The Equal Justice Initiative’s new report examines the economic legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which created generational wealth for Europeans and white Americans and introduced a racial hierarchy that continues to haunt our nation.

Introduction, by Bryan Stevenson

The enslavement of human beings occupies a painful and tragic space in world history. Denying a person freedom, autonomy, and life represents the worst kind of abuse of human rights.

Many societies tolerated and condoned human slavery for centuries. But in the 15th century, an expanded and terrifying new era of enslavement emerged that has had a profound and devastating impact on human history.

The abduction, abuse, and enslavement of Africans by Europeans for nearly five centuries dramatically altered the global landscape and created a legacy of suffering and bigotry that can still be seen today.

After discovering lands that had been occupied by Indigenous people for centuries, European powers sent ships and armed militia to exploit these new lands for wealth and profit starting in the 1400s. In territories we now call “the Americas,” gold, sugar, tobacco, and extraordinary natural resources were viewed as opportunities to gain power and influence for Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavian nations.

Europeans first sought to enslave the Indigenous people who occupied these lands to create wealth for foreign powers, resulting in a catastrophic genocide. Disease, famine, and conflict killed millions of Native people within a relatively short period of time.

Determined to extract wealth from these distant lands, European powers sought labor from Africa, launching a tragic era of kidnapping, abduction, and trafficking that resulted in the enslavement of millions of African people.

Between 1501 and 1867, nearly 13 million African people were kidnapped, forced onto European and American ships, and trafficked across the Atlantic Ocean to be enslaved, abused, and forever separated from their homes, families, ancestors, and cultures.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade represents one of the most violent, traumatizing, and horrific eras in world history. Nearly two million people died during the barbaric Middle Passage across the ocean. The African continent was left destabilized and vulnerable to conquest and violence for centuries. The Americas became a place where race and color created a caste system defined by inequality and abuse.

In the “colonies” that became the United States, slavery took on uniquely appalling features. From New England to Texas, Black people were dehumanized and abused while they were enslaved and denied basic freedoms. Legal and political systems were created to codify racial hierarchy and ensure white supremacy. Slavery became permanent and hereditary, defined by race-based ideologies that insisted on racial subordination of Black people for decades after the formal abolition of slavery.

Millions of Black people born in the U.S. were subjected to abuse, violence, and forced labor despite the young nation’s identity as a constitutional democracy founded on the belief that “all men are created equal.” Racialized slavery was ignored, defended, or accommodated by leaders while the new nation gained extraordinary wealth and influence in the global economy based on the forced labor of enslaved Black people.

The economic legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade—including generational wealth and the founding of industries that continue to thrive today—is not well understood.

New England, Boston, New York City, the Mid-Atlantic, Virginia, Richmond, the Carolinas, Charleston, Savannah, the Deep South, and New Orleans were shaped by the trafficking of African people, but few have acknowledged their history of enslavement or its legacy.

This report is a first step in helping people understand the scope and scale of the devastation created by slavery in America and the Transatlantic Slave Trade’s influence on a range of contemporary issues. It seeks to initiate more meaningful and truthful conversations about the history of slavery in America and how we can effectively address its legacy.

At a time when some believe we should avoid any discourse about our history that is uncomfortable, we believe that an honest engagement with our past is essential if we are to create a healthy and just future.

Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director

Read the report

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