Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights

By David Brown; Clive Webb | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

RED, WHITE AND BLACK?
NATIVE AMERICANS, EUROPEANS AND
AFRICANS MEET IN THE CHESAPEAKE

On 21 March 1861, Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens declared that the 'corner-stone' of the new nation formed by southern states leaving the Union 'rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition'.1 Like Stephens, the modern mind tends to consider slavery and freedom as binary opposites and usually takes the existence of separate races for granted. The scientific concept of race may have been exposed as fallacious by twentieth-century scholars, but racial ideology continues to exert a powerful influence in everyday life, as it has done since the nineteenth century. It was not always this way. A sharp dividing line between slave and free took decades to emerge in both thought and daily practice in colonial America and the idea of separate and unequal races took even longer to mature. Truths that seemed certain to Stephens in 1861 were actually only very recent insights and his statement would most likely have puzzled colonists founding Virginia in 1607.

Slavery made an indelible mark on North American society and slaves made a critical contribution to the success of the British colonies, although there were significant regional variations in their use and importance. American slavery took considerable time to develop into a fully-fledged institution in an uneven rather than a uniform process. The experiences of the enslaved were variable. In the subsistence agriculture of the northern colonies that rapidly developed into a market economy, the use of slaves was sporadic. New York had the largest slave population outside of the South, mainly because the Dutch were heavily involved in the slave trade in the seventeenth century, but it never amounted to more than 15 per cent of the colony's total population. Things were dramatically different in the South. Virginia became a 'slave society' during the course of the seventeenth century, when 'slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master–slave relationship provided the model for all social

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