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Presentation U.S. History Primary Source Timeline

Pre-Civil War African-American Slavery

Authentic Anecdotes of American Slavery, L.M. Child, 1838
African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection

African Americans had been enslaved in what became the United States since early in the 17th century. Even so, by the time of the American Revolution and eventual adoption of the new Constitution in 1787, slavery was actually a dying institution. As part of the compromises that allowed the Constitution to be written and adopted, the founders agreed to end the importation of slaves into the United States by 1808.

By 1800 or so, however, slavery was once again a thriving institution, especially in the Southern United States. One of the primary reasons for the reinvigoration of slavery was the invention and rapid widespread adoption of the cotton gin. This machine allowed Southern planters to grow a variety of cotton - short staple cotton - that was especially well suited to the climate of the Deep South. The bottle neck in growing this crop had always been the labor needed to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers. But Eli Whitney's gin made it much easier and more economical to do. This fact made cotton production much more profitable and hence very attractive to planters and farmers in the South. Still, growing cotton was very labor intensive and cotton growers needed a large supply of labor to tend the fields. Enslaved African Americans supplied this labor.

It is important to remember, however, that while some enslaved people worked on large cotton plantations, others worked in other types of agriculture, including tobacco, hemp (for rope-making), corn, and livestock. In Southern cities, many worked at a variety of skilled trades as well as common laborers. It was not unusual for those working in the cities to put away enough money to buy their freedom. Indeed, Southern cities, as well as many in the North, had large free black populations.

A field hand's workday usually began before dawn and ended well after sunset, often with a two-hour break for the noon meal. Many free farmers in the South (and North) also put in very long work-days, but the great difference was they were working for themselves and controlled their own work time. Enslaved workers had no such control and they worked under constant supervision and the threat of physical punishment by their overseers.

However, despite overall harsh conditions and the absence of freedom, enslaved people were not just powerless victims of their owners and the system. Their quarters provided one of the few places where they could be more or less free from constant supervision by overseers; the community might extend well beyond the family and in many cases beyond the single plantation or farm. They created a vibrant social and cultural life beyond the reach of slave owners. While no rational person would wish to be enslaved, they sought to make the best of their circumstances.

When searching for additional primary sources on this topic, use such terms as slave(s)slaveryplantation(s), and Negro, among others.