In the weeks following the 2008 election, many suggested that racism might finally be a thing of America’s past. Some said that we had entered a new post-racial America. But it was not long before Eric Holder accused Americans of being cowards when it comes to engaging in racial dialog. Since then, anyone who dared oppose our new President or who identified with the Tea Party movement has been labeled as racist by liberal progressives in the Democratic Party and the main stream media. It is in this context of post-racial, racist cowardice that I have chosen to address the question of slavery. It is my hope that we may now be in a position to take a detached and objective look at what has historically been an emotionally charged subject.
Speaking at Northwestern University, Bill Ayers, former terrorist and close personal friend of President Obama, asked students, “Who here supports slavery?” But before you answer that question, you first need to ask, “Was slavery really so bad?” Only after examining slavery to discover whether or not it was “bad”, can people be expected to make an informed decision on whether or not they support it.
Many Americans forget that there were two distinct types of slavery practiced in America’s past. The most well known form of slavery involved black Africans selling fellow black Africans to European slave traders who brought them to America by boat. Upon arrival in America they were sold and served primarily as agricultural workers and domestics. About 95% of black slaves were in the South where 20% – 25% of the white families owned one or more slaves (75% – 80% of white southern families never owned any slaves, this percentage was even higher in the rest of the country – one of the facts that seldom gets mentioned because, as Attorney General Holder pointed out, we are all such cowards when it comes to racial dialog).
The second type of slavery in colonial America and the early years of the United States was called indentured servitude. It involved mostly people of European origin who sold themselves into “temporary” slavery in order to cover the cost of their voyage to America. Most came voluntarily, but some were criminals given a choice between a death sentence or a trip to the colonies as an indentured servant. Somewhere between one half to two thirds of all the white immigrants to America prior to the Revolution came as indentured servants (some scholars have put it at nearly 80%).
There were many negatives associated with slavery. While the indentured servants undoubtedly had better conditions onboard ship to America than the Africans, those conditions were still harsh, and in both cases many died on the trip. Once in America, many in both groups suffered physical and emotional abuse, and women were sometimes raped. While indentured servitude was usually limited to a period of three to seven years, because the servitude was temporary, masters often worked them harder in an effort to get as much out of them before they were set free. As a result of such treatment, half of all indentured servants died in the first two years, with many committing suicide. Permission from masters was required in order for both black slaves and white indentured servants to marry. Add to that the total lack of freedom, and life as a slave or indentured servant could be very bleak.
On the positive side, indentured servants who survived to the end of their period of servitude received a cash payment called “freedom dues” and in some places were given grants of land. Slaves did receive food, clothes, housing and some degree of medical care. In many cases they were well treated (after all they were an expensive investment). Occasionally slaves were given their freedom. Some might argue that for those who were well treated, slavery was preferable to the freedom following the Civil War that left many former slaves without a job, without housing, without food, and without health care.
Clearly the abuse and mistreatment experienced by some slaves and indentured servants was totally indefensible. But many slaves were well treated and provided with food, housing and medical care that was arguably superior to what they had known in Africa. Looking at the pros and cons, was slavery really so bad?
Your humble servant,
Yushud Choosewisely, ordinary American
The second part of this blog will be posted in a few days.