You thought slavery in the US had finished? Think again, writes historian Benjamin Lawrance, Anti-Slavery’s new Patron
17 April 2019
In October 2016, a woman known only as AE escaped from domestic slavery in suburban Houston. Her enslavers, Chudy and Sandra Nsobundu, a Nigerian-American couple with five children who owned a healthcare business, had brought her to the US under false pretenses over two years earlier.
According to court documents, AE was made to work seven days a week from 5:30 a.m. to 1 a.m, nearly 20-hour shifts. She could not take breaks, sit down or watch TV. She could not use the telephone, see a doctor for a poorly healed arm, attend church regularly, or walk beyond the immediate neighborhood with the young children. She was forced to sleep on the floor in the children’s bedroom, in the space between their beds. She was forced to eat leftovers, and if she wanted milk for her tea, it had to be drained from the children’s cereal bowls. The defendants also subjected her to physical and emotional abuse. They called her “the idiot”, hit and slapped her in the neck, arms and back until the situation came to the attention of federal investigators.
She was forced to eat leftovers, and if she wanted milk for her tea, it had to be drained from the children’s cereal bowls.
In a book The Slave Next Door (2010), Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter exposed the disturbing phenomenon of human trafficking and slavery in the United States. They identified slaves “hidden in plain sight,” such as dishwashers in neighborhood restaurants, street hawkers selling trinkets, and janitors cleaning department stores.
Three of their observations are particularly important. First, according to data collected by Bales and others, the “second highest” number of trafficking victims in the US are enslaved domestics – nannies, cooks, cleaners. Second, frequently women become enslaved “through legal channels”, such as arriving on a legitimate work visa, only to find bondage under the slaveholder’s roof. And third, Bales and Soodalter contend “there are no large-scale domestic slavery rings; it is not the type of offense that lends itself to crime syndicates”. Instead, people are trafficked one or two at a time through “mom and pop” operations, requiring “only an outside consumer who is complicit”.
Most US Americans today have a real difficulty reconciling the existence of slavery with our modern democracy. As Americans, we usually assume slavery ended with the Civil War, even when presented with evidence, such as the Nsobundus. Isolated stories like this, however, shock audiences into reckoning with the legacy of and ongoing prevalence of coercion in domestic service, and its worst form, urban slavery.
We are 180 years old…
But we’re not celebrating, we’re working harder than ever against slavery across the world.
The 2016 story of the Nsobundus is illustrative. For two years, the couple held AE captive, ostensibly as a “maid” and “nanny” in their suburban home. The couple knowingly provided a false visa application for the victim, but once in Houston, Sandra Nsobundu took AE’s passport and other documents. The couple later admitted they threatened to seriously harm AE if she did not cook, clean, and tend to their children.
AE ultimately broke free and self-liberated in October 2015, sometime after learning not a single penny promised since arriving in the US had been deposited in her Nigerian bank account. After her escape, she turned state’s witness in the prosecution of Nsobundus. From the court-ordered settlement, she received $120K in back wages and penalties. Because she cooperated with the prosecution, AE may be able to access a Victim of Trafficking visa to avoid deportation Nigeria.
AE’s story reminds us the sad truth is that slavery still exists in this country, and people still get trapped in it, even if in different forms, from domestic slavery to forced labor and sex trafficking.
The chains that came to symbolize historical slavery are not used to keep control of victims. Instead, more subtle ways are being used: people are deceived by job offers that sound good, only to find themselves in situations extremely difficult to run away from. Often ID documents are taken away, people are isolated, intimidated, threatened and told that if they go to the police, they will be deported. People who are thrown into a situation where they don’t speak the language, don’t know anyone to turn to and threatened, are easier to control.
The chains that came to symbolize historical slavery are not used to keep control of victims, instead, more subtle ways are being used.
But because people are not being owned any more, it doesn’t mean it’s not slavery. People who are exploited in extreme conditions for little or no pay without being able to leave – that’s slavery.
We need to wake up to that reality, and get to work again: raise awareness, campaign and press the government to start taking slavery more seriously again. We must make sure that people who come to this country in the pursuit of American Dream are not confined to ruthless exploitation and terrifying abuse.
As a historian of slavery, I struggle with the notion that cruelty of slavery hasn’t been confined to the history books. This is why I am raising my voice today and calling all fellow Americans to get behind the campaign to end slavery once and for all, in the US and across the world.
- We are proud to announce that Benjamin Lawrance is a new patron of Anti-Slavery International. Benjamin is a legal historian and works in Africa and with West African migrants around the globe. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the African Studies Review, the flagship journal of the African Studies Association (USA). Follow him on Twitter at @Kwasidagbe.