Reflections at the Intersection of American History, Religion, Politics, and Academic Life
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Slavery's "Trail of Tears"
After 1808 it was illegal for Americans to participate in the international slave trade. This, however, did not mean that slaveholders were prohibited from trading slaves within the United States. Between 1808 and 1865, slaveholders in the upper South (Virginia, Maryland, etc.) sold hundreds of thousands of slaves to cotton planters in the Gulf Coast states.
Writing at Smithsonianmagazine, Edward Ball applies the phrase "trail of tears"--a phrase normally used to describe the Cherokee displacement in the 1830s--to this forced migration.
Here is a taste:
The Slave Trail of Tears is the great missing migration—a thousand-mile-long river of people, all of them black, reaching from Virginia to Louisiana. During the 50 years before the Civil War, about a million enslaved people moved from the Upper South—Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky—to the Deep South—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. They were made to go, deported, you could say, having been sold.
This forced resettlement was 20 times larger than Andrew Jackson’s “Indian removal” campaigns of the 1830s, which gave rise to the original Trail of Tears as it drove tribes of Native Americans out of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. It was bigger than the immigration of Jews into the United States during the 19th century, when some 500,000 arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe. It was bigger than the wagon-train migration to the West, beloved of American lore. This movement lasted longer and grabbed up more people than any other migration in North America before 1900.
The drama of a million individuals going so far from their homes changed the country. It gave the Deep South a character it retains to this day; and it changed the slaves themselves, traumatizing uncountable families.
But until recently, the Slave Trail was buried in memory. The story of the masses who trekked a thousand miles, from the tobacco South to the cotton South, sometimes vanished in an economic tale, one about the invention of the cotton gin and the rise of “King Cotton.” It sometimes sank into a political story, something to do with the Louisiana Purchase and the “first Southwest”—the young states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Historians know about the Slave Trail. During the last ten years, a number of them—Edward Baptist, Steven Deyle, Robert Gudmestad, Walter Johnson, Joshua Rothman, Calvin Schermerhorn, Michael Tadman and others—have been writing the million-person-migration back into view.