By Bill Dobbins

African slave ship diagram
Slavers packed their ships with as many bodies as possible, knowing that a significant proportion of these human beings would perish during the voyage.

The fact that the United States was founded on a history of 400 years of slavery is a more important factor in its national and current identity than many realize.  On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminaryEmancipation Proclamation,but a culture has to maintain certain basic assumptions in order to treat human beings as animals, to be bought and sold, and those assumptions do no change quickly nor go away easily.  And so although it seems as if slavery in America was very much in the distant past, it’s legacy still remains with us and continues to have an effect on us to this day.

Slave families only stayed together as long as their master allowed them to. Husbands, wives or children could be sold off with no notice.

The US is a nation of immigrants but only Africans were systematically brought to the Americas chained up in slave ships with a significant proportion of  those being transported perishing during the voyage.

Because photography was invented in about 1939, when slavery in America still existed, we have documentary images that show some of what this institution and the human beings subjected to it was actually like. Of course, there are also a huge number of contemporary illustrations we can also refer to in picturing the conditions of the time.

The invention of the cotton gin allowed the south to turn raising cotton into a major industry and required the participation of large amounts of slave labor.

I am personally so aware of this that I find it impossible to watch a movie likeTwelve Years A Slave.  I find it equally difficult to watch Holocaust Movies, both subjects involving large numbers of individuals being abused and murdered because of immoral government policies.

In addition to being whipped, slaves could also be punished by having body parts amputated. But slaves were expensive, valuable property so slave owners had to think twice before damaging them too severely.

Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human chattel enslavement, primarily of Africans and African Americans, that existed in the United States of America from the beginning of the nation in 1776 until passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Slavery had been practiced in British America from early colonial days, and was legal in all thirteen colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Under the law, an enslaved person was treated as property and could be bought, sold, or given away. Slavery lasted in about half of U.S. states until 1865. As an economic system, slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping and convict leasing.




A slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina.

By the time of the American Revolution (1775–1783), the status of enslaved people had been institutionalized as a racial caste associated with African ancestry.[1] The role of slavery under the U.S. Constitution (1789) was the most contentious issue during its drafting. Although the creators of the Constitution never used the word “slavery”, the final document, through the three-fifths clause, gave slave-owners disproportionate political power.[2] During and immediately following the War, abolitionist laws were passed in most Northern states and a movement developed to abolish slavery. All Northern states had abolished slavery in some way by 1805; sometimes, abolition was a gradual process, and hundreds of people were still enslaved in the Northern states as late as the 1840 Census. Some slaveowners—primarily in the Upper South–freed the people they had enslaved, and philanthropists and charitable groups bought and freed other enslaved people. The Atlantic slave trade was outlawed by individual states beginning during the American Revolution. The practice was banned by Congress in 1808, although smuggling was common thereafter.[3][4]:7 – Wikipedia

Cotton and tobacco farming required a large labor force which was supplied in the south by slaves.

Though it is impossible to give accurate figures, some historians have estimated that 6 to 7 million black slaves were imported to the New World during the 18th century alone, depriving the African continent of some of its healthiest and ablest men and women.

After the Revolutionary War, the new U.S. Constitution tacitly acknowledged the institution of slavery, counting each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation in Congress and guaranteeing the right to repossess any “person held to service or labor” (an obvious euphemism for slavery).

Sexual exploitation of female slaves was common and widespread. Thomas Jefferson having a relationship with slave  Sally Hemings shows this did not just happened on Southern plantations.

The 13th Amendment, adopted on December 18, 1865, officially abolished slavery, but freed blacks’ status in the post-war South remained precarious, and significant challenges awaited during the Reconstruction period.

Former slaves received the rights of citizenship and the “equal protection” of the Constitution in the 14th Amendment and the right to vote in the 15th Amendment, but these provisions of Constitution were often ignored or violated, and it was difficult for former slaves to gain a foothold in the post-war economy thanks to restrictive black codes and regressive contractual arrangements such as sharecropping.

It was common for female slaves to act as nannies and help raise the children of their masters and mistresses.

But the emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and the continuous effort of some political forces to restrict the voting rights of minorities, especially African-Americans, makes it clear that the toxic legacy of slavery in America is still with us and the US still has a way to go in acting on the statement that “all men are created equal.”******************************************************

Bill Dobbins Sarah Lyons dressing room-SMALL-1

 Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles.  His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Taschen)





New Orleans Slave Market
New Orleans slave market. Interior view of a room with a rotunda ceiling during an auction of slaves, artwork and goods.
Raising cotton was a southern industry which required a great deal of slave labor and therefore helped to continue the institution.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves, duringReconstruction and heJim Crowera the actual living and economic conditions of most freed sleves often changed very little.


You don’t often see this in the movies, but many freed slaves migrated west to become cowboys, scouts and Indian fighters.