As president-elect Barack Obama took the stage in Chicago on the night of November 4, 2008, after winning the race for the White House in a truly momentous election, he uttered these words to the gathered rally of supporters: “It’s been a long time coming. But tonight, because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America” (Obama 2008). The moment, truly a triumph in the history of America, and most especially a triumph for African Americans, was certainly a long time coming and held behind it centuries of oppression, pain, sheer determination, and moments of joy, hope, and despair for African-Americans and all citizens of the United States.
The people, the moments, the triumphs, and the tragedies of black history in America are an integral part of the history of the United States, and reviewing the past helps to paint a clearer picture of how momentous the night of President Obama’s election truly was. The history of blacks in America is one of a continuing struggle to overcome and surpass all expectations in order that all the world will some day recognize that the United States of America will truly “rise or fall as one nation, as one people” (ibid).
The Beginnings of American Slavery: 1500-1776
Black history in America begins with the first arrival of Africans on American shores in the form of slavery. The enslavement of Africans began in the Americas in the early 1500s, with slaves arriving on Caribbean shores in the hands of Portuguese and Spanish slave traders. However, slaves did not come to North America until 1619, when a Dutch ship carrying 20 African slaves from the Caribbean landed in Jamestown, Virginia (Ciment 2001). The 20 slaves were quickly sold off to local tobacco farmers, although it is unclear whether their status remained as slaves or if they were a type of indentured servant with the possibility of future freedom. The African population in the colony remained quite small for the next 50 years as the laws and regulations regarding slavery were put into place. But by 1700, the population of enslaved Africans in Virginia had ballooned to about 20,000 (ibid).
Aside from the Chesapeake region of Virginia and Maryland, slavery put its deepest North American roots into the stretch of coastline that is now the Carolinas and Georgia. In the British colony of Carolina (located mostly in what is now modern-day South Carolina), black slaves worked on large plantations and soon grew to outnumber the white population of the region by two to one (Mason 2006). Slavery also took hold in the northern colonies but continued to be most prominent in the South, due to the demands for labor that the region’s plantation economy required.
From the beginning of North American slavery in 1619 to the start of the Civil War in 1861, approximately 250,000 African slaves were imported into British North America. However, the overall African-American population of the colonies stood at more than 500,000 by the eve of the American Revolution, as the black population thrived, at least demographically (ibid). Unlike their Caribbean counterparts, slaves in North America often formed families and other kinship networks and created several generations of blacks who were American born through natural reproduction.
The new generations of African-Americans in North America had much in common with one another and were able to create a unique culture that blended elements from Africa and the European-American community. This African-American culture was created out of a life of pain and poverty and included art forms like music and storytelling that promised an eventual release from slavery in the afterlife and an ultimate judgment for the sins of the slaveholders. The culture bred a spirit of resistance and rebellion among slaves that would hold strong until the time of emancipation.
Revolution and Rebellion: 1776-1860
The American Revolution represented the first great colonial uprising in modern times and spurred similar revolutions in France and Latin America during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Driven by high ideals of freedom and equality, the Revolution was also deeply flawed, leaving African-Americans (roughly 20 percent of the colonial population by 1776) mired in enslavement or on the very outskirts of freedom (Ciment 2001). However, some revolutionaries did notice the inherent inconsistencies in their fight for freedom that did not include African-Americans. Abigail Adams, in a letter sent to her husband, patriot leader John Adams, stated, “It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have” (ibid).
As the Revolution was won and patriot leaders met to discuss the foundations of the government for their new country, such sentiments had grown, and it seemed only a matter of time before slavery was gradually and peacefully extinguished. However, leaders of the southern colonies, where slavery was an integral part of the plantation economy and slaves themselves outnumbered the white population, balked at the idea of emancipation and required that a clause be put into the Constitution counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for representation purposes. This clause gave southern states more power in the newly designed Congress and the ability to squash any legislation in favor of the abolition of slavery (Mason 2006).
While northern states began to abolish slavery within their own territories (with all states north of Delaware passing abolition laws by 1800), slavery became even more entrenched in the South (ibid). The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 greatly improved the cotton production process and allowed cotton to be planted in more diverse regions throughout the South. Because increased cotton growth also required more slave labor, the slave population had increased to over four million by 1860 (Ciment 2001). It was now clear to abolitionist leaders that a war would be necessary if slavery were to be extinguished and the revolutionary ideals that began the new country finally realized. As the fiery abolitionist John Brown stated in 1859, “I am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with blood” (ibid).
As white and black abolitionist leaders battled the morality of slavery in Congress, many slaves were taking matters into their own hands by committing subtle acts of subversion and resistance. Slaves would often feign sickness or purposefully break tools, slowing down the production process that was so important to their masters’ profits. These small acts of rebellion helped slaves maintain some sense of power and control in a world where they had little to none. They also showed what an integral part the slaves played in the southern economy. Without slaves to perform labor on plantations, white masters received no profit. Thus, if a slave could withhold his own labor (however temporarily), he was able to exert some form of power over his master.
Of course, the ultimate act of subversion for a slave was to permanently escape. While the odds of a slave from the South making it to the northern states or Canada to become free were long, it is estimated that approximately 1,000 slaves escaped into freedom each year during the 1840s and 1850s (Ciment 2001). Key for escape was the help of others, and the Underground Railroad with its black “conductors” and “station masters” (many of whom were also escaped slaves) was a vital element in the freeing of thousands of slaves. One of the railroad’s most well known conductors, Harriet Tubman, was an escaped slave herself who ran to freedom from Maryland in 1849 (ibid).
Emancipation and the Reconstruction Era: 1860-1877
By 1860, the question of slavery had deeply divided the still new United States, and it seemed that further compromise between the slave-holding powers in the southern states and the abolitionist leaders of the northern states would be impossible. A series of political arguments over the place of slavery in newly acquired territories and states had prompted several southern states to secede from the Union and form their own confederacy. On April 14, 1861, a barrage of artillery from the newly seceded Confederate forces against Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, officially began the Civil War (Vandiver 1992).
At the beginning of the war, many northerners were divided over its meaning. Abraham Lincoln (president of the Union), Democrats, and most moderate Republicans felt that the war’s primary purpose was to preserve the Union from division. Radical Republicans and abolitionists, on the other hand, felt the entire purpose of the war should be to permanently abolish slavery from the nation. As casualties mounted in the first year of the war, public opinion began to sway toward the side of abolitionism, and on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the historic Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves in Confederate-held territories forever free as of January 1, 1863 (Foner 2005). While the proclamation actually freed very few slaves (Union forces did not yet have access to the slaves in Confederate territories), it forever changed the meaning of the war toward a mission to abolish slavery.
When the Civil War ended with Union victory in 1865, it became the task of northern lawmakers to decide what to do with the decimated South and the millions of newly freed slaves. It was decided that all former Confederate states which declared allegiance to the Union could be readmitted, but the government, economics, and society of these states would be “reconstructed” under the control of Congress and the enforcement of Union soldiers. Thus, between the years of 1865 and 1877, the period of U.S. history called Reconstruction occurred (Vandiver 1992).
The Reconstruction era was a period of progress for many southern blacks, as the full rights of U.S. citizenship (including the right to vote) were constitutionally extended to all African-American males (Foner 2005). Under the enforcement of Union soldiers posted in the South, newly freed slaves began to clear and own their own land, establish school systems, and participate in local and federal elections. However, white southern resistance to the effects of Reconstruction was high, and the time of progress for African-Americans in the South was short-lived. In 1877, a compromise between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, allowing the disputed Rutherford B. Hayes to take office as president in exchange for the removal of Union forces from the South, effectively ended the Reconstruction era (ibid). Whatever rights and privileges African-Americans had gained during this brief period were quickly taken away as southern whites exerted their authority once more.
Jim Crow and a New Enslavement: 1877-1910
From the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877 to the start of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the South was ruled by a series of laws called the Jim Crow laws that mandated segregation of blacks and whites in all public places (Rubel 2005). While segregation was supposedly designed as a “separate but equal” status for African-Americans, in reality, blacks were given inferior treatment and were forced into a number of economic, social, and educational disadvantages as a result.
At the same time as Jim Crow laws were forcing southern blacks into an inferior status, state after state in the South began to pass literacy tests and poll taxes as requirements for voting which prevented blacks from exercising their new rights as citizens. Southern whites also used an even more effective method called the “grandfather clause” to disenfranchise African-Americans, which denied voting rights to anyone whose grandfather had not been free, preventing nearly all blacks from voting regardless of their financial situation or level of education (ibid).
During the 1890s and early twentieth century, race violence increased rampantly as lynching—the arbitrary torture and execution of blacks suspected of disobedience or rule breaking—became a common practice in the South. Between 1890 and 1910, approximately 100 blacks were killed every year at the hands of “lynch mobs” (Ciment 2001).
In the North, where the African-American population was still relatively low at the beginning of the twentieth century, racism was equally widespread. Blacks were deemed genetically inferior to whites according to the “scientific” principles of Social Darwinism, and their status in society was little better than that of their peers in the South (ibid). Still, despite the rampant violence, intimidation, and oppression directed at African-Americans nationwide during this period, individual blacks and black organizations continued to challenge the ideas and practices of racism, setting the stage for the civil rights movement that would drastically change the place of blacks in society.
The Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance: 1910-1940
Fed up with their treatment at the hands of southerners during the Jim Crow period, many African-Americans opted to “vote with their feet” (as they could not do so by the ballot) and migrate to cities in the North, Midwest, and West in hopes of finding better employment and more equal opportunities. In 1910, roughly 90 percent of African-Americans lived in the South, and nearly 80 percent of those worked in agriculture (Rubel 2005). However, a demand for labor in northern cities combined with worsening conditions for blacks in the South prompted the mass migration of more than five million African-Americans from the South between 1910 and the start of the Great Depression in 1929 and another five million during the Second Great Migration beginning in 1941 (Wintz 2007).
The large influx of African-Americans into northern urban areas created pockets of black population where art, culture, and music flourished. The most famous and influential of these population pockets was found in Harlem, a neighborhood in Manhattan just north of New York City’s Central Park. Already known unofficially as the “Negro capital of the world” by the time of World War I, Harlem became a booming metropolis housing more than a quarter of a million African-Americans by the end of the 1920s (ibid).
Jazz music in Harlem flourished at the hands of black musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong—but perhaps the greatest legacy for African-American culture from the Harlem renaissance was in the field of literature. Black poets, essayists, and novelists found free expression in literature for the oppression and discrimination they had felt all their lives, and it was their desire to create an artistic voice that spoke for black America. The high times of the Harlem renaissance were fairly short, with the Great Depression leaving most Harlem artists bereft. But the words, music, and art of this period would serve as valuable inspiration for the upcoming civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The Civil Rights Movement: 1941-1970
While African-Americans had been making small strides toward equality since the end of the Civil War, and the Harlem renaissance certainly brought African-American culture into greater focus, it was not until after the end of the Second World War (a war fought under the precepts of protecting freedom and ridding the world of totalitarian rule) that blacks began to see a truer integration and more equal place in society. During this time period, a series of events called the civil rights movement allowed blacks to fully take hold of the Constitutional rights that had been denied to them since the Reconstruction era.
One of the first examples of integration occurred on the baseball field, where Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player to play on a white team (the Brooklyn Dodgers) in 1947 (Rubel 2005). The U.S. military also began to integrate its forces, and by the onset of the Korean War in 1950, over 90 percent of all black soldiers were serving in integrated units (ibid).
Despite these achievements, public segregation was still a legal practice throughout most of the South. However, the historic 1952 court case of Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka, KS) soon began to put the legal dismantling of segregation into place. The plaintiffs in the case challenged the premise of “separate but equal” that had ruled segregation since the end of Reconstruction, arguing that any degree of segregation was inherently unequal and, thus, in violation of the Constitution. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on the case, stating that school segregation was indeed unequal and must generate a feeling of inferiority in black children. As a result of the case, all segregated public schools were directed to integrate “with all deliberate speed,” although relatively constant integration did not occur until the 1970s (Ciment 2001).
As great as the achievements of integration in baseball, the military, and public schools were, they were largely top-heavy movements spearheaded by northern civil rights leaders based far from the oppression and extreme racism of the South. The moment when the civil rights movement became a grassroots movement led by southern black initiative occurred on December 2, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a black seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, legendarily refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white person as custom demanded (Dunn 1998). Her subsequent arrest for disorderly conduct sparked a boycott by African-Americans of Montgomery city buses, the first example of nonviolent resistance that would become the hallmark of the civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Once the Montgomery bus boycott proved successful at garnering national attention to the cause of southern blacks, King and other civil rights leaders in the South organized a variety of protests, marches, and sit-ins, designed to illustrate the inherent inequality of segregation in public places. One of the most notable moments in the civil rights movement occurred in 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech (ibid). The culmination of the march and its effect on the White House was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in all public accommodations as well as in employment and labor unions. Quickly following was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that struck down poll taxes, literacy tests, and other barriers to black enfranchisement in the South and elsewhere (ibid).
With the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the civil rights movement took a definite turn away from its nonviolent acts of resistance and its ultimate goals of integration and equality for blacks within white society. Black Power, a movement led by militant leader Malcolm X, became the new face of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and 1970s and urged African-Americans to join in solidarity with one another and to look to their ethnic heritage in Africa rather than toward full integration into U.S. culture and society (Dunn 1998).
While the civil rights movement was successful in many of its goals—wiping out legalized segregation and discrimination in the South and removing barriers toward African-American progress—it left in its wake a nation that was still racially divided. Urban centers were growing increasingly segregated into poor, inner-city neighborhoods inhabited largely by blacks with more affluent suburban areas populated by white families. This type of segregation remains problematic today, as different economic situations between blacks and whites continue to impede full integration in many urban areas.
Political Empowerment and Continued Hardship: 1970-Present
Since the civil rights movement, African-Americans have made significant strides in political empowerment. There are now 43 black delegates in Congress (all from the Democratic Party), and the country is currently under the administration of its first African-American president, Barack Obama. African-Americans have also gained an increasingly larger presence in the entertainment, music, and professional sports industries, as well as in the business world, providing examples of achievement and excellence to black youth.
However, despite significant political achievement and notoriety in the entertainment world, blacks continue to struggle to overcome the effects of centuries of oppression. The average household income for a black family is still only about 70 percent of the average household income for a white family, which is a direct result of lower education levels and fewer job skills among the black population (Rubel 2005). In addition, African-Americans also have the highest incarceration rate of any ethnic group in the U.S. due to higher poverty rates and a breakdown of the traditional family unit, among other factors. While much has been overcome and the election of Barack Obama is certainly a crowning achievement, the mantra of “We shall overcome” must still be a rallying cry for blacks and whites, alike, to fight for greater racial equality.
source: random facts