Slavery, Racism and the Lessons to be Learned...
Updated: Jun 25
Image: Mike Knell Slave Market
Let me start by saying that I have rewritten and edited this post a dozen times in my attempt to provide a balanced narrative (Also I recognize that this is a REALLY LONG post so please bear with me). This is also not my area of expertise, with the exception of the ancient and religious history. This post is an exception to what I would normally write about, however I felt moved to share this particular history given what is happening in our cities across the country... so I thought I would jump right into the deep end and tackle the history of slavery and racism.
The challenge that faces our society today did not start with recent generations but rather is a more deeply imbedded issue...rather it begins in our homes, in our schools and protecting an accurate history. The death of George Floyd is a tragic and horrific event that should and does need to be addressed. The Black Live Matter movement is justifiably frustrated and angry at the treatment of Blacks and African Americans. The corruption in many of our police departments is unacceptable and reform is necessary, but where did it all begin? Racism against African Americans still exists in this country and why is that? How did we get to the point and time where the call for protesting against racism is necessary yet again? Sadly, I believe I have the answer...it is because we as a nation have failed to learn the lessons of the past and apply them in a constructive manner to today’s society. Earlier I sat listening to an interview on NPR with Josie Johnson about her role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and was struck by her words. In discussing the details of current protests and cries for justice for Blacks and African Americans in this country, she said “this reminds me of when....” Five simple words that speak volumes about our failures as a society and as a country. The words, “This reminds me of when...” represents a repeat of history because we failed to learn the lessons of our past.
So in order to help better understand the anger of many Blacks and African Americans, I did what any good historian and archaeologist does, I began to research the history of slavery and racism. So let me take you back in time...
The roots of racism in this country stems from slavery, and it has existed for over 4000 years throughout the civilized world. SAY WHAT! Let me say that again. Slavery and the enslavement of others has existed for over 4000 years. I know this may come as a surprise, but the roots of slavery began in ancient times. Slavery flourished in the ancient world, with many laws and documents outlining the treatment of slaves, as well as their role in society. I will outline a few as I bring you forward from ancient times into our modern era. Dating to approximately 2100 to 2050 BCE, the Sumerian Code of Ur-Namur is the oldest surviving law code which documents laws relating to slaves. In 1700 BCE the Babylonian legal code of Hammurabi documented the distinction between slaves, freed individuals and freeborn. The Hittite civilization in Anatolia outlined regulations regarding the institution of slavery itself as it related to society. Uncovered at Tell Achtana in northern Syria between 1936 and 1949, a treaty dating to 1480 BCE between Idrimi and Pillia outlines slaves exchanges between Idrimi King of the Mitanni and Pilliya of Kizzuwatna (ancient Anatolia). In ancient Egypt, like many other kingdoms and empires at that time, slaves were obtained through war (a.k.a. prisoners of war). Images from the walls of monuments document the existence of slave markets and the sale of Nubians from Africa(see image with post). Additionally, documents from Egypt outline how slavery occurred, whether from war, whether slaves was inherited from parents, from poverty, or from a failure to pay off one’s debts. Slavery in ancient Egypt also consisted of individuals selling themselves or family members into slavery in exchange for food and shelter. Often times, this occurred because slaves were better treated than the poor living on the streets. The worldwide trading of slaves however did not become popular until the latter part of the Egyptian Empire, with only highly skilled slaves being traded. Examples of this type of slave were craftsmen, scribes and cooks. In the 25th dynasty we find documents outlining the sales of slaves, while the 26th dynasty gives us contracts detailing servitude.
Even the Bible addresses the issue of slavery...and yes I did have to go there given I am a Biblical Archaeologist...the Old Testament specifically addresses the treatment of slaves, and does so because slavery was common practice in the ancient world. Most of the Patriarchs, many of whom were from the upper classes, owned slaves and were required to pay taxes on them. During the reigns of Solomon and David, slavery was often required to complete large building projects. Further, the Biblical text documents how male Israelite slaves could earn their freedom after six to seven years of servitude. The early Israelites also experienced slavery in ancient Egypt during the reign of the pharaohs, both prior to and including up through the Exodus. Josephus, in his history of the Jews, not only documents but makes frequent mention of high priestly slaves during the Temple Period. Catherine Hefner in her book, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity, noted that the philosopher Philo wrote on the proper treatment of slaves and he further indicated that slavery was a common practice in Jewish culture. Lastly, the Deuteronomic Code, the law code given to the Israelites, as outlined in Deuteronomy chapters 12 to 26, stipulates that prisoners taken during war were automatically slaves, as long as Israelites were not among the victims. Many more examples of slavery exist in the Bible, however it is clear that slavery was an accepted and commonplace occurrence during the Biblical period.
In Ancient Greece, slavery was an integral part of a structured system with slaves being encompassed by non-citizen slaves, chattel slaves and “serfdom” style slaves. Greek philosophers Aristotle and Euripides went as far as to say that slavery was an essential part of Greek life. Greeks classified slaves into four main categories. The first was prisoners of war. These individuals were unskilled and were assigned hard labor, to include rowing a ship or working in the silver mines at Laurion. The second group were slaves who owned property but worked for their master in a manner similar to serfs. The third classification was the house slave that both lived and worked in their master’s home. The last group was known as public slaves, ironically today many of these slaves would be known as public servants. They were police officers, garbage men, street sweepers, and secretaries, to name just a few. In Ancient Greece slaves could be highly educated and were more valued for their knowledge, however the slavery in ancient times in many respects was not the brutal slavery that occurred in the latter part of world history. For many in the ancient world, slavery was something you could rise above, you could earn your freedom from and for many it was a means to rise above poverty.
In the late 4th century BCE, in Ancient Greece, the first stirrings of opposition towards slavery began to rise with Alcidamas and Philemon suggesting that all persons had the right to freedom. This continued into Roman times where freed slaves could become Roman citizens and obtain the right to vote. However the Roman Empire still viewed slavery as a necessity. The military expansion and rise of the empire relied heavily on slavery, with teachers, accountants and physicians often being slaves. However, Rome was also not very forgiving of slaves who were unskilled or committed criminal acts. These slaves were often subjected to grueling labor in agriculture and industry. However with the fall of Rome and the rise of a power in the East, the ancient world would begin to temporarily challenge long held beliefs about slavery. Under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid Persians of the Persian Empire, would formally ban most slavery and would further require compensation for labor. In Contrast, as Europe fell into the Dark and Middle Ages, the lessons of slavery and its ban under the Persian Empire would be forgotten only to re-emerge in Western Europe in a more violent and unforgiving form.
Slavery also existed in the Islamic world. Slaves were owned in all Islamic societies, with a geographic region extending from Arabia to Western Africa. Ironically the eastern slave trade picked up momentum at around the same time the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. However, Islam as a faith actively sought to moderate slavery through five main guidelines: 1) Islam barred Muslims from enslaving other Muslims, 2) Islam treated slaves as both human beings (with rights) and property, 3) Islam allowed slaves to gain their freedom and made freeing them a virtuous act, 4) Islam banned the mistreatment of slaves with their tradition stressing kindness and compassion, rather than cruelty, and lastly 5) Islam greatly limited those who could be enslaved and under what circumstances. However for all of these guidelines, cruelty, brutality and restricted freedom still occurred. Even the prophet Muhammad owned, bought, sold and captured slaves in much the same manner as the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. Slavery was as common place in the time of Muhammad as it was in the Biblical world. One of the oldest Islamic traditions tells the story of Bilal Ibn Rabah a trusted, prominent and loyal companion of the prophet Muhammad. He was born in Mecca in 580 and died in Damascus in 640. Bilal was one of the earliest converts to Islam. He was known for his beautiful voice and became the first mu’azzin(prayer caller). He was also a former slave from Ethiopia. His narrative is the ultimate testament in the Islamic faith to how to not judge a person by their culture or race, but rather by their piety.
After the fall of the Visigothic Kingdom in the 8th century, slaves arrived in Europe through trade on the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Portugal and Spain). Trade in humans usually involved Eastern European slaves that were captured by Muslim kingdoms in the south during periods of war. Slavery continued through the Middle Ages in a form similar to those found in ancient times. As Europe’s power, wealth and influence grew, so did the human trafficking of slaves, especially from Africa. The beginning of the slave trade in Africa would signal the depopulation and destruction of the African subcontinent. At first African trafficking only added to what already existed in Europe, with Europeans often enslaving one another. However, it is the rise of the unique Trans-Atlantic slave trade which would bring about particular brutality, ultimately leading to the destruction of Africa and its people. Trans-Atlantic slavery in Europe truly began in the 15th century (1400’s for people like me who constantly have to translate this) with Portugal. The Portuguese, with their huge expansion overseas and their easy reach towards Africa, began kidnapping people off the streets in African cities. The kidnappings took place in regions located along the western coast of Africa. In some instances, it was African kings and leaders selling their own subjects into slavery(Benin, Ghana, and Nigeria). The kidnapped, sold and now enslaved peoples were then brought to Europe for trade.
After the discovery of the American continent in the early 16th century (early 1500’s), the demand for labor from Africa grew exponentially, as the labor supply in America and Europe was deemed insufficient. It is the Spanish that brought the first African slaves to America from Europe as early as 1503 CE. It is important to emphasize this concept, that it is Spain bringing slaves to the Americas as EARLY as 1503 CE. (As an aside, these earlier dates are especially important as it directly contradicts information being presented by some projects in the U.S. Also I wish to clarify a common discrepancy in understanding U.S. history; the history of the U.S. begins in 1776 with the founding of our country but the history of colonization in the Americas spans from the early 1500’s up to 1776.) By 1518, captives were being directly shipped from Africa to the Americas. A database developed in the late 1990’s suggests that over the next four centuries, 11 million enslaved people were transported to the Americas. While upwards of 14 million were transported throughout the Arab world. These numbers represent the utter devastation which occurred to Africa and its peoples. It is now estimated that between 1500 CE to 1900 CE the population declined at such an unprecedented rate that Africa would never recover. The trans-Atlantic trade also allowed for conditions to grow so impoverished in Africa that subsequent colonial conquest of Africa occurred by greedy European powers. The inequity between Africa and Europe justified (in European minds) the ideology of racism and the notion that Europeans were superior to Africans. Racism during this time period was based upon 4 main reasons: technology, tribal culture, wealth, and religion. Europeans believed strongly that Africans were at a disadvantage in all of these areas. Sadly this type of thinking was often perpetuated in combination with colonialism as we will see in our own country. Slavery had once again in the history of civilization become commonplace and was an accepted form of labor.
The slave trade was firmly documented and cemented in the Americas prior to the attempted colony at Roanoke(1585) and the later Jamestown colony. America and the slave trade were caught between the two mighty European nations of Spain and England, who were actively fighting a war in Europe for supremacy in politics, trade and naval prowess. In the early half of the 1500’s, then Prince Philip of Spain (soon to be King), through trade and settlements in the Caribbean and the southern region of North America (modern day Florida, Georgia, and the Carolina’s), established the most effective strongholds in the region. As documented in the book The Kingdom Strange, Philip claimed the Americas for Spain based on “discovery, conquest and settlement...founded on sacred enterprise of extending the Catholic faith to barbarous natives.” Philip actively sought to keep all Protestants out of the Americas which specifically meant France and even more importantly England. The race for establishing settlements had begun with slavery being viewed as an integral part of the success of any settlement. During the second half of the 16th century, the famous explorer and privateer Francis Drake was making frequent trips back and forth across the Atlantic in an effort to halt Spanish expansion and establish English colonies. Between Spain and England, slaves were clearly caught between the powerful nations of Europe and their race to create colonies and settlements in North America. Drake during one of his excursions in 1586, goes so far as to “liberate” a group of refugee and runaway slaves from the Spanish in the Caribbean (these slaves and refugees were known as cimarrones). With a goal of taking the slaves back to England, Drake undertook exploration up the Carolina coast, however hurricanes and bad weather caused his heavily weighed down ships to suffer. In order to return triumphant to England, Drake knew he had to lighten his ships load. He therefore deposited a significant number of the slaves he had stolen from the Spanish on the outer banks of North Carolina. These refugee slaves were in fact the first documented slaves in North America. This occurred approximately one year prior to the attempted English settlement at Roanoke and significantly earlier than Jamestown. To this day, from North Carolina to the Appalachians there exist narratives outlining an influx of “Mediterranean peoples from the south (Africa) living in the area, assimilating with the native cultures and predating English settlements.” Evidence of the descendants of these first inhabitants can still be found among the Lumbee Indians of the Carolinas, whose rich history depicts an extensive knowledge of farming, hunting and animal husbandry in the region. Moving forward, in 1614, the discovery of rich tobacco and its ability to be grown easily in the southern region of North America, coupled with the rise in demand for sugar, created an increase call for labor which of course was supplied through the slave trade from Africa. In 1619 with the settlement of the English colony at Jamestown and the rise of the tobacco and sugar plantations, as well as rum running from the Caribbean, slaves were an integral part of the colony’s early work force. The roots of our nation were truly built on the backs of both freeman and slaves. For the most part, the colonies would import their slaves from the Caribbean and not directly from Africa.
By 1776 and the founding of the United States, slavery had already existed in the region for at least two centuries. Every colony, at the time of the founding of our nation, practiced slavery and with it, the inherent European racism and superiority complex. However, as the U.S. began to create its foundations, shifts and disagreements about slavery began to take place. In fact, the founding fathers, the very men that are most often condemned for being slave owners were in reality the first to challenge the practice of owning slaves. Beginning with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and up through Abraham Lincoln, the question of slavery began to plague those governing our country, but sadly slavery as a source of labor was all they had ever known. The colonists grew up with slavery. America had inherited slavery. The issue of slavery was both a debate over the ethical owning of another human and the economics behind an essential labor system to keep up with the supply and demands of the new nation. This debate deepened in the early years of our country and ultimately created rifts between the individual states and the Federal government. The question of states rights and the ability of the individual states to choose their own path would take center stage in the run up to the Civil War. Again, let me be absolutely clear here, the Civil War was primarily fought over the rights of states to choose their individual paths. The question of slavery plays a part in the dialogue because it is ONE of the rights being challenged by the states. The challenge this debate presented spoke to the very heart of America’s ability to overcome several millennia of slave ideology and racism that was birthed in ancient empires, expanded upon by Europe and imported to America. Sadly, in viewing the Civil War through only the eyes of slavery, we miss the opportunity for a deeper understanding of the challenges that all the states were facing. It is easy to condemn the Confederacy by blaming them for the imported racism, slavery and oppression that existed in the country, but the reality is that the situation was much more complex with their demands for states rights having some validity. I think it is also important here to remember that although the South championed states rights, many southerners were conflicted over the issue of slavery but the south was attempting to protect a common and accepted way of life, as well as a young nations economy. As an example, while the north provided for much of the industry in the country, the southern states by this time produced much of the agricultural products for the entire country. This included many of the nation’s imports and exports, as well as its food supply. Any disruption in the region could have potentially created an economic downturn, as well as a food shortage in the country. Although this was a very real threat to the nation, at no point do I personally think that slavery nor its inherent racism, was an except-able answer. Men like Robert E, Lee, Ulysses S.Grant, Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest all struggled deeply with the question of slavery, regardless of what “side” they were ultimately on in the war. Although the Confederacy lost, their demand for the protection of the rights of the individual states has become an integral part of our system of governing and also provides an essential system of checks and balances so that over reach by our federal government does not occur. The Civil War not only settled the question of states rights versus federal rights, but ultimately decided the question of slavery. Sadly what remained was an inherited racism that has persisted far longer than it should have. BUT I digress so let me continue on with the history… On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect on January 1, 1863. The proclamation stated “all persons held as slaves (within the Confederate States) are, and henceforth shall be free.” The proclamation, although it granted freedom to the Confederate slaves, it presented several challenges in that it ONLY applied to Confederate States who had seceded. The document exempted “loyal” border states, in addition to several southern secessionist states which were controlled by the North. While the Emancipation Proclamation did not completely end slavery in the U.S., it did in fact begin the push towards the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865 and ratified on December 6, 1865. The amendment formally abolished slavery in the United States, specifically stating that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist with in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” On June 19, 1865, General Order #3 was delivered by Union Army General Gordon Granger to Galveston Texas, notifying the last slaves in Texas of their freedom. Adopted in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution went a step further and guaranteed citizenship rights and equal protection under the law for all African Americans. From the creation of our country in 1776 to the passing of the 14th Amendment in 1868, it would take our nation approximately 100 years to end the practice of slavery within our borders, while the rest of the world had sat idly by for several millennia prior, allowing slavery to ravage and destroy Africa, and its people. Tragically, the U.S. struggled to create a clear path forward. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, in both the states of the North and South segregation became problematic. Although some forms of segregation existed prior to 1860 in the northern states, the southern states practiced integration based upon the realities of an agricultural based society. In the North, free blacks often worked under harsher restrictions and segregation was more rigid than the south. In North Carolina and in Louisiana, we have documents reflecting fully integrated schools, juries, as well as blacks and whites working side by side in the fields. In 1875 the Civil Rights Act, the last major Reconstruction statute was passed. (Reconstruction was an era, generally acknowledged to be from 1863 to 1877, which focused on addressing the inequalities of slavery, the readmission of the southern states, as well as the political, social and economic legacy of the war.) The Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed African Americans equal treatment on public transportation, public accommodation and service on juries. Causing more confusion, in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the United States Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act, the 13th and 14th amendments unconstitutional. They stated that the Act and Amendments was “infringed by the existence of uncodified racial discrimination which therefore could not be constitutionally prohibited.” The ruling remained in effect until the Supreme Court “disavowed” the ruling and upheld the Civil Rights Act in 1964. In 1877, again the Supreme Court intervened in the case of Hall v. DeCuir, when they determined that states could not prohibit segregation on common carriers to include riverboats, railroads and streetcars. Then again in 1890 in the case of Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railway v. Mississippi, the Court approved a Mississippi statute requiring the segregation of intrastate carriers. The U.S. Supreme Court of the Federal government essentially set a precedent for segregation and ultimately the disenfranchisement of freed African Americans. The above actions and cases increased the racism already present in a volatile society. In amongst all of this, dating from the late 1800’s to 1968, Jim Crow laws were passed to marginalize African Americans and enforce racial segregation. These laws would deny African Americans the right to vote, hold jobs and receive an education. It would not be until 1963 when John F. Kennedy proposed a new Civil Rights Act that much of the confusion would be clarified and undone. President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964 signed into law the Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal.
So what does all this history tell us? In our modern times, I absolutely believe that slavery, racism and discrimination is unacceptable, however over a century ago, as a historian and archaeologist analyzing the contextual history, I see a situation where slavery was an ingrained and accepted part of the fabric of society. While many people today desire to emotionally hate or destroy the legacy of the Confederacy, what we actually witnessed in the Civil War, is a complex dynamic on both sides; with both sides ultimately understanding that one would be condemned and one would be revered regardless of the outcome. The facts are, whether we like it or not, that both sides answered the call to address the global practice/crisis of slavery. Slavery in America did not begin with our country but it did end with it. Those who fought in the Civil War, rose to a monumental challenge and fought with great finality to insure the individual rights of the states AND end the practice of enslaving other humans...So how does this help us to understand racism in modern times? Why go through all of this history? Why is it helpful to understand the history of slavery in the correct context? Because in the years following the Civil War and up through to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, confusion reigned due to the inconsistent messages from the federal government, the Supreme Court and the States. This confusion created an atmosphere of hate and the marginalization of African Americans. In order to provide clarity to ending hate and discrimination, we need to understand the confusion that gave rise to it. It is clear we as a nation have struggled to clean up in the aftermath of taking on the global challenge of slavery with racism and segregation being a central part of that. How do you clean up after a global challenge that has endured for over 4000 years? It is my firm belief that in knowing and understanding our history in the correct context, both good and bad, we can begin to eliminate hate and racism against African Americans and we can begin to lift up the history of the brave slaves who assimilated with the early native Indians to settle and begin to build on this continent. Looking at our history in context means analyzing, without modern judgements, both sides of the Civil War, while at the same time recognizing that racism and oppression of any peoples is an unacceptable practice.
So why do I think we should talk about this (yes I am inserting my personal opinion here)..because so much of what is being shared in newspapers, the media and even in our school rooms is wrong… because we need from an academic, scientific and political perspective to begin to understand that without slavery our country would not exist at all… and that instead of practicing racism and hate...we need to turn to the African Americans who are the descendants of these first settlers and say thank you… it is their ancestors who toiled along side others to build our nation. Our nation was built on the blood, sweat and tears of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans as well as others and that without a doubt is a narrative that needs to be heard. We need to end with great finality the racism and oppression of all peoples, but especially Black Americans and work to create a society where “justice for all” can truly flourish. My intention with this post is to share the objective history of slavery, I do however feel it is important to recognize the frustration and anger that many Americans of color rightly feel. Racism and hatred is not acceptable, and African Americans deserve to be treated equally with respect and honor. The ancestors of many of todays African Americans also deserve our gratitude and respect for all they sacrificed, both willingly and unwillingly. Throughout this country there are hundreds of stories depicting the incredible resilience and strength of African Americans and it is these voices that I feel should be heard. So I challenge all of us to try smiling instead of arguing, show gratitude and share kindness in order to work toward the ideal of a truly more equal society.
HIC Signing off,
There will always be truth when we view history in context.