As the descendant of slaves herself, Venita Benitez had a more than passing interest in the subject of modern slavery and human trafficking when the matter was brought to her attention in 2006, and she has been working on it ever since. Benitez is the great-great-granddaughter of Morton Deane, a black man born into slavery in Buckingham County, Virginia in 1853 who was emancipated before the end of the Civil War. Morton Deane was born into slavery in Buckingham County, Virginia in 1853 and was freed before the end of the Civil War. He and his wife, Nannie Mosely Jackson, were the parents of 11 children, all but two of whom lived to adulthood with them.
Prior to the limits imposed by Jim Crow, Deane served on the Richmond, Virginia Common Council from 1894 to 1896 and was one of only five African Americans to be elected to the eight-member Richmond City Council during that time period.
While this is happening, Benitez is the first generation in her father’s family to be born in the United States. Her father had been lured to the United States from Puerto Rico as a young man on false pretences that he would find a better life in America. Instead, he ended up working as a hired servant in the village of Bowling Green, Florida, which is about 78 miles from the city of Fort Myers.
The vegetable production in the fields was a source of hard labour for my father, who was called outside his home on a regular basis and told, “If you do not work, you will not eat,” Benitez recalls. “This would have occurred around the mid-1950s.” The living circumstances were awful and brutal, as was the environment. The workers were treated and disciplined as though they were slaves, living in cramped cottages that were all crammed together with little food or drinking water and receiving minimal compensation. He had to endure an especially harsh winter frost, during which the crops were frozen solid. A truck loaded with workers was driven to a location outside Fort Myers, where they were dropped off with just spare cash in their pockets. They were then released with nowhere to go and forced to fend for themselves. “It was completely unconscionable.”
In 2009, Benitez wrote to the United Nations, requesting further information on the problem of contemporary slavery. The letter was returned unanswered. An incredible number of men, women, and children were sold into slavery around the world, according to a recently published book by the United Nations titled The Slave Trade, which she received back from the organisation. She was devastated by the findings of their investigation.
The question “What is the United States doing to combat contemporary slavery and human trafficking?” prompted me to look it up on Google. Benitez recalls the incident. “This led me to the 2010 proclamation establishing annual January to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, which I found to be quite informative. The release seemed inconsequential to me, as if someone had simply published a press release and then promptly forgot about it.”
Benitez was particularly dissatisfied with the fact that so few news organisations seemed to have picked up on the proclamation’s announcement, as well as the fact that it was issued on January 4, 2010, giving media outlets little time to prepare any awareness campaigns in advance.
“It just left me feeling disappointed,” she admits.
The following year, another press release was released to raise awareness of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. This time, it was published at least nine days before the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 (on December 22), although it did not include the language stating that it was “A Proclamation.” According to Benitez, the document also appeared to downplay the importance of the issue by failing to effectively publicise the crackdown on abuses like as forced labour, sexual trafficking, child soldiering, child kidnapping, and involuntary domestic servitude.
“I was in a state of complete and utter disarray,” she says clearly. “It was obvious to me that the matter was losing momentum. My impression was that the White House and the rest of our country were not treating this issue seriously enough.”
Consequently, in early 2011, Benitez addressed a letter to President Obama, detailing her thoughts and expressing her dissatisfaction with slavery and human trafficking being reduced to the level of simply instant release, a piece of paper, going through the motions, and being extremely halfhearted. She requested a hard copy of the proclamation from the President, and he responded by writing to her immediately.
Throughout the rest of 2011, Benitez remained dissatisfied with the lack of attention being paid to the matter. Then there was the day in February 2012 when she received a dark yellowish envelope with the return address of the White House on the outside. The document she found inside was a genuine proclamation, complete with an embossed raised Presidential Seal (SEAL OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES), detailing the 2012 promotion of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a month that had far greater significance in the wording than she had anticipated.
All-caps terms were used to emphasise the newfound seriousness with which the matter was being treated: Proclamation issued by the President of the United States of America: “A PROCLAMATION.”
“I was overjoyed to receive this personal reaction,” Benitez adds, “but it was not in the pursuit of personal glory that I received it.” The reason for this was that my letter appeared to igniting a fire under the Obama administration and spurring action on a subject that was near and dear to my heart. No longer was it treated as an afterthought with a hastily arranged fast release.”
It was the exact language of that 2012 announcement that highlighted the emphasis that has now been placed on the problem. “Human trafficking endangers the lives of millions of people around the world, and it is a crime that knows no geographical boundaries,” the statement reads in part. Trafficking networks operate both domestically and internationally, and while abuses disproportionately affect women and girls, the victims of this ongoing worldwide tragedy include men, women, and children of all ages… Trafficking networks operate both domestically and internationally… It doesn’t leave any country unaffected. With this understanding, we recommit ourselves to creating strong international relationships that will improve global anti-trafficking operations, as well as to tackling traffickers in our own backyard.”
To further strengthen protections against human trafficking in federal contracts, the 2012 proclamation was supplemented by the signing of an Executive Order Strengthening Protections Against Human Trafficking in Federal Contracts.
It would not have meant much to Benitez, though, if this had been a one-time retaliation against him. It is the fact that every proclamation issued by him over the past several years has also included the words “BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – A PROCLAMATION,” as well as the fact that each succeeding annual proclamation expresses greater seriousness and concern about the atrocity of modern slavery and human trafficking in America and around the world, that gives her strength and gratitude. Year after year, the language becomes more and more strong.
Meanwhile, the fight continues as we approach the tenth anniversary (2012) of what Venita Benitez considers to be the first actual physical anti-trafficking proclamation to emerge from the United States Capitol Building. It also illustrated the power of a single dedicated private citizen who can deepen the storey via the simple elegance of raising awareness through dedicated activity, demonstrating the importance of individual commitment.
“It’s an honour to be able to take some credit for the increased awareness of and attention to this deadly critical subject,” Benitez said of his accomplishment. “Until all kinds of slavery and human trafficking are eliminated, none of us should believe that the original intention of the Thirteenth Amendment is being upheld,” says the author.
Benitez encourages residents to visit the Department of Homeland Security’s official website in order to contribute to the dissemination of information about the Blue Campaign: One Voice. There is only one mission. Put an end to human trafficking.
According to the United States Department of State’s official fact sheet released today, as many as 24.9 million people and children are believed to be ensnared in some kind of human trafficking around the world, including in the United States, according to some estimates.