ESSAY: Slavery Much Worse than Indentured Servitude

by Peter Kelman, Montpelier

(This essay is in response to an opinion piece by Roberta Harold, that appeared in the September 7–September 20 issue of The Bridge)

I’d like to commend the excellent opinion piece “The Civil War Isn’t Over. It Isn’t Even Civil” by Roberta Harold. I would like to add to Ms. Harold’s important piece by slightly reworking a response I made to a post on Front Porch Forum:

The post about indentured servitude, as written, leaves the completely mistaken impression that pigmentation was the only difference between African (slaves) on the one hand and poor white and Native American indentured servants on the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. These Africans were captured in their native lands and sold into slavery; forcibly brought across the ocean in the holds of ships under unimaginably harsh conditions on voyages during which a large percentage of them died cruel deaths. Upon arrival in the American colonies, they were re-sold to white colonists (and they and many generations of their descendants were re-sold again and again until the Civil War ended slavery). They were considered to be property under state and federal laws (including the U.S. Constitution) until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. Their families were deliberately torn apart. They were deprived of the opportunity to learn to read and write. Most of them were fed and clothed poorly. They were whipped and beaten (often to death) to achieve docility. Slave women were routinely raped by their masters and overseers. Ultimately, slaves were discarded like trash when no longer useful. As sad as indentured servitude may have been, it cannot be compared with the inhuman cruelty of the American slavery system, which was legally permitted under the Constitution of the United States until the Civil War.

Indeed it is the unique and utter depravity of American slavery that continues to haunt our country. In the South, deeply buried guilt and fear of retribution has been passed from generation to generation, spawning the KKK, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, legal racial segregation, Black voter suppression and many more racist beliefs and behaviors. This guilt and fear is also the root cause of the distorted version of history that has been taught, learned, and celebrated throughout the South (with statuary, flags and songs) to this day — a thoroughly discredited and false history that denies that slavery was the primary reason the southern states seceded from the Union, formed the Confederacy and fought the Civil War.

Nor are many white people in the North free of this guilt and fear of retribution, which may account for some of the Confederate flag waving we see from time to time in our midst, but more importantly has resulted in widespread de facto racial segregation in the North (including Vermont) in housing, education, employment and the criminal justice system.

Until the wound of slavery is healed, until some kind of public and private restitution is made, I fear that our collective guilt and fear of retribution will continue to haunt our daily lives and ultimately tear our country apart, as our current President and his supporters seem to be bent on doing at this time.

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