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Colonial North America & the Paradox of Liberty

Image of Mary Elliott

In the 16th century, enslaved and free African people lived, worked, and built communities alongside Europeans and Indigenous people. At the beginning of the colonial period, status based on race and class was malleable. By the end of the 17th century, African people had become Black and the majority were enslaved by law.

Whether enslaved or free, Black people in colonial North America helped bring the nation into being. They changed the physical landscape as they cleared and improved the land and created and cultivated profitable crop systems. Their labor afforded the development of a planter elite class that would maintain control for generations. African people in colonial North America altered the political, social, and cultural landscape. Their mere presence was seen as a cause for legislation, legalizing a social caste system based on race and class. They shaped the landscape and were shaped by the landscape. As Black people in the colonies made a way out of seemingly no way, they created new cultures manifested in their dialect, dress, foodways, faith practices, music, and more. Black people were not monolithic. Their experiences of enslavement and freedom varied based on geographic region and other factors. They were part of the larger African Diaspora that extended beyond the borders of North America.

Africans continued their fight for freedom during the Revolutionary War. They helped secure freedom for the new nation that continued to maintain slavery. Their intellect added to notions of freedom, as they pursued liberation from enslavement through escape, rebellion, and public discourse.