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Does slavery still exist?
The sad truth in America today is that many Americans believe slavery does not exist. Taught that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, and the 13th Amendment outlawed the practice of slavery, many don’t realize that neither document completely accomplished its goals. People are led to believe that laws ended slavery when all any law ever did was alter the perception of slavery. Through a tradition of teaching half-truths and an incomplete history of the subject, an atmosphere of complacency so strong developed that it now acts almost as a force field against the real truth. The result is that slavery still exists 144 years after it supposedly ended, and we cannot really begin to correct the situation until we correct the way that information is taught.
To begin with, people need to learn that The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves. That act only allowed for the freeing of “all people held as slaves,” in those states still “in rebellion” against the United States after January 1, 1863. Thus, due to these limitations, none of the slaves were freed in any of the non-rebellious areas of the country, which included four slave states, all of the Northern States, all of the Western Territories, and all of the areas specifically excluded by the Proclamation, (Thompson, 2000, p. 136). Not only was the document far from complete in freeing the slaves, it said nothing about how the transition would take place, or how former slaves who owned nothing were expected to support themselves, (Franklin and Moss, Jr., 2000, p. 233) . Students need to know that slaves quickly found out, freed or not, that it would take more than a few well-spoken words to effect their complete freedom, and that their pain was just beginning.
At the Laura Plantation in Louisiana, for example, the last Matron, Laura Lacoul Gore, commented about the Civil War saying, “The war came and went.” What she meant was that business on the plantation continued pretty much the same before, during and after the war despite any legal mandates. Although required to pay wages after the war, those employing slave labor found the wage problem both easy to overcome and very profitable. Former slaves, now employees, were paid just once a year, but only after the year’s individual personal expenses were subtracted from the year’s earnings of each person. Since the “Company Store” set the prices for those personal expenses, most slaves actually owed more in a year’s time than they earned. In this way, Laura, and other plantations, were able to circumvent the legislative mandates and maintain the advantage of slavery well into the 1970’s, (Plantation Tour, 2008). People don’t realize this because that part is often left out of classroom discussion. Yet, the technique of maintaining slave control without the outward appearance of slavery became so popular that the “Company Store” concept was adopted by other industries, most notably coal mining, and continued on to this day in different forms. In this and other ways, people proved so creative in circumventing the law, they effectively neutralized it. They were just as successful in crippling the 13th Amendment.
Students are often taught that the 13th Amendment was enacted as an attempt to extend the range of the Emancipation Proclamation, and completely outlaw slavery, but few ever read the document. If they did, they would know that Article One contains the very words that allowed slavery to continue. That article reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to its jurisdiction” (Thompson, 2000, p. 492). That permission to allow slavery as punishment for crimes led not only to the creation of Chain Gangs, but also to the subsequent misuse of power that allowed for the conviction of both innocent people and petty criminals just to staff those unpaid work crews. Intended to change slavery, this law again only disguised its appearance behind a more outwardly acceptable countenance, and the practice continued.
Although both documents were great steps forward for the cause of universal freedom, their incomplete solutions and ease of circumvention created almost as much slavery as they eliminated, (Franklin, and Moss Jr., 2000, p.p. 253, 254). And, while many agree that most laws are flawed, incomplete, and contain loopholes, few see those same inadequacies in either of these two Acts. As a result, slavery not only exists in modern times in both traditional and disguised forms, but also has developed into new, modern, and acceptable forms as well.
Many people will argue that slavery does not exist not only because of the existing laws, but, moreover, because they don’t actually see people shackled, whipped and forced to work. Considering our modern lives, however, in light of the definition given by Webster’s Dictionary, (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1966, p. 1370), slavery does affect us all, and applies to many of the practices in which most of us engage. Many in our society are slaves to jobs, slaves to car payments, slaves to credit cards, and slaves to rents or mortgages in much the same manner that tenant farmers on the Laura Plantation were slaves to the Company Store even after the legislation that supposedly ended their servitude. This type of “modern” slavery may be, to an extent, self-imposed, but still fits the definition, and shows yet another way the face of slavery keeps altering its appearance to remain alive. Americans need to understand this or they will continue to enslave themselves, continue to purchase products made by slaves in sweat shops, in third world countries, or by children, and, thus, continue to promote the general acceptance of that which they believe does not exist.
It is difficult to say if the public as a whole will ever change its beliefs, no matter what, but there is a good chance that improved knowledge will improve awareness of what is really happening in the world, and move more people to try to change the situation for the better for all. The key to this increased knowledge, awareness, and positive change lies in improving the way the information is taught. We can do nothing to change the past, but we can try to affect the present and we can certainly try to influence a new, better future. Raising awareness by improving the way the history of slavery is taught can do all that, and it certainly would hurt no one just to try. Continuing on in complacent ignorance, however, will continue to hurt us all.
Franklin, John Hope, and Moss, Alfred A., Jr., (2000). From Slavery to Freedom, Eighth
Laura Plantation Tour, 2008, The Old River Road Plantation Adventure Tours. All
information cited is from an actual tour taken December 28, 2008, outlined at:
Thompson, Peter, (2000). Dictionary of American History From 1763 To The Present,
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition, (1966).
The World Publishing Company.