This essay originated in discussions with Dr. Makini Chisolm-Straker and Katherine Chon on the history of human trafficking in southern agriculture. Dr. Chisolm-Straker is an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Brooklyn and the co-founder of HEALtrafficking, an international group that takes a public health perspective on combating human trafficking.
Ms. Chon is a public health activist and co-founder of Polaris, another important anti-trafficking group that, among much else, operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.
In those discussions, we explored the possibility of studying human trafficking in the past in order to gain insights into human trafficking today.
In today’s post, I am going to sketch some ideas about how I might go about writing such a history if I focused only on the one small corner of the American South that has always been at the center of my historical work– eastern North Carolina.
Defining Human Trafficking
According to the United Nations, human trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.”
When I applied that definition to eastern North Carolina, I realized that human trafficking was for centuries a central part of the region’s history. American slavery was after all, in essence, a legally sanctioned, systemic form of human trafficking.
In this case I am talking about the international and domestic trade in enslaved Africans and African Americans.
However, I recognize that I would also have to look beyond African and African American slavery if I was going to write a full history of human trafficking in eastern North Carolina.
For instance, any comprehensive study of human trafficking’s history in eastern North Carolina would also have to examine British colonists trafficking Native American people to Barbados and other parts of the British West Indies in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
If I was writing such a history, I would also have to examine more closely how British colonists enslaved Chowanoc, Weapemeoc, Tuscarora and other Native Americans– both prisoners of war and civilian captives– in the period between roughly 1675 and 1715.
After the last battle of the Tuscarora War of 1711-13, for instance, British colonial forces took more than 400 Tuscarora captives to South Carolina and sold them into slavery.
If I was writing such a history, I would likewise need to consider debt peonage and the crop lien system in the agricultural sector after the Civil War, as well as the convict leasing system in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Scholars and human rights activists increasingly look at those parts of our history as forms of human trafficking because they were explicitly designed as strategies to control and/or confine African American laborers against their will.
To an important degree, they replaced slavery as the dominant ways of controlling African American labor.
Any history of human trafficking in eastern North Carolina would also need to look at the persistence of sex trafficking across the generations.
In addition, I would want to sketch a history of peonage and slavery cases involving migrant and guest workers from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Their story would run from at least the early 1940s to the present day.
In 1981, a New York Times article quoted a highly respected human rights attorney, Steve Edelstein of Raleigh, after the indictment of four labor recruiters for enslaving farmworkers.
”People don’t like to believe that slave camps exist in North Carolina. They don’t want to believe that they are operating 45 miles from the state capital in Raleigh, but they do,” Edelstein said.
I think I would also want to look at least briefly at the story of the German and Italian prisoners of war that worked in eastern North Carolina’s fields during the Second World War.
As I thought about this essay, I was also reminded of oral history interviews that I did years ago on the history of Sugar Hill, a legendary red light district in Kinston, N.C.
For generations, tobacco farmers, military servicemen, downtown businessmen and others traveled to Sugar Hill from their homes across eastern North Carolina.
Anxious over high rates of venereal disease during WWII, military commanders eventually compelled Kinston authorities to close its doors. Prior to that time, the military had run buses to its doorstep.
In my interviews on Sugar Hill’s history, local people often described Sugar Hill as a refuge for young farm women who had escaped from fathers or other male relatives that had sexually abused them or treated them, in the words of one tobacco farmer, “as livestock.”
You can read a story based on one of my Sugar Hill interviews here– it is called “Halie Kelley: Remembering Sugar Hill.” It appeared originally in my “Listening to History” column in the Raleigh News & Observer.
At the time, I was taken aback that the women looked at their lives on the farm as so brutal and confining that they would consider Sugar Hill as a sanctuary from that life.
The Middle Passage
If I was writing a comprehensive history of human trafficking in eastern North Carolina, I would need to look closely at all of those other kinds of forced labor and sexual exploitation across the centuries.
However, as bad as they were, and as bad as they are, the trafficking of enslaved Africans and African Americans prior to 1865 still stands out and is the focus of my discussion today.
We all know the basic facts about the African Slave Trade: over 400 years, European slave traders shipped an estimated 12-13 million enslaved West Africans to the Americas.
Slave traders took the largest number of those people from a vast territory of West and Central Africa. A smaller number, roughly 5 percent of the total, were taken from the other side of the continent, particularly from the area that is now Madagascar and Mozambique.
The labor of those Africans built great kingdoms and sprawling cities on both sides of the Atlantic, paid for wars and armies and financed voyages of exploration and conquest around the world.
Of course a tremendous number of enslaved Africans did not arrive safely in the Americas.
Most historians agree that between 1,200,000 and 2,200,000 African people died on the voyages across the Atlantic—the “Middle Passage.”
Of the estimated 12-13 million enslaved Africans that survived the Middle Passage, slavers took the largest part to Brazil and other Portuguese colonies in South America. They shipped the second largest percentage of those Africans to the British West Indies.
European slave traders also brought approximately 400,000 enslaved Africans to the mainland of North America.
For two centuries, the economy of eastern North Carolina was grounded in the trafficking of those Africans and their descendants.
When I was growing up in eastern North Carolina, I was taught that slavery was not a central part of the state’s history, unlike in other parts of the American South.
That was not true: by the Civil War, African Americans held in bondage made up approximately half of the total population in eastern North Carolina.
In 1860 the counties in eastern North Carolina with the highest percentage of enslaved African Americans in their population were:
Halifax County (60.9%)
Jones County (60.8%)
Edgecombe County (59.5%)
Bertie County (58.6%)
Chowan County (55.5%)
Northampton County (53.5%)
Hertford County (53%)
Pitt County (53%)
Perquimans County (51.2%)
Lenoir County (51.2%)
In 12 other eastern N.C. counties, African American slaves made up 40% or more of the total population.
Those counties included Beaufort, Brunswick, Camden, Craven, Duplin, Gates, Martin, New Hanover, Onslow, Pasquotank, Sampson and Washington.
African Americans also composed at least a quarter of the population in four other tidewater counties: Carteret, Currituck, Hyde and Tyrrell.
On the eve of the Civil War, every major industry in eastern North Carolina—farming, fishing, logging, naval stores, shipbuilding and every other— relied on enslaved labor and human trafficking.
The Slave Traders
The transatlantic slave trade was only one aspect of human trafficking that shaped the history of eastern North Carolina. Another was the buying and selling of African Americans within and among the small towns and rural communities that made up eastern North Carolina prior to the Civil War.
Before the Civil War, human trafficking within eastern North Carolina was commonplace. There were at least occasional local slave markets in every village and town of any size.
At that time, the buying and selling of enslaved laborers was incessant, constant and never ending; not the exception, but the rule.
As Guion Grffis Johnson wrote in her masterpiece, Antebellum North Carolina: A Social History, way back in 1939:
“Slave traders, or speculators, as they were usually called, were constantly coming and going in every North Carolina community where the slave population was large. They bought slaves for the market in the Lower South or for any planter who might be in need of laborers.”
Johnson quotes an 1840 letter from James Norcum, Jr., who owned a plantation near Edenton:
“We have a speculator with us now, but he does not want men at any price but will pay for girls $5 to $550 cash.”
That letter is in the James Norcum Papers at the State Archives of North Carolina.
Similarly, readers of this blog might remember my post called “His Head upon a Pole in a Public Place.”
The subject of that post was a personal journal written by a schoolteacher named Benjamin Labaree in Jones County.
As described in Labaree’s journal at Yale’s Beinecke Library, slave traders routinely visited Jones County while he was a teacher there in 1821-22.
During those years, he stayed in a boardinghouse in the village of Trenton, where slave traders often rented rooms as well.
While in Trenton, the slave traders paid calls on local planters in hopes of purchasing slave laborers. They also bid for enslaved laborers at auctions in Trenton, New Bern, Kinston and other nearby towns.
At that time, white planters and merchants trafficked in African American laborers for many different reasons.
For many slave owners, buying and selling African American laborers was merely financial speculation: they invested in enslaved people in precisely the same way that somebody today might invest in a piece of real estate, betting that the value of their “property” would go up so that they could sell those men, women and children and make a profit.
Other white merchants and planters sold enslaved laborers in order to pay off debts, finance business ventures, weather economic depressions and natural disasters and settle estates and divide heir property.
The Quaker and the Slave Pilot
White merchants and planters also sold African American men and women to punish them for acts of rebellion and defiance.
Though a relatively small percentage of the total cases of slave trafficking, the sale of rebellious African Americans had an outsized importance within the society at the time.
As if life was not capricious enough if you lived in bondage, such human sales reminded the enslaved that slaveholders would respond to acts of defiance with more than violence: they often also punished rebels by depriving them of their families and other loved ones for the rest of their lives.
In a slave narrative titled From Log Cabin to the Pulpit; or, Fifteen Years in Slavery, for example, the Rev. William H. Robinson recounted what happened to a group of local men in Wilmington, N.C., that had been clandestinely assisting fugitive slaves to escape by sea.
Robinson had been born into slavery in Wilmington in 1848.
According to the Rev. Robinson, one of the abolitionists was a white Quaker oysterman: he simply vanished one day.
After his disappearance, his family discovered a red cross painted on their home’s door. He was never seen again.
Rev. Robinson’s father was also an abolitionist. We only know his first name, Peter. He was a slave pilot on the Cape Fear River.
When white authorities discovered Peter’s role in the Underground Railroad, he was sold into the Deep South.
By doing so, the planter that claimed Peter as his property sought to make him a cautionary tale, one meant to warn other enslaved laborers against rebellion and participating in anti-slavery activities.
According to Rev. Robinson’s memoir, neither he nor anyone else in Peter’s family ever saw his father again.
“I have rape-colored skin”
An unknown but large number of white men also purchased enslaved women and girls so that they could sexually exploit them.
There was no law against doing so, and I have seen no evidence of local planters, judicial leaders or white clergymen expounding against the trafficking of women and girls even when they witnessed it happening.
In surviving historical accounts, the region’s whites rarely mentioned rape and other sexually predatory acts or the buying and selling of enslaved women and girls with sexual exploitation in mind.
The opposite is true in African American accounts of antebellum life in eastern North Carolina. In nearly every such account, black writers emphasized their or a loved one’s experience with slaveholders and rape, sexual harassment and/or sex trafficking.
Read Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to get a young enslaved woman’s firsthand view of human trafficking and sexual exploitation on the North Carolina coast in the first half of the 1800s.
Read the poet Caroline Randall Williams‘ essay in today’s New York Times to get a modern black woman’s view of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of her ancestors in the antebellum South.
The essay is called “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a a Confederate Monument.”
Ms. Williams writes:
“I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.
“If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument….
“I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.”
The Second Middle Passage
Another aspect of human trafficking in pre-Civil War North Carolina is less well known. As Guion Griffis Johnson noted above, many of the antebellum slave traders in eastern North Carolina were trafficking in enslaved people “for the market in the lower South.”
That is, they were buying enslaved laborers in eastern North Carolina, taking them south and selling them at a premium in slave markets in states on or near the Gulf of Mexico.
In North Carolina, Virginia and other Upper South states, that was an especially common kind of human trafficking in the decades just before the Civil War.
Between 1790 and 1860, planters and merchants in North Carolina and other Upper South states took an estimated one million African American men, women and children away from their homes and sent them into Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and other Deep South states.
That “internal slave trade” or “domestic slave trade” was massive and widespread. Approximately one out of five enslaved persons in the Upper South in 1830 would ultimately be taken from their homes and end up as an enslaved laborer in the Deep South.
Today historians have even coined a term for that kind of human trafficking: the “Second Middle Passage”—the first Middle Passage being the voyage across the Atlantic.
The economic drive behind the Second Middle Passage was the rise of the Cotton Kingdom of the Deep South.
Cotton grew better and more widely in the Deep South than in the Upper South. In the Antebellum Era, cotton’s profitably skyrocketed as southern fields supplied the mills of New England, the industrial cities of Great Britain and other textile centers.
Cotton was the leading American export in the 19th century and slave-produced cotton was central to the industrial economy of both New England and Great Britain.
The cultivation of cotton was very labor intensive, however, and planters in the Deep South constantly sought more enslaved labor. As the price of cotton rose to new heights, the market value of an enslaved man or woman capable of cultivating that cotton rose as well.
Over time, the amount that a cotton planter in the Deep South was willing to pay for slave labor grew to be significantly higher than what a planter in the Upper South typically was willing to pay.
That price difference led slave traders to traffic hundreds of thousands of African American people into the Deep South.
The Trail South
Slave traders were not the only ones that took enslaved people out of eastern North Carolina and other parts of the Upper South and transported them into the Deep South, however.
Between 1820 and 1860, many slaveholding planters left eastern North Carolina and relocated to the American West or to the Deep South in search of higher profits and new land.
Generally speaking, the planters compelled their enslaved labor force to go with them.
According to one estimate, as much as a third of all African American people forced south during the Second Middle Passage made the journey as part of a slaveholder’s relocation.
Many of those slaveholders moved south in order to invest in cotton lands. Others put their enslaved laborers to work clearing land and producing sugar cane, rice and other crops.
Still others invested in turpentine lands. As I discussed in “The Turpentine Trail,” the first turpentine planters began abandoning over-exploited pine forests in eastern North Carolina and investing in old-growth pine forests to the south as early as the 1830s.
“Following them came mothers”
Whether driven by slave traders or plantation owners, the move from the Upper South to the Deep South largely occurred in forced marches. Slave traders and planters moved some enslaved people on railroads and on ships, but the bulk of the human trafficking in that era occurred in coffles.
We don’t hear the word coffle very much any more, but they were common sights in the corner of the American South that I study—the North Carolina coast and the rest of eastern North Carolina.
The dictionary defines coffle this way:
“a line of animals or slaves fastened or driven along together.”
The word coffle apparently comes from an Arabic word for caravan.
The noted black abolitionist, the Rev. J. Sella Martin, was born in slavery in Charlotte, N.C. When he was six years old, he and his sister were sold into Georgia. He later described the coffle in which he and his sister were forced to march from North Carolina to Georgia.
“A long row of men chained two-and-two together, called a “coffle” and numbering about 30 persons, was the first to march forth from the “pen,” then came the quiet slaves – that is, those who were tame and degraded – then came the unmarried women, or those without children; after these came the children who were able to walk; and following them came mothers with their infants and young children in their arms.”
Some coffles were much larger. In 1844 an English visitor, G. W. Featherstonehaugh, encountered a coffle by the New River, in the western part of N.C.
“Just as we reached New River, in the early grey of the morning, we came up on a singular spectacle, the most striking one of the kind I have ever witnessed. It was a camp of negro-slave drivers, just packing up to start; they had about 300 slaves with them, who had bivouacked the preceding night in chains in the woods; these they were conducting to Natchez, upon the Mississippi River, to work upon the sugar plantations in Louisiana…. The female slaves were, some of them, sitting on logs of wood, whilst others were standing, and a great many little black children were warming themselves at the fires of the bivouac. In front of them all…stood, in double files, about 200 male slaves, manacled and chained to each other.”
A Coffle from Wilmington
Coffles like that commonly traveled the roads of eastern North Carolina as well. I will never forget, for instance, a description of a coffle that I found when I was much younger in the slave narrative that I mentioned earlier, From Log Cabin to the Pulpit; or, Fifteen years in Slavery.
First published in the early 1900s, From Log Cabin to the Pulpit describes the Rev. William H. Robinson’s youth growing up in slavery in and around Wilmington, N.C.
In one part of his memoir, the Rev. Robinson described a heart-wrenching sequence of events that unfolded in a coffle in which he was being trafficked not long before the Civil War.
The coffle began in a slave pen in Wilmington in 1859 or 1860, when he was 11 years old.
“I was in the trader’s pen about three weeks. There were from one to ten slaves brought in every day. All of my brothers and sisters save two had been sold from Wilmington. Other slaveholders passing through had bought them, and it was said they were taken to Georgia.”
By the end of those three weeks, the slave traders had gathered a coffle of approximately 350 men, women and children. They put most of them in chains and began to march them north toward Richmond, Va., the center of the slave trade in the Upper South.
Rev. Robinson wrote:
“In this gang was a woman named Fannie Woods. She had two children, the oldest about eight years, the other a nursing baby. She was not handcuffed as the others were, but tied above the elbow so she could shift the nursing baby in her arms. She led the older one by the hand.”
As the coffle moved north, Fannie Woods and her son managed to keep pace with the rest of the slaves at first. Late in the day, though, the little boy grew tired and began to struggle to keep up. At times, the slave trader made the entire coffle stop and wait for the boy.
The slave trader repeatedly upbraided Woods about the slowness of her son. When the boy continued to lag, he stripped Fannie Woods to the waist and whipped her.
“The blood ran down as water but she never uttered a sound.”
The worst was yet to come. The Rev. Robinson remembered:
“After going a few miles farther they sold the little boy she was leading to a man along the way. I heard the wails of the mother and the mourning of the other slaves on account of her sorrow. . ..”
The slave drivers continued to push the coffle toward the New River, in Onslow County.
“We marched until nine or ten o’clock, when we came to a boarding house that was kept especially for the accommodation of negro traders. This was a large log house of one room, about eighteen by twenty feet, with staples driven in all around the room and handcuffs attached to chains about four feet long. They would handcuff two or three slaves to each chain.”
The enslaved rested for the night there. Sometime during the evening, however, the slave trader attempted to sell Fannie Woods’ other child to the boardinghouse’s owner.
Apparently the slave trader had grown frustrated that Woods was slowing down the coffle’s progress by carrying the baby in her arms.
The Rev. Robinson recalled that the slave trader and the boardinghouse owner failed to agree on a selling price for the child that night. The next morning the coffle continued its march toward Richmond.
“When we had gone about half a mile a colored boy came running down the road with a message from [the boardinghouse owner], and we were halted until his master came bringing a colored woman with him, and he bought the baby out of Fannie Woods’ arms.”
The Rev. Robinson’s memoir is full of horrors, but you can tell this is the one that had left the most searing memory.
“We were ordered to move on, and could hear the crying of the child in the distance as it was borne away by the other woman, and I could hear the deep sobs of a broken hearted mother. We could hear the groans of many as they prayed for God to have mercy upon us, and give us grace to endure the hard trials through which we must pass.”
The King’s Highway
That coffle traveled north on what used to be called the King’s Highway. Today it is the proximate path of U.S. Highway 17, which runs along the whole length of the North Carolina coast.
First built in the colonial era, the road passed through the towns of Edenton, Little Washington, New Bern and Wilmington. For generations it was a main artery for human trafficking.
For the African Americans in the coffle, the experience was of course one of the most traumatic of their lives. The experience of Fanny Woods and her children was in no way unusual.
Even free black people recalled the sight of such coffles as one of the most unbearable parts of living in eastern North Carolina.
The great abolitionist David Walker, for instance, was a free African American in Wilmington, N.C., before he moved north and settled in Boston in the 1810s. In explaining his decision to leave the Carolinas, he wrote:
“If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long…I cannot remain where I must hear slaves’ chains continually….”
The traumas of the Second Middle Passage were widespread. Even historians of American slavery are only just beginning to appreciate the full extent of the impact of those forced marches on the people who lived through them and on those that witnessed them.
A growing number of us are convinced that the forced migration of enslaved African Americans into the Deep South should be remembered perhaps in some of the same ways that we recognize, for instance, the Cherokee Removal.
Those forced marches uprooted homes and families and scattered souls across thousands of miles. The more I learn about them, the more I think about them.
I do so especially often when I am driving on U.S. 17, as I did a few days ago, and on the other routes on which coffles of enslaved people were once marched.
At those times, I try to imagine their descendants today as well. I wonder where they are, and I wonder if they feel any tie anywhere in their blood or bones to the places where their ancestors lived here in eastern North Carolina.
As I considered the history of eastern North Carolina in terms of human trafficking, I naturally wondered if that history influenced human trafficking here today.
That is one of the questions that interested Dr. Makini Chisolm-Straker and Katherine Chon in our discussions on the history of human trafficking in southern agriculture.
In the weeks since our last discussion, I have been thinking about that question a good deal. However, I think that it is a hard question to answer, even when I limit the scope of my answer to eastern North Carolina.
I really do not know if we can in any way look at that those chapters of our history as one of the roots of human trafficking today.
In my experience, the evils of humanity rarely need precedent: unfortunately, we seem quite capable of discovering our worst selves without history’s help.
And yet in this case, I do believe it is possible: a very particular attitude toward the control, exploitation and commoditization of the bodies of people of color was central to the existence of the African slave trade, the local slave markets and the Second Middle Passage.
That way of thinking about the bodies of people of color– part of what came to be called white supremacy— was itself not that old. It arose in the 1500s and 1600s, when the European colonial powers sought a rationale to legitimize the African slave trade to their American colonies.
In my experience, such an outlook, once born, often refuses to be confined in space or time and is quite capable of transcending the circumstances in which it was born and fostered.
For that reason, I cannot help but wonder to what degree the framework of law and morality that justified human trafficking in the Slave Trade may yet reside within us. I wonder, too, how it shapes the ways in which we think about who we are, how we view one another’s bodies and even what it means to be human at all.
5 thoughts on “A Local History of Human Trafficking”
Thank you for this revealing and troubling account of slavery in our state. We forget or never learned that bonded and slave labor has been a part of our history since the earliest years of colonization. We cannot hope to make real progress in ensuring true equal rights and opportunity for all without understanding this history and its horrors that occurred on a routine basis. I look forward to reading more on this subject from you in the future.
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My ancestors came to eastern NC in the mid-1600s and most were Quakers. Your well-written article not only illustrates how a terrible reality of life in the region was pervasive but also how it must have been deeply troubling for those against slavery. And dangerous for them. I also look forward to reading more from you on this subject.
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Thank you for your note. I imagine your Quaker ancestors settled in the Albemarle Sound area if they were in N.C. that early, but in case you’re interested, here’s a piece I did last year on Quakers in another part of coastal N.C. in the period in a slightly later era. I imagine they faced some of the same issues related to slavery. Thanks again for writing– https://davidcecelski.com/2019/04/05/the-quaker-map-from-harlowe-to-mill-creek/
As Sojourner Truth wrote, “Truth is powerful and it will prevail.” Thanks again, David, for brilliantly shining a light on truths we must learn, accept, and share. So we can contribute to their prevalence and our mutual humanity.
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Understanding the need to guard and nurture our own souls, in part by improving the world as we found it, that’s part of what it means to be human.
If so, it raises the question of exactly how much humanity this country actually possesses.
I don’t think we have much time to turn things around. David’s essay should be required reading for anyone with illusions still intact.
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