We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
— Declaration of Independence
Some five hundred years ago, ships began transporting millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. This massive population movement helped create the African Diaspora in the New World. Many did not survive the horrible ocean journey. The enslaved Africans represented many different peoples, each with distinct cultures, religions, and languages. Most originated from the coast or the interior of West Africa, between present-day Senegal and Angola. Other enslaved peoples originally came from Madagascar and Tanzania in East Africa.
The demands of European consumers for New World crops and goods helped fuel the slave trade. Following a triangular route between Africa, the Caribbean and North America, and Europe, slave traders from Holland, Portugal, France, and England delivered Africans in exchange for products such as colonial rum, sugar, and tobacco. Eventually, the trading route also distributed Virginia tobacco, New England rum, and indigo and rice crops from South Carolina and Georgia.
Even though slavery existed throughout the original 13 colonies, nearly all the northern states, inspired by American independence, abolished slavery by 1804. As a matter of conscience, some southern slaveholders also freed their slaves or permitted them to purchase their freedom. Until the early 1800s, many southern states allowed these manumissions to legally take place. Although the Federal Government outlawed the overseas slave trade in 1808, the southern enslaved African-American population continued to grow.
A strong family and community life helped sustain African Americans in slavery. People often chose their own partners, lived under the same roof, raised children together, and protected each other. Brutal treatment at the hands of slaveholders; however, threatened black family life. Enslaved women experienced sexual exploitation at the hands of slaveholders and overseers. Bondspeople lived with the constant fear of being sold away from their loved ones, with no chance of a reunion. Historians estimate that most slaves were sold at least once in their lives. No event was more traumatic in the lives of enslaved individuals than that of forcible separation from their families. People sometimes fled when they heard of an impending sale.
To meet the growing demands of sugar and cotton, slaveholders developed an active domestic slave trade to move surplus workers to the Deep South. New Orleans, Louisiana, became the largest slave market, followed by Richmond, Virginia; Natchez, Mississippi; and Charleston, South Carolina.
Between 1820 and 1860 more than 60 percent of the Upper South’s enslaved population was “sold South.” Covering 25 to 30 miles a day on foot, men, women, and children marched south in large groups called coffles. One former slave named Charles Ball remembered that slave traders bound the women together with rope. They fastened the men first with chains around their necks and then handcuffed them in pairs. The traders removed the restraints when the coffle neared the market.
During the 17th and 18th centuries enslaved African Americans in the Upper South mostly raised tobacco. In coastal South Carolina and Georgia, they harvested indigo for dye and grew rice, using agricultural expertise brought with them from Africa. By the 1800’s rice, sugar, and cotton became the South’s leading cash crops. The patenting of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 made it possible for workers to separate the seeds from the fiber. Able to process some 600-700 pounds daily, it was ten times more cotton than could be processed by hand.
The Industrial Revolution, centered in Great Britain, quadrupled the demand for cotton, which soon became America’s leading export. Southern planters’ acute need for more cotton workers helped expand southern slavery. By the time the Civil War began, the South exported more than a million tons of cotton annually to textile manufactories in Great Britain and the North. Short-staple, or upland cotton, dominated the market. An area still called the Black Belt, which stretched across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, grew some 80 percent of the nation’s crop. Simultaneously cotton expanded into the new states of Arkansas and Texas. In parts of the Black Belt, enslaved African Americans made up more than three-fourths of the total population.
By 1860 some four million enslaved African Americans lived throughout the South. Whether on a small farm or a large plantation, most enslaved people were agricultural laborers. They toiled literally from sunrise to sunset in the fields or at other jobs, such as refining sugar. Some slaves held specialized jobs as artisans, skilled laborers, or factory workers. A smaller number worked as cooks, butlers, or maids.