Did the increase of slavery in the US bring an end to indentured servitude?

Did the increase of slavery in the US bring an end to indentured servitude?

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In the development of the New World, indentured servitude was quite common for passage across the Atlantic. Did the increase in slavery in America, especially in Virginia and other similar agricultural states, lead to the end of indentured servitude?

There can be little doubt that indentured servitude decreased as reliance on slave labor increased. However, the dwindling supply of indentured European labor must be considered as at least one of the reasons American planters increasingly turned to an enslaved African labor force. Nonetheless, without the increased availability of enslaved Africans, American planters could not have quit their use of European labor so easily. This makes for such a muddy cause-effect story that historians disagree over why indentured servitude disappeared:

The history of the final disappearance of indentured servitude in the United States remains rather obscure… It remains unclear whether indentured servitude dwindled in importance in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth primarily because of a general decline in the rate of immigration to the United States, or whether in the period the share of total immigration made up of servants declined. Nor does there appear to be a consensus on the role of legal changes in reducing the attractiveness of indentured servants to employers, as historians have variously cited English passenger acts and the legislation of American states abolishing imprisonment for debt as [indentured servitude's] "death blow.'

Increasing wealth in England may be most responsible for the decreased flow of indentured servants to the Americas:

Nineteenth-century Englishmen might have found it considerably easier on average to save an amount equivalent to one-half of annual per capita income than their poorer counterparts in England 200 years earlier, and this could well explain why the importance of indentured servitude among English and perhaps other European migrants to America declined so substantially in the long run.

Though there were still scattered cases of indentured servants in America in the 1830s, at that point it was long clear to planters that they could more readily attain African slaves than indentured Europeans.

TLDR: This may be a case where it is better not to think in terms of cause and effect, but in terms of reciprocal causation: As indentured servitude became less attractive to Europeans, slavery became that much more attractive to American planters. As the slave economy developed, it became that much easier for American planters to purchase slaves. At some point around the end of the 18th century, the math was such that planters nearly always purchased a slave over buying the contract of an indentured servant.

Source: Galenson, The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas.

This will be a poor answer because I cannot locate my sources. Several years ago the Colonial Williamsburg podcast did a series of episodes on slavery and indentured servitude. One of the inflection points was Bacon's rebellion; after Bacon's rebellion there was a shift away from indentured servitude and towards stricter forms of slavery. Cultural, legal and other norms began to shift; people feared that those in forced servitude would rebel. It was easier to enforce stricter controls on people who looked differently.

Obviously this is only one element in the whole story, but I think Bacon's Rebellion must be mentioned in any complete answer to your question.

It's true that slavery and indentured servitude were somewhat competitive, but it was NOT true that slavery was always preferred to indentured servitude.

One major exception was the establishment of Georgia, by James Oglethorpe. It was founded on the indentured servitude of British prisoners (usually debtors), but Oglethorpe was actually against slavery. So indentured servitude in this case was aimed at the lowest classes of English society.

Ultimately, slavery did not put an end to indentured servitude, because slavery was directed at African-American people, while indentured servitude was directed by Englishmen at fellow Englishmen. Slavery remained in America long after English rule was driven out of the 13 Colonies by the American Revolution, bringing about an end to indentured servitude. As Pieter Geerkins pointed out, indentured servitude arguably did not end in North America until 1975, 110 years after slavery ended.

The Untold History of Post-Civil War 'Neoslavery'

In Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon of the Wall Street Journal argues that slavery did not end in the United States with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. He writes that it continued for another 80 years, in what he calls an "Age of Neoslavery."

"The slavery that survived long past emancipation was an offense permitted by the nation," Blackmon writes, "perpetrated across an enormous region over many years and involving thousands of extraordinary characters."

But by the end of the century, the English began to think more seriously about North America as a place to colonize: as a market for English goods and a source of raw materials and commodities such as furs. English promoters claimed that New World colonization offered England many advantages.

The Spanish were among the first Europeans to explore the New World and the first to settle in what is now the United States. By 1650, however, England had established a dominant presence on the Atlantic coast. The first colony was founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

African Americans at Jamestown

Painting of the arrival of the first Africans arriving in Virginia

The first documented arrival of Africans to the colony of Virginia was recorded by John Rolfe: "About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. … He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuall[s]." The year was 1619, and as an institution slavery did not yet exist in Virginia. Slavery as we know it today, evolved gradually, beginning with customs rather than laws. To further shed light on how this institution evolved legally, from indentured servitude to life long servitude, the following laws and/or facts are given as well as other sources on 17th century servitude among Blacks in Virginia.

1619 Arrival of "20 and odd" Africans in late August 1619, not aboard a Dutch ship as reported by John Rolfe, but an English warship, White Lion, sailing with a letters of marque issued to the English Captain Jope by the Protestant Dutch Prince Maurice, son of William of Orange. A letters of marque legally permitted the White Lion to sail as a privateer attacking any Spanish or Portuguese ships it encountered. The 20 and odd Africans were captives removed from the Portuguese slave ship, San Juan Bautista, following an encounter the ship had with the White Lion and her consort, the Treasurer, another English ship, while attempting to deliver its African prisoners to Mexico. Rolfe's reporting the White Lion as a Dutch warship was a clever ruse to transfer blame away from the English for piracy of the slave ship to the Dutch.
1630's Indication by surviving wills, inventories, deeds and other documents that in some instances it was considered "customary practice to hold some Negroes in a form of life service." It should be noted that by examining these documents it was also found that some blacks were able to hold on to their status of being indentured servants, thus, eventually gaining their freedom.
1639 All persons except Negroes are to be with Arms and Ammunition.
1640 John Punch, a runaway indentured Servant, first documented slave for life.
1662 Slavery was recognized in the statutory law of the colony.

Billings, Warren M. Ed. The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century - A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606-1689. University of North Carolina Press, 1975

Breen, T.H., and Innes, S. "Myne Owne Ground" - Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676. New York: Oxford University Press: 1980

Craven, Wesley F. White, Red and Black: The Seventeenth Century Virginian, Charlottesville, 1961.

Hening, William W. Ed. The Statues at Large: Being a Collection of all Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the Legislature in the year 1619. 13 Volumes Richmond, New York and Philadelphia, 1809-1823.

Hughes, Sarah and Zeigler, J. Jamestown's Other People, Children's Program Teachers Manual, , Colonial National Historical Park, 1976.

McCartney, Martha W., A Study of the Africans and African Americans on Jamestown Island and at Green Spring, 1619-1803, National Park Service and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2003.

McLLwaine, H.R. Minutes of the Council and general Court of Colonial Virginia, 1622-1632, 1670-1676, with notes and excerpts from the original Council and General Court records, Now Lost. Richmond, Virginia1924.

Russell, John H. The Free Negro Property Owner in Virginia, 1619-1865. (Out of Print)

Vaughan, Alden T. "Blacks in Virginia: A Note on the First Decade" The William and Mary Quarterly, XXIX, July 1972.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries people were kidnapped from the continent of Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited to work as indentured servants and labor in the production of crops such as tobacco and cotton.

Bacon’s Rebellion, fought from 1676 to 1677, began with a local dispute with the Doeg Indians on the Potomac River. Chased north by Virginia militiamen, who also attacked the otherwise uninvolved Susquehannocks, the Indians began raiding the Virginia frontier.

The persistence of the Irish slave myth

Hogan notes that the Irish slave myth is rooted in a true historical injustice but that current versions depend on the “drawing of a false equivalence with racialized perpetual hereditary chattel slavery and/or the refusal to delineate servitude and slavery.”

“There was almost no situation where the meme was not used to derail discussions about the legacy of slavery or ongoing anti-black racism,” Hogan told the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2016. Modern versions of the meme have been popular among neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis and white nationalists, among others.

Memes citing the Irish slave myth often circulate when national discussion centers on race. Claims about Irish slaves were debunked last year, for instance, as the House of Representatives held hearings on legislation that would explore the possibility of extending reparations to African Americans for slavery.

“Rather than confront the brutal crime against humanity and national original sin that was African chattel slavery, this narrative is particularly appealing to those who want to proclaim that ‘my ancestors suffered too!’,” Reilly said.

A pair of slave shackles are on display in the Slavery and Freedom Gallery in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“By blurring the lines between the different forms of unfree labour, these white supremacists seek to conceal the incontestable fact that these slavocracies were controlled by — and operated for the benefit of — white Europeans. This narrative, which exists almost exclusively in the United States, is essentially a form of nativism and racism masquerading as conspiracy theory,” Hogan wrote in a 2015 blog post.

The myth of white slaves sent to the Caribbean or North America, however, also has a long history in Irish nationalism. Early Irish nationalists used the English-forced deportation of Irish to the Caribbean as a rallying cry in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“But these were rhetorical claims, based on truth, but greatly exaggerated for effect and are not to be confused with historical accuracy,” Hogan again told Pacific Standard.

The Young Ireland movement of the early 19th century also cited supposed Irish enslavement as another reason for revolt against the British Empire, which controlled Ireland at the time, according to historian Liam Kennedy’s work "Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish?"

“Post-independence, a line was drawn by nationalists that everything that happened prior to this was to be laid at the door of British Empire,” Hogan told Pacific Standard. Irish involvement in both empire and slavery is, however, more complicated, with some Irish actively participating in the slave trade, while many Irish institutions benefited from the system.

A history of anti-Irish sentiment in the United States also might make the myth more plausible to many Americans. While it is true that anti-Irish prejudice was common in the United States well into the 20th century, it is not comparable to the legacy of racism endured by Black Americans.

“The deeper problem here is that if we don't admit to complexity in our past, how were we going to confront it in the present?” Hogan told Pacific Standard.

Chapter 04 - Slavery and Empire

Venetian and Genoese traders dominated the early European slave trade of the 15 th century, concentrating on the Slavic region (Eurasia-ish the word slave comes from Slav). The enslavement of Christians disturbed many Europeans Muslim and African slaves, however, were fair game.

African immigrants outnumbered European immigrants six to one the Atlantic slave trade that began with the Portuguese did not end in the US until 1807 (though slavery itself continued on) and continued in other parts of the Americas until the 1870s.

European traders preferred to let West African slave raiders do their dirty work for them. Slavery existed in African society, but it was “house” slavery, where the slaves were treated as family members rather than property and were accorded a certain amount of rights. Slaves were allowed to marry and their children were born free.

The “Middle Passage” of the Atlantic slave trade was built for profit as such, slave comfort was at a very, very bare minimum. Slaves were crowded into ship holds and chained together, and the rocking of the ship as it sailed would skin the slaves. Ships built to hold 450 slaves regularly held over 600. Many attempted to throw themselves overboard as an act of protest, so much so that ship captains began to install nets over the side of their ships.

The African slave trade essentially depopulated Africa as thousands were shipped off to slavery in the Americas and many others died during the warfare and raiding that provided the slaves in the first place, with at least one dying on the raids for every one taken captive. West African societies became increasingly dependent on European goods and weapons, creating a vicious “guns-slaves” cycle. The depopulated farming communities could no longer support themselves, and foreign goods stifled local manufacturing. This would lead to the European domination of Africa in the centuries after.

Indian slaves were used initially, but West African slaves, having come from an agricultural society, were preferred in the booming rice and indigo plantations that sprung up in South Carolina. In contrast to the small tobacco farms of the Chesapeake that did not require large amounts of slaves, rice plantations required a minimum of thirty slaves and regularly staffed fifty to seventy-five. The large amount of slaves led to large black majorities in the Lower South.

Though some areas had less than others (French Louisiana being a prominent example), slavery existed all parts of North American society, working the fields and as house servants. It was a thoroughly accepted practice.

Answer under construction

The appearance of distinctly African customs and culture revealed the strength with which the Africans resisted slavery and contributed to the Africanization of the South.

Though slavery and slave labor was initially a very profitable enterprise, the availability of “free” labor slowed innovation and, therefore, the development of a diverse economy, leading to economic stagnation. The New England colonies that did not as heavily rely on agriculture and slave labor would become the centers of industrial development in the century ahead.

Under mercantilism, there was a certain amount of wealth in the world. Trade was viewed as a zero-sum game, with clear winners or losers, and value could only be gained by somehow cheating the opposing party of value. In slavery, this came through by stealing the labor and productive values of the slaves.

Ironically, slavery created the sort of economic security and prosperity that would allow rich white landowners freedom, creating a Southern aristocracy not unlike the European nobility. The landed gentry rose in power in prominence in this time slaves, of course, remained in a stagnant position, while landless white settlers dropped into poverty.

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The history of black Oklahomans is linked closely to westward expansion and the desire for land in nineteenth-century America. During that period white farmers craved cotton lands in what is now the American southeast, and they pressured the government to remove Indian tribes from the region. Indians, the Five Tribes, had lived upon this land for many years, growing crops, raising families, and developing their own culture. In response to farmers' demands, however, the federal government began a systematic policy of Indian removal in the 1830s. Black slaves came with their Indian masters across the Trail of Tears to their new territorial home in the West, to what is now the state of Oklahoma.

Until its abolition after the Civil War era, slavery became a fixture in Indian Territory, but historians continue to debate the nature of the institution among the Indians. Some argue that it hardly resembled the institution established in the Deep South, but was more akin to indentured servitude of early America. Others differ, contending that "bondage was bondage," and that enthrallment implied a kind of brutality that made it similar to the chattel slavery of the Old South. Whatever the argument, slaves attempted to escape their bondage by running away, and they also revolted against their Indian masters in other ways. In Indian Territory, as elsewhere, both white and black abolitionists worked openly and clandestinely to overthrow slavery. After the Civil War the federal government granted freedom to Indian slaves, and it forced the tribes to grant allotments of lands to blacks. Although some Indians disliked that idea, most of the former slaves and free blacks among the tribes received some acreage.

As settlers sustained their demands for more soil, the federal government opened for settlement a section within Indian Territory in 1889 called the Unassigned Lands, an area of land in central Oklahoma not granted to any group of Indians. In the Land Run of 1889 whites and a few black settlers descended upon the territory to stake out homesteads. The following year the U.S. Congress created Oklahoma Territory, roughly the western half of the present state.

The black population of the two territories grew as boosters described them as a land of opportunity and freedom. Along with this growth went a movement for an All-Black state. Led by an energetic promoter and politician, Edward P. McCabe, founder of the town of Langston, the black statehood effort never had much chance of success. The work of McCabe and other boosters, however, did lead to the establishment of more All-Black towns in the territories. Some black towns had sprung up before the Civil War, but most came into being following that conflict. By some estimates, as many as fifty of these communities may have existed at one time in Oklahoma's history, far more than scholars once believed. Whatever the number, their significance resides in the determination of black people to escape discrimination, to seek reinforcement for their racial ideas, and to acquire some control over their own lives. Severe economic difficulty took its toll on black towns, and by the 1940s the majority of them had disappeared or were only small, unincorporated places. A few, such as Boley and Langston, still remained, but only as hopeful reminders of what may have happened had history taken a different course.

For a time, fluid social relationships existed between black and white settlers in the territories, despite a history of slavery in pre–Civil War Indian Territory. White migration from the Deep South and the increasing number of blacks led to restrictive racial laws and customs. The growing economic success of blacks in particular affected race relations. Blacks energetically established banks and other businesses, and a sizeable portion of African Americans bought their own land to start farms. By the turn of the twentieth century, black workers began to compete for jobs reserved for whites in the territories' cities. As historian Danney Goble has correctly observed, economic progress and black population growth made physical separation more difficult, if not impossible. Black advances challenged stereotypical attitudes toward race, and as a result, a new social arrangement soon appeared.

National developments also played an important role in altering race relations between blacks and whites in the territories. The latter part of the nineteenth century witnessed a growth in white race consciousness that led to racial discrimination. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its "separate but equal" doctrine in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that helped to enshrine Jim Crow into law for more than a half century. That decision removed any doubt from the minds of whites who wanted to limit the rights of blacks, especially in education. In the early stages of Oklahoma Territory, separate schools for blacks and whites was optional, but in the late 1890s the territorial legislature passed statutes that effectively kept black and white children apart. Faced with the reality of white attitudes toward separation, blacks called for support of black educational institutions for their children, including the establishment the Colored Agricultural and Normal University at Langston in 1897.

By the time delegates met in the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention at Guthrie in 1906 to organize a new state, both law and social customs had created an atmosphere for a completely segregated society. The battle over the place of blacks in the newly proposed state of Oklahoma became a heated issue during the selection of representatives to the convention. The Democratic Party promised to separate the races, and with that as a central part of its platform, it ultimately secured an overwhelming majority of the delegates at Guthrie. Led by the Negro Press Association, blacks waged a determined battle to defeat the forces of segregation but could not overcome the prosouthern sentiment that had taken root in the territories. The politicians at the convention wanted to redeem the commitment to keep the races apart in all areas of social life, but Republican Pres. Theodore Roosevelt had threatened to veto Oklahoma statehood if that took place. The spirit of the constitutional convention echoed in the racial language of its leader, William "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, who exclaimed that blacks would always remain bootblacks, barbers, and farmers. The future governor of Oklahoma believed that African Americans would never rise to the equal of whites in the professions or become informed citizens capable of grappling with serious public questions.

Despite Roosevelt's threat, the delegates at Guthrie included a section in the Oklahoma Constitution that required separate schools. Yet they stopped short of the total legal segregation that white citizens desired. Higher education in Oklahoma would stay separate until the 1940s, and public schools in the state until 1955. Although Murray and his colleagues had not mandated full separation of the races, representatives to Oklahoma's First Legislature moved quickly to finish what the founding fathers had left undone. They passed a statute that separated blacks and whites in public accommodations, and they approved a bill that gave enforcement power to the constitutional provision for segregated schools.

Disfranchisement of blacks also stood high on Oklahoma's legislative agenda. Blacks had not been fooled by the politicians at Guthrie who wrote into the constitution that the state "shall never enact any law restricting the right of suffrage on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Democrats who controlled politics in Oklahoma drew little comfort from the lingering strength of the Republicans and black allegiance to that party. The election of a black man, A. C. Hamlin of Guthrie, to the First Legislature also made an impact upon those persons anxious to rid blacks from state politics. Here, then, were incentives for white Democrats to remove the ballot from black hands.

The law passed by the state legislature and ratified by the people in 1910 to disfranchise blacks was the so-called "grandfather clause." This measure stipulated that potential voters must take and pass an examination that demonstrated an ability to read and write. However, it exempted descendants of citizens eligible to vote on January 1, 1866, a provision that adversely affected blacks but favored whites as most of them met that requirement. For nearly five years the grandfather clause remained virtually intact until the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in the 1915 Guinn v. United States case. Nevertheless, a subsequent measure passed the legislature and limited black voting this law would remain on the books until it met with Court disapproval in 1939. The unrestricted right to the ballot, however, did not come to all black Oklahomans until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.

For nearly half a century the Jim Crow code established by the state of Oklahoma and its localities touched practically every facet of life that involved contact between the races, or the exercise of political and social relationships. Blacks experienced some of the worst discrimination in the area of economic opportunity. Although the Oklahoma Constitution and local ordinances did not prescribe low-paying, menial jobs for blacks, custom and community attitudes proved as limiting as law itself. Clearly, whites realized the position they wanted blacks to occupy within the economy. The difference in ways of making a living between black and white Oklahomans measured the distance between them in a number of areas: education, health, housing, recreation, and other facets of life.

Tensions between blacks and whites in Oklahoma occasionally led to outright racial violence. Violation of the Jim Crow rules or the unwritten etiquette of race relations could put blacks at considerable risk. Although many white Oklahomans defended segregation as a means of ensuring racial peace, it encouraged random lawlessness and lynching or provided a defense for antiblack actions. During the territorial period racial intolerance had led to attacks against blacks, and the beginning of the twentieth century saw an increase in the brutality against them. The irrational belief by whites of possible black domination in the state, fear of economic competition, and efforts to silence blacks politically, helped to foster an atmosphere for violence.

The most notorious act of racial conflict in Oklahoma history took place in Tulsa in 1921. Significantly, the violence in the state was part of a broader story of national intolerance that followed World War I. Yet the Tulsa riot represented a defining moment in Oklahoma's history, for it forecast the extent to which some white citizens would travel to achieve the ultimate subjugation of blacks. Much like the other riots of the period, the Tulsa disaster developed from a number of immediate and remote causes, among them irresponsible journalism, rumor, racial fears, tensions related to urban migration, and weak law enforcement. Although historians cannot specifically indict the Ku Klux Klan in starting the riot, the organization created a spirit of lawlessness that made it easier for some citizens to engage in mob activity.

A chance encounter by two people who had never met each other led to the Tulsa riot. When a young white woman, Sarah Page, accused Dick Rowland of making advances toward her in a downtown Tulsa elevator, she set the stage for the most disastrous racial episode in Oklahoma. Rowland's flight from the scene and his subsequent arrest by Tulsa authorities confirmed his guilt in the minds of citizens who believed that white womanhood must be protected at all cost. False newspaper reporting of the incident, describing Page as an orphan whose dress had been torn by the black man, inflamed Tulsans and stoked the embers of racial hate. When black men heard of plans to lynch young Rowland, they went to the jail in downtown Tulsa to protect him, but instead they confronted a group of white men determined to drive them back to their section of the city. The whites achieved their objective and then proceeded to burn down a large part of North Tulsa, where the majority of blacks in the city resided. Gov. J. B. A. Robertson called out the National Guard to help police Tulsa, but by that time many homes and businesses, including the ones along Greenwood Avenue (Black Wall Street) had been destroyed by fire, with the loss of dozens of lives. Scholars may never know how many people perished in the tragic events of 1921, for it was difficult to account for those who were burned to death, buried in secret graves, or dumped in the river. Even a special study of the riot eighty years later could not determine the number of persons who lost their lives.

The riot did not alter racial policies in Tulsa or the state of Oklahoma. Tulsa remained unrepentant. Many whites laid blame on the aggressiveness of black agitators for social equality or on militant black groups from outside the state. A grand jury placed responsibility for the conflict squarely upon the shoulders of the black men who went downtown to protect Rowland. At the opening of the twenty-first century, the Tulsa riot continued to engender heated discussion. Oklahoma officially apologized for the tragic event, and in 2001 a Tulsa Race Riot Commission, established by the state legislature, called for reparations for victims of the violence.

Between the 1920s and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, two pervasive themes appear in African American history in Oklahoma: legal action against Jim Crow, especially in education, and black community building. What seems remarkable in retrospect is the intensity with which blacks sustained their assault upon segregation, violence, and intimidation. Black newspapers in Oklahoma played a key role in this effort, bitterly attacking racially conservative politicians who wanted to stifle black progress. The most crusading pro-rights journals were found in the larger cities of Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Muskogee. Although the newspapers had several notable black editors, none made as great an impact on the state as Roscoe Dunjee of the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch. For more than fifty years Dunjee followed practically every development within the black community in Oklahoma. A staunch believer in social reform, Dunjee guided the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Oklahoma to much of its success.

Changing the racial system in Oklahoma was no easy task for Dunjee and other black leaders, but their unrelenting efforts began to pay dividends in the period after World War II. Previous judicial challenges to segregation had brought few changes in black life, especially in education. A significant victory in that field, however, came in the 1948 Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma case. Supported by Dunjee and represented by attorney Amos Hall of Tulsa, Ada Lois Sipuel applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma College of Law but was denied entrance. Upon appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Oklahoma to admit the Chickasha native. About the same time, another black student, George McLaurin, entered the university at Norman, and when the institution segregated him from white students, the Court ruled in 1950 in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents that the university had to treat him the same as white students. For all practical purposes, the Sipuel and McLaurin cases destroyed the legal foundation for segregation in higher education in the state of Oklahoma.

The struggle for equality has been a central motif in the history of black Oklahomans, but the experience of African Americans in the state has transcended racial protest. Behind the walls of segregation existed a vigorous social, cultural, and institutional life. Preeminently, the black church stood at the very center of black community life. It represented not only a place to worship, but a valuable social outlet in an era when Oklahoma limited black access to publicly supported facilities. Although Baptists and Methodists accounted for the overwhelming number of black worshipers, a small number of other religious groups appeared in the community. By the mid-twentieth century, roughly eighty thousand blacks had membership in the nearly eight hundred churches that dotted the Oklahoma landscape. Some scholars have viewed the African American church as religiously orthodox, but the state of Oklahoma had a number of ministers, such as E. W. Perry of Oklahoma City, who preached the social gospel and who taught that Christianity should reject injustice.

Oklahoma blacks established other social outlets and institutions designed to achieve some reasonable control over their own lives. Fraternal groups such as the Prince Hall Masons had come into existence before statehood. Women's clubs also appeared within the community, sponsored social activities for both young and old, and fought for stronger community institutions. The Oklahoma State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, organized shortly after statehood, worked successfully with other groups for a school for delinquent boys at Boley and for a black girls' facility at Taft. Also forming reading and recreational groups within the larger towns of Oklahoma, women were in the forefront in the battle for library facilities in cities such as Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Black masons and their women's auxiliary group, the Eastern Star, supported citizenship programs and educational advancement through college scholarships. The black community depended heavily on the church and community groups to provide a kind of safe haven from the harshness of racial discrimination. Through their own individual and collective efforts, blacks achieved agency through the development of their own institutions. Even after the disappearance of segregation, many of these historic groups continued to thrive in the black community.

The vibrancy of a strong black culture, however, could not completely overcome the negative effects of an unequal society. Only law could do that. The 1954 U. S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, destroyed segregation in education, but perhaps more importantly, it knocked the props from under the social principle that had sustained Jim Crow. Oklahoma readily complied with the decision, and unlike some other places, no major violence took place in the state. Much of Oklahoma's success resulted from the bold leadership of its governor, Raymond Gary, a native of Little Dixie, the southern part of Oklahoma. In 1955 Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional provision, the Better Schools Amendment that effectively spelled the legal end to segregated schools in the state. Although some pockets of re-segregation reappeared in later years after an experiment with busing, a rebirth of the principle of legalized segregation never seemed likely in Oklahoma.

Sweeping changes took place in Oklahoma and the nation during the period that followed the Brown decision, the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, and the emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a national leader. Infused with King's teachings of nonviolent resistance, a dynamic Oklahoma City black woman, Clara Luper, led the children of the NAACP Youth Council against segregated eating establishments in the city. Luper and her young army achieved some success with a "sit-in" movement that began in 1958, almost two years before the more celebrated one in Greensboro, North Carolina. Their efforts focused sharp attention upon segregation in public businesses and other establishments and brought some hard-won victories. Ultimately, however, total victory for equal treatment in public accommodations had to await the passage by Congress of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black Oklahomans took pride in the role they played in making that measure a reality, and for the support they gave to the successful Voting Rights Act a year later. Oklahoma heard the rhetoric and felt the impact of the so-called "Black Power" movement of the mid-1960s, but in its more militant form Black Power never acquired a firm grip on the state. In Oklahoma the movement revitalized interest in racial pride and a stronger black demand for a truly just and integrated society.

Black people strongly emphasized black cultural achievements during the era of civil rights. The teaching of black history witnessed a rebirth in African American institutions and made its appearance in many predominantly white schools. Along with the movement went integration of faculties and staffs at white colleges and universities. Black intellectuals pointed proudly to the accomplishments of a long list of black Oklahomans in important areas of American life, including John Hope Franklin in history, Melvin Tolson in poetry, Ralph Ellison in literature, Earl Grant, Jimmy Rushing, and Charlie Christian in popular music, and Leona Mitchell in opera. The establishment of museums, special exhibits, and archives that emphasized black achievement proliferated as interest grew between both black and white Oklahomans.

Black political life quickened as the barriers to voting and office holding fell. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, only three black politicians had served in legislative positions in Oklahoma: Green I. Currin and David J. Wallace during the territorial period, and A. C. Hamlin shortly after statehood. Following passage of the Voting Rights Act and congressional reapportionment in Oklahoma in the 1960s, black representatives made their reappearance in the Oklahoma Legislature. The largest number of African Americans to serve in the state legislature at any given time over the years has been five. All have been aligned with the Democratic Party, and all have come from Tulsa or Oklahoma City. In 1994 Oklahoma elected its first black congressman, Republican J. C. Watts, a former star quarterback for the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team. At the state and local level, more than one hundred black men and women had served in elected positions throughout Oklahoma at the end of the twentieth century.

As they faced a new century, the black Oklahoma community and their political representatives turned their attention to a broad set of problems that continued to hamper racial progress. They were aware that a gap still existed between the economic status of black and white Oklahomans. Not surprisingly, then, black legislators worked to support black business and to promote affirmative measures that gave opportunity to persons once denied economic opportunity. They also addressed issues such as hate crimes, flying of the Confederate flag at the state capitol, the appointment of judges, better health care, greater access to education, support for Langston University, and the appointment of a commission to study the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. As much as any generation before them, black Oklahomans and their leaders believed that there was reason for hope in a new century and that they could overcome the crippling legacies of the past.

At the close of the twentieth century Oklahoma's 180,000 black citizens could look back at a history that had gone from slavery to freedom. Through their own institutional and community structures they became powerful agents for change. Indeed, few states in America made such a large impact upon the achievement of black freedom as Oklahoma. It initiated and won significant civil rights cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, and it successfully employed nonviolent direct action, the sit-in, to destroy restrictive racial barriers. The changes that took place in this evolving democratic process did not quickly erase injustices created by a segregated past, but advances did come.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century most Oklahomans accepted the constitutional principle of equality, even though they may have disagreed about specific means to achieve that goal. They were certain, however, that the state and the country had traveled too far to turn back. Armed with a revitalized pride in their culture and hope for the future, black Oklahomans exalted the best in their past and paid homage to a proud heritage that spoke of trials and triumph. Yet, like other citizens of their state, they had a sense of a broader history in common with other groups that made them genuine Sooners.


William Bittle and Gilbert Geis, The Longest Way Home: Chief Alfred Sam's Back-to-Africa Movement (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1964).

Norman Crockett, The Black Towns (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1979).

George L. Cross, Blacks in White Colleges: Oklahoma's Landmark Cases (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975).

Scott Ellsworth, Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982).

Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory (New York: Random House, 1986).

Ada Lois Fisher, with Danney Goble, A Matter of Black and White: The Autobiography of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).

Jimmie Lewis Franklin, The Blacks in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980).

Jimmie Lewis Franklin, Journey Toward Hope: A History of Blacks in Oklahoma (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).

John Hope Franklin and John Whittington Franklin, eds., My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997).

Rudi Halliburton, Red Over Black: Black Slavery Among the Cherokee Indians (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977).

Clara Luper, Behold the Walls (Oklahoma City, Okla.: J. Wire, 1979).

Zella J. Black Patterson, Langston University: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979).

Kaye M. Teall, Black History in Oklahoma: A Resource Book (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Oklahoma City Public Schools, 1971).

Murray R. Wickett, Contested Territory: Native Americans and African Americans in Oklahoma, 1865–1907 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).

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The Lesser-Known History of Slavery in California

LOS ANGELES — Despite its ratification in 1850 as a free state prohibiting slavery and indentured servitude, California wavered on the status of enslaved people throughout its early history, creating legal structures that allowed slave-owning whites migrating from the midwest and south to retain ownership over enslaved Black people. California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865, curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates and Taylor Bythewood-Porter, brings together historical artifacts and stories of self-liberation at the California African American Museum to uncover the lesser-known history of slavery in the Golden State. Spanning from 16th-century Spanish colonization to the post–Civil War Reconstruction era, California Bound recounts a tumultuous history of mass migration, displacement, and litigation that led to the establishment of California’s earliest African American communities.

Mary Butler, “Pobladores” (N.D.), reproduction of a watercolor

While the exhibition focuses on the hundreds of enslaved Africans who were brought to California shortly before and after its ratification as a state in 1850, the curators date the earliest presence of people of African descent in the region to the 1700s and 1800s. Spanish colonization of the Gulf of California, which relied on the labor of enslaved indigenous and African people since the 16th century, resulted in a multicultural landscape. An early community of non-Indigenous people in California were the Californios, who were either Mestizo (mixed European and Indigenous ancestry) or of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry. Among Los Angeles’s first settlers, the Pobladores who arrived from Mexico in 1781, more than half of 11 families were of African or part-African ancestry.

Installation view of California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865

While the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 promised full US citizenship and property rights for Californios, who were previously Mexican citizens, the discovery of gold in the same year would upturn their lives and the lives of the roughly 150,000 Indigenous people who were living in the region. Between 1848 and 1854, up to 300,000 people entered the region as part of the Gold Rush, resulting in Californios and Indigenous people being outnumbered and claims to their land undermined. The mass migration of people included Mexicans, Chileans, Peruvians, and Chinese, alongside free Africans who also sought opportunity in the west. Many of these minority groups, however, were exploited as agricultural laborers, domestic servants, and sex workers, while white migrants from the American South brought enslaved Africans to work in the gold mines.

California Bound goes into great detail about the political and economic divides that emerged from debates over California’s statehood and the legal status of slavery. It explains the divide between pro-enslavement southerners who sought to maintain the institution of slavery and the anti-enslavement northerners who desired to abolish it outright. A third political group in California, the Free Soil Party, also opposed slavery not on moral grounds, but based on the economic self-interest of whites who lacked the capital to compete with slave-owners and wished to eliminate competition from African labor, both free and enslaved.

Installation view of California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865

California joined the US as part of the Compromise of 1850, which also included the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act as federal law. The new law required enslaved fugitives to be returned to their enslavers upon capture, and officials and citizens of free states to cooperate accordingly. While California’s entry into the Union as a free state might have been considered a victory for abolitionists and enslaved Africans, political realities within the state tempered any hopes that California could become a true safe haven. Shortly after statehood, pro-enslavement lawmakers passed statutes excluding minority testimony against whites in criminal and civil cases. In 1852, the state legislature passed the California Fugitive Slave Law, legalizing the arrest and removal of runaway enslaved Africans who arrived with their enslavers before statehood. These legal structures would set the stage for the eight stories that are at the heart of California Bound.

While the exhibition’s legal documents and letters don’t always make for the most compelling visual artifacts, the curators bring their contents to life by surfacing eight legal cases that resulted in freedom or enslavement for Africans living in California. There’s the story of Frank, an enslaved 18-year-old forcibly brought to work in the Sierra Nevada mines who later escaped to San Francisco and legally attained freedom with support from a local community of free Africans who petitioned on his behalf. The legal precedent in the case would shock the state’s pro-enslavement legislators and result in the passage of the state’s own Fugitive Slave Law in 1852.

Installation view of California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865

The story of Bridget “Biddy” Mason might one day be adapted into a film for the spectacular way in which Mason and her family were rescued by black cowboys at the Cajon Pass in San Bernardino. Biddy Mason, who was born into slavery in 1818, arrived in California with her family as slaves of Robert Marion Smith, a Mormon who migrated west to establish a religious compound in the state. In Los Angeles County, Mason befriended a free African couple, Robert and Minnie Owens, who were successful owners of a livery stable and cattle business. When Smith attempted to move to Texas, a pro-slavery state, with Mason and her family, the Owens alerted the County sheriff and gathered a posse of cowboys from their ranch to prevent Smith from leaving California. The ensuing court battle resulted in the Mason family acquiring their freedom, and the eventual marriage between Biddy’s daughter Hannah and the Owens’s son Charles. Biddy Mason would go on to become a prominent businesswoman herself, amassing a sizable fortune and later financing and founding the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872, Los Angeles’s oldest African American church.

As can be expected, not all stories have happy endings, as is the case in the Perkins story. In 1849, three enslaved men — Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins, and Sandy Jones — migrated from Mississippi to California with their enslaver’s son, Charles Perkins, who hoped to make a fortune during the Gold Rush. Having depleted all of his resources and fallen short in his plans, the failson returned home to Mississippi in 1851, leaving behind his family’s slaves. The three men were later granted freedom by a friend of Perkins and went into the mining business for themselves, finding success where Charles Perkins did not. After the passage of the California Fugitive Slave Act, Charles Perkins re-enslaved the men by forming a posse who stormed their cabin at night and put them in front of a Sacramento judicial officer who would ultimately send them back to Mississippi.

Map tracing the forced migration of enslaved Africans across the United States

California Bound also surfaces the ignominious history of Los Angeles’s early political leaders in the story of Emily and Maria, two enslaved minors who were brought to California from Missouri by the family of Benjamin Davis Wilson, Los Angeles’s second mayor from 1851 through 1862. In seeking out domestic servants at low cost, Wilson invoked California’s Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850, which promoted the removal of Indigenous and enslaved African children from their families and imposed upon them indentured servitude. Acquiring legal guardianship of Emily and Maria through this law, Wilson and his family held the two women as enslaved servants within their home until they turned 21.

According to the exhibition, California’s position on slavery would become less ambiguous as the Civil War took shape. Pro-enslavement southern Democrats would leave California in support of the Confederacy, leaving the anti-enslavement Republican Party largely in control of the state legislature. During the Civil War, California would align itself with the North, providing the Union with logistical support and gold from its Sierra Nevada mines. While the question of slavery would be settled with the end of the Civil War, California would continue to waver on the status of its minority populations, particularly Black residents who acquired freedoms through the 13th Amendment.

Thomas Nast, “The Emancipation of the Negroes, January 1863—The Past and the Future,” January 24, 1863. Harper’s Weekly, vol. 7, no. 317, periodical illustration on paper

Just as the Free Soil Party opposed slavery not out of concern for Black people as human beings, the state of California, shortly after the abolition of slavery across the country, quickly passed laws limiting voting, property, and marriage rights for Black people and other minorities. Having revealed its true intent, the state would go on to establish itself as no less racist or more progressive than its southern counterparts. Leaving these truths as a bookend, the curators ask us to consider how this origin story of California might inform our understanding of the country’s political systems today.

California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, curated by Tyree Boyd-Pates and Taylor Bythewood-Porter, continues at the California African American Museum (600 State Drive, Los Angeles) through April 28.


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