2019: 400 Years of American Slavery

This year the United States is marking a sometimes overlooked, but historically significant anniversary. 2019 marks 400 years since the first slaves were brought to what would become the United States of America (aka the British colonies).

There has been some pushback about the significance of 1619, since slavery and African slavery had been in the Americas prior to that point. After the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they began to enslave the indigenous population and in the early 1500s the first African slaves were imported by the Spanish to supplement Native labor. When looking at what would become the continental United States, the Spanish introduced African slaves into present day South Carolina and Florida by the mid-1500s. In addition, there is the argument that through the first few decades of the British colonies black and white men worked side-by-side as indentured servants and received similar treatment.

Other argue that 1619 is as foundational a date as 1607 (Jamestown), 1620 (the Puritans), or 1776. The 1619 date is when the first African slaves arrived in the British colonies, captured from a Portuguese slave ship and brought to Jamestown by English privateers. While at the beginning this was not a racial system of slavery, in the 1640s and 1650s states began to make a clearer distinction between indentured servants and slaves, and for the first time Africans were held in lifelong bondage instead of temporary servitude. In the 1660s, 1670s, and 1680s laws were gradually enacted that divided Africans and Europeans, held Africans in lifelong bondage, and created a hereditary status of slavery. In the 1670s the African slave trade grew stronger in the colonies, increasing the number of slaves. Changes in the economy as well as social and class tensions (such as Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676) transitioned the colonies, especially the southern agricultural colonies, away from indentured servitude and towards slavery. What would result was a system of racial slavery that was ingrained deeply in American society for generations until the Civil War, and this systematic racial hierarchy continued past 1865.

Regardless of the date chosen, it is important to mark the beginning and growth of slavery in what would become the United States. The institution of slavery is foundational to the history of the country and the United States still bears its legacy. 1619 is a beginning point to a development in American society that would be a foundation for everything to come. This point was made clear in the New York Times’1619 Project” that traced slavery’s influence in everything from politics and music to sugar and the criminal justice system. The articles contained in the “1619 Project” unapologetically portrays the nation’s history of building greatness on the backs of African-Americans and demonstrates how the legacy of slavery still resonates in modern society. The consequences of slavery echo still, 400 years after slaves were first introduced into Jamestown.

You can find the 1619 Project of the New York Times here.

Other Suggested Reading:

Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves. 2003.

Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Harvard University Press, 1998.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. 2006.

Donaghue, John. “‘Out of the Land of Bondage’: The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition,” American Historical Review. 2010.

Higginbotham, A. Leon. In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. Greenwood Press, 1975.

Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. W.W. Norton, 1975.

NPS. “African Americans at Jamestown.”

White, Deborah Gray, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013.

Wood, Peter H. Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and universities and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse.