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Historians Commemorate 200th Anniversary of the Slave Trade Act of 1808

In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act of 1808, legislation abolishing the transatlantic slave trade for the United States, historians from throughout the African Diaspora gathered to discuss the relevance of the legislation today.  

The public symposium, held last week, and hosted by the National Archives in conjunction with Howard University and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, engaged attendees in a discourse that sought to separate American history from American mythology.

“Today’s event highlights the contradictions between what the constitution says and what was allowed to continue. People don’t know that in 1808 the transatlantic slave trade only ended on paper. It continued for years in what we call the domestic slave trade,” said Dr. Ibrahim Kargbo, a professor of African history at Coppin State University.

Dr. Joseph Inikori, professor of history at Rochester University, added that slavery both domestically and abroad persisted for nearly a century more.

“Between 1820 and 1860, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 African-Americans were sold in the interregional slave trade, and the buying and selling of Afro-Brazilians continued to 1888,” he said. 

Britain, the heart of the lucrative transatlantic trade that enslaved millions, was the second European country to pass legislation abolishing the slave trade in 1807. The United States quickly followed. On March 2, 1807, President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill abolishing the U.S. slave trade, but the bill didn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 1808.

Said Dr. Ira Berlin, distinguished university professor in the department of history at the University of Maryland, College Park: “The close of the Atlantic slave trade energized the abolitionist movement and reaffirmed to many that slave trading was immoral. It begins a transformation in the American Anti-Slavery movement and [solidifies] a partnership between abolitionists in Britain and those in the United States.”

Scholars discussed Britain’s rationale for suppressing the slave trade. Many dismissed lofty idealism and scruple-driven humanitarianism as depicted in the critically acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace,” as the reason the trade was abolished.

“There are various schools of thought. You have the humanitarian impulse. Some will argue the British abolished the slave trade because they were humanitarians, but that isn’t true. They were not being altruistic. There were some economic imperatives involved,” Kargbo said.

Attendees were charged by panelists to use a global scope in their research of the African experience. “If we do not understand the global impact of the trade of enslaved Africans, then we do not understand the world,” said Dr. Sheila Walker, executive director for Afro Diaspora Inc., a non-profit organization.

“We don’t know [about all] of where we are or the impact of the cultural contributions the descendents of Africans have made in the locations they are found. We must understand the cultural ramification of the African presence globally,” Walker said.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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