African-American history

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What has come to be known as African-American history developed out of the same forces that shaped the Civil Rights Movement.

Colonial era

See also: Slavery, U.S.

Africans first arrived in 1619, a Dutch ship sold 19 blacks as indentured servants to Englishmen at Jamestown, Virginia. About 10-12 million Africans were transported to Western Hemisphere, The vast majority of these people came from that stretch of the West African coast extending from present-day Senegal to Angola; a small percentage came from Madagascar and East Africa. Only 3% (about 300,000) went to the American colonies. The vast majority went to the West Indies, where they died quickly. Demographic conditions were highly favorable in the American colonies, with less disease, more food, good medical care, and lighter work loads. Coming as they did from such an extensive area in Africa, they were not of one physical or cultural type. Significant differences existed among them, but they shared a general set of characteristics. They were tall and had dark skin, tight woolly hair, full lips, broad noses, and limited facial and body hair. Gomez (1998) suggests that Africans, upon arriving in America, were dispersed along ethnic and cultural lines. While they eventually dropped their African ethnic identities, they retained some of their original cultures. For example, runaway-slave advertisements sometimes identified the slaves by their ethnic roots ("Dinah, an Ebo wench that speaks very good English").

At first the Africans in the South were outnumbered by white indentured servants, who came voluntarily from Britain. They avoided the plantations. With the vast amount of good land and the shortage of laborers, plantation owners turned to lifetime slaves who worked for their keep but were not paid wages and could not easily escape. Slaves had some legal rights (it was a crime to kill a slave, and whites were hung for it.) Generally the slaves developed their own family system, religion and customs in the slave quarters with little interference from owners, who were only interested in work outputs.

By 1700 there were 25,000 slaves in the American colonies, about 10% of the population. A few had come from Africa but most came from the West Indies (especially Barbados), or, increasingly, were native born. Their legal status was now clear: they were slaves for life and so were the children of slave mothers. They could be sold, or freed, and a few ran away. Slowly a free black population emerged, concentrated in port cities along the Atlantic coast from Charleston to Boston. Slaves in the cities and towns had many more privileges, but the great majority of slaves lived on southern tobacco or rice plantations, usually in groups of 20 or more.

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

All the American colonies had slavery, but it was usually the form of personal servants in the North (where 2% of the people were slaves), and field hands in plantations in the South (where 25% were slaves.)

Revolution and early republic: 1775-1840

By 1800 most slaves had become Christians. However few followed the Episcopal or Presbyterian affiliations of most masters; rather by the 1830s most had become Baptists or Methodists, but with a distinctive difference. Genovese (1974) identified the key features of the black version of Christianity as its raucous emotionalism, an absence of a sense of original sin or depravity, an emphasis on the role of Moses (who at times rivaled in importance Jesus), and an uneasy comingling with magic and conjuring. Genovese argued religion was increasingly central to the lives and self-identity of the slaves. "The religion practiced in the quarters gave the slaves the one thing they absolutely had to have if they were to resist. . . . It fired them with a sense of their own worth before God and man."[2]

Age of abolition, 1840-1877

See also: American Civil War and Reconstruction

Over 1 million slaves were moved from the older seaboard slave states, with their declining economies to the rich cotton states of the southwest; many others were sold and moved locally.[3] Berlin (2003) argues that this "Second Middle Passage shredded the planters' paternalist pretenses in the eyes of black people and prodded slaves and free people of color to create a host of oppositional ideologies and institutions that better accounted for the realities of endless deportations, expulsions and flights that continually remade their world.

Age of Jim Crow, 1877-1954

See also: Jim Crow

The most dramatic demographic change came after 1940, as most backs left the rural South--some for nearby southern cities, and most headed to large cities in the North and West. In the decade of the 1940s 1.6 million left the South; in the 1950s, 1.5 million, and in the 1960s 1.4 million. By 1970 there were very few back farmers left. Politically it was a movement from a white dominated rural South where few blacks could vote or speak out, to a pluralistic political environment where northern central cities were controlled by liberals and their allies in the labor unions.

Age of Civil Rights, 1954 to present

In 1955 blacks in Montgomery, Alabama undertook a boycott of the segregated city buses and chose a local pastor Martin Luther King as their leader, and Rosa Parks as a symbolic actor. Drawing on Gandhi's teachings, King directed a nonviolent boycott designed both to end an injustice and to redeem his white adversaries through love. Love, he said, not only avoided the internal violence of the spirit but also severed the external chain of hatred that only produced more hatred. Somebody, he argued, must be willing to break this chain so that "the beloved community" could be restored and true brotherhood could begin. In November 1956, the boycotters had won a resounding moral victory when the United States Supreme Court nullified the Alabama laws that enforced segregated buses. The Montgomery protest captured the imagination of the world over and marked the beginning of a southern black civil rights movement that rocked the Jim Crow South to its foundations. King, with extraordinary oratorical powers and rich religious imagery, emerged as the most inspiring new moral voice in civil rights. In August 1957 King and 115 other black leaders met in Montgomery and formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with King as leader. Working through southern churches, the SCLC enlisted the religious black community in the freedom struggle by expanding "the Montgomery way" across the South.

In 1960 southern black college and high school students launched the sit-in movement, forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Through 1961 and 1962 civil rights leaders pressured the John F. Kennedy administration to support a tough civil rights bill, seeking a sort of second Emancipation Proclamation that would employ federal power to wipe out segregation just as Lincoln's 1863 decree had abolished slavery. Kennedy, basically conservative and unwilling to offend his base of Southern white voters, refused to act. Civil rights groups thereupon launched multiple mass demonstrations throughout the South. King and the SCLC staff would single out some notoriously segregated city with officials who tolerated violence; mobilize the local blacks with songs, Bible readings, and rousing oratory; and then lead them on protest marches conspicuous for their nonviolent spirit and moral purpose. Then the marchers escalated their demands--even fill up the jails--until they brought about a moment of "creative tension," when white authorities would either agree to negotiate or resort to violence. If violence broke out it would humiliate the moderate whites and redouble national pressures from church and activists for federal intervention. So far there was no violence on the part of blacks, but they were growing more and more frustrated and angry, with militants like Malcolm X calling for more extreme measures.[4]

Nonviolent confrontation failed politically in Albany, Georgia, in 1962, where white authorities were equally nonviolent. In 1963 it succeeded in Birmingham, Alabama, where Police Commissioner Eugene ("Bull") Connor turned fire-hoses and police dogs on the marchers--in full view of reporters and television cameras. The civil rights activists thus exposed racist hatred to the scorn of national and world opinion. Jailed during the demonstrations, King wrote his classic "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the most influential and eloquent expression of the goals and philosophy of the civil rights movement.[5] King's great speech, "I Have a Dream" during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, galvanized the movement, putting forth a goal of an integrated color-blind society.[6] President Lyndon Johnson, a long-time supporter of civil rights, had replaced Kennedy and he seized the moment to mobilize a majority coalition of northern Democrats, Republicans, white churches, and white labor unions to break a Senate filibuster and pass 1964 Civil Rights Act, which desegregated public facilities. Overnight Jim Crow vanished, with little protest or violence.

However, within days of the passage of the powerful new law, rioting broke out in black ghettoes, as the civil rights leadership discovered it could not control the angry masses. Nor could it control the radical students in SNCC and like-minded groups who were moving rapidly to the left, rejecting alliances with whites, discarding the goal of integration and demanding instead black separatism and "Black Power."[7]


While African-Americans and their African ancestors played a central role in creating and defining the United States, these Americans had few people to tell their stories. Some noted scholars, such as W.E.B. Dubois, shed light on the African-American experience. But that experience was often ignored by white historians.

By the end of the 19th century, African-Americans were commonly depicted in derogatory ways. The days of slavery were portrayed as a time when black people were happy and content. And many historians came to view the aftermath of the Civil War as a tragic time when blacks and carpet-baggers ran wild. In this history, it was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) that came to save the day. This portrayal of African-Americans was popularized by filmmaker D.W. Griffith in the Birth of a Nation. The 1915 film glorified the KKK. But it was a view that dominated film and literature into the 1930s when Gone with the Wind offered a romantic story of the Old South full of blacks who appeared content to play inferior roles.

In the first half of the 20th century Carter G. Woodson devoted himself to the early black history movement, an essential component of the proto (pre-Black Power era) black studies movement. Woodson foreshadowed modern black studies scholars in stressing that the study of African descendants be scholarly sound, creative, restorative, and, most important, directly relevant to the black community. He popularized black history with a variety of innovative strategies and vehicles, including Association for the Study of Negro Life outreach activities, Negro History Week, and a popular black history magazine. This article explores how the multi-talented Woodson democratized, legitimized, and popularized black history.[8]

Benjamin Quarles (1904-96) had a significant impact on the teaching of African-American history. Quarles and John Hope Franklin provided a bridge between the work of historians such as Carter G. Woodson and the black history found in late-20th-century universities. Quarles grew up in Boston, attended Shaw University as an undergraduate, and received a graduate degree at the University of Wisconsin. He began in 1953 teaching at Morgan State College in Baltimore, where he stayed, despite a lucrative offer from Johns Hopkins.

Black history attempted to reverse centuries of ignorance. While black historians were not alone in advocating a new examination of slavery and racism in the United States, the study of African-American history has often been a political and scholarly struggle to change assumptions.

One of the foremost assumptions was that slaves were passive and did not rebel. For decades, historians sought to find explanations for this alleged reality. Eventually, a series of historians transformed the image of African-Americans, revealing a much richer and complex experience. Historians, such as Leon Littwack, showed how former slaves fought to keep their families together and struggled against tremendous odds to define themselves as free people. Others wrote of rebellions small and large.

In the 21st century, black history is regarded as mainstream and, by proclamation of President Jimmy Carter, is celebrated every February in the United States during "Black History Month." Proponents of black history believe that it promotes diversity, develops self-esteem, and corrects myths and stereotypes. Opponents argue such curricula are dishonest, divisive, and lack academic credibility and rigor.[9]

Knowledge of black history

Surveys of 11th and 12th grade students and adults in 2005 show that American schools have made them very well informed about black history. Both groups were asked to name ten famous Americans, excluding presidents. Of the students, the three highest names were blacks: 67% named Martin Luther King, 60% Rosa Parks, and 44% Harriet Tubman. Among adults, King was 2nd (at 36%) and Parks was tied for 4th with 30%, while Tubman tied for 10th place with Henry Ford, at 16%. When distinguished historians were asked in 2006 to name the most prominent Americans, Parks and Tubman did not make the top 100.[10]


  1. Wood (1974)
  2. Eugene Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll (1974) p. 283
  3. Rothman (2005)
  4. Robert Terrill, "Protest, Prophecy, and Prudence in the Rhetoric of Malcolm X," Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4#1 Spring 2001, pp. 25-53 in Project Muse; Akinyele O. Umoja, "The Ballot and the Bullet," Journal of Black Studies 29 (1999): 558-79; Sean Dennis Cashman, African-Americans and the Quest for Civil Rights, 1900-1990 (1991), 184-215.
  5. Edward I. Berry, "Doing Time: King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail." Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9#1 Spring 2005, pp. 109-131 in Project Muse
  6. Mark Vail, "The 'Integrative' Rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' Speech," Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9#1 Spring 2006, pp. 51-78 in Project Muse; Alexandra Alverez, "Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream': The Speech Event as Metaphor," Journal of Black Studies 3 (1998):337–57
  7. Akinyele O. Umoja, "1964: The Beginning of the End of Nonviolence in the Mississippi Freedom Movement," Radical History Review, Jan 2003; 2003: 201 - 226. online in Duke journals
  8. Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, "Making Black History Practical and Popular: Carter G. Woodson, the Proto Black Studies Movement, and the Struggle for Black Liberation." Western Journal of Black Studies 2004 28(2): 372-383. Issn: 0197-4327 Fulltext: Ebsco
  9. Abul Pitre and Ruth Ray, "The Controversy Around Black History." Western Journal of Black Studies 2002 26(3): 149-154. Issn: 0197-4327 Fulltext: Ebsco
  10. Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano, "'Famous Americans': The Changing Pantheon of American Heroes," Journal of American History (March 2008) 94#4 pp. 1186–1202.