Slavery in the United States

Definition of a slave: someone who is legally owned by another person and is forced to work for that person without pay

The first ship bringing twenty slaves from Africa to the British colonies in America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The first slave auction in this colony where men and women were sold to the highest bidder was held in 1638. Slaves were brought to America to aid in agriculture. Most slaves were held in the southern colonies later states. However, there were slaves in the northern colonies also. By 1804, the northern states had abolished slavery within their boundaries and anti-slavery societies were being formed that called for freedom for all slaves. Congress outlawed the slave trade from Africa in 1808. As the country grew there was a greater demand for slaves and the value of slaves as property grew in the slave-owning states of the South. By 1860, there were nearly four million slaves in the United States.

Slaves were forced to do work they did not choose with many punishments for not pleasing their masters. Many were barely clothed and fed the poorest quality of food. Frederick Douglas describes some of this, “We were worked all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, snow or hail too hard for us to work in the fields… The longest days were too short for him (the master), and the shortest nights were too long for him. He succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul and spirit.” He goes on to say of this cruel master, “I remained with Mr. Covey one year and during the first six months that I was there, I was whipped either with sticks or cowskins (whips) every week. Aching bones and a sore back were my constant companions.”

Frederick Douglas also speaks about the separation of families caused by slavery. Masters sold children away from their parents to other owners far away. There was no importance placed on families. Mothers were sent to work away from their small children. Frederick Douglas only saw his mother a few times in his youth before she died. He was sad because he never got to tell her good bye during her final illness.

All of these conditions gave rise to the Underground Railroad and the flight of slaves away from their masters in an effort to reach a place where they could find freedom for themselves and family members.

Last updated: 2/15/2018

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