In 1807, Thomas Jefferson, the then president of the United States of America passed a law that prohibited slave trade anywhere in the United States (Harris 1990). Similarly, the Britain’s parliament approved the law that called for the immediate eradication of slavery. However, the new laws were not immediately applied in both countries. As a result, the British slave-dealers were given a 2 months notice and grace period to meet the terms of the new law relating to slavery. In addition to the extension period, the traders, who were still importing slaves on that day or earlier, were excused from the trade ban (Frankel 1996). The United States Constitution prohibited from banning the slave trade before 1808. In 2001, the inhuman trade of slaves was officially acknowledged as a crime against humanity by the international community. All that terrible events in the present age make us appreciate and understand how was essential the abolition of slavery in Britain and America (Harris 1990). This paper seeks to provide evidence for the involvement and importance of African Americans in the abolition of slavery in the U.S. It aims at showing how the slaves have resisted the oppression in addition to bringing out the existing contradictions with the notion of Black people being regarded as Americans. The struggle to abolish slavery in America was a long journey. In addition, the essay will also discuss the various factors that contributed to the abolition of slavery like Slave Acts of Congress, African abolition struggles and opposition movements, as well as the Constitution of the United States. Eventually, political, economic, social influences and moral factors facilitated a gradual process of the elimination of lawful slave business.
Most people believe that only white people were responsible for the abolition of the slave trade. This statement is wrong as Black people have evidently participated in the fight against slavery. The term abolitionist is used to refer to individuals who contributed to the end of slavery, particularly in the U.S.
African Americans played an important role in ending slavery in the United States. To begin with, they were a part of the abolishment movement that largely protested against segregation in schools, churches, and public transport (Jacobs 2004). Moreover, free blacks in Pennsylvania and New York moved petitions for equal voting rights between blacks and whites. Blacks in the northern part of America used the Underground Railroad as the main escape route; they passed through the northern states and settled in Canada. Furthermore, African-American churches and sanctuaries were the hiding places for runaway slaves (Frankel 1996). A number of black vigilance associations and groups in Detroit and New York fought against slave catchers who were pursuing runaway slaves.
Most fugitive slaves such as Henry Bibb, William Brown, and Harriet Tubman took a huge role in advancement of abolitionism movement by creating public awareness of the horrors and tragedy of slavery (Wright, 1993). They shared first-hand tales: how they were separated from their beloved families and how they were treated by their owners. They petitioned against the belief that Blacks were racially inferior (Harris 1990). Harriet Tubman risked her own to help slaves; she made 19 trips into slavery territories. She successfully freed around 300 slaves. The most famous black abolitionist was Frederick Douglas, a fugitive slave and son of an unknown white man and a slave woman from Maryland. He was the first runaway to the North who spoke out against slavery. Douglas created his own newspaper, namely ‘The North Star’ which gave more petitions calling for political action to abolish slave trade. The African Americans in Ohio adopted violent resolutions encouraging the slaves to escape. They also called on their fellow citizens in southern and northern states to defy and violate laws, which were against liberty, fairness, justice. In the late 1850’s, most Blacks used violence to secure the freedom of the slaves. The white reformists who viewed the slave business as morally wrong carried out most of the amendments. African abolitionists mobilized such groups as ‘The Sons of Africa’ to fight against slavery.
During the Abolitionists Era, Olaudah Equiano, a West African ex-slave, a former steward and an ex-servant, became a household name. Equiano was a spokesperson for the antislavery movement. Moreover, he was instrumental in the creation of awareness to ignorant African-Americans, and also, in mobilizing the African abolitionists. He published a detailed account of experiences of the slave trade victims in his best-seller ‘The Interesting Narrative’. As a part of his anti-slavery campaign, Equiano travelled all over Europe, particularly in Ireland, England and Scotland publishing articles for the newspaper company known as The Public Advertiser, where he met other anti-slavery crusaders, Sir William and Granville Sharp. In collaboration with Granville, Equiano met another ex-slave, Cugoano Ottobah. The crusades assisted in publicizing the British Zong case involving death of more than 100 African slaves after an outbreak of cholera on the Zong.
It is apparent that the oppression of the slavery made the system unsustainable. Due to the problems that the slaves faced, they were not able to work to sustain themselves (Harris 1990). Additionally, the slaves lacked the necessary education and skills to work in America. As a result, this caused economic stagnation due to the high levels of unemployment in the country. Besides, oppression of slaves reduced productivity, therefore, making the economy unsustainable. This caused imbalance in the market economy, making the system not workable.
Enslaved men and women used various methods of resistance and rebellion towards slavery. The frustration these slaves underwent made them ready for anything, even death, in their striving for freedom. In his article, Frederick Douglass made it clear that he was ready to die while escaping than remain in bondage. He wrote: “In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us, it was a doubtful liberty as most and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage” (Douglass, 86). The most common methods included well planned escapes of slaves during their working hours. They also slowed the work down breaking their working tools or pretending to be sick and in other cases, they set the plantations on fire. The women rebels avoided pregnancies, and in extreme cases, aborted to stop the increase of slaves (Jacobs 2004). Maroon women participated in rebellions. Ashanti Nanny was one of the sternest maroons; as a free woman, she did not experience a slave’s life, though she was aware of suffering and misery her fellow enslaved men and women went through (Harris 1990). She organized resistance groups in the Rio Grande Valley. Although she did not participate in the fighting, she gave advices every time how to wage the war.
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The most effective method was writing and narration. Frederick Douglass recorded in his article that he was hopeful of the day when it would be possible to escape from slavery. “I looked forward to a time at which it would be safe for me to escape. I was too young to think of doing so immediately; besides, I wished to learn how to write, as I might have occasion to write my own pass. I consoled myself with the hope that I should one day find a good chance. Meanwhile, I would learn to write” (Douglass, 62-63)
There were many reformists and anti-slavery crusaders in the abolitionist period that mobilized Americans and people around Europe to fight against forced labour. Among the most effective campaigners were narrators Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. In the last 30 years of lawful slave trade in America, they completed the slave narratives. Their works represent the the contradictory between slavery and liberty. A number of ex-slaves made active efforts in trying to free their enslaved friends and families (Harris 1990). Sojourner Truth was a free slave; she participated in such a movement with Frederick Douglass where she learnt about social reforms and slavery abolition together with other human rights. The crusaders later became anti-slavery campaigners who held public meetings which enlightened human rights problems and other social issues. There were several other Africans who were involved in the liberation movement of the African slaves. They collaborated with British and American crusaders to help in abolishing the trade. Ignatius Sancho was an ex-slave and a writer who published his work about slavery in England condemning Christians for their greed for money. Ottabah Cugoano was among other free slaves who were actively involved in the process of liberation of enslaved Africans. He published an article that demanded to disenthrall men and women immediately. He announced that enslaved individuals had the right to rebel against their masters.
Rebellions and resistance played a major role in the fight against slavery in different ways. As a result of resistance in the plantation, profits were largely affected (Frankel 1996). Slaves could break working tools or leave work places on the pretence of being sick thereby slowing the work down. Other forms of rebellion shown by African women were abortions. Other slaves resisted being captured or being taken by the slave masters into slave ships. They would attack slave ships creating revolts to free captured friends or families (Frankel 1996). There was a widespread spirit of rebellion against slavery especially by the African slaves regardless of the punishments implemented. These campaigns and anti-slavery crusades helped to sensitize the citizens, especially the majority, namely white people who viewed slavery as the right to be served by other people (Harris 1990).
Political and activist played an important role in the abolition of slavery. Political economist such as Adam Smith argued that the cost of slave labor was higher and inefficient compared to cost of labor under free wage. On the other hand, the activist argued that slavery destroyed family life, personal life and slowed economic growth down. Among the main activists against slavery in the United States was Quakers who came from a religious organization. He was convinced of absolute sinfulness and wickedness of physical coercion that slaves underwent. John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, American Quaker gained success in making slavery abolition a test of truth in religion. In 1790, two Quaker activists from Philadelphia and New York presented abolitionist petitions to the U.S House of Representatives calling for an immediate end of international slave trade (Horton 2005). The Pennsylvania Abolition Society followed the next day with a petition signed and endorsed by Benjamin Franklin, the Founding Father of the Society, urging the U.S congress to adopt stringent measures to stop slavery and slave trade. The black and white political activists played a significant role in the liberation of slaves and restoration of dignity to the African race by bringing an end to the slavery era.
There are some films that represent the events of that terrible period in history. Amistad film is a historical drama, directed by Stephen Spielberg in 1997. It tells of the factual story of African slaves who were rebellious against their incarceration and importation on the slave ship in 1839 (Amistad, 1997). Amistad is the name given to a slave ship which was travelling to the United States from Cuba in 1839. The ship was ferrying a cargo of Africans who had been sold to slavery in Cuba. The Africans were taken on board and chained on the cargo hold of the Amistad. As the ship crossed over to the United States, a tribal African leader in the ship takes it over by .leading a mutiny (Amistad, 1997). They then continue to sail with the hope that they will get back to Africa. However, they are captured and imprisoned in America as runaway slaves. The first hearing of this case was before a United States Circuit Court. The court referred the case to the (lower) District Court as a civil case (Amistad, 1997). The District Court ruled in favour of the Africans. However, some people were not contended with the ruling and hence they appealed to the Supreme Court of United States. Focusing mainly on the courtroom scenes where the slaves were charged with mutiny, in the end the Supreme Court of United States makes the ruling that the African slaves have been captured illegally and orders to take them back to Africa.
In the American society, the issue of race has been the most commonly used form of separation. For a long period of time, most African-Americans were under slavery and experienced discrimination in all spheres of life. Although the American population today has dropped the racial division, numerous aspects of past experiences still exist, particularly concerning the citizenship in America. A number of white Americans claim that Black Americans are not legitimate American citizens. This statements is however wrong. Nevertheless, differences between whites and blacks still exist.
In conclusion, slavery in the United States was high during the nineteenth century when the slaves mostly worked in the sugar, cotton and tobacco fields to meet the increased demands of the commodities (Harris 1990).. In the north the slaves were few and they mostly worked as servants. The anti-slavery movement introduced by the Quakers in 1775 was successful in the north by 1804. Slavery importation in the United States was officially abolished in 1808. The abolitionist movement in the south greatly supported the Underground Railroad. This was a clandestine organization which helped the Africans to move to the north for escape. During the 1863 Liberation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln declared that the slaves in the areas of rebellion be freed. Slavery was then prohibited in the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 (Harris 1990).
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