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Initially American slavery was undefined, without clear laws, rules or regulations. In the span of a hundred years, however, everything changed. By the early 1700s, colonial laws such as those excerpted below reflect the narrowing definition of slavery in colonial America. As historian Frances Latimer explains, “We think about slavery as this complete package that just came to evil landowners. It didn’t happen that way. It happened one law at a time, one person at a time.”
Read the colonial laws below:
A) Virginia, 1662
WHEREAS some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond [enslaved] or free only according to the condition [status] of the mother…
B) Maryland, 1664
That whatsoever free-born [English] woman shall intermarry with any slave. . . shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; and that all the issue [children] of such free-born women, so married, shall be slaves as their fathers were.
C) Virginia, 1667
Act III. Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children that are slaves by birth. . . should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted that baptism does not alter the condition to the person as to his bondage or freedom; masters freed from this doubt may more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting slaves to be admitted to that sacrament.
Then listen to this reading of a speech Frederick Douglass gave in 1852. Douglass escaped slavery and became a prominent activist, author, public speaker, and leader in the abolitionist movement to end slavery in the United States.
“What To The Slave Is The Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass:
After reading the laws and watching the video please answer the following questions.
1. Explain what EACH of the 3 colonial laws (A, B, & C) states.
2. Think about the potential impact of EACH of the 3 laws (A, B, & C) on people living in colonial America. Share your thoughts.
3. Pick 1 or 2 lines from Douglass’ speech that stood out most to you. Explain your choices.
4. Why do you think the creators of this video chose to have Douglass’ descendants read his speech? What impact did that create?
5. These laws were created in the 1600s. When Douglass gave his speech almost 200 years later in 1852, the institution of slavery had grow exponentially and millions of Americans were enslaved. What is an example of how we continue to live with the legacy of slavery in America in 2021, 169 years after Douglass’ speech?
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