People think they know everything about slavery in the United States, but they don’t. They think the majority of African slaves came to the American colonies, but they didn’t. They talk about 400 hundred years of slavery, but it wasn’t. They claim all Southerners owned slaves, but they didn’t. Some argue it was a long time ago, but it wasn’t.
Slavery has been in the news a lot lately. Perhaps it’s because of the increase in human trafficking on American soil or the headlines about income inequality, the mass incarceration of African Americans or discussions about reparations to the descendants of slaves. Several publications have fueled these conversations: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic Monthly, French economist Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, historian Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and The Making of American Capitalism, and law professor Bryan A. Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.
As a scholar of slavery at the University of Texas at Austin, I welcome the public debates and connections the American people are making with history. However, there are still many misconceptions about slavery.
In 2006, the family of three sisters adopted from Sodo, Ethiopia, said they were told that adoption would give the children a chance at an American education and that they would later return. The adoptive parents, then living in New Mexico, said they’d been falsely assured by an evangelical agency, Christian World Adoption, that they were saving destitute children orphaned by AIDS, who might otherwise have become sex workers.
When the children arrived and were told the adoption was permanent, they were distraught. And when the adoptive family complained, the agency maintained that the adoption was justified under Ethiopian law and counseled the parents to trust in God’s plan. When the adoptive family complained to the Better Business Bureau in North Carolina, where the agency was based, it threatened to report the family to child protective services in New Mexico. (The agency has since gone bankrupt.)