In 1619, 20 African people were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, against their will and became part of a centuries-long bonded labor system known as slavery. Four hundred years later, LSA’s Center for Social Solutions (CSS) is collaborating with institutions around the country to mark the anniversary.

Earl Lewis is a noted historian, an award-winning author, and a higher education leader who has done extensive research on topics related to social issues, including the role of race in American history. He’s the president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the current president of the Organization of American Historians.

It’s been 400 years since the first African slaves were brought to what is now the U.S.  How has the Center for Social Solutions (CSS) approached this topic?

Earl Lewis:  At CSS, we want to begin to reflect on the founding political economy of the United States. Almost from its inception, this economy was predicated upon bonded labor that became slave labor. In 1607, the first colonists came to Jamestown to claim an old world as a new world. In 1619, the first 20 or so African people were brought to this colonial space as bonded labor. Between 1619 and the 1660s, slavery developed in the Chesapeake region we now know as Maryland and Virginia. The labor was not free labor, and that pattern of slavery would dominate American social, political, and economic life from 1660 to 1865. Its impacts are still felt today.

From your research, are there any findings that particularly stand out?

EL: One is reminded that slavery touched nearly every lasting institution in America, including higher education. There was much ballyhoo a couple of years ago when the press reported Georgetown University had survived because the Catholic Church—and the Jesuits in particular—had sold enslaved people. Similarly, Brown, Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Emory, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill revealed their ties to the slave trade. When you begin to look at a world map, and chapters of forced migration, you can see what it shows. Millions of people made the journey from the African interior to the West African coast. From there they ended up on ships bound for Brazil, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. Eventually ships filled with human cargo made their way to Mexico, and into what became the United States. There is hardly any place in the Americas that’s not linked to the story of the enslavement of Africans. And like with higher educational institutions, there is hardly any institution that was not shaped by the political economy of slavery. Consider the banks and you realize how many not only held money from transporting human cargo, but also insured and profited from the institution of slavery.

Can you talk about any myths out there that relate to slavery?

EL: There is a long list of myths that relate to slavery. Let me highlight five. One myth is that there was an earlier form of bonded service that evolved into slavery. Chattel slavery existed in the Americas from the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By the seventeenth century, when it arrived in what we think of as the United States, it had evolved. There's some debate among some historians as to whether slavery was closer to indentured servitude in the early days. Indentured servants had a contract where they worked for someone else for a prescribed period of time, and, at the end of their time of service, they were free.

The problem is that most never lived long enough to actually secure that freedom. Few scholars debate that by the 1660s laws had emerged in colonial Virginia and colonial Maryland that began to establish perpetual enslavement of folks of African descent.

Another myth is that all people of African descent were enslaved. They weren’t. Some purchased their own freedom, and some passed the lineage of freedom down from generation to generation.

A third myth is that slavery was only a southern phenomenon. It actually existed all across what was colonial North America, from the most northern states all the way down to the Carolinas. My colleague Tiya Miles wrote a book last year that looked at slavery in Detroit. Slavery organized the economy and regulated labor.

Myth number four: Only African peoples were enslaved. Between two-and-a-half and five million Native Americans were also enslaved during the period from 1620 to 1865.

Myth number five is that only whites were slave masters. Native people became slave owners and slave masters as did people of African descent. Slavery was a core way of organizing wealth, income, position, and status.

And I'll add one last myth to the list: that somehow slavery would have ended without a civil war. The Civil War was about slavery. It took the introduction of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude to really secure a legal framework for freedom going forward.

Since slavery’s legacy is so omnipresent, why don’t we talk about?

EL: Well, you could use a religious analogy: Most people also don't like to talk about sin. I view slavery as one of America's original sins. When people get to talking about it, it surfaces all the angst. A lot of people deal with exposure to anxiety by denying its existence. We put it in a corner and compartmentalize it. We'd rather get to the better times. Reckoning with slavery forces us to enter the interstices of human relations and requires that we study the interplay between power and race. That can be both a delicate and volatile space.

Slavery was followed by emancipation. Emancipation was followed by Jim Crow. Jim Crow was followed by mass incarceration. These aren't the same things, but there is a line that connects them. They’re all related. That’s the challenge for those of us who are students of American history.

Can you talk a bit about mass incarceration and how that’s linked to slavery?

EL: It’s a very complicated story. Let’s see if I can do it justice. Going back to 1619, imprisoned bodies in America were racialized. Between 1620 and 1865, if you were black and you walked in the streets anywhere in America, the first question you were asked was not, what's your name and what do you do? The first question was, aren't you someone's property? Don't you belong someplace? Show me your papers. Do you have papers? And if you didn't have papers, then someone else had the right to claim you.

Coming out of slavery, there was still a demand for labor—for cheap labor, meaning it didn't cost you anything. Across the South in particular, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the convict labor system was developed so people could be picked up for truancy and other minor charges and be sent into the prison system to work for a company. There were companies who actually arranged to get free labor for a specified period of time. This looked a whole lot like slavery, except they were not supposed to keep you for a lifetime—only for prescribed periods.

In the 1960s, after the civil rights struggle and a series of uprisings and urban rebellions, the government created something called the Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA) in 1966. LEAA allowed police departments all over the country to do two things: to enhance their surveillance techniques and to militarize.

There were economic entanglements. Most of the prisons were built in rural areas, and most of the prisoners came from urban areas. Most of the guards in these rural prisons were white, and most of the prisoners were black and brown. The rural areas became dependent upon urban areas for survival. The rural areas needed a steady flow of people, and the only way to do that was to make sure a disproportionate number of the people in the urban areas were arrested.

In the 1980s, Reagan came into power and began to redefine the nature of the threat by declaring a war on drugs. One drug, cocaine, was particularly influential—especially when it came to whether it was in rock or powder form. Crack cocaine invaded urban inner city communities, and powder cocaine invaded the suburbs. Crack cocaine was more dangerous because it carried longer prison terms for users in the inner city as compared to their suburban counterparts. It was racialized. Who were the inhabitants of those inner cities and what did they look like? It returns to the same question about whose bodies are expendable in a larger, sort of political economy, which takes us back to slavery.

Are there specific projects CSS is working on to mark the four hundred year anniversary?

EL:  We are convening a group of scholars to assemble a definitive list of 15 to 20 things that all Americans should know about the institution of slavery. When completed we will work with museums, galleries, theater companies, public media, higher education institutions, etc. to disseminate that list.

Why is slavery still relevant? Does it still have an impact?

EL: Slavery is that topic in American life that people both know something about and will choose to ignore. In the spring of 2016, just before the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened, Lonnie Bunch, its founder and director, convened a number of scholars to talk about African American scholarship and what we have learned over the last few decades. He framed the discussion by saying, “I have to share some letters.” The letters were written by average Americans, black and white. They were all enthusiastic about the new museum and they all had the same thing in common. People would say, “You can talk about anything and everything, but you could you please minimize slavery? Don't talk about slavery. Could you talk about something else, such as the triumphs, the inventions, and the victories? Can we avoid the slavery talk?”

There's a way in which America has tried to avoid slavery, but it's impossible to do so. For example, until recently if you’re in New Orleans and if you went past the statue of the Confederate general Beauregard, you might think of the general and what the Confederacy was fighting for. They were fighting for “state's rights,” which meant the right to engage in the transfer and ownership of humans and human cargo. You drive along the back roads of America, as I have in recent years, and you will see old Confederate flags hanging. They hang on the back roads in New York and the back roads of Virginia. What is that Confederate flag supposed to symbolize, if not the era when slavery organized life?

And as I have noted in more than one setting, I returned from vacation in Virginia, where a handful of my neighbors proudly flew the Confederate flag, even on the Fourth of July, to New York City.  As happens almost every second of the day in New York, there was a competition about whose backside should claim a vacant subway seat—in this case the L train from Brooklyn to Manhattan. On this July day in 2016 a black woman claimed the seat and a white gentleman couldn't get over the fact that he had lost the seat to her. He began to berate and challenge her about the seat, and then he said, ‘Well, when Trump gets elected, he's going to send you all back to the fields.’ 

As I read reports of this and other incidents, I was drawn to the ways slavery can animate confrontations in public places and spaces and reveal deep animus. It can also show how people are prepared to ignore profound and lasting changes in political or economic history. After all, there isn’t a great demand for field workers in a nineteenth-century way. Farms and farm work have been heavily mechanized for more than 70 years. In fact, if you read last year’s McKinsey Report, they predict that by 2030, 800 million jobs worldwide will disappear. That’s 54 million jobs in the United States—one third of the American workforce. The question of human labor is among the most salient questions before us—namely, how do we become robot proof.

Yet on a subway in New York City, one rider used slavery as the trump card, no pun intended, in a confrontation about accommodations.  He sought to summon an institution and times in which the lines of power were clear: If you were black, you were subordinate. If you were white you were superordinate. For CSS, as we try to mount a series of projects on and about slavery, it’s important for us to actually remind ourselves that the long shadow of a slavery past lives on.

Look at the very recent incident with Virginia’s governor. I was out of the country when the first email came, followed by a text. Friends and colleagues wanted my take on my native state, its current governor, and his dance with history, race, and racism.

So when I turned from what my wife and I had planned as a long weekend away, to the latest installment of our imperfect dance with our shared past, my reaction mirrored millions of others: incredulity. How could a man who in his adult life regularly worshipped with African Americans on Sunday have done something as offensive as to have appeared in either blackface or a Klansman’s robe in 1984?  In the days following the revelation, the governor opted to run away from history rather than to lean into it.

We think confronting that past is in our shared best interests.


The Center for Social Solutions promotes research that serves the common good in four areas, including slavery and its aftermath. The center is currently working on solutions to address this painful and complex part of American history so we can move forward as a society.