History, History Column

History: Slavery

For centuries slavery has been common among African tribes. Black slaves, usually taken captive during war, were bought and sold to enhance a leader’s wealth. Bartering for human capital is an age-old practice some African countries still practice today.

Portuguese sailors, European sailors brought the first Africans to the New World. The voyage to America was arduous and if the shackled cargo became contaminated, succumbed to smallpox or dysentery, the sick were dumped at sea. Slave history is heart-rending.

Roughly 8-15 million Africans reached the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries. Many of Alexandria’s early trading partners, such as Portugal, Spain and the Caribbean, not only sanctioned slavery but also engaged in its trade. Slave-traders accepted only the best African specimens.

In 1740 the Virginia colony declared slaves “chattel [property] personal in the hands of their owners and possessors for all intents, construction and purpose whatsoever.” Pioneer farmer George Washington, in 1760, paid ten shillings for runaway slave Boson’s Mount Vernon return. Washington, unlike many contemporaries, freed his slaves upon his death.

The slaves’ stories are many. James Armistead, a Virginia planter’s slave, served as a double spy during the Revolutionary War. Armistead infiltrated traitor Benedict Arnold’s camp; then later helped Generals Washington and Lafayette ensure Great Britain’s surrender at Yorktown. An empathetic Marquis de Lafayette asked the Virginia General Assembly to give the “essential” slave “every reward his situation can admit of.” Armistead’s freedom was granted in 1787.

George Mason vigorously opposed that portion of the 1787 Constitution which permitted the continued importation of slaves. “We became callous to the Dictates of Humanity….,” Mason wrote in 1773. “Taught to regard a part of our own Species in the most abject & contemptible Degree below us, we lose that Idea of the Dignity of Man….” Virginia “laid plans for gradual abolition” as early as 1777; Maryland 1789.

The Constitution, Article 1 Section 9:1 states: “The migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to 1808, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.”

“In a warm climate [like the South’s], no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him,” Thomas Jefferson noted in 1781. Quakers were among the few who opposed the slave trade. “A Mr. Warner Mifflin, one of the [Delaware] People called Quakers; active in the pursuit of the Measures laid before Congress for emancipating the Slaves…used Arguments to shew [sic] the immorality—injustice and impolicy of keeping these people in a state of Slavery,” President George Washington recorded in 1790.

Congress, consistent with Article 4 Section 2 of the Constitution, passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. Slaves were precious, but only as accumulated property. As slaves were freed and importation denied, labor shortages developed.

“The distressing and disgraceful circumstances of this internal traffic in the people of color in our country, is indeed a trying affair to human feeling,—especially the kidnapping part of the business,” Alexandria apothecary and Quaker minister Edward Stabler wrote in 1816. “The scandalous defect of our laws,—and the criminal inattention (to say no more) of our legislators to a subject which is making such rapid progress in the destruction of the character, the humanity, and the morals of the country—is indeed surprising.”

“I have been almost at a loss to determine whether any advantage is derived from so feeble an opposition to [slavery’s] course,” Stabler concluded. “For unquestionably the nature of things must change, or they who thus ‘sow to the wind’ will for their harvest reap the whirlwind.”

Free black Solomon Nothrup—Twelve Years a Slave—was kidnapped in the city of Washington; processed through District of Columbia slave pens and shipped to Louisiana for sale. As of 1819 trans-Atlantic slave trading was synonymous with piracy, punishable by death.

In 1828 Alexandria slave traders Franklin and Armfield established a store at 1315 Duke Street. “The Subscribers, having leased for a term of years the large three story brick house on Duke Street in the town of Alexandria, D.C….wish to purchase one hundred and fifty likely Negroes of both sexes between the ages of 8 and 25 years.” Armfield and partner Franklin eventually controlled nearly half of the New Orleans coastal slave trade. Their fleet included four ships.

To be successful Armfield needed to purchase unwanted, local slaves at a low price; then ship the slaves by water to his partner, Isaac Franklin, in Natchez or New Orleans and sell them at peak. Perhaps 1,000-1,200 slaves passed through the Alexandria auction house annually; the income approximately $33,000 yearly.

In 1846 Franklin and Armfield agent George Kephart purchased 1315 Duke Street and his became Virginia’s “chief slave-dealing firm.” The slave pen thrived and, after 1858, the business was renamed Price, Birch & Co. Slavery, it is said, is the willful imprisonment of an able man’s soul. Alexandria’s deed book describes Price’s Duke Street purchase as a “Three Story Brick House and Jail.”

Jails like Alexandria’s Bruin and Hill were not big enough; strong enough to hold runaway house slaves Emily and Mary Edmondson (also Edmonson). The sisters, teen-age daughters of a free father and enslaved mother, were bound for New Orleans when abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe learned of their failed Potomac River escape. The family oriented Stowe helped relatives raise funds and free the girls. The Edmondson sisters’ saga was the subject of Stowe’s 1853 supplemental book, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Part III, Chapter 6).

In 1858 cotton was king and the South’s Commercial Conventioneers were clearly pro-slavery. “If it is right to buy slaves in Virginia and carry them to New Orleans, why is it not right to buy them in Africa and carry them there?” Alabama’s William L. Yancey asked. Yancey, a slave owner, was a Southern “fire-eater” and it was his pro-slavery platform that caused the Democratic Party to split. Eight southern states angrily departed the 1860 Democratic National Convention.

Republican Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential election marked the end of slavery. President Lincoln moved quickly to enforce all federal laws involving illegal African slave trades. Still 1.2 million African slaves illegally entered the United States, between 1840 and 1860 especially.

In February 1862 Lincoln “refused to intervene to prevent the execution of Captain Nathaniel Gordon, an illicit slave trader whose ship carrying 900 slaves had been captured off the coast of West Africa by a US naval vessel.” The slave, by count, was no longer three-fifths of a person. The District of Columbia’s ongoing slave trade was outlawed as of April 16, 1862.

Slavery did not officially end until ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1866. The Amendment, first suggested in March 1861, states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

“It behooves the United States…to study…the suppression of the slave trade,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1896. “The most obvious question…is: How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong safely be compromised?”

Today human trafficking is a $32 billion-a-year industry and at least 12-20 million people are enslaved worldwide. The number is higher than the number of blacks held at the height of the 19th century trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Written by: Sarah Becker, © 2015

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