Free African Americans in the United States
Free African Americans in the United States
ADAPTED FROM ESSAYS BY PATRICK RAEL, BOWDOIN COLLEGE
When we think of how black people lived in the years of the first colonies, the newly formed nation and beyond, we almost always think of slavery. And it is true: only African Americans were ever held as property by other Americans. Yet along with the four million African Americans held in bondage on the eve of the Civil War, almost five hundred thousand were not. Though legally not slaves, these African Americans confronted a host of oppressive measures that kept them from enjoying complete freedom. They lived somewhere between slavery and freedom.
FREE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE COLONIAL PERIOD: 1619-1660
The development of a free black community in what became the United States began with the earliest Africans brought to mainland North America—the "twenty Negars" whom the Virginian John Rolphe reported arriving in the colony in 1619. In these early days of slavery in the colonies, Englishmen had yet to define the legal boundaries of slavery and freedom. They held negative views of Africans, whom they considered heathen and uncivilized, but they had yet to codify in law the principle that all black people should be slaves. As a result, this early era was a time of limited possibilities for Africans in the colonies. Among the black people brought to Virginia in the early 1600s, a few were probably indentured servants rather than slaves. Like English indentured servants, these Africans could be bought and sold, but they gained their freedom after laboring for their masters for a certain number of years. This small group of freed servants helped form the basis of America's first free black population.
Other black people in seventeenth-century North America were fortunate enough to gain their freedom in a variety of ways. Because European women were scarce, Englishmen sometimes intermingled with black women. When sexual relations between English planters and slave women produced offspring, an affectionate master might free, or manumit, the infant. Far more common were the children born of a union between an indentured servant and a slave—most often, a slave woman and an indentured Englishman. In these cases, the law might provide for the limited freedom of the child, or the free parent might successfully petition the government for the freedom of his offspring. With little education and few resources, these freed slaves faced difficult lives.
SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT The Runaway Slave Act
FREE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE COLONIAL PERIOD: 1660-1775
The period between 1660 and the American Revolution witnessed the growth and legal codification of black slavery in North America. During that time, the cash crop economies of the colonial South expanded, while the supply of indentured servants from England declined. As a result, colonial planters demanded that more slaves be brought into the colonies to labor. While colonies in the South expanded through agriculture, northern cities like Boston and New York became centers for trade, including the trade in African slaves for the southern market.
The rise in the black population from the slave trade caused great anxiety among whites, who feared a revolt of the enslaved people in their midst. In places like South Carolina, where blacks were actually a majority by 1710, racial tensions ran high. Because whites feared that free blacks would assist slaves in any general uprising, they targeted them in new laws. During the first half of the 1700s, the status of free African Americans—and, indeed, of black people in general—became increasingly well defined, as law replaced custom and improvisation. Colonies varied in their legal treatment of black people, but in nearly all cases those with any African heritage were defined as different and inferior, even when free. As early as the 1660s, a Virginia statute claimed that free black people "ought not in all respects … be admitted to a full fruition of the exemptions and impunities of the English. "In colonies like Virginia and South Carolina, laws at various times prohibited the manumission of bondsmen or required freed slaves to leave the colony. Other laws prevented free black people from testifying against whites, owning land, marrying whites, or in other ways enjoying a life equal to that of European Americans. The racial prejudice of English settlers prevented them from granting equality even to black people who were legally free.
This hardening of racial relations, which took place primarily during the first half of the 1700s, inhibited opportunities for enslaved black people to become free. The flexibility that marked the 1600s disappeared, and the numbers of free blacks decreased. By 1750, not more than 5 percent of all black people in America enjoyed liberty. Despite restrictions, however, a small free black society developed during the colonial era.
COLOR AND STATUS AMONG COLONIAL FREE AFRICAN AMERICANS
Within this small society, distinctions based on skin color were very important. Because free black people tended to be the offspring of interracial relations, colonial America's free African Americans tended to be lighter-skinned than its slave population. This difference in skin color developed into a significant (though hardly inflexible) marker of elevated social status.
Oftentimes, light skin color signaled that a black person had a relationship with a white person, a relationship that might ease the burdens imposed by a society deeply imbued with prejudice against people of color. For instance, a wealthy, benevolent master might free his "mulatto" child born of a union with a female slave and give that child training in a craft or money with which to start a new life. Such manumissions were rare, however, and free black people still faced a host of legal and social prejudices.
THE IMPACT OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
The American Revolution was the single most important event in the development of free African American society. The war itself placed huge demands for troops and laborers on both the British and the colonists. Leaders on both sides followed the example of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, who, in 1775, promised freedom for any slave willing to bear arms for Britain. Dunmore's promise kindled the hopes of slaves everywhere, though many never had the chance to take him up on his offer. In the chaos of the revolution, slaves took every opportunity to gain their freedom. They fled to British lines, and even to colonial lines, where labor-needy officers asked few questions about their origins.SEE PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT A Witness Tells of Crispus Attucks's Death
In addition to the practical effects of war, the ideals and philosophy of the American Revolution also contributed to the creation of a free black community. When the colonists began their war against Great Britain, they did so armed with a philosophy of fundamental human equality. Written in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), a slaveholder, the Declaration of Independence declared "that all Men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. "It was with this idea that Americans demanded equal rights from the mother country. During and after the war, this philosophy of "natural rights" raised an important question for Americans: Were not slaves also people? And if so, were they not also entitled to the freedom all humans were endowed with?
Spurred by this deeply held belief in human liberty, some slaveholders freed their slaves. The rate at which these manumissions took place varied, depending on the region. In the new states of the North, slavery had never been the mainstay of the economy, so it was easier for white Americans there to give up the institution. While there was some opposition to ending slavery in the North, by 1805 all the northern states had either abolished slavery or provided for the eventual abolition of it.
In the states of the upper South (Maryland and Virginia), the story was different. There, slavery was simply too important for ideals to take priority over the profits made possible by tobacco, wheat, and cotton. In the North, many masters had been compensated for the loss of their slaves, but the large numbers of slaves in the upper South made this abolitionist strategy unfeasible. Yet, after the revolution, a decline in tobacco growing and the beginnings of industry in the upper South signaled that a change was under way. Spurred by democratic sentiment and buoyed by these economic changes, some individual slaveholders manumitted their slaves, but the institution itself did not die.
In the lower South (the Carolinas and Georgia), black labor was so crucial to the economy that few masters even contemplated manumission. There, black labor was needed to work profitable crops of rice, indigo, and cotton. And the low proportion of whites to blacks made the specter of freed slaves frightening to white masters. Benevolent masters might still manumit favored slaves, often their children, but they never considered manumission in large numbers.
George, Carol V.R. "Widening the Circle: The Black Church and the Abolitionist Crusade, 1830-1860. "In Antislavery Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Abolitionists, ed. Lewis Perry and Michael Fellman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Horton, James O. Free People of Color: Inside the African-American Community. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
Horton, James O., and Lois E. Horton. Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1979.
Johnson, Michael P., and James L. Roark. Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.
——, eds. No Chariot Let Down: Charleston's Free People of Color on the Eve of the Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.
Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Pierson, William D. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Zilversmit, Arthur. The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
The Runaway Slave Act
Reprinted here is Act CII, regarding Runaway Slaves in the state of Virginia.
This act, passed in 1661, marked the early legislative efforts to deny citizenship to Africans in the new colonies. Like much of the legislation regarding slavery that followed over the centuries, the Runaway Slave Act uses language designed to create fear regarding the protection of property and the possibility of "dangerous strangers" in proper society. These techniques appeared in every stage of discriminatory legislative policy enacted during the course of United States history.
Whereas there are diverse loytering runaways in this country who very often absent themselves from their masters service and sometimes in a long time cannot be found, that losse of the time and the charge in the seeking them often exceeding the value of their labor: Bee it therefore enacted that all runaways that shall absent themselves from their said masters service, shalbe lyable to make satisfaction by service after the times by custome or indenture is expired (vizt.) double their times of service soe neglected, and if the time of their running away was in the crop or the charge of recovering them extraordinary the court shall lymitt a longer time of service proportionable to the damage the master shall make appeare he hath susteyned, and because the adjudging the time they should serve is often referred until the time by indenture is expired, when the proofe of what is due is very uncertaine, it is enacted that the master of any runaway that intends to take the benefit of this act, shall as soone as he hath recovered him carry him to the next commissioner and there declare and prove the time of his absence, and the charge he hath bin at in his recovery, which commissioner thereupon shall grant his certificate, and the court on that certificate passe judgment for the time he shall serve for his absence; and in case any English servant shall run away in company of any negroes who are incapable of making satisfaction by addition of a time, it is enacted that the English soe running away in the company with them shall at the time of service to their owne masters expired, serve the masters of the said negroes for their absence soe long as they should have done by this act if they had not beene slaves, every christian in company with them shall by proportion among them, either pay fower thousand five hundred pounds of tobacco and caske or fower yeares service for every negroe soe lost or dead.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
A Witness Tells of Crispus Attucks's Death
The first patriot to die in the cause of American independence was Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave of African and Indian heritage. Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, in the early 1720s, Attucks was in Boston on the evening of March 5, 1770, when armed British soldiers began menacing the citizens. Attucks urged his fellow townsmen to stand their ground, and in the ensuing fray he and four other men were shot dead. The event became known as "The Boston Massacre," and was memorialized in a famous engraving by Paul Revere that circulated among the colonists.
In the murder trial that followed, a young slave named Andrew gave the following eyewitness testimony. Andrew could read and write, according to his owner, and he had never been known to lie. On the basis of Andrew's account of the Boston Massacre, the British soldiers were acquitted of murder, although two were found guilty of manslaughter and branded with the letter.
Slave Andrew's Testimony in the Boston Massacre Trial
On the evening of the fifth of March I was at home. I heard the bells ring and went to the gate. I stayed there a little and saw Mr. Lovell coming back with his buckets. I asked him where was the fire. He said it was not fire.
After that, I went into the street and saw one of my acquaintances coming up … holding his arm. I asked him,"What's the matter?"
He said the soldiers were fighting, had got cutlasses, and were killing everybody, and that one of them had struck him on the arm and almost cut it off. He told me I had best not go down.
I said a good club was better than a cutlass, and he had better go down and see if he could not cut some too.
I went to the Town House, saw the sentinels. Numbers of boys on the other side of the way were throwing snowballs at them. The sentinels were enraged and swearing at the boys. The boys called them, "Lobsters, bloody backs," and hollered,"Who buys lobsters!"
One of my acquaintance came and told me that the soldiers had been fighting, and the people had drove them to Murray's barracks. I saw a number of people coming from Murray's barracks who went down by Jackson's corner into King Street.
Presently I heard three cheers given in King Street. I said,"We had better go down and see what's the matter. "We went down to the whipping post and stood by Waldo's shop. I saw a number of people 'round the sentinel at the Custom House.
There were also a number of people who stood where I did and were picking up pieces of sea coal that had been thrown out thereabout and snowballs, and throwing them over at the sentinel. While I was standing there, there were two or three boys run out from among the people and cried,"We have got his gun away and now we will have him!"
Presently I heard three cheers given by the people at the Custom House. I said to my acquaintance I would run up and see whether the guard would turn out. I passed round the guard house and went as far as the west door of the Town House.
I saw a file of men, with an officer with a laced hat on before them. Upon that, we all went to go towards him, and when we had got about half way to them, the officer said something to them, and they filed off down the street.
Upon that, I went in the shadow towards the guard house and followed them down as far as Mr. Peck's corner. I saw them pass through the crowd and plant themselves by the Custom House. As soon as they got there, the people gave three cheers.
I went to cross over to where the soldiers were and as soon as I got a glimpse of them, I heard somebody huzza and say,"Here is old Murray with the riot act"—and they began to pelt snowballs.
A man set out and run, and I followed him as far as Philips's corner, and I do not know where he went. I turned back and went through the people until I got to the head of Royal Exchange Lane right against the soldiers. The first word I heard was a grenadier say to a man by me,"Damn you, stand back."
Question. How near was he to him?
Answer. He was so near that the grenadier might have run him through if he had stepped one step forward. While I stopped to look at him, a person came to get through betwixt the grenadier and me, and the soldier had like to have pricked him. He turned about and said,"You damned lobster, bloody back, are you going to stab me?"
The soldier said,"By God, will I!"
Presently somebody took hold of me by the shoulder and told me to go home or I should be hurt. At the same time there were a number of people towards the Town House who said, "Come away and let the guard alone. You have nothing at all to do with them."
I turned about and saw the officer standing before the men, and one or two persons engaged in talk with him. A number were jumping on the backs of those that were talking with the officer, to get as near as they could.
Question. Did you hear what they said?
Answer. No. Upon this, I went to go as close to the officer as I could. One of the persons who was talking with the officer turned about quick to the people and said, "Damn him, he is going to fire!" Upon that, they cried out, "Fire and be damned, who cares! Damn you, you dare not fire," and began to throw snowballs and other things, which then flew pretty thick.
Question. Did they hit any of them?
Answer. Yes, I saw two or three of them hit. One struck a grenadier on the hat. And the people who were right before them had sticks, and as the soldiers were pushing their guns back and forth, they struck their guns, and one hit a grenadier on the fingers.
At this time, the people up at the Town House called again, "Come away! Come away!" A stout man who stood near me and right before the grenadiers as they pushed with their bayonets the length of their arms, kept striking on their guns.
The people seemed to be leaving the soldiers and to turn from them when there came down a number from Jackson's corner huzzaing and crying,"Damn them, they dare not fire!""We are not afraid of them!"
One of these people, a stout man with a long cordwood stick, threw himself in and made a blow at the officer. I saw the office try to fend off the stroke. Whether he struck him or not, I do not know. The stout man then turned round and struck the grenadier's gun at the Captain's right hand and immediately fell in with his club and knocked his gun away and struck him over the head. The blow came either on the soldier's cheek or hat.
This stout man held the bayonet with his left hand and twitched it and cried, "Kill the dogs! Knock them over!" This was the general cry. The people then crowded in and, upon that, the grenadier gave a twitch back and relieved his gun, and he up with it and began to pay away on the people.
I was then betwixt the officer and this grenadier. I turned to go off. When I had got away about the length of a gun, I turned to look towards the officer, and I heard the word, "Fire!" I thought I heard the report of a gun and, upon hearing the report, I saw the same grenadier swing his gun and immediately he discharged it.
Question. Did the soldiers of that party, or any of them, step or move out of the rank in which they stood to push the people?
Answer. No, and if they had they might have killed me and many others with their bayonets.
Question. Did you, as you passed through the people towards Royal Exchange Lane and the party, see a number of people take up any and everything they could find in the street and throw them at the soldiers?
Answer. Yes, I saw ten or fifteen round me do it.
Question. Did you yourself .…
Answer. Yes, I did.
Question. After the gun fired, where did you go?
Answer. I run as fast as I could into the first door I saw open … I was very much frightened.
PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT
Peter Williams Jr., son of the founder of New York City's African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, delivered this speech on January 1, 1808, the day mandated by the Constitution as the official end of the nation's slave trade.
It is primarily a speech of thanksgiving, as befits the occasion. While it paints the horrors suffered by those caught up in the slave trade, it stops well short of calling for the abolition of slavery itself, which continued—as did slave trading—long after this date. Rather, Williams reminds his listeners of the progress they have made, of how many now enjoy freedom and the fruits of education, and calls upon them to move forward "by a steady and upright deportment, by a strict obedience and respect to the laws of the land."
Fathers, Brethren, and Fellow Citizens: At this auspicious moment I felicitate you on the abolition of the Slave Trade. This inhuman branch of commerce which, for some centuries past, has been carried on to a considerable extent, is, by the singular interposition of Divine Providence, this day extinguished. An event so important, so pregnant with happy consequences, must be extremely consonant to every philanthropic heart.
But to us, Africans and descendants of Africans, this period is deeply interesting. We have felt, sensibly felt, the sad effects of this abominable traffic. It has made, if not ourselves, our forefathers and kinsmen its unhappy victims; and pronounced on them, and their posterity, the sentence of perpetual slavery. But benevolent men have voluntarily stepped forward to obviate the consequences of this injustice and barbarity. They have striven, assiduously, to restore our natural rights; to guaranty them from fresh innovations; to furnish us with necessary information; and to stop the source from whence our evils have flowed.
The fruits of these laudable endeavors have long been visible; each moment they appear more conspicuous; and this day has produced an event which shall ever be memorable and glorious in the annals of history. We are now assembled to celebrate this momentous era; to recognize the beneficial influences of humane exertions; and by suitable demonstrations of joy, thanksgiving, and gratitude, to return to our heavenly Father, and to our earthly benefactors, our sincere acknowledgments.
Review, for a moment, my brethren, the history of the Slave Trade. Engendered in the foul recesses of the sordid mind, the unnatural monster inflicted gross evils on the human race. Its baneful footsteps are marked with blood; its infectious breath spreads war and desolation; and its train is composed of the complicated miseries of cruel and unceasing bondage.
Before the enterprising spirit of European genius explored the western coast of Africa, the state of our forefathers was a state of simplicity, innocence, and contentment. Unskilled in the arts of dissimulation, their bosoms were the seats of confidence; and their lips were the organs of truth. Strangers to the refinements of civilized society, they followed with implicit obedience the (simple) dictates of nature. Peculiarly observant of hospitality, they offered a place of refreshment to the weary, and an asylum to the unfortunate. Ardent in their affections, their minds were susceptible of the warmest emotions of love, friendship, and gratitude.
Although unacquainted with the diversified luxuries and amusements of civilized nations, they enjoyed some singular advantages from the bountiful hand of nature and from their own innocent and amiable manners, which rendered them a happy people. But, alas! this delightful picture has long since vanished; the angel of bliss has deserted their dwelling; and the demon of indescribable misery has rioted, uncontrolled, on the fair fields of our ancestors. After the Columbus unfolded to civilized man the vast treasures of this western world, the desire of gain, which had chiefly induced the first colonists of America to cross the waters of the Atlantic, surpassing the bounds of reasonable acquisition, violated the sacred injunctions of the gospel, frustrated the designs of the pious and humane, and, enslaving the harmless aborigines, compelled them to drudge in the mines.
The severities of this employment was so insupportable to men who were unaccustomed to fatigue that, according to Robertson's "History of America," upwards of nine hundred thousand were destroyed in the space of fifteen years on the island of Hispaniola. A consumption so rapid must, in a short period, have deprived them of the instruments of labor, had not the same genius which first produced it found out another method to obtain them. This was no other than the importation of slaves from the coast of Africa.
The Genoese made the first regular importation, in the year 1517, by virtue of a patent granted by Charles of Austria to a Flemish favorite; since which, this commerce has increased to an astonishing and almost incredible degree.
After the manner of ancient piracy, descents were first made on the African coast; the towns bordering on the ocean were surprised, and a number of the inhabitants carried into slavery.
Alarmed at these depredations, the natives fled to the interior, and there united to secure themselves from the common foe. But the subtle invaders were not easily deterred from their purpose. Their experience, corroborated by historical testimony, convinced them that this spirit of unity would baffle every violent attempt; and that the most powerful method to dissolve it would be to diffuse in them the same avaricious disposition which they themselves possessed; and to afford them the means of gratifying it, by ruining each other. Fatal engine: fatal thou hast proved to man in all ages: where the greatest violence has proved ineffectual, their undermining principles have wrought destruction. By thy deadly power, the strong Grecian arm, which bid the world defiance, fell nerveless; by thy potent attacks, the solid pillars of Roman grandeur shook to their base; and, oh! Africans! by this parent of the Slave Trade, this grandsire of misery, the mortal blow was struck which crushed the peace and happiness of our country. Affairs now assumed a different aspect; the appearances of war were changed into the most amicable pretensions; presents apparently inestimable were made; and all the bewitching and alluring wiles of the seducer were practiced. The harmless African, taught to believe a friendly countenance, the sure token of a corresponding heart, soon disbanded his fears and evinced a favorable disposition towards his flattering enemies.
Thus the foe, obtaining an intercourse by a dazzling display of European finery, bewildered their simple understandings and corrupted their morals. Mutual agreements were then made; the Europeans were to supply the Africans with those gaudy trifles which so strongly affected them; and the Africans in return were to grant the Europeans their prisoners of war and convicts as slaves. These stipulations, naturally tending to delude the mind, answered the twofold purpose of enlarging their criminal code and of exciting incessant war at the same time that it furnished a specious pretext for the prosecution of this inhuman traffic. Bad as this may appear, had it prescribed the bounds of injustice, millions of unhappy victims might have still been spared. But, extending widely beyond measure and without control, large additions of slaves were made by kidnaping and the most unpalliated seizures.
Trace the past scenes of Africa and you will manifestly perceive these flagrant violations of human rights. The prince who once delighted in the happiness of his people, who felt himself bound by a sacred contract to defend their persons and property, was turned into their tyrant and scourge: he, who once strove to preserve peace and good understanding with the different nations, who never unsheathed his sword but in the cause of justice, at the signal of a slave ship assembled his warriors and rushed furiously upon his unsuspecting friends. What a scene does that town now present, which a few moments past was the abode of tranquillity. At the approach of the foe, alarm and confusion pervade every part; horror and dismay are depicted on every countenance; the aged chief, starting from his couch, calls forth his men to repulse the hostile invader: all ages obey the summons; feeble youth and decrepit age join the standard; while the foe, to effect his purpose, fires the town.
Now, with unimaginable terror the battle commences: hear now the shrieks of the women, the cries of the children, the shouts of the warriors, and the groans of the dying. See with what desperation the inhabitants fight in defense of their darling joys. But, alas! overpowered by a superior foe, their force is broken; their ablest warriors fall; and the wretched remnant are taken captives.
Where are now those pleasant dwellings, where peace and harmony reigned incessant? where those beautiful fields, whose smiling crops and enchanting verdure enlivened the heart of every beholder? Alas! those tenements are now enveloped in destructive flames; those fair fields are not bedewed with blood and covered with mangled carcasses. Where are now those sounds of mirth and gladness, which loudly rang throughout the village? where those darling youth, those venerable aged, who mutually animated the festive throng? Alas! those exhilarating peals are now changed into the dismal groans of inconceivable distress; the survivors of those happy people are now carried into cruel captivity. Ah! driven from their native soil, they cast their languishing eyes behind, and with aching hearts bid adieu to every prospect of joy and comfort.
A spectacle so truly distressing is sufficient to blow into a blaze the most latent spark of humanity; but, the adamantine heart of avarice, dead to every sensation of pity, regards not the voice of the sufferers, but hastily drives them to market for sale.
Oh, Africa, Africa! to what horrid inhumanities have thy shores been witness; thy shores, which were once the garden of the world, the seal of almost paradisaical joys, have been transformed into regions of woe; thy sons, who were once the happiest of mortals, are reduced to slavery, and bound in weighty shackles, now fill the trader's ship. But, though defeated in the contest for liberty, their magnanimous souls scorn the gross indignity, and choose death in preference to slavery. Painful; ah! painful, must be that existence which the rational mind can deliberately doom to self-destruction. Thus the poor Africans, robbed of every joy, while they see not the saddened hearts, sink into the abyss of consummate misery. Their lives, embittered by reflection, anticipation, and present sorrows, they feel burthensome; and death (whose dreary mansions appal the stoutest hearts) they view as their only shelter.
You, my brethren, beloved Africans, who had passed the days of infancy when you left your country, you best can tell the aggravated sufferings of our unfortunate race; your memories can bring to view these scenes of bitter grief. What, my brethren, when dragged from your native land on board the slave ship, what was the anguish which you saw, which you felt? what the pain, what the dreadful forebodings which filled your throbbing bosoms?
But you, my brethren, descendants of African forefathers, I call upon you to view a scene of unfathomable distress. Let your imagination carry you back to former days. Behold a vessel, bearing our forefathers and brethen from the place of their nativity to a distant and inhospitable clime; behold their dejected countenances, their streaming eyes, their fettered limbs; hear them, with piercing cries, and pitiful moans, deploring their wretched fate. After their arrival in port, see them separated without regard to the ties of blood or friendship: husband from wife; parent from child; brother from sister; friend from friend. See the parting tear rolling down their fallen cheeks; hear the parting sigh die on their quivering lips.
But let us no longer pursue a theme of boundless affliction. An enchanting sound now demands your attention. Hail! hail! glorious day, whose resplendent rising disperseth the clouds which have hovered with destruction over the land of Africa, and illumines it by the most brilliant rays of future prosperity. Rejoice, oh! Africans! No longer shall tyranny, war, and injustice, with irresistible sway, desolate your native country; no longer shall torrents of human blood deluge its delightful plains; no longer shall it witness your countrymen wielding among each other than instruments of death; nor the insidious kidnapper, darting from his midnight haunt, on the feeble and unprotected; no longer shall its shores resound with the awful howlings of infatuated warriors, the deathlike groans of vanquished innocents, nor the clanking fetters of woe-doomed captives. Rejoice, oh, ye descendants of Africans! No longer shall the United States of America, nor the extensive colonies of Great Britain, admit the degrading commerce of the human species; no longer shall they swell the tide of African misery by the importation of slaves. Rejoice, my brethren, that the channels are obstructed through which slavery, and its direful concomitants, have been entailed on the African race. But let incessant strains of gratitude be mingled with your expressions of joy. Through the infinite mercy of the great Jehovah, this day announces the abolition of the Slave Trade. Let, therefore, the heart that is warmed by the smallest drop of African blood glow in grateful transports, and cause the lofty arches of the sky to reverberate eternal praise to his boundless goodness.
Oh God! we thank Thee, that thou didst condescend to listen to the cries of Africa's wretched sons, and that Thou didst interfere in their behalf. At Thy call humanity sprang forth and espoused the cause of the oppressed; one hand she employed in drawing from their vitals the deadly arrows of injustice; and the other in holding a shield, to defend them from fresh assaults; and at that illustrious moment, when the sons of '76 pronounced these United States free and independent; when the spirit of patriotism erected a temple sacred to liberty; when the inspired voice of Americans first uttered those noble sentiments, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"; and when the bleeding African, lifting his fetters, exclaimed,"Am I not a man and a brother"; then, with redoubled efforts, the angel of humanity strove to restore to the African race the inherent rights of man.
To the instruments of divine goodness, those benovolent men who voluntarily obeyed the dictates of humanity, we owe much. Surrounded with innumerable difficulties, their undaunted spirits dared to oppose a powerful host of interested men. Heedless to the voice of fame, their independent souls dared to oppose the strong gales of popular prejudice. Actuated by principles of genuine philanthropy, they dared to despise the emoluments of ill-gotten wealth, and to sacrifice much of their temporal interests at the shrine of benevolence.
As an American, I glory in informing you that Columbia boasts the first men who distinguished themselves eminently in the vindication of our rights and the improvement of our state.
Conscious that slavery was unfavorable to the benign influences of Christianity, the pious Woolman loudly declaimed against it; and, although destitute of fortune, he resolved to spare neither time nor pains to check its progress. With this view he traveled over several parts of North America on foot and exhorted his brethren, of the denomination of Friends, to abjure the iniquitous custom. These, convinced by the cogency of his arguments, denied the privileges of their society to the slaveholder, and zealously engaged in destroying the aggravated evil. Thus, through the beneficial labors of this pattern of piety and brotherly kindness, commenced a work which has since been promoted by the humane of every denomination. His memory ought therefore to be deeply engraven on the tablets of our hearts; and ought ever to inspire us with the most ardent esteem.
Nor less to be prized are the useful exertions of Anthony Benezet. This inestimable person, sensible of the equality of mankind, rose superior to the illiberal opinions of the age; and, disallowing an inferiority in the African genius, established the first school to cultivate our understandings and to better our condition.
Thus, by enlightening the mind and implanting the seeds of virtue, he banished, in a degree, the mists of prejudice, and laid the foundations of our future happiness. Let, therefore, a due sense of his meritorious actions ever create in us a deep reverence of his beloved name. Justice to the occasion, as well as his merits, forbid me to pass in silence over the name of the honorable William Wilberforce. Possessing talents capable of adorning the greatest subjects, his comprehensive mind found none more worthy his constant attention than the abolition of the Slave Trade. For this he soared to the zenith of his towering eloquence, and for this he struggled with perpetual ardor. Thus, anxious in defense of our rights, he pledged himself never to desert the cause; and, by his repeated and strenuous exertions, he finally obtained the desirable end. His extensive services have, therefore, entitled him to a large share of our affections, and to a lasting tribute of our unfeigned thanks.
But think not, my brethren, that I pretend to enumerate the persons who have proved our strenuous advocates, or that I have portrayed the merits of those I have mentioned. No, I have given but a few specimens of a countless number, and no more than the rude outlines of the beneficence of these. Perhaps there never existed a human institution which has displayed more intrinsic merit than the societies for the abolition of slavery.
Reared on the pure basis of philanthropy, they extend to different quarters of the globe, and comprise a considerable number of humane and respectable men. These, greatly impressed with the importance of the work, entered into it with such disinterestedness, engagedness, and prudence, as does honor to their wisdom and virtue. To effect the purposes of these societies no legal means were left untried which afforded the smallest prospects of success. Books were disseminated, and discourses delivered, wherein every argument was employed which the penetrating mind could adduce from religion, justice or reason, to prove the turpitude of slavery, and numerous instances related calculated to awaken sentiments of compassion. To further their charitable intentions, applications were constantly made to different bodies of legislature, and every concession improved to our best possible advantage. Taught by preceding occurrences, that the waves of oppression are ever ready to overwhelm the defenseless, they became the vigilant guardians of all our reinstated joys. Sensible that the inexperienced mind is greatly exposed to the allurements of vice, they cautioned us, by the most salutary precepts and virtuous examples against its fatal encroachments; and the better to establish us in the paths of rectitude they instituted schools to instruct us in the knowledge of letters and the principles of virtue.
By these and similar methods, with divine assistance they assailed the dark dungeon of slavery; shattered its rugged wall, and enlarging thousands of the captives, bestowed on them the blessings of civil society. Yes, my brethren, through their efficiency, numbers of us now enjoy the invaluable gem of liberty; numbers have been secured from a relapse into bondage, and numbers have attained a useful education.
I need not, my brethren, take a further view of our present circumstances, to convince you of the providential benefits which we have derived from our patrons; for if you take a retrospect of the past situation of Africans, and descendants of Africans, in this and other countries, to your observation our advancements must be obvious. From these considerations, added to the happy event which we now celebrate, let us ever entertain the profoundest veneration for our munificent benefactors, and return to them from the altars of our hearts the fragrant incense of incessant gratitude. But let not, my brethren, our demonstrations of gratitude be confined to the mere expressions of our lips.
The active part which the friends of humanity have taken to ameliorate our sufferings has rendered them, in a measure, the pledges of our integrity. You must be well aware that notwithstanding their endeavors, they have yet remaining, from interest and prejudice, a number of opposers. These, carefully watching for every opportunity to injure the cause, will not fail to augment the smallest defects in our lives and conversation; and reproach our benefactors with them as the fruits of their actions.
Let us, therefore, by a steady and upright deportment, by a strict obedience and respect to the laws of the land, form an invulnerable bulwark against the shafts of malice. Thus, evincing to the world that our garments are unpolluted by the stains of ingratitude, we shall reap increasing advantages from the favors conferred; the spirits of our departed ancestors shall smile with complacency on the change of our state; and posterity shall exult in the pleasing remembrance.
May the time speedily commence when Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands; when the sun of liberty shall beam resplendent on the whole African race; and its genial influences promote the luxuriant growth of knowledge and virtue.
The Virginia Manumission Law
Despite the humane intentions of some landowners after the Revolutionary War and the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the institution of slavery continued to operate in most of the southern states. In 1782 the state of Virginia put a manumission law on the books, detailing the right of slaveholders in the eyes of state to set their slaves free. Curiously, the law outlined conditions and constraints upon newly freed slaves very similar to those contained in the black codes created after the Civil War.
There were, among other conditions, a series of taxes required, and what was in effect an early vagrancy law, violation of which could be punishable by incarceration. Like most legislation designed to keep African Americans "in their place," the law used an amalgam of racial and class distinctions to create a web of contradictory prohibitions that were almost impossible to abide by. This effectively gave whites, and the figures of law, the ability to control blacks in any way they saw fit, particularly in times of rebellion when fears of slave uprisings rose among plantation owners.
Acknowledging Permanent Slavery: the Escape and Capture of the Slave John Punch
Although many were held before 1641 in conditions we would term slavery, it was not until that year, when the Massachusetts Colony promulgated the first slavery statute, that slavery became a formal, legal condition. Prior to that, Africans served under indenture contracts, whereby they were in servitude for a limited number of years, after which they were made free. The twenty Africans who arrived in Jamestown Harbor in 1619 were sold as indentured servants, and many if not all of them went on to become free persons, acquiring land and servants of their own.
This changed in 1640, when an African indentured servant named John Punch ran away with two other servants, both of them white. The three were captured, and as punishment for running away, John Punch alone was made a "slave for life. "He is the first recorded slave in the North American colonies, and his punishment marked the beginning of more than two hundred years of racial slavery. A year after John Punch was enslaved, Massachusetts instituted the first formal slavery statute.