Skip to main content

Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Africans in America

Life in a Slave Society

When captive Africans first set foot in North America, they found themselves in the midst of a slave society. During most of the 17th and 18th centuries, slavery was the law in every one of the 13 colonies, North and South alike, and was employed by its most prominent citizens, including many of the founders of the new United States. The importation of captives for enslavement was provided for in the U.S. Constitution, and continued to take place on a large scale even after it was made illegal in 1808. The slave system was one of the principal engines of the new nation's financial independence, and it grew steadily until it was abolished by war. In 1790 there were fewer that 700,000 enslaved people in the United States; in 1830 there were more than 2 million; on the eve of the Civil War, nearly 4 million.

On arrival, most of the new captives were moved into holding pens, separated from their shipmates, and put up for auction. They then faced the challenge of surviving in a society that had declared each of them to be private property and that was organized to maintain their subservient status. In the eyes of the law, they had no authority to make decisions about their own lives and could be bought, sold, tortured, rewarded, educated, or killed at a slaveholder's will. All the most crucial things in their lives-from the dignity of their daily labor to the valor of their resistance, from the comforts of family to the pursuit of art, music, and worship-all had to be accomplished in the face of slave society's attempt to deny their humanity.

Enslaved people of African descent could be found in all parts of the country, and put their hands to virtually every type of labor in North America. They tended the wheat fields and fruit orchards of New York and New Jersey; they traveled underground to mine iron and lead in the Ohio Valley; they piloted fishing boats and worked the docks in New England; they operated printing presses in New York City, dairies in Delaware, and managed households from Florida to Maine. Even in the early 19th century, when the Southern cotton plantation system was at its peak, enslaved African Americans still plied their own specialized skills and worked at a wide variety of tasks and trades.

Africans also brought the skills and trades of their homeland to North America, and their expertise shaped the industry and agriculture of the continent. West Africans with experience navigating the waterways of their homeland helped open the rivers and canals of the Northwest frontier to boat traffic, and seasoned African cattle drivers were able to apply their skills to ox teams and livestock. Many Africans were deeply familiar with large-scale rice and indigo cultivation, which were completely unknown to European Americans; without the skills of Africans and their descendants, the rice fields of South Carolina and Louisiana might never have existed.

African culture was also brought to bear on the business of everyday life in African America, however long the separation from the homeland might have been. The forms of worship, family organization, music, food, and language developed by African Americans in slavery can all be seen to bear the signs of African traditional culture, as can the architecture, art, and handcrafts they left behind. In some areas, such as South Carolina and Florida, several different West African languages were melded over the years to form a new dialect, known as Gullah or Geechee, that partially survives in some rural areas to this day, particularly in songs.

The world that enslaved Africans and African Americans made for themselves in the New World was rich and complex and was the site of countless human conflicts, challenges to oppression, and the necessary accommodations for survival. For a closer look at life under slavery, read several of the first-person accounts in Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project.

Free African Americans

However pervasive slavery was, though, in every colony and in every state there was always a population of African Americans living in freedom. Some had been freed by those who had previously held them in slavery, some had escaped, some had bought their own freedom, and some lived in territories or states that had abolished slavery. This population of free African Americans grew steadily for the duration of the slave era. In 1790, 60,000 free African Americans lived in the U.S.; in 1830 there were 300,000; and 500,000 by 1860.

Bishop D.A. Payne

Freedom was never a certainty for this group. They had very few legal protections, even in ostensibly free states, and were always in danger of being kidnapped or otherwise returned to slavery. Most lived in urban areas, and despite the often strong opposition of European American workers, free African Americans worked in a number of trades and crafts, including construction, metalworking, and retail trade. The distinguished astronomer, draftsman, and publisher Benjamin Banneker was a free African American, as were the educator Daniel Payne and the novelist William Wells Brown. Many free African Americans formed fraternal organizations, such as the Brown Fellowship Society of South Carolina, for advancement and self-protection, and others worked to found schools and universities for free men and women.

Perhaps most important of all, free African Americans were often at the forefront of the great public crusade of the 19th century: the campaign to abolish the institution of slavery.

 Back to top