African American Timeline

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 slaveowners 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.

Dred Scott

Dred Scott

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 bans unconstitutional.

1857-1858 – The rivalry in the Kansas Territory between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions results in the establishment of two territorial legislatures, each claiming legitimacy. The pro-slavery legislature at Lecompton drafts a constitution to make Kansas a slave state. Anti-slavery forces boycott the popular referendum on the constitution, which passes and is 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 delivers his “House Divided” speech in which he asserts that the nation can not endure permanently half-slave and half-free. Though Lincoln doesn’t win, he gains notoriety and becomes a contender for the 1860 presidential nomination.

John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1859

John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1859

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 is elected president.

1861 – The Confederate States of America is founded when the deep South secedes, and the Civil War begins.

The Secretary of the Navy authorizes the enlistment of contrabands (slaves) taken in Confederate territories.

Emancipation Proclamation by Strobridge Lith. Co., 1888

Emancipation Proclamation by Strobridge Lith. Co., 1888

1863 – President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the Confederate states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The Presidential Order also authorizes 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 are established for training black troops. Between 178,000 and 200,000 black enlisted men and white officers serve under the Bureau of Colored Troops.

1864 – Congress rules that black soldiers must receive equal pay.

Birth of Freedom DVD

Birth of Freedom DVD, available at our General Store

1865 – The Civil War ends 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, as well as acquire an education (particularly reading and writing). Many leave the South for the West and North.

President Lincoln speaks 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 abolishes slavery throughout the United States.

The Assassination of President Lincoln, by Currier and Ives, 1865

The Assassination of President Lincoln, by Currier and Ives, 1865

President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

Andrew Johnson becomes President and begins to implement his own Reconstruction Plan that does not require the right to vote for black men in the former Confederate states.

Many northern states reject referendums to grant black men in their states the right to vote.

Mississippi becomes the first of the former Confederate states to enact laws that severely limit the rights and liberties of blacks. Other Southern states follow with similar legislation.

The Freedmen’s Bureau is 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 – The “Black Codes” are passed by all-white legislators of the former Confederate States.

Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, conferring citizenship on African Americans and granting them equal rights to whites.

Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan is formed by ex-Confederates in Pulaski, Tennessee.

1868 – The 14th Amendment is ratified making all African-Americans citizens.

Whites begin to attack black and white Republicans to suppress voting. Every election cycle is accompanied by violence, increasing in the 1870s.

1870 – The 15th Amendment is passed permitting black men the right to vote.

Hiram Rhodes Revels becomes the first black member of the Senate.

1872 – A disputed gubernatorial election in Louisiana cause political violence for more than two years.

White League of Louisiana

White League of Louisiana

1874 – Paramilitary groups are founded that act as the “military arm of the Democratic Party” in the South: 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 puts an end to efforts to protect the civil rights of African Americans.

Exodusters En Route to Kansas by Harper's Weekly, 1879

Exodusters En Route to Kansas by Harper’s Weekly, 1879

1879 – Thousands of African Americans refuse to live under segregation in the South and migrate to Kansas. They become known as Exodusters.

1880s – African Americans in the South reach a peak of numbers in being elected and holding local offices, even while white Democrats are working to assert control at the state level.

1881 – Tennessee passes the first of the “Jim Crow” segregation laws, segregating state railroads. Similar laws are 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.

1890Mississippi, 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 begin, barring African Americans from equal access to public facilities.

African American Voters

African American Voters

1898 – In Williams v. Mississippi the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the voter registration and election provisions of Mississippi’s constitution because they applied to all citizens. Effectively, these provisions disenfranchise blacks and poor whites. Other southern states soon copy 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 is 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