Student View
Article Article Article

Grueling work: picking cotton in Savannah, Georgia, near the time of the Civil War

Library of Congress

6 Myths About Slavery

Four hundred years after enslaved Africans were first brought to Virginia, many people still don’t fully understand American slavery. Here’s what we often get wrong.

In 1619, a ship docked in Virginia—changing the course of history. On board were some 20 people who’d been captured in southwestern Africa and forced to make the perilous journey across the Atlantic to Jamestown, where they were sold and likely put to work in tobacco fields. They were the first enslaved Africans brought to the English Colonies that would become the United States.

Captive Africans had already been living in the Americas, transported mainly by the Portuguese and Spanish. But many historians point to the ship’s arrival 400 years ago as one of the most consequential moments in history. By the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early 1800s, about 12.5 million men, women, and children, would be taken from their homes in Africa, shackled in chains, and herded onto ships bound for the New World.*

The trans-Atlantic slave trade gave birth to a new form of slavery—one that was based on race, was for life, and was passed down from parent to child. This brutal system of forced labor would propel the colonial economy and fuel the growth of the U.S. into the wealthiest nation in the world.

Yet, despite its impact, many myths about slavery persist. Here are six commonly held misconceptions—and the truth about what really happened.

In 1619, a ship docked in Virginia. Its arrival changed the course of history. On board were some 20 people who’d been captured in southwestern Africa. They were forced to make the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to Jamestown. Once they arrived, they were sold and likely put to work in tobacco fields. They were the first enslaved Africans brought to the English Colonies that would become the United States.

Captive Africans had already been living in the Americas. Most of them had been brought over by the Portuguese and Spanish. But many historians point to the ship’s arrival 400 years ago as one of the most significant moments in history. The trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in the early 1800s. By then, about 12.5 million men, women, and children, would be taken from their homes in Africa. They were shackled in chains and herded onto ships bound for the New World.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade gave birth to a new form of slavery. This type of slavery was based on race, was for life, and was passed down from parent to child. This brutal system of forced labor would propel the colonial economy. That fueled the growth of the U.S. into the wealthiest nation in the world.

Yet, despite its impact, many myths about slavery persist. Here are six commonly held misconceptions—and the truth about what really happened.

1619

This summer, The New York Times published a groundbreaking series of articles about slavery and its legacy. This school year, Upfront will run occasional stories inspired by the Times’ 1619 Project that will explore the African American experience—from slavery to the civil rights movement to today.

Time Life Pictures/National Archives/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Gordon, an enslaved man, escaped from a Louisiana plantation during the Civil War and made his way to a Union encampment in Baton Rouge. Photos taken of him during a medical exam document the savage whippings he had endured. He later joined the Union army as a scout. He was captured by Confederate forces, tied up, beaten, and left to die, but he survived and escaped back to Union lines. He later served in a segregated Northern unit of black soldiers, earning praise for his bravery.

MYTH: Enslaved People Rarely Fought Back

TRUTH: In August 1831, a group of about 70 enslaved and free black people, led by an enslaved preacher named Nat Turner, revolted in Southampton, Virginia, killing more than 55 white people. Local militia put down the uprising and imprisoned and killed most of the rebels. In the days following the revolt, white mobs murdered an additional 200 enslaved people, many of whom had nothing to do with it.

Nat Turner’s rebellion was just one of many that took place during American slavery. But because the penalty for seeking freedom—either by running away or by rebelling—was often death, most enslaved people resisted in subtler ways. They secretly learned to read and write though education was illegal for them; they sabotaged equipment to slow the unrelenting pace of labor that was expected; they amassed extra food and clothes because they were given barely enough to survive; and they formed families—despite laws that denied them the legal right to marry.

“Enslaved people always resisted,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University, “in ways that are both seen and unseen.”

TRUTH: In August 1831, a group of about 70 enslaved and free black people revolted in Southampton, Virginia. Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher, led the group. Altogether, they killed more than 55 white people. Local militia put down the uprising and imprisoned and killed most of the rebels. In the days following the revolt, white mobs murdered another 200 enslaved people. Many of them had nothing to do with it.

Nat Turner’s rebellion was just one of many that took place during American slavery. But the penalty for seeking freedom—either by running away or by rebelling—was often death. In turn, most enslaved people resisted in subtler ways. They secretly learned to read and write though education was illegal for them. They sabotaged equipment to slow the unrelenting pace of labor that was expected. They amassed extra food and clothes because they were given barely enough to survive. And they formed families despite laws that denied them the legal right to marry.

“Enslaved people always resisted,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University, “in ways that are both seen and unseen.”

MYTH: Not All Enslaved People Were Treated Badly

TRUTH: While some slaveholders later maintained that they treated the people they enslaved “like family,” and treatment did vary from place to place, all enslaved people suffered from violence, whether physical or psychological or both.

Enslaved people were often whipped mercilessly, branded, and shackled. Even those who didn’t face this cruelty still encountered other forms of abuse, whether it was rape, having their family members taken from them and sold like livestock, being forced to do backbreaking labor for no pay, or being denied the right to move freely, assemble in groups, and learn to read and write. Historians say all slaveholders ultimately ruled using some methods of violence.

“This is a violent system of controlling people from life to death,” says Jeffries. “The only way that it was possible for the institution of slavery to exist, because people were constantly resisting, was through violence—and the threat of violence.”

Perhaps nothing is more telling about the brutality of slavery than the fact that so many enslaved people attempted to run away. An estimated 100,000 enslaved people escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad between 1810 and 1850. Countless more tried but were caught and beaten—or killed.

TRUTH: Some slaveholders later maintained that they treated the people they enslaved “like family.” Treatment did vary from place to place. But all enslaved people suffered from violence, whether physical or psychological or both.

Enslaved people were often whipped mercilessly, branded, and shackled. Even those who didn’t face this cruelty still encountered other forms of abuse. Enslaved people were subjected to rape. Many had their family members taken from them and sold like livestock. They also experienced being forced to do backbreaking labor for no pay. And they were denied freedoms like the right to move freely, assemble in groups, and learn to read and write. Historians say all slaveholders ultimately ruled using some methods of violence.

“This is a violent system of controlling people from life to death,” says Jeffries. “The only way that it was possible for the institution of slavery to exist, because people were constantly resisting, was through violence—and the threat of violence.”

Perhaps nothing is more telling about the brutality of slavery than the fact that so many enslaved people attempted to run away. An estimated 100,000 enslaved people escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad between 1810 and 1850. Countless more tried but were caught and beaten—or killed.

Bettmann/Getty Images

President Lincoln visits a Union camp in Maryland, 1862.

MYTH: Slavery Existed Only in the South

TRUTH: Though we often think of slavery as a “Southern thing,” it existed in all 13 Colonies at some point before the Revolutionary War. Enslaved people in the North were forced to toil on farms and in homes, help build the early cities of Boston and New York, work the docks, and do skilled labor, such as blacksmithing and shoemaking.

However, slavery in the North was never as widespread as it was in the South, which became increasingly reliant on cotton plantations. At the time of the American Revolution, fewer than 10 percent of the half-million enslaved people in the 13 Colonies lived north of the Mason-Dixon line.

By 1804, all Northern states voted to abolish slavery. But Northern whites continued to profit from slavery in the South. New England textile factories obtained their cotton from Southern plantations, banks in New York supplied loans to plantation owners, and Northern insurance companies sold them insurance policies on the people they enslaved. As a result, many white Northerners opposed abolitionism, and during the Civil War, thousands of them dodged the draft or abandoned the ranks of the Union Army.

“Slavery built the New World, as much in the North as in the South,” says Anne Farrow, co-author of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery.

TRUTH: We often think of slavery as a “Southern thing.” But it’s important to note that it existed in all 13 Colonies at some point before the Revolutionary War. Enslaved people in the North were forced to work on farms and in homes. They helped build the early cities of Boston and New York. And they worked the docks and did skilled labor, such as blacksmithing and shoemaking.

But slavery in the North was never as widespread as it was in the South. The Southern states became increasingly reliant on cotton plantations. At the time of the American Revolution, fewer than 10 percent of the half-million enslaved people in the 13 Colonies lived north of the Mason-Dixon line.

By 1804, all Northern states voted to abolish slavery. But Northern whites continued to profit from slavery in the South. New England textile factories obtained their cotton from Southern plantations. Banks in New York supplied loans to plantation owners, and Northern insurance companies sold them insurance policies on the people they enslaved. As a result, many white Northerners opposed abolitionism. During the Civil War, thousands of them dodged the draft or abandoned the ranks of the Union Army.

“Slavery built the New World, as much in the North as in the South,” says Anne Farrow, co-author of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery.

Jim McMahon/MapMan®

MYTH: The Civil War Wasn’t About Slavery

TRUTH: Just a month after Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede, clearly stating its reason in its declaration of secession: “the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

Slavery had been outlawed in the North, but nearly 4 million people were held in bondage in the South and in border states. The Southern states’ economies relied on slave labor, and many white Southerners feared that the election of Lincoln, who was morally opposed to slavery, would bring about its end.

Other Southern states soon followed South Carolina’s lead in breaking from the Union, also citing slavery as their reason. “The people of the slave holding States are bound together,” Louisiana’s declaration stated, “by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”

After the Civil War ended in 1865, some white Southerners began maintaining that the war had not been about slavery but about states’ rights (the right of states, rather than the federal government, to rule themselves). That claim has persisted to this day. However, many Confederate veterans remained adamant about the real reason for the war. “I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery,” Confederate commander John S. Mosby wrote in 1894.

TRUTH: Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November of 1860. A month later, South Carolina became the first state to secede. The state clearly stated its reason in its declaration of secession: “the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”

Slavery had been outlawed in the North. In the South and in border states, nearly 4 million people were held in bondage. The Southern states’ economies relied on slave labor. Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, so many white Southerners feared that his election would bring about slavery’s end.

Other Southern states soon followed South Carolina’s lead in breaking from the Union. They also cited slavery as their reason. “The people of the slave holding States are bound together,” Louisiana’s declaration stated, “by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”

The Civil War ended in 1865. Afterwards, some white Southerners claimed that the war had not been about slavery. Instead, they insisted that it was about states’ rights. In other words, they argued that the war was about the right of states, rather than the federal government, to rule themselves. That claim has persisted to this day. But many Confederate veterans remained adamant about the real reason for the war. “I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery,” Confederate commander John S. Mosby wrote in 1894.

The Granger Collection

A chain gang in the South, 1898

MYTH: Lincoln Freed All the Enslaved People

TRUTH: On January 1, 1863, about two years into the Civil War, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that the approximately 3.5 million enslaved people in the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

However, the Proclamation didn’t apply to the half-million enslaved people living in states not part of the Confederacy—or to the enslaved people living in areas of the South already occupied by Union troops. And in the Confederate-controlled places where most of the enslaved lived, it was rarely enforceable because the Union wasn’t in charge.

Nonetheless, the Proclamation marked a major turning point in the war—and for Lincoln. Though slavery had been the war’s fundamental cause, Lincoln’s priority in going to war had been to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. But as the bloody conflict dragged on, thousands of enslaved people fled to Union-controlled areas, ultimately forcing Lincoln to sign the Proclamation. And with that, the war “changed from a war to keep the Union together to a fight for freedom,” says Mary Elliott, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

The Proclamation also had a strategic effect, declaring for the first time that black men would be accepted into the Union Army and Navy. Over the next two years, more than 200,000 black men would serve the Union, knowing that victory meant freedom. Their efforts would help force Confederate General Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.

TRUTH: On January 1, 1863, about two years into the Civil War, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that the approximately 3.5 million enslaved people in the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

But the Proclamation didn’t apply to the half-million enslaved people living in states not part of the Confederacy. It also didn’t apply to the enslaved people living in areas of the South already occupied by Union troops. And in the Confederate-controlled places where most of the enslaved lived, it was rarely enforceable because the Union wasn’t in charge.

Nonetheless, the Proclamation marked a major turning point in the war—and for Lincoln. Slavery had been the war’s fundamental cause. But Lincoln’s priority in going to war had been to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. As the bloody conflict dragged on, thousands of enslaved people fled to Union-controlled areas. That ultimately forced Lincoln to sign the Proclamation. And with that, the war “changed from a war to keep the Union together to a fight for freedom,” says Mary Elliott, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

The Proclamation also had a strategic effect. It declared for the first time that black men would be accepted into the Union Army and Navy. Over the next two years, more than 200,000 black men would serve the Union. They knew that victory meant their freedom. Their efforts would help force Confederate General Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.

‘This is a violent system of controlling people from life to death.’

MYTH: Forced Labor Ended With the 13th Amendment

TRUTH: It’s widely believed that the 13th Amendment, ratified shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865, abolished slavery in America. However, the Amendment states that slavery is unconstitutional “except as a punishment for crime.”

After the war, the former Confederate states sought to replicate the system of forced labor they’d lost by passing laws called “Black Codes,” which made vagrancy, being unemployed, and other petty offenses a crime. This made it easy for them to arrest African Americans. Once in prison, these “convicts” could be leased out as laborers to private individuals and companies.

Through convict leasing, many formerly enslaved people found themselves doing the same grueling labor and being subjected to the same beatings and other violence as before the Civil War. Convict leasing died out by the late 1920s, replaced with brutal prison farms and chain gangs, which continued well into the ’50s.

There were many other ways African Americans’ lives were restricted after slavery as well. Jim Crow laws kept them segregated from whites, voting laws prevented them from casting ballots, and white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized their communities. To understand the civil rights movement and all that came after, historians say, it’s important to start with the truth of how slavery began and ended in the U.S.

“If you don’t understand slavery and its central role in America’s formation, then you really can’t understand the American past,” says Jeffries. “If you can’t understand America’s past, you can’t understand America’s present.”

TRUTH: The 13th Amendment was ratified shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865. It’s widely believed that it abolished slavery in America. But the Amendment states that slavery is unconstitutional “except as a punishment for crime.”

After the war, the former Confederate states sought to replicate the system of forced labor they’d lost. They did so by passing laws called “Black Codes.” These laws made vagrancy, being unemployed, and other petty offenses a crime. This made it easy for them to arrest African Americans. Once in prison, these “convicts” could be leased out as laborers to private individuals and companies.

Through convict leasing, many formerly enslaved people found themselves doing the same grueling labor and being subjected to the same beatings and other violence as before the Civil War. Convict leasing died out by the late 1920s. It was replaced with brutal prison farms and chain gangs, which continued well into the ’50s.

There were many other ways African Americans’ lives were restricted after slavery as well. Jim Crow laws kept them segregated from whites. Voting laws prevented them from casting ballots. And white supremacist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, terrorized their communities. To understand the civil rights movement and all that came after, historians say, it’s important to start with the truth of how slavery began and ended in the U.S.

“If you don’t understand slavery and its central role in America’s formation, then you really can’t understand the American past,” says Jeffries. “If you can’t understand America’s past, you can’t understand America’s present.”

*About 2 million enslaved people died during the voyage from Africa to the Americas.

*About 2 million enslaved people died during the voyage from Africa to the Americas.

Back to top
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Skills Sheets (7)
Lesson Plan (1)
Leveled Articles (1)