Did You Know the History of Hemp Included Slave Labor?

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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 were taught about in America’s culturally-void schoolhouses. Slaves farmed rice, tobacco, sugar cane, and guess what, hemp. Just like any other crop in American history, hemp was dependent on slave economy. It would have never been able to thrive without farmers exploiting slaves for their labor.

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

Whether leased for hemp production or on their owner’s plantation, slaves worked ten-hour days (sometimes more) of backbreaking labor. Often having respiratory problems from dust that stirred up as hemp was processed.

Daily quotas for the amount of harvesting to be done and lint to be processed had to be met, often producing more than the required amount. A nightmare for enslaved black people was a lucrative field of fantasy 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. As did U.S. presidents, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

George Washington, the first U.S. President, had hemp farms cultivated by slaves. When he was just eleven, he inherited ten slaves. By the time of his death, 317 slaves lived at Mount Vernon.

The third U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson, the “benevolent” slaveholder who claimed to be an abolitionist, enslaved 600 men, women, and children on his 5,000-acre farm, Monticello. Where massive amounts of hemp were grown. “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth & protection of the country.” Jefferson declared in the late 1700s.

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

Hemp didn’t start with colonial America, dating as far back as 10,000 years, it has been found as rope in pottery at an ancient village in an area that is now modern-day Taiwan. 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, North & South Carolina, and other New England states were encouraged to follow suit through subsidies and bounties. However, efforts weren’t successful, and cultivation remained mostly in the South where there was a larger population of slaves.

Kentucky farmers first grew hemp in 1775 and went on to lead the nation in hemp production, producing 40,000 tons in 1850 worth five million dollars. That same year, The United States census counted 8,327 hemp plantations of at least 2,000 acres. Production declined during the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

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

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

The history of hemp from 1616 up until the War on Drugs in the 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 in colonial America, padded their pockets with the labor of those who served as the backbone of the hemp industry.

We built this joint for free.
Pun intended.


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