The origin of African-American history begins on African soil. Civilizations were already centuries old, when the Arabs discovered West Africa. Because the land from the Atlantic to the Nile, had little contact with other civilizations, most of the culture that the Arabs found was indigenous to the area. These civilizations had risen and fallen several times before any lasting contact was established with West Africa and the Near East. The most notable pre-colonial West African civilizations were Ghana, Mali and Songhay.
The Slave Trade
The Transatlantic slave trade which brought Africans to the Americas was not an introduction of a new practice, but a new approach to an old practice. Slavery is as old as time; it has been well documented in Greek and Roman empires,and indeed, was also prevalent in Africa. Although generally, slaves in Africa were war captives from other tribes that were sold or kept as slaves. In other cases, as in the case of the Egyptians, people were enslaved without regard to race. Egyptian slaves were Semitic or Mediterranean and at other times Nubian.
In Greece and Rome, trafficking large numbers of western Asians and North Africans, brought large numbers of people to the region, but in both regions menial service was not regarded as degrading. In fact, they opened up opportunities for education and cultural advancement, even to slaves. Thus, it was not unusual to find slaves of great mental intelligence, abilities and training.
These reasons demonstrate the great difference between earlier forms of slavery and the African slave trade that began in the late 15th century. However, it must also be noted that some of the basic tenets for the slave trade were already in place long before the Europeans arrived.
The Arab invasion of Africa greatly contributed to the institution of slavery. When they invaded Africa, they captured women for their harems and men for their military and menial service. Slaves were captured or purchased, and shipped to Arabia, Persia and other Islamic lands as human cargo.
By the time that the Portuguese and Spaniards arrived, the basic foundations for the institution of slavery and Transatlantic human trafficking had already been laid. Even so, Portuguese and Arab slavery was a demonstration of wealth for the rich; slaves were used as servants, and were treated far less severely and harshly than the slaves in America ,which were used to build wealth and a nation.
Resistance to Capture
Africans were resistant to their capture, sale and transportation to the New World. Often fierce wars broke out between tribes as one tribe tried to capture members of another to sell them to traders. Still, those that were caught offered resistance. Some Africans would jump from the boat or canoe and stay underwater until they drowned, even in shark infested waters to avoid enslavement. The trip from Africa to the New World became known as the “middle passage.” Many people died on the voyage, and in many ways it was a miracle to have survived the trip.
- Slavery in Africa: Notes on the African Slave Trade
- Slavery in the United States: An overview of the slavery in the Americas
- The Middle Passage: An explanation of the hardships of the passage from Africa to the Americas
- International Slavery Museum: The Capture and Sale of Slaves
Africans in the New World and Slavery
Originally, Europeans wanted to exploit the New World for its resources, but to do this they needed labor; the cheaper the better. The English resorted to the poor whites of Europe. In the first half of the seventeenth century, they brought landless, penniless whites to the New World that were willing to indenture themselves and do the work of clearing forests and cultivating fields. When the number of people who were willing to volunteer were few, the British resorted to kidnapping women, children and drunks, and bringing them to the New World; but many of the servants ran away or even tried to sue masters and ship captains for illegal detention. It became apparent that white servants were not a viable solution.
A new solution took its place; African slaves. They could be purchased outright and identified by their skin color if they tried to run away. Furthermore, since the Africans were not native to the New World and were not Christian they could be treated more harshly, and in addition be morally and spiritually degraded.
The first twenty Africans that arrived in Jamestown were regarded as indentured servants. In fact, when their tenure had expired, they were assigned land just as white indentured servants were assigned land. However, as the demand for slaves and cheap labor grew, new slaves arrivals were inspected for health and sold at a market.
- Antebellum Slavery:The Treatment of Slaves during Antebellum Slavery
- Slavery Grows in the South: The treatment of slaves
- Life as a Slave: Frederick Douglass’ account of life as a slave
Blacks Fighting for American Independence
Colonists were always weary of slave revolts and insurrections, so most people were not keen on arming blacks even to assist in winning a war. However, blacks frequently fought in wars against the French and the Indians. As early as 1775, blacks took up arms against the British and even fought in the battles of Lexington and Concord and the War for Independence. However, after General George Washington took command of the army, he sent out an order on July 9, 1775 that banned any “stroller, negro, or vagabond” from being enlisted.
On September 26, 1775 blacks that were already enlisted in the military were discharged from the army, but a turn of events changed the circumstances. Edward Dunmore offered blacks and indentured servants the opportunity to enlist in the British army. After hearing this, the Continental Congress approved a policy on January 16,1776 that permitted free blacks that were previously enlisted to re-enlist; no others were to be allowed. Regardless, blacks continued to enlist with the British army , and slaves close to British lines continued to escape to seek the freedom that eluded them in the colonies.
- Crispus Attacks: An African that fought during the Boston Massacre
- Peter Salem: A Freeman that Served in the American Revolutionary War
- Salem Poor: A slave that fought at Bunker Hill
- Prince Hall: An abolitionist and Masonic leader
- Blacks During the American Revolution: Why slaves escaped to British lines
With the prohibition of slavery in many states and the gradual emancipation of slaves in others, the number of free blacks grew rapidly. Blacks were sometimes given the opportunity to buy their freedom, while others were freed through deeds of manumission. A slaveholder might free his slaves upon his death, or once the slave reached a certain age. By 1790, there were 59,000 free blacks. By the following decade that number had increased by 82 percent, and the next decade it increased by 72 percent. By 1830, there were 319,000 free blacks. Within another 30 years there were nearly 500,000.
Although this increase was due to the actions of white themselves and the use of manumission documents, many saw the increase of free blacks as a threat to slavery. To some Southerners, free blacks represented an equality of people, an idea that threatened the basic premise that blacks were inferior to whites. In response, many Southerners sought to vilify free blacks to “keep them in their place.” After 1810, the increase of free blacks started to decline, largely because manumission was outlawed.
- Manumission: Freeing African slaves
- Free Blacks during the Colonial period
- The Legal Status of Black Georgians During the Colonial Period: How Free Blacks were
- The Concentration of free blacks prior to the Civil War
Writings by abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, David Walker and Frederick Douglass appeared in the late 19th century. Abolitionists printed newspapers like the Liberator and The North Star to express their denunciation of slavery. Douglass, himself an ex-slave, published an autobiography, The North Star, Douglass Weekly, and other abolitionist newspapers.
Nat Turner’s slave revolt was thought to be prompted by the thoughts of Garrison, Douglass and the fiery denunciation of slavery by the free black man David Walker.
- The Nat Turner Slave Revolt: A slave revolt led by Nat Turner
- Frederick Douglass: A bio of the abolitionist and former slave
- David Walker: A bio of the abolitionist and anti-slavery activist
- William Lloyd Garrison: A bio of the white abolitionist and orator
The Underground Railroad
While abolitionists were working to help emancipate slaves, they also worked behind the scenes to help slaves escape through the underground railroad ⁻ secret pathways and safe houses set up by abolitionists to help slaves escape. Most notably, Harriet Tubman, who led several hundred slaves to freedom by use of the underground railroad. Other methods for escape included shipping yourself to the North in crate as merchandise, as was the case with Henry Still.
- Underground railroad: An interactive journey
- Sojourner Truth: An African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist
- William Wells Brown: Free Black Leader
- The American Anti-Slavery Society: An abolitionist society founded by William Garrison
- Elijah Anderson: A conductor on the Underground Railroad – UR
Civil War/ Emancipation
The ten years leading up the Civil War were tumultuous times in America. Abolitionists fought to stop the expansion of slavery to the West; pro-slavery activists worked to expand it. The disparity focused on whether to expand slavery into Kansas, and both parties fought to ratify their point of view.
In addition, Southerners became increasingly resentful, especially after the Federal Government’s decision not to assist in the retrieval and return of runaway slaves. Slave owners felt that they were losing the fight for slavery and their way of life.
Southerners largely depended on the free labor of slaves to fuel their economy, which was largely agricultural. The North’s economy, however, was largely industrial, and as more Northerners were beginning to side with the abolitionists, tension between the two sides of the country increased.
The question of slavery brought the county to an impasse in 1860 that could only be settled only by a war.
- The Civil War: an overview
- Emancipation Proclamation: the document that set the slaves free
Reconstruction/ Struggle for Domination/ White Supremacy
Reconstruction was one of the hardest periods both for ex-slaves and southern whites as both groups tried to discover a new way to live. The ratification of the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments cemented the rights of black Americans. The Freedmen’s Bureau, a group dedicated to assisting former slaves, worked incredibly hard to secure contracts with new employers for ex-slaves, as well as medical treatment. However, the most significant contributions were made in education. During this time several historically black colleges were founded with aid provided by the bureau. Some the schools that received aid were : Hampton University, Fisk University, Storer College, Howard University and Atlanta University. The bureau spent more than $5 million educating ex-slaves.
- The Reconstruction Amendments:13th, 14th,& 15th amendment
- Howard University: A historically black college ( HBCU) founded during reconstruction
- Freedman’s Bureau: The Bureau of freedmen and abandoned lands
- Atlanta University: A consortium of HBCUs Morehouse College , Spelman College, and Clark University
Philanthropy and Self–Help
Although many white southerners were not pleased at the opening of several black universities, it seemed to be the only reconstruction measure with promise. African-Americans were still attending the schools opened during reconstruction, and often parents would go through extreme measures to get their child into school. By 1900, more than 2,000 African-Americans had graduated from college.
Still, many held the belief that African-Americans should only receive remedial and vocational education, or a education that would best help them to fit into society. Others thought that African-Americans should be able to receive as much education as they could afford. Booker T. Washington, an African-American man, was perhaps the foremost advocate for an industrial education for African-Americans. He came to this conclusion after using a vocational education methodology to establish the Tuskegee University, even amidst hostile whites that were opposed to the school. His philosophy was that in order to survive the post-reconstruction America, African-Americans must provide a useful service to the world, not demand equality.
- Booker T. Washington: a brief biography
A Nation of Violence
In the early 20th century, lynchings and mobs were prevalent. Often African-Americans were taken from their homes, beaten, and lynched. Their supposed crimes were minimal, from riding a bike on the sidewalk to simply looking at whites . Other instances included mobs dragging African-Americans from street cars and attempts to hang them. The 20th century in America was plagued by the racism that fueled undeserved hangings.
- Race Riots, Lynching & Other Forms of Racism in the 1920s
- Marcus Garvey: Leader of the back to Africa movement
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance ,initially known as the “New Negro Movement”,was a cultural movement from the 1920s to 1930s centered around African-American art in Harlem, NY. African-American writers like Zora Neal Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes were some of the most popular writers of the era. They wrote about life from the perspective of the African-Americans. Their work left a lasting impact on Afirican-American culture for years to come.
Separate and Unequal
The integration of the armed forces during WWI left African-Americans feeling bitter when they returned home to separation and inequality. Still, the 1940s to 1960s were a great time of advancement for African-Americans. During this time African-Americans rallied together, conducted sit-ins, secured the right to vote, and worked to repeal “ separate but equal” segregation laws.
- Sit-ins: The method that reinvigorated the Civil Rights Movement
- The sit-ins that changed America: An article reviewing the most important sit-ins
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: A bio of the famous civil rights leader and preacher
- Malcolm X: A bio of the Nation of Islam civil rights leader
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965
- Brown vs. Board of Education: The Supreme Court decision that desegregated the schools
Progress in the African-American Community
During the 1970s and 1980s African-Americans made great strides in science, sports, business, and politics. Governor L Douglas Wilder became the first African-American governor of Virginia, and during the 80’s and 90’s several African-Americans were elected as city mayors. In 1983, Jesse Jackson was pressed to run for president after his many successes with assisting African-American businesses. Jackson ran for president amidst criticism from other African-Americans like John Jacob, president of the National Urban League, who thought voting for Jackson would take votes away from a more likely democratic candidate, but Jackson was not daunted; he ran away. Although Jackson lost the nomination, he set a precedent.
In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African-American President of the United States, after mobilizing millions of people, black and white, in a grassroots campaign. His campaign strategy was unprecedented and effective. The fundraising strategy involved mobilizing everyday people and collecting small sums of money from them. African-Americans only make-up about 12 percent of the population, which means whites, and other ethnic groups voted for Obama as well. Obama’s first term ends at the end of 2012.
- Obama Wins the Election: A New York Times article discussing Obama’s win
Diagram of how slaves were packed
into the ship during the middle passage