“In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of oppression and pants for Deliverance… The same Principle lives in us.”
— Phillis Wheatley, 1774, an enslaved colonial American-born African poetess who captured the feelings of American-born Africans.
Evidence of slavery predates written records and is thought to have begun sometime after the invention of agriculture about 11,000 years ago. Slavery existed in almost every ancient civilization, including Egypt, China, India, Greece, the Roman Empire, and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas. These slavery practices were a mixture of debt-slavery, punishment for crime, the enslavement of prisoners of war, child abandonment, and the birth of slave children to slaves.
In Europe, slavery existed from Classical times and did not decline until the collapse of the Roman Empire. Slavery remained in Europe throughout the early medieval period but became increasingly uncommon in Northern Europe and, by the 11th and 12th centuries, had been effectively abolished in the North. In Southern and Eastern Europe, slavery remained a normal part of society, economy, and trade across the Mediterranean. The Atlantic seaboard meant that African slaves began to appear in Italy, Spain, Southern France, and Portugal well before the discovery of the New World.
From about the 8th century onwards, an Arab-run slave trade also flourished. In addition, many African societies themselves had forms of slavery.
1441 – Start of European slave trading in Africa. The Portuguese captains Antao Gonçalves and Nuno Tristao captured 12 Africans in Cabo Branco (modern Mauritania) and took them to Portugal as slaves.
1472 – The Portuguese negotiated the first slave trade agreement that also included gold and ivory. By the end of the 19th Century, because of the slave trade, five times as many Africans (over 11 million) would arrive in the Americas than Europeans.
1494 – The first Africans arrived in Hispaniola with Christopher Columbus. They are free persons.
1503 -Spanish and Portuguese brought African slaves to the Caribbean and Central America to replace Native Americans in the gold mines.
1510 – The systematic transportation of African slaves to the New World began when King Ferdinand of Spain authorized a shipment of 50 African slaves to be sent to Santo Domingo.
1619 – A Dutch ship transports 20 Africans to Jamestown, Virginia. Initially, they appear to have been indentured servants, but the institution of hereditary lifetime service for enslaved African Americans soon developed.
Did You Know??…..
An estimated 1-1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries.
The Africans called the trip across the Atlantic Ocean “Middle Passage.“
1641 – The Massachusetts Bay Colony legalized slavery.
1651 – Rhode Island declares an enslaved person must be freed after ten years of service.
1660s –The practice of slavery became a legally recognized institution in British America. Colonial assemblies began to enact laws known as slave codes, which restricted the liberty of slaves and protected the institution of slavery.
1660 – Virginia legalizes slavery.
1663 – A Virginia court decides a child born to an enslaved mother is also a slave.
1672 -The King of England charters the Royal African Company, thereby encouraging the expansion of the British slave trade.
1676 -Nathaniel Bacon (Bacon’s Rebellion) appeals to enslaved blacks to join in his cause.
Slavery is prohibited in West New Jersey, a Quaker settlement in current-day South New Jersey.
1750 – Georgia is the last of the British North American colonies to legalize slavery.
1775 – Founding of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the world’s first anti-slavery society, and the first Quaker anti-slavery society. Benjamin Franklin became Honorary President of the Society in 1787.
1776 – Delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia adopted the Declaration of Independence, which declares, “All men are created equal.” However, slavery remains a legal institution in all 13 newly established states.
1777 – Vermont amends its constitution to ban slavery. Over the next 25 years, other Northern states emancipated their slaves and banned the institution. Some of the state laws stipulate gradual emancipation.
1780 – Pennsylvania bans slavery.
The United States drafted the U.S. Constitution, which forbids Congress from interfering with the slave trade before 1808. Enslaved persons are counted as three-fifths of a person for the census.
Did You Know??….
Prior to the arrival of European slave traders in Africa, slavery had long been a part of life on the continent. The Arab slave trade from East Africa is one of the oldest slave trades, predating the European transatlantic slave trade by 700 years.
1793 – U.S. Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act to protect the rights of slave owners to retrieve runaways across state lines.
Eli Whitney’s cotton gin invention greatly increased the demand for slave labor.
1799 – New York bans slavery.
1800 – Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved African American blacksmith, organized a slave revolt intending to march on Richmond, Virginia. The conspiracy is uncovered, and Prosser and many rebels are hanged. Virginia’s slave laws were consequently tightened.
1804 – New Jersey bans slavery.
1807 – British Parliament votes to abolish the trade in slaves.
1808 – In 1807, Congress banned the importation of slaves, effective January 1, 1808. The internal slave trade continues in states where the institution is legal.
1820-1821 – In the Missouri Compromise, Congress admitted the slave state of Missouri and the free state of Maine into the Union and banned slavery north of the 36° 30′ line of latitude in the Louisiana Territory.
1822 – Denmark Vesey, an enslaved African American carpenter who had purchased his freedom, plans a slave revolt to lay siege on Charleston, South Carolina. The plot is discovered, and Vesey and 34 co-conspirators are hanged.
1831 – In Boston, Massachusetts, William Lloyd Garrison founded an abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, signaling a dramatic shift in the anti-slavery movement. The abolitionist movement soon became the dominant voice among anti-slavery advocates, who demanded an immediate end to slavery.
Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher, instigates a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia. He and his followers kill 57 whites, but the revolt is unsuccessful, and up to 200 slaves are killed. Afterward, the Virginia legislature narrowly rejected a bill to emancipate Virginia’s slaves. The widespread fear of slave revolts, compounded by the rise of abolitionism, led legislatures across the South to increase the harshness of their slave codes.
1833 – William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the first abolitionist newspaper, joined with Arthur and Lewis Tappan to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society.
1838 – A Maryland slave named Fred runs away and later becomes Frederick Douglass.
“I have observed this in my experience of slavery – that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom.”
— Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
1842 – In Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, stating that slaveowners had a right to retrieve their “property.” In so doing, the court rules that Pennsylvania’s anti-kidnapping law is unconstitutional. At the same time, the Supreme Court declares that enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law is a federal responsibility, and states are not required to participate. Between 1842 and 1850, nine Northern states passed new personal liberty laws that forbade state officials from cooperating in the return of alleged fugitive slaves and barred the use of state facilities.
1845 – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, is published in Boston, Massachusetts, launching the public career of the most notable black American spokesman of the 19th Century.
1846 – The Wilmot Proviso, introduced by Democratic representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, attempts to ban slavery in territory gained in the Mexican-American War. Southerners blocked the proviso but continued to inflame the debate over slavery.
1848 – The free Soil Party was organized to stop the spread of slavery into Western territories.
1850 – The Compromise of 1850 was introduced into Congress by Henry Clay as an omnibus bill designed to settle disputes arising from the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. Only after the bill is divided into several parts does it pass. The bill requires that California enter the Union as a free state; the slave trade (but not slavery) is abolished in Washington D.C.; the fugitive slave law is strengthened; and Utah and New Mexico Territories are opened to slavery, based on popular vote.
1852 – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is published. The novel depicts slavery as a horrible evil but treats white Southerners sympathetically. The villain of the piece is the cruel slave-overseer, Simon Legree, a transplanted New Englander. The book is banned in the South, while Northerners make it a bestseller.
1854 – U.S. ministers to Britain, France, and Spain meet in Ostend, Belgium, to draft a policy recommendation to President Pierce, urging him to attempt to purchase Cuba from Spain again and, if Spain refuses, to take the island by force. When the secret proposal, called the Ostend Manifesto, is leaked to the press, it creates an uproar since Cuba would likely become another slave state.
In an attempt to spur population growth in the western territories in advance of a transcontinental railroad, Stephen Douglas introduced a bill to Congress to establish Kansas and Nebraska territories. To gain Southern support, the bill stipulates that slavery in the territories would be decided by popular sovereignty. Thus, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 36° 30′ in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase.
1855-1856 – A miniature civil war, known as Bleeding Kansas, erupts in Kansas Territory over the issue of slavery. In May 1856, a pro-slavery group attacked the free-soil town of Lawrence, Kansas, destroying and stealing property. In response to the “Sacking of Lawrence,” radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers attacked a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, killing five men. By the end of 1856, nearly 200 Kansans had been killed, and property worth $2 million had been damaged or destroyed.
1856 – Senator Charles Sumner delivers a stinging speech in the U.S. Senate, “The Crime against Kansas,” in which he attacks slavery in the South and singles out his Senate colleague, Andrew Butler of South Carolina, for criticism. In retaliation, Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, attacks Sumner with a cane while the Massachusetts senator is seated at his desk on the floor of the Senate. The injuries he sustains cause Sumner to be absent from the Senate for four years.
Did you know?…
The median size of slave holdings ranged in Virginia and North Carolina to 30-50 slaves in upland cotton regions. Plantations in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and the sugar parishes of Louisiana averaged 60-80 slaves. In small areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, some owners held as many as 125-175 slaves.
1857 – The U.S. Supreme Court decides the Dred Scott case. The court rules that Scott is still a slave with no standing to sue, that black Americans (slave or free) are not citizens and do not have civil rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, and that neither the territorial government nor the federal government can ban slavery in the territories, thus making the (now-defunct) Northwest Ordinance and Missouri Compromise ban unconstitutional.
1857-1858 – The rivalry in the Kansas Territory between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions resulted in the establishment of two territorial legislatures, each claiming legitimacy. The pro-slavery legislature at Lecompton drafted a constitution to make Kansas a slave state. Anti-slavery forces boycotted the popular referendum on the constitution, which passed and was sent to Congress. Senator Stephen Douglas considers the Lecompton Constitution a perversion of popular sovereignty, but President James Buchanan endorses it. Congress sends the Lecompton Constitution back to Kansas for another referendum. This time, it is defeated overwhelmingly.
1858 – Illinois Republicans nominate Abraham Lincoln for the U.S. Senate. In accepting, Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech in which he asserted that the nation could not endure permanently half-slave and half-free. Though Lincoln didn’t win, he gained notoriety and became a contender for the 1860 presidential nomination.
1859 – John Brown, the radical abolitionist and veteran of “Bleeding Kansas,” fails in his attempt to capture the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and to use the weapons to foment a slave rebellion. Brown and his co-conspirators are hanged, becoming martyrs to the anti-slavery cause.
1860 – Abraham Lincoln was elected president.
1861 – The Confederate States of America was founded when the Deep South seceded and the Civil War began.
The Secretary of the Navy authorized the enlistment of contrabands (slaves) taken in Confederate territories.
1863 – President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the Confederate states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The Presidential Order also authorized the mustering of black men as federal regiments.
The 54th Massachusetts is organized at Camp Meigs in Readville, Massachusetts. Free blacks from throughout the North enlist in the 54th. Other training stations, like Camp William Penn, outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were established to train black troops. Between 178,000 and 200,000 black enlisted men and white officers served under the Bureau of Colored Troops.
1864 – Congress rules that black soldiers must receive equal pay.
1865 – The Civil War ended with a Northern victory.
On June 19th, slavery in the United States effectively ended when 250,000 slaves in Texas finally received the news that the Civil War had ended two months earlier.
With their freedom, Southern blacks seek to reunite their families torn apart by slavery and acquire an education (particularly reading and writing). Many leave the South for the West and North.
President Lincoln spoke publicly about extending the franchise to black men, particularly “on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States.
John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Many northern states rejected referendums to grant black men in their states the right to vote.
Mississippi became the first of the former Confederate states to enact laws that severely limited the rights and liberties of blacks. Other Southern states followed similar legislation.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in the War Department. The Bureau supervises all relief and educational activities relating to refugees and freedmen, including issuing rations, clothing, and medicine. The Bureau also assumes custody of confiscated lands or property in the former Confederate states, border states, District of Columbia, and Indian Territory.
1866 – All-white legislators of the former Confederate States pass the “Black Codes.”
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, conferring citizenship on African Americans and granting them equal rights to whites.
1868 – The 14th Amendment was ratified, making all African Americans citizens.
Whites began to attack black and white Republicans to suppress voting. Every election cycle is accompanied by violence, increasing in the 1870s.
1870 – The 15th Amendment was passed, permitting black men the right to vote.
Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first black member of the Senate.
1872 – A disputed gubernatorial election in Louisiana caused political violence for more than two years.
1874 – Paramilitary groups that act as the “military arm of the Democratic Party” in the South were founded: The White League in Louisiana and the Red Shirts in Mississippi and North and South Carolina. They terrorize blacks and Republicans, turning them out of office, killing some, disrupting rallies, and suppressing voting.
1877 – The era of Reconstruction ends.
A deal is made with southern democratic leaders, which makes Rutherford B. Hayes president in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and putting an end to efforts to protect the civil rights of African Americans.
1879 – Thousands of African Americans refused to live under segregation in the South and migrated to Kansas. They become known as Exodusters.
1880s – African Americans in the South reached a peak of numbers in being elected and holding local offices, even while white Democrats were working to assert control at the state level.
1881 – Tennessee passed the first of the “Jim Crow” segregation laws, segregating state railroads. Similar laws were passed over the next 15 years throughout the Southern states.
1884 – Ida Wells sues the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad Company for its use of segregated “Jim Crow” cars.
1890 – Mississippi, with a white Democrat-dominated legislature, passes a new constitution that effectively disfranchises most blacks through voter registration and electoral requirements, such as poll taxes and residency literacy tests, which shuts them out of the political process, including service on juries and in local offices.
1896 – Plessy v. Ferguson case: racial segregation is ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. The “Jim Crow” (“separate but equal”) laws began, barring African Americans from equal access to public facilities.
1898 – In Williams v. Mississippi, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s constitution’s voter registration and election provisions because they applied to all citizens. Effectively, these provisions disenfranchise blacks and poor whites. Other southern states soon copied these provisions in their constitutions and amendments through 1908, disfranchising most African Americans and tens of thousands of poor whites until the 1960s.
1900 – Since the Civil War, 30,000 African-American teachers had been trained and put to work in the South. The majority of blacks had become literate.
1909 – First meeting of the group, which would become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an interracial group devoted to civil rights.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in New York by prominent black and white intellectuals and led by W.E.B. Du Bois. For the next half-century, it would serve as the country’s most influential African-American civil rights organization dedicated to political equality and social justice.
1916 – The Great Migration began and lasted until 1940. Approximately one and a half million African Americans moved from the Southern United States to the North and Midwest. More than five million migrated in the Second Great Migration from 1940 to 1970, which included more destinations in California and the West.
1920s – The Harlem Renaissance, known as the “New Negro Movement,” begins. This intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, New York.
1945 – The Civil Rights Movement begins, lasting through the next three decades.
1946 – In Morgan v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated provisions of the Virginia Code that required the separation of white and colored passengers applied to interstate bus transport.
1948 – President Harry S. Truman issues Executive Order 9981, ordering the end of racial discrimination in the Armed Forces.
1950 – In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a public institution of higher learning could not provide different treatment to a student solely because of his race.
In Henderson v. the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished segregation in railroad dining cars.
A Federal Court ruling upholds segregation in South Carolina public schools.
The United States Army’s high command announced it would desegregate the Army.
1953 – The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down segregation in Washington, D.C. restaurants.
1954 – Brown v. Board of Education case: strikes down segregation as unconstitutional.
1955 – In Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks was arrested for breaking a city ordinance by refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. This defiant act gave initial momentum to the Civil Rights Movement.
1956 – Governors of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia agree to block the integration of schools.
U.S. Supreme Court strikes down segregation on buses nationwide.
1957 – Martin Luther King, Jr. and others set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a leading engine of the Civil Rights Movement.
Georgia Senate votes to declare the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution null and void in that state.
The New York Times reports that in three years since the decision, there has been minimal progress toward integration in four southern states and no progress at all in seven.
President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and also ordered US Army troops to ensure Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas was integrated. Federal and National Guard troops escort the Little Rock Nine.
President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
1958 – In Cooper v. Aaron, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Court’s decisions regarding integration bound all states. In response, governors in Arkansas and Virginia shut down schools. The U.S. Supreme Court then ruled that states may not use evasive measures to avoid desegregation.
In Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that racial segregation in bus terminals is illegal because such segregation violates the Interstate Commerce Act. This ruling effectively outlaws segregation on interstate buses and at the terminals servicing such buses.
1961 – The Interstate Commerce Commission issues new rules ending discrimination in interstate travel. All interstate buses must display a certificate that read: “Seating aboard this vehicle is without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin, by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission.”
1962 – Segregated transportation facilities, both interstate and intrastate, were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Defense Department orders full racial integration of military reserve units, except the National Guard.
President Kennedy upheld the 1960 presidential campaign promise to eliminate housing segregation by signing an Executive Order banning segregation in Federally funded housing.
1963 – A double bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, probably conducted by the Ku Klux Klan in cooperation with local police, precipitates rioting, police retaliation, the intervention of state troopers, and finally, the mobilization of federal troops.
National Guardsmen integrate Birmingham, Alabama City Schools under orders from President Kennedy.
1964 – The Civil Rights Act is signed, banning discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations.
1965 – The Voting Rights Act is passed, outlawing the practices used in the South to disenfranchise African American voters.
Following the accusations of mistreatment and police brutality by the Los Angeles Police Department towards the city’s African-American community, the Watts riots erupted in South Central Los Angeles, which lasted over five days. Over 34 were killed, 1,032 were injured, 3,438 were arrested, and over $40 million in property damage in the Watts riots.
1967 – Edward W. Brooke becomes the first African American U.S. Senator since Reconstruction. He served two terms as a Senator from Massachusetts.
Thurgood Marshall was the first African American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Detroit riot erupted in Detroit, Michigan, for five days following a raid by the Detroit Police Department on an unlicensed club patronized mostly by African Americans. More than 43 (33 were black and ten white) were killed, 467 were injured, 7,231 were arrested, and 2,509 stores were looted or burned during the riot. It was one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in United States history.
1968 – Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In response, riots broke out in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Louisville, Kansas City, and more than 150 U.S. cities.
Shirley Chisholm became the first black female U.S. Representative. A Democrat from New York, she was elected in November and served from 1969 to 1983.
2008 – Barack Obama becomes the first African American to win the U.S. presidential race.