Learning about African American History… 3

The is the third in a series of blogs regarding what I am learning about African Americans in U.S. history that I never learned in school.


“King Cotton” began to rule in the South and slavery flourished instead of fading., as the founding fathers had expected. Between 1820-1850, the number of slaves in this country doubled to 3 million even though slavery had been officially banned since 1808. The increase was due to slaves being smuggled into the country and existing slaves having children.

In 1819, the Missouri Territory petitioned for statehood. At that time the nation had 11 free states and 11 slave states. Northern congressmen protested and moved to ban slavery from Missouri which elicited a great reaction from Southern congressmen. Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed that Missouri be allowed to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine, which had just broken away from Massachusetts, to enter as a free state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 also divided the newly purchased Louisiana Territory at 36.30 degrees, so that all territories north and west of the line would be free, the rest slave. Again, all of this after the Constitution banned slavery after 1808.

Elaborate theories were developed to justify the slave labor system. Alexander Stephens of Georgia said that “equality of the races is fundamentally wrong. . . . the great truth [is] that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to a superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” John C Calhoon of Soth Carolina claimed that slaveholders took “low, degraded, and savage” Africans and “civilized” and “improved” them. George Fitzhugh of Virginia said that slaves were “perhaps the happiest and freest people n the world.” The groundless and baseless theories were used to create the myth of superior and inferior people based upon race. Even though poor whites in the south were economically hurt by competition with slave labor, they believed this myth of superiority because of their white skin. Very few poor whites helped slaves escape north, but many were on the nightly slave patrols hunting runways slaves for rewards.

Speaking of elaborate theories that sinful people can create in order to justify their racist way of life, Dr. Samuel Cartwright of New Orleans, a respected Southern medical doctor, was convinced that African Americans suffered from special diseases. He called on dysaethesia aethiopica and claimed that it caused Blacks to “break, waste, and destroy everything they handle.” His other discovery was “drapetomania, or the disease causing negroes to run away.” This “disease of the mind” was sometimes cured by “whipping the devil out of them.” These crazy scientific theories coincided with the other non-sensical myth that slavery was a naturally happy life.

A quarter of a million free people of color lived in the South by 1860. In spite of many restrictions that limited their advancement in society, several achieved outstanding success. Norbert Rillieux of New Orleans perfected a vacuum pan that revolutionized the sugar refining industry in Europe and America. Dr. Charles Brown, of the US Department of Agriculture, said “Rillieux’s invention is the greatest in the history of American chemical engineering…”

Daniel Payne, a free Black of Charleston, opened his first school in 1829. He taught 3 children during the day and 3 adult slaves at night. Each pupil paid 50 cents a month to attend. As his expenses mounted, he became discouraged and quit. Then a white man told him that the difference between a master and a slave was “nothing but superior knowledge.” Payne decided to reopen his school which increased in numbers to the extent that he had to move into a larger space. Payne became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and one of the founders of Wilberforce University in Ohio, becoming its president in 1863—the first African American college president in America.

There is a fascinating story about of a slave who mailed himself to freedom. Henry “Box” Brown of Richmond, Virginia, (1849) had a white friend help “Fed-Ex” him in a wooden box to Philadelphia. The box was 3 ft 1 in long by 2 ft 6 deep by 2 ft wide; 3 small holes for air. It was nailed shut and tied with straps. Brown had a small flask of water and a few biscuits. His friend (Samuel Smith) delivered box to the express office and sent a telegraph to friends in Philadelphia who would retrieve it. Brown was transported to steamboat by train, often having to withstand being upside down even though the box had written upon it, “this side up with care.” He arrived in Washington where he thrown on a wagon, head down again, but when more mail was added to the wagon the box was bounced right side up. The whole trip took 27 hrs. His abolitionist friends received the box gladly. It is said that when the box was opened Brown exclaimed “How do you do, gentlemen!” and sang a song based upon Psalm 40, “I waited patiently on the Lord and he heard my prayer.” Apparently, Brown believed that freedom was worth the risk. He became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society. He eventually moved to England where he became an actor, magician, and mesmerist. (I was unable to find out how tall Brown was, but I doubt he was the size of LeBron James.)

More to come…

3 thoughts on “Learning about African American History… 3

  1. jax3172

    David, very informative. Can you provide 2 or 3 names of books that were sources for your research. People, even those who purport to be Christians, will use various means to justify evil behavior or all kinds, not just slavery. Sadly, they will even use the bible.

    Jack D

    1. “Eyewitness: a living documentary of African American contribution to American history” by William Katz; “The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby”; “When Others Shuddered” by Jamie Janosz.

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