Learning about African American history… 2

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 .


Between 1500-1800, about 12 million slaves were brought to the New World in a system called “triangular trade.” The first line of this triangle consisted of bringing goods, textiles, and weapons to the African Coast to trade for kidnapped slaves. The second line was the transport of these slaves to the Americas—known as the “Middle Passage.” There, traders sold the slaves for sugar, tobacco, and other goods and headed back to England. The majority of slaves were sold in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Both slaves and free people of color contributed to the development of culture in the Colonies. Jupiter Hammon, a slave on Long Island, published a book of religious poetry. Gustavus Vasa wrote a book about his life in Nigeria, his capture, and his slave life in Virginia. His book sold eight editions in America and England. He bought his freedom and presented a petition against the slave trade to the English Parliament. A South Carolina slave named Cesar developed cures for certain poisons that earned him his freedom and an yearly annuity of 100 pounds. James Derham was a slave in the post-Revolutionary War era and was sold to a New Orleans physician, who taught him to prepare drugs and gave him lessons in French and Spanish. At age 21, Derham began to practice in New Orleans and was highly praised for his medical knowledge and practice by Dr. Benjamin Rush, surgeon general of the Continental army and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Banneker, a freed slave, was chosen by George Washington to serve on the commission that planned the City of Washington DC. Phillis Wheatley, a poet, published a book of verse in 1773 with the encouragement of her Boston mistress, who also freed her. Her poetry received favorable reviews from Voltairs, Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and George Washiugton, who invited her to visit him at his Cambridge HQ’s in 1776.

The first known written protest against slavery was written by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1688…”have not these poor Negroes as much right to fight for their freedom as you have to keep them slaves?” The first known written African American protest against slavery appeared in 1788, published by Othello, about whom we know nothing. “In you [whites] the superiority of power produces nothing but superiority of brutality and barbarism….Your fine political systems are sullied by the outrages committed against human nature and the divine majesty.”

On March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave became one of 5 Americans to become martyrs— killed at the Boston Massacre. Lemuel Haynes was among the first African American Minutemen who fought at Lexington and Concord and whose “shots were heard around the world.” He also became one of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys who captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775. After the Revolutionary War, Haynes became the minister of an all white congregation in Vermont. James Armistead, while a slave, became a spy for General Lafayette during the Revolutionary War. In 1786, the Virginia legislature granted him his freedom because he aided the American cause. While not as famous as Lafayette, Von Stubben, Kosciusko, many African Americans fought for the cause of freedom against the British. In fact, two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Massachusetts legislature declared that slavery was utterly inconsistent with the struggle for liberty and many towns in the state voted to abolish slavery.

Many of the Founding Fathers strongly opposed slavery and the slave trade. However, the men who gathered in Philadelphia to draft a Constitution were there to build a strong and unified country, not solve the slavery issue. And in order to gain and keep the loyalty of the slave owning states in the South. Sadly, concessions were made to protect slavery and not demand its immediate cessation. In a compromise, the Constitution granted the African slave trade 20 more years to exist—a period ending in 1808. However, the compromise also provided that all runaway slaves be returned to their owners and because slaveholders were to be taxed for their slaves as property, they were allowed 3 votes for every 5 slaves owned. Thus if there were a census taken in those days, an African American slave would be counted as only 3/5ths of a person! Most felt that slavery was a temporary arrangement that would soon run its course. However, no one could foresee the invention of the cotton gin (short for engine) just 6 yrs. later nor the wealth gained from the European demand for cotton which dramatically increased the need for labor provided by the slave trade.

James Beckwourth was one of the most famous frontiersman of the 19th century. He escaped slavery and headed west to live on the frontier. He was “adopted” into the Crow Indian tribe and became its chief. But his place in history rests in discovering a pass (1850) through the Sierra Nevada Mountains which became a gateway to California during the gold rush days. The pass still bears his name. The Crows wanted him back as their chief, but he turned them down. Legend has it that they invited him to a feast where he was poisoned. If the Crows could not have him as chief, at least they could have him to bury in the tribal cemetery as their former chief.

More to come…

3 thoughts on “Learning about African American history… 2

  1. Paul

    To expand on the “three-fifths of a person” concept, for those who don’t know….

    The slavery states wanted to count every slave in their respective populations, and the anti-slavery states didn’t want to count them at all. Does that surprise you? It makes perfect sense, if you understand the purpose of the counting.

    As is the case today, the population distribution across the nation determined the allocation of Congressional districts among and within the states. The greater the population, the greater number of Congressmen from a state. The slavery states wanted to count slaves in their populations in order to gain more seats in the House of Representatives. But those slaves were not allowed to vote! As its name implies, the House of Representatives is meant to represent the voters of the various Congressional districts. And each voter should have approximately the same weight of representation in the form of his Congressman. But allocating Congressional seats by population, rather than voters, increases the “potency” of voters in districts where the ratio of population to voters is unusually high, and decreases the potency of voters in districts where the ratio is nearer to one.

    Allowing slaves to be counted at all toward Congressional seat allocation gave slavery states extra power in the House of Representatives(*), at the expense of anti-slavery states. Worse yet, it gave slave owners greater political power – i.e., the power to perpetuate slavery – BECAUSE they owned slaves. The more slaves, the greater the power of slave owners in Congress. The slaves got nothing from being counted in the population.

    If one chooses to be outraged, one should not be outraged that slaves were counted ONLY as three-fifths of persons, but because they were counted AT ALL, in order to be used as tools against their own interests. Of course, some dissatisfaction is inherent in compromise.

    * This effort by the slavery states was a deliberate mutation of the Constitutional spirit. The STATES were to have equal representation in the Senate, regardless of their respective populations. The PEOPLE were to have proportional representation in the House of Representatives, regardless of their respective states. The later passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, however, mutated the function of the Senate in the opposite direction, by causing Senators to be elected by the people of their respective states rather than appointed by their respective state legislatures.

    1. Thanks Paul- that was helpful. One question then: it is my understanding that slaves were taxed as property not as people, so that would implicate the federal government in denying personhood to the slave. Is that a fair assessment?

      1. Paul

        Interesting question…. It is true that the Constitution regarded slaves as property. Whether or not that inherently is a denial of personhood, I’m not sure. I don’t think anyone could deny that the Constitution failed to apply the principles of the Declaration of Independence to slaves. So, for the most part, if not quite in whole, I would say that’s a fair assessment.

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