What would you do if your friend, child or sibling disappeared suddenly? The police aren’t equipped to help find them, and your loss is not a priority for the government. You will never see your loved one again and the problem gets pushed to the background.
This is Modern Slavery.
Slavery in America has been a controversial institution from 1640 under British rule, through independence, until the end of the civil war, however, the forced end to slavery that faced much resistance may not have been the end after all. Throughout middle school American history, I wanted to learn more about slavery, however, our class wasn’t designed to focus on the topic for long. I did have an opportunity to sing with my choir at a fundraiser for New Day For Children. This organization supports girls affected by modern slavery, helping them recover by providing medical care, therapy and other necessities, which sparked my interest to learn how the past and present problems are connected. My prior research on slavery did not fulfill my desire to learn more about the topic so I decided to study a broader view of the subject in this American history project. Ultimately connecting a deep knowledge of colonial slavery to the ever-growing modern slavery dilemma close to home.
History of Slavery in the U.S.
Built on the backs of slaves:
John Punch was the first official slave in Virginia in 1640 when he was sentenced to serve a master for the rest of his life, unlike his two white comrades who were sentenced for long indentures. They had all committed the same crime, but times were tough and cheap labor was hard to come by, as indentured servants wanted land when freed and natives didn’t cooperate. White planters saw the opportunity to take advantage of the new minority group, so far from their homeland with too few to protect themselves. The economy profited from this free labor source especially the southern colonies, who’s large plantations could be staffed with little cost. The northern colonies, although not directly using many slaves were large beneficiary’s of the slave trade, sending people to Africa on voyages to collect and auction off slaves. While Britain was fighting France in the 7 Years War, America’s economy grew independent and became a large supplier to other countries with triangular trading. Britain started enforcing laws to regain power in America and implementing taxes to increase funds to pay off war debts. This all led up to the Revolutionary war that lasted from 1775 to 1783 (U.S. History 10 class notes).
(“Map of the Week: Slave Trade from Africa to the Americas 1650-1860”)
Independence for some:
After gaining independence, the states began to question America’s values, government and future in a time called the Critical Period from 1781-1815. The question whether slavery should be part of the new country ultimately led to the Civil War. The southern economy relied on slavery too much to vote for a Constitution without slavery, so the states agreed on a ⅗ Compromise counting slaves as ⅗ of a person when considering taxes and representatives (U.S. History 10 class notes). However, this compromise didn’t stop the tension between the anti-slavery North and pro-slavery South. There are a few major events that led to the Civil War after the Missouri Compromise in 1820 that equally split the slave and non-slave states. The first was the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 when Kansas and Nebraska were added to the states. This Act let the settlers of the new states decide their position regarding slavery. Soon enough Kansas became a free state in 1861, but only after Bleeding Kansas, where the north sent immigrants to Kansas to assure it’s vote. After these influential Acts were passed, the Republican Party began to resist slavery’s expansion by recruiting other smaller parties and gaining more support. Even the slaves started to take action when a negro, Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1857 and an abolitionist John Brown led a slave revolt in 1859. The final straw that truly separated the free north and slave South, was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, as it showed how outnumbered the South was in the government (“Key Events Leading Up To the Civil War”, U.S. History 10 handouts). This was followed by the secession of South Carolina within only a few months of the election and the Civil war began soon after in 1861. The War led to officially freeing all slaves in the 13th amendment of 1865, yet the question presented about slavery was far from being solved (U.S. History 10 class notes).
Taking steps back:
The Reconstruction Period from 1866-1877, could have been a time of progress for these newly freed slaves, but they only ended up becoming more segregated, losing many of the civil rights they had just won (U.S. History 10 class notes). The thirteenth amendment that freed all slaves in the US was passed in 1865. Even so, integration into the society became a huge problem since whites could not see these former slaves as equal people (“Reconstruction and Its Aftermath”). The Black Codes began right after the civil war ended in 1865 mostly in the south. They prohibited new freemen equal rights, to bear arms, gather for worship, vote, and learning to read and write. Vagrancy laws were also put in place, allowing unemployed and homeless people to be arrested and fined. Most of these were former slaves who could not afford the fine and were sent to convict farms to work off their debt. The southerners and other whites were purposely taking advantage of the freemen and put them into semi-slavery (U.S. History 10 class notes). Once the 14th and 15th amendment were ratified, by 1870, giving all freemen citizenship and the right to vote, other laws were made to yet again strip former slaves of their rights (“Reconstruction and Its Aftermath”). The poll tax, grandfather clause, and literacy tests were rigged to impose on their right to vote (U.S. History 10 class notes). Schools, churches, missionaries and other organizations worked to teach these free uneducated blacks, so that they could get around these laws and avoid being taken advantage of.
(“America I Am Exhibit – Nat’l Geographic Museum | Before Segregation Ended”)
The Struggle Today
Although slavery was officially illegal in 1865 and is a violation of human rights in the Constitution, slavery never fully stopped. Slaves have been a key part of the United States economy throughout history. Not only did they farm the large plantations in the south, help fight for our freedom during the Revolution, build our railroads in pursuit of Manifest Destiny, and fight for civil rights, but they also helped shape the culture of America (U.S. History 10 notes). Today people still find it necessary to profit from modern slavery and the question is whether America will ever be able to solve an institution so ingrained in its history. Modern-day slavery is a booming business in large cities across the US and internationally, that continues to grow every year. Modern day slavery is the exploitation of humans, often forced labor or sex while human trafficking is humans being bought and sold by others (Goldberg). This is a 32 billion dollar industry that threatens 244,000 children in the US per year (“Human Trafficking in the United States”).
(“We’ll Listen. We’ll Help”)
The graph above is an example of modern slavery’s rapid growth, tracking trafficking hotline calls per year and this doesn’t take into account all reported cases. In 2017 the stats represent only part of the year, thus it is significantly less. Although it is important that more people are reporting trafficking cases, we are not making any progress in solving the growing problem. California and Texas are two of the biggest centers of human trafficking. My home state California had over 1,300 human trafficking occurrences in 2016, double the cases of all other states. This is partly due to the fact that it shares many international borders and attracts a large immigrant population. The second highest was Texas with 670 cases and third was Florida with 550. Out of thousands of calls in 2016, 76 percent included sex trade. Many victims are transported through domestic work like hotel employment as well as agricultural jobs for human trafficking. Threatening victims, emotional abuse, violence and withholding necessities and rights all come into play in many of these trafficking cases. These statistics will likely continue to grow as there is little risk of the trafficking businesses getting caught or losing profit (Ali).
When considering solutions to such a persistent and growing problem like trafficking, the first form of attack should be to raise awareness and educate.
- Specifically, it should be enforced as a part of public schools curriculum, teaching children starting in middle school because those are the children often targeted. Not only do people need to be aware of the problem, but they have to be taught what to look for in their surroundings on a daily basis. The more eyes we have on the lookout for signs of trafficking the more people we can catch.
- After this crucial step, a way to help those already taken into trafficking is government funding for building more private safe houses like the Freedom House. This would solve the problem with victims not wanting to call or go to the police. Many of these victims are convicted of prostitution and taken into custody by police when they are found. Some victims have no place to go and are afraid of being followed and killed. With private safe houses open to take in these victims, they are more likely to leave their abusive situations (Alvarez).
- Another necessary safety that victims should be given is witness protection in court proceedings. The victims need the states backing their cases so that these traffickers can be prosecuted. Although there are so few cases, there is not enough funding and a lack of training to deal with them. Trafficking cases are usually delayed as there are other priorities. Officials need to be trained how to look for evidence to prove their testimony and address all flaws in their argument, otherwise these cases will most often be unsuccessful, letting the traffickers free (U.S. Department of State).
- Preventing further distress by giving victims immunity from being prosecuted for crimes that relate to their trafficking.
- Children 18 and younger should have their own homes where they will receive health care, protection, and education.
- Teach people to look for common signs like, “…physical force, threats of physical force, deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, debt bondage, threats of deportation, and threats to family members” (U.S.: Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery).
- Trafficking is flourishing due to advanced tech, so monitoring technology and putting more restrictions on its use would be beneficial. With the ability to do many things anonymously online makes it hard to catch those with trafficking intentions.
- Transportation monitoring is also important. Bay area airports are a huge hub for trafficking.
Ways to get involved
Connect yourself to a U.S. trafficking organization. The Polaris Project is a great non-profit that is connected to the trafficking hotline and will keep you up to date with new information. On the Polaris web site, there is an option to donate to their initiatives or get involved in other ways. Polaris has just helped pass the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which helps hold websites like accountable when they knowingly facilitate sex trafficking” (“Polaris” ). Another way to help is to just be aware and bring this information to others.
Talk to your local schools about including modern slavery in their curriculum, possibly in health or social studies classes.
Call or email your local and state government representatives to show your interest in the problem and inquire about what they are doing to help.