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Did You Know the History of Hemp Included Slave Labor?

Enslaved Black man on hemp plantation

I got power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA. I got hustle though, ambition flow inside my DNA.

From day clean to first dark, six days a week, with only the Sabbath off, slaves were planting, cultivating, and harvesting more than just the cotton we learned about in our high school U.S. History class. Slaves farmed rice, tobacco, sugar cane, and hemp. Hemp was dependent on slave labor and it would have been able to thrive without farmers exploiting them.

“Hemp would have never been able to thrive in early America without hemp farmers exploiting slaves for their labor.”

Working ten-hour days of backbreaking labor on hemp plantations was a health hazard, causing respiratory problems from the dust that stirred up as hemp was processed. They were under immense pressure to meet daily harvesting quotas, so producing more than the required amount was routine. A nightmare for enslaved Black people was a profitable reverie for white men like, John Wesley Hunt, who made his fortune in the hemp industry. As did his next-door neighbors Thomas Hart and Benjamin Gratz; and as did U.S. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

One of America’s founding fathers and the States’ first president, George Washington, owned hemp farms cultivated by slaves. He inherited ten slaves as at the fetal age of eleven, and by the time of his death, 317 slaves were living on his Mount Vernon plantation.

Another founding father and U.S. president who was famously known as The “Benevolent” Slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson enslaved 600 men, women, and children on his 5,000-acre farm in Monticello to grow massive amounts of hemp

“Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country,” Jefferson declared in the new 1700s.

Washington and Jefferson both have plantations that are now destinations for tourists.

Just so we’re clear, hemp didn’t start with colonial America. The value of hemp dates as far back as 10,000 years. It was only introduced to North America in 1606.

In 1616, hemp was grown in Jamestown for rope, sails, and clothing. A few years later, due to hemp’s resourcefulness, the Virginia Assembly passed legislation making it illegal NOT to grow it. Massachusetts and Connecticut adopted similar laws. Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, The Carolinas, and other New England states were encouraged to follow suit through subsidies and bounties. These efforts weren’t successful and cultivation remained mostly in the South for where there was a larger population of slaves.

In 1775, Kentucky farmers led the nation in hemp production, producing over 40,000 tons in 1850 worth five million dollars. That same year, the U.S. Census counted 8,327 hemp plantations of at least 2,000 acres, but production declined during the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

A former slave uses a hand brake
Above: A former slave uses a handbrake in Lexington, Kentucky. Many former slaves transitioned after abolition to sharecropping which continued the exploitation of black Americans. Photo: John Winston Coleman Jr.

In 1937, the federal government outlawed the production of cannabis with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and hemp was also included.

A brief timeline of hemp from 1616 – 1970s:

1616: The first English settlement in North America grows hemp in Jamestown, to make ropes, sails, and clothing.

1619: The Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring property owners to grow hemp.

1663: The Jamestown colony focused mostly on tobacco since smoking had become cool. The bulk of hemp cultivation moved to Kentucky and the Carolinas.

1776: It is rumored that Thomas Jefferson used hemp paper to draft the Declaration of Independence, but this may be fake news.

1850: U.S. Census counted 8,327 hemp plantations with at least 2,000 acres.

1937: The Marijuana Tax Act placed a tax on all cannabis sales (including hemp), heavily discouraging the production of hemp.

1942: USDA initiates the “Hemp for Victory” program – this leads to more than 150,000 acres of hemp production. During World War II, America’s supply of hemp from the Philippines was cut off. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was lifted briefly to allow for hemp fiber production to create ropes for the U.S. Navy but after the war hemp reverted to its illegal status.

1957: The last commercial hemp fields in the U.S. were planted in Wisconsin. The war had ended.

1970: The Controlled Substances Act classified hemp as an illegal Schedule I drug, which imposed strict regulations on the cultivation of industrial hemp as well as marijuana.

1971: President Nixon declared a “war on drugs.” He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.

PAY *clap* BLACK *clap* AND *clap* BROWN *clap* PEOPLE *clap*

Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs in the 70s stunted communities of color. Harry Anslinger built his marijuana prohibition campaign on the hatred white Americans held towards Black and Brown people in the early 1900s. Slaveholders like Washington and Jefferson lined their pockets with money made from hemp produced by slaves.

Careful not to settle on the struggles minorities face in America or even in the cannabis business, but to highlight contributions, encourage motion, and give basic understanding to the groundwork laid by people of color in an industry many of us rebuke or have been rebuked by.

Understand that we built this joint for free, and we want all the smoke.

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