The recent racial unrest in our country has given me a deep desire to understand the enslavement of the African people in U.S. and, among other things, why African Americans have been almost completely left out of the history of our nation, except for slavery. Most of us raised studying American history have gained little knowledge of the contributions African Americans have made to our nation. Over my next several blogs I would like to share some of what I’ve been learning about African American history. My goal is not to be controversial but informative and to recognize the African American as playing a vital role in the development of our country .
Europeans did not introduce Christianity to Africa. Christianity came to Africa through Egypt and Ethiopia as early as the third and fourth centuries AD. And it was Africans such as Augustine, Tertullian, and Athanasius who clarified for us the very basics of our faith. They were theological “rockstars” in the development of our understanding of the dual-nature of Christ and of Trinitarian theology. (Africans not only had their tribal religions but were also exposed to Islam in the 5th century.)
Slavery, as it developed in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of S. America, was different than the system that developed in N. America. This was due primarily to the Roman Catholic Church, which protected slaves from abuse and preached their treatment as human beings thereby keeping slavery from being infected by racial prejudice. In countries such as Brazil and Cuba, slaves could actually purchase their own freedom.
In the early days of European slave-contact with N. America, a racial caste system had not yet been established. This has led many to the conclusion that race is a social construct—an intentional choice that a society makes that skin color determines who is free and who is a slave. (Jimar Tisby) When slaves first arrived in N. America in 1619, they were treated as indentured servants; workers bound to an employer until they could pay off their debt. They could marry, save money, and pay for their freedom. Some Europeans and Indigenous people also served as indentured servants along with Africans. The movement toward slavery of the Africans happened gradually due to a number of factors: the desire by Virginians to cash in on the lucrative European market for tobacco which demanded more workers, and a declining population of Indigenous people and Europeans willing to work as indentured servants in contrast to a steady supply of workers from Africa through the slave trade. By the mid-1660’s, each of the Southern Colonies had enacted slaves codes or laws that established the rules of human bondage.
As the colonies depended more and more on African slaves, the Virginia Assembly enacted a new law (mid-17th century) stating that if a slave became a Christian and was baptized, it did not include their freedom. It was at this point (it seems) that the religious establishment became a part of a system that encouraged the slave to be content with their spiritual liberation and compliant to their masters.
Slavery in the American Colonial period was marked by a more tolerant attitude towards people of color than the pre-Civil War period. Schools were opened by slave owners to teach slaves to read and write (1740). The farther north one went in the colonies, the smaller the slave population. New England slaves never reached more than 2% of the population (compare the 65% of South Carolina) and their labor tended to be of a domestic kind rather than working in the field. Puritan pastor Cotton Mather insisted that slave owners treat slaves as persons with souls and not as beasts of burdens. He told ministers to preach, “Thy Negro is thy neighbor.” All of this said, slavery still existed in the North and most ministers had one or two household slaves. This included Cotton Mather, who was given a slave by his church as part of his benefit package, and Jonathan Edwards, who questioned the slave trade but did not find the concept of slavery itself inconsistent with the Bible.
It was easier for a New England slave to improve his/her condition than those in the South. Slave soldiers received the same pay as whites. Some slaves successfully sued their owners for freedom. Newport Gardiner of Rhode Island opened a music school for Blacks and Whites. His slave owner took lessons from him. However, a growing discrimination against people of color prevented them from rising in society as far as they could have.
More to come…