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Slavery and Bondage
History provides the paradigm necessary for critical thinking. Without a reliable knowledge of times gone by, one's thinking may be biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or down-right prejudiced. Yet, the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build, depends precisely on the quality of our thought.
To understand the legacy of the black middle class and its link to Dunbar High School, one needs to understand the historical insinuations of what occurred before he can understand the implications for contemporary times. It is all about culture, that complex whole that anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor says includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Through the study of slavery, for example, we can investigate and interpret why the school developed as it did and determine what influences were determined by the past, and how history can be put to good use in the present. To quote philosopher George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
From a historical perspective, slavery is a system in which one human being is legally the property of another. A slave can be bought or sold, is not allowed to escape, and must work for or serve the owner without any choice. The most crucial and frequently utilized aspect of the condition is that slave owner has a communally-recognized right to possess, buy, sell, discipline, transport, liberate, or otherwise dispose of the bodies and behavior of other individuals. An integral element of the slave system is that children of a slave mother automatically become slaves.
One is usually told that conflicts over slavery caused the Civil War. The problem is that there is disagreement regarding which kinds of conflict — ideological, economic, political, or social — were most important. Conflict between groups requires some form of ethnocentric awareness of group differences. There is a sense of "we" versus "they" that becomes a struggle for control of the other group for resources, status, or scarce commodities. Conflicts between groups are disruptive and costly, and can take a variety of forms, including slavery and other forms of institutionalized discrimination. Thus, accommodations tend to move toward an institutionalized, stable relationship.
Bondage as an Economic Concept
Slavery is an established institution that can be traced back to such early records as the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1760 BC). It does not include historical forced labor by prisoners, labor camps, or other forms of unfree labor in which laborers are not considered property. Moreover, it was rare among hunter-gatherer populations because slavery depended on a system of social stratification. Slavery archetypally requires a shortage of labor and a surplus of land to be viable. Furthermore, most of the history of slavery did not include the enslavement of people who were racially different from those who enslaved them. Frequently, indigenous people enslaved each other; i.e., Europeans enslaved other Europeans, Asians enslaved other Asians, Africans enslaved other Africans, and the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere enslaved other peoples of the Western Hemisphere. People were enslaved not because of their racial differences, but because they were vulnerable.
Slavery between different peoples began only in recent centuries when both the technology and the necessary wealth existed that enabled one group of people to go from one continent to another to acquire slaves and transport them en mass across an ocean. After it became both technologically and economically feasible to transport masses, whole populations of slaves of different races or ethnicities were transported from one continent to another. Europeans, as well as Africans, were enslaved and transported from their native lands to bondage on another continent. Pirates, alone, transported a million or more European slaves to the Barbary Coast of North Africa. This was twice as many European slaves as there were African slaves transported to the 13 colonies from which the United States was formed. In fact, white slaves were still being bought and sold in the Islamic world as late as the 1900s, decades after blacks had been freed in the United States. It was the rise of the Christian society in medieval Europe that practically wiped out the slave-system of olden days preceding the Middle-Ages.
Nevertheless, while exploring the coast of Africa in the 1440s, the Portuguese rediscovered slavery as a working commercial institution. The practice of slavery had always existed in Africa where it was operated by local rulers who were often assisted by Arab traders because slaves were exchangeable commodities. Slaves were captives, outsiders, or people who had simply lost tribal status. Among West African peoples, sources of slaves included criminals and people pawned by their lineages as security for loans that had not been repaid and, most important, captives taken in war.
The first Europeans to engage in the slave trade with sub-Saharan Africa were the Portuguese. When they took over the slave trade in the middle 15th century, the Portuguese transformed slavery into something more impersonal and horrible than it had ever been in antiquity or medieval Africa. This new-style slave business was characterized by the large scale and intensity with which it was conducted and by the cash nexus which linked together African and Arab suppliers, Portuguese and Lancado traders, and purchasers. The slaves were overwhelmingly male and were put to work in large-scale agriculture and mining activities.
Even in these early times, perceptions of some black people were negative and little effort was made to acculturalize black slaves. The Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, for example, in concluding his account on the first climate zone with some general remarks about its inhabitants, repeated the old cliches about furrowed feet and stinking sweat and ascribed "lack of knowledge and defective minds" to black people. The Arabo-Muslim historian, sociologist and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, distinguishing between white and black slaves, remarked: "the Black nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because (Blacks) have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals."
The Portuguese had a virtual monopoly on the Atlantic slave trade. By 1600, 300,000 African slaves had been transported by sea to plantations; 25,000 went to Madeira, 50,000 went to Europe, 75,000 to Cape Sao Tomae, and the rest to America. By then, four out of five slaves were heading for the New World. The number of slaves who reached the New World in three and a half centuries is estimated to have been 10-15 million. At this point, relatively late in world history, enslavement across racial lines occurred in America on such a scale as to promote an ideology of racism that has outlasted the institution of slavery itself.
When the black man was first enslaved, his subjection was not justified in terms of his biological inferiority. Indeed, prior to the influences of the Enlightenment, human servitude was taken as an unquestioned element in the existing order of economic classes and social estates; a way of thinking that had been prevalent in feudal and post-feudal Europe. The historical literature on this early period records that the imported Negroes and captured Indians were originally kept in much the same status as white indentured servants.
In America, the meeting and merging of two streams of Old-World immigrants, one voluntary and one forced, evolved from a society with slaves into, by the second third of the 18th century, a slave society. Ira Berlin, a leading historian of southern and black American life, argues the distinction between the two. In societies with slaves, slaves were marginal to the central productive processes; slavery was just one form of labor among many.
Slave owners treated their slaves with extreme callousness and cruelty at times because this was the way they treated all subordinates, whether indentured servants, debtors, prisoners-of-war, pawns, peasants, or simply poor folks. In societies with slaves, no one presumed the master-slave relationship to be the social exemplar.
When societies with slaves became slave societies, Berlin continues, "slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations," It was an all-encompassing system from which, in the words of Frank Tannenbaum, "Nothing escaped, nothing, and no one."
The transformation from a society in which slavery was present, but not the dominant form of labor, into one in which it was central, began with the discovery of commodities like sugar, gold, rice, coffee, or tobacco. Such commodities commanded an international market, which also required a great deal of labor to produce. A second precondition was that slave holders in these societies could consolidate their political power, enacting comprehensive slave codes that gave them near-complete sovereignty over their slaves' lives. Slaveholding elites then erected impenetrable barriers between slavery and freedom and created elaborate racial ideologies to bolster their dominant position.
The New World
The first slaves used by Europeans were among the participants of the Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon colonization attempt of North Carolina in 1526. The attempt lasted only one year and was a failure. The slaves revolted and fled into the wilderness to live among the Cofitachiqui people, one of the most powerful and highly civilized tribes in the southeastern United States. Accordingly, black people have been in the United States as long as the earliest white settlers, even before the Mayflower and the appearance of the first Africans in Virginia in 1619.24 In fact, new information has surfaced in recent years regarding the first Africans to arrive in Virginia that indicates there were more Africans present in the Virginia colony by 1620 than the "20 and odd" negroes that John Smith and John Rolfe recorded as having been brought to Virginia in a Dutch ship in 1619. Thirty-two Negroes (15 men and 17 women) were listed in a census of 1619/20 recently discovered in the Ferrar Papers, Magdalene College, Cambridge.
In 1619, three events occurred in the American colonies that made the year significant. First, to make the Jamestown colony more attractive to settlers, the London-based Virginia Company sent out a ship carrying 90 young, unmarried women. Any bachelor colonist could purchase one as a wife by paying 125 pounds of tobacco for the cost of her transportation. Second, the colonists were given their "rights of Englishmen;" a term referring to the rights granted English citizens in the Magna Carta. Third, a Dutch man-of-war, the White Lion, arrived and sold the colonists some 20 and odd black men who were not free, but strictly speaking, they were not slaves. These men were "indentured servants" whose indentures expired at the end of five years. Upon completion of their contractual agreements, they would become free men and could buy land and enjoy all the rights of free citizens of the colony. White laborers arrived from England under the same terms and signed indentures under identical conditions as payment for their passage to America.
In practice, however, many indentured men acquired other financial obligations by borrowing money during their initial period of service. This usually extended their contract. It does not appear that any of these first 20 Africans ended up as free farmers in the colony. Most of the white servants, who struggled free of their indentures, did not fare much better and found themselves tenant farming on the Jamestown River. However, it was not impossible for a black person to become a free man in Virginia, and some are recorded as having done so. One of them went on to become the first slave-owner of record in the New World.
When the first 20 blacks arrived in Jamestown in 1619, a statutory process to fix the legal standing of blacks did not yet exist. Although the American colonists seemed to have practiced from the very beginning the "same discrimination which white men had practiced against the Negro all along and before any statutes decreed it," these first blacks were not exposed to the systematic degradation to which blacks later would be subjected. Yet, they were not free and their position in the larger society was not clear. After centuries of investigation and discussion, scholars are still unable to agree on that point.
During 1624 and 1625, demographic records reveal that family life was a firmly rooted institution in Virginia. Africans living in the area appear to have paired off and formed family units as well, for people of both sexes were present. Among whites, households often consisted of a married couple and one or more children, plus a small number of servants, including some who were of African origin.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, many families included the children from one or both parents' prior marriages. Step-siblings, half-siblings, and full-blooded relatives tended to progress with a parent or step-parent through a series of marriages almost always terminated by death. Servants (and later, slaves) would have accompanied household members whenever living arrangements changed. The accumulation of wealth through successive marriages and the hardships that were a part of frontier life probably made widows and widowers eager to remarry. As the colony became better established, more women came to Virginia and the number of marriages and births rose. Africans developed nuclear families and ties that extended well beyond the plantations on which they lived. These kinship networks were extremely important.
There is ample evidence in historical records that people of mixed race could be accepted in communities if they were documented as exercising the rights of citizens to bear arms and vote. In early periods when few records were kept, social acceptance by the majority white community, rather than details about ancestry, was often the key as to whether a person was considered white. For example, in 1652 "an unfortunate fire" caused "great losses" for the Anthony Johnson family and he applied to the courts for tax relief. The court reduced the family's taxes and on February 28, 1652, his wife Mary and their two daughters were exempted from paying taxes at all "during their natural lives." At that time, taxes were levied on people, not property. Under the 1645 Virginia taxation act, "all Negro men and women and all other men from the age of 16 to 60 shall be judged tithable." It is unclear from the records why the Johnson women were exempted. The change gave them the same social standing as white women, who were not taxed. During the case, the justices noted that Anthony and Mary "have lived Inhabitants in Virginia (above thirty years)" and had been respected for their "hard labor and known service".
Most of the workers in colonial America in the 17th and early 18th centuries were indentured servants, white and black. Friendships between the races developed and, since there was not a clear distinction between slavery and servitude at the time, biracial camaraderie often resulted in children. The idea that blacks were property did not harden until around 1715 with the rise of the tobacco economy, by which time there was a small but growing population of free families of color. By 1860, it is estimated that there were 250,000 free black or mixed-race individuals.
In 1618, the headright system was introduced to solve the labor shortage. It provided colonists already residing in Virginia could be granted two tracts of 50 acres each, or a total of 100 acres of land. The headright system fueled development of the plantation economy and, during the tobacco boom-times of the 1620s, successful planters amassed substantial quantities of land and reaped substantial profits. The labor of indentured servants was critical to their success. During the late 1610s and 1620s, the labor shortage was so critical that landowners often worked beside their servants in tobacco fields.
As time went on, settlers continued to fan out in every direction and forest lands were converted to cleared fields that were used for agriculture. Small and middling farmsteads that were interspersed with the larger plantations of the well-to-do throughout the Tidewater area. Settlers moving into new territory vied for waterfront property that had good soil for agriculture and convenient access to shipping. Successful planters were those who managed to acquire several small tracts and consolidate them into relatively large holdings. Small freeholders sometimes hired freed servants to fulfill their need for labor. These workers, however, were not servants and not obliged to stay with a single employer. Moreover, they could bargain for higher wages.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Up from Slavery; an Unfinished Journey"
Copyright © 2019 Archie Morris III, D.P.A.
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Table of Contents
Part I The Roots,
Chapter 1 -Slavery and Bondage, 1,
Chapter 2 -Pre-Civil War Education of Black People, 19,
Part II Dred Scott to Reconciliation,
Chapter 3 -Sparking the Inevitable War, 37,
Chapter 4 -From Accommodation to Conflict, 56,
Chapter 5 -The Philosophy of Education, 75,
Part III The Paradigm,
Chapter 6 -The Culture of the Black Community Prior to 1960, 95,
Chapter 7 -The Washington-Georgetown Localities, 117,
Chapter 8 -Living a Segregated Life in the Nation's Capital, 134,
Part IV The Crown Jewel,
Chapter 9 -The Commencement of Liberation, 157,
Chapter 10 -The Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, 177,
Chapter 11 -The Dunbar Paradigm, 195,
Chapter 12 -The Dunbar Milieu, 213,
Part V The End of an Era,
Chapter 13 -Extermination of the Traditions, 243,
Chapter 14 -Epilogue, 259,