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Past & Present: An Economy Built On Slavery

This year represents the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans being brought to America. The subsequent history of Africans in America is especially illuminating when viewed through the lens of business and economics.

As an enslaved people, transplanted Africans’ primary purpose was to generate wealth for their owners, and by extension create the foundation of America’s economic growth. Although the enslavement of Africans is usually associated with the history of the American South, from a business standpoint, entrepreneurs in the North also profited immensely from this phenomenon.

During the colonial period, British entrepreneurs in the Caribbean and on the North American mainland generated significant profits from enslaved Africans’ labor on tobacco and sugar plantations. New England ship owners also profited immensely from slavery by providing British slaveholders in the Caribbean and Southern colonies enslaved labor secured from the African continent.

After America won its independence from England, the new country’s economy exploded after the introduction of cotton as a commercially grown commodity. Southern slaveholders subsequently generated huge profits from the cultivation of cotton by enslaved Africans. Simultaneously, the early National Period witnessed the emergence of textile mills in the North that transformed raw cotton fiber into marketable finished products.

Based upon this reality, it is reasonable to suggest that, without the utilization of enslaved Africans’ labor, America’s historic economic development would have been severely diminished.

Robert E. Weems Jr. is the Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State University.