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Beyond 1619: Slavery and the Cultures of America

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August 2019 marks 400 years since a group of about 20 Africans were brought to the new colony of Virginia and traded as slaves for food. It was the beginning of African slavery in the continental British colonies that became the United States. The events of 1619 are well documented and the British became the major importers of African slaves to North America, so it has come to mark the start of the slave trade in what was to be the United States. But the facts are often over-stated, as “the beginning of slavery in North America,” for example. The European practice of using slave labor in the New World is older and more complex than that. From a cultural point of view, understanding the larger picture furthers not only historical understanding, but also the understanding of the culture and history of the peoples who are descended from those subjected to slavery and the centuries-old sources of prejudice they have faced. This is a topic bigger than can be covered in a blog post. So what I aim to do here is to talk about some of the history we should think about in addition to the 1619 event and point to some examples of items from American Folklife Center collections that you can explore.

Six men playing drums, maracas, turtle shells, and a guitar.
Libaya Baba, a Garifuna band from New York, performing at the Library of Congress in 2013. The Garifuna are descended from native people of St. Vincent in the Caribbean and slaves who survived a shipwreck near the island in 1675. Photo by Stephen Winick.

The Europeans who set up trade and settlements in the Americas beginning with Columbus’s voyage in 1492 saw slavery as an indispensable source of labor. African slavery was already part of the social construct and economy of Spain and Portugal and spreading to other parts of Europe. In Columbus’s trading center on the island of  Hispaniola in the Caribbean, it was the native Arawak Indians who were enslaved. Enslavement of native peoples in North and South America became common, not only in the case of Spanish merchants and settlers, but for other European settlers who learned the practice from the Spanish. In what became the United States, the Spanish first enslaved the Taino in Puerto Rico in the early 1500s. The French and the Danish who colonized what are now the US Virgin Islands also enslaved the native population. Caribbean and South American native slaves were sold in the British colonies on the continent, and also taken as booty in raids by the British on the Spanish. Indians were often rounded up and forced into slavery. There were also captive slaves taken in war by Indians traded to Europeans for goods. Some Indian peoples at the time of European contact had a practice of captive slavery that was once common in many parts of the world. For a captive taken in battle to be kept as a slave was considered mercy, and that person might be freed at some point if they were considered trustworthy. Since Indian slaves were rarely kept or traded a long distance from their own people, they might hope to escape or to be returned to their people if a truce was achieved. Children of slaves were not slaves. All this changed with European enslavement of Indians, as slaves were considered slaves for life, they were traded across very long distances, and children were born into slavery.

While enslavement of Indians by Europeans occurred in all parts of North America and persisted until the 19th century, in the British colonies it was especially prevalent in the Southeast in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was the common early form of slavery in the Carolinas, and also in Georgia where African slavery was initially not allowed. In the early days of the French settlements in New Orleans and Mobile, Indian slaves were commonly kept along with African slaves. (For more on Indian enslavement by Europeans see, for example, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Reséndez Andrés, 2017, and Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717, by Alan Gallay, 2002.)

The decline in Indian slavery in the Caribbean and in the Southeast came as the population of Indians was decimated by European diseases. The population decline in the American colonies, along with European treaties that forced settlement of Indians in agreed upon nations before the Indian removals in the 1830s, meant a decline in warfare between eastern Indian peoples. Since warfare was the foundation of Indian slavery, the Indians had few slaves to trade with the Europeans.

Interestingly, the first African to set foot in the United States was likely a free man. Juan Garrido was born in what is now Angola and accompanied Juan Ponce de León to Puerto Rico in 1508 and settled there. He also was part of the Ponce de León expedition to Florida in 1513. The first African slave probably arrived in Puerto Rico in 1513, although slavery did not become a significant part of the labor economy of the island until the 18th century. Because we usually think of the beginning of slavery in the US by looking at the British colonies, Puerto Rico is rarely considered, but it is likely the first place in the current United States where African slaves were held.

The African slave trade in the Caribbean, including northern South America, started early and had several international participants. In addition to the Spanish, there were the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch, and the British. All of these different players interacted with each other, whether boarding enemy ships to take slaves and other goods or purchasing slaves from each other. The slave trade in the Caribbean influenced what happened in North America as the Spanish, English, French, and Dutch established northern colonies. The slave traders helped companies wishing to set up sugar plantations and raise spices in the islands to acquire slaves. The Danish West India Company faced stiff competition from other competitors for Caribbean islands to raise sugar, but took St. Thomas island in 1672, St. John Island in 1694, and then purchased St. Croix from France in 1733 — these eventually became the United States Virgin Islands in 1917.

The first African slaves to be brought to the continental United States were brought by the Spanish in 1526 as part of the first attempt at European settlement in what is now the continental United States. The short-lived settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape was founded by Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón. It began when a ship set off from Hispaniola to capture Indian slaves along the southern coast of North America in 1521 and found attractive areas for settlement in what is now South Carolina. In 1526, families were brought from Spain with the intent of forming a colony and laying claim to North America’s shores north of Florida for Spain. A group of African slaves accompanied the settlers. Unfortunately we do not know where San Miguel de Gualdape was finally established. Although the settlers thought they ventured south of the area originally explored, they may actually have been north of there. If they did go south, one guess is that the settlement was on the Sapelo Sound in what is now Georgia. The colony lasted only a few months before it was abandoned. It failed due to a series of serious problems, one of which was that slaves rebelled and then ran off. We do not know their names, we do not know where along the southeast coast they made their break for freedom, and we do not know what became of them — but I think as we remember the history of slavery in the New World, this brave group of people who found themselves left to their own devices on the shore of a continent an ocean away from their homeland should not be forgotten. (For more see, San Miguel De Gualdape: The Failed 1526 Settlement Attempt and the First Freed Africans in America, by Guy E. Cameron, 2015.)

An old covered market building open to the air on all sides. A horse and cart stand outside the steps to the building.
The Slave Market in St. Augustine Florida. Photo by George Baker, 1886. This is one half of a stereocard. The full image of the card is at the link. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

St. Augustine Florida was the first successful settlement by the Spanish in what is now the United States. Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles claimed the area for a Spanish Settlement in 1565. Slaves were brought for the new colony and, among the ship’s crew were some free Africans. A group of French Huguenots had attempted to form a settlement north of there near what is now the border of Florida and Georgia, in 1562, but they were slaughtered by the Spanish on the grounds that they were heretics and had settled on land claimed by Spain. The Huguenot settlement was among the first to include a few free Africans. St. Augustine was to become an important trade point for slavery in the New World. The presence of free Africans, though few initially, was also a portent of the future, as Florida was to become the location of the largest population of free African Americans before emancipation.

The other large population of free African Americans was to develop in the Chesapeake region, and that is where we meet up with the slaves who arrived in the new Virginia colony in 1619. British slavery practice was not well established at the time of the arrival of the first African slaves. It meant different things to different slave holders and in different settlements. The model many people had to go by was that of indentured servants, who were contracted to serve a term of labor for their passage to North America, often seven years, and were given a start on their new life at the end of that service, that might include seed and a parcel of land that they could farm. So some slaves, particularly in the Chesapeake area, were treated the same way, and given their freedom after some years of service. This custom, needless to say, did not last. But the free populations of descendants of African slaves in the Chesapeake and in Florida became important to American history as these peoples were willing to help escaped slaves to freedom. A famous example is Anna Murray, a free African American living in Baltimore who helped Frederick Douglass to escape and later married him.

Enslaved peoples in the early settlements in French Louisiana were culturally influenced by trade and historic events that brought many people of different cultures to the centers of New Orleans and Mobile. Spain took New Orleans in 1763 and ruled for 37 years before the city was returned to French rule. During Spanish rule, French language and culture remained the dominant. Mobile changed hands a few times, ruled by the British from 1763 to 1780 and then by the Spanish until it became part of the United States Mississippi Territory in 1813, so, like New Orleans, it has a complex cultural heritage. The revolution in Haiti in the 1790s brought free French-speaking people of color fleeing the violence to the region who were culturally different from those born in Louisiana. A great many free people of color came to live in this region before the end of slavery. Over time there came to be people of various mixtures of French, Spanish, Native American, and African backgrounds who are called Creoles today.

The above is a very short description of the complex history we should keep in mind, even as we mark the beginning of African Slavery in the British Colonies in 1619. This matters even today as we understand who African Americans are and the variety of their cultural roots. African Americans are sometimes spoken of as if they are one culture, but they have many cultures and varied histories, both among those whose ancestors were brought to America forcibly and those who immigrated to the United States. What follows are some examples to explore of the music and expressions of African American peoples descended from slaves as found in the United States by way of the American Folklife Center collections and events available online. Of course, the examples we have to offer are from a period far removed from the beginnings of slavery. But I think you will see how the early history can help to bring a better understanding of examples from early ethnographic sound recording to the present day.

Native American and African slave history are intertwined. Indians and Africans might serve as slaves in the same households or communities. Indians, sympathizing with African slaves would also sometimes help escaped slaves if they could.

In 1675 a slave ship wrecked off the coast of what is now St. Vincent in the Caribbean. The indigenous Kalinago people of that island rescued those people and, over time, intermarried with them. In the 18th century both the British and the French tried to claim St. Vincent, but encountered strong resistance from the people of the island who knew that their freedom was at risk from these Europeans. But the people of the island lost to the British, who took them prisoner and exiled them to what is now Roatán island off the coast of Honduras where they became known as Garifuna. Most migrated to the mainland where they were influenced by Spanish culture. In more recent times, some have made their way to the United States. They still speak an Arawakan language today. At this link is a concert by Libaya Baba, a Garifuna band from New York, at the Library of Congress in 2013. You will see traditional drums and turtle shell percussion instruments, along with a guitar. (The group is pictured at the top of this post.)

A man in Seminole traditional dress.
This portrait of “Billy Bowlegs” taken in 1895 by Arthur P. Lewis in Kissimee, Florida, is thought to be Billy Bowlegs III, who became a tribal historian for the Seminole. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Since Florida was part of Spain until it was acquired by the United States in 1822, it became one place to which slaves ran when they escaped. Since the United States Army would sometimes invade Florida to try to recapture escaped slaves, communities of former slaves formed near the communities of Seminole Indians (now called the Seminole and Miccosukee) for safety. The African Americans and Indians formed an alliance and would defend each other — a situation that led to a series of brutal wars between the United States and the Seminole and their allies. The Seminole tended to marry within their group, so the different communities remained distinct. But the examples we have of Seminole songs sung for folksong collectors Carita Doggett Coarse and Robert Cornwall in 1940 were organized by a tribal historian whose father was African American and mother was Seminole. He was born Billie Fewell in 1862 and died in 1965. By Seminole tradition he took an adult name, and chose the name of a famous chief, becoming Billy Bowlegs III (the “III” made him distinct from many others who chose the adult name Billy Bowlegs). He acted as a liaison between the Seminole and those who staged traditional performances for tourists and later for folk festivals as he felt that music and dance could help to bring about a better understanding of the Seminole by outsiders. He came to be known to folklorists in this way. He continued to present performers and perform himself into his 90s. Concerned about preserving Seminole language and culture, he wanted songs recorded. So the recordings that Coarse and Cornwall made should also be credited to Billy Bowlegs III as it is not likely that the recording session would have occurred without his help. He sang with the group on the recordings of the “Snake Song,” and the “Buffalo Song.”

Treaties with Indian groups created Indian nations. Similarly with the Seminole, some of these were sympathetic to African Americans and offered escaped slaves refuge or passage through their sovereign lands. In a story about slavery days when the Choctaw nation was in Mississippi, Tim Tingle tells a story about a young Choctaw girl and her adventures that led to the rescue of an enslaved family in this video of “Tim Tingle & D.J. Battiest-Tomasi Choctaw Music and Storytelling,” at the Library of Congress in 2011. In it we learn that there is a Choctaw version of the song “Bound for the Promised Land.” The story begins at about 37 minutes into the video.

The rich culture of French-speaking African Americans, now found primarily in Louisiana, Texas and Alabama, has contributed greatly to the musical traditions of the country, as found in the collections of the American Folklife Center. In 1934 John Lomax and his son Alan, then 19 years old, recorded an important song from a singer named Jimmy Peters in Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana. It is one of the few field recordings of juré, a singing style related to the broader religious tradition of ring-shout. The collectors wrote the title as it was given to them, “J’ai fait tout le tour du pays,” but it is better known by a phrase in the song, “les haricots ne sont pas salés” meaning that the string beans are not salty, a complaint about not being able to afford pork to season them. The words “les haricots” in Creole French are pronounced like “le zydeco,” and the phrase’s prominent use in Creole folksongs may be the source of the name of a genre of Creole music that came to be called “zydeco.” The Creole music at the root of zydeco had been recorded before the Lomaxes went to Louisiana, starting with commercial recordings made in the late 1920s, but the phrase commonly thought to have given it its name was first documented in this song.

Modern French-speaking Creoles in Louisiana today are working to preserve and pass on their culture to future generations. A project to further the perpetuation of Cajun music is found in this video, Creole United: African American Creole Music from Louisiana, a collaboration of Sean Ardoin and Andre Thierry who bring together various master musicians to perform together. The group in this performance group includes Edward Poullard, Lawrence Ardoin, Rusty Metoyer, Sean Ardoin, and Andre Thierry.

An elderly African American man.
Wallace Quarterman. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1935. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Documentation of slaves made during the depression are found in Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 from the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Ethnographers recorded some of these former slaves and these are part of the American Folklife Center collections, online as Voices Remembering Slavery.

Particularly memorable is a 1935 interview with Wallace Quarterman, who was enslaved in the Sea Islands and was among the earliest slaves to be freed during the Civil War. He was a Gullah speaker. Gullah speaking people are found off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Although the dialect has nearly disappeared today, many of the customs and traditions remain. There is a theory that these people may have originally come from the same region of West Africa and so originally shared similar customs and language to one another. You will find that the dialect is a bit hard to understand. But when anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston asks Quarterman what he and other slaves did when they heard that they were freed, he plays on a drum and sings a bit of “Kingdom Coming,” part of the chorus of an abolitionist song about emancipation by Henry Clay Work, which is not hard to understand at all.

The American Folklife Center’s collections include large holdings of African American culture and history. Below are some links to items online related to slavery and early African American culture that can help you to continue your explorations.


Beck, Jane, “Daisy Turner’s Kin: An African American Family Saga,” a lecture at the Library of Congress, 2016. The story of the daughter of a slave, who had a keen memory of her family history even as she lived past 100.

Hall, Stephanie, “Frederick Douglass: Free Folklorist,” Folklife Today, February 5, 2018. Part 1 of two posts about Douglass’s inights in the culture of slaves and the culture of slave owners.

Hall, Stephanie, “Frederick Douglass: I am a Man,” Folklife Today, February 14, 2018. Part 2.

Hall, Stephanie, “Juneteenth,” Folklife Today, June 17, 2016.

Hall, Stephanie, “Homegrown Plus: Grupo Rebolú’s Afro-Colombian Music,” Folklife Today, June 29, 2019. A concert and oral history with a group of musicians dedicated to preserving the musical traditions from the African descendants of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

The McIntosh County Shouters — Gullah-Geechee Ring Shout from Georgia, concert at the Library of Congress, 2010. A group working to preserve songs from the Gullah region with roots in the slavery era in Georgia.

The Singing and Praying Bands: African American A Capella Sacred Music from Delaware and Maryland, concert at the Library of Congress, 2012. Bands preserving a style of singing with roots in the religious practices of slaves in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Winick, Stephen. “A Possum Crisp and Brown: The Opossum and American Foodways,” Folklife Today, August 15, 2019. Draws substantially on the manuscripts from Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938, to tell the story of a prominent aspect of African American foodways.

Winick, Stephen. “Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford: Spiritual Folklorists,” Folklife Today. February 28, 2018. Presents the story of a recording expedition to document two spiritual singers who had been born in slavery, and who poignantly sang the spiritual “Free At Last.” Part of a series of three blogs on these singers.

Winick, Stephen, “Kumbaya: History of an Old Song,” Folklife Today, February 6, 2018. Also adapted as a podcast. The story of an old spiritual, “Come by Here,” including the earliest known version. Gullah and non-Gullah versions are presented.

Winick, Stephen, “Soul Got a Hiding Place: Hidden Spirituals from the McIlhenny Manuscript,” Folklife Today, March 19, 2018. Presents more spirituals remembered by former slaves Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford. Part of a series of three blogs on these singers.

Comments (6)

  1. Thanks so much – this is a fascinating extension and exploration of a horrible legacy.

  2. I am pleasantly and highly surprised by your references to the early history of Puerto Rico in this article. Thank You

  3. My soul longs to know it’s history. Is such a profound violation. Only God can heal & Vengeance is the Lords. God will recompense!

  4. In the search of truth in Christianity! We much look back. I think we all must learn the truth, know the truth, speak the truth, tell the truth and face the truth and debunk the indoctrination, and be educated by educators, not teachers.

  5. The year 1619 is only a minor milestone in the history of African-American slavery. The year 1685 has much greater significance. Sixteen-eighty-five being the year that King Louis XIV of France enacted the Code Noir (Black Code). This code promulgated the concept that children of slaves were themselves slaves, owned by the owner of the slave-mother. After this edict, the concept of inherited bondage then became common practice throughout the world.

  6. Thanks for including the Puerto Rican and other Caribbean islands history.
    One thing- the indigenous people of the Americas are not “Indians”, as you have written several times in this blog; they’re Indigenous or Native…Indians, come from India, not the Americas.

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