The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

October 4, 2013

America’s saddest chapter

“No day dawns for the slave, nor is it looked for. It is all night — night forever.” ~ Unknown Southern slave.

It’s been about five months since Americans saw images on their TV screens or read of the long and painful Cleveland saga of three Ohio women held captive for years by Ariel Castro.

We read with horror and revulsion as prosecutors and police recounted all the sordid details of their ordeals, virtual slaves to a demented man who eventually committed suicide in his cell rather than face life in prison and all that it would entail.

Diaries kept by the three women spoke of forced sexual contact with Castro, of being locked in a dark room for hours and days, of incessant physical abuse, of dreams of someday escaping and being reunited with families and loved ones.

They wrote and told of being chained to a wall and being held like slaves, unable to lead normal lives, with periodic threats of death from their captor, of being treated like animals and of their utter desire for freedom.

Society rightly was appalled by their saga. Castro was charged with 937 criminal counts, including rape, kidnapping and murder, plea-bargaining just to receive a life-in-prison sentence without possibility of parole, plus 1,000 years.

Last month, Castro hanged himself in his cell.

Appalling. How can this happen in America, people asked?

Yet, more than 150 years ago, virtually the same things happened to millions of African-Americans in these United States, and it was allowed by the law.

That’s right, the specter of slavery haunted this nation from its very founding, and in October 1863 — 150 years ago this month — Americans of all cuts and stripes were killing one another to either preserve slavery, or to abolish it.

By law at the time, slaves were the personal property of their owners in all Southern states, and slave masters held absolute authority over their property.

Louisiana’s slave law read: “The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry and his labor; the slave can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything but what must belong to his master.”

Slaves on these shores had no constitutional rights, couldn’t testify in court against a white person, could not leave a plantation without permission, could be rented out, used as prizes in lotteries or as wagers in games of chance.

Family separation was one of the most terrifying fears a slave lived with. Aside from back-breaking labor, all a slave had to look forward to was eventually being separated from his or her wife or husband, children, mother, father, brothers and sisters.

It was not uncommon in a slave pen during slave sales that a buyer would purchase an African-American woman, but not her child.

This was the law 150 years ago, in large portions of the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

What Ariel Castro did a few months ago, was little different than what transpired on a daily basis from the time the first slave was brought in chains to these shores, until the end of a long four-year hell we called the American Civil War.

The dead reached more than 620,000, the wounded in equal numbers. Lives were wrecked, the health of many soldiers on both sides of the conflict was ruined for the rest of their lives. Whole economies were destroyed across the South, homes burned, factories torched, brother fighting against brother, father against son.

In 1841, a bounty hunter kidnapped Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York, on the pretext he was a runaway slave from Georgia.

Protected by fugitive slave laws, the bounty hunter took him to New Orleans and threw him into a slave pen with other African-American men, women and children, to await being sold to the highest bidder.

In his book “Twelve Years a Slave,” written after he regained his freedom, Solomon described his treatment:

“... (the white slave broker) would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel of our heads and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth ... Sometimes, a man or woman was taken back to the small house in the yard, stripped, and inspected more minutely. Scars upon a slave’s back were considered evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit, and hurt his sale.”

Anyone who defends what was done in early day America during slavery is deluding themselves that slave life was anything but bitter and cruel.

Many, many Americans felt slavery abhorrent — thus, the Civil War. It doesn’t take any stretch of imagination to see why slavery was the saddest chapter in the history of the United States of America.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking

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