Historic African Americans:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
— Declaration of Independence
African Americans, one of the largest of the many ethnic groups in the United States, are largely the descendants of slaves.
Most African Americans today are descended from various ethnic groups, mostly from western and central Africa where they were captured in African wars or raids and transported in the Atlantic slave trade. Though they came with varied customs, religious beliefs, and language, European standards and ideals were forced upon them once they arrived in America.
The first Africans in the New World arrived with Spanish and Portuguese explorers and settlers and assisted in the early exploration of the Americas. In 1581, the Spanish in St. Augustine, Florida imported the first enslaved Africans into what would become the United States. In 1619, 20 African captives were sold to settlers at Point Comfort, today’s Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, 30 miles downstream from Jamestown, Virginia. The colonists treated these captives as indentured servants and released them after a number of years. However, this practice was gradually replaced by the system of race-based slavery used in the Caribbean. Soon, more African captives were brought to America in increasing numbers to fill the desire for labor in a country where land was plentiful and labor was scarce.
Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641. Attempts to hold black servants beyond the normal term of indenture culminated in the legal establishment of black chattel slavery in Virginia in 1661 and in all the English colonies by 1750. Other colonies followed suit by passing laws that passed slavery on to the children of slaves and making non-Christian imported servants slaves for life. This principle prevailed in the English colonies even though they would later win their independence and articulated national ideals in direct opposition to slavery.
However, during this time, some blacks gained their freedom, acquired property, and gained access to American society. Many moved to the North, where slavery, although still legal, was less of a presence. By 1790 slave and free blacks numbered almost 760,000 and made up nearly one-fifth of the population of the United States.
By the early 1800s, many whites and free blacks in Northern states began to call for the abolition of slavery. Frederick Douglass, a young black slave who was taught to read by his master’s wife in Baltimore, Maryland escaped to Massachusetts in 1838. There, he became a powerful writer, editor, and lecturer for the growing abolitionist movement. By 1840, abolitionists in Britain and the United States developed large, complex propaganda campaigns against slavery. As the nation split between Southern slave and Northern free states prior to the Civil War, the Underground Railroad spirited thousands of escaped slaves from the South to the North.
When the Civil War began, many Northern free blacks and runaway slaves from the South volunteered to fight for the Union, hoping to liberate their people across the nation. When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it changed the status of three million African Americans in the South from “slave” to “free.” This drastically increased the number of runaway slaves, many of whom joined with the Union forces. By the time the war ended in 1865, about 200,000 black men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and Navy. Forty thousand black soldiers died in the war: 10,000 in battle and 30,000 from illness or infection.
After the Union victory over the Confederacy, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 made African Americans full U.S. citizens and Reconstruction began to bring the South back into the Union. Over the next five years, the 11 states of the Confederacy were readmitted into the Union and some strides were made toward equal rights for African-Americans. During these years, Blacks established their own churches, schools, towns, and businesses. Tens of thousands migrated to Mississippi for the chance to clear and own their own land, as 90% of the bottomlands were undeveloped. The 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, extended the right to vote to black males and soon African Americans were elected to Congress and other public offices.
But, all was not well, as many Southerners soon reacted to black emancipation. When Northern troops left in 1877, the white power structure returned and the Ku Klux Klan organized terrorist raids, lynchings, and burned homes, schools, and churches. Within a couple of decades, this power structure succeeded in completely suppressing blacks who were excluded from voting by intimidation, and lived under constant threat of violence. Southern states wrote Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks from white society.
Beginning in the 1890s, many African Americans started moving North. This migration pattern became more pronounced as some six million blacks moved from rural areas of the South to northern and western cities between 1916 and 1970 during what was called the Great Migration. During this time, World War I opened many factory jobs and in the 1920s, strict new laws drastically cut European immigration, which created a demand for industrial workers in the Northern cities. Still suppressed by segregation, more Southern blacks continued to migrate northward in increasing numbers, eagerly taking unskilled jobs in meatpacking plants, steel mills, and on auto assembly lines in Chicago, Omaha, and Detroit.
The American Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s using nonviolence and passive resistance to change discriminatory laws and practices, primarily in the South. The movement awakened the country’s conscience to the plight of African Americans, who had long been denied first-class citizenship. As a result, increases in median income and college enrollment among the black population were dramatic in the late 20th century, which led to wider access to professional and business opportunities and noteworthy political victories.
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated May 2021.