Origins of American Slavery (Analysis Essay)



She sits and sews by candlelight, her hands pricked and bloody from the daily cotton harvest. Her back aches due to the privation of a proper bed over the years, and her stomach growls with hunger. The events of the day still play clearly in her head, reminding her of what she works so hard to escape. She is exhausted from the day’s hard work, but she must keep sewing her quilt, keep embroidering the tiny stitches onto the panel of fabric that rests in her lap, for the freedom of the other slaves rests in her hands. She hoped that those she aided might find their way to the Underground Railroad, a resistance network most active during the early 1800s whose sole purpose was to help slaves find independence. Slaves joined hands with other freedom fighters to obstruct the plantation owners and used secret communications to do so. In the fields, they sang religious spirituals laced with hidden meanings, lyrics that could be sung in public inconspicuously. And coded words and letters provided a way for the slaves to communicate with one another, both in-person and across long distances, as they navigated the Underground Railroad and sought their independence. When faced with mistreatment and threats from plantation owners, slaves discretely sent messages through these three mediums—quilts, songs, and encoded language—which ultimately allowed them to exchange information that aided the freedom seekers on their journeys to independence. While secret messages were passed during this oppressive time period of our nation’s history, the people’s resilience and devotion still ring clear in the African American community today as does the culture of communicating through song. Thanks to these brave souls whose covert efforts put their own lives at great risk, others were able to find freedom and pass the legacy of liberty on to their ancestors.

Slavery has evolved over many lifetimes. The development of slavery did not originate as the oppression of Black people for the benefit of whites; instead, as slavery moved into the New World, the concept of slavery became focused on the personal gain of plantation owners and the idea that slaves weren’t human. The white landowners who arrived in the New World faced many difficulties when they chose to use Indian slaves for work on their lands; European-spread diseases ravaged the Native American populations, and the landowners turned away from holding Native Americans as slaves because they “romanticized [them] as noble people who could be elevated to Christian civilization” (Indian Slavery in Colonial America).  So, they turned their attention to Africa, which had a steadily increasing population in the 1500s and could supply them with laborers to keep their crops growing and sustain their income. As time went on, other nations began to emphasize skin color and associated the African slaves with death, demons, and sin, and the New World was soon on board with these ideas, as they cleared their consciences about the wrong-doings of slavery (Morgan, 53). Thus began the division between races in the New World. Black slaves were considered not just beneath white people, but beneath all people, as they were not regarded as humans anymore but as property—no better than cattle in the field. New World slavery also became commercialized and focused on profit, which introduced a never-before-seen work system that left slaves without rest, overworked, and exhausted (“Origins of American Slavery”). The racist and commercial factors of slavery were what made the New World stand out from the rest of the world and what would eventually lead to the development of the Underground Railroad.

As slavery continued,  people in the New World began to form their own opinions on it—some thought it was highly efficient and a good idea, some thought it was a necessary evil, and some were completely opposed. A group of abolitionists from Pennsylvania founded the Underground Railroad in the early 1800s as a counter to slavery and in the hopes that they could free slaves. The Underground Railroad was not a legitimate railroad, but instead a system of people and places that aided fugitive slaves in their journey to freedom. Slaves often escaped to Canada, as the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery declared that any slave that escaped to Upper Canada was considered free. (Henry) By receiving money, food, water, clothes, shelter, and compassion from these abolitionists, slaves were able to flee their bondage and embrace freedom.

The Underground Railroad consisted of many people; however, it was not run by any one person but instead each individual operated by themselves or in a small group. Most of the time, these people were not aware of the collective efforts of all the abolitionists but helped locally. There were, however, a few prominent conductors of the Underground Railroad—people who devoted and risked their lives for the Underground Railroad. Through firm discipline and a tough-love policy, Harriet Tubman, a fugitive slave, aided around 300 slaves in their journey to Canada. (Britannica article) Levi Coffin, often called the president of the Underground Railroad, with the help of his wife, Catherine, helped over 3,000 slaves, allowing them to hide and rest in his house. (Greenspan) William Still was an active member of the Underground Railroad, helping to maintain communication and organization. These people risked their lives to help others, and in the process of doing so, created a legacy for them to be remembered by.

The Underground Railroad faced many threats as it was still opposed by some people. The Fugitive Slave Acts encouraged the capture of fugitive slaves; the first act, passed in 1793, allowed local governments to search for escapees in the borders of free states, and if they found someone, to have them tried by a jury and (if found guilty) to be sent back to where they came from. By this act, people caught helping slaves were fined $500. (“Fugitive Slave Acts”) The second act was passed in 1850, and it strengthened the previous act; it denied slaves the right to a trial by jury, raised the penalty for helping a fugitive to a fine of $1000 and a six-month jail sentence, and gave federal commissioners control of individual cases, for which they got paid more to return a slave than they would to free them. When slaves were returned, they were at the will of their master and were often beaten. These acts precipitated a need for deeper secrecy.

Slaves brought their music and musical traditions with them from Africa, but because colonists believed that their forms of worship were idolatrous, slaves often had to sing religious songs in secret meetings. (“African American Song”) Christianity soon became forced upon slaves because slave owners believed teaching slaves Christianity would prevent rebellion by teaching compliance, yet many slaves converted to and accepted it as a new source of hope or participated in syncretism. They began to include mentions of Old Testament material in their songs, creating new spirituals. While some songs used biblical references to express their pain, anger, and sorrow—these were often the coded songs—others expressed the joy of salvation and encouraged people to worship. (“African American Song”) These songs were passed down from generation to generation and still continue to spread their messages.

Spirituals were often sung in a call and response manner, with the leader singing an impromptu or prepared chorus, followed by others singing a refrain. Most of the songs were not written down as many slaves were deprived of schooling and were marginally illiterate; instead they were repeated and eventually became memorized. Slaves were constantly singing songs as the overseers—the people in charge of reinforcing punishments, rules, and constant work to slaves working in the field—usually encouraged, if not enforced, it. (Douglass).