A Brief outline of African-American History

African-American History 1600-1900
The development of Racial Problems in America
African American history is the history of an ethnic group in the United States also
known as black Americans. The majority of African-Americans are the descendants
of enslaved Africans transported from West and Central Africa to the States during
the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Others have arrived through more recent immigration
from the Caribbean, South America and Africa.
Early history
The ancestors of the overwhelming majority of African Americans were brought to
North America as slaves between the 1600s through to the year
They came from eight distinct slave-trading regions in Africa. The
regions were Senegambia (Present day Senegal, Gambia, Guinea
and Guinea Bissau), Sierra Leone (also includes the area of
present day Liberia), Windward Coast (present day Ivory Coast),
Gold Coast (present day Ghana and surrounding areas), Bight of
Benin (Present day Togo, Benin and western Nigeria), Bight of
Biafra (Nigeria south of the Benue River, Cameroon and Equatorial
Guinea), Central Africa (Gabon, Angola, Democratic Republic of
the Congo) and Southeast Africa (Mozambique and Madagascar).
Black Americans, like their White counterparts, are not a homogeneous population.
Just as White Americans descend from Dutch, French, English, German, Irish,
Italian, Franco-American, Polish, Scots-Irish, Scottish, Swedish, Norwegian, and
Russian ancestors, Black Americans are composed of multiple ethnic groups.
Certain slaves were more favoured than others because of their experience in
agriculture or perceived docile natures. Slaves were needed in many of the states,
particularly in the rural south because workers were in short supply and African
slaves were regarded as hardworking and used to the hot climate. The white belief in
supremacy over the black race helped whites to justify their use of slaves.
The Atlantic Slave Trade
These ethnic groups were usually sold to European traders by
powerful coastal or interior states in exchange for European
goods such as textiles and firearms. On many occasions
Europeans kidnapped Africans. As coastal and near-coastal
nation states in Africa expanded through military conflicts, the
captives of these wars (be they soldiers or villagers) were sold.
Slavery had been prevalent on a much smaller scale in African society long before
the arrival of Europeans. Another way of becoming a slave was being convicted of a
crime. Since most if not all these states did not have a prison system, criminals were
usually sold.
The importation of slaves into the U.S. was outlawed in 1807. In North America,
African slaves could be found primarily in the southern half of the British colonies,
although slaves also were owned in the Spanish colony of Florida and the French
colony of Louisiana. African slaves were considered the property of their owners and
had no rights. Slaves often were considered little more than beasts of burden, or
draught horses. Records of slave births, deaths and sales or trade transactions often
were maintained in ledgers alongside similar records of farm animals.
American Declaration of Independence
In 1776 America declared its independence (from the British following the American
War of Independence). As part of that speech, Thomas Jefferson declared that ‘We
hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ This gave America the image of being a land
of opportunity and freedom. But did this apply to all races?
U.S Constitution and the Three-Fifths Compromise
In 1787 the Constitution of the new United States of America was drawn up. During
the discussions that ensued, the issue of whether black slaves counted as human
beings for the purpose of representation (taxation and voting) was discussed. The
result was the Three-Fifths compromise.
The U.S. Constitution of 1787 said that slaves, who at no time had the right to vote in
any state, should count as part of the population at the ratio of three persons counted
per five slaves. Many African-American spokespersons have translated this into a
belief that slaves counted as 3/5 of a person, which is a rough approximation of the
truth of their status. The new American constitution thus enshrined the inferiority of
black slaves. The Constitution also guaranteed the continuation of the slave trade
until 1808. The Constitution gave each state government control over the make-up
of the electorate and ensured that only privileged white males could vote. The
Constitution of the new nation set out to protect the rights, liberties and freedom of
white men, while demonstrating how whites felt about non-whites.
The twin doctrines of white supremacy (and its belief in the inherent inferiority of
blacks), combined with capitalism to create a powerful rationale for slavery.
Nationwide, de facto and de jure segregation and discrimination based on the notion
of race were accepted and effective tools to enforce and entrench a pervasive
system of white economic power and privilege and black oppression and
After the American War of Independence (1775-1783), changing economic
conditions resulted in the decline and end of what limited slavery there was in the
North. Conversely, the rapid spread of cotton cultivation in the South encouraged the
growth of slavery there. By 1860, 3.8 million slaves accounted for one third of the
total population of the southern states.
Contrary to popular belief, however, not all blacks in America were slaves. By the
year 1860, well over 11% of the total black population in the U.S. was free. There
were approximately 500,000 free blacks who lived throughout the United States, with
slightly more than half residing in the South. Because of the high monetary value
placed on strong, healthy slaves capable of hard physical labour and reproduction,
free blacks often lived in constant danger of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
After having completed the labour required of them by their masters, some slaves
were permitted to perform work for hire. In this way, over time some were able to
purchase their freedom. Once free, many then continued to save their incomes in
order to purchase their entire families' freedom. Others sometimes were manumitted,
usually upon the death of their masters, and still others escaped to freedom. The
Underground Railroad was a series of well-travelled escape routes to the North along
which people, both black and white, sympathetic to the anti-slavery cause provided
refuge, food and directions to safeguard and speed fugitive slaves on their journey
In the North, many free blacks joined the abolitionist cause, and tens of thousands of
free black men and fugitive slaves enthusiastically joined the ranks of the Union Army
after the Civil War began.
The Civil War, Reconstruction and its aftermath: 1860–1890
From the early nineteenth century, as white Americans moved Westward, new land
was acquired. The question of whether to allow slavery in the new states was hotly
debated. Many northerners were opposed to the extension of slavery. However,
many southern whites felt it was an individual state’s right to decide whether it had
slaves, not that of the Federal government. The Republican party at the time
opposed the extension of slavery. To Southerners, the election of
the Republican President Abraham Lincoln seemed threatening. In
1860-1, the Southern states left the Union (Missouri, Kentucky,
Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida,
Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi) and
formed the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy
guaranteed slavery, while rejecting the slave trade.
Although the extension of slavery was possibly the major cause of the Civil War
(1861-65), that war was not fought to end slavery. Most Northerners thought they
were fighting to save the Union of the United States and not to free Southern slaves.
In fact Northerners feared that freed slaves would migrate to the North and flood the
labour market and cause racial tension. Lincoln simply wanted to oppose the
extension of slavery to the new states.
The Emancipation Proclamation
However in September 1862 primarily for military reasons, Lincoln issued the
Emancipation Proclamation. It freed slaves in the southern states at war with the
North. The 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, outlawed
slavery in the United States. In 1868, the 14th amendment granted full U.S.
citizenship to African-Americans. It gave equality before the law to all. The 15th
amendment of 1870, extended the right to vote to black males.
After the Union victory over the Confederacy, a brief period of southern black
progress, called Reconstruction, followed. From 1865 to 1877, under protection of
Union troops, some strides were made toward equal rights for African-Americans.
Southern blacks began to vote, were elected to the United States Congress, held
local public office, established schools and built towns and businesses.
Although slavery had gone, Southerners still believed in the arguments that had
justified it. Southern whites were frightened and resentful of the ‘inferior’ black
population in their communities. They attempted to undo the rights black citizens had
been granted. They used violence to stop blacks voting and called for their
disenfranchisement. In the 1890s the Southern state legislatures introduced income
and literacy qualifications for voting, which penalised more blacks than whites.
Illiterate whites were often allowed to vote through notorious ‘grandfather clauses’, by
which a man could vote if it were proved that an ancestor had voted before
Reconstruction! White Southern registrars even manipulated the literacy tests to
disqualify literate blacks. Reconstruction thus failed to bring lasting gains for blacks.
Reconstruction failed to bring about great economic gains to
blacks. Although slavery had been abolished, most southern
blacks for decades continued to struggle in grinding poverty as
agricultural, domestic and menial labourers. Many were
sharecroppers, their economic status little changed by
emancipation. Most remained in the poverty trap.
Reconstruction however did result in some gains for blacks. Black churches and the
federal Freedman’s Bureau (1865-72) made education more widely available to
blacks, and a few black political leaders, businessmen, teachers, lawyers and
doctors emerged. Some of the colleges of higher education founded during the
Reconstruction era like Howard and Fisk provided the kind of race leaders necessary
for the civil rights movement of the mid twentieth century.
Despite the lack of real black advancement after the Civil
war whites remained fearful. The power given to individual
states under the Constitution
facilitated the introduction of
laws that discriminated against
controlled not only voting but
education, transport and law enforcement. The
segregation of schools, housing and public facilities
spread quickly after 1865. Between 1881 and 1915 many
Southern states passed laws which insisted upon the
separation of whites from blacks in trains, stations,
theatres, churches, parks, schools, restaurants and
White violence against blacks increased in the post-war South. Unlawful hangings
(lynchings) of blacks by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were common. Between
1885 and 1917, 2734 blacks were lynched in the United States. Those responsible
were not brought to justice, indicating widespread white support for their actions. The
Supreme Court did nothing about the so-called (no-one knows why) ‘Jim Crow’ laws
that legalised segregation. In 1896 (PLESSY v. FERGUSON) the Supreme Court
said separate but equal facilities were not against the 14th
amendment (which had given blacks their rights of
citizenship). The Supreme Court did not prevent Southern
states spending ten times as much on white schools as on
black, nor did it uphold the 15th amendment which said
blacks should be able to vote. Thus the South ignored the
US Constitution with the support of the Supreme Court.
After Reconstruction, Southern black Americans had little help from either the
Federal Government or the Supreme Court. They faced hostility from many Southern
whites. By 1900, Jim Crow laws had undermined most of the gains from
Reconstruction. On the other hand, the end of slavery gave blacks more
opportunities, and while the 14th and 15th amendments were usually ignored, they
remained part of the Constitution, to be appealed to in later years.
Blacks in the North
In the industrialised North, blacks had legal and political equality. However, whites
considered blacks competition for jobs and housing, and resented it when black
votes made a difference to the outcome of local elections.
Many southern blacks migrated north after the Civil War as the north offered more
job opportunities than the largely agricultural based South. However, racial tensions
still operated here, resulting in blacks being the ‘last to be hired, first to be fired.’ The
white communities had largely established their presence over northern cities and
were not prepared to lose their privileged position. Many blacks were forced to live in
poor urban black ghettoes. Black men in the northern cities tended to be employed in
low paid labouring jobs, whilst women were in even lower paid domestic service. To
make matters worse the rents were usually higher within the restricted boundaries of
the black ghetto, than in white neighbourhoods.
The Situation by 1900
By 1900 America was beset with multiple racial problems. A large black minority and
small Indian, Hispanic and Chinese minorities were faced with a white majority who
feared racial mixing and were convinced of the supremacy of the white race. Fearful
whites retreated to segregated educational institutions and residential areas, away
from those whose skin was black, red or yellow.
Why did non-whites apparently accept this position of inferiority? Blacks had to
overcome de jure (legal) discrimination in the South, and de facto (not legalised but
actual) discrimination in the North. The end of slavery had left Southern blacks with
freedom of movement but without material resources. Most blacks were in a poverty
However, while the 19th century saw the virtually unchallenged domination of whites
over other races in America, the 20th century saw attempt to alter the balance.