African-American History

African-American History

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African American history began with the arrival of the first black slave ship in the American colonies in 1619. But for more than a thousand years, Muslim traffickers had traded slaves throughout the Mediterranean and Africa. In addition, many West African peoples kept slaves, who were usually prisoners of war, criminals, or members of the lowest castes.

The slave trade was barbaric, brutal, and lethal. Many captives died on the march to the barracoons on the Atlantic seacoast where they were bought by European slavers. Below the decks of the slave vessels, they were chained onto coffin-sized racks where immobility, filth, disease, and despair caused one in three of these unfortunates to die in the hideous ordeal of the Middle Passage.

If they arrived in America alive, slaves were sold at auction to owners who wanted them for the brutish labor of the plantations. They could punish slaves with complete impunity, and in the cruelest practice of all, they often broke up families by selling off their members.

Lives of unending hardship caused slaves to develop a strong cultural identity and sense of community. They cared for each other, and they married and formed strong family ties. Their community was founded in an African American Christianity with its own forms of worship. Their spirituals expressed religious fervor and the hope of freedom, and celebrated endurance pending the day.

Slave culture enriched both African American history and American music, theater, and dance. The banjo was an African stringed instrument, and African rhythms fused with Christian hymns and band marches. The blues melded African with European musical scales, and vaudeville took its inspiration from the songs and dances of black street performers.

Up north, some blacks gained freedom, acquired property, and were given access to white society. Slavery was still legal there, but less of a presence in a region where poor soils and harsh winters made plantation agriculture impracticable, and where sentiment against slavery was pervasive. Many northern blacks found jobs building roads and canals, and in helping to build the manufacturing and mercantile economy of the cities.

Whites and free blacks in Northern states began to demand the abolition of slavery. Frederick Douglass, a young slave, was taught to read by his master’s wife. In 1838, he escaped to Massachusetts, and then traveled to England to lend his powerful voice to the growing abolitionist movement.

Many Northern blacks volunteered to fight for the Union in the Civil War. They fought fiercely to both restore the Union and to free their own people. After the war ended in the defeat of the Confederacy, Northern troops remained in the South to enforce the new freedom of the former slaves. Freedmen started their own churches and schools, bought land, and elected black Congressmen—22 by 1870.

Southerners reacted to black freedoms with restrictive laws, forced incarceration, debt peonage and terror by Ku Klux Klan and other groups that organized raids that burned homes, schools, and churches, and lynched blacks. In fact, some were even burned at the stake. With Northern occupation over by 1877, the South’s old white power structure re-emerged. With that, Jim Crow laws succeeded in completely suppressing nascent black freedoms and political power. African Americans were excluded from voting or otherwise participating in white society, and lived (and died) with constant violence and intimidation.

Beginning in the 1890s, many blacks moved north, into jobs in meat packing plants, steel mills, and automobile factories that had been vacated by enlistments in World War I and the drop in European immigration caused by the war in Europe. While many of their new communities were slums, they also enabled blacks to find their own political voice and elect their own representatives. Black urban culture blossomed in the Harlem Renaissance, and jazz pioneers like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver became celebrities in the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Langston Hughes used the language of the ghetto in his poetry of the African American experience. That experience coalesced with the Great Depression, which brought many blacks and whites together for the first in what had been white labor unions and farmers’ unions.

Today, black Americans contribute richly to every segment of African American history and American society. No community has come so far, and accomplished so much, with so much denied them. Though discrimination continues, African Americans continue to achieve and lead and to remind the world of the meaning of America’s promise to all.

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Slavey: Index | Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade | Slave Trade in Africa |Kingdom of Asante | Kingdom of Dahomey | Kingdom of Kongo | Kingdom of Ndongo | Kingdom of Oyo | End of the Slave Trade | Slavery in America: MoralityEthosPlantationsThe SouthRace and the American Revolution | The South in the American Revolution | The Old South | Sectionalism: OriginsMissouri CompromiseThe South1830-18501850-1860Compromise of 1850 | John Brown’s Raid | Kansas | Bleeding KansasKansas-Nebraska ControversyFar WestPro-Slavery ArgumentJames Buchanan: Governance | Stephen Douglas | Abraham Lincoln: Election of 1860 | Abolitionism: FactionsWilliam Lloyd Garrison Anti-AbolitionismPolitical AbolitionismBlack Abolitionism | Civil War: SocietyPowerEconomy | States’ Rights | Secession | The Confederacy: GovernanceMoney and Manpower | Union Army | Fort Sumter | Progression of the War | Wartime Governance | Wartime Politics | Politics of Emancipation | Battle and Campaigns: CommandersOpening ClashesVirginia Front Peninsular CampaignWestern TheaterThe WestTurning of the TideFinal StageStrategy and Diplomacy: EuropeSea Power | Reconstruction: Aftermath of the WarSocietyPower: GovernanceCongressional ModerationNorthern OccupationNorthern StyleConflictCongressional ReconstructionPresidential ReconstructionRepublican RuleAndrew Johnson Rutherford HayesUlysses Grant | Legacy | New South: CitiesRural Areas | Black Society 1877-1900: NadirPolitical SphereSeparatismBooker T. Washington1945-1960: Post-War Black LifeCivil Rights 1960-1973: Black RadicalismMartin Luther King, Jr.Race RiotsSelmaAlbany MovementBirminghamFair Housing ActFreedom RidesKennedy AdministrationJohnson AdministrationMalcolm X Mississippi Freedom Democratic PartyFreedom SummerPrison ReformSt. Augustine MovementUniversity of Mississippi Voter Registration


Slavery: Index

Transatlantic Slave Trade

Slave Trade in Africa

Slavery in Africa: Kingdom of Asante

Slavery in Africa: Kingdom of Dahomey

Slavery in Africa: Kingdom of Kongo

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Slavery In Africa: Kingdom of Ndongo

Slavery in Africa: Kingdom of Oyo

End of the Slave Trade

Slavery: Morality

Slavery: Ethos

Slavery: Plantations

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Slavery: The South

Race and the American Revolution

The South and the American Revolution

The Old South



Missouri Compromise

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The South

Sectionalism 1830-1850

Sectionalism: 1850-1860

Compromise of 1850

John Brown’s Raid


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Bleeding Kansas

Kansas-Nebraska Controversy

Far West

Pro-Slavery Argument

James Buchanan

James Buchanan: Governance

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Stephen Douglas

Abraham Lincoln

Election of 1860




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William Lloyd Garrison


Political Abolitionism

Black Abolitionism

Civil War

Civil War: Index

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States’ Rights


The Confederacy

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The Confederacy: Governance

The Confederacy: Money and Manpower

Union Army

Fort Sumter

Progression of the War

Wartime Governance

Wartime Politics

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Politics of Emancipation

Battles and Campaigns


Opening Clashes

Virginia Front

Virginia Front: Peninsular Campaign

Western Theater

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The West

Turning of the Tide

Final Stage

Strategy and Diplomacy

Strategy and Diplomacy: Europe

Strategy and Diplomacy: Sea Power

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Aftermath of the War




Congressional Moderation

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Northern Occupation

Reconstruction Northern Style


Congressional Reconstruction

Presidential Reconstruction

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Republican Rule

Andrew Johnson

Rutherford Hayes

Ulysses Grant


The New South


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Rural Areas

Black Society 1877-1890

Black Society: Nadir

Civil Rights Movement

Political Sphere: 1877-1900

Responses: 1877-1900

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Separatism: 1877-1900

Booker T. Washington


Post-War Black Life

Civil Rights 1960-1973

Black Radicalism

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Race Riots


Albany Movement


Fair Housing Act

Freedom Rides

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Kennedy Administration

Johnson Administration

Malcolm X

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

Freedom Summer

Prison Reform

St. Augustine Movement

University of Mississippi

Voter Registration


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