A slave ship docks on the western coast of Africa. Slave traders force thousands of black Africans into the cargo hold. Weeks later, the ship reaches port. The people are herded off the ship and sold to white businessmen and landowners. Millions of Africans became enslaved this way.


Slavery didn’t begin in the American colonies. It has a long history going back to ancient times. Ancient Egyptians used slaves to build palaces and monuments. The Romans turned prisoners they captured in war into slaves. Aztecs, Incas, and the Maya used slaves to farm and to fight wars.


A Dutch slave ship sold 20 Africans to colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. They were the first Africans in the English colonies. But Africans weren’t the only slaves.

The American colonies needed workers. The colonists tried using Native Americans as slaves. But Native Americans knew the land and ran away. The colonists also paid for Europeans to immigrate to the colonies. In return, the immigrants worked without pay for a number of years. This system was called indentured servitude.

Life improved in Europe in the 1700s, and fewer people were willing to work as indentured servants. That’s when the African slave trade took off. The Southern colonies especially needed field hands to plant and harvest tobacco on large plantations. In the North, farms were small, and slaves were used mostly as household help.

In the 1800s, cotton became the South’s main crop. The cotton gin invented by Eli Whitney made it much easier to use cotton. The demand for cotton grew, and so did the slave population.


Portuguese, Dutch, and British traders dominated the slave trade in the Atlantic Ocean. Slave ships carried about 10 million Africans across the Atlantic. Another 2 million died of starvation or disease during the long journey.

Traders sold most of the Africans to plantations in Brazil or on islands in the Caribbean Sea. They sold about 650,000 Africans in North America.


The American Revolution (1775-1783) caused white Americans to think differently about slavery. They had fought that war for freedom and equality. Was it right for them to own other human beings?

Soon after the war, Northern states outlawed slavery. In 1808, the United States government made it illegal to bring slaves into the country. But Southern plantation owners still depended on slave labor.


Most slaves in the South worked in the cotton and tobacco fields. Some slaves were musicians, sailors, craft workers, and even explorers. An African American named York belonged to William Clark. York accompanied Clark and Meriwether Lewis on their famous expedition from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean.

Even young slave children and elderly slaves had to work. Their owners made them do housework, cook, and care for babies.

Slaves had few rights and little control over their lives. They weren’t allowed to learn how to read or write. Owners could treat them cruelly—starving, beating, or even killing them. Husbands and wives could be separated and sold to faraway plantations. So could parents and children.


African Americans resisted slavery in many ways. Some tried using weapons to rebel. A slave named Nat Turner and his followers terrorized the Virginia countryside in 1831. They killed about 50 white men, women, and children. Soldiers captured and hanged Turner and his followers.

Other slaves rebelled in smaller ways. They broke tools, poisoned farm animals, or ran away.


The issue of slavery divided North and South in the early 1800s. Groups of abolitionists—people who were against slavery—sprang up in the North. Some abolitionists helped slaves escape to freedom.

Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Lincoln thought slavery was wrong. He didn’t want territories in the West to enter the United States as slave states. Lincoln’s election led Southern states to secede (break away) from the United States. This action started the Civil War (1861-1865).


Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This announcement declared that slaves in the seceding Southern states were free.

After the war ended, the U.S. Congress made slavery illegal throughout the United States. In 1865, Congress approved the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ending slavery. Although slavery was over, African Americans had a long struggle ahead to overcome poverty and injustice.


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