“In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky… and star-crowned mountains,” wrote African-American statesman and former slave Frederick Douglass. “But my rapture is soon checked…When I remember that all is cursed with the infernal actions of slaveholding….”
February is Black History Month, but black history is American history and shouldn’t be relegated to one month annually. Given K-12 education’s general disdain for background knowledge and memorizing dates, most American high school students know little European, African, and U.S. history or geography, including the terrifying truths about the transatlantic slave trade.
The slave trade uniquely embodies Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s view that we all share “a single garment of destiny.” Spanning 1444 to 1870, the African slave trade defined our civilization, leaving a haunting global legacy. The horrifying reality is that human chattel slavery is found throughout history, including ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, which were built by slaves. Slavery has often been linked with wars, debts, and monarchies.
Slave History Is Human History
Historians David Brion Davis and Hugh Thomas report that in the medieval era, caravanning North African Muslim slave traders began subjugating sub-Saharan black Africans. By the mid-1400s, Catholic Portugal and Spain bound themselves to commerce in human bondage and Protestant Britain later followed.
West Africa—Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Benin—became the Slave Coast, where tribal kingdoms sold inland African neighbors to Europeans in the global triangular trade with the Americas. Trading companies chartered by European monarchies used African slave labor to extract gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, and cotton from the New World. As historian Howard Dodson reminds us, American slaves primarily produced luxury goods.
“[King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself,” reads slave-owner Thomas Jefferson’s draft anti-slavery clause, which the Continental Congress removed from the Declaration of Independence. “[V]iolating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people… captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation….”
Nearly every Atlantic country, colony, and religion was shackled to the slave trade, which was central to western commerce for centuries. The figures are ghastly: Through 54,200 voyages 13 million African slaves were shipped to the New World, including a staggering two million who died at sea. One-third of the slaves were women of childbearing age, and one-quarter were children.
Four million slaves were brought to Portuguese Brazil, two-and-a-half million to Spanish America, and two million to the British West Indies for backbreaking work on sugar plantations. Five hundred thousand slaves went to British North America and the United States.
In 1807, President Jefferson signed the legal cessation of the U.S. slave trade; however, the Supreme Court’s infamous 1857 Dred Scott case ruled that even former slaves had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Slavery wasn’t abolished until after the American Civil War. By then, the U.S. slave population had grown to four million.
Why We All Need to Know Our History
Students today need to be taught about the realities of slavery to comprehend the potential tyranny found within the human heart. But American students’ performance was mediocre on the eighth-grade civics portion of the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card.
New Englanders like to pretend that slavery was a distant, Southern phenomenon, and that the North’s abolitionism absolves us of America’s original sin. But the Northeast also has slave-trading blood on its hands. Boston, Salem, and Newport were maritime epicenters for slave traders. In the eighteenth century, 60 percent of North American slave ships were Rhode Island-based. Prominent Yankees, including the Faneuil, Brown, and DeWolf families, were among America’s most notorious “man-stealers.”
After escaping slavery, Douglass wrote several autobiographies. Nearly all start by declaring “slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and… [it’s] the wish of most masters… to keep their slaves thus ignorant.”
In soul-searching about America and Black History Month, our own cultural ignorance can’t hide that national dreams of liberation, deliverance, and freedom were secured on the backs of millions of Africans brought here against their will. Ending our nationwide abandonment of historical literacy begins with educating all schoolchildren about the hard truths of our shared past.