The first explorers from Africa arrive on the north and south equatorial currents spanning the Atlantic Ocean between the African and American continents. Historian Ivan Van Sertima points to these forces as a natural conveyor belt between West Africa and the Americas.
The most striking physical evidence of Africans is the distinctively Negroid stone heads of the Olmec civilization. Dr. Van Sertima reports that the archaeological context in which they were found has been radio carbon dated to 800 B.C. To judge the impact of that African presence, Van Sertima tells us this: “At the sacred center of the Olmec culture-La Venta about eighteen miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico which flows into the Atlantic, there stood four colossal Negroid heads, six to nine feet high, weighing up to forty tons each. They stood in large squares or plazas in front of the most colorful temple platforms, the sides and floors of which were of red, yellow and purple. They stood twelve to twenty times larger than the faces of living men. They were like gods among the Olmecs.
Other Africans came later. There is the African gravesite dated 1250 A.D., found in Reef Bay Valley on the island of St. John’s in the Virgin Islands.
There is a Mandingo head of fourteenth century Mexico, which may be all that is left of the vision of Abubakari, the Second Emperor of Mali. His was a land where “thousands of Arab and Egyptian caravans passed every year through Timbuktu and Niani. He stood on the western shore of his empire and sent forth two expeditions totaling 2,400 ships, to discover the limits of the sea, circa 1310 a.d. For Abubakari, his empire ended at the sea that had stopped Alexander the Great but it would not stop this emperor of the largest empire on earth. He was so passionate in his belief in a world beyond the sea that he lead the second expedition himself. Van Sertima, reporting from oral histories that have been passed down to this day, writes: “…One day, dressed in a flowing white robe and a jeweled turban, he took leave of Mali and set out with his fleet down to Senegal, heading west across the Atlantic, never to return. He took his griot and half his history with him.” What a tale that griot could tell if we could hear him now. Because Abubakari never returned to Africa, this gravesite may be evidence that he stretched his empire farther than was known at that time.
Christopher Columbus heard the stories, now common along the African coast, of a New World across the sea. Arriving in the Americas in the 1490’s, he was in time to see African settlements, speak of African artifacts in letters and hear stories from native villagers of the Africans who had preceded him.
By the 1700’s, African civilizations had fallen and Europeans began using Africans as work animals to be captured in Africa, packed and shipped for a month’s-long Middle Passage across the Atlantic and sold in the Americas to work the wealth from the land the Europeans were taking from the native people. During this period, Africans came not as adventuring seamen, but were brought as chattel.
“The period of the 1500’s and 1600’s came after a thousand years of great independent states in West Africa,” says Professor Clarke. “After the Moslem Africans lost control over Spain, they began to prey on the Africans further to the south. They destroyed the great independent states in West Africa, and subsequently set Africa up for the Western slave trade.”
As any other nationalities, when Africans were brought to this hemisphere, they came carrying their many languages and their learning. But unlike any other nationality, everything else was taken from them, and they were delivered physically and psychologically decimated and naked on these shores.
Those that survived the 240 years of the Middle Passage (1619-1859), found themselves now Africans-in-America, held captive by a people who viewed them as property enough to be bought and sold, but human enough to be raped. Forbidden their own languages, the Africans began to use local words to identify objects and their environment. They standardized on the local language, whether it was French, Portuguese or English. For the Africans, this learning process had to be done in an atmosphere of terror where killings and beatings were only a glance away. As the centuries passed, and as American slavery centered more in the southern United States, many Africans escaped into the North or joined others in the tribes of the indigenous people. Communities were formed from the Seminoles of Florida to the Brooklyn, NY districts of Weeksville and Vinegar Hill.
Escapees to the North found each other through each other and worked together to build their communities. By the 1800’s, the Africans had positioned themselves to build schools and large churches. In the pamphlet Weeksville Then and Now, authors Joan Maynard and Gwen Cottman show the importance of learning and self-help to the Africans. They have a replica of The Freedmen’s Torchlight, a community newspaper published by the African Civilization Society which was housed in its own building on the corner of Dean Street and Troy Avenue in Brooklyn, NY. Dated December1866, a year after the Civil War ended, “it included stirring statements of its philosophy of Black self-help, information on the Freedman’s Schools, featured moral anecdotes and listings of their contributors. The front page was devoted to the Alphabet, Basic English, Arithmetic, Geography and view of the nature of God and Man. In this way, the newspaper also served as a textbook for the newly freed slaves to learn reading and writing.” “Some organizations prior to and during the development of Weeksville were the New York Society for Mutual Relief, founded in 1808; the African Woolmen Society, founded in 1810; the Brooklyn African Tompkins Society, founded circa 1827 and the Weeksville Assistance Society, circa 1854. A chapter of the Prince Hall Free and Accepted Masons started in Brooklyn with the formation of Widows Sons Lodge No. II in 1849.” And then there were the churches. “Brooklyn’s first Black church, the Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, was incorporated in 1818. Along with Siloam Presbyterian, (founded ). This church had the reputation of being a terminal on the Underground Railroad. “Education for Black children in Brooklyn grew from the independent efforts of Black religious leaders such as Peter Croger, who had a school in his home in 1815. In 1819, William M. Read, a graduate of the New York African Free School, was teaching Black children in segregated settings. However by 1827, even these quarters were denied. By 1840, some Manhattan Black folks who had settled in Carsville, just south of Weeksville, had established another African school.”
While this was going on in Brooklyn, legal slavery was the reality for the vast majority of Africans in the United States. Because it was against the law to teach Africans to read and write (and the penalty for doing so could be death), this learning had to be done in secret places, by an exhausted people who had been worked hard in the fields from sun-up to sun down. And it was by candlelight that the English language was learned. More generations of social isolation passed, and some of those Africans who remained captured in the South were being called upon to perform more and more complex tasks on the plantations and in the manufacturing areas. They were used as expert farmers, builders and craftspeople. Brooklyn Professor William Mackey notes that the furnishings of Thomas Jefferson’ s mansion were made by slaves. The house itself was built by them. Many masters were breeding their personal slaves themselves. Fathering mulatto children who were raised with their white children and often educated with them as well.
Frederick Douglas was such a man, and his command of the English language, in speech and by pen, took him to world recognition as the publisher of The North Star newspaper, and as a leading abolitionist.
The buying and selling of human beings during the American slave trade was the biggest business the world has ever known. In a text on the period, H. A. Texler writes in Slavery in Missouri, 1805-1865, “The slave trade was partly systematic, partly casual. For local sales, every public auctioneer handled slaves along with other property, and in each city there were brokers buying them to sell again, or handling them on commission. One of these at New Orleans in 1854 was Thomas Foster, who advertised that he would pay the highest prices for sound Negroes as well as sell those whom merchants or private citizens might consign him. Expecting to receive Negroes throughout the season, he said he would have a constant stock of mechanics, domestics and field hands; and in addition he would house as many as three hundred slaves at a time, importing them from other states. Similarly, Clark and Grubb of Whitehall Street in Atlanta, when advertising their business as wholesale grocers, commission merchants and Negro brokers, announced that they kept slaves of all classes constantly on hand and were paying the highest market prices for all that might be offered. In St. Louis in 1859, Corbin Thompson and Bernard M. Lynch were the principal slave dealers. The rates of the latter, according to his placard, were 37 1/2 cents per day for board and 2 1/2 percent, commission on sales; and all slaves entrusted to his care were to be held at their owners’ risk.”
More money was invested in slaves than all stock-in-trade, including bank stock, incorporated funds and more. This is indicative of the value placed on an unpaid labor pool, and with good reason. The land was virgin territory which had to be converted into cash. It was the slaves who made it income-producing.
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the first estimate of national wealth of the United States is found in Economics: A Statistical Manual for the United States of America, 1806 edition by Samuel Blodget, Jr. (See Table 1). Of the $2,505 million dollars (2.5 billion) of national wealth, $1,661 million was in land stolen from the indigenous people and $200 million was the value assigned to the slaves.
Ulrich Phillips, writing in American Negro Slavery, notes, “The accompanying chart will show the fluctuations of the average prices of prime field hands (unskilled young men) in Virginia, at Charleston, in middle Georgia and at New Orleans, as well as the contemporary range of average prices for cotton of middling grade in the chief American market, that of New York. The range for prime slaves, it will be seen, raised from about $300 and $400 a head in the upper and lower South, respectively in 1795 to a range of from $400 to $600 in 1803…” By using these figures we find that the minimum amount of money invested in slaves was $521,366,000 in 1805. Therefore, the total national wealth could be more accurately calculated as 2.8 billion dollars ($2,826,366,000), adding an additional 300 million to Blodget’s figure. This means that 77% of the total national wealth of the United States in 1805 ($2,182,366,000) was based on holding African-Americans as property to work the stolen land.
By 1856, there were 3,580,023 slaves according to an average of the 1850 and 1860 Census counts. Bear in mind here that in 1813, Congress laid a direct tax on property, including “houses, lands and slaves.” This meant that there was now an economic motivation to under count this part of the owners’ property – the fewer slaves reported, the less taxes paid; slaves were easier to hide than houses or land. This is coupled with the natural inclination of the census to under count the Black population. The evidence is clear in the General Population Statistics, 1790-1990. By 1860, the “percentage increase in Black population over preceding census” averaged 28.8% since 1790. In the 1870 census, the percentage growth was only 9.9%. So what happened to the other 18.9% of the expected population? They disappeared in 1865 with the Emancipation Proclamation. No longer having a value attached to them, these 859,000 African-Americans were lost. It’s been 120 years, and judging from the low-count controversy of the 1990 Census, the Bureau hasn’t found them yet, although they are reported to be looking for next year’s 2000 Census. We can safely regard these counts as the way-down-low end of an actual population estimate.
By 1856, the advertised prices for African-Americans on one document of that time ranged from a high of $2,700 for Anderson, a “No.1 bricklayer and mason,” and $1,900 for George, a “No. 1 blacksmith,” to $750 for Reuben, even though he was labeled “unsound.” (See Railroad Contractor’s Credit Sale document of a choice gang of 41 slaves.) The average cost for this lot of people was $1,488. As a second reference for this number, we can look at the chart for the cost of Prime Field Hands, and find that it is pretty accurate. By multiplying the census count of slaves by the average advertised price, we arrive at a value of $5.3 billion ($5,327,079,968). This may not look like a lot of money now, but compare it to other figures of the day. The National Wealth Estimate for the entire nation in 1856 was $12.3 billion ($12,396,000,000). [Note: All figures come from Tables in the cited U.S. Bureau of the Census publication.] Total Bank Savings Deposits in 1856 was $95.6 million. Manhattan Island, Land and Buildings were worth only $900 million dollars, less than one-fifth of the value invested in African-Americans. The 1855 total capital and property investment in railroads was only $763.6 million dollars. Why the $5 billion dollar investment in slaves? In 1859, the total private production income was $4 billion dollars. Of this total, labor-intensive industries like “agriculture” and “transportation and communication” accounted for $1.9 billion dollars, almost one-half of all total private income. This explains why “a good field hand and laborer” would run you $1,550 for Big Fred aged 24 and $1,900 for George, a “No. 1 blacksmith”. Men like these gave such a good return on the dollar that their owners would, and did, kill freely to keep the system in place.
Africans in the Americas Part 2
Part 1 of this series covered the earliest Africans to the Americas, both those caught in ocean currents flowing naturally to the Western Hemisphere, as well as the later African explorers who deliberately sought the new land. The later importation of African as slaves to build the founding infrastructure of the United States and ended noting that slavery was the largest industry in the United States, with over 5 billion dollars invested.
The money earned from this investment found its way into a variety of banking institutions, which increased from 506 in 1834 to 1,643 in 1865. Many of the names remain familiar to this day: The Bank of New York Company, Inc. – founded in 1784, Fleet National Bank – 1791, Chase Manhattan Corporation – 1799, Citicorp/Citibank N.A. -1812 , The Dime Savings Bank – 1859. As banks in King Cottons’ “chief American market, that of New York,” it is inconceivable that these institutions, and through them the nation, did not benefit from the profits made on a slave’s wages. Their business then, as it is now, was to be a source of funds to build empires in a variety of industries across the continent to make land purchases, upgrade equipment, save to send children to college, etc. Railroads could be built using a combination of slave labor and loans taken at banks that held money on deposit from the cotton/slave industry. Money was also paid to a variety of people who, while not slave owners themselves, were “in the loop” of payments for goods and services. Thus were assets being used to develop the country for the benefit of Europeans and their heirs.
Slavery is often looked at as a blot upon humanity rather than the business decision it is. Africans have been presented as lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothing, when the exact opposite was true. We were a vital necessity to this nation. Africans were the most valuable resource, our value on the open market dwarfed all other industries and values except for the land itself. Historians talk about the Industrial Revolution starting in 18th century England, and the computer/information age of today. Left out is the Slave Age, that period of the dark days of the golden age of white supremacy. This was the time when the United States, an emerging nation at the time, dealt most efficiently with a formidable problem: the supply and cost of manual labor.
At $865 billion a year, information technology represents about 12% of the 1997 Gross Domestic Product of $7,214 billion. In 1805, slave labor represented as much as 20% of the national wealth. By the 1850’s- ’60’s, that figure rose to as high as 40%. If a 12% industry like information technology can affect the entire nation, how much impact does a 20-40% industry have? Let’s take a look at the 1850’s and the effects of slave labor on the economy.
In his work, History of American Business & Industry, Alex Groner observes, “In the sense that they were large and complex-producing units, the big plantations were the South’s factories. The hundreds of slaves included large numbers of production workers -the field hands- as well as such specialists and skilled artisans as carpenters, drovers, watchmen, coopers, tailors, millers, butchers, shipwrights, engineers, dentists and nurses.
Because virtually entire families could be put to work in the fields for most of the year, the slave economy proved ideal for cotton culture. It was not only the plantations of the South but also the factories, shipping merchants and banks of the North whose economies became tied more and more closely to cotton. What North and South had in common was the prosperity resulting from the growth of cotton production. The size of the crop climbed steadily from 80 million pounds in 1815 to 460 million, or more than half the world’s output by 1834, and to more than a billion pounds by 1850…..From 1830 until the Civil War, cotton provided approximately half of the nation’s total exports. At an average of 400 man hours per 400 pound ginned bale of cotton (based on census averages), these billion pounds required a billion hours of unpaid man-hours. These were supplied by African-American men, women and children working as slave labor under threat of torture and death.
Thus produced, the cotton crop traded hands on exchanges like the largest one in New York. Banks and other businesses participated in cotton transactions that were all handled as they usually are, for a fee. And so the brokers, traders, lenders, etc., all profited first. Then came the employees of the firms, the landlords, the washerwomen, the street vendors, messengers, haberdashers, milliners and all of their families, plus mortgage holders and service-providers in an ever-widening circle.
SLAVE CROPS TOTAL MORE THAN 60% OF NATION’S EXPORTS
Now traded, cotton found its way to 25 of the 35 states and territories for manufacturing. We don’t have to assume how the product was distributed, we can look at the 1850 list of cotton manufacturers. (See U.S. Census Table CXCVL) Here, we see there were 1,064 businesses directly employing over 92,000 people across the country. Leading the way is Massachusetts, using 223,607 bales of cotton while employing over 29,000 people. It is also interesting to note that the export of slave crops cotton, tobacco and rice totaled over 60% of all the nation’s exports. This meant that the shipping industry, the dockworkers and the factories on both sides of the Atlantic all made a living from the peculiar institution of African-Americans working as slaves. It was possible for people throughout Europe to work in cotton factories or peripheral industries in their home countries, save their money and book passage to America. Here, the newly arrived immigrant could get off the boat, and work selling apples on Wall Street to the employees of the Cotton Exchange. A seamstress from English mills could come and find work making dresses for the wives and mending the coats of the men who worked in the financial district. Maybe you’ve heard stories like these before. When an industry produces over 60% of the national exports, it reaches farther than can be seen from the docks or from the fields. And there were other crops as well. There were 2,681 sugar plantations and 8,327 hemp planters. In 1850, there were over 20 million bushels of sweet potatoes, 3 million bushels of Irish potatoes, 7 million bushels of peas and beans, and 8 million pounds of wool, all produced in slave-holding states. The African-Americans that Europeans called mere-do-well, helped clothe and feed this nation when it needed it most.
GOVERNMENT PROFITS MOST
The government profited most of all. The export of slave-produced crops allowed this emerging nation to import from the more industrialized countries (with tariffs applied) without incurring a trade deficit. Also, slave-intensive industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and transportation comprised over 60% of the total private production income at the time. In one way or another, this money was taxed. The slaves themselves were taxable as property beginning in 1815. The Federal Government profited by first placing a tax on the slave as a unit of property, and again when taxes were paid on the land the slaves improved. Taxing authorities, whether federal or local, made their money at some point in the trading of cotton and again when salaries found their way into taxable areas. The government uses a myriad of ways to raise the money it needs to do what it has to do – to build the infrastructure of the nation. To build the roads, forts and pay the federal marshals. This was done, in large parts, with slave dollars flowing like an irrigating stream, watering national, state and local governments at various stops along the way. And now today, the United States stands as a money pump with $7 trillion worth of pressure, creating jobs for Joe Blow in Idaho, and millionaires and billionaires with fortunes that span the globe. But it is a pump that was primed with the blood of African and indigenous people. [1. The American Heritage History of American Business & Industry by Alex Groner and the Editors of American Heritage and Business Week. 1972]
Throughout all of the slave history of the United States, there were hundreds of known uprisings and rebellions. A few of the best-known were the Gabriel Prosser and Jack Bowler Revolt of 1800 in Richmond, Virginia, the revolt led by Denmark Vesey in South Carolina in 1822 and the rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831. Africans continued to escape individually and in groups throughout the slave era. Many went to Native American villages, others to Mexico, but most traveled the “Underground Railroad” to the Northern Free states, hiding in “stations” in cellars and barns of good people along the way. Heroes abound during this period, but one who stands out is Harriet Tubman. Ms. Tubman made nineteen trips leading over 300 people to freedom. For stealing the property of the slave owners, a reward of $40,000 was placed on her capture, and that was when $40,000 was real money.
There were many abolitionists working against slavery, but certainly the most courageous was John Brown. So passionate was he that he led a force of nineteen men, including his five sons, and captured the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. His goal was to arm the slaves and begin a slave revolt that would spread through the South. He was hanged for his efforts. When it comes to passion about ending slavery, Abraham Lincoln was no John Brown. At the height of the Civil War, and against his better judgment, President Lincoln was inexorably led to signing the Emancipation Proclamation. As W. E. B. DuBois writes in Black Reconstruction, “It made no difference how much Abraham Lincoln might protest that this was not a war against slavery or ask General McDowell ‘if it would not be well to allow the armies to bring back those fugitive slaves which have crossed the Potomac with our troops (a communication which was marked ‘secret’).’ It was in vain that Lincoln rushed entreaties and then commands to Fremont in Missouri, not to emancipate the slaves of rebels, and then had to hasten similar orders to Hunter in South Carolina. The slave, despite every effort, was becoming the center of war….In August, Lincoln faced the truth, front forward; and that truth was not simply that Negroes ought to be free, it was that thousands of them were already free, and that either the power which slaves put into the hands of the South was to be taken from it, or the North could not win the war. Either the Negro was to be allowed to fight or the draft itself would not bring enough white men into the Army to keep up the war.” With thousands of Africans joining the battles, the Civil War was won by the Northern states. As Abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it at a meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston, “Gentlemen, you know very well that this nation called 4,000,000 of Negroes into citizenship to save itself. (Applause). It never called them for their own sakes. It called them to save itself.” (Cries of “Hear, Hear.”)
So now, grudgingly let free, the Africans entered a twenty-year period called Reconstruction. This was a time when Africans, after having been freed, “turned out like cattle” is the phrase Professor Mackey uses, the Africans again displayed the same self-help ethic that had empowered those Northern Africans who had formed associations, built businesses and churches. Africans began to form towns, till land and raise families for the first time. They did this while contending with things like the Black Codes which were as DuBois says, “representing the logical result of attitudes of mind existing when Lincoln still lived…In all cases, there was a plain and indisputable attempt on the part of the Southern states to make Negroes slaves in everything but name.” In addition to the laws, Africans had to contend with bands of murdering white terrorists who killed Black people at will. Gradually, over the decades, as the killings subsided and Africans continued to come together, there was born a civil rights movement and the right to vote. Professor John Henrik Clarke says, “One of the distinguishing features of the civil rights movement was continuation of the sense of racial unity and impatience in African-Americans.” The anger began to erupt in the street rebellions of the 60’s. These were first met with troops and tanks and then with a Counterintelligence Program. Known as COINTELPRO, this operation combined city, state and federal law enforcement agencies in a joint effort to destroy the increasingly militant activism of the African-American community. Groups like the Black Panther Party were infiltrated and destroyed. Misinformation was sown and African-American dissenters treated by law enforcement agencies in the same way as dissenters are in any country with very strict rules for minority peoples and dissenting opinions. They were murdered in their beds as in the case of Fred Hampton in Chicago, shot down in the street, cornered in houses and jailed on false charges. This history continues to live in prisons where many of those politically active Africans are still held today.
One of the things that may have been learned by COINTELPRO operatives was that African-Americans are an unusually resilient and community-centered people. That they have a legacy of spirituality and self-help. It was during this time that drug use began to grow in the African-American community. If you want to know where in the world the drugs at the corner were coming from, look to where in the world the CIA was active. In the Sixties, the heroin epidemic came in from CIA cohorts in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This is extensively documented in Al McCoy’s book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.
Going into minute detail, McCoy shows how the CIA’s connection with its covert allies led directly to the heroin epidemic of the 1960’s. The crack explosion coincided with the CIA’s work on behalf of the Reagan Administration in support of the Nicaraguan Contras in the mid-eighties. In Dark Alliance, investigative reporter Gary Webb reveals the connections between the Contras, the CIA and the crack epidemic of the 1980’s. In one instance, one man, Danilo Blandon, a CIA “asset”, was reported to have brought in (“easily”) 55 tons of cocaine between 1980 and 1991. This is only one man making deliveries destined for African-American communities. This is not seepage through the borders. These are packing crates and duffel bags targeted at selected communities. There is the old saw in the major media that whatever CIA involvement there was, was by “rogue officers.” But that’s not the case at all. Recently, convicted traitors Aldrich Aimes and Harold Nicholson were rogue officers. We know this because they were put under surveillance, captured and imprisoned. The “rogue” officers and “assets” who conducted, condoned, protected or supplied the drug-running into the African-American communities of the United States were either paid government salaries for their work, or were allowed to profit from their drug-dealing in return for doing national security favors for the CIA. It is not difficult to believe that one of those favors was to keep the African-American communities disrupted and demoralized.
Dr. Amos Wilson on Conscousness
Dr Joy DeGruy Leary on Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder.