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Slavery & Freedom

1400–1877

Ambrotype of an African American Woman with a Flag, 1865

Five hundred years ago, a new form of slavery transformed Africa, Europe, and the Americas. For the first time, people saw other human beings as commodities—things to be bought, sold, and exploited to make enormous profits. This system changed the world.

The United States was created in this context, forged by slavery as well as a radical new concept, freedom. This is a shared story, a shared past, told through the lives of African Americans who helped form the nation.

Introductory video for Slavery and Freedom exhibit

Understanding Slavery And Freedom

An introduction to the David M. Rubenstein History Galleries Slavery and Freedom exhibition by Mary Elliott, NMAAHC Curator of American Slavery

Part 01Slavery & the Making of the Atlantic World

Introduction to Slavery and the Making of the Atlantic Word

In the 1400s national boundaries did not exist as they do today. African and European peoples had traded for centuries across the Mediterranean, exchanging diverse goods, cultures, and knowledge. An Atlantic world was forming that connected people and ports along the Atlantic Ocean’s rim. By the 1600s an unanticipated shift took place. The primary commodity became enslaved African people. This is their story.

Part 02Colonial 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.

Part 03Slavery & the Making of a New Nation

Photograph of Curator Mary Elliott

America’s promise of freedom is filled with contradiction. Few people understood this more clearly than enslaved and free African Americans. As the lifeblood of the new republic, slavery expanded with brutal intensity after the Revolution. The national economy relied upon slavery; the U.S. Constitution defended slavery; and the country expanded west to extend slavery. Enslaved African Americans fought for freedom through rebellion, escape, the written word, and public outcry. Despite daily denials of their humanity, enslaved people sustained a vision of freedom by embracing family, engaging in their own cultural practices, and valuing their own work. They built their own identities.

Part 04Coming of War, Coming of Freedom

Introductory photograph for welcome video

The nation’s global power came with a human cost. The country was tearing apart at the seams even in the midst of its expansion, as various factions fought to push their competing agendas. At the heart of the tension regarding the growth of the nation, the balance of political power, and access to economic opportunities was slavery. Black people continued the fight for freedom. Black and white people formed alliances and waged war on slavery. At the same time, proslavery advocates exercised their property rights as they enforced the Fugitive Slave Act.

The march toward war began in November 1860 with the election of President Abraham Lincoln. A month later, South Carolina seceded from the Union, citing slavery in its secession documents at least 18 times. In April, the Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter in South Carolina, declaring war on the United States.

African Americans did not stand by idle. They escaped to free states in the North, as well as to Canada and Mexico. On December 31, 1862, they watched for the midnight hour, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect providing freedom for enslaved Black people in the rebelling states and enabling Black men to enter the fight as Union soldiers. The country was in transition and freedom was on the way. The spirit and tenacity of African Americans brought themselves and the nation out of the bondage of slavery. Yet the fight continued as they reconstituted families and built communities and institutions as sources for survival, while battling against violence brought on by their increasing legal rights.