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Part 1: 1450-1750
<---Part 2: 1750-1805
Part 3: 1791-1831
Part 4: 1831-1865

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Freedom and Bondage in the Colonial Era

"Like Adam, we are all apt to shift off the blame from ourselves and lay it upon others, how justly in our case you may judge. The Negroes are enslaved by the Negroes themselves before they are purchased by the masters of the ships who bring them here. It is, to be sure, at our choice whether we buy them or not, so this then is our crime, folly, or whatever you will please to call it."

- Reverend Peter Fontaine, Defense of Slavery in Virginia

George Washington was a wealthy Virginia planter whose life story speaks of the paradoxical attitude of whites of his time toward slavery. He acquired his own slaves at the age of eleven when his father died. After his marriage to Martha Custis, he also took over management of her slaves as well. But later in life, after his exposure to the ideals of the American Revolution, he developed strong reservations about slavery. He never issued public statements explaining his changed views, but in his will, he set his own bondpeople free after Martha's death.

The Marriage of Washington to Martha Custis
The Washinton Family
Washington's Letter to Robert Morris

Though only 25% of the colonial population owned slaves, slavery factored heavily in the economy of all the British North American colonies, and not just in the plantation economy of the South. While many southerners found slavery morally repugnant, there was a clear business rationale: in the long run, it was cheaper to acquire Africans than to hire laborers. The North also profited immensely from the international trade in Africans. Its booming industries -- shipbuilding, sail making, iron foundries, sawmills, and rum distilleries -- were an integral part of the trading triangle between Europe, Africa, and North America.

Defense of Slavery in Virginia

Only 25% owned slaves, but slavery factored heavily in the economy of all the colonies.

Slavery flourished in pockets of the North, especially in the farming regions of New York and New Jersey. Rhode Island -- the summer residence for many southern planters -- had several large slave estates. Most northern whites ran family farms and did not own slaves, but those who did typically possessed 3 to 4 Africans. Sixty-one percent of all American slaves -- nearly 145,000 -- lived in Virginia and Maryland, working the tobacco fields in small to medium-sized gangs. Planters who owned hundreds of slaves often divided them among several plantations. In the North and the Upper South, masters and bondpeople lived close to each other.

The South Carolina and Georgia coastal rice belt had a slave population of 40,000. Because rice requires precise irrigation and a large, coordinated labor force, enslaved people lived and worked in larger groups. Plantation owners lived in towns like Charleston or Savannah and employed white overseers to manage their far-flung estates. Overseers assigned a task in the morning, and slaves tended to their own needs when the assigned work was completed. The region was atypical because of its more flexible work schedules and more isolated and independent slave culture.

African Americans performed a wide range of jobs in both the North and the South. The diverse occupations ranged from farm hands to general laborers, servants and skilled craftsmen. While slavery did vary significantly by region, slave codes in every colony deprived African Americans of basic human rights and gave masters the potential for ruthless control.

In the North and Upper South, blacks and whites lived in close proximity. In the Rice Belt, blacks were isolated on far-flung plantations.

This generation won't know Africa in the same way that their parents knew Africa....The child also won't know freedom in the same way that a parent knew freedom.... Because a child sees daily the whippings, the brutality of the system, sees their parents coming under the authority, coming under the rule of the whip of the overseer, even. So it's very difficult. But at the same time, I think parents teach children what is to be cherished about the slave community. And that's family. That's religion. And that's togetherness.

- Deborah Gray White, historian

By 1750, both free and enslaved black people, despite the hardships of their lives, manifested a deepening attachment to America. The majority of blacks by now had been born in America, rather than in Africa. While a collective cultural memory of Africa was maintained, personal and direct memories had waned. Slave parents began to give their children biblical rather than African names. Even the pattern of slave flight became more Americanized. Newly enslaved Africans often fled in groups and established African-style "maroon" communities on the frontier, but American-born slaves usually escaped alone or in pairs to better avoid detection.

Maroons in the Revolutionary period
Runaway ad for Jem
Fort Mose
Venture Smith
Venture Smith's narrative
Phillis Wheatley
Lucy Terry Prince

For the African-born like Venture Smith, the possibility of a return home quickly faded. Venture Smith's narrative provides a first-hand account of Northern slavery and freedom. Like Olaudah Equiano, Venture took readers inside the slave experience and described his long struggle to free himself and his family. Kidnapped at age eight from Guinea, West Africa, Venture arrived in Rhode Island in 1737. His narrative recounted his bondage, a failed escape, ill treatment and false promises by numerous masters, and decades of work to earn freedom for himself and his loved ones. Published in 1798, Venture's autobiography was part of a growing body of African American writing which accompanied the anti-slavery movement. After 1750 increasing numbers of African Americans found their way to freedom -- either by buying themselves, running away, or being emancipated by their masters. These free blacks emerged as leaders and recognized spokespersons for their race.

Among the writers of this period was Phillis Wheatley, whose life was exceptional in many ways. She received an outstanding education, a rarity for any woman of her times, black or white, slave or free. And prominent white citizens vouched for her talent at a time when most blacks, slave or free, were denied any such recognition. Although not considered a crusader, Wheatley wrote tellingly about injustice.

Next: Slavery and Religion

Part 2 Narrative:
Map: The Revolutionary Era
• Freedom and Bondage in the Colonial Era
Slavery and Religion
Declarations of Independence
The Revolutionary War
The Constitution and The New Nation

Part 2: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide

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