The Story of Slavery
Category: History
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Booker T. Washington was essentially the leader of the African American people in the United States from 1890 to 1915. Washington was born in slavery but later became educated and free. He later became an author, speaker, and adviser to presidents. The Story of Slavery is a detailed account of slavery's history by a one-time enslaved person published in 1913.

The Story of Slavery

Booker T. Washington

With Biographical Sketch

The Story of Slavery

Booker T. Washington
by Emmett J. Scott

Booker T. Washington, the author of the following sketch of slavery in America, was himself born a slave, and the story of his life begins where “The Story of Slavery” leaves off. He was born about 1858 or 1859 on a plantation near Hales Ford, Va., about twenty-five miles east of the city of Roanoke, in a region which, now almost deserted, was in slavery days a flourishing tobacco country. A few years ago he was invited to speak at the annual fair at Roanoke, and took advantage of the opportunity to drive out to the old plantation to visit again the scene of his childhood. He met there several members of the Burroughs family to which he had formerly belonged, and with them he went through the old Burroughs house, which is standing, and talked over the old days.

It was while he was living there that he was awakened one morning to find his mother kneeling on the earth floor of the little cabin in which they lived, praying that “Lincoln and his armies might be successful and that one day she and her children might be free.” It was here a little later on, as he tells us in the book, “Up From Slavery,” in which he has related the story of his life, that he heard the announcement that he and all the other slaves were free.

“I recall,” he says, “that some man who seemed to be a stranger and who was undoubtedly a United States official, made a little speech and then read a rather long paper — the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free and could go where we pleased.”

“My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant; that this was the day for which she had so long been praying, but fearing she would never live to see.”

“For some minutes,” he continues, “there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving and wild scenes of ecstasy. But there was no feeling of bitterness. In fact, there was pity among the slaves for our former owners. The wild rejoicing of the emancipated colored people lasted but a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves and their children, of having to plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them. To some it seemed, now that they were in actual possession of it, freedom was a more serious thing than they had expected to find. Gradually one by one, stealthily at first, the older slaves began to wander back to the ‘big house’ to have whispered conversations with their former owners as to their future.”

Thus it was that freedom came to Washington and so it came, perhaps, to some three and one-half millions of others on their plantations throughout the South.

Shortly after the “surrender,” as the Southern people say, young Washington made a long journey across the mountains with his mother to West Virginia where his stepfather was then living, and it was in Malden he grew up to young manhood. Malden is situated in the mining region of West Virginia, and after a time young Washington went to work in the mines. It was while he was working down in the coal mines of West Virginia that he one day overheard one of the miners reading from a paper concerning a school at Hampton, Virginia, where a Negro in earnest would be given a chance to work his way through school. He determined at once that he would seek out and find that school. So it was that a few months later he set out afoot across the mountain in the direction of Richmond to find his way to Hampton Institute. In his remarkable biography he has described how he made that journey; how he arrived hungry and penniless in the city of Richmond; how he slept for several nights under the sidewalk in Richmond until he was able to earn enough money to reach the famous school of which he had read.

In this same biography he has told, also, of how the teacher in charge, who was very doubtful about admitting him at first, finally, in place of asking him any questions about what he had learned in school, set him to work sweeping and dusting the schoolroom.

“I swept that recitation room three times,” he said, “then I got a dusting cloth and I dusted it four times. All the woodwork around the walls, every bench, table and desk, I went over four times with my dusting cloth. I had the feeling that my future depended upon the way I dusted that room.”

When he had finished the teacher came and looked very critically over the results of his work. Then she said: “I guess you will do,” and that was his entrance examination. This rather peculiar entrance examination illustrates the spirit of the institution in which Booker Washington gained his first forward preparation for life.

At the time that young Washington entered Hampton Institute, General Armstrong, the founder of the school, was engaged in a great and interesting experiment. His purpose was to create a school which would give the sons of the freedmen education in character as well as in books. Booker Washington saw that this education was the thing above all others that the masses of the Negro people needed at this time, and realized better than any other of the graduates of the institution the significance and bearing of the work that General Armstrong was trying to do. He made up his mind then that he would go out into some part of the South and establish a school which would do for other members of his race what Hampton had done for him. His opportunity came when a call came to Hampton for a man to take charge of a school at Tuskegee, Alabama. It was thus in 1881 that the famous Tuskegee Institute came to be started.

This school, which was started on July 4, 1881, in a little shanty church, with one teacher and thirty students, has grown until it now has a student body of 1600, with 165 teachers and officers, 103 buildings and property to the value of $1,500,000.

In 1895 Mr. Washington was invited to speak at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition on Negroes Day. In that speech he made an appeal for peace between the races, and formulated a program for mutual cooperation between black and white which has been the basis of all his efforts since that time.

From that time on his fame has grown steadily, both in this country and abroad. In 1896 Harvard University conferred upon him the honorary degree of Master of Arts for service in the education of his race. He has received numerous other honors since that time and has spoken in every state of the Union in favor of Negro education. A few years ago when he went abroad he was invited to dinner by the King of Denmark. In April, 1912, there was held under his leadership at Tuskegee an international conference on the Negro to which representatives came from many parts of Africa as well as the West Indies and South America. The result of this was a plan to form a permanent international organization to study the Negro problem in all parts of the world and hold meetings triennially.

Mr. Washington is the author of several books in addition to his autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” which has been translated into every civilized language in the world, including Japanese.

The most noted of these books are, “Working with the Hands,” “The Story of the Negro,” in two volumes, “My Larger Education,” and “The Man Farthest Down,” which is a record of a journey of observation and study of the working and peasant peoples of Europe.

Booker T. WashingtonBooker T. Washington


It was one hot summer’s day in the month of August 1619, as the story goes, that a Dutch man-of-war entered the mouth of the James River, in what is now the State of Virginia, and, coming in with the tide, dropped anchor opposite the little settlement of Jamestown. Ships were rare enough to be remembered in that day, even when there was nothing especially remarkable about them, as there was about this one. But this particular ship was so interesting at the time, and so important because of what followed in the wake of its coming, that it has not been forgotten to this day. The reason for this is that it brought the first slaves to the first English settlement in the New World. It is with the coming of these first African slaves to Jamestown that the story of slavery, so far as our own country is concerned, begins.

Although the coming of the first slave ship to what is now the United States is still remembered, the name of the ship and almost everything else concerning the vessel and its strange merchandise has been forgotten. Almost all that is known about it is told in the diary of John Rolfe, who will be remembered as the man who married the Indian girl, Pocahontas. He says, “A Dutch man-of-war that sold us twenty Negars came to Jamestown late in August, 1619.” An old record has preserved some of the names of those first twenty slaves, and from other sources it is known that the ship sailed from Flushing, Holland. But that is almost all that is definitely known about the first slave ship and the first slaves that were brought from Africa to the United States.

The first slaves landed in Virginia were not, by any means, the first slaves that were brought to the New World. Fifty years before Columbus landed on the island of San Salvador, the first African slaves were brought from the West Coast of Africa to Spain, and we know from historical references and records that Negro slavery had become firmly established in Spain before Columbus made his first voyage. It was, therefore, natural enough that the Spanish explorers and adventurers, following close upon the heels of Columbus in search of gold, should bring their Negro servants with them.

It seems likely, from all that we can learn, that a few Negroes were sent out to the West Indies as early as 1501, only eleven years after the discovery of America and one hundred and twenty years before the first cargo of slaves was landed in Jamestown. Four years later, in a letter dated September 15, 1505, written by King Ferdinand to one of his officials in Hispaniola, which we now call Hayti, he says among other things: “I will send you more Negro slaves as you request. I think there be an hundred.”

Thus early was Negro slavery introduced into the New World and what do you suppose was the reason, or rather the excuse, for bringing black men to America at this time?

It was to save from slavery the native Indians. A good priest by the name of Las Casas, who accompanied the first Spanish explorers and conquerors, found that the native people, the Indians, were fast dying out under the cruel tasks put upon them by their Spanish conquerors. Unaccustomed to labor, they could not endure the hardships of working in the mines. The Negroes, on the contrary, had, in many cases, been slaves in their own country, and had been accustomed to labor. At the same time it was said that one Negro could do the work of four Indians. So it was that this good man, out of pity for the enslaved Americans, proposed that the black people of Africa should be brought over to take their places.

Thus the traffic in African slaves began, and in the course of the next three hundred years many millions of black people were carried across the ocean and settled in slave colonies in the New World. They were brought to America, first of all, to work in the mines, and afterwards more of them were brought to do the almost equally difficult pioneer work on the plantations. Thus, in all hard labor of clearing and draining the land, building roads and opening up the New World to cultivation and to civilization, the black man did his part.

It has been estimated that no less than 12,000,000 slaves were transplanted from Africa to America to supply the demand for labor in the West Indies, in South America and in the United States, during the centuries that the white people of Europe were seeking to establish their civilization in the Western World.

Perhaps as many as 12,000,000 more, who were taken in the wars and raids in Africa, died on the way to the coast, or in the terrible “middle passage,” as the journey from the coast of Africa to that of America was called. Many of those captured and sold in Africa, who did not die on the high seas in the crowded and stifling hold of the ships into which they were thrust, did not survive what was known as the “seasoning process,” after they were landed in America.

Roughly speaking, it is safe to say that not less than 24,000,000 human beings were snatched from their homes in Africa and sold into slavery, to help in building up the world in which we live today in America.

Although African slavery was introduced into America at first in order to save from extinction the native people of the West Indies, who were not strong enough to endure the hardships of slavery, it is sad to recall that the slavery of the Negro did not serve to preserve the Indian, for it was but a comparatively few years after the Spaniards landed in the West Indies before nearly all the native tribes had been swept away. There are today in the West Indies only a few remnants of the Indians whom Columbus met when he first landed in America.

The black man, on the other hand, in spite of the hardships he has endured, has not only survived but has greatly increased in numbers. So greatly has the black man increased that in the West Indies today the black population far outnumbers all other races represented among the inhabitants. Altogether, it is estimated there are now about 24,591,000 Negroes in North and South America and the West Indies. Of this number 10,000,000 are in the United States.


The story of the first American voyage to Africa to obtain slaves of which there is any definite record, is that of a certain Captain Smith, commanding the ship, Rainbowe, and sailing from Boston. Captain Smith had sailed to Madeira with a cargo of salt fish and staves and, on the way home, he touched on the coast of Guinea for slaves. There happened to be very few slaves for sale at the moment and on this account, Captain Smith, together with the masters of some London slave ships already on the ground, conspired together to pick a quarrel with some of the natives, so as to have an excuse to attack their village and carry off the prisoners made as slaves. Captain Smith’s share of the booty was two slaves with whom he returned to Boston.

It happened, however, that when he reached home he got into a quarrel with the ship’s owners over the proceeds of the voyage, and, in the lawsuits which resulted, the story of the manner in which the slaves were obtained was told in court. Thereupon one of the magistrates charged Captain Smith with a “threefold offence — murder, man-stealing and Sabboth breaking.” He was acquitted of all three charges on the ground that these crimes were committed in Africa, but, as a result of the trial, the slaves were returned to their homes.

This story is interesting, for one reason because it shows that, in the early days of the slave trade, the barter and sale of Negro slaves, so long as it was conducted in an honest and orderly way, according to the accepted customs and manners of trade, was not considered a wrong or wicked business.

At first the slave traders purchased slaves only from the native chiefs. These slaves were generally prisoners who had been taken in the tribal wars. In some cases they were men or women who had been sold for debt. There were, also, other ways in which one black man in Africa might hold another in slavery.

Very soon, however, the ordinary sources of supply of slaves was not sufficient to meet the demand of the American trade. Then traders became less scrupulous. They began buying from any one who had a man or woman for sale. This encouraged kidnapping. Not infrequently the man who brought a gang of slaves to the coast to be sold would himself be kidnapped and sold by other men before he could return home. Sometimes the traders, after they had purchased a gang or a “coffle” of slaves, as they were called, would invite the traders on board ship in order to entertain them. Then, after they were under the influence of liquor, they would put chains upon them and carry them away with the very slaves the traders themselves a few hours before had sold.

As time went on, and the demand for slave labor increased, the men engaged in this cruel traffic became hardened to its cruelty and the West Coast of Africa became one vast hunting ground. Men and women were tracked and hunted as if they were wild beasts. It grew so bad at length that the conscience of the civilized world was aroused. Then, one by one, the nations of the world began to prohibit the traffic. England, which had formerly been one of the nations most deeply involved in this evil business, now became the leader in the attempt to put a stop to it.

The importation of slaves was prohibited in the United States in 1808, but that did not put an end to the importation of slaves. For, after the invention of the cotton gin at the close of the eighteenth century by Eli Whitney, a Connecticut school master, slaves were needed more than ever, to plant and till and pick the cotton which had now become much more valuable than before.

Although it was no longer lawful to import slaves, they were smuggled into the country. As late as 1860 the famous yacht, Wanderer, which had at one time been owned by a member of the New York Yacht Club, brought into the United States 450 slaves, and it has been estimated that as many as 15,000 slaves were smuggled into the different Southern ports in the year 1858.

At this time it had become the custom to gather great numbers of slaves at different points along the coast of Africa, in what were called barracoons. These were nothing more or less than strong stockades made by planting trees close together in the ground so as to form a strong enclosure from which there was no escape. In these barracoons slaves captured in the interior were held until they were ready to be shipped.

Swift sailing vessels, which travelled so fast that, once they escaped the vigilance of the war ships stationed along the coast, they could never be overtaken, were used to carry the slaves from the coast of Africa to that of America.

These vessels would hover about in the neighborhood of one of these slave barracoons until the coast was clear; then swiftly the living cargo would be hurried aboard, and the vessel would put on all sail and make all possible haste to put itself and its human freight beyond the reach of the police ships.

Usually these slave ships were provided with a lower, or what was called a “slave deck,” beneath the ordinary deck of the ship. In some instances, in order to escape suspicion, the ship would have no permanent slave deck but such a deck would be hastily arranged after the vessel arrived in the neighborhood of one of the slave barracoons. In such cases the ordinary cargo would be put in the bottom of the ship and then, above this and from three to five feet beneath the ordinary deck, a second deck would be hastily improvised. Here as many slaves would be stowed away as could be possibly crowded into the narrow space.

It is only necessary to read the descriptions of the methods by which this traffic was carried on to understand the horrible suffering to which the slaves were subjected during this middle passage. In many instances, when brought out on deck for a little air, the slaves had to be chained to keep them from jumping overboard.

Sometimes a pestilence would break out on one of these ships and the whole cargo, consisting of three or four hundred slaves, would be lost. It is said that the yellow fever was brought to America by slaves. There are instances, also, where the captain of a slave ship jettisoned, that is to say, threw over-board, a whole ship-load of slaves to escape being caught by the ships that were pursuing him.

When a slave ship reached the shore of America there were snug harbors at various points along the coast into which one of these swift sailing vessels could always hide until its cargo of slaves had been discharged. The island upon which the present city of Galveston is built was once a refuge for slave pirates and slave smugglers. The coast of Louisiana is full of shallow bays, which reach far into the land, and they were a favorite resort for slave smugglers. Here was the hiding place of the Barataria pirates who were long famous as slave smugglers.

Mobile Bay was one of the points at which a slave cargo was occasionally landed. It is said that the hull of the very last slave ship, the Lawrence, which was captured and burned by the Federal troops during the first year of the Civil War, may still be seen hidden away in the swamps and marshes east of Mobile.

There is still living in the suburbs of Mobile a little colony of Africans who were brought over on this last slave ship. When they were released by the Federal officers they settled here. It is said that there are old men living in this settlement who still speak an African language, but their children have all grown up to be good Americans.

Once a ship load of slaves was landed on the American coast, they were immediately divided and scattered in every direction. Some were taken to one plantation, others to another, and so on until all were disposed of. Soon they were so thoroughly intermingled with the great body of slaves that all trace of them was lost. At least it was rare that anyone ever did trace the cargo of slaves after it was once landed, although slave ships were frequently captured on the high seas.

When slavers were captured red-handed on the high seas by the United States or English navies, an effort was made to return the slaves to their homes in Africa. As this was not practical the English government established at Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa, a station to which they sent all liberated slaves. It was in this manner, that what is now one of the most thriving English colonies on the west coast of Africa was started.

The story of the slave trade is one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Western World, for though it began in the comparatively harmless way already described, it grew steadily worse until in its last stages even those familiar with slavery in its worst form came to look upon it with shame.

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