Memory  /  Debunk

Five Myths About Slavery

No, the Civil War didn’t end slavery, and the first Africans didn’t arrive in America in 1619.

Only 8 percent of high school seniors can identify slavery as a central cause of the Civil War, according to a recent Southern Poverty Law Center survey. The average American has grown up believing a slew of myths about the institution. As scholars of slavery and its aftermath, we’ve identified a few of the many misconceptions we have encountered in the classroom and in public spaces over the years.

Myth No. 1

The first Africans came to America in 1619.

U.S. history textbooks commonly introduce 1619 as the year Africans arrived in America. This date has appeared in sources such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Associated Press, and it has become even more entrenched in the popular imagination thanks to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, commemorating the anniversary of the “20 And Odd. Negroes” who landed at Point Comfort, Va., 400 years ago.

While this date is indeed significant to British arrival and settlement, Africans came to America well earlier. Some, such as Juan Garrido and Esteban, came as explorers with the Spanish in 1503 and 1528, respectively. Because of their mobility and influence among the conquistadors, historians offer differing interpretations on whether they were ever enslaved, but at some point, both men were considered free. Another example is Isabel de Olvera, a free woman of African descent, who in 1600 went on an expedition to New Spain (a region comprising present-day New Mexico, Arizona, Florida and other parts of North and South America), in search of trade goods and new places to settle. These stories, too, are important to U.S. history: They place the starting point of African American history in freedom, as well as enslavement.

Myth No. 2

Enslaved people who worked in the house had easier lives.

In a 1963 speech, Malcolm X strongly separated enslaved people who worked in the house from those who worked in the fields, claiming that the former group enjoyed greater privileges and comforts and that some even identified with their enslavers. Texts designed to teach children about slavery also often assert that people forced into domestic labor had more comfortable and pleasant lives than those forced into agricultural labor.

But the distinction is not that simple. While a few of the very largest plantations had entirely separate labor pools, says historian Greg Downs, in most households, laborers moved between tasks depending on their age or the season. And working indoors had its own physical and psychological hardships. Enslaved people were on call 24 hours a day, mostly on their feet and in close proximity to their enslavers, which led to greater scrutiny of their work, according to historian Deborah Gray White. Some of this labor included helping their enslavers dress, bathe, style their hair and fan flies, in addition to cooking, cleaning and running errands — intimate interactions involving personal touch and knowledge of people’s innermost lives. In these settings, writes historian Thavolia Glymph, domestic laborers often experienced physical and sexual abuse.