There were almost 700 thousand slaves in the US in 1790, which equated to approximately 18 percent of the total population, or roughly one in every six people. By 1860, the final census taken before the American Civil War, there were four million slaves in the South, compared with less than 0.5 million free African Americans in all of the US. Of the 4.4 million African Americans in the US before the war, almost four million of these people were held as slaves; meaning that for all African Americans living in the US in 1860, there was an 89 percent* chance that they lived in slavery.
A brief history
Trans-Atlantic slavery began in the early sixteenth century, when the Portuguese and Spanish forcefully brought captured African slaves to the New World, in order to work for them. The British Empire introduced slavery to North America on a large scale, and the economy of the British colonies there depended on slave labor, particularly regarding cotton, sugar and tobacco output. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century the number of slaves being brought to the Americas increased exponentially, and at the time of American independence it was legal in all thirteen colonies. Although slavery became increasingly prohibited in the north, the number of slaves remained high during this time as they were simply relocated or sold from the north to the south. It is also important to remember that the children of slaves were also viewed as property, and (apart from some very rare cases) were born into a life of slavery.
Abolition and the American Civil War
In the years that followed independence, the Northern States began gradually prohibiting slavery, and it was officially abolished there by 1805, and the importation of slave labor was prohibited nationwide from 1808 (although both still existed in practice after this). Business owners in the Southern States however depended on slave labor in order to meet the demand of their rapidly expanding industries, and the issue of slavery continued to polarize American society in the decades to come. This culminated in the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who promised to prohibit slavery in the newly acquired territories to the west, leading to the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Although the Confederacy (south) were victorious in much of the early stages of the war, the strength in numbers of the northern states (including many free, black men), eventually resulted in a victory for the Union (north), and the nationwide abolishment of slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
In total, an estimated twelve to thirteen million Africans were transported to the Americas as slaves, and this does not include the high number who did not survive the journey (which was as high as 23 percent in some years). In the 150 years since the abolishment of slavery in the US, the African-American community have continuously campaigned for equal rights and opportunities that were not afforded to them along with freedom. The most prominent themes have been the Civil Rights Movement, voter suppression, mass incarceration and the relationship between the police and the African-American community has taken the spotlight in recent years.
Black and slave population of the United States from 1790 to 1880
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US Census Bureau. (July 8, 2019). Black and slave population of the United States from 1790 to 1880 [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved December 07, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1010169/black-and-slave-population-us-1790-1880/
US Census Bureau. "Black and slave population of the United States from 1790 to 1880." Chart. July 8, 2019. Statista. Accessed December 07, 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1010169/black-and-slave-population-us-1790-1880/
US Census Bureau. (2019). Black and slave population of the United States from 1790 to 1880. Statista. Statista Inc.. Accessed: December 07, 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1010169/black-and-slave-population-us-1790-1880/
US Census Bureau. "Black and Slave Population of The United States from 1790 to 1880." Statista, Statista Inc., 8 Jul 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1010169/black-and-slave-population-us-1790-1880/
US Census Bureau, Black and slave population of the United States from 1790 to 1880 Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1010169/black-and-slave-population-us-1790-1880/ (last visited December 07, 2023)
Black and slave population of the United States from 1790 to 1880 [Graph], US Census Bureau, July 8, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1010169/black-and-slave-population-us-1790-1880/