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Slavery in America : The Montgomery Slave…

Slavery in America : The Montgomery Slave Trade [ MONOGRAPH ]

by Jennifer Taylor

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As American slavery evolved, an elaborate and enduring mythology about the inferiority of black people was created to legitimate, perpetuate, and defend slavery. This mythology survived slavery's formal abolition following the Civil War. [1]

This monograph makes two important points regarding slavery as practiced in the U.S.

First, practice begat belief: that is, slavery preceded notions of white supremacy. Regarding the first slaves brought to the British Colonies in 1619, it was a familiar if noxious role. To be a slave was "an 'accident' of individual status" from which an individual could endeavour to free himself, and later take up a gainful position in society. And in principle, anyone could become a slave. After Independence, however, slavery evolved into a caste system characterized by a "permanent, hereditary status tied to race," [6] a system integral to the South.

Those enslaved in the northeastern states were not as confined to agricultural work as those in the South and many spent their lives in bondage laboring as house servants or in various positions of unpaid, skilled labor. The less diverse Southern economy, primarily centered around cotton and tobacco crops, gave rise to large plantations dependent on the labor of enslaved Africans, who toiled in the fields and ran the planters' homes. [5]

Yet, and this is the second point, though the practice of slavery came first, and its rationalization through a belief in white supremacy followed, it is this belief which has proved most durable and dangerous as a cultural norm. More dangerous precisely because it is more durable than any specific practice: it has adapted itself twice since the formal end of slavery.

When Congress outlawed the Transatlantic Slave Trade beginning in 1808, new demand for slaves had to be met by natural reproduction in the local slave population or by domestic trade. Over the next half century, the domestic slave trade became ubiquitous across the South and would become central to the debate over whether to abolish slavery. [12]

This narrative of slavery as practiced in the U.S. reveals a pattern in its implementation, a pattern which is repeated after slavery ended with the U.S. Civil War. The pattern characterizes a dynamic by which the belief in white supremacy is unchanged, but the practice is reshaped, and racial hierarchy takes a new form. That pattern is for racial control to be established first through informal violence and intimidation, and then for oppression to be maintained through formal institutions linked to social customs.

Indeed, ending slavery was not enough to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it. 'Freeing' the nation's masses of enslaved black people without undertaking the work to deconstruct the narrative of inferiority doomed those freedmen and -women and their descendants to a fate of subordinate, second-class citizenship. In the place of slavery, these beliefs in racial hierarchy took new expression in many forms, including lynching and other methods of racial terrorism; segregation and 'Jim Crow'; and unprecedented rates of mass incarceration. [8]

This pattern of informal violence and formal oppression initially played out as the South shaped slavery to fit its agricultural economy, as against the more industrial and varied economies of the North.

Natchez (MS) and New Orleans (LA) typically have been held to be the largest slave trading markets in the South, but in the last 20 years under slavery, Montgomery's slave population almost matched those two markets combined. [17] A key factor was change in transport, with direct steamboat line to New Orleans and a slave-built railway to Atlanta transforming the slave market (both slave auction sites and slave depots) into the dominant economic force in Montgomery, even through the mid-1860s.

Slave traders accumulated substantial wealth by purchasing slaves in the Upper South and transporting them to the Lower South. They considered transporting slaves on foot to be the 'simplest' way because it required only a horse, a mule, a wagon, and a whip. The traders lined up enslaved adult black men in pairs, handcuffed them together, and then ran a long chain through all of the handcuffs. These arrangements were called 'coffles'. Enslaved black women and older black children marched behind the men, and the smallest children and the sick rode in a wagon at the rear. [15]

Transporting slaves could resemble a Bataan Death March on home soil, perpetrated on Americans by Americans, but longer: GI's and Filipino Scouts hiked no longer than two weeks and covered 80 miles or so, not all of it on foot.

The overland march was common and brutal. One trek could last months and exceed one thousand miles. [16]

The pattern resurfaced after the Civil War.

Reconstruction was a Federal effort to enforce the end of slavery, and uphold the rights of freed slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery throughout the U.S. "except as punishment for crime". This loophole was not lost on those who fought to defend slavery, and who remained in control of public and social institutions when Reconstruction ended less than 15 years after the end of the Civil War. Voting rights extended to black people in 1865 were opposed first by violence and intimidation, and later through disenfranchisement provisions in newly drafted state constitutions. State and municipal criminal justice systems were used to segregate and criminalize black residents. Communities began shaping the public apparatus into a form suitable for restoring racial controls. In effect, slavery was replaced with sharecropping and convict leasing, and white supremacy remained the underlying cultural norm in post-war South.

The end of slavery brought an immediate increase in violence against African Americans across the South that reached 'epic proportions' in the summer of 1865. The racial violence achieved multiple objectives: coercing African Americans to labor without their consent; preventing African Americans from leaving the plantations; and deterring emigration out of the South. [29]

This monograph focuses on the South's rejection of Reconstruction, with the second monograph addressing more completely the establishment of a "second slavery", first through racial terror and then Jim Crow.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, following re-establishment of white supremacy in Alabama, and during a campaign of racial terror that targeted black people with lynching and Ku Klux Klan attacks, Alabama leaders and organizations defiantly asserted their social dominance by recasting their forefathers' role in history. [...] White Southerners began to describe the Confederate cause as noble and admirable and insisted the Civil War was not connected to the institution of slavery. [41]

And when confronted with the Civil Rights Movement and legislation, the pattern manifested again: first informal violence in e.g., Selma and 16th Street Baptist Church bombings, and formal oppression later in policing and mass incarceration with a pronounced racial bias. The continuing legacy of racial injustice, presumably to be addressed in detail in a third (as yet unpublished) monograph.


EJI's truth and reconciliation objectives appear nascent here, too, though more deliberate in alluding to South Africa and other models.

In other parts of the world, many societies that have suffered from horrific human rights abuses have learned that recovery from these injustices depends on a commitment to truth and reconciliation. [46]

While it is tempting to divorce the racial injustice of our past from today's issues of racial fairness and equality, it is irresponsible to ignore this historical context. [46]

Chicago's recent Burge legislation passed in May 2015, punctuating EJI's own reconciliation efforts in Montgomery.


slate.com maps the Atlantic Slave Trade online, here. One takeaway, despite the huge volume of trade to the US, it is dwarfed by trade to other parts of North and South America. That helps put in context the scale of the terror, in terms of lives as well as in years. ( )
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Equal Justice Initiative's new report, Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade, documents American slavery and Montgomery's prominent role in the domestic slave trade. The report is part of EJI’s project focused on developing a more informed understanding of America’s racial history and how it relates to contemporary challenges. EJI believes that reconciliation with our nation’s difficult past cannot be achieved without truthfully confronting history and finding a way forward that is thoughtful and responsible. A short version of the report is available online from EJI. If you are interested in receiving the longer, complete report, please request one by emailing contact_us@eji.org. [from EJI.org]
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