African American History

I INTRODUCTION African American History or Black American History, a history of black people in the United States from their arrival in the Americas in the 15th century until the present day. In 1996, 33.9 million Americans, about one out of every eight people in the United States, were black. Although blacks from the West Indies and other areas have migrated to the United States in the 20th century, most African Americans were born in the United States, and this has been true since the

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as a leader of the American civil rights movement after organizing the famous 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Throughout his career he pressed for equal treatment and improved circumstances for blacks, organizing nonviolent protests and delivering powerful speeches on the necessity of eradicating institutional racial inequalities. In 1963 King led a peaceful march between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”

Courtesy of Gordon Skene Sound Collection. All rights reserved./UPI/THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE

early 19th century. Until the mid-20th century, the African American population was concentrated in the Southern states. Even today, nearly half of all African Americans live in the South. Blacks also make up a significant part of the population in most urban areas in the eastern United States and in some mid-western and western cities as well.


Africans and their descendants have been a part of the story of the Americas at least since the late 1400s. As scouts, interpreters, navigators, and military men, blacks were among those who first encountered Native Americans. Beginning in the colonial period, African Americans provided most of the labor on which European settlement, development, and wealth depended, especially after European wars and diseases decimated Native Americans.

African workers had extensive experience in cultivating rice, cotton, and sugar, all crops grown in West and North Africa. These skills became the basis of a flourishing plantation economy. Africans were also skilled at ironworking, music and musical instruments, the decorative arts, and architecture. Their work, which still marks the landscape today, helped shape American cultural styles. They brought with them African words, religious beliefs, styles of worship, aesthetic values, musical forms and rhythms. All of these were important from the beginning in shaping a hybrid American culture.


Portuguese traders brought the first African slaves for agricultural labor to the Caribbean in 1502. From then until 1860, it is estimated that more than 10 million people were transported from Africa to the Americas. The great majority were brought to the Caribbean, Brazil, or the Spanish colonies of Central and South America. Only about 6 percent were traded in British North America.

The Portuguese, Dutch, and British controlled most of the Atlantic slave trade. Most Africans taken to North America came from the various cultures of western and west central Africa. The territories that are now Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria were the origins of most slaves brought to North America, although significant numbers also came from the areas that are now Senegal, Gambia, and Angola. These areas were home to diverse linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups. Most of the people enslaved were subsistence farmers and raised livestock. Their agricultural and pastoral skills made them valuable laborers in the Americas.

To transport the captured Africans to the Americas, Europeans loaded them onto specially constructed ships with platforms below deck designed to maximize the numbers of slaves that could be transported. Africans were confined for two to three months in irons in the hold of a slave ship during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean called the Middle Passage. The meager diet of rice, yams, or beans and the filthy conditions created by overcrowding resulted in a very high death rate. Many ships reached their destinations with barely half their cargo of slaves still alive to sell into forced labor in the Americas.

The first Africans brought to the English colonies in North America came on a Dutch privateer that landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619. The ship had started out with about 100 captives, but it had run into extremely bad weather. When the ship finally put into Jamestown, it had only 20 surviving Africans to sell to the struggling colony. Soon many of the colonies along the Atlantic seaboard started importing African slaves. The Dutch West India Company brought 11 Africans to its garrison trading post in New Amsterdam (known today as New York City) in 1626, and Pennsylvanians imported 150 Africans in 1684.


A Occupation of Slaves The vast majority of Africans brought to the 13 British colonies worked as agricultural laborers; many were brought to the colonies specifically for their experience in rice growing, cattle herding, or river navigation. For example, South Carolina planters drew upon the knowledge of slaves from Senegambia in West Africa to begin cultivating rice, their first major export crop. In the South, slaves grew tobacco in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, and rice and indigo in South Carolina and Georgia. In the North, slaves also worked on farms.

African Americans, slave and free, also worked in a wide variety of occupations. They were household workers, sailors, preachers, accountants, music teachers, medical assistants, blacksmiths, bricklayers, and carpenters, doing virtually any work American society required.

B Slave Populations By 1750 there were nearly 240,000 people of African descent in British North America, fully 20 percent of the population, though they were not evenly distributed. The greatest number of African Americans lived in Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina because large plantations with many slaves were concentrated in the South. Blacks constituted over 60 percent of the population in South Carolina, over 43 percent in Virginia, and over 30 percent in Maryland, but only about 2 percent in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. In the Northern colonies, enslaved people were much more likely to work in households having only one or a few slaves.

Virtually all colonies had a small number of free blacks, but in colonial America, only Maryland had a sizeable free black population. Over the generations of enslavement, at least 95 percent of Africans in the United States lived in slavery. But even as early as the 1600s, some gained their freedom by buying themselves or being bought by relatives. Since slavery was inherited through the status of the mother, some blacks became free if they were born to non-slave mothers. Others gained their freedom from bondage for meritorious acts or long competent labor.

C Slavery versus Indentured Servitude

Slavery was the most extreme, but not the only form of unfree labor in British North America. Many Europeans and some Africans were held as indentured servants. Neither slaves nor indentured servants were free, but there were important differences. Slavery was involuntary and hereditary. Indentured servants made contracts, often an exchange of labor for passage to America. They served for a limited time, commonly seven years, and generally received “freedom dues,” often land and clothing, upon finishing their indenture. Although some slaves gained freedom after a limited term, others served for life, and a second generation inherited the slave status of their mothers. Gradually by the 18th century, colonial laws were consolidated into slave codes providing for perpetual, inherited servitude for Africans who were defined as property to be bought and sold.

In their day-to-day lives, slaves and servants shared similar grievances and frequently formed alliances. Advertisements seeking the return of slaves and servants who had run away together filled colonial newspapers. When a slave named Charles escaped in 1740, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that two white servants, a “Scotch man” and an Englishman, escaped with him. Sometimes interracial alliances involved violence. During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, slaves and servants took up arms against Native Americans and the colonial government in Virginia. In 1712 New York officials executed Native Americans and African American slaves for plotting a revolt, and in 1741 four whites were executed and seven banished from colonial New York for participating with slaves in a conspiracy. People in similar circumstances?poor and unfree whites, Native Americans, and blacks-formed alliances throughout the colonial era.

V AMERICAN REVOLUTION A Black Participation in the War

After the British defeated the French in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the British began to change their relationship with their American colonies. They started to increase taxes, demanded that the colonists help pay for British soldiers stationed in the colonies, and controlled the colonial trade opportunities more carefully. Most colonists were outraged, particularly about the new taxes. They felt that Great Britain did not have the right to tax them, since it did not allow them representatives in Parliament.

Colonists, both black and white, worked together to fight what they saw as British injustices. Interracial mobs rioted against the Stamp Act of 1765 and other despised regulations imposed on the colonies throughout the 1760s. American protests targeted British officials and soldiers. In 1770 Crispus Attucks, a fugitive slave of mixed African and Native American descent, led an interracial crowd of sailors and laborers in attacking the British guard at Boston’s customs office. They threw snowballs, chunks of ice, and stones; in response, the soldiers fired into the crowd, wounding six and killing Attucks and four others. For rebellious Americans, the Boston Massacre, as this event was named, symbolized Britain’s armed determination to deprive them of their rights.

When the American Revolution began in 1775, all but 25,000 of the 500,000 African Americans in British North America were enslaved. Many were inspired by American proclamations of freedom, and both slaves and free blacks stood against the British. The black minutemen at the Battle of Lexington in 1775 were Pompy of Braintree, Prince of Brookline, Cato Wood of Arlington, and Peter Salem, the slave of the Belknaps of Framingham, freed in order that he might serve in the Massachusetts militia. Prince Estabrook, a slave in Lexington, was listed among those wounded in this first battle of the war. African Americans also served in the Battle of Bunker Hill, where former slave Salem Poor received official commendation as “a brave and gallant soldier.”

At first General George Washington refused to recruit black troops. It was the British who made the first move to enlist blacks. In November 1775 Lord Dunmore, the British colonial governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation that all slaves belonging to rebels would be received into the British forces and freed for their services. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped from Southern plantations, and over a thousand fought for the British. Tye, “a Negro who [bore] the title of colonel” led one interracial guerrilla band in New Jersey. In the South, such bands, called banditti, burned and looted plantations, stole horses, and liberated slaves, some of whom became British soldiers.

The demands of war eventually changed Washington’s mind, and he began to recruit black soldiers. Before the war was over, more than 5000 African Americans from every state except Georgia and South Carolina served in the Revolutionary army. Slaves, many serving in their owner’s place, were promised freedom in return for their service. There were several black regiments like the Rhode Island Regiment and Massachusetts’ “Bucks of America,” but most African Americans served in integrated units, the last integrated American army units until the Korean War in the 1950s.

Thus, African Americans in search of freedom from slavery served on both sides during the Revolution. As a result of the Revolution, the population of free blacks in the United States increased-from about 25,000 in 1776 to nearly 60,000 when the first federal census was conducted in 1790.

B The Ideals of the Revolution Slavery was important to American patriots. It was the opposite of liberty and served as a benchmark against which they measured their own freedom. They continually warned that they would not be denied their rights, saying they must not be the “slaves” of England. The ideals of the Revolution emphasized the incompatibility of slavery in a free land, and slaves petitioned for their freedom using the words of the Declaration of Independence.

African Americans hoped that men who wrote such lofty words as “all men are created equal” would realize the immorality of continuing to enslave their fellow countrymen. “We expect great things,” one group wrote, “from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow men to enslave them.”

However, the American Revolution and the American colonies’ fight against British oppression did not bring slavery to an end. The words slave and slavery did not appear in the Constitution written in 1787, but the framers of the Constitution struck a compromise allowing the slave trade to continue until 1808. Slavery remained important to the economy of the new nation, and after the Revolution, it became more concentrated in the South.


In the North the rhetoric of the Revolution proved a powerful argument against slavery. Starting with Vermont in 1777, one Northern state after another either abolished slavery outright or passed gradual emancipation laws that freed slave children as they reached adulthood. Although abolition faced stiff opposition in areas of New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, where slavery was most economically significant, by the mid-1820s virtually all the slaves in the United States were in the Southern states. These states were becoming more dependent on slave labor as cotton became an important plantation crop.

In 1793 the invention of the cotton gin, a simple device that revolutionized the processing of raw cotton, dramatically increased the profitability of cotton cultivation. More slave labor was dedicated to cotton production; slave prices increased, and the value of cotton rose sharply. In addition, slavery spread southward and westward into the vast area acquired from France through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. By 1815 cotton was America’s most valuable export, and the economic and political power of cotton-growing states, often called the “Cotton Kingdom,” grew correspondingly.

The need for slave labor, and thus the price of slaves, was much higher in states in the lower South, such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, than in the states of the upper South, including Virginia and Maryland. The result was a thriving domestic slave trade that devastated many slave households. Teenage boys and young adult men were especially desirable laborers for the new areas, and slave families in the upper South lost sons, brothers, and young fathers to the cotton plantations of the lower South. At the time of the Revolution, most slaves were held along the southeastern seaboard, but by 1860 the greatest concentrations of slaves were in the lower South.

The lives of slaves were greatly influenced by where they lived and worked. In Southern cities, slaves provided household services, labored for small businessmen and merchants, and sometimes worked as municipal garbage workers or firefighters. Both in cities and on plantations, skilled slaves did the carpentry, built and sometimes designed the buildings, crafted ornate furnishings, prepared elaborate meals, supplied music for planters’ formal balls and parties, and provided services ranging from veterinary care to folk medicine for both whites and blacks. Plantations employed small numbers of slaves as household servants and some as skilled workers. Most slaves, however, worked in the fields. Plantation life, especially in the lower South, was hard and dangerous, but because of the larger numbers of slaves, it offered greater opportunities for establishing slave families and communities.

As the South expanded westward and as tobacco and rice cultivation gave way to cotton, the way slaves worked changed. In the 18th and 19th centuries slaves working on plantations in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia often labored under the task system. Typically, a slave was given a task each day and worked until that task was completed. Once the daily task was finished, the rest of the day was the slave’s own. The work was extraordinarily hard, but the worker exercised some control over the pace of work and the length of the workday.

On large 19th-century cotton plantations, slaves usually worked in groups called gangs headed by slave drivers. The driver, who was generally a slave selected for intelligence and leadership ability, directly supervised the field laborers. Gangs worked the crop rows, plowing, planting, cultivating, or picking, depending on the season. Unlike those under the task system, these slaves had little control over their work schedule beyond the rhythm of the work songs that regulated the pace of their work.

The vast majority of white Southerners could afford no slaves and struggled for basic self-sufficiency, but many slaveholding planters were rich and politically powerful. By the 1850s there were more millionaires in the plantations from Natchez, Mississippi, to New Orleans, Louisiana, than in all other areas of the nation combined. By 1860 the 12 richest counties in the nation were all located in the South. The Southern economy depended on slavery, and by 1860 the U.S. economy depended on the Southern cotton that accounted for almost 60 percent of the value of all the nation’s exports.

VII FREE BLACK POPULATION A Discrimination Faced by Free Blacks

The first federal census in 1790 recorded nearly 60,000 free blacks, compared to more than 690,000 who lived in slavery. Although most African Americans lived in the South (about 90 percent), 27,000 lived in the North. South and North, free blacks tended to concentrate in urban areas, since cities afforded employment opportunities, greater freedom of movement, and larger concentrations of people to support churches, schools, and other organizations.

However, African Americans faced many obstacles and prejudices not encountered by whites, even in areas where slavery had been abolished. They were barred from most educational institutions, limited to the least desirable residential and farming areas, often prohibited from practicing trades and opening businesses, and generally segregated in public conveyances and public worship. Except in a few New England states where their numbers were small, black voting was restricted. In many states, especially in the Midwest, they could not serve on juries or testify against whites in court.

Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa prohibited black immigration, and Illinois threatened bondage for blacks who attempted to locate there permanently. In 1807 Ohio passed a series of “black codes” requiring free blacks to post a $500 bond assuring their good conduct and self-support before they could settle in the state. Although these restrictive laws were irregularly enforced, free blacks lived under their constant threat.

African Americans’ job opportunities were always restricted, and poverty was a continuing problem. Ironically, black skilled artisans were more likely to find employment in the South than in Northern cities where they faced competition from European immigrants. Most free black men in the North worked as servants, as day laborers finding temporary work where they could, or as sailors aboard trading ships or whalers. Black women most often worked as maids, laundresses, or cooks in homes, hotels, restaurants, or other businesses.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Tuckahoe, Maryland. The wife of his master helped him educate himself. As a young man, he fled to Massachusetts, a free state, where he began to work for the abolition of slavery. He wrote an autobiography, which was widely read, and published a newspaper that discussed the evils of slavery and discrimination.

Hulton Deutsch

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth employed her charismatic presence and oratorical skills to speak for the abolition of slavery across the United States. Freed from slavery in 1828, Truth encountered the abolitionist movement in 1843 and became the first black woman to crusade for abolition; she was received by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1864.

Archive Photos

B Free Black Communities

As early as the 1780s, African Americans in Northern cities established hundreds of mutual aid societies, churches, and fraternal organizations. Cooperative organizations provided benefits for burials and support for widows, orphans, the sick, and the unemployed. This aid was generally denied to blacks by white charitable societies. One of the first examples was the Free African Society, which was founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones in 1787. The same year Prince Hall organized the African Masonic Lodge in Boston, and lodges of Prince Hall Masons were soon found in Philadelphia, New York City, and throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Churches were among the first black organizations established; they were the central institutions serving the community’s sacred, social, and political needs. Despite white opposition, some independent black churches were organized in the South, generally with both slave and free members but with free ministers. In the 1770s David George founded the Silver Bluffs Church near Augusta, Georgia, and George Liele and Andrew Bryan established the forerunner of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia.

In Philadelphia during the 1790s Jones and Allen established Saint Thomas African Episcopal Church and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church respectively. Mother Bethel, as it was commonly called, was one of the country’s largest Methodist congregations, with 1300 members by 1810. In 1816 black Methodists from the Middle Atlantic states formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church and named Richard Allen the first bishop of this association. Other early black churches included New York’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1796) and the Abyssinian Baptist Church (1808), and Boston’s African Baptist Church (1805).

C Early Abolitionist Efforts

By the 1830s, black communities had many groups organized specifically to oppose slavery and promote racial advancement. Schools and literary societies were common in the urban North, and virtually all black organizations were dedicated to abolishing slavery. In 1830 communities began sending delegates to an annual national Negro convention where they discussed strategies for abolition and racial advancement.

Although African Americans also worked with white allies in integrated antislavery organizations, they were determined to let their own voices be heard. They published political and historical pamphlets such as David Walker’s militant Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829). In 1827 John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish founded the first black owned and operated newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in New York. Ten years later Cornish became editor of the New York newspaper, Colored American.

Continuing discrimination and legal restrictions on social and political rights prompted some African Americans to leave the United States. Some emigrated to Africa, going to places such as the British African colony of Sierra Leone and Liberia, an area settled by freed American slaves. Other destinations included the West Indies, Mexico, or Europe. Paul Cuffe, a wealthy African American and Native American sea captain and shipbuilder from Massachusetts, promoted colonization in Sierra Leone and took a group of black settlers there in 1815. In 1816 the American Colonization Society was formed to resettle free blacks and freed slaves in Africa. White slaveholders were among its leaders, and most African Americans were suspicious, rejecting their overtures. Still, by 1827, the Society had taken over 1400 volunteers, mostly free blacks from the upper South, to Liberia.

African Americans were also likely to seek fuller freedom and safety from kidnapping or reenslavement by emigrating to Canada where slavery was abolished in 1833. The vast majority, however, remained in the United States, tied to their homes by kinship and a sense of entitlement. They hoped to gain citizenship rights and were committed to fighting for the freedom of those still enslaved.


The antislavery cause gained much more visibility in 1831 when white Boston newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison and his newspaper, The Liberator, joined African Americans in demanding the immediate abolition of slavery. Though he was a pacifist, in 1831 Garrison published in his paper excerpts from Walker’s Appeal, including its call for slave revolt. That summer a revolt led by Nat Turner, a slave, killed more than 50 whites in Virginia and increased slaveholders’ conviction that such antislavery propaganda was dangerous. Southern states and local areas offered rewards for Walker, Garrison, and Garrison’s publisher and newspaper agents, and prohibited the paper’s circulation. Later that year, Walker died suddenly at his shop in Boston; many suspected foul play.

A Antislavery Societies

In 1833 Garrison’s supporters, both blacks and whites, organized the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). In less than a year, this society had established 47 local chapters in ten states. Members worked to convince Americans that slavery was immoral and argued for immediate emancipation. They also provided aid to campaigns to end discrimination and programs to educate blacks. Their attempts to win over major religious denominations and Congress met with little success. Their speakers were denied access to many churches and meeting houses, and for almost a decade (1836-1845) Congress employed a “gag rule,” refusing to hear their antislavery petitions. Racial fears and public antagonism prompted mob attacks on antislavery speakers and interracial gatherings.

Members of the AASS contended that the Constitution was a proslavery document. Therefore, they argued that slavery could not be fought with political strategies; it must be destroyed through moral arguments. Other members of the AASS wanted to work through political parties, even if it meant striking compromises with proslavery forces. They were also uneasy about Garrison’s attacks on most churches for failing to speak out against slavery and his insistence on the full participation of women. In 1840 some abolitionists withdrew from the AASS and formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. They announced their support for a new political party called the Liberty Party, which was founded in 1839.

Many other activists eventually supported working through political organizations to abolish slavery, including the most famous antislavery orator, Frederick Douglass. Douglass had escaped from slavery in 1838 and worked passionately for the antislavery cause. He joined other men and women, such as Sojourner Truth and Charles Lenox Remond, who traveled throughout the North testifying against slavery and organizing moral and political opposition. Abolitionist women commonly organized fairs and concerts to raise funds for antislavery work.

B Underground Railroad

Many members of interracial antislavery societies added their efforts to the work of black churches and other black organizations in a vast informally organized network known as the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad helped shelter and transport fugitive slaves who had escaped from the South. Most escaped slaves remained in Northern communities, but some fled to black settlements in Canada, where they would be safe from recapture. Although most slaves found aid from the Underground Railroad

Escaped Slaves with Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (far left, holding basin) was one of the most famous leaders of the Underground Railroad. Tubman herself escaped slavery in Maryland in 1849 via the Underground Railroad. She traveled to Pennsylvania, and once there she vowed to return to help other slaves escape. In 19 rescue trips, Tubman guided about 300 slaves to freedom without ever being caught. This photograph shows Tubman with a group of slaves she led to freedom through the Underground Railroad.


only when they reached the North, some were aided by such “conductors” as Harriet Tubman who ventured into the South to lead people to freedom. Through this underground, fugitives from slavery also escaped to freedom in the West Indies, Mexico, and Native American territories in Florida and the West.

Abolitionist networks were also activated in cases like the Amistad case. In 1839, 53 captured Africans being transported to Havana, Cuba killed the crew of the ship, the Amistad, and captured the vessel. Attempting to return the ship to Africa, they were eventually taken into custody by American officials off the coast of Long Island, New York, and charged with piracy and murder. Antislavery forces convinced former President John Quincy Adams to defend them and publicized their plight in newspapers and public meetings. Black communities and antislavery activists mobilized to raise funds, producing a play in New York, selling portraits of the leader of the captured Africans, Joseph Cinque, and holding antislavery events. After appeals, the Supreme Court finally freed those Africans who survived their two-year imprisonment on the grounds that they had been kidnapped in an illegal slave trade and had acted in self-defense.

During the 1840s black abolitionists became increasingly impatient with their slow progress and determined to widen the antislavery struggle. New Yorker David Ruggles called for slave uprisings in the pages of the Liberator in 1841. Black leaders began to more openly support violence to protect fugitives from being returned to slavery. But the growing power of the proslavery forces was signaled at the end of the decade when Texas joined the Union as a slave state.


Growing conflict between Southern slaveholding interests and Northern antislavery activists prompted Congress to negotiate the Compromise of 1850. The act satisfied the antislavery factions on some points such as admitting California as a free state and abolishing slave trading in the nation’s capital. However, it appeased the proslavery factions by including a new law to protect slaveholders’ recovery of escaped slaves.

A Fugitive Slave Act

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was much stronger than an earlier 1793 fugitive slave law. Armed with a legal affidavit describing the fugitive, a slaveowner or his representative need only convince a federal commissioner that a captive was his property. No court or trial was necessary, and no defense was guaranteed. Particularly infuriating to blacks and other abolitionists was the provision that compelled bystanders to assist in captures or face fines and imprisonment.

Antislavery forces organized vigilance committees to protect fugitive slaves from the increased danger, and many were rescued from slavecatchers. For example, abolitionists spirited William and Ellen Craft out of Boston and sent them to England; a group of blacks burst into a Boston hearing room, freed Shadrach Minkins (known in Boston as Fred Wilkins) and carried him to Canada; a crowd in Syracuse overwhelmed jail guards and freed Jerry McHenry. There were also many unsuccessful rescue attempts, such as the cases of Thomas Sims in 1851 and Anthony Burns in 1854, both of whom were returned to slavery after reaching Boston. Such events generated public sympathy for the antislavery cause. Resistance to the federal law in Boston was so strong that 2000 soldiers were required to escort Anthony Burns to the ship that returned him to Virginia.

B Dred Scott Case

Black anger and pessimism increased in 1857 when the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case. Scott, a slave, had sued for freedom based on his having lived with his master for two years in the free territory of present-day Minnesota. In a major victory for slaveholders, the Court not only refused Scott’s petition for freedom but declared that blacks were not American citizens. Further, it decided that Congress could not bar slavery from the Western territories.

Dred Scott

Dred Scott was a slave who sued for his freedom after being taken to free territories by his master. In 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court denied Scott’s petition for freedom and declared that African Americans could not claim U.S. citizenship.

Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos

Such developments in the 1850s led blacks to become more militant and fueled renewed interest in emigration among a minority of African Americans. Converts to militant black nationalism included Martin R. Delany who led an exploratory expedition to Africa in 1859.

When white abolitionist John Brown laid plans to ignite and arm slave uprisings, he found many black supporters. Five African Americans were among the 18 men whom Brown led in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1859. Although the raid failed and Brown was hanged, black community gatherings commemorated John Brown’s martyrdom, and many considered Harpers Ferry the first skirmish in a war against slavery.


At the start of the American Civil War (1861-1865), most white Americans in the North were not willing to fight to end Southern slavery. They fought instead to preserve the Union and prevent slavery from spreading into the Western territories. Many opposed expanding slave territory because they believed that slaves were unfair competition to free labor.

Many Southerners fought to protect and expand slavery because they believed that limiting slavery would lead to its destruction. Even most Southerners who did not own slaves considered slavery the essential foundation of “the Southern way of life.” “This country without slave labor would be completely worthless,” one soldier from Mississippi argued. Even though most owned no slaves, they would “fight forever,” an Alabama soldier vowed, “rather than submit to freeing Negroes among us.”

African Americans hoped the Civil War would bring about the abolition of slavery. In anticipation, they formed military units in many Northern cities in the 1850s.

War finally came in the spring of 1861, and eleven Southern states seceded from the Union and formed their own nation, the Confederate States of America (or Confederacy). The black military units offered their service to the United States, but the federal government initially refused to accept African American troops. Lincoln feared that doing so would encourage the slaveholding border states to join the Confederacy. As casualties mounted during 1862, however, U.S. military commanders sometimes recruited black soldiers without explicit authority. Finally in July 1862 Congress gave the president authority to use black troops.

In the South slave labor on farms and in factories freed more whites to fight in the war. The slaves, however, demonstrated their desire for freedom by escaping from Confederate plantations by the tens of thousands. In the beginning of the war, some Northern commanders returned slaves to their masters, and others forced escapees to work for the U.S. Army. Then, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln turned U.S. war aims toward slavery’s destruction by issuing his Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves held by those Southerners still in rebellion.

During the war, African American soldiers who served in the Union Army were paid less than white soldiers and suffered racist treatment. Confederates declared they would not treat captured black soldiers and their white officers as legitimate prisoners of war. Instead they threatened to treat captured black soldiers as runaway slaves and to execute their white officers. At Fort Pillow, Tennessee, Confederate forces commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest, later an organizer of the Ku Klux Klan, murdered hundreds of captured black soldiers in 1864. “Remember Fort Pillow” became a rallying cry for black soldiers who became more determined to defeat the Confederacy.

By the end of the war, the United States had depended on the services of over 200,000 black soldiers and sailors, 24 of whom received the Medal of Honor.

In April 1865 the Union defeated the Confederacy, and slavery came to an end. President Lincoln acknowledged the critical role black troops had played in winning the war. A few days later, on April 15, Lincoln was assassinated, and Vice-President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee became president. In December of that year the states ratified the 13th amendment that formally abolished slavery. However, the U.S. victory and the end of slavery did not bring complete freedom to Southern blacks. Instead, the process of rebuilding the Union, known as Reconstruction, began.


Even before the war ended, the government had begun discussing how to deal with the aftermath of the war. In March 1865 the U.S. War Department established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau. The bureau was headed by Union General Oliver Otis Howard and furnished food and medical supplies to former slaves. It also established schools and helped former slaves negotiate fair wages and working conditions.

Waiting for Rations

Recently freed blacks line up for rations at a Freedmen’s Bureau in the U.S. South. The Bureau was formed in 1865 to provide food and medical and legal assistance to the newly emancipated blacks, as well as to needy whites. The program produced several schools and educational institutions before it was abandoned only a few years later.

Culver Pictures

But when the war ended, the national government had not yet determined how best to reunite the country. Views on how to treat the defeated Confederacy varied. Some people felt that the South could be reconciled with the Union by simply acknowledging the abolition of slavery, while others were convinced that the region’s social, economic, and political systems would have to be thoroughly reconstructed.

President Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, advocated leniency for the South. He granted amnesty freely to Southern whites, and his only requirement for readmitting a state to the Union was the adoption of a state constitution that outlawed slavery and disavowed secession. Encouraged by Johnson, Southern planters maintained much of their political power and passed black codes to restrict blacks’ land ownership and freedom of movement.

People in the North became upset by the ease with which the Southern planters were reestablishing their dominance. Republicans in Congress fought with the president to change his Reconstruction policies. After the Democratic Party suffered a major defeat in the elections of 1866, the Republican Party took charge of Reconstruction, pursuing a more radical course. Congress passed the 14th Amendment in 1866 (ratified by the states in 1868). It extended citizenship to blacks and protected their civil rights by forbidding the states to take away “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

In March 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Act which was strengthened by three supplemental acts later the same year and in 1868. The Reconstruction acts divided the former ten Confederate states into five military districts, each headed by a federal military commander. This created a federal military occupation of the former Confederate states. (Tennessee was exempt because it had ratified the 14th Amendment and was considered reconstructed.) Before applying for readmission to the Union, the Southern states were required to ratify the 14th Amendment and revise their constitutions to ensure that blacks had citizenship rights, including the right to vote.

In 1870 the states ratified the 15th Amendment. This amendment prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on race. Finally, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which forbade racial discrimination in “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of amusement.”

Federal occupation temporarily extended democracy in the South, assuring former slaves the vote and thereby enabling them to elect black leaders to political office. In states with the largest black populations, African Americans and their white Republican allies established and improved public education for white and black students, ended property qualifications for voting, abolished imprisonment for debt, and integrated public facilities.

In 1868 John W. Menard became the first African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Louisiana, where nearly 50 percent of the population was black. Congress refused to seat Menard, but others followed. In 1870 Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first black person to sit in the U.S. Senate. In all, 20 blacks from Southern states served in the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 in the U.S. Senate during Reconstruction.

In addition, hundreds of African Americans were elected to state and local offices in the South. In South Carolina, African Americans were almost 60 percent of the population, and at times they held the offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, and speaker of the house. Although no state elected a black governor, Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, P.B.S. Pinchback, who had once been denied a seat in the U.S. Senate, served as acting governor after the white governor was removed from office on charges of corruption.

Southern Democrats were determined to restore conservative Southern government. They charged Republican officials, especially blacks, with corruption. They cited rising taxes as evidence of wasteful spending. In reality, however, taxes rose as services such as public education were instituted for the first time or expanded in the South. The political corruption that characterized this era was led primarily by Northern business interests exploiting the government for their own ends, not by black Southern politicians.

To regain power in state governments, Southern Democrats used violence to keep black voters away from the polls. Throughout Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups conducted terrorist attacks on African Americans and their allies to limit Republican political power and restrict black opportunities. Hundreds of blacks were killed for attempting to vote, for challenging segregation, for organizing workers, or even for attending school. In 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant declared martial law in nine South Carolina counties because of the proliferation of lynchings and beatings. In 1873 white terrorists massacred more than 60 blacks on Easter Sunday in Colfax, Louisiana, and killed 60 Republicans, both blacks and whites, during the summer of 1874 in nearby Coushatta. They killed 75 Republicans in Vicksburg, Mississippi in December 1874.

Even as Reconstruction ended, blacks continued to make some gains. In 1877 former slave and abolitionist, John Mercer Langston, became U.S. minister to Haiti, and Frederick Douglass served as federal marshal of the District of Columbia. During the late 1870s and the 1880s, several additional black colleges founded in the South joined Howard University in Washington, D.C., Morehouse College in Georgia, and Morgan State University in Maryland in broadening educational opportunities for black students. In 1888 Capital Savings Bank of Washington, D.C., opened as the first African American bank in the United States, and others followed in Richmond, Virginia; Birmingham, Alabama; and elsewhere in the South.


Reconstruction came to an end gradually, as Democrats took over state governments from Republicans. In the last three states, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, Reconstruction ended as part of an apparent political compromise. Both Democrats and Republicans claimed victory in those states in the elections of 1876. However, leaders of the national Republican Party agreed to recognize Democratic claims to state offices in return for receiving the electoral votes of those states for Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, who thereby won the election.

After 1877 Democratic governments were in power in all the Southern states, and they continued taking away black rights. This was done in many different ways?laws that enforced the separation of blacks and whites, the sharecropping system that kept blacks economically dependent on whites, and the increased disenfranchisement of blacks. Northern whites were tired of spending time and money on the South. As a result, the discrimination and oppression of the African Americans in the South went largely unchallenged.

Booker T. Washington

In the face of racial violence during the late 19th century, Booker T. Washington advised blacks to stop demanding equal rights and simply get along with whites. His willingness to accept segregation and inequality in exchange for economic advancement drew criticism from other black leaders, notably W. E. B. Du Bois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos

A Emigration from the South

By the late 1870s much of the optimism of emancipation had faded to the reality of the post-Reconstruction South. Thousands of blacks, landless and poor, decided to leave the South. In 1878 over 200 blacks sailed from Charleston harbor for Liberia in Africa. Many others decided to move west to the new territories that had been opened to settlement. In the “Exodus of 1879,” sometimes called the Exoduster Movement, almost 20,000 blacks left Mississippi and Louisiana for the frontiers of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Oklahoma. They established a number of all-black towns like Langston, Oklahoma, and Nicodemus, Kansas, planted farms, settled in cities, and worked in mines.

Some blacks, especially those with Native American ancestry, found homes with Native American nations, and a few followed in the footsteps of black explorer and mountainman James Beckwourth, who had traveled throughout the West. In 1856 Beckwourth had published his memoirs entitled Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer. Some African Americans went west with the U.S. military, as part of the all-black Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Units that Native Americans called Buffalo Soldiers. Others went with wagon trains or as cowboys, moving cattle to market.

B Jim Crow Laws

The 1880s witnessed a profusion of segregationist legislation, separating blacks and whites. The system of Southern segregation was often called the Jim Crow system, after an 1830s minstrel show character. This character, a black slave, embodied negative stereotypes of blacks. One after another, Southern states passed laws segregating blacks and restricting African American rights in almost every conceivable way. For example, Tennessee initiated segregated seating on railroad cars in 1881. Florida (1887), Mississippi (1888), and Texas (1889) followed. In Alabama, laws prohibited blacks and whites from playing checkers together; in Louisiana, statutes ordered that there be separate entrances for blacks and whites at circuses. All Southern states prohibited interracial marriages.

Conditions for blacks in the South deteriorated further when the Supreme Court ruled against federal guarantees of African American rights. In 1883 the Court declared the Civil Rights Law of 1875 unconstitutional. In a series of cases, the Court also drastically undermined the 14th Amendment’s protection of black citizenship rights and narrowed federal protection of the right to vote guaranteed by the 15th Amendment. Finally in 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation was legal.

C Sharecropping Reconstruction failed to eliminate black economic dependency largely because it did not provide African Americans with the land they needed to be independent. During the war, former slaves believed that they had earned the right to abandoned or confiscated Confederate lands through generations of uncompensated labor. Holding land might bring economic independence, and initially, it seemed as if the government might support their claim.

In January 1865 Union General William T. Sherman had issued Special Field Order No. 15, setting aside abandoned lands on the sea islands and the coastal region of South Carolina and Georgia for exclusive use of the region’s freed population. Former slaves were given temporary titles to 40-acre plots of land with the promise that the titles would be made permanent by appropriate legislation. However, President Johnson reversed Sherman’s order and ordered the abandoned plantations to be returned to their former owners.

By the 1880s a majority of former slaves had become sharecroppers, often working land that belonged to their former masters for a share of the profits. As Republicans in the South were driven from office or killed by terrorists, sharecroppers were left without protection and were frequently cheated by white landowners. Laws forced debtors to work the land until debts were paid, and landowners often manipulated credit to insure that sharecroppers ended each year in debt. Those who questioned the landowner’s accounting might be arrested for bad debt. Those convicted were often leased out to work on the same plantation, but without wages. Landowners in need of laborers might have local police invoke vagrancy laws against blacks who refused low-paying jobs.

D Increased Disfranchisement

White Southerners also increased their domination in the South by denying blacks the right to vote. Because the 15th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited denying the right to vote based on race, white Southerners developed other ways to disfranchise blacks. Beginning in Mississippi in 1890, they passed laws making it more difficult to vote, such as those that required a person to pay a poll tax or pass a literacy test. These laws discriminated against blacks who were often poor and illiterate, and many were removed from the voting rolls. Officials exempted poor whites who could pass the “good conduct test” by having a person of good standing in the community vouch for them. After 1898, Southern states adopted “grandfather clauses,” which allowed illiterate and propertyless men to vote if their grandfathers had been eligible to vote prior to the abolition of slavery in 1865. Almost no blacks could meet this requirement.

Perhaps the most effective barrier to black political power was the white primary election. The primary determined the candidates who would run in the general election, but since the Democratic Party was the majority party, the candidates that it nominated in its primary always won the election. Primaries were the real election. Beginning in the 1890s Democrats were able to bar blacks from voting in the primary on the pretext that the party was a private club and thus not subject to federal laws prohibiting discrimination.

As Democrats reasserted political authority in the South, African Americans had few legal or humanitarian protections. Throughout Reconstruction, blacks were hanged without formal charge or trial. The reported lynchings increased from about 50 a year in the early 1880s, to about 75 a year in the mid-1880s, and averaging well over 100 a year during the 1890s. Between 1890 and 1900 more than 1200 African American men and women were lynched in the United States. Thus, by the end of the 19th century, Southern black people lived under the constant threat of terrorism, were denied access to public facilities supported by their taxes, were relegated to the worst schools, and labored under an unjust economic system enforced by discriminatory laws.

XIII AFRICAN AMERICAN RESPONSES A Rise of Populism In the 1890s black farmers and white farmers, joined by common poverty and unjust treatment from wealthy planters and business interests, attempted to construct an interracial political alliance. This populist movement (see Populism) organized a political party, the People’s Party, and recruited blacks, some of whom were still voting in the mid-1890s. The party advocated political equality, and white populist leaders such as Georgia’s Tom Watson spoke out against the poll tax and other measures that discriminated against blacks. African Americans saw the populists as potential allies against the racism that threatened their rights, and many risked their lives to campaign for populist candidates. Black minister H.T. Dole gave 63 speeches on behalf of Watson; in Georgia, 15 black populists were killed during the state elections of 1892. Some white populists saw African Americans as allies in their campaign to take power from Southern Democrats and elected blacks to positions in the People’s Party.

But the appeal of white supremacy was too strong. This coalition fell apart after 1896 as a result of intimidation and racist appeals to whites. The Ku Klux Klan’s racist beliefs that all whites were superior to all blacks meant that whites were never at the bottom of society. In the end these beliefs were far more appealing than the prospect of an interracial political alliance.

B Racial Accommodation

African Americans debated the best response to the rising tide of racial discrimination. Black educator Booker T. Washington reacted to this erosion of rights by advocating a policy of racial accommodation. Washington, who had been born into slavery, believed that protest aiming for social integration and political rights was doomed to failure in the South. Instead, he urged blacks to acquire occupational skills for economic advancement. He argued that African Americans were the backbone of Southern labor and urged sympathetic whites to encourage manual and agricultural education for blacks to strengthen the Southern economy. With the financial support of wealthy white businessmen, he established the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama in 1881 to educate black workers.

Washington’s school was remarkably successful, considering the racially hostile atmosphere. His accommodationist stance made him one of the most influential African Americans among powerful whites during the late 19th and early 20th century, but many blacks resented his seeming willingness to accept without protest the deprivation of African American rights.

Many college-educated blacks disagreed with Washington and pursued equality through political and social protest. Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, William Monroe Trotter, and W.E.B. Du Bois were among those who established such all-black groups as the African American Council, the Niagara Movement, and in 1909, the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). They demanded their civil rights and worked against the Jim Crow system of segregation through the courts and, where possible, through politics.


During the last quarter of the 19th century, black urban societies in the South grew as many agricultural workers sought work and the relative safety of the city. Black women in particular found jobs as domestics in the homes of the growing white middle class. A few African Americans found work in the new Southern textile mills and tobacco factories, but most of those jobs were reserved for whites. Generally, Southern blacks in the cities, like those in rural areas, teetered on the edge of poverty, although such Southern cities as Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta had small but significant black middle class communities.

As black urban communities grew, they offered a broader range of social institutions and educational opportunities. Cities attracted many blacks who had been educated at Howard, Fisk, Atlanta, Hampton, and other black colleges established during the 19th century. The growth in the size and literacy of the urban black populace stimulated cultural and intellectual activity. Blacks published newspapers and magazines in all substantial African American communities.

The composers Scott Joplin and W. C. Handy and the poet-novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar were among the black artists who achieved prominence at the turn of the century. Many other lesser-known musicians and writers combined Western musical styles with rhythmic and melodic forms rooted in Africa and in slavery to create American jazz. This musical style reflected African notions of improvisation and community and developed distinctive regional styles, from the Dixieland popular in New Orleans and the western South to the more sophisticated sounds that became the cool jazz of the southern Atlantic states. As blacks migrated to the West and the North, they carried these regional musical styles with them.


During the first decade of the 20th century, the infestation of Southern cotton crops by insects called boll weevils diminished production and curtailed the need for farm labor. Growing unemployment and increasing racial violence encouraged blacks to leave the South. Soon after, in 1914, World War I broke out in Europe. Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, its factories supplied the combatants. American industry needed labor, and the war slowed European immigration. In response, Northern manufacturers recruited Southern black workers to fill factory jobs. From 1910 to 1930 between 1.5 million and 2 million African Americans left the South for the industrial cities of the North. By 1930 more than 200,000 blacks had moved to New York, about 180,000 to Chicago, and more than 130,000 to Philadelphia.

The sudden influx of newcomers to established Northern black communities brought not only new vitality but also new problems. Tensions grew between long-time black residents and the new emigrants, who were generally poor and sometimes illiterate. Cheap taverns and dance halls sprang up to cater to them, and they established new churches (often storefront quarters) that rivaled older more traditional black churches.

As black communities in Northern cities grew, black working people became the clientele for an expanding black professional and business class, gaining in political and economic power. This new black leadership replaced traditional leaders whose status often depended on their connection to influential whites. New leaders were more likely to have power based in the black communities and were freer to express a sense of racial pride and solidarity with working class African Americans.

Under these conditions, many social conflicts gradually gave way to an increasing sense of racial pride and social cohesion. While Jim Crow laws and political terrorism continued to discourage blacks from voting in the South, African Americans in Northern cities became an important political force. Black fraternal orders, political organizations, social clubs, and newspapers asserted an urban consciousness that became the foundation for the militancy and African American cultural innovations of the 1920s.


With America’s entrance into World War I the military needs drained manpower from Northern industries. Increasing job vacancies enticed more black migrants to urban industrial centers, and for the first time, substantial numbers of black women held industrial jobs. Thousands of black women worked in industrial plants producing goods for the war effort and for a growing domestic consumer market. Most appreciated the higher pay and greater autonomy compared to domestic work. As black communities in the North grew, so did opportunities for blacks, more of whom became politicians, newspaper publishers, real estate brokers, insurance agents, lawyers, and teachers, serving the black communities.

African Americans also went to war; approximately 400,000 black soldiers served in the armed forces. Over half of the African American men who served in the war were stationed in France. They served in segregated units, and most were assigned as cooks, laborers, cargo handlers, or to other noncombat support positions, but some black regiments saw extensive combat duty. Some black regiments were recognized for their achievements; the entire 369th regiment?along with some members of the 370th, 371st, and 372nd regiments?was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France for distinguished service.

Despite their demonstrated military proficiency and bravery, black soldiers were insulted and harassed by white soldiers. Some American military officials attempted to establish the Jim Crow system in France. General John Pershing, commander of the Allied forces, issued a document called “Secret Information Concerning the Black American Troops.” This document warned French military leaders against treating black soldiers as equals, but French people were unconcerned about such American practices and often welcomed black soldiers as heroes.

Most black leaders supported America’s involvement in the war, but not all agreed. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph and socialist Chandler Owen vigorously opposed World War I and were sentenced to over two years in jail for publishing their views. Leaders were united, however, in the view that blacks’ wartime sacrifices entitled them to first-class citizenship. At the end of the war, African Americans were determined to demand respect from the nation for which they had fought.


As African American veterans returned home, white opposition to wartime gains intensified. In 1917 a white mob invaded the black community in East Saint Louis, Illinois, and killed hundreds of African Americans. During the same year, the U.S. Army summarily court-martialed a group of black soldiers and hanged 13 without the benefit of an appeal after a black battalion rioted in reaction to white harassment in Houston, Texas. After the war, many black soldiers in uniform were attacked or killed by whites attempting to enforce racial domination. During the “Red Summer” of 1919, antiblack riots occurred in scores of cities including Longview, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago, Illinois. These attacks continued into the 1920s and made African Americans even more determined to militantly defend their rights.

College-educated blacks were still few in number, but they generally provided articulate political and cultural leadership. Black leaders were united in believing that blacks’ wartime sacrifices entitled them to first-class citizenship. Younger African Americans exemplified a militant “New Negro” who demanded respect and full equality from America and refused to take no for an answer.

The most popular militant black leader during this period was a Jamaican immigrant named Marcus Garvey who established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an international organization, in 1914. The UNIA had two to four million members at its height. Garvey was an outspoken critic of racial injustice, who appealed to black pride and identified with black working classes and the poor. His public appearances in New York’s Madison Square Garden and elsewhere attracted tens of thousands of people.

Garvey was also highly critical of what he considered elitist middle class black leadership. He was particularly opposed to the integrated NAACP and to W.E.B. DuBois, the editor of its Crisis magazine. In return, black civil rights leaders sharply criticized Garvey. His popularity and militancy also led to his surveillance by the U.S. government. In 1922 Garvey was arrested for mail fraud in connection with a steamship line he had established to pursue trade with Africa. His subsequent conviction and imprisonment, and his deportation in 1927, sent the UNIA into rapid decline.

A The Harlem Renaissance

Marcus Garvey’s career was part of the growth in racial pride and awareness that characterized the 1920s. During this period Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City, became the North’s largest and the world’s best-known African American community. It was the home of the Harlem Renaissance, a black cultural community of intellectuals, poets, novelists, actors, musicians, and painters. This community included Alain Locke, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, who was one of several black academics who promoted African American and African culture. Other important figures were

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