Primer on U.S. Slavery for Secondary Teachers

Slavery is often seen as a generally accepted traditional and necessary evil. Images of the happy-go-lucky slave, the enslaved child who was taught to read, or was remembered in the will of an owner survive today because they help many of us to deny the atrocities of human slavery. As I shared the information below with friends and colleagues, many of them asked me to stop. “I don’t want to hear this,” a friend said, putting his hands over his ears. What we need to ask is, how can we understand this unimaginable cruelty and racism without studying these facts? How can we understand the foundations of racism in the U. S. without this knowledge?

Some basic history

Enslavers legally captured, tortured, transported to the U.S. mainland, and sold approximately 500,000 people from African societies from 1526 to 1808. After 1808 slave owners were permitted to “breed” captives in the U.S. but not import them although there is ample evidence that U.S. enslavers ignored the federal law for decades. Eventually twelve million people were forced into the system of slavery. The last shipment of captured Africans arrived in Mobile, AL, in 1860. At the time of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, 4 million people were held in bondage in 15 southern and border states, and New Jersey. The demand for unpaid labor, the quest for wealth and unbridled greed in agriculture- the rice, indigo, sugar, cotton and tobacco – rum and textile industries, and Western Continental expansion were the prime motivations for this practice.

People were taken from particular areas of Africa to the Americas based on their skills. Many were familiar with husbandry, farming, metal work, textile production and carpentry. However, prisoners of war were also taken, some were from royal families, and others with education from the University of Timbuktu. They were captured, in many cases, by other African ethnic groups who were bribed and supplied with guns by U.S. and European enslavers. People tried to build forts, sometimes out of bramble bushes, in order to protect themselves from the invaders. Family members often tried to rescue abducted people at the time of capture or later as captors were followed, but lack of weapons greatly disadvantaged them. Captives could be held up to one year in caves and cells until they were purchased by slavers who would move them to slaving ships. The women’s dungeons in Elmina, Ghana, still reek to this day of feces, urine, sweat and menstrual blood that seeped into the rocks. At Cape Coast Slave Castle’s Men’s Dungeon, archeologists have found three feet of compacted human feces where men wallowed for months before being loaded onto ships.

People were loose packed or tight packed on ships. Slavers were conflicted about which method to use. They faced a quality vs. quantity decision. Diagrams were published in newspapers for slavers that illustrated how people could be packed to ensure that the largest number of people could fit into the smallest amount of space. Approximately 600- 700 people could be stored on a ship. Tight packing meant people had to be measured for height and then the shortest people would be put in the bowels of the ship at the bow and stern.   The taller people would be put closer to the center of the ship or amid ship. They had to lie on one side and then be shifted, at intervals, to their other sides. Tight packing often lead to more health problems and death, thus slavers would lose part of their investment. Loose packing would allow people to lie on their backs but fewer people could be stored in the holds or bilges and thus be potentially less lucrative. However, the loose packer slavers were likely to have healthier people, or perhaps more people to sell at port. It was a gamble, with most slavers favoring tight packing. Slave ships generally had 20 inches of head room in the lower floors of the ships.

Most captured people, including children, were male but females were also part of the slave operation with the added potential of reproductive purposes.

Diseases spread quickly below board and at the first sign of disease such as smallpox, people were thrown overboard. Sharks followed the ships for a steady source of food. People were kept in shackles and given little food or water. Dehydration was a continual problem. The heat generated from the captives in the holds was so extreme that steam could be seen coming through the grates in the upper floors of the ship. Crew members heard “howling melancholy noise, expressive of extreme anguish.” (Mannix, 1962)

Slavers commonly believed that their ships were cleaner and better managed than ships from other countries. For example, the Dutch, Portuguese, English and French all believed their slaving ships were superior. So frequent were the attempts at suicide that measures were put into place to prevent it. Ship doctors were vigilant in looking for “fixed melancholy” or depression. People were daily forced to dance and sing on the deck until exhausted in order to exercise. Ship surgeons sutured the wounds of people who tried to slit their throats. Slavers removed the heads of some suicide victims and placed them on poles on the ship, explaining to the remaining captives that their spirit could not return to their village without a head, in order to prevent future attempts.

A speculum oris or mouth pair was used to force feed people who refused to eat. Some that actively resisted enslavement on the ship were suspended from poles on the stern of the ship to frighten them when sharks were in the water. Many captives were “seasoned” or fattened up in West Indian camps to prepare them for the auction block. Olive oil would be used to cover their bodies to enhance the appearance of their muscles. Severe dysentery and diarrhea were dealt with while on the auction block by having oakum inserted into their rectums. Oakum is a combination of fibers and tar or creosote used for caulking. Once purchased, they would be branded on their thighs or buttocks. People too sickly to be sold were left on the wharfs, sometimes with signs that said $1. People who were kept in the Caribbean had a life expectancy of about seven years. On these islands they were subjected to being buried in sand with syrup covering their heads for ants to eat when it was determined that they were not working up to their potential.

After being purchased they were placed into forced labor on U.S. plantations, small farms, and in urban centers. Their labor created profits for their owners that translated into substantial economic and political power. They were considered more valuable than real estate. They were held against their will, beaten, humiliated and denied any human rights. They often were subjected to having the big toe on each foot removed to prevent them from running away from the cruelty and subjugation. This practice was legalized in Virginia in 1705. In 1723 the law was strengthened by stating that if the slave died as a result of this butchering, no charge of manslaughter could be brought.

Enslaved people were flogged and submerged in barrels of pickling brine. Different forms of brutality were used as punishment for the crime of speaking one’s native language, taking food not authorized by owners, or fighting back against the violence perpetrated against them. It was common for enslaved people to be forced to watch the torture and prolonged death, sometimes lasting two to three days, of another member of their community as a way to terrify them and squelch any plans to flee. The enslaved would be forced to wear collars with long spikes that would catch on tree branches if they attempted to escape in forested areas. Holes were dug in the ground large enough to fit a woman’s pregnant midsection so she could still be whipped on her back and not harm the future property of the owner. Store owners lobbied local officials to require that whipping posts be moved further from store windows because the blood spatters disturbed some customers or put a burden on the shopkeepers to constantly clean the glass. Enslaved people were forced to eat from troughs using wooden paddles, spoons or mussel shells. Some captives were promised manumission or freedom when they reached old age but this was commonly done to get optimal labor while she/he was young and thus provided more capital for the owner to purchase more slaves.

Women were routinely raped by slave owners and their male guests, and the children that resulted from these rapes were forced into slavery. ($800 for a male with good teeth and no scars on his back. $1200 for bi-racial women to be used as a sex slaves) The worst atrocity of all was that enslaved people were separated from their families and witnessed their children being sold, never to be seen again. Some of these children would be purchased at auction to be given as Christmas gifts to the children of plantation owners.

The U.S. Constitution legalized slavery. It stated that runaway slaves were criminals without any legal rights and that each enslaved person was considered 3/5 of a person for Congressional representation guaranteeing the South majority political control in national politics for the nations’ first 80 years.

Many founders owned enslaved people. That included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Benjamin Franklin (later became a president of a manumission society).   Martha and George Washington considered 318 people their property and often rented others from neighboring farms. Twelve presidents enslaved people: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

People did oppose slavery at the time such as members of Quaker groups and manumission societies, John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens (son of Henry Laurens, the largest slave owner in South Carolina), Marquis de Lafayette (personal advisor to George Washington and considered an adopted son), and northern advisors to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The South as well as the North profited from the system of slavery, from food crops to cloth, to rum and whiskey. Most significantly, people held in slavery resisted their captivity in bold, calculated ways. The systems of communication they developed across many African language barriers, their dedication to oral history, protection of their families, and myriad acts of courage led to their emancipation in the face of insurmountable political power locally and at the federal level.

Sudie Hofmann is a professor in the Department of Human Relations and Multicultural Education at St. Cloud State University, MN. She is an activist and writer on education and equity issues.


Ball, Edward. Slavery’s Trail of Tears: Retracing America’s Forgotten Migration-The Journey of a Million African-Americans from the Tobacco South to the Cotton South. Smithsonian, November 2015, Volume 46, Number 7 pp. 58-82.

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.

Glorious March to Liberty, African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, Washington D.C., May 20, 2016.

Loewen, James W. Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010.

Lusane, Clarence. The Black History of the White House. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2011.

Thrasher, Albert. On to New Orleans! Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt. New Orleans: Cypress Press, 1995.

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Directed, produced, and written by Katrina Browne. Ebb Productions LLC, 2008.

Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

“The Middle Passage,” from Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865 by Daniel P. Mannix in collaboration with Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking Penguin, 1962.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.