The United States of America is much-heralded by itself, and by its friends and enemies, as the materially richest country in the world. It really should be, since it’s the only country in the world that had over 300 years of enslaved labor.
This fact is well-documented in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s section on the enslavement of African people. The following information which is posted on the walls of the section, tell the story of how the USA got so wealthy:
•Slavery’s success built the economic foundation of America. In two generations, cotton produced by enslaved people transformed the fledging nation into a world power and a leader in global trade. This rapid change sparked heated political debate.
Southern slave owners demanded political power to match their financial influence. Northern interests pushed back, fearing the power of the slave-owning minority.
This unease over slavery created dangerous new forms of racism. Together, enslaved and free African-Americans organized to overthrow slavery. (To me, that last sentence should say “enslaved and free Africans” since at that time our ancestors were not American citizens.)
•The financial legacy of the slave trade helped create the nation-states of Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, France, Great Britain and the United States, as well as others in the Caribbean and South America. The church, merchants, families and individuals benefitted from those profits which helped to build the large assets of many institutions.
•By the mid-1700s, numerous colonies were deeply invested in slavery. Rhode Island grew wealthy from the slave-based economy and the slave trade, while New York maintained one of the largest North American slave ports. Northern merchants looked toward the Caribbean and found new ways to profit from slavery.
In fact, the labor of enslaved Africans supported Northern merchants’ efforts. They grew the food that sustained enslaved workers on Caribbean plantations, served on the docks where slave ships were built and afforded a luxurious life for the slave-owning aristocracy.
•On January 1, 1808, a new federal law prohibited the importation of enslaved people into the United States. This opened a massive internal slave trade. Between 1820 and 1860, as cotton cultivation expanded westward, roughly 1,000,000 people were taken away from their families to vast plantations along the Mississippi River Valley. Enslaved Blacks were bequeathed to relatives or moved as planters looked for new land. This immensely profitable trade in humans and forced migration had financial, political and demographic repercussions still felt today.
•The mark of slavery was everywhere in America. Drawing on generations of skill and artistry, enslaved people built railroads, constructed canals, dug the Intracoastal Waterway, designed beautiful homes and crafted fine furniture. They lived in cities, small towns, on farms and on huge plantations. Each experience was different and left a small opening for freedom and ingenuity.
Regardless of the place, though, the threat of violence and punishment was never far away.
In the domestic slave trade, the brutality that connected people and profits was clearly on display.
Dealers were meticulous in their assessments of the value of enslaved people. During slave sales, enslaved people were forced to deliver a good showing to bring in the most profits; a glum display sometimes brought a whipping. Pleading for loved ones was not tolerated. Slave dealers believed such behavior made for a poor business environment, which cost time and money.
•The lives and labor of enslaved African-Americans transformed the U.S. into a world power. Yet they received no recognition or payment for what they created. By 1860, four million enslaved people produced well over 60 percent of the nation’s wealth. The slave trade valued them at $217 billion. Selling an enslaved person provided ready cash, explaining in part why roughly 600,000 people were sold in the domestic slave trade. This vast wealth affected the entire nation.
In the (South Carolina) Low Country, slave owners were dependent on enslaved West Africans from the Upper Guinea Coast. Generations of West Africans mastered the rice production in their homelands by harnessing the tide and inland marshes. Africans carried this knowledge to America. Their skills and labor transformed the land from deep swamp into rice fields and made South Carolina one of the richest colonies before the Revolution. By enslaving skills, slave owners reaped enormous profits and political power.
•Many Americans opposed slavery. White workers saw enslaved people as undercutting their pay with cheap labor. Farmers feared the competition from wealthy slave owners for land and agricultural markets. Other Americans thought slavery would inevitably lead to rebellion.
Regardless of their stance, most White Americans did not want to be integrated with African-Americans. Only a few believed that slavery denied human equality. In 1853, Indiana Congressman George W. Julian remarked, “The American people are emphatically a negro-hating people.”
And so it is.
A. Peter Bailey’s latest book is “Witnessing Brother Malcolm X, the Master Teacher.” Contact him at email@example.com.