Examining the Intersection of Black History and Human Trafficking

February is Black History Month, a month in which we pay “tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society.” The month “honors the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans who have helped shape the nation and celebrates the rich cultural heritage, triumphs and adversities that are an indelible part of our country’s history.”1 The event was first celebrated during a week in February 1926 that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and by 1976, it was expanded to a month.2  

Black History Month was created to highlight struggles faced by the Black community and honor the fight against injustice, including the Black abolitionists leading up to the Civil War who spoke out against the horrors of slavery; those who, after the Civil War, pushed back against “Black Codes” in the South that eventually led to the Jim Crow laws; and those who contributed to the Civil Rights Movement, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and many, many more.

While these are snapshots of the historical struggles that the Black community has faced,3 injustice is just as relevant today. The United States has had a long and complicated relationship with slavery. Many only think of the transatlantic slave trade that began in the early 1600s. Historians have estimated that 6 to 7 million enslaved people were brought to the New World during the 18th century alone, and by 1860 there were nearly 4 million enslaved people in the United States, with more than half living in the cotton-producing states of the South.4

Black History and Human Trafficking

But human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, in which traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services.5  In learning about the history of the United States and comparing it to human trafficking, it’s evident that Black history and human trafficking are connected.

Human trafficking occurs when a perpetrator, often referred to as a trafficker, takes an action (induces, recruits, harbors, transports, provides) and then employs the means of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of compelling the victim to provide commercial sex acts (sex trafficking) or labor/services (labor trafficking).6

Black, Indigenous and other people of color are at greater risk of trafficking.7  This stems from systemic disadvantages in Black history and human trafficking vulnerabilities; as well, vulnerable individuals tend to share histories of poverty, family instability, physical and sexual abuse, and trauma. Racial and ethnic minority students are more vulnerable to trafficking partly because they are more likely to experience poverty and its associated effects.8

A two-year study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 40 percent of all survivors of sex trafficking are Black women and girls.9  But the total Black population of the United States, male and female, is just 14.4 percent.10  Further, “more Black survivors hold a criminal record than white survivors due to the adultification and over-sexualization of Black women and girls.” This “has allowed the criminal justice system to see them as criminals” compared with their white counterparts.11  The interconnectedness of Black history and human trafficking requires a steady effort to overcome.

Organizations are seeking to dismantle modern-day slavery and address inequities, including Girls Education & Mentoring Services (GEMS), the Polaris ProjectRights4Girls and LifeWay Network. Dr. Marlene Carson is leading the fight on a national front as the founder of Black Leaders Against Sex Trafficking (BLAST), a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Trafficking, and a transformation coach, author and speaker. She is a survivor of domestic minor sex trafficking and directs most of her attention to fighting systems of oppression.12

There’s work to be done — human trafficking is the fastest growing crime on the planet. It’s crucial that communities step in to make changes. Since its founding in 2007, LifeWay has served more than 155 women survivors of human trafficking from 38-plus countries through our safe housing program, one of the only organizations in the metro NYC area to offer long-term safe housing to both foreign and domestic-born women survivors of human trafficking in all its forms (sex, labor and organ trafficking). In our safe housing program, women from many backgrounds are provided with the resources they need to rebuild their lives — from social workers on staff to connections to mental health counseling, legal support and educational and job training opportunities. LifeWay Network is striving to eradicate human trafficking, specifically within New York State.

Ways You Can Get Involved

We at LifeWay Network encourage individuals to read more about the origins of Black history and human trafficking experiences, why we celebrate Black History Month, and stories of the perseverance of the Black community. And one can explore Black history and human trafficking from the perspective of a Black survivor by reading “Listen to Black Survivors,” a post on Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

By Beatrice Johnson with Julianne Will
February 8, 2024

[1] https://www.npr.org/2023/02/01/1150977600/black-history-month-2024-theme-3-things-to-know

[2] https://www.blackhistorymonth.gov/about.html

[3] https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-milestones

[4] https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery

[5] https://humantraffickinghotline.org/en/type-trafficking/human-trafficking#:~:text=Human%20trafficking%20is%20a%20form,services%20against%20his%2Fher%20will

[6] https://polarisproject.org/understanding-human-trafficking/

[7] https://www.state.gov/acknowledging-historical-and-ongoing-harm-the-connections-between-systemic-racism-and-human-trafficking/

[8] https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/human-trafficking-americas-schools/vulnerable-populations

[9] https://www.cbcfinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/SexTraffickingReport3.pdf

[10] https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/fact-sheet/facts-about-the-us-black-population/

[11] https://polarisproject.org/blog/2023/02/listen-to-black-survivors/

[12] https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-marlene-carson-4095269