Newsletter: August-November 2019

Much of our activity during this quarter was connected to the 400th anniversary observances for the 1619 arrival of Africans in English Virginia. MPCPMP emphasized that the history of African arrival to America (1526 to 1860) is shared with 52 documented U.S. Middle Passage locations, and the Project encouraged each arrival site to conduct an event in 2019 to honor ancestors.  From August 23-25, 2019, MPCPMP Executive Board members participated in ancestral commemorations in Hampton, Point Comfort, and West Point, VA; Historic Sotterley, Hollywood, MD; Houston, TX; and Africatown, AL.

MPCPMP participated in the following conferences: Houston, TX (August 24); “The African Presence in America Before 1619,” Bethune-Cookman University, Daytona, FL (October 24); “’Till Victory is Won,” Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn, NY (October 26); and “1619 Collective Memory(ies) Symposium,” University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. (November 11).

Alabama – The installation of the second U.S. Middle Passage marker associated with the UNESCO Slave Route Project as a “Site of Memory” and a remembrance ceremony are scheduled in Mobile on December 7.  Africatown is planning to install its marker in August 2020 as part of a national conversation on freedom, liberty, and justice.

Connecticut – The first U.S. Middle Passage marker to include the designation of “Site of Memory” associated with the UNESCO Slave Route Project was installed in Middletown, CT, on September 28th.  New London continues planning for its ceremony and marker.

Port of Georgetown, District of Columbia – A remembrance ceremony was held on August 25th.

Florida – The Jaguars Foundation (Jacksonville) will provide funding and a matching grant for the Fernandina/Amelia Island Middle Passage marker. Pensacola, which held a remembranceceremony on November 17th, has agreed on an installation site and is in the final stages of marker planning.

Georgia – During the Darien Fall Festival, the city announced plans for a Sapelo Bay Middle Passage marker in 2020. Work will begin for a marker installation and ceremony Tybee Island in 2020. 

Louisiana – Plans continue for a Middle Passage marker installation for Algiers (New Orleans).

Maryland –In October, MPCPMP met with Chris Rowson, Executive Director, Historic Ships in Baltimore, Frederick Douglass/Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Jerome Gray, Baltimore City Historical Society, to begin discussions related to a Middle Passage marker in Baltimore.   In December, the Project will participate in a scheduled meeting with Mayor Gavin Buckley’s office to begin planning for a 2020 marker at the Annapolis City Dock.

New Jersey – All the Camden Middle Passage markers have been installed. Discussions related to Perth Amboy were renewed in September.

VirginiaWest Point is the remaining arrival port in the state with no marker.

In December, MPCPMP will launch a fund-raising campaign as our annual end-of-year request for your financial support.  We wish you peace and joy during this winter season and look forward to your on-going interest and support in 2020.

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The Tribe of the Middle Passage: A Shared History and One Drop Rule

My roots are tangled….
A blend of black, white and red,
I am labeled Creole, mulatto, mixed, colored in every sense.
Enslaved by the ‘one-drop-rule’
But liberated by the truth
That all blood is red.                        Betty Saar

In her recently published book, Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman narrates her experiences and thoughts related to finding one’s ethnic roots in Africa. It is a thought-provoking work. The term “tribe of the Middle Passage” is taken from that book, and it aptly describes who we are – not Africans but a people in America of African descent who share a unique history. This is especially relevant as the nation observed last month the 400th anniversary of documented Africans’ arrival at the English colony of Virginia. It was not the place of first arrival of Africans to the North American continent, but it is probably the best known.
The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project continues to emphasize that this arrival history of at least 500,000 African captives is documented in 52 U.S. locations – from New Hampshire to Texas. There are points of time, social and legal constructs, and history that unite those of African descent in the United States of America. Slavery is not the exclusive or sole determining factor in our lives, but it is the practice from which we must begin to heal – ourselves and the nation. When our ancestors who came from all parts of Africa were put on Middle Passage ships, their identity as specific ethnic groups began to alter. They were viewed as Africans; for those of us in the Diaspora they were from “Mother Africa.” Even though we carry in our DNA ethnic and genetic traces from the Continent, we have over the last five hundred years in America transformed from specific ethnic groups to Africans to Americans. Recognizing and acknowledging that is a first step in our healing. For most Americans, there is no other group of people – those of us with “one drop” – whose DNA most clearly substantiates what America is: African, Asian, European, Native America. We are what the people of the United States of America will eventually be. Accepting the reality of diversity can be a path to healing.
For those of us of African descent, the “one drop” interpretation has been more of a unifier than divider, although even that is not universal or constant. It is what signifies a common history that started with the Middle Passage. Even though we may appear different and even act based upon those variations in skin color, hair texture, physical features, ethnic mixture, and class, the “one drop” rule accentuates our specific American racial heritage. For centuries, that has enabled us, who were enslaved, oppressed, and deemed unequal based upon race, to support advocates, leaders, and contributors from a larger community for our benefit.
As we ring bells for healing, engage in respectful discussions, define components of reparation and reconciliation, and mark our places in this nation’s history, we can no longer view ourselves as the outsiders. We are Americans. We must act to make the nation what we want it to be – a more perfect union. Lives and power matter – let’s get to work to change for the better. Each of us has that responsibility.

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A Haunting Responsibility and Connection: A Tribute to Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is being praised this week for her life’s work as an iconic Black American Woman author. At her passing, many have noted how the Nobel Prize winner chose to view the lives of Black people clearly beyond the “White gaze.” For those in the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project (MPCPMP), however, she directly inspired us to address the history of captive African ancestors who died in the transatlantic crossing.

More than 30 years ago, the great author expressed to her friend Rudy Lombard, a former MPCPMP Advisory Board member, that little or nothing had been done to pay homage to those lost in the trauma of the Middle Passage. She expressed the great need for commemoration and healing to confront this violent history. In 2011, the Project was established as a non-profit organization. MPCPMP encourages communities to hold remembrance ceremonies and install historic markers to honor the lives of the estimated two million children, women, and men who perished and the ten million who survived the transatlantic trade.

Using data primarily provided by Emory University’s Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, 52 U.S. Middle Passage documented arrival locations for 500,000 Africans have been identified along the North American Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Although not complete, this information helps local communities incorporate the presence and contributions of Africans alongside European invasion, conquest, and the nation’s development since 1513.

After the Project formally began, Ms. Morrison sent a letter on July 28, 2011, in which she wrote:

It was a pleasure reading the proposal for your Middle Passage Project. I can see why Rudy Lombard is so impressed with it. I am as well.

Its impact, if successful, will resonate internally and re-cast conventional history with the narrative too frequently absent from it.

Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

In her novel, Song of Solomon, Morrison describes the character Pilate as a person born without a navel who carries a treasure – her father’s bones – in a sack wherever she goes.  Not only do we, as descendants of Middle Passage Africans, have a navel that connects us with previous generations, but we carry within our bodies the physical and spiritual evidence of our ancestral history.          

It’s in our blood.

Honor and remember.

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Newsletter: April to July 2019

Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Project (MPCPMP) 

Newsletter: April – July 2019

So much has happened since the last MPCPMP newsletter. Our focus now is tying up loose ends and organizing data, photos, and archival materials related to the Project’s eight-year history. We are projecting a completion date of 2020 or 2021 when documented U.S. Middle Passage arrival locations will have conducted at least one ancestral remembrance ceremony and installed a public marker that reflects this history.

UNESCO Slave Route Project: As of July 2019, 42 of the 52 documented U.S. Middle Passage sites are  designated “Site of Memory” associated with the UNESCO Slave Route Project. This raises awareness and strengthens the international connection. A listing of the approved sites is included in the July 24, 2019, Facebook post.

Healing Day, August 25, 2019, Point Comfort/Fort Monroe, VA: Many activities in the Hampton-Point Comfort area are planned to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Africans’ arrival in English colonial North America. Our involvement principally is to link that commemoration to all of the U.S. Middle Passage locations as shared history. National bell ringing on August 25, 2019, 3:00-3:04 pm EST is the demonstrated act acknowledging an African American historical narrative of resistance, freedom-seeking, and critical influence that extends from 1526 to the present.

We encourage you to visit our Facebook calendar to obtain information related to scheduled events at various Middle Passage locations.

MPCPMP participated in the UNESCO Slave Route Project Global Publication Launch, Legacies of Slavery: A Resource Book for Managers of Sites and Itineraries of Memory, Houston, TX, May 21, 2019;  Second Tuesday Race Forum, Denver, CO, June 11, 2019; and IGNITE NC Alumni Reunion, Whitakers, NC, July 20, 2019. We are also represented on the Advisory Board of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission to assist with installing public history markers in five documented locations.

Camden, NJ placed a second ferry point marker of African arrival and sale on its waterfront on June 17, 2019. Middle Passage marker installations are scheduled in 2019 for – Algiers Point/New Orleans, LA; Pensacola, FL; Middletown, CT; West Point, VA; Africatown and Mobile, AL

Executive Board members and others continue to work with community members in Annapolis and Baltimore, MD; Fernandina/Amelia Island, FL; Sapelo Bay/Darien and Tybee Island, GA; Boston, MA; Biloxi, MS; Perth Amboy, NJ; Bristol and Newport, RI; Beaufort and Charleston, SC, to facilitate the process for text, placement, and installation of Middle Passage markers.

We appreciate the support that so many have provided, and we urgently request that you maintain your commitment to honor and remember ancestors. We have two publications that we are using as fund-raisers and are now available upon request:                                                                                                                          

Coming to America: Remembering and Honoring Ancestors 1526-1860 – $15.00, includes shipping            

Documented U.S. Middle Passage Locations – $25.00, includes shipping

Thank you.

Executive Board Members – Ann Chinn, Ann Cobb, William Hamilton, Jr., Edith Heard, Joseph Jenkins

Download this newsletter as a pdf here.

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Reflecting on 2019

This year, as the nation attempts to address the history and experiences of Americans of African descent, the focus has been primarily on healing and commemoration. On June 19th, there was a call for a national day of healing and drumming, a scheduled Congressional hearing on reparations, and a rally to declare Juneteenth a national holiday.  Later this summer, in August, activities are centered on marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of captive Africans to the English colony of Virginia.

These are all necessary, yet we also must promote an acknowledgement of the shared experience of the Middle Passage throughout the Americas and all that occurred during the thousands of trans-Atlantic ocean voyages filled with terror and violence that delivered millions of people into a world of forced servitude, brutality, and exploitation.  As a nation and as human beings, we need to demand that the complete story of enslavement be included in all schools’ curricula. There would be no Juneteenth, no need for reparations, no effort to encourage healing from the trauma of bondage if enslavement and all the social, cultural, economic, and legal buttresses had not been established throughout centuries in this country to prevent the truth of this history from being known. 

We should take steps along a path that commemorates our ancestors’ ability to survive and endure. There must not be a reticence or shying away from truth. We have lived so long with historical lies and half-truths. When speaking about the Middle Passage, some people call it the Maafa, a deliberate and systematic genocide. It continues to this day. While celebrating and commemorating our ancestors and all the related events scheduled to observe this history this season and beyond, we cannot cherry pick. The complete time line, from beginning to end, has to be incorporated for context and understanding.  Beginning with the Middle Passage and slavery to the Civil War, to abolition and emancipation, to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, to the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement there are ongoing challenges related to people of African descent: humanity, equality, and justice.

As we drum and ring bells for healing, as we advocate for reparations and reconciliation, as we commemorate ancestors, as we celebrate and observe accomplished milestones, we also must remember that there is a beginning  – the Middle Passage – and so long after, almost five centuries, the light of truth in the tunnel at times is still so hard to see.

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Making America

Recently someone wrote that the impact of struggles, challenges, and accomplishments associated with people of African descent over centuries in this land is what has defined and made America great. This idea goes far beyond the “Canary in the Mine” concept published in a previous blog post (December 18, 2011). The attribution is far greater than simply a measure of the national status quo.

As a people deliberately and consistently eliminated from consideration as eligible for any of the nation’s ideals – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – their every effort, successful or not, to attain these rights strengthened and broadened the application for all.  Issues ranging from citizenship, equal rights, political representation, voting, shelter, education, property, health care, and education, for example, are rooted in the national history of African-descended people’s enslavement, resistance, and pursuit of freedom. Using words, ballots, arms, determination, and strategy through almost 500 years, they have led, influenced, and participated in social and political movements that are now celebrated as American accomplishments.

In 2019, many Americans will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of captive Africans in the English colony of Virginia. In addition to honoring these specific ancestors in this specific place, the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project encourages each citizen, regardless of his or her ancestry, to remember that those ideals associated with making America unique and great are a direct result of the arrival of approximately 500,000 captive Africans on our Atlantic and Gulf Coasts from 1526 to 1860. They and their descendants spanned this continent. They contributed physically, spiritually, culturally, and intellectually to its distinct character. During this year, and especially on August 25, 2019, plan and take part in an initiative to commemorate these ancestors. We recommend a national moment of prayer and bell-ringing on that day. And more importantly, we as a nation should commit to continuing to work to make America a place of life, of liberty, and of opportunity to pursue happiness for all. 

We owe them that much.

To keep abreast of associated activities planned for the 2019 400th anniversary commemoration visit:

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2020 Vision: A Prescription

This post is in response to the 2018 mid-term elections. Based on the results, citizens need to prepare for the 2020 national election to bring about change for the good of all. During a conversation several weeks ago with a young Florida activist, his phrase “2020 Vision” struck a chord. It’s not just about this current mid-term election; we need to see clearly that the electoral process and social activism itself require constant, ongoing effort.

The question is how to promote, encourage, and maintain citizen involvement and responsibility in the political process. The Jewish culture calls this Tikkun Olam, each person’s responsibility to make community and society better. It certainly cannot be limited to election day. This activist described the vote as simply the means of opening the door to political power. How citizens can effectively advocate and demand policies and services that actually benefit them is the critical concern. The list is long: access to good health care; quality education; safe neighborhoods; decent housing; environmental justice; voting rights of ex-offenders who have served their time; full citizenship for all; decent wages; job training; addressing wealth in-equity; maintenance and repair of infrastructure; and eliminating violence.

The challenge for the MPCPMP is our relevance to this conversation. The Sankofa parable comes to mind. Knowledge of history sharpens our vision of the future. Our mission is to place this nation’s development in a context that highlights patterns, behaviors and practices – both good and bad – that are part of the fabric. For centuries and into the present, many leaders and educators have provided either rose-colored glasses, blinders, or both when describing the past. This Project is a prescription intended to improve our national vision by commemorating ancestors, learning from their experiences, and initiating a process for healing. We mark where the inequality and discrimination began and encourage an inclusive historical narrative so that we can move forward humanely and respectfully.

There is a saying that hindsight is 20-20, but that is not correct. This nation does not address and acknowledge its history accurately, so how can people progress and move into a less divisive and acrimonious future? How can America be great for all who live here if we cannot see what actually makes this nation great as well as understand what has restricted its potential to excellence? It certainly is not the partisan bickering and often ignorant leadership now part of our daily lives. Let’s see clearly, so we can move forward effectively.

Now is the time to prepare for 2020. Let us begin now to dialogue with those running for and in office who want our political support. This is the opportune moment to press for the change we see. Who measures up to your own standards and expectations? Encourage these people to become candidates. And when you put them in office, hold their feet to the fire! Party and even identity affiliation should not compromise ideals. We encourage each and every one to know as much as possible about the past and current affairs in order to seriously identify what is important by category: individual, family, community, county, state, country. Our ancestors did this in each generation. Their survival depended upon establishing priorities, strategies, and cooperation. Whether during the Middle Passage, enslavement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, or the struggle for Civil Rights, we needed to be alert or as the young people say “woke.” Let’s learn from this history and understand fully that we hold the future in our hands. Move forward. Repair what we can; dismantle what is harmful; and create what is beneficial. Recently, one of our leaders said, “Vote as if your life depends upon it.” The truth is, it does. This Project beseeches you to commit and work towards a 2020 Vision. You may want something different/better now that this election is over.


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Ain’t Nothing New– It’s Old; It’s Familiar

Recently, we have been bombarded with news of government policies that enforced automatic separation of immigrant children from their parents who were seeking asylum at our Southern border. Defined by federal officials (ICE and Department of Justice) as entering the country illegally, the parents were detained (incarcerated) and the children placed in the “care” of the U.S. Department of Human Services. Although we are told that this practice has stopped, the location of some of these children at this point is still unknown. For the most part, reunification has not occurred and, if and when it does, will be difficult at best. To think that this is the new national practice is not to know this nation’s history.

Children being separated from their families is centuries old in North America. Colonization and the development of the U.S. economy required this pattern. Families took a back seat to economic expedience.  Invoking God, the Bible, Manifest Destiny, national security, fear of violence, racial purity, and entitlement–all have been cited to justify ripping children away from their parents.  To single out the Japanese internment during World War II as the prime example of this policy ignores a previous 300-year history, whether the children were:

  • European – urban and poor children kidnapped and transported into indenturedservitude
  • African – 25 percent of the captives sold and transported in the Middle Passage into slavery werechildren
  • Native American – children removed from traditional territories and placed in Indian Schools to be transformed from “savages” to “civilized” beings
  • African American – children as property were sold from their parents for profit (1641-1865)

Significantly, in the United States of America, based upon 2015 data, a large number of juvenile delinquents aged 15-18 were removed from their homes and placed in residential facilities for punishment and supposed rehabilitation. The following reflects that practice through percentages by ethnicity:

  • European-descended, 31.3%;
  • African-descended, 41.9%;
  • Latin-descended, 21.9%;
  • Native American-descended, 1.7%;
  • Asian-descended, 5%.

In many ways we are numbed and inured to the abuse of children. This country has bullied those who are perceived as weak and ignored its wrong-doing by justifying policies and practices as answers to exceptional circumstances when, in fact, they are the rule, particularly for those identified as “the other.” For the most part, traditionally, the U.S. has more favorably supported initiatives to protect animals and pets than children.

However, the outrage and response to this current and ongoing public destruction of families is encouraging. Along social, religious, cultural, and economic lines, it seems that many residents of this land are listening to their consciences. Maybe there is hope after all, as citizens have begun challenging the administration’s policies.

This Fourth of July, Independence Day, requires cultural and self-examination. Do we care?  If so, when do we start valuing men, women, children, and families by:

  • believing that quality education, housing, and health care are human and civil rights?
  • supporting a universal living wage?
  • creating policies that empower this nation to be a place of sanctuary and opportunity for all?

With only a few exceptional hiccups such as Social Security, the 15thAmendment, Medicare, and the Affordable Health Care Act, this country has been walking in lock-step with the Founding Fathers who set the pattern of selective entitlement and privilege while mouthing high ideals. Our mistake, thank goodness, has been that we thought their intention was universal, “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” so we’ve been stretching the application ever since. We beseech every citizen to vote, to actively participate as citizens not losing faith in political power, and to protect us all by constantly challenging and then reversing the wrong that is done in our name.

Happy Fourth of July — Make it mean something this year.

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Sensational Headlines

The MPCPMP has taken historical facts and made them into news headlines. Unfortunately, none of these headlines is followed by fake news or fabricated history. Instead, under each sensational headline, we present the truth — a brief historical fact or a description with background. Our intention is to capture the reader’s attention using the format of a tabloid.

Headline Captions

  1. Two Million Die in Ocean

This is the approximate number of captive Africans, most free before captivity, who died during the Middle Passage.

  1. Investment Advice: Land and Slaves

Thomas Jefferson stated that the fastest return can be realized in the new nation through the purchase of land and enslaved Africans, preferably female because of their ability to reproduce.

  1. Africans: 3 of Every 4 Arrivals to Americas

From 1510 until the 1830s, the majority of people (75%) arriving throughout the Americas were Africans. This migration was fueled by the high, constant demand for labor to produce commodities and the resulting death rate from the demands placed upon them, especially in cane and tobacco growing.

  1. Prison Camps Dot Nation

Until after the Revolutionary War, farms and plantations throughout mainland North America depended upon slave labor to support an agricultural economy. Enslaved people, imprisoned by law and legally incarcerated, were the artisans, carpenters, metalsmiths, healers, field workers, and house servants in all regions of the country – north, south, east, and west.

  1. Families Destroyed for Profit

Legally defined as property without rights, no enslaved woman, man, mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, or other relative had the recognized ability, to maintain any relationship. On a whim, as punishment, and most frequently as a capital venture, families were torn apart and forever separated. 

  1. Terrorists Rampant in US

Violence and terror against Africans and their descendants were the accepted and prevailing means of sustaining slavery, thwarting progress after the Civil War, enforcing Jim Crow, and resisting the challenges made for both human and civil rights throughout the history of this nation. 

  1. Prisoners Build Country

People held in bondage are prisoners. The enslaved were the most prevalent population group held in bondage over centuries in the U.S. Other groups included indentured servants, debtors, and prisoners. These people with varying legal definitions were held in bondage under conditions related to time, rights, and social status. This is such an intrinsic part of the national fabric that even as the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery was established it made an exception for the penal system by which slavery could be maintained. These are the people – enslaved, indentured, criminals – who provided much of the labor that built the national economy and infrastructure.

  1. Slavery: Economic Base of Global Economy

As a model for investment, profit, production networking, and sales, the transatlantic human trade and slavery formed the basis upon which global enterprise was fostered and supported, with less emphasis upon individual nations, geographical regions, and leaders. The principal factors include attracting investors, identifying and controlling resources, marketing, and guaranteeing capital gains for the benefit of a select group.

  1. Empire through Debt, Disease, and Destruction

Framed within the mantra of Manifest Destiny and later Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” a systematic approach by Europeans assured success in obtaining land from indigenous people. The methods included disease, war, and debt by creating demand for items in exchange for resources such as land, people, and minerals. By one method or the other, colonialism and control, according to Jefferson and others, could be attained around the world.

  1. 26 Generations Held Against Their Will

This covers the time period during which innocent people and their families were victims of slavery in the Americas. Although Africans, both enslaved and free, arrived with the Europeans on all the expeditions starting with Columbus in 1492, the first enslaved Africans brought to live and work in the Western Hemisphere came in 1509. They did not volunteer or sign up. This practice of enslavement continued into the 19th century, with Brazil becoming the last location to abolish slavery in 1888, two years after Cuba in 1886.

  1. Child Slavery

Twenty-five percent of captive Africans were children. By the 19th century, children and teenagers comprised the majority of people transported to the Americas because it was assumed that population would be easier to adapt to a life of servitude and the loss of freedom.  

  1. Jobs for Life

From early childhood until old age, all enslaved persons were assigned tasks. Operating from dawn to dusk daily, it was never an issue of not having a job;, the injustice was absence of pay, liberty, and human rights. There was very little choice or opportunity associated with jobs that were assigned. Black people have never experienced lack of work – the reality is the lack of fair compensation for their labor, skills, and knowledge.

  1. New Guinea: New Name for Virginia Colony

In his 18th century diary, Colonel William Byrd II expressed concern for the mass transport of captive, enslaved Africans into the Virginia colony: “They import so many Negros hither, that I fear this Colony will sometime or other be confirmed by the Name of New Guinea. I am sensible of many consequences of multiplying these Ethiopians amongst us.”

  1. Child Slave Labor Buys Groceries for President and Family

A scholar specializing in the history of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson recently uncovered documents that showed that young boys under the age of twelve were charged, under threat of whipping, to meet a daily quota of iron nail production. The revenue Jefferson received from the sale of those nails was specifically used to purchase food items. There is a record that Jefferson condoned this type of punishment and labor system.

  1. Millions Denied Human Rights by U. S. Government

From 1776 until 1865, 89 years, the United States Government legally condoned slavery with all its entailed injustices. It is not until the 14th Amendment that those formerly enslaved were defined as citizens, people rather than property. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, there were 3,950,528 enslaved people in this country. Projecting for population increase, even factoring in the Civil War and escapes to freedom, approximately 4,000,000 would not have protected human or civil rights until the passage of the 14th amendment in 1865.

  1. Men, Women, and Children Stripped Naked and Branded for Export

It was standard practice prior to the Middle Passage that captive Africans were branded, stripped naked, and shaved. This was the process of commodification – attempting to transform human beings into items for sale. Branding identified ownership; stripping dehumanized by removing any external vestiges of ethnic or cultural identity and norms as well as identified possible flaws in the body; shaving, according to common judgement, reduced disease and vermin infestation on the voyage.

  1. Slavery: The Choice of U.S. Presidents

From George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, each president had the opportunity to abolish slavery and did not. Expediency always took precedent over morality. Even though lip service was given to slavery’s injustice, the feasibility of liberating enslaved people and the anticipated repercussions were raised as impediments to abolition. In fact, George Washington freed his enslaved after his death when he would no longer need them, and the Great Emancipator Lincoln stated that in order to save the Union he would free all the slaves or none at all. Expediency, not morality, in the country’s highest political office routinely trumps.

  1. Humans: Shark Chum

During the transatlantic human trade that spanned approximately three hundred and fifty years, sharks trailed ships that transported captive Africans across the Atlantic, feeding on human bodies in the water because of suicide, punishment, or death. In many reports related to the ships, there are constants: filth, torture, sickness, terror, abuse, stench, and sharks. Death at sea of both crew and captives was a normal occurrence. The average mortality rate at sea averaged 12-17% for a “cargo” of two to three hundred people during a six-week voyage. Although not a traditionally recognized food source, these ships over centuries conditioned sharks and other ocean life to respond to these vessels as a possible source of nourishment. The deaths of captives and crew making these journeys inspired the following quote by historian John Henrik Clarke: 

If the Atlantic were to dry up, it would reveal a scattered pathway of human bones, African bones, marking the various routes of the Middle Passage.

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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.

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