Rebuilding a War-Torn America Series: Overcoming the Slave System in the U.S.

There are many common misconceptions about slavery that still exist, and these misconceptions are actually part of what is keeping slave systems in America alive today. When you picture slavery, many people think of being stripped of all rights and becoming the property of another person. While this is absolutely true, there are many other components of slavery that create an ecosystem that is built on depriving people of the freedom to buy, live and exist without being indebted to a person, owner, or institution. To understand the slave system in America, we have to start from the first point in time where the ownership of human beings began. 

Article Overview:

  1. The definition of slavery and its role around the world
  2. The creation of slave sub-systems in America
  3. The evolution of slavery
  4. America’s struggle to move past slavery
  5. Answer the question, why start at the beginning, and what do we do now?
  6. Resources 
  7. Key Points 


The US Must Confront its Original Sin to Move Forward, BBC

The Concept of Slavery

If you search for the definition of slavery, you might come across the Encyclopedia Brittanica definition, which states, Slavery is a condition in which one human being is owned by another. “A slave was considered by law as property, or chattel, and was deprived of most of the rights ordinarily held by free persons.” There are other definitions that exist, but this becomes a broader and undefinable definition as forms of slavery evolve and become more embedded in society.

The following excerpt has been taken from the Encyclopedia Brittanica and is a brief history of the role of slavery across the globe. 

There are two types of slavery that have been recorded througout history. The most common is household, patriarchal, or domestic slavery. The other major type of slavery was productive slavery. It was relatively infrequent and occurred primarily in Classical Athenian Greece and Rome and in the post-Columbian circum-Caribbean New World. Slavery is known to have existed as early as the Shang dynasty in China. It has been studied thoroughly in ancient Han China, where about 5 percent of the population were enslaved. Slavery continued to be a feature of Chinese society down to the 20th century. 

Korea had a very large slave population, ranging from a third to half of the entire population for most of the millennium between the Silla period and the mid-18th century. Most of the Korean slaves were indigenously generated. In spite of their numbers, slaves seem to have had little impact on other institutions, and thus the society can be categorized as a slave-owning one.

Slavery existed in ancient India, where it is recorded in the Sanskrit Laws of Manu of the 1st century BCE. The institution was little documented until the British colonials in the 19th century made it an object of study because of their desire to abolish it. In 1841 there were an estimated eight million or nine million slaves in India, many of whom were agrestic or predial slaves—that is, slaves who were attached to the land they worked on but who nevertheless could be alienated from it. 

Slavery was widely practiced in other areas of Asia as well. A quarter to a third of the population of some areas of Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) were slaves in the 17th through the 19th centuries and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, respectively. But not enough is known about them to say that they definitely were slave societies.

For slavery to exist, social differentiation or stratification is essential to create an ecosystem that cultivates a slave system. In other societies with hunter-gather constructs, systems of slavery do not exist because this system requires a significant economic surplus. Slaves were considered to be consumption goods used to maintain or produce assets for their masters. 

The Evolution of Slavery 

Slavery was the prototype of a relationship defined by domination and power across the globe. But throughout the centuries people have invented other forms of dependent labor besides slavery, including serfdom, indentured labour, and peonage.

In the past a serf usually was an agriculturalist, whereas, depending upon the society, a slave could be employed in almost any occupation. Canonically, serfdom was the dependent condition of much of the western and central European peasantry from the time of the decline of the Roman Empire until the era of the French Revolution

A person became an indentured servant by borrowing money and then voluntarily agreeing to work off the debt during a specified term. In some societies indentured servants probably differed little from debt slaves (i.e., persons who initially were unable to pay off obligations and thus were forced to work them off at an amount per year specified by law). Debt slaves, however, were regarded as criminals (essentially thieves) and thus liable to harsher treatment. Perhaps as many as half of all the white settlers in North America were indentured servants, who agreed to work for someone (the purchaser of the indenture) upon arrival to pay for their passage. 

Peons were either persons forced to work off debts or criminals. Peons, who were the Latin American variant of debt slaves, were forced to work for their creditors to pay off what they owed. They tended to merge with felons because people in both categories were considered criminals, and that was especially true in societies where money fines were the main sanction and form of restitution for crimes.

The Creation of Strategic Slave Sub-Systems in America 

Now that we have a global perspective of what slavery looked like across the world, we’ll redirect focus to the many commonalities in the slave system that we see in America. 

One of the key applications that should be gleaned and integrated from what we’ve learned about slave systems around the world from the previous sections is that slavery, and even the establishment of race versus ethnicity, was a way to usurp hierarchical power over people in order to build economic wealth. 

Slaveholders in America created systems of control that included creating sub-classes within their own slave systems in order to categorize the worth of their slaves. This worth was based on the following categories. 

House SlavesField SlavesMilitary SlavesSkilled Slaves
Male slaves sometimes became adopted sons.

Female slaves were often forced to bear children for their masters. 

Lighter skin slaves were valued higher than darker skin slaves.
Worked fields and performed other menial tasks that are outside of the household.Used to dig ditches and build military infrastructure.
Slaves were compensated labor whose wages were paid to their masters. 
Slaves worked as mechanics, blacksmiths, drivers, carpenters, and in other skilled trades for their masters.

The methodology behind white supremacy and racial hierarchy started to fully form in this time and served as a sort of coping mechanism that allowed inhumane treatment of slaves because they were considered to be less than human. This is also where the commercial devaluation of Black lives in America began.  

Slavery was Both a Cause and Catalyst of the Civil War 

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution [of] African slavery as it exists amongst us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact

– Savannah Republican, March 21, 1861 

The American civil war, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, was sparked, fueled, and fought by many people with multiple agendas. Some fought on moral ground or for economic reasons, while many African Americans fought for freedom. As the conditions that brought about civil war brewed in America, the constitution was put under a microscope, and the law was used as a method to embed systems of slavery into the infrastructure needed to build wealth, livelihood, and the coveted America Dream. 

  • The Virginia General Assembly passed laws that made it unlawful to teach slaves or free blacks to read or write or to hold religious services, in which a white minister was not present. Other states followed Virginia’s lead. 
  • The Fugitive Slave Law made it possible for federal commissioners to receive twice as much money for returning a slave to the South than for freeing them. 

The civil war was also a telling beacon of change and the beginning of an industrial revolution that threatened the livelihood of southern slaveowners, and here we see again the connection between slavery, control, and power. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s published work ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ gave northerners insight into the harsh and inhumane conditions that slaves were forced to endure, and also stoked the fires of change that were sweeping across America. 

Here we see three big takeaways from this time in history that tie into the modern movement for change.

  • The law is being weaponized against African Americans, leads the way to the Jim Crow era that began after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1858, and lasted all the way into the mid-1950s.
  • The power of stories and literature was a significant component in spreading awareness of the experiences of slavery that shocked America into action.
  • The abolition of slavery was not only a moral fight but was also what was needed to progress into the industrial age. 

America’s Struggle to Move Past Slavery 

As I mentioned briefly in the last section, the Jim Crow era that began after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1858, lasted all the way into the mid-1950s. At least 42 key events took place between 1858 and 1954, and another spattering of events after this time helped to bring about some change. These events included World War I, World War II, The Great Depression, The Tulsa Riot, the deeply racist film ‘The Birth of America,’ and much more to move the needle in achieving racial equity for African Americans in this country. 

“From colonization to the formation of the United States, America has created countless laws and policies to sustain the racial division between blacks and whites forged by ethnocide. These American norms, extending to housing, education, employment, healthcare, law enforcement, and environmental protections including clean drinking water, have disproportionately harmed African Americans and other communities of color in order to sustain racial division and white dominance.”

Barrett Holmes Pitner, BBC News

In a nutshell, this quote summarizes the sole rationale in the obstacle to true racial equity in America. 

Why start at the beginning and what do we do now?

Overcoming the slave system requires knowing the motivation behind slavery because it is largely the remaining mindset and ignorance of systemic failure that is fueling the slave system in modern-day America. I’ve also found that a global perspective helps show the link between slavery and systems of power and showing how slave systems have become deeply embedded in modern-day society. In my next post called The Leftover Dynamic of a Slave Era, I will start to dig into the model below, take a deep dive into systemic failure that leaves Black people in America uniquely disadvantaged, and layout specific plans of action to start to dismantle this system.   


How Race was Made, Scene on Radio

Deconstructing White Privilege, Dr. Robin DiAngelo

The Legacy of Slavery in America, PBS News Hour

Key Points: 

  • Race has no anthropological roots but was created as a method to cope with the treatment and mistreatment of people, and use slavery as a protectionist tool to increase personal wealth. 
  • Slaves were pit against each other in order to prevent unification, and this strategic disunity that was a purposeful system laid out by people who owned other people is the historical catalyst for modern black-on-black conflict.
  • Racial hierarchy was a coping mechanism to condone the inhumane treatment of slaves and founded the systemic devaluation of Black lives in America.
  • Slavery was an obstacle to the modern age in America. 
  • The law has been weaponized against African Americans in many ways.
  • America has struggled to move past slavery since the Emancipation Proclamation.   

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