I’m sad to say that, 3 years later, it feels as though the United States is sliding backwards. Instead of facing the horrors of the past and vowing to do better, as Germany has done in regards to the Holocaust (there’s an excellent opinion piece by Michele L. Norris for the Washington Post about this; it’s behind a paywall with limited free articles available), many have buried their heads in the sand, while others have actively railed against the notion of critical race theory. Sadly, it is important to note that a) CRT as a wholistic concept is not taught below the university level (so children are not being “brainwashed”), and b) teaching complete and accurate history is not “brainwashing.” And yet, here we are, more than a century and a half on from supposedly ending slavery, still refusing to admit that the United States of America was built on the literal backs of human beings. This is a legacy that permeates every aspect of our society today, creating vast levels of inequality that cannot be eradicated until we face our past with open eyes and admit that we have a lot to reckon with and repair.
Girl Museum Inc.
This text was originally featured on our GirlSpeak podcast in 2018, written and recorded by former Junior Girl Elizabeth Boyle. To listen to the episode, click here.
Historically, the most vulnerable populations in any given community are those that are marginalized. Social status can be determined by a number of factors, including but not limited to one’s family, race, gender, wealth, and occupation. With that in mind, who could be more vulnerable than those individuals ripped from their homes and forced into enslavement in a foreign country?
153 years ago, the United States abolished one of its most shameful legacies: the slave trade. While abolished in 1865, the effects of the slave trade are felt even today.
The journey from Africa to the Americas was dangerous for both men and women. However, women were outnumbered by men two to one as slave traders preferred to buy men. There is little information regarding the unique struggles of female slaves’ journey from Africa. There have been various accounts written after the abolition of the slave trade in the United States, but most of these refer to girls’ and women’s daily lives as slaves rather than the journey into slavery.
Overall, nearly 12 million Africans crossed the Atlantic to the Americas during transatlantic slavery. Around 20 to 25 percent of these captives – nearly 3 million – are believed to have been children. Used on plantations in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean, most slaves were originally from tribes in West Africa. They were captured as prisoners of war, or simply kidnapped in order to be sold. Often, those captured were children – snatched while working or playing at the outskirts of their homes. Others were sold into slavery in order to repay debts or crimes committed by relatives, or as a result of severe famines and droughts. In fact, during 1784, the number of slaves sold was three times the amount from the previous year due to a major drought in West Central Africa.
What happened in the days, weeks, and months after is nearly unimaginable. Now under the control of strange men, who spoke strange tongues, young girls destined to be slaves could little imagine the horrors of being kept locked up and then boarded onto an overcrowded, often filthy, ship. Chained below decks, most slaves were transported across the Atlantic without ever seeing the waves or smelling the salty fresh air. Disease and filth were rampant. For young girls, they may have been let on deck to play, but most were so traumatized that even the thought of enjoying the journey was far from their minds. Oftentimes, they were naked and branded with the symbol of the trading company – the first sign that they were no longer human beings, but property.
Girls and young women were likely disoriented when they first arrived in the Americas. Not only were they outsiders stripped of their identity through an absence of their culture, language, and family, in a process called social death, but they were also suddenly stripped of their human rights. We are familiar with this story as history has attempted to retell the horrific dehumanization that occurred as a result of the institution of slavery. Images of male slaves working in plantations to the point of death are often found in textbooks illustrating the dark past of economic prosperity during this time.
However, what do we know about the women? All too often, the picture of female slaves is only painted in contrast to male slaves. In large plantations, gender roles were enforced and women tended to have less physically demanding tasks on the plantations. Additionally, there were some women who were given more domestic tasks as house slaves. Does this mean that they had it easier? No, they had it much worse. Women, specifically young girls, started with a lower standing in society than their male counterparts. They started in a more vulnerable position and had less control over their lives.
Since misogynistic ideals dominated society, women were viewed as property. African men and women transported into the colonies were, in fact, being sold as livestock. This notion of a girl not being in charge of her own body is reinforced over and over again. Harriet Jacobs, a mulatto female slave, who wrote under the pseudonym Linda Brent, stated in her autobiography that, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”
Young girls, separated from their families, were sold as livestock. In respect to livestock, what could prove to be more profitable than a female that was still both young and fertile? This was the case with cows, horses, and unfortunately with human beings. The role of young women was to provide labor and give labor. However, the children they gave birth to were not to be their own. Instead, they belonged to their masters as property – and even as his own children.
Some of the most heart-wrenching stories about slavery are the repeated rapes and sexual abuse of slave girls by their masters. Girls were forced to comply with the sexual advances of their masters or face harsh punishments – such as being beaten, more aggressively raped, or even sold away from their families. Even worse, many of the masters were married – and their sexual relations with the slaves often angered their wives. Due to highly patriarchal society, most wives took out their frustrations on the slave girls rather than their husbands. This then left the slave girls in a precarious position in which they were punished by the wives of their sexual abusers. They were unable to escape this dangerous cycle of physical and mental abuse. An example of this practice comes from Stanley Felstein’s Once a Slave: The Slave Views of Slavery, in which he writes:
“Maria was a thirteen-year-old house servant. One day, receiving no response to her call, the mistress began searching the house for her. Finally, she opened the parlor door, and there was the child with her master. The master ran out of the room, mounted his horse and rode off to escape, ‘though well he knew that [his wife’s] full fury would fall upon the young head of his victim.’ The mistress beat the child and locked her up in a smokehouse. For two weeks the girl was constantly whipped. Some of the elderly servants attempted to plead with the mistress on Maria’s behalf, and even hinted that ‘it was mass’r that was to blame.’ The mistress’s reply was typical: ‘She’ll know better in the future. After I’ve done with her, she’ll never do the like again, through ignorance'”.
Many mixed race children – called “mulattos” – resulted from these rapes. In order to maintain a sense of peace in the home, masters often sold illegitimate children, especially when those children were more white in appearance. Despite the physical appearance of children, they always took on the condition of their mother, which meant they too were seen as slaves. This can be seen through Virginia legislation, as the state was one of the first to acknowledge slavery in its laws. In 1662, it was established that lineage would be determined maternally instead of paternally which was customary in Great Britain. In Act XII, it stated “negro womens childrens to serve according to the condition of the mother.” This meant that a mothers’ children were ripped from her arms and sold off to other plantations once they were old enough to no longer breastfeed. There was little hope of families ever being reunited, and such tactics served to continually degrade and defeat slave girls’ spirits.
While an eighteenth-century woman’s primary role was that of motherhood, this was not the case for slave women. After giving birth, slave women were expected to go back to work. They were not given time to raise their children and were expected to give birth to another soon after. In fact, the average enslaved woman first gave birth at age 19 with another child being born every two and half years. Sometimes these children were the result of sexual relations with the master, but other times, they were from marriages and love. Regardless of parentage, and while most parents hope for a better future for their children, these mothers had the misfortune of watching their children grow up suppressed and in the same situation as they suffered through.
While male slaves were more likely to attempt escapes, female slaves, specifically mothers, were more likely to stay in order to watch their children. However, there was little they could do to protect them from the abuse. This is why some women, like Margaret Gardner, attempted to run away with their children. At age twenty-two, Margaret decided to flee with her husband and her four children during the height of the Underground Railroad. They left their Kentucky plantation in January of 1856 with the first stop being Joseph Kite’s house in Cincinnati. However, within hours of their arrival at Kite’s home, things took a turn for the worse.
Soon they were surrounded by federal marshals and their plantation master, Archibald Gaines, who had come to capture the fugitive slaves. With little hope of freedom, Margaret felt helpless and attempted to save her children from the horrors of slavery back on the plantation by slitting the throat of her two year old daughter and stabbing her other children. She also stabbed herself. However, only the baby died as a result of her actions and the rest of the family was taken back into slavery.
This resulted in one of the longest and most sensational fugitive slave cases. As a result of this story, a growing number of people began to see slavery as inhumane. The story of a mother violently killing her daughter showed how horrific the oppression and abuse was on slave plantations. Abolitionists pushed for Margaret Garner to be charged with murder, thus recognizing the acquisition of freedom the family received when crossing into Ohio. However, she instead was convicted of the destruction of property and sent back to Kentucky.
Stories like Margaret’s are heart-wrenching. We know many tales of girls’ lives on plantations, such as Harriet Jacobsen’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Harriet’s is perhaps one of the most popular accounts of slavery, yet for every page she wrote, there are likely hundreds – if not thousands – more stories that will never be heard. Slave girls were often uneducated, illiterate, and forced to work until they died. Even when they did escape – or were freed from – slavery, their prospects were limited. They faced a foreboding world, one that judged them based on the color of their skin, saw them as inferior in all aspects, and forced them into a cycle of perpetual poverty that was – in many ways – like being a slave all over again.
Despite the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, and eventually abolition of slavery altogether, the horrors of slavery left a legacy of racial segregation and oppression that has survived to today. We see it still in movements like Black Lives Matter, where young girls still call upon America to fulfill its promise of freedom. We see it in the tireless work of historians and scholars who are bringing new slave narratives – and the truth of their harsh reality – to light. And we see it in the faces of modern-day girls still trapped in slavery, whether as prisoners of war, kidnapped from the streets, or sold by their families. Much like the historical slave trade, the horrors and legacy of slavery continue.
Will we rise to finally eradicate them? Only time will tell.