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Modern Voices
Margaret Washington on the impact of the cotton gin
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Q: What did the progress created by technological innovations such as the cotton gin and the steam engine mean for black people?
Margaret Washington

A: Progress has different meanings for different people. And for people of African descent, the cotton gin was not progress. It was a further entrenchment of enslavement. And for African Americans, the Industrial Revolution, those technological advances in the textile industry, did not mean progress. It meant slavery. So we have to understand that during this period, what was progress for white people was enslavement and further degradation for African Americans.

The cotton gin represented for African Americans the antithesis of progress, because it created a massive domestic slave trade. Virginia, for example, which was a state that no longer had a one-crop economy (tobacco) but had a massive slave population -- more slaves in Virginia than any other state -- and yet they didn't have the economy to support this population. So they became the place that supplied the Territories with slaves. And this was a a situation of despair for African Americans, because they usually took men and left the women and children behind. So one aspects of the cotton gin was that African American families were separated as the cotton kingdom spread, and as, say, the sons of younger planters took men out into places like Alabama and set up new cotton estates.

Officially, the Atlantic slave trade ends in 1808. From 1801 to 1808, in anticipation of the closing of the Atlantic trade, 39,000 Africans are brought into the United States, most of them through South Carolina, legally. After 1808, because the cotton gin has revolutionized cotton production, the illegal slave trade is still very much a factor. The domestic slave trade is creating a situation where Africans are being pushed into the frontier, and there are not enough. Americans wink at the international trade, and Africans continue to come in. They do come in, in South Carolina, in Florida. They come in through the Spanish areas. So even though the trade is abolished, there's still this constant trickle of Africans. And this continues all the way up to the Civil War.

Margaret Washington
Associate Professor of History
Cornell Universiy

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