By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
People of African descent in America have been considered “free” for 150 years of the nation’s four-century history.
Arriving with the British in 1619 as indentured servants on the shores of what would become the United States of America, Africans were soon enslaved, beginning in 1624.
Slavery in America ended 150 years ago in December 1865 with the passing of the 13th Amendment by the U.S. Congress and its ratification by the states. It would be three more years until 1868, with passing of the 14th Amendment, that people in the U.S. with African roots became American citizens.
Just recently candidates seeking the Republican Party’s nomination to run for the White House have sparked a debate on citizenship and immigration. There was a proposal to change the 14th Amendment to deter granting automatic citizenship to any immigrant born on U.S. soil, better known as “anchor babies.”
This proposed reshaping of the amendment was directed toward individuals from South America or Mexico, to slow their demographic and political growth in the nation.
NSU History Professor Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander said congressional passage and state ratification of the 13th Amendment are important chapters in the story of American history, because it reveals the evolution of who would be an American citizen with rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Dr. Newby-Alexander said slaves were a very important asset in the early American economic system. The enslaved labor allowed the nation’s economic engine to grow and amass immense profits, especially in agriculture and specifically, the cultivation and export of cotton.
Slaves were so valuable, the federal government imposed the Fugitive Law, which required citizens to capture and return slaves to their masters.
“The constitution gave power to the federal government to protect the slave trade and slave holders’ rights to own them,” said Newby-Alexander. “Slaves were the only property the federal government protected.”
Abolition of slavery was not popular, considering the resistance from the southern states, which by the 1840s, benefited economically most from the institution.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, it triggered the Civil War mainly because southerners feared he would abolish slavery.
Most Union states had abolished slavery but some border states, such as Tennessee, Maryland and Kentucky, stayed true to the Union cause, but slaves still existed within their borders.
So to keep their allegiance to the Union, Lincoln allowed them to continue doing so, until he found a means to abolish the practice legally – even via war.
“Lincoln knew that slavery had to be eradicated before the nation could move on,” said Alexander. “If the war failed to do so, then he knew that ‘a divided nation’ could not stand.”
Newby-Alexander said many people believed the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, but language in the U.S. Constitution had to be changed to achieve this goal.
The Proclamation only freed slaves “in states in rebellion against the federal government,” which were in the South, for the most part. It did not free slaves who were in the border states.
“Most of the people, who opposed the amendment in the Congress were from the free Union states,” said Newby-Alexander. “Remember, there were no southerners in the Congress at the time because the Confederate states has seceded from the Union.”
Once the states ratified the 13th Amendment and slavery ended, the issue of citizenship and equal protection under the law were addressed, with congressional passage and state ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868.
The nation thought it had settled the citizens’ issue with the 1790 Naturalization Law, which said that only free and White people could be citizens, even immigrants, Newby-Alexander said.
Dr. Newby-Alexander said the Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, pointed out that not even free Blacks were granted citizenship, because they were not citizens, thus had no rights White people had to respect.
“Even Native Americans … who were born in the nation for the most part, were not citizens,” said Dr. Newby-Alexander. “Imagine Native Americans not being granted that right until 1923. This is ironic, when you had Whites seeking to claim ancestry with Native Americans.”
At a ceremony at the Capitol attended by congressional leaders and civil rights activists on December 6, the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, President Barack H. Obama sought to place the end of slavery in the broader context of the nation’s troubled history, saying the issue “was never simply about civil rights; it was about the meaning of America, the kind of country we wanted to be.”