The Longest Memory

The Longest Memory Slavery in the Virginia Colony and the United States

Although the official beginning of the American slave trade is debated, historians generally agree that slavery in America can trace its origins to the arrival of twenty "indentured servants" from Africa in 1619.

Not long after the London Virginia Company established what is now the U.S. state of Virginia as an English colony, British colonists seized from Portuguese slave traders twenty Africans who had been abducted from what is now Angola. Until the colony of Virginia passed a law in 1661 allowing free persons to own slaves, Africans were legally defined as indentured servants, meaning they were employees bound by a forced contract to work without pay usually as part of an agreement to come to another country; the practice is widely recognized today as slavery under another name.

After slavery became an institution in the 1660s, Dutch and English slave ships brought vast numbers of slaves from Africa to the Virginia Colony to work as field laborers on tobacco and cotton plantations and as household servants. Enslaved people could be bought, sold, or given away like other forms of legally recognized property. Certain slaves obtained freedom through escape, purchasing their freedom with saved wages, or benevolent release from slavery. The nineteenth century saw major slave revolts in Virginia and large numbers of escaped slaves fled North to free states and Canada with help from the black and white people who maintained the Underground Railroad, a secret network of routes and safe houses on the journey North.

After the United States was established as a nation in 1776, southern states developed an economy dependent on slave labor while support for the abolition of slavery grew in the North and West. The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 resulted in the secessionist Confederacy of Southern states surrendering to Union generals in the North and the emancipation of four million black Americans.

Despite the official abolition of slavery in America with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, critics of mass incarceration point to many major American corporations' dependence on low-cost prison labor as a contemporary incarnation of slavery in America.