Land of the Free

By Angie Caldarone

How did slavery begin?

Slavery began when European merchants started the Triangular Trade between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. African men, women, and even children were captured and brought to America on slave ships. Conditions aboard these ships were wretched. They were packed with as many slaves as possible; the slaves were denied fresh air, decent food, and adequate space, and some slaves experienced enough physical and/or mental abuse to attempt suicide. Slaves were especially needed in the New World because landowners wanted to make money off of purchasing slaves to work their plantations. In America, the majority of slaves toiled away on plantations in the Southern colonies, since the economy there was based on agriculture.

Slaves in America were usually treated poorly. Every day except Sunday in most cases, they worked restlessly in the fields from sunup to sundown, no matter the weather or temperature, so they did not enough time to sleep at night. Slaves were generally undernourished with the barely quenching food and scraps served to them by their masters, but sometimes they were allowed to grow their own food, which they would usually sell for livestock. Slaves were usually quartered in one-room, sordid shacks with dirt floors and little, if any, furniture; sometimes up to a dozen slave men, women, and children lived in one shack together. Slaves on smaller plantations cultivated the crops, which was surprisingly painstaking effort, especially on hot or humid days. Harvesting cotton and then picking the seeds out of the bales by hand used to be a slow, tedious job for the slaves, but it was eased when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. However, the invention increased the need for slaves, for now producing cotton was faster and easier. On larger plantations, slaves worked as carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths, lumberjacks, and the like. Punishments for slaves were usually brutal. If a slave slowed down or stopped to rest or for merely a fraction of a minute-crack!-down went the overseer's whip on his back, urging him to get back to work. The whip was the most common instrument used to punish a slave, but they were also punished by mutilation, hanging, being beaten with a stick, confinement, and other brutalities. Some masters even went so far as to rape female slaves. Slave laws prohibited them from going to school and church, learning to read and write, marrying (although sometimes slaves secretly eloped), owning weapons, and leaving their owners' plantation without a written pass, amongst many other disallowances. If a slave was caught trying to escape, he would be likely to receive a severe punishment, like harder labor than usual or a flogging, which is a brutal beating.

It took until 1865 for slavery to be illegal in the United States with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After the Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, decreed that "all men are created equal", the Northern colonies gradually passed laws to emancipate slaves. But over a decade later, the U.S. Constitution compromised that slaves were worth only 3/5 of a person for purposes of congressional representation and tax appointment. So, despite the fact that the young country was the land of the free, and though Congress had prohibited the importation of new slaves after New Year's Day in 1808, slavery proceeded to be constitutionally legal. Slaves sometimes went to extremes to gain their freedom. One of the most famous slave rebellions was that of Nat Turner in 1831. It consisted of both slaves and free black men who wielded farming tools as they stormed the Virginian town of Southampton County; the outcome was the deaths of nearly sixty white men and the trials and executions of nearly sixty men involved in the rebellion, including Turner. Soon afterward, former slaves-turned-abolitionists, including Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, worked to end slavery. 1850 saw the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which promised the recapture and return of any slave who was caught attempting to run away. The majority of the American population was exposed to the true cruelty of slavery via abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestselling novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852. Another major rebellion flared up in 1859 when John Brown, an abolitionist with a burning enmity for slavery, led a raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry that ended in Brown's execution by hanging. After Abraham Lincoln became President in 1860, the Southern states started seceding from the Union, resulting in the Civil War. Lincoln's main priority as President was to try to get the Union back together, but he also wanted to abolish slavery. In 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and two years later, the thirteenth amendment was added to the Constitution, ending slavery for good.

However, there are still racial tensions in America today. A major recent reflection of these racial tensions were the deaths of many young black men at the hands of Caucasian police officers and the public uproars that ensued. A major problem was that many of these young men mean no harm. Many African-Americans continue to live in dire poverty, housed in dangerous low-class neighborhoods called ghettos, and African-American children who are raised likewise are apt to have behavioral problems and/or drop out of school in the future. African-Americans often work low-wage jobs to eke out a living, although they barely make enough money to provide for their families. It is unbelievable that the majority of America's black population still lives this way after all their ancestors went through to give them equal rights.

The legacy of slavery has contributed to these racial tensions. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, freedom still seemed impossible with the harsh laws placed on free blacks in the South. The Black Codes barred free blacks from getting a proper education, voting, serving in court, or choosing their own jobs. However, around the same time, Freedmen's Bureau was established to help provide former slaves with decent food, housing, and schooling. A century later, the Civil Rights Movement sprang into action to stop segregation between whites and blacks. As a result, blacks received the citizenship and equal rights they deserved. But racism still lurked in many places.

The idea I have to improve race relations in America is to help create better training for American police. I hope this plan will stop the police from being rude toward the people they encounter and killing innocent black men without knowing that they truly mean no harm whatsoever. The government should agree to spend more money on police training. If the police are trained to handle situations in unthreatening ways (e.g. checking the person for anything dangerous) instead of acting defensively to quote-unquote "solve" the problem, then there will be better community relationships between them and African-American citizens.