In the early seventeenth century, several European countries began to implement the longest, and most sustained, forced migration in history: the slave trade. In colonial America, Spanish and Portuguese explorers had arrived expecting to discover gold, only to instead find tobacco which became a booming market. Poor Europeans who signed up as indentured servants were established as the main source of labour, but they could not satisfy the demand for tobacco with their temporary contracts. In need for a workforce, the colonists set their sights on the coasts of Africa. While it is argued that some slaves may have arrived before the discovery of Jamestown, the first recorded arrival of slaves to the Americas came in 161; thereafter the slave trade rapidly expanded. As African men, women and children were being taken from their homes, they forcibly became part of a growing workforce which would strengthen colonial America’s economy. While the self-sustaining slave population grew, the market for slaves developed exponentially with the success of the tobacco harvest and the introduction of slave fortresses.
It has been argued that racism did not exist in the early stages of slavery and that the introduction of discriminatory laws to subjugate slaves developed ideas of white superiority. Lines between the colonists and the enslaved were drawn by the creation of acts which purposely held the slaves to their conditions permanently, making escape extremely difficult. It was decreed that the children of enslaved women would automatically become slaves and that baptised slaves could no longer use their Christianisation to secure freedom. These laws allowed the colonists to successfully continue the slave trade throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and push the enslaved to the bottom of society using mental and physical abuse. As slavery developed into an economic institution, small resistances were carried out by the enslaved, which ranged from breaking tools to organising large rebellions. Most attempts were quashed, however, and resulted in the prosecution or execution of those involved.
By the early nineteenth century, slavery had been abandoned in the American north while enduring in the South due to the thriving market for cotton. Since the cotton gin’s invention, cotton production multiplied fifty times over and prompted the mass migration of slaves from the north to the south to propagate the trade. This further entrenched the white ideals of slavery south of the Mason-Dixon line; to be a slave in nineteenth-century American South was to know that you were a commodity. Along with the diminishing of the slave population in the northern states came the cause for abolition, which was mainly circulated by free blacks and white sympathisers alike. Although slaves had been escaping since slavery began, systems such as the Underground Railroad were implemented across the American South to methodically free slaves and get them to the north and into Canada as quickly as possible. While the cause took on speed and became a national outcry, seven slave-holding states suddenly announced their decision to secede from America in February 1861; the American Civil War thus broke out two months later. The conflict was the deadliest in American history, with a horrifically high death-toll on both sides.
The main reason for the outbreak of this war was the Unionists’ desire to end slavery in all American states. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which granted freedom to all slaves, though not to those still trapped in the American South during the war. Once the Confederacy had collapsed in 1865, all slaves were immediately declared free and a period of reconstruction began to rebuild southern states and to enact hugely significant changes to the American Constitution. The thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth Constitutional Amendments abolished all forms of slavery, gave African-Americans the right to vote and granted them American citizenship; this was the first time in which black people were recognised as equal to white people by American law.
Prior to the Civil Rights Movement in the late twentieth century, all black Americans were given access to education through the formation of black schools and colleges across the nation. Black intellectualism began to spread through the circulation of newspapers and literature which solidified the collective African-American identity by propagating the need to keep fighting for equality. The momentous abolition of slavery thus gave all black Americans a platform for their voices to be heard, which would grow stronger in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.