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Modern Voices
James Horton on antebellum slavery
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Q: How did slavery affect free black people and white people?
James Horton

A: Slavery in the South had an impact on the life of every black person in the country, no matter where that black person was. And black people who were free, who lived outside the South, knew that very well. First thing you have to understand is, by the time of the Civil War, there were 4 million slaves in this country. Only about a half a million free blacks. It was almost impossible that if you were a free black person, you wouldn't have a friend or a relative, mother, father, son, daughter, in slavery. And so you had that very personal connection.

But the other thing that is true is that in the minds of white America, to be black was to be associated with slavery. In many places, you know, you had to be able to prove, if you were a black person, that you were free. Otherwise, you were assumed to be a slave. That's why free papers were so important to free black people to have on their person.

So that the institution of slavery reflected on every black person in the country. The free black community, through organized means, through individual means, operated in a variety of ways to be part of the Abolitionist Movement. Sometimes it was informal. We think in terms of the Underground Railroad as this kind of very formally organized, card-carrying group of people. And it was that. But to a far greater extent, it was people who helped other people. And many, maybe most of those people who provided assistance to fugitives, were themselves black.

In terms of the impact of slavery on white people, think about this: Suppose you were a child growing up on a plantation. Now don't forget, on the plantation most of the people around you are black. Your playmates are most likely to be black. The people who raise you -- your surrogate mother, your mammy -- is a black woman. This is a person that raises you from the time you are this high until adulthood. What is the impact on this child of having his surrogate mother become his property? What is the impact of having his best friend, who is a black slave child, come to him one day and say, "Do you know that your father has sold my father?" What is the impact of that on the white child?

We need to do some studying about the psychological impact of slavery on slave holders. We know that it had a devastating impact on slaves. We know how slaves suffered under this institution. But I would argue that whites did it to themselves too, and that we need to understand. If we're ever going to get together as people, to understand ourselves in this society, we need to understand what this institution of slavery has meant for the shaping of American culture generally, for the shaping of the society in which we live today. And I would argue, it has been tremendously influential.

One of the things that I think you would have to learn, as a white child growing up in a plantation, is a lack of respect for human life, for human beings. Because you know, people can tell you all this stuff about how slaves aren't fully human in the same way you are, and how slaves are property. But when you see people and you know people, as you must have if you grew up on that plantation, it's awfully hard to look at those people and say, "Well, you know, those people really aren't people." Of course they are.
James Horton
Benjemin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History
George Washington University

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