Robert Reece, Daily Mississipian (University of Mississippi), March 6, 2008
Slavery in America tends to be overlooked in high schools. Of course they acknowledge that slavery existed, but most schools don’t go into great detail on the subject. Teachers say something along the lines of “A lot of Americans owned slaves,” and then go on to discuss in detail the Industrial Revolution or the Civil War.
It wasn’t until college that I learned that there were slave revolts. I had always assumed that there must have been uprisings but it wasn’t until college that I learned that slave revolts were common (though small and ineffective) and the primary reason Lincoln released the slaves was to punish Southerners. I should have entered college knowing that, but unfortunately, slavery doesn’t seem to be as high on the teaching agenda as it should be.
Slavery in America lasted about 250 years, the longest period of any type in American history. Nothing else of significance in the U.S. has lasted for 250 years. The country itself is only 231 years old. Slavery lasted longer than our country has existed yet it hasn’t even earned a chapter in the history books. In terms of length alone no other event or period even compares, but they all have their own chapters.
The emphasis on black history, especially during February, should also bring attention to the lack of slavery in high school curriculums. Slavery is the single most important period in black history; the Civil Rights Movement is immensely important but doesn’t even compare. Slavery in the United States represents the starting point of black history.
Slavery preludes every other achievement in black history and lies at the roots of so much of our contemporary culture. The hymns sung in black churches, especially in the South, stem from when the slaves used to keep their spirits up and give directions to the North. Even the concept of black churches and the very religion itself has its roots in slavery. New slaves weren’t Christian as the majority of today’s blacks; slavery represents a mass conversion of blacks to Christianity.
The fact that blacks are about 13 percent of the population but 90 percent of college basketball, 80 percent of the NBA and 70 percent of the NFL has its roots buried deep within the act of slavery, according to some sources. John Burton said in his essay “Slave Breeding Farm,” that slave owners bred the biggest and strongest slaves like livestock to produce slaves that were more suitable for market, and the smaller, weaker slaves were often castrated.
The important role slavery played in building the United States is also often ignored. In the beginning, the cheap labor slavery provided was like steroids to the budding nation. With the economy of the early U.S. reliant on agriculture, mainly tobacco, producing large quantities of product was essential.
Even if the authors of the high school history books and the creators of the curriculums attempt to ignore the shame of American slavery, we should all know that if the captain of that ship hadn’t been running short of food on that day in 1619, the United States almost certainly wouldn’t be the world power that it is today. And I don’t mean to glorify slavery, but we should give slaves just as big of a “thank you” as presidents and war veterans.
Neglecting slavery in schools is a huge injustice especially for those like me who can only trace their heritage back to slavery.
[Editor’s Note: Mr. Reece’s thoughts on racism can also be read here.]