Contributions of Enslaved African Americans

America’s Slaves Deserve to be Remembered and Honored

In Honor of “Juneteenth”

On June 19, 1865, the enslaved African Americans in Texas finally learned of emancipation. “Juneteenth has become a federal holiday – “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” It is also known as “Jubilee Day,” “Emancipation Day,” “Freedom Day,” and “Black Independence Day.” (My family attended a “Juneteenth” celebration at James Madison’s plantation, “Montpelier.”)

Pleading for Relief

(Abraham Lincoln issued his “Emancipation Proclamation” on January 1, 1863. It is doubtful whether the President could legally ban slavery by way of an Executive Order without an Act of Congress. However, in December 1865 slavery was constitutionally abolished with the ratification of the Republican sponsored 13th Amendment.)

Enslaved African Americans played a major and vital role in establishing and building this great nation. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.  They do not get enough recognition or credit for their contribution.

Since early American history is largely neglected in the public schools, it is little wonder that the role of the slaves in the birth of the nation is also overlooked.

But things are getting better: 

  • Because of African American History Month, we are learning more each year about the slaves and their contributions.
  • Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier, the plantation homes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, all have buildings, exhibits, and tours devoted to remembering and honoring the slaves. 
  • The popular National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. has a major section on slavery.

Slavery in America

In 1790, there were almost 700,000 slaves in the United States.  Slaves comprised about one third of the of the population of the South.

Slave Auction: Mothers and Babies

At that time, slave labor consisted of planting, growing, and harvesting tobacco.

By 1860, the beginning of the Civil War, the slave population grew to almost 4 million, about 13% of the total population of the country.

Slavery in America was horrific, No adjectives can adequately describe its degradation and inhumanity.  No words can explain the toll it took on the lives and souls of individuals and families. The collateral damage continues to ripple through our society today.

In 1860, slavery was overwhelmingly rural.  Only about 5 percent of slaves lived in cities. At this time, the majority of slaves worked in cotton fields.  

Sadly, slavery has existed since ancient times, and tragically, it still exists today. (An estimated 40 million people are enslaved today, mainly in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa)

Founding Fathers and Mothers

Our principal Founding Fathers, like George Washington, “Father of Our Country,” Thomas Jefferson, “Father of the Declaration of Independence,” and James Madison, “Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights” were Virginia slave owners.  Slave labor provided them with the financial resources and unfettered time underlying their great achievements. Without slaves, they would not have accomplished a fraction of what they did.  Slaves deserve part of the credit for these heroes’ accomplishments.

Paul Jennings – Servant of Dolley Madison

We often think of slaves as a nameless group. Countless enslaved individuals were remarkable and memorable.

For example, Paul Jennings was the loyal personal servant of Dolley Madison. After her husband’s death, Dolley was financially destitute and indebted.  She had to sell her beloved Montpelier with its mansion, plantation, furnishings, and slaves.

Looking to Heaven for Help

Dolley was forced to move in with her poor sister in Washington D.C.  Dolley finally sold Paul Jennings to the famous Daniel Webster, who allowed him earn his freedom.

Paul Jennings recalled: “In the last days of her life … [Dolley] was in a state of absolute poverty, and . . . suffered for the necessaries of life. While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her with a market basket full of provisions and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums of money from my own pocket. . .”

Can you imagine? Dolley Madison, this great founding mother, was so destitute that her former slave was taking money out of his own impoverished pocket to ease her suffering. Paul Jennings should not be just another nameless slave.

Revolutionary War

Slave Auction: Tearing Families Apart

A freed slave was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre, the first martyr of the Revolution. Many African American slaves fought in the American Revolution. Prince Whipple was one of George Washington’s oarsmen as they crossed the Delaware. William Lee, a slave of George Washington, fought next to Washington throughout the war.

Approximately 15 per cent of the Continental Army was Black.  This was the last integrated American army until the Korean War.

Washington D.C., White House, Capitol Building

Congress oversaw the building of Washington D.C. under the direction of the President. Congress hoped to recruit skilled workers from Europe, but the response was dismal. Since slavery was widespread around the Washington, the government turned to skilled and unskilled slaves, and freed African Americans, to build the White House, Capitol, and other early government buildings.

U.S. Economy

Working the Cotton Fields

Black slaves played a major role in laying the economic foundations of the U.S., especially in the South.

At its height, slavery was a $3 billion industry and a major engine of the U.S. economy from tobacco and cotton cultivation.  By 1850, 80% of American exports were the product of slave labor. The estimated value of enslaved people increased 500% between 1790 and 1860, from $200 million to over $3 billion.  

The American economy was dependent upon slavery. For many founding generations, slavery’s cheap labor and economic prosperity outweighed the moral outrage it engendered. 

Jefferson rationalized this hypocrisy by saying that slavery was like holding a wild wolf by the ears — the wolf deserved to be freed, but self-preservation prevented it.

Music and Poetry

The slaves also gave us priceless musical genres, starting with the “Spirituals.”  Many of us have been uplifted by singing, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Down by the Riverside,” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” These songs gave solace to troubled souls and torn hearts. The spirituals blossomed into the blues and jazz, and African American poetry.

A Personal Note

Music and Poetry

I am a huge fan of African American jazz and Black poetry. During college, I gave several presentations/performances on Black poetry and music. (Jazz/Big Band Favorites: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Dizzy Gillespie. Poetry Favorites: Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou.)

Family Visits

I recommend visiting the National African American Museum, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, and join in a “Juneteenth” celebration. You will be greatly enriched.

National Slave Memorial

“I have a dream” that America’s slaves be honored with a prominent memorial on the National Mall, near the White House or Capital, which they built. The grounds should include a rock garden with 2 million small river rocks or pebbles in remembrance of the 2 million slaves. As a national school project, the children could paint a slave’s name on each rock.

America’s Slaves Deserve to be Remembered and Honored

In conclusion, this Juneteenth, America’s African enslaved peoples deserve to be remembered, respected, and honored for their great sacrifices and major contributions on behalf of this great nation.

(Sources: Personal visits to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Montpelier and the “Juneteenth” celebration. “Slavery in the United States,” “Juneteenth,” “1790 United States Census,” “1860 United States Census,” ” Washington Monument,” “White House,” Wikipedia; 1790 Census, National Geographic Society, http://www.nationalgeographic.org;  M. McKay, “Statistics on Slavery,” Weber State University, faculty.weber.edu; The White House Historical Association, http://www.whitehousehistory.org; “The White House Was Built by Slaves,” Smithsonian Magazine, http://www.smithsonianmag.com; “Built by Slaves,” US Capital Historical Society, http://www.npr.org; “African Americans – Slavery in the United States,” Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com; “American Slavery Facts: The Mere Distinction of Color,” http://www.montpelier.org.)

Slave Sales and Runaways

(www.londonedition.net)

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