impacted – many historians mark that and the battle of Vicksburg as defining moments in the Civil War…So defining in fact, that the President of the United States of America at that time, Abraham Lincoln, delivered what is now considered the most iconic speech in American history – the Gettysburg Address, a speech that expressed a commitment to upholding the Union.
President Lincolns address at Gettysburg cemetery
Two years after this famous speech, in April 1865, the major Confederate armies surrendered to the United States.
There were seven other significant battles during the Civil War – Shiloh, the Seven Days Battle, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga & Chattanooga, and the Overland Campaign.
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t cover one of the Civil War’s final battles, the Battle of Appomattox Station and Court House, which took place in 1865 on April 9th. In this battle, General Lee of the Confederate Army only had 30,000 troops at his disposal and was horribly outnumbered by General Grant, who was commanding 120,000 men. Lee’s goal was to get his men to Lynchburg and while in transit, fend off any attacks led by the Union Army, a plan that went awry after early fighting.
Casualties from this battle were low, with records showing 260 Union causalities and 440 Confederate causalities, however, it was significant because when General Lee surrendered to General Grant of the Union Army, it effectively (not officially) ended the Civil War.
The Civil War – born out of decades of tension and uncompromising differences between the free and slave states ended with roads, farms, and factories of the south in ruins, with much of it, bankrupted and most devastatingly, an entire generation of men, over 620,000 to be precise, deceased, their blood spilled on American Soil.
Over time, the ravaged southern states were rebuilt and once again formed a part of the United States, however, this would take place over a twenty-year period known as the Reconstruction Era.
Instead of diving into the Reconstruction Era, we’ll fast forward straight to 2020.
If you’ve made it this far into the piece, you might be sitting there thinking ‘how does a play-by-play of the time period between the 1600s-1900s help me better understand some of the problems the U.S. is facing today?’
The play by play is important because when you dive into each significant moment in that time period, you get exposed to details that are sometimes forgotten, especially with the constant feed of information passing through our phones.
Details like how plantation owners restricted the movement of their slaves and limited their education and access to information…these are important details because if you look close enough, you can see these injustices playing out in modern society.
Some people might think that race and class oppression doesn’t exist and that in America, the land of opportunity, you simply need to work hard and you’ll be a screaming success, but that isn’t entirely true and the data proves it – let’s take a look.
Research by Equitable Growth shows that for people of color, education doesn’t provide the same economic return.
Measured through unemployment, economic recessions impact Black Americans more severely compared to other racial groups.
Historically, there’s been an underrepresentation of Black Americans in government.
Education opportunities remain heavily split by race.
The divide in mortgage approval rates between races is still in effect, despite formal discrimination on financial products being illegal.
While America truly is the land of opportunity, it’s apparent that some groups definitely start with a more advantageous position because the system is constructed like that – built on a wild and violent foundation which is only a few turns of a history book away.
Certain elements from those events I detailed above have well and truly bled into the centuries that came after it…the violence we saw erupt only weeks ago stems from the foundations of race-based class and income inequality that were laid centuries ago.