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Background Essay on Slave Communities and Resistance

This short essay explains how historians came to focus not just on what slavery did to enslaved people, but what enslaved people did for themselves within the limits set by this brutal institution.

In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, just under four million African American enslaved people lived and labored in the South. Most worked in agriculture, creating immense wealth for world markets by cultivating and harvesting cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice.  Planters in the South and merchants in the North and Europe became rich buying and selling goods produced by enslaved African labor in America. In the antebellum South, the system influenced almost every aspect of southern behavior and interaction among blacks, among whites, and between the two races.  

While northern colonies and states also had slavery, it was never as central to the economy and development of the North, nor as rooted and widespread as it was in the South. Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780, and over the next several decades other northern states did the same. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the question of slavery increasingly divided North and South. By the 1850s, increasing resistance to the system by enslaved people in the South and abolitionists in the North was changing the course of nineteenth-century American history and would eventually result in the Civil War.  

Slavery, a central topic in U.S. history, has undergone a thorough re-examination over the last three decades. As historian Herbert Gutman noted, previous generations of historians first asked "What did slavery do for the slave?" and later, acknowledging the system's brutality, "What did slavery do to the slaves?" But when historians began to ask, "What did slaves do for themselves?," our current understanding of slavery emerged. Based on the reinterpretation of old sources and the study of new sources like slave narratives, historians now suggest that within the harsh and brutal confines of slavery, African Americans were resistant and resourceful. In the slave quarters, through family, community and religion, enslaved women, men, and children struggled for a measure of independence and dignity.

Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Slave Communities and Resistance,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 1, 2023,

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