Slavery in British North America

African slave labor was vital for the economic life of British North America.  The institution of slavery became more entrenched in colonies that exported labor intensive commodities. African slave populations were highest in the Carolinas where cotton and rice were grown, and in the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia where tobacco was grown and exported. The middle colonies of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey slaves were primarily used as servants and laborers. New England had the fewest amount of African slaves due to the fact that the area had been settled primarily by Puritans who tended to work the land themselves. This however did not keep Puritans from entering and even dominating the slave trade later.

In British North America there was a complete transition from laborers and indentured servants to full slavery through out the 17th century. Although Virginia settlers enslaved Native Americans in the beginning, they soon gave up the practice because of feared Indian attacks and raids. The switch to an African raced based slavery was a somewhat slow process. There were only 1,600 Africans in North America in 1640, with almost a third of them in Dutch New York. During the next four decades slavery was legalized in each of the colonies, but even before it legally recognized slavery Maryland lawmakers mandated slavery as a life long condition for Africans and their children. Virginia classified slavery as a lifelong, inheritable, and racial status for blacks in 1670.

With the growth and legalization of slavery in all the British colonies, lawmakers turned their attention to the regulation of slaves. Resulting slave codes routinely forbade teaching slaves to read and write, required slaves to carry written passes when off their plantation, outlawed the congregation of blacks outside of church, and other losses of personal rights.

Not all blacks and slaves lived in the South or worked on plantations and farms. Cities and towns on the eastern seaboard contained large African populations as early as the mid 17th century. Philadelphia, originally settled by Quakers had the largest free black population in North America. Black Philadelphians helped found the city's schools, churches, and fraternal organizations. By 1741 slaves made up 20% of the population of New York City and caused a panic that year when officials heard rumors they were going to try and burn down the city. Calling it the Great Negro Plot, city leaders arrested 154 blacks and 24 whites, accusing them of conspiracy.

Other cities were centers of African colonial life as well. In Baltimore skilled and unskilled artisans worked as dockworkers, blacksmiths, and domestics. Richmond, the capitol of Virginia had the largest percentage of black residents of any city in the 18th century.

Blacks through out the colonies began to develop their own culture of work, belief, identity, and family as slavery became more entrenched in American law. As the laws became more and more stifling and cruel black slaves fought back as best they could. may plantation workers learned to work slower in the fields, break tools or feign ignorance. Stories spread among slaves and resistance grew. Slave resistance took many forms in the colonial period but it did not often result in outright rebellion.

Slaves did take up arms, however, in South Carolina in 1739. In September of that year, a group of twenty slaves attacked a general store, killing both store owners and taking guns and ammunition. They left the severed heads of the two shopkeepers on the front steps of the store. The group of slaves then marched south in the direction of Spanish Florida, where they believed they would be set free. Along the road the slaves attacked and burned plantations, killing twenty white men, women, and children. At each plantation, they recruited other slaves, and as they moved south their numbers grew. A government official saw the armed slaves and fled to find help. He gathered a larger group of whites on horseback. They attacked the slaves, killing many of them and driving the rest into the hills. Some slaves eluded capture for months. Others were hunted down and killed. After the Stono rebellion of 1739, the South Carolina legislature passed a series of repressive laws that sought to eliminate the possibility of revolt by slaves in the future.

During the 18th century two vastly different societies emerged in the American Colonies. One was white and free and the other was black and for the most part non-free.  By the time America was beginning its Revolutionary war there were over 500,000 black residents. It was during this time that another group of black Americans began to emerge, the Creoles. Creoles were locally born Blacks who drew strongly on the cultural influences on their black ancestors, subsidizing their beliefs with practices and traditions from America, the only home they ever knew. These early Creoles were the beginning of the African American culture we know today.

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on the historic eras of Black history in the United States

The begining - The Revolutionary War

African-American history starts in the 17th century with indentured servitude in the American colonies

The Cotton South - The Civil War

As the cotton-based economy boomed so did slavery, since slaves were needed to man the large-scale and labor-intensive plantations.

Reconstruction Years

The end of Reconstruction was a staggered process, and the period of Republican control ended at different times in different states.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a literary and intellectual flowering that fostered a new black cultural identity that began in Harlem, New York.

Civil Rights Movement

Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X are some of the names that come to mind when we think of the Civil Rights Movement.

Black Lives Matter

In 2013 a new movement to promote justice for African Americans began. Black Lives Matter has swept the nation protesting vilence and injustice.



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