400 Years Ago, First Enslaved Africans Arrived in US

17 August, 2019

In late August 1619, an English ship named the White Lion stopped in what is now the American state of Virginia. It left behind more than 20 captive Angolans. They were the first known Africans to step onto Britain's American colonies.

Their arrival 400 years ago began the history of slavery in English-speaking America. The practice of enslaving Africans continued for more than 200 years.

From 1525 to 1866, close to 400,000 African men, women and children arrived in what is now the United States. They were sold or traded to wealthy owners of large farms.

"They had to work the crops – the corn fields, the tobacco fields. It was a life they had to endure knowing they would probably never be free," says Calvin Pearson. He leads a history group called Project 1619.

At first, Africans had no official place in the American colonies. They were not called slaves, but they were different from indentured servants. Those were people who chose to come to the colonies and work in exchange for the cost of travel. After a given number of years, indentured servants were free to move on from such work.

But captive Africans came against their will. And they did not expect freedom.

In 1662, lawmakers in Virginia officially established slavery. They passed a law that said any child born to an enslaved black woman faced being enslaved forever, too.

Under that system, the number of American slaves grew to almost 4 million.

Slave quarters in Louisa County, Virginia.
Slave quarters in Louisa County, Virginia.

Slave labor built the country

Slave labor helped build the American colonies and, later, the new nation.

Historian Cassandra Newby Alexander says, "Slavery was so big and so important to the American economy that it was valued at more than all of America's (other) industries combined."

Each American state could decide whether to permit slavery. In Southern states, a large number of enslaved people cared for crops that required a lot of work, such as cotton.

A smaller number of enslaved people lived in Northern states. They mostly cared for white people's houses and families or did skilled labor. In time, many Northern states slowly banned slavery.

But Northerners still benefited from the system.

For example, one early white lawmaker in the northeastern state of Rhode Island made a huge amount of money off the lives of enslaved Africans. The lawmaker, James DeWolf, invested in slave ships, as well as in banks and companies that did business with slaveholders. He also put money in factories that turned cotton into clothes, an operation that helped launch the country's industrial revolution.

Even after Rhode Island outlawed the shipment of slaves to North America, James DeWolf's relatives continued the slave trade illegally. One family member says the DeWolfs brought more than 12,000 enslaved Africans to North America. He adds that the family is "probably responsible for about half a million people who are alive today in the Americas."

The lasting effects of slavery

The system of slavery in the United States ended unofficially in 1863, during the country's Civil War between Southern and Northern states. It ended officially in 1865. That year, the Constitution was changed to ban enslavement.

But the system of slavery has had a lasting effect.

Vlademiro Fortuna directs the National Museum of Slavery in Luanda, Angola. He said the hundreds of years of slave trade changed his country. Today, at least one-third of Angolans live in poverty, even though Angola has one of the best economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

"This country was harmed in every single aspect," says Fortuna. "The social fabric was destroyed."

Fortuna adds that slavery also deeply affected other African societies. "It wasn't possible during the times of slavery and colonization for African societies to reorganize their political and labor systems... Sometimes, people try to forget this part of the country's history."

In the United States, some lawmakers have proposed creating a group to examine and address the continued "negative effects" of slavery in the country. The measure notes that laws and policies even after slavery ended have discriminated against black people.

Supporters of the bill suggested that the U.S. government should pay money to the descendants of slaves, or formally apologize to them, or both.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the idea of paying reparations, however. "I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea," he said.

But many people alive today do remember. Among them are descendants of James DeWolf, the white lawmaker who made a fortune off the slave system. His relatives have made a film and created an organization to increase awareness of the slave trade and its lasting effects.

Descendants of enslaved Africans also recall their ancestors' place in history. Brenda Tucker is a relative of likely the first child born to Africans in the American colonies. His name was William Tucker. His body is buried near the place where the White Lion ship landed in 1619.

As she visits William Tucker's burial place, Brenda Tucker notes that many of those who were forced onto slave ships from Angola did not survive. "But the ones that did survive were the healthy ones, our ancestors."

Tucker looks around the site, and adds that she cannot pass through the area without thinking of an ancestor – someone who is owed our thanks.

I'm Bryan Lynn.

And I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly adapted this story for Learning English. It is based on reporting by VOA. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

endure - v. to experience (pain or suffering) for a long time

fabric - n. the basic structure of something

society - n. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values

reparations - n. money that a country or group that loses a war pays because of the damage, injury, deaths, etc., it has caused

fortune - n. a very large amount of money

negative - adj. harmful or bad : not wanted