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Race and the Origins of Plantation Slavery  

Justin Roberts

“Twenty and odd” Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch vessel in 1619 shortly after permanent colonization of the English Americas began. There has been significant academic debate about whether the enslavement of peoples of African descent in England’s early 17th-century colonies was an inevitable or “unthinking decision” and about the nature and degree of anti-black racism during the 17th century. The legal and social status of African peoples was more flexible at first in the English colonies than it later became. Some Africans managed to escape permanent enslavement and a few Africans, such as Anthony Johnson, even owned servants of their own. There was no legal basis for enslavement in the British Americas for the first several decades of settlement and slave and servant codes emerged only gradually. Labor systems operated by custom rather than through any legal mechanisms of coercion. Most workers in the Americas experienced degrees of coercion. In the earliest years of plantation production, peoples from Africa, Europe, and the Americas often toiled alongside each other in the fields. Large numbers of Native Americans were captured and forced to work on plantations in the English Americas and many whites worked in agricultural fields as indentured and convict laborers. There were a wide variety of different kinds of coerced labor beyond enslavement in the 17th century and ideas about racial difference had yet to become as determinative as they would later be. As the staple crop plantation system matured and became entrenched on the North American mainland in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and planters required a large and regular supply of slaves, African laborers became synonymous with large-scale plantation production. The permeable boundaries between slavery and freedom disappeared, dehumanizing racism became more entrenched and U.S.-based planters developed slave codes premised on racial distinctions and legal mechanisms of coercion that were modeled on Caribbean precedents.

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The Louisiana Purchase: Liberty, Slavery, and the Incorporation of the Territory of Orleans  

Jennifer M. Spear

On December 20, 1803, residents of New Orleans gathered at the Place d’Armes in the city center to watch as the French flag was lowered and the flag of the United States was raised in its place. Toasts were made to the US president, the French First Consul, and the Spanish king (whose flag had been lowered in a similar ceremony just twenty days earlier), and the celebrations continued throughout the night. The following day, however, began the process of determining just what it meant now that Louisiana was a part of the United States, initiating the first great test for the United States of its ability to expand its borders, incorporating both territories and peoples. The treaty ratifying the transfer, signed in Paris the previous April 30th, promised that “the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States” where they would experience “the enjoyment of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States.” These inhabitants included thousands of people of French and Spanish descent, several thousand slaves of African descent, and about fifteen hundred free people of at least partial African ancestry; most of these inhabitants spoke French or (far fewer) Spanish and practiced Catholicism. In addition, the territory was home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples, many of whom still lived on traditional territories and under their own sovereignty. For a few inhabitants of what would become the Territory of Orleans and later the state of Louisiana, incorporation did lead to “the enjoyment of all these rights” and gave some small grain of truth to Thomas Jefferson’s hope that the trans-Mississippi region would undergird the United States as an “empire of liberty,” although even for Europeans of French and Spanish ancestry, the process was neither easy nor uncontested. For most, however, incorporation led to the expansion of the United States as an empire of slavery, one built upon the often violent dispossession of native peoples of their lands and the expropriated labor of enslaved peoples of African descent.

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The Underground Railroad  

Diane Miller

Africans and their descendants enslaved in the western hemisphere resisted their status in several ways. One of the most consequential methods was self-liberation. While many date the Underground Railroad as starting in the 1830s, when railroad terminology became common, enslaved people began escaping from the earliest colonial period. Allies assisted in journeys to freedom, but the Underground Railroad is centered around the enslaved people who resisted their status and asserted their humanity. Fugitives exhibited creativity, determination, courage, and fortitude in their bids for freedom. Together with their allies—white, Black, and Native American—they represented a grassroots resistance movement in which people united across racial, gender, religious, and class lines in hopes of promoting social change. While some participation was serendipitous and fleeting, the Underground Railroad operated through local and regional networks built on trusted circles of extended families and faith communities. These networks ebbed and flowed over time and space. At its root, the Underground Railroad was both a migration story and a resistance movement. African Americans were key participants in this work as self-liberators and as operators helping others to freedom. Their quest for freedom extended to all parts of what became the United States and internationally to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean nations, and beyond.

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Ideas of Race in Early America  

Sean P. Harvey

“Race,” as a concept denoting a fundamental division of humanity and usually encompassing cultural as well as physical traits, was crucial in early America. It provided the foundation for the colonization of Native land, the enslavement of American Indians and Africans, and a common identity among socially unequal and ethnically diverse Europeans. Longstanding ideas and prejudices merged with aims to control land and labor, a dynamic reinforced by ongoing observation and theorization of non-European peoples. Although before colonization, neither American Indians, nor Africans, nor Europeans considered themselves unified “races,” Europeans endowed racial distinctions with legal force and philosophical and scientific legitimacy, while Natives appropriated categories of “red” and “Indian,” and slaves and freed people embraced those of “African” and “colored,” to imagine more expansive identities and mobilize more successful resistance to Euro-American societies. The origin, scope, and significance of “racial” difference were questions of considerable transatlantic debate in the age of Enlightenment and they acquired particular political importance in the newly independent United States. Since the beginning of European exploration in the 15th century, voyagers called attention to the peoples they encountered, but European, American Indian, and African “races” did not exist before colonization of the so-called New World. Categories of “Christian” and “heathen” were initially most prominent, though observations also encompassed appearance, gender roles, strength, material culture, subsistence, and language. As economic interests deepened and colonies grew more powerful, classifications distinguished Europeans from “Negroes” or “Indians,” but at no point in the history of early America was there a consensus that “race” denoted bodily traits only. Rather, it was a heterogeneous compound of physical, intellectual, and moral characteristics passed on from one generation to another. While Europeans assigned blackness and African descent priority in codifying slavery, skin color was secondary to broad dismissals of the value of “savage” societies, beliefs, and behaviors in providing a legal foundation for dispossession. “Race” originally denoted a lineage, such as a noble family or a domesticated breed, and concerns over purity of blood persisted as 18th-century Europeans applied the term—which dodged the controversial issue of whether different human groups constituted “varieties” or “species”—to describe a roughly continental distribution of peoples. Drawing upon the frameworks of scripture, natural and moral philosophy, and natural history, scholars endlessly debated whether different races shared a common ancestry, whether traits were fixed or susceptible to environmentally produced change, and whether languages or the body provided the best means to trace descent. Racial theorization boomed in the U.S. early republic, as some citizens found dispossession and slavery incompatible with natural-rights ideals, while others reconciled any potential contradictions through assurances that “race” was rooted in nature.

Article

United States Colored Troops  

Holly Pinheiro

The United States Colored Troops (USCT) were a collection of racially segregated, as mandated by the US War Department, Black US Army military units that served during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Their collective military service is widely known for playing critical roles in ending slavery, protecting freedpeople, defeating the Confederate military, enforcing multiple US government policies, and reframing gender ideology while making explicit demands for more racially inclusive conceptions of citizenship. Black men, from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, comprised the 179,000 individuals that served in a USCT regiment. For instance, some soldiers were formerly bondsmen from Confederate states, while others (who were freeborn) came from free states and even internationally (including Canada). USCT regiments were never solely male-exclusive domains. Numerous Black women supported the US war effort, in and outside of the military spaces, in many ways. For example, Susie King Taylor served as a laundress and nurse in the Thirty-Third United States Colored Infantry. Thus, Black women are important figures in understanding Black Civil War–era military service. Ultimately, USCT regiments, and their supporters, fought for racial and social justice (during and long after USCT soldiering ended). Their service also provided avenues for prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, William Still, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who used Black military service to make clear demands for slavery and racial discrimination to end. Meanwhile, various Black communities (especially Black women) lobbied to protect their civil rights (while attempting to support USCT soldiers’ training). Additionally, the families of USCT soldiers vocalized to the Bureau of Pensions (a branch of the US government) to remember their collective wartime sacrifices through Civil War pensions. Their collective actions highlight that the history of USCT regiments requires an understanding of Black families and communities whose lived experiences remain relevant today.

Article

Juneteenth and Emancipation Celebrations  

Emily Blanck

Emancipation celebrations in the United States have been important and complicated moments of celebration and commemoration. Since the end of the slave trade in 1808 and the enactment of the British Emancipation Act in 1834 people of African descent throughout the Atlantic world have gathered, often in festival form, to remember and use that memory for more promising futures. In the United States, emancipation celebrations exploded after the Civil War, when each local community celebrated their own experience of emancipation. For many, the commemoration took the form of a somber church service, Watch Night, which recognized the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Juneteenth, which recognized the end of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, became one of the most vibrant and longstanding celebrations. Although many emancipation celebrations disappeared after World War I, Juneteenth remained a celebration in most of Texas through the late 1960s when it disappeared from all cities in the state. However, because of the Second Great Migration, Texans transplanted in Western cities continued the celebration in their new communities far from Texas. In Texas, Juneteenth was resurrected in 1979 when state representative, later Congressman, Al Edwards successfully sponsored a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday and campaigned to spread Juneteenth throughout the country. This grassroots movement brought Juneteenth resolutions to forty-six states and street festivals in hundreds of neighborhoods. Juneteenth’s remarkable post-1980 spread has given it great resonance in popular culture as well, even becoming a focus of two major television episodes in 2016 and 2017.