Slavery, by the Numbers

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Cotton harvest

Editor's note:, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

 For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof


Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 67: What are the most important facts to know about American slavery?

In honor of Black History Month, I’ve assembled a list of statistics on slavery that every parent and child in America should know. There are 28 entries in all, one for each day in February, covering such broad topics as the first and second Middle Passages, emancipation, genealogy and the geographical diversity among enslaved and free black people in the United States and throughout the Caribbean and South America.  Politicians and academics love quoting facts—what they call their “elevator speech”—to their various audiences at public events. So, here are some facts for you to memorize and quote, as you sort through the meaning of this marvelous month when we commemorate the sacrifices and achievements of our ancestors in your own lives. You can keep these facts in mind if you decide to search for your family’s roots or seek a deeper understanding of the many rivers our ancestors—and we, as a people—have crossed to get to where we are 149 years after the abolition of slavery. 


Here is The Root's Black History Month Challenge: If you’re a parent, I ask you to share one of these “amazing facts” each morning or perhaps over dinner with your children (you’ll need to catch up by doing the first 10 today). If you’re a teacher, think about highlighting one each day after your students “pledge allegiance to the flag,” if your school still observes this time-honored tradition. And, if you work in an office, labor outside or are mobile on a daily route, try passing one of these around each day to your co-workers or customers, regardless of their ethnicity, at the water cooler, over a coffee break, at lunch, or, yes, even in the elevator! 

To become a fundamental part of the genuine “conversation about race” that our country so urgently needs, black history must be allowed to live and breathe through sharing rituals such as these, and not remain buried in scholarly studies and textbooks, which all too often simply serve as doorstops or accumulate dust!


“Fellow Americans, let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers,” the great African-American labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, declared at that most historical of settings, the Lincoln Memorial, during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “Our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property,” he continued. “At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take and keep what you can hold.”

Dear readers of The Root, my hope is that the 28 facts assembled here give you something to hold onto you as you make your journey through Black History Month, this life and the larger American story.


Let’s get started …

The Middle Passage

1. In the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (1525-1866), 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. Of them, 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America. Only about 388,000 were transported directly from Africa to North America, as David Eltis, David Richardson and their colleagues have definitively established in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.


2. Children typically comprised 26 percent or more of a slave ship’s human cargo, David Eltis writes in his “Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” On average, the voyage took “just over two months,” and because of “filthy conditions,” “a range of epidemic pathogens” and “periodic breakouts of violent resistance,” “between 12 and 13 percent of those embarked did not survive the voyage.”

American-Style Slavery

3. The importation of slaves into the United States was banned by Congress (under Constitutional command) in 1808, yet by 1860, the nation’s black population had jumped from 400,000 to 4.4 million, of which 3.9 million were slaves. The primary reason was natural increase, a distinguishing feature of American-style slavery. Between 1790 and 1860, reports Ronald Bailey, author of “The Other Side of Slavery: Black Labor, Cotton, and Textile Industrialization in Great Britain and the United States,” in the spring 1994 issue of Agricultural History, the U.S. slave population increased between 25 percent and 33 percent per year—an average of 28.7 percent over the period. 


4. In the U.S., on average, a slave mother gave birth to between nine and 10 children, “twice as many in the West Indies,” according to the Gilder Institute of American History. Yet, in 1860, “less than 10 percent of the slave population was over 50 and only 3.5 percent was over 60.

5. Speaking of “natural increase,” in that same year, 1860, the venerable historian Ira Berlin writes in his classic text, Slaves Without Masters, “fully 40 percent of the Southern free Negro population were classified as mulattoes, while only one slave in ten had some white ancestry.” The obvious reason: Masters were more likely to free slaves who looked like—and, in many cases, descended from—them. And sometimes—not often enough—these slaves were able to earn enough money working on their own to purchase their freedom and that of their wife and children. The average African American today, according to Joanna Mountain at the genetics company 23andMe, “is 73.4 percent African, 24.1 percent European, and only 0.7 percent Native American” in their genetic makeup.


6. Largely as a result of natural increase, the United States went from being a country that accounted for 6 percent of slaves imported to the New World to one that in 1860 held more than 60 percent of the hemisphere’s slave population, according to Steven Mintz, author of “American Slavery in Comparative Perspective,” for the Gilder Lehrman Institute. (It’s worth noting that  Stanley Engerman, Richard Sutch and Gavin Wright put that number closer to 50 percent in their March 2003 report on “Slavery” (pdf) for the University of California Project on the Historical Statistics of the United States.)

The Second Middle Passage

7. The Middle Passage refers to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A second Middle Passage followed within the U.S. between the end of the Revolutionary War and the start of the Civil War. In all, my colleague Walter Johnson estimates in his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, “approximately one million enslaved people were relocated from the upper South to the lower South … two thirds of these through … the domestic slave trade.” In other words, two and a half times more African Americans were directly affected by the second Middle Passage than the first one.


8. The reason was business—specifically, the cotton trade. Where it flourished, in the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, the slave population increased by an average of 27.5 percent per decade, demanding that entire families be relocated from plantations in the East and Upper South. In turn, Steven Deyle points out in his 2005 book, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life, “Southern slave prices more than tripled,” rising from $500 in New Orleans in 1800, to $1,800 by 1860 (the equivalent of $30,000 in 2005). Of the 3.2 million slaves working in the 15 slave states in 1850, 1.8 million worked in cotton.

Who Owned Slaves and Where Did They Live?

9. In 1860, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 75 percent of white families in the United States owned not a single slave, while 1 percent of families owned 40 or more. Just a tenth of 1 percent of Americans owned 100 or more slaves.


10. That same year, 1860, 31 percent of all slaves in the U.S. were held on plantations of 40 or more slaves, while a majority (53 percent) were held on farms of between 7 and 39 slaves, says the institute.

11. Also, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute, of the total African-American population in 1860, nearly 90 percent were slaves. And, while blacks made up only 13 percent of the entire country, in the South one in three people was black.


12. How about a state-by-state comparison? In 1860, slaves made up 57 percent of the population in South Carolina, the highest of any state in the union. Coming in second was Mississippi at 55 percent, followed by Louisiana at 47 percent, Alabama at 45 percent, and Florida and Georgia, both at 44 percent. Perhaps not surprisingly, these were the first six states to secede from the Union following Lincoln’s election. While Southern sympathizers denied that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, Lincoln knew better, and in a map prepared by the United States Coast Survey in 1861, he could see the obvious correlation between where Southern resolve was strongest and where the country’s slave population was greatest. For this reason, Lincoln could rightly say that issuing the Emancipation Proclamation—by executive order—in 1863 was closely tied to his military strategy for winning the war. (For more, see Susan Schulten’s article “Visualizing Slavery” in the New York Times on Dec. 9, 2010.)

13. In terms of absolute numbers, Virginia had the highest slave population of any state in the country in 1860: 490,865. A year later, it also was home to the Confederate capitol, Richmond.


14. Here’s one that may shock you: As late as 1850, the state of New Jersey, as a result of its gradual emancipation policies, still reported some 236 slaves in the Federal Census. New York also adopted a gradual emancipation policy, in 1799, but it didn’t achieve its full goal until the late 1820s. Well before then, New York City was a major hub of the slave trade. “Between 1732 and 1754, black slaves accounted for more than 35 percent of the total immigration through the port of New York,” according to the website “In 1756,” it adds, “slaves made up about 25 percent of the populations of Kings, Queens, Richmond, New York, and Westchester counties.”   

The Slave Labor Force

15. As for the slave labor force, the Gilder Lehrman Institute indicates almost “a third of slave laborers were children and an eighth were elderly or crippled.”


16. Slaves didn’t just work on farms, to be sure. They were hired out in the trades, worked in factories and on piers, and manned sailing vessels. They also built between 9,000 and 10,000 miles of railroad tracks by the time the Civil War broke out, representing “a third of the nation’s total and more than the mileage of Britain, France, and Germany,” says the institute.

European and Native American Slaves

17. Here’s an interesting one: “Over a million Europeans were held as slaves from the 1530s through the 1780s in Africa, and hundreds of thousands were kept as slaves by the Ottomans in eastern Europe and Asia,” writes Alan Gallay in his essay “Indian Slavery in the Americas” for the Gilder Lehrman Institute. “In 1650,” Gallay adds, “more English were enslaved in Africa than Africans enslaved in English colonies.”


18. Did Americans enslave Native Americans? You bet. “North American Europeans did enslave Indians during wars, especially in New England (the Pequot War, King Philip’s War) and the Southeast (the Tuscarora War, the Yamasee War, the Natchez War, just to name a few),” Gallay explains. “In South Carolina, and to a lesser extent in North Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana, Indian slavery was a central means by which early colonists funded economic expansion.” Remarkably, in the Southwest, “large-scale enslavement of American Indians persisted well into the nineteenth century.” In fact, “[a]fter the Civil War,” Gallay writes, “President Andrew Johnson sent federal troops into the West to put an end to Indian slavery, but it continued to proliferate in California.” 

19. At the same time, Native Americans owned and traded in slaves. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society website, from the late 18th century on, Native Americans in the South, like whites, owned slaves. And, when the U.S. government “removed” the five nations to “Indian Territory” (now the state of Oklahoma) in the 1830s, they took their slaves with them, so that “[b]y the time the Civil War broke out more than eight thousand blacks were enslaved in Indian Territory.” Overall, enslaved people accounted for “14 percent of the population” of the Indian Territory, and it wasn’t until after the Civil War that emancipation arrived for some of the slaves. In fact, as late as 1885, the governor of the Chickasaw was still protesting demands that they free their black slaves.


Free Blacks in the South

20. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, Ira Berlin writes in Slaves Without Masters, there were a total of 488,070 free blacks living in the United States, about 10 percent of the entire black population. Of those, 226,152 lived in the North and 261,918 in the South, in 15 states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas) plus the District of Columbia. Thus, surprisingly, there were 35,766 more free black people living in the slave-owning South than in the North. And they stayed there during the Civil War.


21. Maryland was the state with the largest population of free blacks in 1860—83,942—and the highest proportion of free versus enslaved blacks, with 49.1 percent free.

22. In 1860, free black people composed 18 percent of the population in Delaware, the highest percentage of any state in the Union (though the total number of free blacks there was only 19,829). Louisiana, by comparison, had almost as many free black people as Delaware did in 1860—18,647—but they made up only 3 percent of the state’s population, while New York had more than both of these states combined—49,005 free black women and men—but they accounted for only 1 per cent of the Empire State’s total population.


23. Free blacks in the South largely resided in cities—the bigger the better, because that’s where the jobs were (in 1860, 72.7 percent of urban free blacks lived in Southern cities of 10,000 or more). In 1860, Baltimore City alone had almost 28,000 (3 percent of the state's population). New Orleans, by contrast, had 10,939 free persons of color, or around 6 percent of the population, down from a high of more than 28 percent in 1810 and a high absolute number of 15,072 in 1840—the result, among other things, of tighter regulations on free black people’s privileges, increasing white immigration into the city and opportunities for them to advance elsewhere. (For more, see Caryn Cosse Bell’s book, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana.)

24.  A majority of free blacks in the South were female (52.6 percent of them were women in 1860), because, according to Berlin, free black men had a greater tendency to move out of the region.


25. Free black people also were older than the average slave, because they often had to wait to earn or buy their freedom, or, in not uncommon cases, be “dumped” by their owners as weak or infirm (in 1860, 20 percent of free blacks were over the age of 40 compared to 15 percent of slaves and whites).

26. Not only did the vast majority of free black people live in the Upper South (224,963 in 1860 versus 36,955 in the Lower South in 1860), they were on average darker-skinned and more rural than their Lower South counterparts. By contrast, free black people in the Lower South were fewer in number and lighter-skinned (the result, according to Berlin, of “miscegenation and selective emancipation,” as well as a greater “influx of brown émigrés from Saint-Domingo [Haiti] and elsewhere in the West Indies”), creating a much more pronounced three-caste system and within it various gradations of blackness, including mulattoes (those who would be called “biracial” today), quadroons (those with one black grandparent) and octoroons (those with one black great-grandparent).


Emancipation and Finding Your Slave Ancestors

27. The Emancipation Proclamation did not abolish the institution of slavery in the United States. Rather, it “freed” any slave in the Confederate states (that’s right—it did not apply to states in the Union in which slavery remained legal) who could manage to flee her or his plantation and make their way behind liberating Union lines. Historians estimate that as many as 500,000 black people managed to do this. So we might say that these black people freed themselves. To put this number into a bit of perspective, in 1860 there were about 3.9 million enslaved African Americans, which means that by the end of the Civil War, some 3.4 million black people remained in bondage, in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation. Their only salvation: the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.


28. Free African Americans were listed by name in the Federal Census prior to the Civil War. Slaves’ names were not recorded in the U.S. Census until after the war, in 1870. In the 1850 and 1860 censuses, there were separate slave schedules kept, but in almost every case they only listed individuals by age, color and gender. However, there were a few counties that did list slaves by name, according to genealogist Jane Ailes. For 1850, the counties were: Utah County, Utah; Bowie County, Texas; and Scott County, Tenn. And for 1860, the counties were: Hampshire County, Va. (where I have ancestors); Boyd County, Ky.; Camden County, N.C. (named only in the copy held by the courthouse, not the National Archives copy). In addition, some, but not all, are listed in Twiggs County, Ga.; Washington County, Ten.; and the Second Ward of the City of St. Louis. One more exception, says Ailes: Almost all slaves over the age of 100 are named in all counties. Last but not least, you can find slaves named in the Federal Census mortality schedules for 1850 and 1860.

That’s our list of facts to ponder and learn during the month of February. I hope that you and your family and friends will enjoy meeting The Root’s Black History Month Challenge.


As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter