Slavery in the United States: A Historical Timeline
SLAVERY BEGINS IN THE NORTH AMERICAN COLONIES (1619–1789)
The first Africans are sold into slavery in the North American colonies. A Dutch ship lands in Jamestown, Virginia, with a cargo of 20 captive Africans on board. The colony is in the midst of an early boom period, with tobacco exports rising and increasing numbers of people arriving from Britain. Good laborers are hard to find, and the ship arrives needing repairs and supplies, so a deal is made trading the Africans for those services.
Slavery slowly takes root.
The Pilgrims settled at Plymouth Rock in 1620, bringing with them Africans
who were essentially given the same rights as apprentices back in England, meaning they were freed after reaching 25 years old. By 1636, however, the first American-built slave ship is launched in the Massachusetts colony, signaling colonial North America’s entrance into the slave trade. Two years later the first public auction of African slaves takes place in Jamestown, and by 1641 the Massachusetts colony legalizes slavery.
Indentured servants outnumber slaves. A poor economic climate in England combines with incentives given to landowners to create a favorable climate for the emigration of indentured servants. Much like African slaves, these laborers are property that can be bought and sold. However, unlike slaves, these indentured servants are freed after their period of servitude is met. Unfortunately, even though they receive "freedom dues," which might include clothing, food, money, or land, by 1660 most indentured servants are mired in a permanent underclass because of poor prospects as freed people.
Colonial statutes regarding slavery continue to multiply. The institution of slavery continues to be codified with the passage of further laws, starting with the 1662 Virginia statute establishing that children born to an enslaved mother are also slaves. This reverses common law precedents holding that a child’s status is determined through the father. The next year Maryland legalizes slavery and makes servitude a life-long proposition for black slaves. Virginia, New York, New Jersey, and the Carolinas all follow suit.
Bacon’s Rebellion brings whites and blacks together. By the 1670s, a growing number of freed indentured servants are increasingly frustrated with Virginia governor William Berkeley’s Indian policy. The governor opposes their desire to take over land held by tribes west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is incensed when Francis Bacon organizes the men—including freed blacks and slaves—into a small force that attacks and kills some Indians. He’s not any happier when Bacon is elected to the House of Burgesses, and has Bacon arrested when he tries to take his seat. Eventually freed, Bacon raises a larger militia, marches on Jamestown, and burns it to the ground after holding it for a short while. Shortly thereafter, Bacon dies of dysentery and the rebellion collapses.
Indentured servitude fades as slavery becomes predominate. For large plantation owners, Bacon’s Rebellion exposes the problems that a growing class of poor, landless former indentured servants can create. Increasingly they turn to the African slave trade for the reliable labor they need to keep their plantations profitable. In reaction to the rebellion, Virginia forbids blacks and slaves from bearing arms and gathering in large groups, and authorizes severe retribution for slaves who attack Christians.
Codification of colonial slavery practices reaches its peak. The English colonies continue to pass laws that further restrict the rights of African slaves. For example, in 1691 South Carolina becomes the first colony to pass comprehensive slave codes, and in 1702 New York forbids meetings of more than three slaves, trading by slaves, and testimony by slaves in court. The next year Connecticut decrees that any slave who assaults whites or disturbs the peace shall be punished by whipping, and in 1705 Virginia declares all non-Christian servants are slaves, defines them as real estate and permits owners to kill them as punishment.
(April 6) Slaves revolt in New York City. Filled with resentment at the way they are treated, 20 to 70 black slaves set fire to a building near Broadway. When white colonists arrive to put out the flames, the slaves attack them and then run off. Nine colonists die and six more are injured. After being captured the rebel slaves are put on trial, and those found guilty are executed by various means, including hanging and burning at the stake.
Runaway slaves head for Florida. Spain is determined to protect its colonial interests in North America against incursions from the British to the north. During the early 1700s, runaway slaves began making their way to Florida, a development the Spanish increasingly see as helping their cause. In 1731 the flow of runaways grows when Spain declares that any slaves reaching its Florida colony will not be returned or sold. In 1738, Spain proclaims that slaves who make it to Florida will be given land and freedom, further increasing the runaway stream.
(September 9–10) The Stono Rebellion. This begins in South Carolina, as a literate slave named Jemmy leads a group of slaves that eventually reaches 80 in number on a march south from the Stono River. They attempt to reach Spanish Florida, but meet an armed militia of South Carolina slaveholders at the Edisto River. The battle that follows claims the lives of 20 whites and 44 slaves, but it inspires further uprisings over the next few years.
The South Carolina Negro Act of 1740. The Stono Rebellion causes South Carolina slaveholders to enact a 10-year moratorium on importing African slaves, as they believe native-born blacks are less likely to rise up. To help keep control, the legislature passes the Negro Act of 1740, which forbids slaves from moving abroad, growing their own food, assembling in groups, earning money, and learning to read. Other Southern colonies take similar measures around this time to prevent further slave uprisings.
Twenty percent of people in English colonies are now slaves. From 1740 to 1750 the total population of the English colonies jumps into seven figures and is now just short of 1.2 million—of these, more than 230,000 are slaves. In Virginia the percentage of slaves to total population is greater than 40 percent.
British convicts are shipped to North America. The British Transportation Act of 1718 allows for criminals to be shipped overseas for seven years (in lieu of execution in many cases). Some are sent to New England, others to Virginia and Maryland. By 1755, 10 percent of adult white males in Maryland’s four most populous counties are transported convicts. They occupy a position above black slaves and below indentured servants, and even though they are free white British men, most are treated poorly and deeply resent their status in the colonies.
The Quakers take a stand. The Quakers become the first group to attack slavery in North America when the Yearly Philadelphia Meeting declares that slavery is inconsistent with Christianity. Although some Quakers are slaveholders, the Pennsylvania Quakers forbid members of the Society of Friends from owning slaves or taking part in the slave trade. Seventeen years later, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush found the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, which is the first organization of its kind in the colonies.
The Continental Congress votes to end the slave trade. The First Continental Congress meets in September and October of 1774, and, motivated by a desire to disrupt British trade, agrees that the colonies shall discontinue importing slaves and will boycott other nations that continue to do so. The Second Continental Congress convenes in May 1775 and reaffirms that policy. In July it names George Washington to command the Continental Army, and he immediately bans further enlistment of free blacks and slaves.
(November–December) The British issue a proclamation. Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, promises freedom to any slave who fights for the British side. The next month Washington rescinds his ban on free blacks, but it is not until 1777 that he permits the army to begin enlisting slaves.
(July 4) America declares independence and holds on to slavery. An early draft of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson includes language accusing Great Britain’s King George III of promoting slavery in the colonies, but it is removed in the final version. The document becomes renowned for its celebration of human rights and personal freedom, even as the man who wrote it and many others who signed it maintain ownership of slaves.
The new nation’s view on slavery begins to diverge. Beginning with Vermont in 1777, most of the Northern colonies pass laws permitting enfranchisement for all men and/or the gradual emancipation of slaves. However, Northern representatives to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 are forced to compromise with their Southern counterparts on slavery. As a result, the Constitution permits the slave trade to continue for 20 years, contains a fugitive slave clause and, perhaps most importantly, counts every slave as three-fifths of a person. This is advantageous for the Southern states, both in terms of tax apportionment and congressional representation.
SLAVERY DIVIDES THE NATION (1793–1865)
Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin. By the 1790s, Southern planters are forced through years of over-planting to switch from tobacco to grains. These crops require fewer slaves, and this changeover combines with the leftover glow of the American Revolution’s high ideals to spark a movement toward emancipation. The cotton gin changes all that in a hurry, however, as over the next several decades, this machine transforms the South’s economy. As much of the entire South becomes covered in cotton fields, plantation owners require slaves in ever-increasing numbers to work them.
The country expands westward, and so does slavery. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 adds vast new swaths of territory to America. New landowners create huge plantations to produce cotton, and they import slaves from the original Southern states to create a workforce. This internal slave trade accounts for approximately one million slaves shifted westward in this fashion, which is almost double the number of Africans imported to the U.S. during the entire transatlantic slave trade period. Slave families are broken apart by this forced migration, and the Southern economy profits immensely from it.
(March 3) Federal law bans the importation of slaves. Congress passes legislation, signed by President Jefferson, forbidding slaves to be imported through any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States. The law goes into effect on the first day of January 1808, but from that time until 1860 some 250,000 Africans are illegally brought into the U.S. for the slave trade.
(March) The Missouri Compromise. In 1818 the 22 states that comprise the Union are divided evenly between free and slave. Missouri petitions Congress for admittance to the Union. A New York Congressmen attaches an amendment to the Missouri petition that forbids the importation of slaves and allows for the emancipation of those already in Missouri, which passes the House but not the Senate. Speaker of the House Henry Clay crafts the plan that admits Missouri as a slave state, Maine as a free state (thus maintaining the previous equilibrium) and forbids slavery in the remaining territory north of Missouri’s southern border.
(August) Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion. A literate slave who reads and preaches the Bible, Nat Turner comes to believe that God has chosen him to lead his followers to freedom. They rise up in Southampton County, Virginia, and eventually kill approximately 50 to 60 men, women, and children before the militia can subdue them. Turner and his followers are hanged, and the effects of this event are felt by slaves throughout the South, as strict new laws are passed that further curtail their already limited rights.
The Underground Railroad gains its name. Although an organized system to help runaway slaves has been growing for decades, it is the emerging network of steam railroads that provides a unifying designation. Some railroad terms—such as "depots," for homes and businesses that offer safe resting stops, and "conductor," for those responsible for gathering and moving fugitives—are also adapted for use. Quilts made by slaves share information about routes and survival techniques. It is not clear how many slaves escape via the Underground Railroad, but one estimate puts the number at 100,000.
(September 4) The Compromise of 1850 holds off civil war. Another Henry Clay production, this continues America’s westward expansion with a series of bills that (temporarily) resolve the ever-present dispute over slavery between Northern and Southern states. Its provisions include admittance of California as a free state (Utah and New Mexico decide for themselves whether to be free or slave) and a strengthening of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, which requires federal judicial officials to assist with the recovery of escaped slaves—even if those slaves have made it to free states or territories.
(May 30) The Kansas-Nebraska Act increases the likelihood of civil war. The Kansas-Nebraska Act creates the Kansas and Nebraska territories, repeals the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and leaves it up to the settlers of each territory to decide if slavery will be permitted. Foes of slavery see this as a concession to Southern states, and anti-slavery settlers begin arriving in large numbers in Kansas. There they meet pro-slavery settlers from neighboring Missouri, and deadly clashes ensue for the next several years.
(March 6) The Dred Scott Decision.. The Supreme Court rules that Dred Scott, a fugitive slave who sued for liberty in 1848 based on his living in the free Minnesota Territory, is not a free man because he enters a free territory. It rules Congress didn’t have the authority to ban slavery in the territories (essentially saying the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional) and Africans and their descendents are not, and cannot become, U.S. citizens.
(November 6) Abraham Lincoln is elected President. The Whig Party doesn’t survive the dissension in its ranks concerning slavery, and taking its place in the Northern states after the Kansas-Nebraska Act is the new abolitionist Republican Party. At the same time, pro-slavery Democrats consolidate control of their party and politics in the South. Lincoln is the Republican Party’s nominee for president, and his election cements the divide between North and South that has been hardening for decades.
(April 12) Confederate troops fire upon Federal troops at Fort Sumter. The Southern states see nothing good resulting from Abraham Lincoln’s election as president, and to protect their economic and social interests (all of which are wrapped up with slavery) they secede from the Union, forming the Union of Confederate States in early 1861. A little more than one month after Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, Confederate troops acting on President Jefferson Davis’s orders attack their Federal counterparts in Charleston, South Carolina. Four bloody years of American civil war begin.
(January 1) Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation. Actually two executive orders (the first being issued on September 22, 1862), the Emancipation Proclamation declares that all slaves are free in 10 specified Confederate states. Although this only permits the immediate release of slaves in areas controlled by Union forces within those states, the document provides the legal basis for continued liberation as Union armies advance. In addition, it establishes the abolition of slavery as official Union policy.
(April 9) The Civil War ends and Lincoln is assassinated. Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders his troops to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. John Wilkes Boothe assassinates President Lincoln five days later.
(December 6) The 13th Amendment is ratified. Slavery is abolished throughout the United States with ratification of the 13th Amendment.
FROM SLAVERY TO CIVIL RIGHTS (1866–1965)
(April 9) Civil Rights Bill becomes law. On the first anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Congress overrides the veto of President Andrew Johnson to pass a Civil Rights Bill. The legislation guarantees equal rights for black Americans and grants them full U.S. citizenship.
(July 21) The 14th Amendment is ratified. The 14th Amendment grants citizenship to any person born or naturalized in the United States.
(February 3) The 15th Amendment is ratified. The 15th Amendment prevents citizens from being denied the right to vote based on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts become law. President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964; this legislation overturns Jim Crow laws throughout the South by prohibiting discrimination in government, employment and public facilities, and through its provisions abolishes segregation in schools and housing. On August 6 of the following year, President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act, which reaffirms the language of the Fifteenth Amendment and adds federal oversight to ensure that elections administrators throughout the country comply with its requirements.
HUMAN TRAFFICKING: SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME (2000–2009)
(October 28) The Trafficking Victims Protection Act becomes law. President Bill Clinton signs this legislation to fight the growing problem of human trafficking in the U.S. Approximately 50,000 women and children are trafficked from other parts of the world into the country annually, with the vast majority of those people forced to work in the sex industry. Men are also victims, but they are fewer in number and usually put into forced labor situations.
Reauthorization of trafficking victims law. The original law is reauthorized three times by Congress, thus providing additional funds to continue the fight against human trafficking. A feature of this law from the beginning is an annual report to Congress from the State Department listing countries that continue to lag in the efforts against modern slavery. Those that regularly make the list can be subject to U.S. sanctions, but since the reports began only Equatorial Guinea and Venezuela have reached that level.
(June 17) The global recession increases human trafficking. The U.S. State Department issues its ninth annual Trafficking in Persons Report, and notes that the recession has created a growing demand for cheap goods and services. The economic crisis is forcing more businesses underground to avoid taxes as well as higher costs associated with union wages. Combine that with more people willing to risk more to obtain work, and the result is an increase in the use of forced and child labor.