African-American history

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African-American history is the portion of American history that specifically discusses the African-American or Black American ethnic groups in the United States. Most African Americans are the descendants of black African slaves forcibly brought to, and held captive in the United States (or British controlled territories that would become the United States) from 1555 to 1865. Blacks from the Caribbean whose ancestors immigrated, or who immigrated to the U.S., also traditionally have been considered African-American, as they share a common history of predominantly West African or Central African roots, the Middle Passage and slavery.

African Americans have been known by various names throughout American history, including colored and Negro, which are no longer generally accepted in English. Instead the most usual and accepted terms nowadays are African American and Black, which however may have different connotations (see African American#Terminology). The term person of color usually refers not only to African Americans, but also to other non-white ethnic groups. Others who sometimes are referred to as African Americans, and who may identify themselves as such in US government censuses, include relatively recent Black immigrants from Africa, South America and elsewhere.

African-American history is celebrated and highlighted annually in the United States during February, designated as Black History Month. Although previously marginalized, African-American history has gained ground in school and university curricula and gained wider scholarly attention since the late 20th century.

African origins

The great majority of African Americans descend from slaves brought directly from Africa to the North American mainland, between 80% to 85% - as shown in existing historical documents, shipping, maritime, and naval records of European and American archives relating to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.[1] A minority of African slaves arrived there by the way of the Caribbean and other routes. Originally these slaves were captured in African wars and sold to Arab, European or American slave traders. Slavery within Africa had already existed in varied forms prior to the arrival of the Europeans. However, the existing market for slaves in Africa was exploited and expanded by European powers in search of low-cost labor for New World plantations. In most cases, the people who would become slaves had been kidnapped or falsely charged with crimes.[2]

The American slave population was made up of the various ethnic groups from mostly western and central Africa, including the Sahel, although a smaller minority were from, eastern, and south eastern Africa, including the Hausa, Tuareg, Fula, Bakongo, Igbo, Mandé, Wolof, Akan, Fon, Yoruba, and Makua amongst others. Although these different groups varied in customs, religious theology and language, what they had in common was a way a life that was different from the Europeans.[3] However, since a majority of the slaves came from these villages and societies, once sent to the Americas these different peoples did away with tribal differences and forged a new history and culture that was a creolization of their common pasts and present.[4] Slaves from specific African ethnic groups were more sought after and more dominant in numbers than others in certain regions of what later became the United States. More research and study revealed that American plantation owners often tended to have a preference for buying African slaves belonging to specific ethnicities, or from certain parts of Africa - these preferences were highly varied, depending on what part of the American colonies or later the United States were concerned.[1] For instance, the majority of African slaves in Virginia were from the Bight of Biafra (present-day southeast Nigeria). African slaves from Congo-Angola, and later Senegambia, and Sierra Leone, were preferred in South Carolina and were very numerous there. Slaves from Senegambia, Congo, and later the Bight of Benin, were the dominant and preferred African ethnic groups in French and Spanish Louisiana. Many of the much smaller number of African slaves brought to the Northern colonies came from Senegambia and the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana). Most African slaves were male as expected, but significantly, the majority of female African slaves imported to North America were from the Bight of Biafra, and mostly belonged to the Igbo ethnic group - for some reason they were highly sought after by American buyers, especially throughout most of the Southern colonies.[5] The Bakongo people were part of a large civilization that consisted of around two million people by the 15th century.[3] Many African Americans trace their ancestors to the Kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo (Congo and Angola).[6] Similarly, many African Americans also trace their ancestors to Senegambia[7] and the Bight of Biafra region of southeastern Nigeria.[8] African political organizations were also in a monarchical system similar to the Europeans.[3]

Regions of Africa

Studies of contemporary documents reveal seven regions from which Africans were sold or taken during the Atlantic slave trade. These regions were:

The largest source of slaves to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean for the New World was West Africa. West Africans were skilled iron workers and were therefore able to make tools that aided in their agricultural labor. While there were many unique tribes with their own customs and religions, by the tenth century, Islam had been soaked up by many of the residents and became a common religion. Those villages in West Africa that were lucky enough to be in good conditions for growth and success, prospered. They also contributed their success to the slave trade.[3]

Origins and Percentages of African Americans imported into British North America and Louisiana (1700–1820) [10]

Region Percentage
West Central Africa 26.1%
Bight of Biafra 24.4%
Sierra Leone 15.8%
Senegambia 14.5%
Gold Coast 13.1%
Bight of Benin 4.3%
Mozambique-Madagascar 1.8%

The Middle Passage

Before the Atlantic Slave Trade there were already people of African descent in America. A few countries in Africa would buy, sell, and trade other enslaved Africans, who were often prisoners of war, with the Europeans. The people of Mali and Benin are known for partaking in the event of selling their prisoners of war and other unwanted people off as slaves.[3]


In the account of Olaudah Equiano, he described the process of being transported to the colonies and being on the slave ships as a horrific experience. On the ships, the slaves were separated from their family long before they boarded the ships.[11] Once aboard the ships the captives were then segregated by gender.[11] Under the deck, the slaves were cramped and did not have enough space to walk around freely. Male slaves were generally kept in the ship's hold, where they experienced the worst of crowding.[11] The captives stationed on the floor beneath low-lying bunks could barely move and spent much of the voyage pinned to the floorboards, which could, over time, wear the skin on their elbows down to the bone.[11] Due to the lack of basic hygiene, malnourishment, and dehydration diseases spread wildly and death was common.

The women on the ships often endured rape by the crewmen.[3] Women and children were often kept in rooms set apart from the main hold. This gave crewmen easy access to the women which was often regarded as one of the perks of the trade system.[11] Not only did these rooms give the crewmen easy access to women but it gave enslaved women better access to information on the ship's crew, fortifications, and daily routine, but little opportunity to communicate this to the men confined in the ship's hold.[11] As an example, women instigated a 1797 insurrection aboard the British ship Thomas by stealing weapons and passing them to the men below as well as engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the ship's crew.[11]

In the midst of these terrible conditions, African slaves plotted mutiny. Male slaves were the most likely candidates to mutiny and only at times they were on deck.[11] While rebellions did not happen often, they were usually unsuccessful. In order for the crew members to keep the slaves under control and prevent future rebellions, the crews were often twice as large and members would instill fear into the slaves through brutality and harsh punishments.[11] From the time of being captured in Africa to the arrival to the plantations of the European masters, took an average of six months.[3] Africans were completely cut off from their families, home, and community life.[12] They were forced to adjust to a new way of life.

Early African-American history

"Landing Negroes at Jamestown from Dutch man-of-war, 1619", 1901.
"Slaves working in 17th-century Virginia", by an unknown artist, 1670.

The first African slaves were brought to Point Comfort, today's Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, 30 miles down stream from Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The English settlers treated these captives as indentured servants and released them after a number of years. This practice was gradually replaced by the system of race-based slavery used in the Caribbean.[13] As servants were freed, they became competition for resources. Additionally, released servants had to be replaced.[14]

This, combined with the still ambiguous nature of the social status of Blacks and the difficulty in using any other group of people as forced servants, led to the relegation of Blacks into slavery. Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641. Other colonies followed suit by passing laws that passed slavery on to the children of slaves and making non-Christian imported servants slaves for life.[15]

Africans first arrived in 1619, when a Dutch ship sold 19 blacks as indentured servants (not slaves) to Englishmen at Point Comfort (today's Fort Monroe), thirty miles downstream from Jamestown, Virginia. In all, about 10–12 million Africans were transported to the Western Hemisphere. The vast majority of these people came from that stretch of the West African coast extending from present-day Senegal to Angola; a small percentage came from Madagascar and East Africa. Only 5% (about 500,000) went to the American colonies. The vast majority went to the West Indies and Brazil, where they died quickly. Demographic conditions were highly favorable in the American colonies, with less disease, more food, some medical care, and lighter work loads than prevailed in the sugar fields.[16]

At first the Africans in the South were outnumbered by white indentured servants, who came voluntarily from Britain. They avoided the plantations. With the vast amount of good land and the shortage of laborers, plantation owners turned to lifetime slaves who worked for their keep but were not paid wages and could not easily escape. Slaves had some legal rights (it was a crime to kill a slave, and a few whites were hanged for it.) Generally the slaves developed their own family system, religion and customs in the slave quarters with little interference from owners, who were only interested in work outputs. Before the 1660s, the North American mainland colonies were expanding, but still fairly small in size and did not have a great demand for labour, so the colonists did not import large numbers of African slaves at this point.

Black population in 1700

By 1700 there were 25,000 black slaves in the North American mainland colonies, about 10% of the population. Some had been shipped directly from Africa (most of them were from the late seventeenth century onward), but initially, very often they had been shipped via the West Indies in small cargoes after spending time working on the islands.[17] At the same time, many increasingly, were native born on the North American mainland. Their legal status was now clear: they were slaves for life and so were the children of slave mothers. They could be sold, or freed, and a few ran away; some using the Underground Railroad to reach freedom. In the eyes of the slave owner, they were no more than livestock.[18] As white settlers began to claim and clear more land for large-scale farming and plantations, the number of slaves imported directly from Africa began to rapidly increase in large numbers between the 1660s and into the 1700s onward, since the trade in slaves coming in from the West Indies was much too small to meet the huge demand for the now, fast-growing North American mainland slave market. Additionally, most American slave buyers no longer wanted slaves coming in from the West Indies - by now they were either harder to obtain, too expensive, undesirable, or more often, ruined in many ways by the very brutal regime of the island sugar plantations. By the end of the seventeenth century, a relaxation on colonial tax laws, and the removal of royal monopolies by the British Crown made the direct slave trade with Africa much easier. As a result, freshly imported, young, and healthy Africans were now much more affordable, cheaper in price, and more readily available in large numbers to American slave buyers, who by now preferred to purchase them, even if it took some time for them to adjust to a new life as plantation slaves. From about 1700 to 1859, the majority of slaves imported to the North American mainland came directly from Africa in huge cargoes to fill the massive spike in demand for much-needed labour to work the continually expanding plantations in the Southern colonies (later to be states), with most heading to Virginia, South Carolina, and French or Spanish Louisiana.[17] Unlike in the South, the Northern colonies developed into much more urbanized and industrialised societies, and they relied less on agriculture as a main economy, so therefore they did not import many African slaves, and the black population there remained fairly low for a very long time. However, big Northern cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, had relatively large black populations (slave or free) for most of the colonial period and thereafter.

From the 1750s, American-born slaves of African descent already began to outnumber African-born slaves. By the time of the American Revolution, most of the Northern states had abolished and banned slavery, and some Southern states like Virginia had produced such large and self-sustaining locally-born slave populations by natural increase, that they stopped taking in direct imports of slaves from Africa altogether (but still kept slavery, which continued in the South). However, other Southern states like Georgia and South Carolina still relied on constant, fresh supplies of slave labour to keep up with the demand of their burgeoning plantation economies, so they continued to allow the direct importation of slaves from Africa right up to 1808, only stopping for a few years in the 1770s, because of a temporary lull in the trade brought on by the American Revolutionary War. The continued, direct importation of slaves from Africa ensured that for most of the eighteenth century, South Carolina's black population remained very high, with blacks outnumbering whites three to one, unlike in Virginia, which had a white majority, despite its large black slave population.[19] It was said that South Carolina in the eighteenth century as a British colony looked much more like an extension of West Africa than it did of Britain. All legal, direct importation of slaves from Africa had stopped by 1808, when the now, newly formed United States finally banned its citizens from participating in the international slave trade altogether by law. Despite the ban, small to moderate cargoes of slaves were occasionally being illegally shipped into the United States directly from Africa for many years, as late as 1859.[20]

Slowly a free black population emerged, concentrated in port cities along the Atlantic coast from Charleston to Boston. Slaves in the cities and towns had many more privileges, but the great majority of slaves lived on southern tobacco or rice plantations, usually in groups of 20 or more.[21] Wealthy plantation owners eventually would become so reliant on slavery that they devastated their own lower class.[22] In years to come the institution of slavery would be so heavily involved in the South's economy it would divide America into two opposing forces.

The most serious slave rebellion was the Stono Uprising, in September 1739 in South Carolina. The colony had about 56,000 slaves, who outnumbered whites 2:1. About 150 slaves rose up, and seizing guns and ammunition, murdered twenty whites, and headed for Spanish Florida. The local militia soon intercepted and killed most of them.[23]

All the American colonies had slavery, but it was usually the form of personal servants in the North (where 2% of the people were slaves), and field hands in plantations in the South (where 25% were slaves.)[24] These statistics show the early imbalance that would eventually tip the scale and rid the United States of slavery.[25]

The Revolution and early America

The later half of the 18th century was a time of political upheaval in the United States. In the midst of cries for relief from British rule, people pointed out the apparent hypocrisies of slave holders' demanding freedom. The Declaration of Independence, a document that would become a manifesto for human rights and personal freedom, was written by Thomas Jefferson, who owned over 200 slaves. Other Southern statesmen were also major slaveholders. The Second Continental Congress did consider freeing slaves to disrupt British commerce. They removed language from the Declaration of Independence that included the promotion of slavery amongst the offenses of King George III. A number of free Blacks, most notably Prince Hall—the founder of Prince Hall Freemasonry, submitted petitions for the end of slavery. But these petitions were largely ignored.[26]

This did not deter Blacks, free and slave, from participating in the Revolution. Crispus Attucks, a free Black tradesman, was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre and of the ensuing American Revolutionary War. 5,000 Blacks, including Prince Hall, fought in the Continental Army. Many fought side by side with White soldiers at the battles of Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill. But when George Washington took command in 1775, he barred any further recruitment of Blacks.

Approximately 5000 free African-American men helped the American Colonists in their struggle for freedom. One of these men, Agrippa Hull, fought in the American Revolution for over six years. He and the other African-American soldiers fought in order to improve their white neighbor’s views of them and advance their own fight of freedom.[27]

By contrast, the British and Loyalists offered emancipation to any slave owned by a Patriot who was willing to join the Loyalist forces. Lord Dunmore, the Governor of Virginia, recruited 300 African-American men into his Ethiopian regiment within a month of making this proclamation. In South Carolina 25,000 slaves, more than one-quarter of the total, escaped to join and fight with the British, or fled for freedom in the uproar of war. Thousands of slaves also escaped in Georgia and Virginia, as well as New England and New York. Well-known Black Loyalist soldiers include Colonel Tye and Boston King.

The Americans eventually won the war. In the provisional treaty, they demanded the return of property, including slaves. Nonetheless, the British helped up to 4,000 documented African Americans to leave the country for Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Britain rather than be returned to slavery.[28]

Thomas Peters was one of the large numbers of African Americans who fought for the British. Peters was born in present-day Nigeria and belonged to the Yoruba tribe, and ended up being captured and sold into slavery in French Louisiana.[29] Sold again, he became a slave in North Carolina and escaped his master’s farm in order to receive Lord Dunmore’s promise of freedom. Peters fought for the British throughout the war. When the war finally ended, he and other African Americans who fought on the losing side were taken to Nova Scotia. Here, they were given pieces of land that they could not farm. They also did not receive the same freedoms as white Englishmen. Peters sailed to London in order to complain to the government. “He arrived at a momentous time, when English abolitionists were pushing a bill through Parliament to charter the Sierra Leone Company and to grant it trading and settlement rights on the West African coast.” Peters and the other African Americans on Nova Scotia left for Sierra Leone in 1792. Peters died soon after they arrived but the other members of his party lived on in their new home.[30]

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 sought to define the foundation for the government of the newly formed United States of America. The constitution set forth the ideals of freedom and equality while providing for the continuation of the institution of slavery through the fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths compromise. Additionally, free blacks' rights were also restricted in many places. Most were denied the right to vote and were excluded from public schools. Some Blacks sought to fight these contradictions in court. In 1780, Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker used language from the new Massachusetts constitution that declared all men were born free and equal in freedom suits to gain release from slavery. A free Black businessman in Boston named Paul Cuffe sought to be excused from paying taxes since he had no voting rights.[31]

In the Northern states, the revolutionary spirit did help African Americans. Beginning in the 1750s, there was widespread sentiment during the American Revolution that slavery was a social evil (for the country as a whole and for the whites) that should eventually be abolished.[citation needed] All the Northern states passed emancipation acts between 1780 and 1804; most of these arranged for gradual emancipation and a special status for freedmen, so there were still a dozen "permanent apprentices" into the 19th century. In 1787 Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance and barred slavery from the large Northwest Territory.[32] In 1790, there were more than 59,000 free Blacks in the United States. By 1810, that number had risen to 186,446. Most of these were in the North, but Revolutionary sentiments also motivated Southern slaveholders.

For 20 years after the Revolution, more Southerners also freed slaves, sometimes by manumission or in wills to be accomplished after the slaveholder's death. In the Upper South, the percentage of free blacks rose from about 1% before the Revolution to more than 10% by 1810. Quakers and Moravians worked to persuade slaveholders to free families. In Virginia the number of free blacks increased from 10,000 in 1790 to nearly 30,000 in 1810, but 95% of blacks were still enslaved. In Delaware, three-quarters of all blacks were free by 1810.[33] By 1860 just over 91% of Delaware's blacks were free, and 49.1% of those in Maryland.[34]

Among the successful free men was Benjamin Banneker, a Maryland astronomer, mathematician, almanac author, surveyor and farmer, who in 1791 assisted in the initial survey of the boundaries of the future District of Columbia.[35] Despite the challenges of living in the new country, most free Blacks fared far better than the nearly 800,000 enslaved Blacks. Even so, many considered emigrating to Africa.[31]


By 1800 a small number of slaves had joined Christian churches. Free blacks in the North had set up networks of churches and in the South the slaves sat in the upper gallery. Central to the growth of community among blacks was the Black church, usually the first community institution to be established. The Black church- was both an expression of community and unique African-American spirituality, and a reaction to discrimination. The church also served as neighborhood centers where free black people could celebrate their African heritage without intrusion by white detractors. The church also the center of education. Since the church was part of the community and wanted to provide education; they educated the freed and enslaved Blacks. Seeking autonomy, some blacks like Richard Allen (bishop) founded separate Black denominations.[36]

The Second Great Awakening (1800-1830s) has been called the "central and defining event in the development of Afro-Christianity."[37][38]

The antebellum period

As the United States grew, the institution of slavery became more entrenched in the southern states, while northern states began to abolish it. Pennsylvania was the first, in 1780 passing an act for gradual abolition.[39]

A number of events continued to shape views on slavery. One of these events was the Haitian Revolution, which was the only slave revolt that led to an independent country. Many slave owners fled to the United States with tales of horror and massacre that alarmed Southern whites.[40]

The invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s allowed the cultivation of short staple cotton, which could be grown in much of the Deep South, where warm weather and proper soil conditions prevailed. The industrial revolution in Europe and New England generated a heavy demand for cotton for cheap clothing, which caused an exponential demand for slave labor to develop new cotton plantations. There was a 70% increase in the number of slaves in the United States in only 20 years. They were overwhelmingly concentrated on plantations in the Deep South, and moved west as old cotton fields lost their productivity and new lands were purchased. Unlike the Northern States who put more focus into manufacturing and commerce, the South was heavily dependent on agriculture.[41] Southern political economists at this time supported the institution by concluding that nothing was inherently contradictory about owning slaves and that a future of slavery existed even if the South were to industrialize.[42] Racial, economic, and political turmoil reached an all-time high regarding slavery up to the events of the Civil War.

In 1807, at the urging of President Thomas Jefferson, Congress abolished the international slave trade. While American Blacks celebrated this as a victory in the fight against slavery, the ban increased the demand for slaves. Changing agricultural practices in the Upper South from tobacco to mixed farming decreased labor requirements, and slaves were sold to traders for the developing Deep South. In addition, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed any Black person to be claimed as a runaway unless a White person testified on their behalf. A number of free Blacks, especially indentured children, were kidnapped and sold into slavery with little or no hope of rescue. By 1819 there were exactly 11 free and 11 slave states, which increased sectionalism. Fears of an imbalance in Congress led to the 1820 Missouri Compromise that required states to be admitted to the union in pairs, one slave and one free.[43]

In 1850 after winning the Mexican war a crisis gripped the nation what to do about the territories won from Mexico. Henry Clay the man behind the compromise of 1820 once more rose to the challenge to craft the compromise of 1850. In this compromise the territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada would be organized but the issue of slavery would be decided later. Washington D.C would abolish the slave trade but not slavery itself. California would be admitted as a free state but the South would receive a new fugitive slave act which required Northerners to return slaves who escaped to the North to their owners. The compromise of 1850 would maintain a shaky peace until the election of Lincoln in 1860.[44]

In 1851 the battle between slaves and slave owners was met in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Christiana Riot (Incident) demonstrated the growing conflict between states rights and the federal legislature on the issue of slavery.[45]


Abolitionists in Britain and the United States in the 1840-1860 period developed large, complex propaganda campaigns against slavery. Stampp says that, "Though abolitionists never argued that the physical treatment of slaves had any decisive bearing on the issue of the morality of slavery, their propaganda emphasized (and doubtless exaggerated) cruelties and atrocities for the purpose of winning converts."[46] Blight says,

"The authenticity of these reports about southern atrocity is questionable. I know of no verification for them. The propaganda uses of such stories, though, were not lost on abolitionist editors such as Douglass."[47]

Kennicott argues that the largest and most effective abolitionist speakers were the blacks who spoke before the countless local meetings of the National Negro Conventions. They used the traditional arguments against slavery, protesting it on moral, economic, and political grounds. Their role in the antislavery movement not only aided abolitionist propaganda but also was a source of pride to the black community.[48]

In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published a novel and play that changed how the North would view slavery. Uncle Tom's Cabin tells the story of the life of a slave and the brutality that is faced by that life day after day. It would sell over 100,000 copies in its first year. The popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin would solidify the North in its opposition to slavery. Lincoln would later invite Stowe to the White House in honor of this book that changed America.

In 1856 Charles Sumner a Massachusetts congressmen and antislavery leader was assaulted and nearly killed on the House floor by Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Brooks received praise in the South for his actions while being condemned in the North and Sumner became an iconic martyr in the North. Sumner later returned to the Senate where he was a leader of the Radical Republicans in ending slavery and legislating equal rights for freed slaves.[49]

Over 1 million slaves were moved from the older seaboard slave states, with their declining economies to the rich cotton states of the southwest; many others were sold and moved locally.[50] Berlin (2000) argues that this "Second Middle Passage shredded the planters' paternalist pretenses in the eyes of black people and prodded slaves and free people of color to create a host of oppositional ideologies and institutions that better accounted for the realities of endless deportations, expulsions and flights that continually remade their world.[51]

The Black community

The number of free Blacks grew during this time as well. By 1830 there were 319,000 free Blacks in the United States. About 150,000 lived in the northern states. Blacks generally settled in cities creating the core of black community life in the region. They established churches and fraternal orders. Many of these early efforts were weak and often failed, but they represented the initial steps in the evolution of black communities.[52]

During the early period of Antebellum the creation of free black communities began to expand laying out the foundation of African Americans' future. Only a few thousand African Americans had their freedom. As the years went by the number of blacks being freed expanded tremendously building to 233,000 by the 1820s. In order for them to gain their freedom they either sued for it or purchased their freedom. Slave owners had freed their bondspeople and a few state legislatures abolished slavery. In the South 60 percent and 40 percent in the North free black people lived there during the new republic.[53]

African Americans tried to take the advantage of establishing homes and jobs in the cities. During the early 1800s free blacks took several steps to establish fulfilling work lives in urban areas.[54] The rise of industrialization, which depended on power driven machinery more than human labor, might have afforded them employment, but many owners of textile mills refused to hire black workers. These owners considered whites to be more reliable and educable. This resulted in many blacks performing unskilled labor. Black men worked as stevedores, construction worker, and as cellar-, well- and grave-diggers. As for black women workers, they worked as servants for white families. Some women were also cooks, seamstresses, basket-makers, midwives, teachers and nurses.[53] Black women worked as washerwomen or domestic servants for the white families. In some cities they had independent black seamstresses, cooks, basketmakers, confectioners and more.

While the African Americans left the thought of slavery behind, they made a priority to reunite with their family and friends. The cause of the Revolutionary War forced blacks to migrate to the west afterwards, and the scourge of poverty created much difficulty with housing formations. Even though African Americans competed with the Irish and Germans in jobs they had to share space with them.[53]

While the majority of free blacks lived in poverty, some were able to establish successful businesses that catered to the Black community. Racial discrimination often meant that Blacks were not welcome or would be mistreated in White businesses and other establishments. To counter this, Blacks like James Forten developed their own communities with Black-owned businesses. Black doctors, lawyers and other businessmen were the foundation of the Black middle class.[55]

Blacks organized to help strengthen the Black community and continue the fight against slavery. One of these organizations was the American Society of Free Persons of Colour, founded in 1830. This organization provided social aid to poor blacks and organized responses to political issues. Further supporting the growth of the Black Community was the Black church, usually the first community institution to be established. Starting in the early 1800s [56] with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and other churches, the Black church grew to be the focal point of the Black community. The Black church- was both an expression of community and unique African-American spirituality, and a reaction to European American discrimination. The church also served as neighborhood centers where free black people could celebrate their African heritage without intrusion by white detractors.[53] The church was the center of the Black communities, but it was also the center of education. Since the church was part of the community and wanted to provide education; they educated the freed and enslaved Blacks.[57] At first, Black preachers formed separate congregations within the existing denominations, such as social clubs or literary societies. Because of discrimination at the higher levels of the church hierarchy, some blacks like Richard Allen (bishop) simply founded separate Black denominations.[58]

Free blacks also established Black churches in the South before 1800. After the Great Awakening, many blacks joined the Baptist Church, which allowed for their participation, including roles as elders and preachers. For instance, First Baptist Church and Gillfield Baptist Church of Petersburg, Virginia, both had organized congregations by 1800 and were the first Baptist churches in the city.[59] Petersburg, an industrial city, by 1860 had 3,224 free blacks (36% of blacks, and about 26% of all free persons), the largest population in the South.[60][61] In Virginia, free blacks also created communities in Richmond, Virginia and other towns, where they could work as artisans and create businesses.[62] Others were able to buy land and farm in frontier areas further from white control.

The Black community also established schools for Black children, since they were often banned from entering public schools.[63] Richard Allen organized the first Black Sunday school in America; it was established in Philadelphia during 1795.[64] Then five years later, the priest Absalom Jones established a school for black youth.[64] Black Americans regarded education as the surest path to economic success, moral improvement and personal happiness. Only the sons and daughters of the black middle class had the luxury of studying.[53]

Haiti's effect on slavery

The revolt of Haitian slaves against their white slave owners, which began in 1791 and lasted until 1801, was a primary source of fuel for both slaves and abolitionist arguing for the freedom of Africans in the U.S. In the 1833 edition of Nile's Weekly Register it is stated that freed blacks in Haiti are better off than their Jamaican counterparts, and the positive effects that American Emancipation would have are alluded to, throughout the paper.[65] These anti-slavery sentiments were popular amongst both white abolitionists and African-American slaves. Slaves rallied around these ideas with rebellions against their masters as well as innocent white bystanders during the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy of 1822 and the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831. Leaders and plantation owners were also very concerned about the consequences Haiti's revolution would have on early America for different reasons. Thomas Jefferson, for one, was wary of the “instability of the West Indies”, referring to Haiti.[66]

The Dred Scott decision

Peter[67] aka Gordon, a former slave displays the telltale criss-cross, keloid scars from being bullwhipped, 1863.

Dred Scott was a slave whose master had taken him to live in the free state of Illinois. After his masters death, Dred Scott sued in court for his freedom on the basis of his having lived in a free state for a long period. The black community received an enormous shock with the Supreme Court's "Dred Scott" decision in March 1857.[68] Blacks were not American citizens and could never be citizens, the court said in a decision roundly denounced by the Republican Party as well as the abolitionists. Because slaves were property, not people, by this ruling they could not sue in court. The decision was finally reversed by the Civil Rights Act of 1865.[69] In what is sometimes considered mere obiter dictum the Court went on to hold that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories because slaves are personal property and the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution protects property owners against deprivation of their property without due process of law. Although the Supreme Court has never explicitly overruled the Dred Scott case, the Court stated in the Slaughter-House Cases that at least one part of it had already been overruled by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which begins by stating, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." [70]

The American Civil War, Emancipation

The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. In a single stroke it changed the legal status, as recognized by the U.S. government, of 3 million slaves in designated areas of the Confederacy from "slave" to "free." It had the practical effect that as soon as a slave escaped the control of the Confederate government, by running away or through advances of federal troops, the slave became legally and actually free. The owners were never compensated. Plantation owners, realizing that emancipation would destroy their economic system, sometimes moved their slaves as far as possible out of reach of the Union army. By June 1865, the Union Army controlled all of the Confederacy and liberated all of the designated slaves.[71]

About 200,000 free blacks and former slaves served in the Union Army and Navy, thus providing a basis for a claim to full citizenship.[72] The severe dislocations of war and Reconstruction had a severe negative impact on the black population, with a large amount of sickness and death.[73]


The Civil Rights Act of 1866 made blacks full U.S. citizens (and this repealed the Dred Scott decision). In 1868, the 14th amendment granted full U.S. citizenship to African-Americans. The 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, extended the right to vote to black males. The Freedmen's Bureau was an important institution established to create social and economic order in southern states.[3]

The Emancipation Proclamation.

After the Union victory over the Confederacy, a brief period of southern black progress, called Reconstruction, followed. During the Reconstruction the entire face of the south changed because the remaining states were readmitted into the Union.[74] From 1865 to 1877, under protection of Union troops, some strides were made toward equal rights for African-Americans. Southern black men began to vote and were elected to the United States Congress and to local offices such as sheriff. The safety provided by the troops did not last long, and white southerners frequently terrorized black voters. Coalitions of white and black Republicans passed bills to establish the first public school systems in most states of the South, although sufficient funding was hard to find. Blacks established their own churches, towns and businesses. Tens of thousands migrated to Mississippi for the chance to clear and own their own land, as 90% of the bottomlands were undeveloped. By the end of the 19th century, two-thirds of the farmers who owned land in the Mississippi Delta bottomlands were black.[75]

Hiram Revels became the first African-American Senator in the U.S. Congress in 1870. Other African Americans soon came to Congress from South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. These new politicians supported the Republicans and tried to bring further improvements to the lives of African Americans. Revels and others understood that white people may have felt threatened by the African-American Congressmen. Revels stated, "The white race has no better friend than I. I am true to my own race. I wish to see all done that can be assist [black men]in acquiring property, in becoming intelligent, enlightened citizens...but at the same time, I would not have anything done which would harm the white race,"[76] Blanche K. Bruce was the other African American who became a U.S. Senator. African Americans elected to the House of Representatives during this time included Benjamin S. Turner, Josiah T. Walls, Joseph H. Rainey, Robert Brown Elliot, Robert D. De Large. and Jefferson H. Long. Frederick Douglass also served in the different government jobs during Reconstruction. These jobs included Minister Resident and Counsel General to Hait, Recorder of Deeds, and U.S. Marshall.[77] Bruce became a Senator in 1874 and represented the state of Mississippi. He worked with white politicians from his region in order to hopefully help his fellow African Americans and other minority groups such as Chinese immigrants and Native Americans. He even supported efforts to "end restrictions on former Confederates' political participation.[76]

The aftermath of the Civil War accelerated the process of a national African-American identity formation.[78] Some civil rights activists, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, disagree that identity was achieved after the Civil War.[79] African-Americans in the post-civil war era were faced with many rules and regulations that, even though they were "free", prevented them from living with the same amount of freedom as white citizens had.[80] Tens of thousands of Black northerners left homes and careers and also migrated to the defeated South, building schools, printing newspapers, and opening businesses. As Joel Williamson puts it:

Many of the migrants, women as well as men, came as teachers sponsored by a dozen or so benevolent societies, arriving in the still turbulent wake of Union armies. Others came to organize relief for the refugees.... Still others... came south as religious missionaries... Some came south as business or professional people seeking opportunity on this... special black frontier. Finally, thousands came as soldiers, and when the war was over, many of [their] young men remained there or returned after a stay of some months in the North to complete their education.[81]

A large group of African-American spectators stands on the banks of Buffalo Bayou to witness a baptism (ca. 1900).

Jim Crow, disfranchisement and challenges

The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated de jure segregation in all public facilities, with a supposedly "separate but equal" status for black Americans. In reality, this led to treatment and accommodations that were usually inferior to those provided for white Americans, systematizing a number of economic, educational and social disadvantages.

In the face of years of mounting violence and intimidation directed at blacks as well as whites sympathetic to their cause, the U.S. government retreated from its pledge to guarantee constitutional protections to freedmen and women. When President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew Union troops from the South in 1877 as a result of a national compromise on the election, white Democratic southerners acted quickly to reverse the groundbreaking advances of Reconstruction. To reduce black voting and regain control of state legislatures, Democrats had used a combination of violence, fraud, and intimidation since the election of 1868. These techniques were prominent among paramilitary groups such as the White League and Red Shirts in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida prior to the 1876 elections. In South Carolina, for instance, one historian estimated that 150 blacks were killed in the weeks before the election.[82] Massacres occurred at Hamburg and Ellenton.

White paramilitary violence against African Americans intensified. Many blacks were fearful of this trend, and men like Benjamin "Pap" Singleton began speaking of separating from the South. This idea culminated in the 1879–80 movement of the Exodusters, who migrated to Kansas.

Sign for "Colored waiting room", Georgia, 1943

White Democrats first passed laws to make voter registration and elections more complicated. Most of the rules acted overwhelmingly against blacks, but many poor whites were also disfranchised. Interracial coalitions of Populists and Republicans in some states succeeded in controlling legislatures in the 1880s and 1894, which made the Democrats more determined to reduce voting by poorer classes. When Democrats took control of Tennessee in 1888, they passed laws making voter registration more complicated and ended the most competitive political state in the South. Voting by blacks in rural areas and small towns dropped sharply, as did voting by poor whites.[83][84]

From 1890 to 1908, starting with Mississippi and ending with Georgia, ten of eleven Southern states adopted new constitutions or amendments that effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. Using a combination of provisions such as poll taxes, residency requirements and literacy tests, states dramatically decreased black voter registration and turnout, in some cases to zero.[85] [86] The grandfather clause was used in many states temporarily to exempt illiterate white voters from literacy tests. As power became concentrated under the Democratic Party in the South, the party positioned itself as a private club and instituted white primaries, closing blacks out of the only competitive contests. By 1910 one-party white rule was firmly established across the South.

Although African Americans quickly started litigation to challenge such provisions, early court decisions at the state and national level went against them. In Williams v. Mississippi (1898), the US Supreme Court upheld state provisions. This encouraged other Southern states to adopt similar measures over the next few years, as noted above. Booker T. Washington, of Tuskegee Institute secretly worked with Northern supporters to raise funds and provide representation for African Americans in additional cases, such as Giles v. Harris (1903) and Giles v. Teasley (1904), but again the Supreme Court upheld the states.[86]

Seeking to return blacks to their subordinate status under slavery, white supremacists resurrected de facto barriers and enacted new laws to segregate society along racial lines. They limited black access to transportation, schools, restaurants and other public facilities. White supremacists also promoted the idea that blacks' participation in government in the South was ended due to incompetence; this view was disseminated in school textbooks and movies such as The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Although slavery had been abolished, most southern blacks for decades continued to struggle in grinding poverty as agricultural, domestic and menial laborers. Many became sharecroppers, their economic status little changed by emancipation.

Racial terrorism

In 1865, the Ku Klux Klan, a secret vigilante organization dedicated to destroying the Republican Party in the South, especially by terrorizing black leaders, was formed. Klansmen hid behind masks and robes to hide their identity while they carried out violence and property damage. The Klan used terrorism, especially murder and threats of murder, arson and intimidation. The Klan's excesses led to the passage of legislation against it, and with Federal enforcement, it was destroyed by 1871.[87]

The anti-Republican and anti-freedmen sentiment only briefly went underground, as violence arose in other incidents, especially after Louisiana's disputed state election in 1872, which contributed to the Colfax and Coushatta massacres in Louisiana in 1873 and 1874. Tensions and rumors were high in many parts of the South. When violence erupted, African Americans consistently were killed at a much higher rate than were European Americans. Historians of the 20th century have renamed events long called "riots" in southern history. The common stories featured whites heroically saving the community from marauding blacks. Upon examination of the evidence, historians have called numerous such events "massacres", as at Colfax, because of the disproportionate number of fatalities for blacks as opposed to whites. The mob violence there resulted in 40–50 blacks dead for each of the three whites killed.[88]

While not as widely known as the Klan, the paramilitary organizations that arose in the South during the mid-1870s as the white Democrats mounted a stronger insurgency, were more directed and effective than the Klan in challenging Republican governments, suppressing the black vote and achieving political goals. Unlike the Klan, paramilitary members operated openly, often solicited newspaper coverage, and had distinct political goals: to turn Republicans out of office and suppress or dissuade black voting in order to regain power in 1876. Groups included the White League, that started from white militias in Grant Parish, Louisiana, in 1874 and spread in the Deep South; the Red Shirts, that started in Mississippi in 1875 but had chapters arise and was prominent in the 1876 election campaign in South Carolina, as well as in North Carolina; and other White Line organizations such as rifle clubs.[89]

The Jim Crow era accompanied the most cruel wave of "racial" suppression that America has yet experienced. Between 1890 and 1940, millions of African Americans were disfranchised, killed, and brutalized. According to newspaper records kept at the Tuskegee Institute, about 5,000 men, women, and children were murdered in documented extrajudicial mob violence —called "lynchings." The journalist Ida B. Wells estimated that lynchings not reported by the newspapers, plus similar executions under the veneer of "due process", may have amounted to about 20,000 killings.[citation needed]

Of the tens of thousands of lynchers and onlookers during this period, it is reported that fewer than 50 whites were ever indicted for their crimes, and only four sentenced. Because blacks were disfranchised, they could not sit on juries or have any part in the political process, including local offices. Meanwhile, the lynchings were used as a weapon of terror to keep millions of African-Americans living in a constant state of anxiety and fear.[90][91] Most blacks were denied their right to keep and bear arms under Jim Crow laws, and they were therefore unable to protect themselves or their families.[92]

Civil rights

In response to these and other setbacks, in the summer of 1905, W. E. B. Du Bois and 28 other prominent, African-American men met secretly at Niagara Falls, Ontario. There, they produced a manifesto calling for an end to racial discrimination, full civil liberties for African Americans and recognition of human brotherhood. The organization they established came to be called the Niagara Movement. After the notorious Springfield, Illinois race riot of 1908, a group of concerned Whites joined with the leadership of the Niagara Movement and formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) a year later, in 1909. Under the leadership of Du Bois, the NAACP mounted legal challenges to segregation and lobbied legislatures on behalf of black Americans.

While the NAACP use the court system to promote equality, at the local level African Americans adopted a self-help strategy. They pooled their resources to create independent community and institutional lives for themselves. They established schools, churches, social welfare institutions, banks, African-American newspapers and small businesses to serve the needs of their communities.[93] The main organizer of national and local self-help organizations was Alabama educator Booker T. Washington.[94]

The Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance

The Great Migration shown through changes in African American share of population in major US cities, 1910–1940 and 1940–1970

During the first half of the 20th century, the largest internal population shift in U.S. history took place. Starting about 1910, through the Great Migration over five million African Americans made choices and "voted with their feet" by moving from the South to northern cities, the West and Midwest in hopes of escaping political discrimination and hatred, violence, finding better jobs, voting and enjoying greater equality and education for their children. In the 1920s, the concentration of blacks in New York led to the cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, whose influence reached nationwide. Black intellectual and cultural circles were influenced by thinkers such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who celebrated blackness, or négritude; and arts and letters flourished. Writers Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay and Richard Wright; and artists Lois Mailou Jones, William H. Johnson, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Archibald Motley gained prominence.[95]

The South Side of Chicago, a destination for many on the trains up from Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, became the black capital of America, generating flourishing businesses, music, arts and foods. A new generation of powerful African-American political leaders and organizations also came to the fore. Membership in the NAACP rapidly increased as it mounted an anti-lynching campaign in reaction to ongoing southern white violence against blacks. Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, the Nation of Islam, and union organizer A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters 9part of the American Federation of labor) all were established during this period and found support among African Americans, who became urbanized.[96]

World War I

Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919

The U.S. armed forces remained segregated during World War I. Still, many African Americans eagerly volunteered to join the Allied cause following America's entry into the war. More than two million African American men rushed to register for the draft. By the time of the armistice with Germany in November 1918, over 350,000 African Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

Most African American units were relegated to support roles and did not see combat. Still, African Americans played a minor role in America's war effort.

Four African American regiments were integrated into French units because the French suffered heavy losses and badly needed men after three years of a terrible war.

One of the most distinguished units was the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Harlem Hellfighters", which was on the front lines for six months, longer than any other American unit in the war. 171 members of the 369th were awarded the Legion of Merit.

157th I.D. Red Hand flag [97] drawn by General Mariano Goybet

The 371st and 372nd African American Regiments were integrated under the 157th Red Hand Division[97] commanded by the French General Mariano Goybet. They earned glory in the decisive final offensive in Champagne region of France.[98] The two Regiments were decorated by the French Croix de Guerre for their gallantry in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry Regiment was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor[99]—the only African American to be so honored for actions in World War I. During action in France, Stowers had led an assault on German trenches, continuing to lead and encourage his men even after being wounded twice. Stowers died from his wounds, but his men continued the fight on a German machine gun nest near Bussy farm in Champagne, and eventually defeated the German troops.

Stowers was recommended for the Medal of Honor shortly after his death, but according to the Army, the nomination was misplaced. Many believed the recommendation had been intentionally ignored due to institutional racism in the Armed Forces. In 1990, under pressure from Congress, the Defense Department launched an investigation. Based on findings from this investigation, the Army Decorations Board approved the award of the Medal of Honor to Stowers. On April 24, 1991 – 73 years after he was killed in action — Stowers' two surviving sisters received the Medal of Honor from President George H. W. Bush at the White House.

File:WPA Art Poster, Work Promotes Confidence.jpeg
WPA poster promoting the benefits of employment

New Deal

The New Deal did not have a specific program for blacks only, but it sought to incorporate them in all the relief programs that it began.[100][101] The most important relief agencies were the CCC for young men (who worked in segregated units), the FERA relief programs in 1933–35 (run by local towns and cities), and especially the WPA, which employed 2,000,000 or more workers nationwide under federal control, 1935–42. All races had had the same wage rates and working conditions in the WPA.[102]

A rival federal agency was the Public Works Administration (PWA), headed by long-time civil rights activist Harold Ickes. It set quotas for private firms hiring skilled and unskilled blacks in construction projects financed through the (PWA), overcoming the objections of labor unions. In this way, the New Deal ensured that blacks were 13% of the unskilled PWA jobs in Chicago, 60% in Philadelphia and 71% in Jacksonville, Florida; their share of the skilled jobs was 4%, 6%, and 17%, respectively.[103]

An immediate response was a shift in the black vote in Northern cities from the GOP to the Democrats (blacks seldom voted in the South.)[104] In Southern states where few blacks voted, Black leaders seized the opportunity to work inside the new federal agencies as social workers and administrators, with an eye to preparing a new generation who would become leaders of grass-roots constituencies that could be mobilized at some future date for civil rights.[105]

Militants demanded a federal anti-lynching bill, but President Roosevelt knew it would never pass Congress but would split his New Deal coalition.[106]

In Chicago the black community had been a stronghold of the Republican machine, but in the Great Depression the machine fell apart. Voters and leaders moved en masse into the Democratic Party as the New Deal offered relief programs and the city Democratic machine offered suitable positions in the Democratic Party for leaders such as William Dawson, who went Congress.[107]


The largest group of blacks worked in the cotton farms of the Deep South as sharecroppers or tenant farmers; a few owned their farms. Large numbers of whites also were tenant farmers and sharecroppers. Tenant farming characterized the cotton and tobacco production in the post-Civil War South. As the agricultural economy plummeted in the early 1930s, all farmers in all parts of the nation were badly hurt. Worst hurt were the tenant farmers (who had relatively more control) and sharecroppers (who had less control), as well as daily laborers (mostly black, with least control).[108]

The problem was very low prices for farm products and the New Deal solution was to raise them by cutting production. It accomplished this in the South by the AAA, which gave landowners acreage reduction contracts, by which they were paid to not grow cotton or tobacco on a portion of their land. By law, they were required to pay the tenant farmers and sharecroppers on their land a portion of the money, but some cheated on this provision, hurting their tenants and croppers. The farm wage workers who worked directly for the landowner were mostly the ones who lost their jobs. For most tenants and sharecroppers the AAA was a major help. Researchers at the time concluded, "To the extent that the AAA control-program has been responsible for the increased price [of cotton], we conclude that it has increased the amount of goods and services consumed by the cotton tenants and croppers." Furthermore, the landowners typically let their tenants and croppers use the land taken out of production for their own personal use in growing food and feed crops, which further increased their standard of living. Another consequence was that the historic high levels of turnover from year to year declined sharply, as tenants and coppers tend to stay with the same landowner. Researchers concluded, "As a rule, planters seem to prefer Negroes to whites as tenants and coppers."[109]

Once mechanization came to cotton (after 1945), the tenants and sharecroppers were largely surplus; they moved to towns and cities.

World War II

Black soldiers in France, 1944


Over 1.5 million blacks served in uniform during World War II. They served in segregated units.[110][111]

Famous segregated units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen and the U.S. 761st Tank Battalion proved their value in combat. Approximately 75 percent of the soldiers who served in the European theater as truckers for the Red Ball Express and kept Allied supply lines open were African American.[112] A total of 708 African Americans were killed in combat during World War II.[113]

The distinguished service of these units was a factor in President Harry S. Truman's order to end discrimination in the Armed Forces in July 1948, with the promulgation of Executive Order 9981. This led in turn to the integration of the Air Force and the other services by the early 1950s.[114][115]


Large numbers migrated from poor Southern farms to munitions centers. Racial tensions were high in overcrowded cities like Chicago; Detroit and Harlem experienced race riots in 1943.[116] Politically they left the Republican Party and joined the Democratic New Deal Coalition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom they widely admired.[117]

The political leaders, ministers and newspaper editors who shaped opinion resolved on a Double V Campaign: Victory over German and Japanese fascism abroad, and victory over discrimination at home. Black newspapers created the Double V Campaign to build black morale and head off radical action.[118]

Most Black women had been farm laborers or domestics before the war.[119] Despite discrimination and segregated facilities throughout the South, they escaped the cotton patch and took blue-collar jobs in the cities. Working with the federal Fair Employment Practices Committee, the NAACP and CIO unions, these Black women fought a “Double V” campaign—against the Axis abroad and against restrictive hiring practices at home. Their efforts redefined citizenship, equating their patriotism with war work, and seeking equal employment opportunities, government entitlements, and better working conditions as conditions appropriate for full citizens.[120] In the South black women worked in segregated jobs; in the West and most of the North they were integrated, but wildcat strikes erupted in Detroit, Baltimore, and Evansville where white migrants from the South refused to work alongside black women.[121][122]


"Stormy Weather" (1943) (starring Lena Horne, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Cab Calloway's Band), along with Cabin in the Sky (1943) (starring Ethel Waters, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Lena Horne and Louis "Stachmo" Armstrong), and other musicals of the 1940s opened new roles for Blacks in Hollywood. They broke through old stereotypes and far surpassed the limited, poorly paid roles available in race films produced for all-black audiences.[123][124]

Second Great Migration

The Second Great Migration was the migration of more than 5 million African Americans from the South to the other three regions of the United States. It took place from 1941, through World War II, and lasted until 1970.[125] It was much larger and of a different character than the first Great Migration (1910–1940). Some historians prefer to distinguish between the movements for those reasons.

In the Second Great Migration, more than five million African Americans moved to cities in states in the North, Midwest and West, including many to California, where Los Angeles and Oakland offered many skilled jobs in the defense industry. More of these migrants were already urban laborers who came from the cities of the South. They were better educated and had better skills than people who did not migrate.[125]

Compared to the more rural migrants of the period 1910–40, many African Americans in the South were already living in urban areas and had urban job skills before they relocated. They moved to take jobs in the burgeoning industrial cities and especially the many jobs in the defense industry during World War II (WWII). Workers who were limited to segregated, low-skilled jobs in Southern cities were able to get highly skilled, well-paid jobs at California shipyards.[125]

By the end of the Second Great Migration, African Americans had become an urbanized population. More than 80 percent lived in cities. Fifty-three percent remained in the Southern United States, while 40 percent lived in the Northeast and North Central states and 7 percent in the West.[125]

The Civil Rights Movement

The Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) of Topeka. This decision led to the dismantling of legal segregation in all areas of southern life, from schools to restaurants to public restrooms, but it occurred slowly and only after concerted activism by African Americans. The ruling also brought new momentum to the Civil Rights Movement. Boycotts against segregated public transportation systems sprang up in the South, the most notable of which was the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Civil rights groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized across the South with tactics such as boycotts, voter registration campaigns, Freedom Rides and other nonviolent direct action, such as marches, pickets and sit-ins to mobilize around issues of equal access and voting rights. Southern segregationists fought back to block reform. The conflict grew to involve steadily escalating physical violence, bombings and intimidation by Southern whites. Law enforcement responded to protesters with batons, electric cattle prods, fire hoses, attack dogs and mass arrests.

In Virginia, state legislators, school board members and other public officials mounted a campaign of obstructionism and outright defiance to integration called Massive Resistance. It entailed a series of actions to deny state funding to integrated schools and instead fund privately run "segregation academies" for white students. Farmville, Virginia, in Prince Edward County, was one of the plaintiff African-American communities involved in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. As a last-ditch effort to avoid court-ordered desegregation, officials in the county shut down the county's entire public school system in 1959 and it remained closed for five years.[126] White students were able to attend private schools established by the community for the sole purpose of circumventing integration. The largely black rural population of the county had little recourse. Some families were split up as parents sent their children to live with relatives in other locales to attend public school; but the majority of Prince Edward's more than 2,000 black children, as well as many poor whites, simply remained unschooled until federal court action forced the schools to reopen five years later.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington

Perhaps the high point of the Civil Rights Movement was the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought more than 250,000 marchers to the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to speak out for an end to southern racial violence and police brutality, equal opportunity in employment, equal access in education and public accommodations. The organizers of the march were called the "Big Six" of the Civil Rights Movement: Bayard Rustin the strategist who has been called the "invisible man" of the Civil Rights Movement; labor organizer and initiator of the march, A. Phillip Randolph; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; Whitney Young, Jr., of the National Urban League; Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); James Farmer of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE); and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Also active behind the scenes and sharing the podium with Dr. King was Dorothy Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women. It was at this event, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, that King delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

This march, the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade, and other events were credited with putting pressure on President John F. Kennedy, and then Lyndon B. Johnson, that culminated in the passage the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labor unions.

President Johnson signs the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The "Mississippi Freedom Summer" of 1964 brought thousands of idealistic youth, black and white, to the state to run "freedom schools", to teach basic literacy, history and civics. Other volunteers were involved in voter registration drives. The season was marked by harassment, intimidation and violence directed at civil rights workers and their host families. The disappearance of three youths, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, captured the attention of the nation. Six weeks later, searchers found the savagely beaten body of Chaney, a black man, in a muddy dam alongside the remains of his two white companions, who had been shot to death. There was national outrage at the escalating injustices of the "Mississippi Blood Summer", as it by then had come to be known, and at the brutality of the murders.

In 1965 the Selma Voting Rights Movement, its Selma to Montgomery marches, and the tragic murders of two activists associated with the march, inspired President Lyndon B. Johnson to call for the full Voting Rights Act of 1965, which struck down barriers to black enfranchisement. In 1966 the Chicago Open Housing Movement, followed by the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, was a capstone to more than a decade of major civil rights movements and legislation.

By this time, African Americans who questioned the effectiveness of nonviolent protest had gained a greater voice. More militant black leaders, such as Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party, called for blacks to defend themselves, using violence, if necessary. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the Black Power movement urged African Americans to look to Africa for inspiration and emphasized black solidarity, rather than integration.

Post Civil Rights era of African-American history

Politically and economically, blacks have made substantial strides in the post-civil rights era. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who ran for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988, brought unprecedented support and leverage to blacks in politics.

In 1989, Douglas Wilder became the first African-American elected governor in U.S. history. In 1992 Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. There were 8,936 black officeholders in the United States in 2000, showing a net increase of 7,467 since 1970. In 2001 there were 484 black mayors.

The 38 African-American members of Congress form the Congressional Black Caucus, which serves as a political bloc for issues relating to African Americans. The appointment of blacks to high federal offices—including General Colin Powell, Chairman of the U.S. Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1989–93, United States Secretary of State, 2001–05; Condoleezza Rice, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, 2001–04, Secretary of State in, 2005–09; Ron Brown, United States Secretary of Commerce, 1993–96; and Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas—also demonstrates the increasing visibility of blacks in the political arena.

Economic progress for blacks' reaching the extremes of wealth has been slow. According to Forbes richest lists, Oprah Winfrey was the richest African American of the 20th century and has been the world's only black billionaire in 2004, 2005, and 2006.[127] Not only was Winfrey the world's only black billionaire but she has been the only black on the Forbes 400 list nearly every year since 1995. BET founder Bob Johnson briefly joined her on the list from 2001 to 2003 before his ex-wife acquired part of his fortune; although he returned to the list in 2006, he did not make it in 2007. With Winfrey the only African American wealthy enough to rank among America's 400 richest people,[128] blacks currently comprise 0.25% of America's economic elite and comprise 13% of the U.S. population.

The dramatic political breakthrough came in the 2008 election, with the election of Barack Obama. He won overwhelming support from African American voters in the Democratic primaries, even as his main opponent Hillary Clinton had the support of many black politicians. African Americans continued to support Obama throughout his term.[129] After completing his first term, Obama ran for a second term. In 2012, he won the presidential election against candidate Mitt Romney and was re-elected as the president of the United States.

The post-civil rights era is also notable for the New Great Migration, in which millions of African Americans have returned to the South, often to pursue increased economic opportunities in now-desegregated southern cities.

Social issues

After the Civil Rights Movement gains of the 1950s–1970s, due to government neglect, unfavorable social policies, high poverty rates, changes implemented in the criminal justice system and laws, and a breakdown in traditional family units, African-American communities have been suffering from extremely high incarceration rates. African Americans have the highest imprisonment rate of any major ethnic group in the world. The southern states, which historically had been involved in slavery and post-Reconstruction oppression, now produce the highest rates of incarceration and death penalty application.[130][131]


The history of slavery has always been a major research topic for white scholars, but until the 1950s they generally focused on the political and constitutional themes as debated by white politicians; they did not study the lives of the black slaves. During Reconstruction and the late 19th century, blacks became major actors in the South. The Dunning School of white scholars generally cast the blacks as pawns of white Carpetbaggers during this period, but W. E. B. Du Bois, a black historian, and Ulrich B. Phillips, a white historian, studied the African-American experience in depth. Du Bois' study of Reconstruction provided a more objective context for evaluating its achievements and weaknesses; in addition, he did studies of contemporary black life. Phillips set the main topics of inquiry that still guide the analysis of slave economics.

During the first half of the 20th century, Carter G. Woodson was the major black scholar studying and promoting the black historical experience. Woodson insisted that the study of African descendants be scholarly sound, creative, restorative, and, most important, directly relevant to the black community. He popularized black history with a variety of innovative strategies, including Association for the Study of Negro Life outreach activities, Negro History Week (now Black History Month, in February), and a popular black history magazine. Woodson democratized, legitimized, and popularized black history.[132]

Benjamin Quarles (1904–96) had a significant impact on the teaching of African-American history. Quarles and John Hope Franklin provided a bridge between the work of historians in historically black colleges, such as Woodson, and the black history that is now well established in mainline universities. Quarles grew up in Boston, attended Shaw University as an undergraduate, and received a graduate degree at the University of Wisconsin. He began in 1953 teaching at Morgan State College in Baltimore, where he stayed, despite a lucrative offer from Johns Hopkins University. Quarles' books included The Negro in the American Revolution (1961), Black Abolitionists (1969), The Negro in the Civil War (1953), and Lincoln and the Negro (1962), which were narrative accounts of critical wartime episodes that focused on how blacks interacted with their white allies.[133]

Black history attempted to reverse centuries of ignorance. While black historians were not alone in advocating a new examination of slavery and racism in the United States, the study of African-American history has often been a political and scholarly struggle to change assumptions. One of the foremost assumptions was that slaves were passive and did not rebel. A series of historians transformed the image of African Americans, revealing a much richer and complex experience. Historians such as Leon F. Litwack showed how former slaves fought to keep their families together and struggled against tremendous odds to define themselves as free people. Others wrote of rebellions small and large.

In the 21st century, black history is regarded as mainstream. Since proclamation by President Jimmy Carter, it is celebrated every February in the United States during "Black History Month." Proponents of black history believe that it promotes diversity, develops self-esteem, and corrects myths and stereotypes. Opponents argue such curricula are dishonest, divisive, and lack academic credibility and rigor.[134]

Knowledge of black history

Surveys of 11th and 12th-grade students and adults in 2005 show that American schools have given students an awareness of some famous figures in black history. Both groups were asked to name 10 famous Americans, excluding presidents. Of those named, the three most mentioned were black: 67% named Martin Luther King, 60% Rosa Parks, and 44% Harriet Tubman. Among adults, King was second (at 36%) and Parks was tied for fourth with 30%, while Tubman tied for 10th place with Henry Ford, at 16%. When distinguished historians were asked in 2006 to name the most prominent Americans, Parks and Tubman did not make the top 100.[135]

Scholars of African-American history

See also

Civil Rights Movement:




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Further reading



  • Earle, Jonathan, and Malcolm Swanston. The Routledge Atlas of African American History (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Finkelman, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass (3 vol 2006)
  • Finkelman, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century (5 vol 2009) excerpt and text search
  • Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred Moss, From Slavery to Freedom. A History of African Americans, (2001), standard textbook; first edition in 1947 excerpt and text search
  • Harris, William H. The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War. (1982). online edition
  • Hine, Darlene Clark, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and Elsa Barkley Brown, eds. Black Women in America - An Historical Encyclopedia (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Hine, Darlene Clark, et al. The African-American Odyssey (2 vol, 4th ed. 2007) textbook excerpt and text search vol 1
  • Holt, Thomas C. ed. Major Problems in African-American History: From Freedom to "Freedom Now," 1865–1990s (2000) reader in primary and secondary sources
  • Holt, Thomas C. Children of Fire: A History of African Americans (Hill & Wang; 2010), 438 pages
  • Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis, eds. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (2000). 672pp; 10 long essays by leading scholars online edition
  • Litwack, Leon, and August Meier. Black Leaders of the 19th Century. (1988)
    • Franklin, John Hope, and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. (1982), short biographies by scholars.
  • Lowery, Charles D. and John F. Marszalek, eds. Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Present (1992) online edition
  • Mandle, Jay R. Not Slave, Not Free: The African American Economic Experience since the Civil War (1992) online edition
  • Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (2006), 480 pp
  • Palmer, Colin A. ed. Encyclopedia Of African American Culture And History: The Black Experience In The Americas (6 vols, 2005)
  • Pinn, Anthony B. The African American Religious Experience in America (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Salzman, Jack, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West, eds. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. (5 vol. 1996).
  • Smallwood, Arwin D The Atlas of African-American History and Politics: From the Slave Trade to Modern Times (1997)
  • Weiner, Mark S. Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste (2004)

Since 1940

  • Graham, Hugh Davis. The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy, 1960–1972 (1990)
  • Patterson, James T. Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974 (Oxford History of the United States) (1997)
  • Patterson, James T. Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (Oxford History of the United States) (2007)
  • Wynn, Neil A. African American Experience During World War II (2011)

Activism and urban culture

  • Bernstein, Shana. Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-century Los Angeles (Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • Black Jr., Timuel D. Bridges of Memory; Chicago's First Wave of Black Migration: An Oral History, (2005). ISBN 0-8101-2315-0
  • Boyd, Herb, ed. The Harlem Reader: A Celebration of New York's Most Famous Neighborhood, from the Renaissance Years to the 21st Century (2003), primary sources
  • Carle, Susan D. Defining the Struggle: National Racial Justice Organizing, 1880-1915 (Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Cash, Floris Loretta Barnett. African American women and social action: The clubwomen and volunteerism from Jim Crow to the New Deal, 1896-1936 (Praeger, 2001)
  • Gasman, Marybeth and Roger L. Geiger. Higher Education for African Americans before the Civil Rights Era, 1900-1964 (2012)
  • Grossman, James R. Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1991)
  • Holloway, Vanessa. Getting Away With Murder: The Twentieth-Century Struggle for Civil Rights in the U.S. Senate (2014)
  • Holloway, Vanessa. In Search of Federal Enforcement: The Moral Authority of the Fifteenth Amendment and the Integrity of the Black Ballot, 1870-1965 (2015)
  • Hornsby, Alton. Black Power in Dixie: A Political History of African Americans in Atlanta (2009)
  • Hunt, Darnell, and Ana-Christina Ramon, eds. Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities (2010)
  • Kusmer, Kenneth L. and Joe W. Trotter, eds. African-American Urban History since World War II, (2009)
  • Moore, Shirley Ann Wilson. To Place Our Deeds: The African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910–1963 (2000)
  • Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890–1930 (1966)
  • Orser, W. Edward. “Secondhand Suburbs: Black Pioneers in Baltimore’s Edmondson Village, 1955–1980.” Journal of Urban History 10, no. 3 (May 1990): 227–62.
  • Pattillo-McCoy, Mary. Black Pickett Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class (1999).
  • Player, Tiffany Angel. The Anti-lynching Crusaders: A Study of Black Women's Activism (PhD dissertation, University of Georgia, 2008) online
  • Rabaka, Reiland. Hip Hop's Amnesia: From Blues and the Black Women's Club Movement to Rap and the Hip Hop Movement (Lexington Books, 2012)
  • Self, Robert O. American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (2003)
  • Spear, Allan H. Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890–1920 (1969)
  • Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996)
  • Thomas, Richard Walter. Life for Us Is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915–1945 (1992)
  • Washburn, Patrick S. The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom (Northwestern University Press, 2006)
  • Weise, Andrew. Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (2004).
  • Weise, Andrew. “Black Housing, White Finance: African American Housing and Home Ownership in Evanston, Illinois, before 1940.” Journal of Social History 33, no. 2 (Winter 1999): 429–60.
  • Weise, Andrew. “Places of Our Own: Suburban Black Towns before 1960.” Journal of Urban History 19, no. 3 (1993): 30–54.
  • Williams, Doretha. "Kansas Grows the Best Wheat and the Best Race Women: Black Women's Club Movement in Kansas 1900-30." (2011) online.
  • Wilson, William H. Hamilton Park: A Planned Black Community in Dallas (1998)

Historiography and teaching

  • Arnesen, Eric. "Up From Exclusion: Black and White Workers, Race, and the State of Labor History," Reviews in American History 26(1) March 1998, pp. 146–174 in Project Muse
  • Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo. African American History Reconsidered (2010); 255 pages; excerpt and text search
    • Dagbovie, Pero. The Early Black History Movement, Carter G. Woodson, and Lorenzo Johnston Greene (2007) excerpt and text search
    • Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo. "Exploring a Century of Historical Scholarship on Booker T. Washington." Journal of African American History 2007 92(2): 239–264. Issn: 1548-1867 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Dorsey, Allison. "Black History Is American History: Teaching African American History in the Twenty-first Century." Journal of American History 2007 93(4): 1171–1177. Issn: 0021-8723 Fulltext: History Cooperative
  • Ernest, John. "Liberation Historiography: African-American Historians before the Civil War," American Literary History 14(3), Fall 2002, pp. 413–443 in Project Muse
  • Eyerman, Ron. Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity (2002) argues that slavery emerged as a central element of the collective identity of African Americans in the post-Reconstruction era.
  • Fields, Barbara J. "Ideology and Race in American History," in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds, Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (1982),
  • Franklin, John Hope. "Afro-American History: State of the Art," Journal of American History (June 1988): 163–173. in JSTOR
  • Goggin, Jacqueline. Carter G. Woodson: A Life in Black History (1993)
  • Hall, Stephen Gilroy. "'To Give a Faithful Account of the Race': History and Historical Consciousness in the African-American Community, 1827–1915." PhD disseratation, Ohio State U. 1999. 470 pp. DAI 2000 60(8): 3084-A. DA9941339 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Harris, Robert L., "Coming of Age: The Transformation of Afro-American Historiography," Journal of Negro History 57 (1982): 107–121. in JSTOR
  • Harris, Robert L., Jr. "The Flowering of Afro-American History." American Historical Review 1987 92(5): 1150–1161. Issn: 0002-8762 in Jstor
  • Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, "African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 17 (1992): 251–274.
  • Hine, Darlene Clark. "African American Women and Their Communities in the Twentieth Century: The Foundation and Future of Black Women’s Studies." Black Women, Gender & Families 1.1 (2007): 1-23. in JSTOR
  • Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Afro-American History: Past, Present, and Future (1980).
  • Hine, Darlene Clark. Hine Sight: Black Women and the Re-Construction of American History (1999) excerpt and text search
  • Hornsby Jr., Alton, et al. eds. A Companion to African American History. (2005). 580 pp. 31 long essays by experts covering African and diasporic connections in the context of the transatlantic slave trade; colonial and antebellum African, European, and indigenous relations; processes of cultural exchange; war and emancipation; post-emancipation community and institution building; intersections of class and gender; migration; and struggles for civil rights. ISBN 0-631-23066-1
  • McMillen, Neil R. "Up from Jim Crow: Black History Enters the Profession's Mainstream." Reviews in American History 1987 15(4): 543–549. Issn: 0048-7511 in Jstor
  • Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915–1980 (1986)
  • Nelson, Hasker. Listening For Our Past: A Lay Guide To African American Oral History Interviewing (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Quarles, Benjamin. Black Mosaic: Essays in Afro-American History and Historiography (1988).
  • Rabinowitz, Howard N. "More Than the Woodward Thesis: Assessing The Strange Career of Jim Crow", Journal of American History 75 (December 1988): 842–56. in JSTOR
  • Reidy, Joseph P. "Slave Emancipation Through the Prism of Archives Records" (1997) online
  • Roper, John Herbert. U. B. Phillips: A Southern Mind (1984), on the white historian of slavery
  • Trotter, Joe W. "African-American History: Origins, Development, and Current State of the Field," OAH Magazine of History 7(4) Summer 1993 online edition
  • Wright, William D. Black History and Black Identity: A Call for a New Historiography (2002), proposes new racial and ethnic terminology and classifications for the study of black people and history. excerpt and text search

Primary Sources