November 01, 2014 06:50 UTC


AMERICAN HISTORY: Slavery in the American South

Read, listen and learn English with this story. Double-click on any word to find the definition in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

A slave sale advertisement from 1769A slave sale advertisement from 1769
A slave sale advertisement from 1769
A slave sale advertisement from 1769


Play or download an MP3 of this story
► Listen to this story in high-quality 192 kbps audio (or right-click/option-click to save)
This week in our series, we we tell about slavery, and how it affected the history of the United States.
Slavery is the custom of one person controlling or owning another. Some history experts say it began following the development of farming about ten thousand years ago.  People forced prisoners of war to work for them. Other slaves were criminals, or people who could not re-pay money they owed.
It is said the first known slaves lived more than five thousand years ago in the Sumerian society of what is now Iraq. Slavery also existed among people in China, India, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. It expanded as trade and industry increased. This increase created a demand for a labor force to produce goods for export. Slaves did most of the work. Most ancient people thought of slavery as a natural condition that could happen to anyone at any time. Few saw it as evil or unfair. In most cities, slaves could be freed by their owners and become citizens.
In later times, slaves provided the labor needed to produce products that were in demand. Sugar was one of these products. Italians established large sugar farms beginning around the twelfth century. They used slaves from Russia and other parts of Europe to do the work. By the year thirteen hundred, African blacks had begun to replace the Russian slaves. They were bought or captured from North African Arabs, who used them as slaves for years.
By the fifteen hundreds, Spain and Portugal had American colonies. The Europeans forced native Indians to work in large farms and mines in the colonies. Most of the Indians died from European diseases and poor treatment. So the Spanish and Portuguese began to bring in people from West Africa as slaves. France, Britain and the Netherlands did the same in their American colonies.
England's southern colonies in North America developed a farm economy that could not survive without slave labor.
Many slaves lived on large farms called plantations. These plantations produced important crops traded by the colony, crops such as cotton and tobacco. Each plantation was like a small village owned by one family. That family lived in a large house, usually facing a river. Many separate buildings were needed on a plantation. For example, a building was needed for cooking. And buildings were needed for workers to produce goods such as furniture that were used on the plantation.
The business of the plantation was farming. So there also were barns for animals and buildings for storing and drying crops. There was a house to smoke meat so it could be kept safely. And there was a place on the river from which goods were sent by ship to England.
The plantation owner controlled the farm and saw that it earned money. He supervised, fed and clothed the people living on the property, including the slaves.
Larger plantations might have two hundred slaves. They worked in the fields on crops that would be sold or eaten by the people who lived on the plantation. They also raised animals for meat and milk.
Field slaves worked very long and hard. They worked each day from the time the sun rose until it set. Many of these slaves lived in extreme poverty in small houses with no heat or furniture. Sometimes, five or ten people lived together in one room.
House slaves usually lived in the home of the plantation owner. They did the cooking and cleaning in the house. House slaves worked fewer hours than field slaves, but were more closely supervised by the owner and his family.
Laws approved in the southern colonies made it illegal for slaves to marry, own property, or earn their freedom. These laws also barred slaves from receiving an education, or even learning to read. But some owners permitted their slaves to earn their freedom, or gave them money for good work.
Other owners punished slaves to get them to work. The punishments included beatings, withholding food and threatening to sell members of a slave's family. Some plantation owners executed slaves suspected of serious crimes by hanging them or burning them alive.
Historians say that people who were rich enough to own many slaves became leaders in their local areas. They were members of the local governments. They attended meetings of the legislatures in the capitals of their colonies, usually two times a year. Slave owners had the time and the education to greatly influence political life in the southern colonies...because the hard work on their farms was done by slaves.
Today, most people in the world condemn slavery. That was not true in the early years of the American nation. Many Americans thought slavery was evil, but necessary. Yet owning slaves was common among the richer people in the early seventeen hundreds. Many of the leaders in the colonies who fought for American independence owned slaves. This was true in the Northern colonies as well as the Southern ones.
One example is the famous American diplomat, inventor and businessman Benjamin Franklin. He owned slaves for thirty years and sold them at his general store. But his ideas about slavery changed during his long life. Benjamin Franklin started the first schools to teach blacks and later argued for their freedom.
Slavery did not become a force in the northern colonies mainly because of economic reasons. Cold weather and poor soil could not support such a farm economy as was found in the South. As a result, the North came to depend on manufacturing and trade.
Trade was the way colonists got the English goods they needed. It was also the way to earn money by selling products found in the New World. New England became a center for such trade across the seas. The people who lived there became shipbuilders so they could send the products to England. They used local wood to build the ships. They also sold wood and wood products. They became businessmen carrying goods around the world.
The New England shipbuilding towns near the Atlantic Ocean grew quickly as a result. The largest of these towns was Boston, Massachusetts. By seventeen twenty, it had more than ten thousand people. Only two towns in England were larger: London and Bristol.
More than twenty-five percent of the men in Boston had invested in shipping or worked in it. Ship captains and businessmen held most of the public offices.
The American colonies traded goods such as whale oil, ginger, iron, wood, and rum, an alcoholic drink made from sugarcane. Ships carried these goods from the New England colonies to Africa. There, they were traded for black Africans who became slaves in the American colonies.
The Africans had been captured by enemy tribesmen and sold to African slave traders. The New England boat captains would buy as many as they could put on their ships. Conditions on these ships were cruel. The Africans were crowded together and forced to travel in areas so small they could hardly move. Some were kept in chains. Many killed themselves rather than live under such conditions. 
Others died of health disorders they caught on the ship. Yet many did survive the trip, and became slaves in the southern colonies, or in the Caribbean islands. Black slaves were needed to work on Caribbean sugar plantations. The southern American colonies needed them to work on the tobacco and rice plantations.
By seventeen fifty, almost twenty-five percent of the total number of people in the American colonies were black slaves. From the fifteen hundreds to the eighteen hundreds, Europeans sent about twelve million black slaves from Africa to America. Almost two million people died on those slave ships.
Historians say English ships carried the greatest number of Africans into slavery. One slave ship captain came to hate what he was doing, and turned to religion. His name was John Newton. He stopped taking part in the slave trade and became a leader in the Anglican Church. He is famous for having written the song, "Amazing Grace".
You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 3
by: Sonia from: TVMumNaxBuurSVyWX
11/14/2012 11:52 AM
It's great to find an exerpt who can explain things so well

by: DennisB. AOR-251 from: Russia
11/02/2012 2:33 PM
The question about slavery is very contradictory. From one hand, I think, slavery is one of the worst society phenomenons even which could ever be in history. I compare slavery with the real Fascism. Because, I don’t know how to name the fact, when one human ruling and controlling life of other human. Who said that one person can dispose other? Who gave the right, to lord a human? Slavery, it is when one person with higher rank in society, which he got by the right of birth, able to do whatever he wants with the life of another, and I can’t call it somehow another, but only call it Fascism.
But on the other hand, many historians produce such idea, which has its own truth: Slavery was, simply, a way of human society evolution. It was terrible, but it was necessary to pass it. You see, if we didn’t have slavery, we wouldn’t understand how expensive and important human life is. Slavery, was like a disease which had occupied the whole world, and every country fought with it when the “right time” came. And I think, that sometime, this “right time” was coming too late. Anyway, “we couldn’t understand that the fire is dangerous, if we didn’t touch it”.
Yes, slavery was in terrible and dark times, but I think, that more than crying about past, we have to worry about our present. Slavery, still exists in our modern time! For example: Chechen terrorists used to have a Russian soldiers as slaves, during the war in Caucasus in 1991 and 1995; Or workers-immigrants, who have to work on hard and dirty jobs, and they work not because of money or any other financial reason! They work because they don’t have any other options, they can’t return back because their passports were taken and they are keeping in basements on chain, like animals. And this is not the end! When the same thing which happened with kidnapped immigrants, happened with soldiers of your own country, it makes you cry.
We must remember the past, but we have to live in present. And we have to control and watch for such things which happens in our “modern”, “developed” and “progressive” world.

by: Vadim from: Russia
11/02/2012 8:45 AM
Slavery was an inevitable step of human evolution because people were barbarians, their conscience reflected the reality of life. Now we live in civilized world where there is no need to use slavery labor and it is easy for us to condemn our ancestors. Frankly speaking I find slavery terrible custom, and it's a shame to all of us that nowadays slavery still exists in different countries and in different ways.

by: bouche from: france
10/31/2012 10:57 PM
Congratulations for this story that touches everybody.
This part of the story isn't often known by people. Now, people can understand why England was able to develop his country during the first Industrial Revolution...thanks to foreign aid....
Good choice of topic for the staff of Voice of America. Thanks to you, I have been improving for one year. Excellent site.

10/31/2012 9:47 PM
Hi VOA, Greetings a lot. I am not who, I am not an importantant person, I am not a famous person, I am only a common person, an ordinary person with more faults than virtues as anyone living in this earth planet, to criticize the behavior of others peoples and societies, and others countries and others governmets; but it is shameful to think about slavery selling and buying human in general stores or public auction like ordinary things or simple goods only for to be or to have black skin. Go ahead VOA.

by: Vladimir from: Russia
10/31/2012 5:52 AM
An author of the article is uneducated and foolish man.
There were not the slaves from Russia in Italy at the twelfth century. It is a historical absurd!

10/30/2012 10:41 PM
The front image is so pathetic as Hiroshi from Saporo says. JUST ARRIVED A "PÀRCEL" OF "PRIME SLAVES" quotations are mine. Maybe Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in addition to be the Fathers of the country were the" Fathers of slavery" too. To have a more complete idea of this terrible time of slavery I would recommend the famous book Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the films MANDINGO by Dino De Laurentis based on the novel of Kyle Onstott, and Mississippi Burning by Alan Parker.

10/30/2012 10:17 PM
I will never understand how a country such as The USA could keep more than 250 years of slavery only to support a poor and primitive economy based on plantations of cotton and tobbaco without the help of any law or goverment or any legislature. I will never understand how a country formed by 13 "civilized"colonies which came from "civilized" European countries such as England, France ,Prtugal, Holland, Spain and others with good religions that proclaimed the love, brotherhood, liberty could treat so badly to equal human beens.

In Response

by: Anonymous
10/31/2012 2:12 PM
the rich‘s live are based on the poor,as today USA’s rich

by: Alexandr from: Finland
10/30/2012 4:16 PM
"They used slaves from Russia and other parts of Europe to do the work". I am reading about that at first time. It's really strange history. Where did you get that?

by: Abdelillah from: algeria
10/29/2012 7:30 AM
Isn't high time for countries where slavery was practiced to repent?

Comments page of 3

Learn with The News

  • FILE - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, walks past Chinese President Xi Jinping as they arrive to the Monument to the People's Heroes during a ceremony marking Martyr’s Day at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, Sept. 30, 2014.

    Audio China’s Constitution Receives New Attention

    The constitution took effect in the early 1980s, when the Communist Party was opening up the country economically. Now China is at a new crossroads. Observers say it is reaching for a new economic growth model. Chinese officials will promise to defend its rules when they take office. | In The News More

  • Video More US Hispanic Women Convert to Islam

    Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. The Pew Research Center says about six percent of American Muslims are Latino. And women make up a little more than half of the new converts -- the people who have changed their religion to Islam. More

  • This image released by USCIS shows a sample of the front of the redesigned green card carried by foreign-born residents living permanently in the U.S. The Homeland Security Department is issuing the redesigned "green card" that is stacked with safety feat

    Audio US 'Green Card Lottery' Ending November 3

    State Department’s Diversity Visa program closes November 3rd. Millions of people have entered the program, hoping to win a visa. But only 50,000 are chosen. 5,000 more are available under the Nicaraguan and Central America Relief Act. The green card lottery closes on Monday. | As It Is More

  • A convoy of peshmerga vehicles is escorted by Turkish Kurds on their way to the Turkish-Syrian border, in Kiziltepe near the southeastern city of Mardin October 29, 2014

    Audio Iraqi Kurdish Fighters Enter Kobani

    Also in the news, Burkina Faso ends efforts to extend its presidential term limit after protests in the capital. Ukraine says the EU will be guarantor in any gas deal with Russia. Myanmar holds a major meeting Friday. And claims of cheating delay SAT results for South Korean and Chinese students. More

  • Video Singapore Film Ban Raises Free Speech Issue

    The documentary film, “To Singapore, with Love” tells about political dissidents from Singapore. The film has been shown at public events in Britain, India and Malaysia, among other countries. But one place the movie cannot be seen is Singapore. That is because the government there has banned it. More

Featured Stories

  • Obama Halloween

    Audio Halloween Is Big with Kids and Business

    The National Retail Federation says sales of Halloween goods will total about $7.4 billion this year. It says the average American will spend about $77. The group expects 162 million people to celebrate. The NRF predicts 54 million of them will hold Halloween parties. | American Mosaic More

  • A print shows the Second Battle of Bull Run, also called Second Manassas.

    Audio South Defeats North Again at Manassas

    Lincoln named George Pope to lead the Army of Virginia. He wanted to join Pope’s forces with the Army of the Potomac and break through Confederate defenses around Richmond. But General Robert E. Lee decided to hit Pope first. More

  • Star House

    Video Home of Last Comanche Chief Close to Ruins

    One of the most interesting people in U.S. history is Quanah Parker, the last chief of the country’s Comanche Indian tribe. Quanah Parker was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Quanah Parker was a fierce fighter. More

  • FILE - A veterinarian at the nonprofit Bali Animal Welfare Association gives a rabies shot to a puppy in Kebon Kaja village, Bangli Regency in Bali, Indonesia.

    Audio Mass Vaccination of Dogs Can Eliminate Rabies

    About 70,000 people worldwide die every year of rabies. Rabies is a viral infection that people get mainly through dog bites. Scientists say vaccinating dogs can effectively get rid of rabies outbreaks in dog populations. And this will have a domino effect, fewer humans with rabies. More

  • Methane oxidizing

    Photogallery Small Organisms in Deep Sea Rocks Eat Methane

    The gas methane has been linked to rising temperatures on Earth. But methane does not stay in the atmosphere as long as another “greenhouse gas” -- carbon dioxide. Scientists say both gases trap heat from the sun. They prevent heat from escaping into outer space. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs