Four hundred years ago this month, the White Lion, a warship commanded by English privateers, docked at Point Comfort in the colony of Virginia. On board were “20 and odd” Africans who had been captured by Portuguese slavers in present-day Angola and then stolen during an act of piracy on the high seas. Once on land, the African men and women were bought by the “Governor and Cape Marchant … at the best and easyest rate they could,” wrote John Rolfe, the colony’s first successful tobacco planter.
The arrival of the White Lion is frequently thought of as the beginning of chattel slavery in what is now the United States and, as such, the genesis of African-American history and culture.
But there are many historical inaccuracies about this event that have been passed down through the years. The reality is, though the new arrivals were the first documented enslaved Africans brought to the English-controlled territory in North America, slavery in the present-day United States actually predated them.
The English, along with the Spanish and French, had earlier enslaved Indigenous peoples. And the Spanish, who had been transporting enslaved Africans to present-day Latin America since the early 1500s, had brought them to colonies in the Carolinas and St. Augustine in Florida.
There are, in fact, many other inaccuracies about slavery in popular culture. And, in many ways, our country remains in denial about the foundational role that slavery and white supremacy played in America’s history.
In part – even a half century after the Jim Crow era came to a close – it’s because our schools do not do a good job teaching this history. To address this deficit, SPLC's Teaching Tolerance program last year released “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.”
With this groundbreaking initiative, the SPLC offered a suite of resources to help teachers improve how slavery is taught in American schools. Just this week, Teaching Tolerance introduced a new teaching framework for grades K-5 that provides critical lessons and facilitates important conversations. And, in the coming week, we’re launching Season 2 of our podcast series about slavery, the Civil War and the lasting impact of white supremacy.
Right now, much of what elementary-age students learn about slavery lacks the context needed to help them understand it. They may receive passing references to the “peculiar institution” or the creation of the Constitution, but there is no real emphasis on the role slavery played in the nation’s formation and growth. When this role is downplayed in the classroom, students fail to recognize the fullness of our nation’s history or how the legacy of slavery continues to affect our country.
The Teaching Tolerance curriculum debunks the falsehoods that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War and that it was a purely Southern institution. It also reveals an even-less-frequently discussed notion: Slavery shaped America’s pathology on race and whiteness.
It’s well documented that white supremacist ideology evolved to justify such barbaric – and profitable – treatment of human beings. The solution was simple: Cease considering enslaved Africans and African-Americans as people. When people were converted to property in the white imagination, it became easier to sell them like cattle, to separate them from their families, to calculate their worth by age, sex and productivity, to believe they were unable to feel pain, or to rationalize a belief in biological inferiority. It also became easier to reconcile the inherent contradiction of the dehumanizing institution of slavery with the promise of equal rights enshrined in our country’s founding documents.
Ever since, this white supremacist culture has underpinned a reiterative racial caste system that has given us Black Codes, racial lynchings, convict leasing, Jim Crow segregation, federal housing loan discrimination, the destruction of black neighborhoods for “urban renewal,” environmental injustice, wealth inequality, voter disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, and police brutality.
Another significant truth that “Teaching Hard History” reveals about the legacy of slavery: America's economic success was largely made possible by the coerced labor provided by such a cruel institution. The business of slavery fueled the growth of Wall Street, the insurance industry, and shipping fortunes. The labor of enslaved people reaped the cotton that fed the New England mills that launched the Industrial Revolution and built a sprawling rail network, propelling the country’s enormous economic growth in the nineteenth century. That wealth, created by enslaved labor, attracted millions of European immigrants to the nation’s shores well into the 1920s. And when slavery was outlawed, our society built systems that would keep African Americans in as close a condition to slavery as possible. It has created a reality in which the economic vitality of our country has been entangled with predatory capitalism and racial subjugation.
The economic system produced by slavery, and the vast inequalities it was predicated on, had no small part in ensuring that the United States remains one of the most unequal developed nations in the world. The southeastern United States, where slavery was most prevalent, has suffered particularly from economic stagnation, affecting poor white people and people of color alike.
This inequality lies at the root of the SPLC’s work fighting hate, seeking justice and teaching tolerance.
We’re fighting to rid the South – and the country – of the racist systems and policies that are firmly rooted in the institution of slavery and white supremacist beliefs that continue to marginalize communities of color and people living in poverty.
It’s our hope that by accepting the truth about America’s history and the ways in which our country’s original sin continues to echo in society, our country can put itself on the path toward a more equitable future, one where everyone’s rights are, in fact, “unalienable.”
Can Stacey Abrams save American democracy? from Vogue
Thirty-two short stories about death in prison from The Atlantic
The new Stephen Miller from The Atlantic
Why an heiress spent her fortune trying to keep immigrants out from The New York Times