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100 Years Ago


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Business of Slavery

It was a simple system. Ships left European ports laden with goods and supplies for the slave traders of western Africa, that were, upon delivery, used as barter and payment to acquire slaves from slave raiders (kidnappers) and powerful tribes that preyed upon lesser tribes. With their cargo of human bondage trapped in the crowded, filthy bowels of their vessels, they crossed the Atlantic Ocean to unload their valued slave cargo in exchange for tobacco and other crops and merchandise which they loaded in their now empty cargo holds for delivery to Europe.

Upon arriving back in Europe, profits were shared, and the process began again, fully sanctioned, and encouraged by the powerful leaders and governments of the day. Many of America’s successful leaders owned slaves, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Unlike Jefferson’s slaves, Washington’s slaves were given their freedom upon his death. By 1750, there were approximately 200,000 slaves in the colonies, and up to 40,000 free blacks, mostly in the north. They were free for various reasons and resented the English presence. Crispus Attucks, a black American patriot, was killed during the Boston Massacre of 1770 in a confrontation with British soldiers.

During the War of Independence (1775-1783), British armies roamed the South battling revolutionary forces and attempting to incite black riots against those that controlled them. Although the action was primarily unsuccessful, several thousand blacks did escape to the protection of British General Cornwallis as he moved north toward his fateful encounter with American forces at Yorktown. During the battle and before his surrender on October 19, 1781, he encouraged the blacks in his care to attempt to escape to freedom by crossing the American lines. Caught in the no-mans land between the combatants, many of them perished.  Upon the conclusion of the war in 1783, the defeat of Great Britain, and the ceding of her vast land holdings on the continent, (which included Ohio), to the new United States of America, a movement began to contain slavery to the original colonies.

In 1787, the American Constitution, in order to determine the number of elected seats for each area, counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. A Virginia slave could be bought for 40 pounds (approximately $160). The tearing asunder of families, and the separation of loved ones was one of the terribly tragic consequences of the slave auction block. Marriage and fatherhood between slaves was not legally recognized so that laws protecting such institutions for others could not be applied in slave cases.   The end of the Revolutionary War also brought new attitudes among the northern states about the morality of slavery. More than 5,000 black soldiers had served honorably in the war for independence in defense of their Americanism and the new American nation. Two of America’s distinguished heroes in the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, were black men, Peter Salem and Salem Poor of Massachusetts. For this reason, and the realization that slavery was no longer an integral part of the economics of the North, some northern legislatures began the process of abolishing slavery. By the early 1800s, most northern states had ended the practice.

The census of 1790 indicates that 59,000 blacks lived in freedom in the U.S., including about 27,000 of them in the north. They were employed in factories and shipyards, while others became skilled craftsmen, merchants and newspaper men like Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm who helped start the first black newspaper in 1827, "Freedom’s Journal". Although freedom existed, equal treatment would remain elusive far beyond the lifetime of these early free men.

'Black History' segment written in June, 1998 by David Lodge

 

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