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Slave Labor Built America
Africans' impact on the building of America's economy

 The slave block at William and Charles streets is a grim reminder.
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 2/28/2009

IT HAS BEEN well-documented that the first slaves arrived at the settlement located at Jamestown in 1619. American slavery lasted for an astonishing 246 years until the Emancipation Proclamation was written into law by President Abraham Lincoln.

For three centuries African slaves were transported throughout the Colonies in record numbers. Documentation of slaves as cargo on slave ships and the economic gains from their laborious serfdom didn't begin until 1700, so there is an 81-year gap in statistical data for the number of Africans brought through the Middle Passage.

Initially, American Indians and indentured servants from England and Ireland were to supply the source of arduous labor for yielding a prodigious tobacco crop, but this experiment was short-lived. As their brethren in the Caribbean did, colonists decided to turn their eyes to the continent of Africa for free labor.

Over the aforementioned years they amassed an immeasurable fortune on the backs of West African slaves. Slaves were arriving by the thousands while their owners were enjoying obscene amounts of income. The South in particular became a formidable agricultural society through the expansion of tobacco, rice and indigo plantations and later cotton.

The profits made from the sale of these goods in Europe were used to purchase more slaves. Here in Fredericksburg, the slave auction block is still located at the corner of William and Charles streets. The exact role of the stone itself has been debated over the years, with some saying it might have supported the feet of auctioneers rather than of the human beings they sold.

Blacks aided development

According to "A Different Story: A Black History of Fredericksburg, Stafford, and Spotsylvania," by Ruth Coder Fitzgerald: "Slaves worked on plantations, on the docks, in iron industries, mining and quarries, mercantile businesses, construction, domestic services, and others were skilled blacksmiths, coopers, cobblers, and draymen. African Americans were vital in the development of the area." This was typical of many places in the North and South during this period.

The American Revolution brought forth a new set of challenges. Tobacco exportation to Europe took a sizable hit here in Virginia and Maryland. The North abolished slavery in most of its territories, shifting their focus to an industrial foundation. The South was left to wonder where it would find its next cash crop.

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"THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN IMAGE IN VIRGINIA:" Through Wednesday, Dec. 30, Virginia Historical Society, 428 N. Boulevard, Richmond. This exhibit covers four centuries of African-American history and culture in Virginia through pictorial representation in art. Adults, $5; senior citizens, $4; under 18, free. 804/342-9665; vahistorical.org.