The portraits of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass hang on the walls of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016, in Washington, DC. Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images
In August 1619, the first ship with “20 and odd” enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia. Four hundred years later, we look back at this moment as the start of an enduring relationship between the founding of the United States and the unconscionable exploitation of the enslaved.
In a sweeping project published by the New York Times Magazine in August 2019 exploring the legacy of slavery, Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “[The enslaved] and their descendants transformed the lands to which they’d been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. ... But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom.”
Yet centuries later, the lasting impact of slavery continues to be minimized and myths continue to flourish. For instance, there’s the erasure of the many slave revolts and rebellions that happened throughout the nation, perpetuating the lie that the enslaved were docile or satisfied with their conditions. There’s also the persistent idea that black labor exploitation is over, when mass incarceration still keeps millions of black Americans behind bars and often working for “wages” that amount to less than $1 an hour. Then there’s the idea that our understanding of slavery is accurate based on what we learned in history textbooks, when in reality, misinformation continues to be taught in our public schools about slavery’s legacy.
To unpack what often gets mistold or misunderstood, we asked five historians to debunk the biggest myths about slavery. Here’s what they said, in their own words.
1) The myth that slaves never rebelled
Miseducation surrounding slavery in the US has led to an elaborate mythology of half truths and missing information. One key piece of missing history concerns slave revolts: Few history books or popular media portrayals of the trans-Atlantic slave trade discuss the many slave rebellions that occurred throughout America’s early history.
C.L.R. James’s A History of Pan African Revolt describes many small rebellions such as the Stono Plantation insurgence of September 1739 in the South Carolina colony, where a small group of enslaved Africans first killed two guards. Others joined them as they moved to nearby plantations, setting them afire and killing about two dozen enslavers, especially violent overseers. Nat Turner’s August 1831 uprising in Southampton, Virginia, where some 55 to 65 enslavers were killed and their plantations burned, serves as another example.
Enslaved Africans resisted and rebelled against individual slave holders and the system of slavery as a whole. Some slipped away secretly to learn to read. Many simply escaped. Others joined the abolitionist movements, wrote books, and gave lectures to the public about their experiences in captivity. And others led or participated in open combat against their captors.
Omitting or minimizing these stories of rebellion helps hide the violent and traumatic experiences enslaved Africans endured at the hands of enslavers, which prompted such revolts. If we are unaware of resistance, it is easier for us to believe the enslaved were happy, docile, or that their conditions were not inhumane. It then becomes easier to dismiss economic and epigenetic legacies of the transatlantic slave system.
Dale Allender is an associate professor at California State University, Sacramento.
2) The myth that house slaves had it better than field slaves
While physical labor in the fields was excruciating for the enslaved — clearing land, planting, and harvesting that often destroyed their bodies — that didn’t negate the physical and emotional violence enslaved women, and sometimes men and children, suffered at the hands of enslavers in their homes.
In fact, rape of black women by white enslavers was so prevalent that a 2016 study revealed 16.7 percent of African Americans’ ancestors can be traced back to Europe. One of the study’s authors concludes that the first African Americans to leave the South were those genetically related to the men who raped their mothers, grandmothers, and/or great-grandmothers. These were the enslaved African Americans within the closest proximity to and who spent the longest durations with white men: the ones who toiled in the houses of slave owners.
A 2015 study determined that 50 percent of rape survivors develop PTSD. It is hard to imagine that enslaved and freedom-seeking African American survivors of rape — female, male, old, young, no matter their physical or mental abilities — did not experience further anxiety, fear, and shame associated with a condition they could not control in a situation out of control. Those African Americans with the most European ancestry, those tormented mentally, physically, emotionally, and genetically in the house, knew they had to get out. In fact, they fled the farthest — Southern whites are more closely related to blacks now living in the North than the South.
Jason Allen is a public historian and dialogue facilitator working at nonprofits, hospitals, and businesses in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.
3) The myth that abolition was the end of racism
A common myth about American slavery is that when it ended, white supremacy or racism in America also ended.
Recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar variant of this myth when he said he opposed reparations “for something that happened 150 years ago.” To the Kentucky Republican, a descendant of enslavers, slavery simply was, and then it just wasn’t, as though the battlefield had leveled the playing field when it came to race.
But the truth is that long after the Civil War, white Americans continue to carry the same set of white supremacist beliefs that governed their thoughts and actions during slavery and into the post-emancipation era.
In the South, especially, whites retained an enslaver’s mentality. They embraced sharecropping and convict leasing to control black labor in late 19th century, enacted Jim Crow laws to regulate black behavior in the early 20th century, and use racial terror to police the color line to this day.
In the North, whites also rejected racial equality. After emancipation, they refused to make abandoned and confiscated land available to freedmen because they believed that African Americans would not work without white supervision. And when African Americans began fleeing Dixie during the Great Migration, white Northerners instituted their own brand of Jim Crow, segregating neighborhoods and refusing to hire black workers on a nondiscriminatory basis.
Slavery’s legacy is white supremacy. The ideology, which rationalized bondage for 250 years, has justified the discriminatory treatment of African Americans for the 150 years since the war ended. The belief that black people are less than white people has made segregated schools acceptable, mass incarceration possible, and police violence permissible.
This makes the myth that slavery had no lasting impact extremely consequential — denying the persistence and existence of white supremacy obscures the root causes of the problems that continue to plague African Americans. As a result, policymakers fixate on fixing black people instead of trying to undo the discriminatory systems and structures that have resulted in separate and unequal education, voter suppression, health disparities, and a wealth gap.
Something did “happen” 150 years ago: Slavery ended. But the institution’s influence on American racism and its continued impact on African Americans is still felt today.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries is an associate professor at Ohio State University.
4) The myth that history class taught us everything we needed to know about slavery
Many of us first learned about slavery in our middle or high school history classes, but some of us learned much earlier — in elementary school, through children’s books, or even Black History Month curriculum and programs. Unfortunately, we don’t always learn the entire story.
Most of us only learned partial truths about slavery in the United States. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, many in the North and South wanted to put an end to continuing tensions. But this wasn’t done just through the Compromise of 1877, when the federal government pulled the last troops out of the South; it was also done by suppressing the rights of black Americans and elevating the so-called “Lost Cause” of the enslavers.
The Lost Cause is a distorted version of Civil War history. In the decades after the war, a number of Southern historians began to write that slaveholders were noble and had the right to secede from the Union when the North wished to interfere with their way of life. Due to efforts by a group of Southern socialites known as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Lost Cause ideology influenced history textbooks as well as books for children and adults. The accomplishments of black Americans involved in the abolition movement, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Maria W. Stewart, Henry Highland Garnet, and William Still, were downplayed. Union generals like Ulysses S. Grant were denigrated, as were anti-racist whites from John Brown to William Lloyd Garrison. Generations later, there are still many people around the country who believe the Civil War was about states’ rights and that slaves who had good masters were treated well.
Even an accurate historical curriculum emphasizes progress, triumph, and optimism for the country as a whole, without taking into account how slavery continues to affect black Americans and influence present-day domestic policy from urban planning to health care. It does not emphasize that 12 of the first 18 presidents were enslavers, that enslaved Africans from particular cultures were prized for their skills from rice cultivation to metallurgy, and that enslaved people used every tool at their disposal to resist bondage and seek freedom. From slavery to Jim Crow to civil rights to the first black president, the black American story is forced into the story of the unassailable American dream — even when the truth is more complicated.
Given what we learn about slavery, when we learn it, and how, it is clear that everyone still has much more to learn. Teaching Tolerance and Teaching for Change are two organizations that have been wrestling with how we introduce this topic to our young. And what they’re learning is that the way forward is to unlearn.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
5) The myth that slavery doesn’t exist today
One of the greatest myths about slavery is that it ended. In fact, it evolved into its modern form: mass incarceration.
The United States has the highest prison population in the world. More than 2.2 million Americans are incarcerated; 4.5 million are on probation or parole. African Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the general population. But black men, women, and youth have outsize representation in the criminal justice system, where they make up 34 percent of the 6.8 million people who are under its control. Their labor is used to produce goods and services for businesses that profit from prison labor.
For those of us who study the early history of mass incarceration in America, these statistics are not surprising. From the late 1860s through the 1920s, over 90 percent of the prison and jail populations of the South were black. Thousands of incarcerated men, women, and children were hired out by the state to private factories and farms for a fee. From sunup to sundown, they worked under the watchful eye of brutal “whipping bosses” who flogged, mauled, and murdered them. They earned nothing for their toil. Today, labor exploitation, the denial of human dignity and the right to citizenship, family separation, and violent punishment define our criminal justice system in ways that mirror slavery.
Hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people work. According to a 2017 report published by the Prison Policy Initiative, “the average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 86 cents.” Those assigned to work for state-owned businesses (correctional industries) earn between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour. In 2018, incarcerated Americans held a nationwide strike to end “prison slavery.” In a list of demands, striking individuals called for “all persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction” to be “paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”
This is a year to remember slavery’s origins. It is also an opportunity to critique its legacies. Let’s not get so caught up in our efforts to commemorate slavery’s beginning that we fail to advocate for its end.
Talitha LeFlouria is the Lisa Smith Discovery Associate Professor at the University of Virginia.
Correction: An earlier version misstated the range of presidents who were enslavers. It was 12 of the first 18 presidents, not 12 of the first 16.