African American Timeline

Fugitive Slave, 1845

Fugitive Slave

1793 – U.S. Congress enacts the Fugitive Slave Act to protect the rights of slave owners to retrieve runaways across state lines.

Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin greatly increases the demand for slave labor.

1799 – New York bans slavery.

1800 – Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved African American blacksmith, organizes a slave revolt intending to march on Richmond, Virginia. The conspiracy is uncovered, and Prosser and a number of the rebels are hanged. Virginia’s slave laws are consequently tightened.

1804 – New Jersey bans slavery.

1807 – British Parliament votes to abolish the trade in slaves.

1808 – In 1807 Congress bans the importation of slaves, effective January 1, 1808. The internal slave trade continues in states where the institution is legal.

Missouri Compromise of 1820 Map

Missouri Compromise of 1820 Map

1820-1821 – In the Missouri Compromise, Congress admits the slave state of Missouri and the free state of Maine into the Union and bans 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 with the intent to lay siege on Charleston, South Carolina. The plot is discovered, and Vesey and 34 co-conspirators are hanged.

Nat Turner

Nat Turner

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 becomes the dominant voice among anti-slavery advocates, who demand the immediate end to slavery.

Nat Turner, a literate slave who 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 rejects a bill to emancipate Virginia’s slaves. The widespread fear of slave revolts, compounded by the rise of abolitionism, leads legislatures across the South to increase the harshness of their slave codes.

1833 – William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the first abolitionist newspaper, joins with Arthur and Lewis Tappan to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery and escaped to spend his life fighting for justice and equality for all people. His tireless struggle, brilliant words, and inclusive vision of humanity continue to inspire and sustain people today.

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 upholds the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, stating that slave owners have 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 enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law is a federal responsibility and states are not required to participate. Between 1842 and 1850, nine Northern states pass new personal liberty laws which forbid state officials from cooperating in the return of alleged fugitive slaves and bar the use of state facilities for that purpose.

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. The proviso is blocked by Southerners but continues to inflame the debate over slavery.

1848 – Free Soil Party is organized to stop the spread of slavery into the Western territories.

1849 – Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and becomes one of the most effective and celebrated leaders of the Underground Railroad.

1850 – The Compromise of 1850 is 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.

Uncle Toms Cabin - Courier Litho Co1899

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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 again to purchase Cuba from Spain 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 introduces a bill to Congress which will establish the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. In order to gain Southern support, the bill stipulates that slavery in the territories will 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.

Jayhawkers and Bushwackers fight it out over Kansas becoming a free state or a pro-slavery state.

Jayhawkers and Bushwackers fight it out over Kansas becoming a free state or a pro-slavery state.

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 attacks 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 attack a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, killing five men. By the end of 1856, nearly 200 Kansans have been killed and property worth $2 million has 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, 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.

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