I am not a professional historian, but as a student of history, with an MA in that field, I consider myself bound by some of the same rules of accuracy. What follows is based on long study, but it is also very much an overview. Any expert could shoot a few holes into this, but they would be very small and local holes in a basically correct summary.
Slavery has been around forever and everywhere. The Romans had it. Native American’s had it. The long centuries when Eastern Europe went back and forth between the Christian world and the Muslim world produced slaves in vast numbers. We Americans can’t really understand the institution unless we see more than just the Southern plantation.
The America which gave us today’s race relations was British America. In Spanish America and French America the story took different turns. To understand slavery in what was to become the U.S.A., we need to look first at a couple of examples of what was happening before blacks arrived.
The British Navy was mostly a slave institution, though never called that. The officers chose to be there; the men, especially in wartime, did not. A few volunteered, and mostly regretted it, but the bulk of naval crews were impressed. That means picked up by armed bands and forced into service. Kidnapped, in other words, but legally since the government was doing the kidnapping.
(Not unlike Selective Service, come to think of it.)
Once on board, they were subject to punishment without trial, given inadequate food, and brutally flogged at the whim of their officers. They were taken away from their families for long periods and frequently killed or maimed in combat. If they lived long enough they would be released back into civilian life, so it was not true slavery.
At first this system lacked a racial component, but as time went on British merchant ships came to be manned primarily by sailors from India. If you read Sherlock Holmes you will find Lascars (Indian sailors in the British fleet) everywhere in Victorian England. This allowed conditions on board to remain so vile that only the destitute would sail. The same thing happened in America, where American officers and crews gave way to American officers with foreign sailors, for the same economic reasons.
Back on land, during the early days of the British American colonies, the rich took passage, but the poor had to bind themselves to pay for transportation. They became semi-slaves for a set period of years, but a bound person could look forward to eventual release. The system had a class component, but not a racial one, and was not permanent, so it wasn’t true slavery.
A system existed in south-western India which is worth looking for because of what it lacks. I will be a little vague here since this is from a treatise I read while getting my first MA in the mid-seventies. I’m presenting it from memory. In that area of India, low caste people were bound into a complex relationship with upper castes. The upper caste owned the land; the lower castes worked it. Sometimes when a family fell into debt and was on the verge of starvation, the father would sell himself into slavery to save his family. This was called lifetime indenture, because the man became a slave, but his family did not.
That is a huge difference, and is the reason I offer it in contrast to what happened in America.
When the first Africans arrived as slaves in 1684, forced labor had already existed for a long time in Britain and British America. With the arrival of blacks from Africa, we finally reached the full-fledged American system. It consisted of involuntary servitude for life, followed by the same for a slave’s children, all defined by race, with few (none, in a practical sense) rights to reasonable treatment. A corollary of the system was the treatment of slave women as brooders, and their children as a crop to be sold.
Ugly. All the forms of near slavery were ugly, but this was particularly foul. The full system had all the ills of previous systems with none of the restraint, and it lasted until the Civil War.
And then all the problems were over — we wish.
Lifetime indenture was ended but the ones who had built the country with the sweat of their unpaid faces were not compensated. Racial disdain became worse. The KKK was invented. Jim Crow laws were passed.
One aspect of this which has only recently come to the attention of the general public is re-enslavement through the judicial system.
Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.
That is a quote from the post 88. John Henry which examines the claim that the folk-hero was really such a prisoner.
Eventually came the Civil Rights movement which finally brought a legal end to discrimination. That’s why this post is coming on Martin Luther King Day. But the Civil Rights Act, like emancipation, was a start, not a completion.
Are things better than they were? Of course. Are they good enough? Not on your soul, or the nation’s soul. There is still much work to do.