African Americans: Overview

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No single group had higher hopes followed by greater disappointments during the time of the establishment of the new American nation than African Americans. In the 1750s, nearly everyone of African descent in the British North American mainland colonies was enslaved, but the libertarian spirit of the Revolutionary era offered hope for freedom. A number of African Americans did become free between the 1760s and 1810s. But any window of opportunity that opened for some blacks of the Revolutionary generation slammed shut for most African Americans as slavery persisted and spread into new areas and as racism (to justify enslavement and exploitation in a nation grounded in personal freedom) gained in strength. By 1829, although importation of slaves into the United States had ended over two decades earlier and half the states had abolished slavery, 90 percent of African Americans remained enslaved, a slave-based economy was thriving, and prospects for liberty and justice for American blacks were as remote as they had ever been.

slavery in the revolutionary era

The period of the American Revolution was disruptive for everyone in the British mainland colonies. For African Americans, it was also contradictory, confusing, and in the long run damaging. Revolutionary ideology and economic gain for slave owners were at the heart of these matters. The rationale for the break with Britain—the enlightened perspective on human equality and natural rights—was not a smooth fit in a land where, in 1776, nearly half a million persons of African descent were owned by, and forced to work for, others. A small proportion of slave owners acted on the libertarian ideal and freed their slaves. Once warfare with Britain was under way, however, some slaves ended their bondage by fleeing to British or Patriot forces and fighting or working as auxiliaries. In the northern states and Upper South, a noticeable number of free African Americans began to appear over the last three decades of the eighteenth century.

But the perceived economic necessity of the southern planter class kept liberty from reaching enslaved African Americans where their numbers were greatest: southern and eastern Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. As in more northerly states, slaves in the Deep South did what they could to gain freedom during the war—mostly by absconding to the British, the backcountry, or Spanish Florida. But peace, after 1783, found southern planters eager to return to prosperity by re-creating a plantation economy, using the slaves they had and acquiring more. So set on resting their future on slave production were southern leaders that, when time came for the states to "form a more perfect union" that would secure "the blessings of liberty," they insisted that the Atlantic slave trade remain open, that slaves be counted toward representation in the new government, and that the government help secure their human property.

Compromises in the new Constitution kept African slaves pouring into southern ports until 1808, prescribed counting three-fifths of all slaves for apportioning representation, and required states to return fugitive slaves to their owners. The Constitution's framers actually solidified human bondage by guaranteeing individual property rights, since land and human laborers were the property most important to white southerners. In allowing the states to decide whether or not to condone slavery and in providing federal power to enforce the law, the Constitution strengthened ownership and control of slaves and allowed for slavery's extension into new territories.

heightening racism

The words "slaves" and "slavery" do not appear in the Constitution because human bondage is inconsistent in a land of liberty. The way in which slave-holders and others worked out a rationale for slavery involved manipulating notions about race and ignoring claims of liberty in favor of economic self-interest and political expediency. Racist feelings about Africans were a factor in establishing slavery in the colonies and condoning the brutal punishments required to exact hard work from slaves, but race was not of overriding importance in the daily workings of colonial society. Through the 1750s and beyond, African Americans and white Americans continued to mix and share values, customs, and personal relationships. But once the new nation became a land where all were supposedly born free, white southerners began looking to racist assumptions about blacks' "nature and character" to justify their enslavement. Persons of African descent were racially inferior, many argued; of lower intelligence and morals; inherently lazy; sexually depraved; and dangerous. Slavery's controls were thus necessary to keep people in a free society safe from blacks. In this fashion, a deeper and more debilitating racism burrowed into the tissue of white America.

The descent of white racism to new depths fell hardest initially on free African Americans. As their numbers grew, particularly in the Upper South, southern whites began to exhibit a fear and loathing of free blacks, whose very existence undermined racist justifications for slavery. Therefore, southern state legislatures began limiting the number of free African Americans (by banning African American immigration) and then taking away many of their rights—to bear arms, vote, or even congregate. And where, in the judgment of local whites, laws and ordinances did not adequately restrict free African Americans, mob violence did. White rioting in black sections of northern cities occurred frequently in the 1820s. Beyond this, in cities where populations mingled, whites moved to separate persons of African descent in, or exclude them from, public facilities, social events, schools—even churches and cemeteries. The issue now was not slavery; it was race.

a house divided

As the new nation was coming into being, northern and southern sections of the country diverged on slavery. Beginning with Vermont in 1777, New England states outlawed slavery in their constitutions, and in the mid-Atlantic states, Pennsylvania in 1780 led New York and New Jersey in passing laws to end slavery gradually. Also, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in states formed out of the Northwest Territory, west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River. The result by the 1820s was slavery's almost complete disappearance north of Maryland and the Ohio.

At the same time, slavery was proceeding with renewed vigor in the southern states. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, from the mid-1780s, planters in Maryland and Virginia opened new western lands and carved out plantations to grow tobacco and grain, while those in coastal South Carolina and Georgia resumed plantation rice production. Meanwhile, British cotton mills were mass-producing cotton cloth in the first stage of the industrial revolution, causing increased demand and rising prices for raw cotton. Machines to remove seeds from short-staple American cotton, copying Eli Whitney's 1793 model gin, helped make the crop pay, and the acquisition from Spain (1798) and France (1803) of territory that would become southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana meant new, fertile land for cotton production. After defeat of the Creek Nation in 1814, planters with cotton on their minds steadily moved into these new lands.

A reinvigorated transatlantic slave trade provided 170,000 Africans for the expanding plantation economy between 1783 and the trade's end in 1808. (This would amount to one-fifth of all African slaves ever brought to the North American mainland.) Thereafter, African Americans would fill that role, coming from growth of existing slave populations in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. A domestic slave trade involving purchase of slaves in the Upper South to sell in the Deep South furnished African American hands—fifteen thousand each year of the 1820s—for cotton production. The movement of so many would eventually turn the states of the Deep South into the center of the African American population, and the mingling of blacks from different regions would lead to the forming of a more homogenous African American culture.

african american culture

The continuation and expansion of slavery in the nation's southern states affected the culture of all African Americans. Between the mid-1780s and 1808, the great influx of persons straight from Africa's west coasts helped "re-Africanize" African American culture. Thereafter, it developed regionally according to local circumstances that affected demography, which in turn had an effect on personal relationships and the ability to form and live in families.

Because work dominated slaves' existence, varied work situations affected how enslaved men, women, and children lived. In northern Virginia and Maryland, where tobacco and grain farming declined from the 1790s, slaves were separated on small farms and performed a variety of tasks. Farther south in Virginia, large-scale tobacco and grain production continued, with slaves working in gangs. When tobacco prices fell, especially after 1815, planters in these areas often decided to sell slaves to traders taking them south. Nowhere in the early national period did family disruption threaten previously stable slave communities more than in southern Maryland and Virginia. In South Carolina and Georgia, the postwar rejuvenation of rice plantations; the massive importing of Africans through the early 1800s, which made blacks an even greater majority; the task system of labor, which allowed slaves their own time once a day's tasks were completed; and greater family security than in the Upper South allowed African Americans to create their own, distinctive social realm.

The low country black culture included more African elements, including language (Gullah), folklore, religious practices, art, music, and burial ceremonies. Sugarcane plantations in Louisiana were sites of the hardest work in the worst conditions, and since African American men tended to outnumber women there because of their ability to do heavier toil, birthrates were low, death rates high, and families more difficult to create and maintain. In the Georgia-Alabama-Mississippi lands where the Cotton Kingdom emerged after 1815, life was hardest in the early years, when work involved clearing land while living in primitive conditions. By the late 1820s, a more mature phase of cotton production brought more varied diets, better housing and clothing, and work that was less onerous than on tobacco farms and rice or cane plantations.

Contrary to what whites wanted to believe, the new nation's slave community was not a contented lot. African Americans grasped greedily the intellectual currents of the time, making bondage all the harder to endure in an age when freedom was spreading on both sides of the Atlantic. When slaves successfully rebelled on the French island of Saint Domingue, starting in 1791 and leading to the creation of the Republic of Haiti in 1804, striking for liberty took on new urgency. In addition to three of the largest slave conspiracies ever on American soil—one led in 1800 by a Virginia slave named Gabriel; a second near New Orleans in 1811 by slave Charles Deslondes; and a third in Charleston, South Carolina, during 1822 by Denmark Vesey, a former slave—America's earliest decades witnessed a slave population that held, in Benjamin Franklin's words, a "plotting Disposition." Running away toward freedom in the North was only beginning in the latter part of the early national period, but running south toward Spanish Florida or west to live with Indians was popular. Those lacking other ways to express their anger were likely to set fires, kill livestock, damage tools, or otherwise hurt their owners' enterprises.

One aspect of culture that African American slaves shared with free blacks—increasingly as the nation matured—involved religion; both groups were predominantly Christian and brought their own influences to the religion. At the time of the country's beginning, a good portion of the African American population was practicing some form of Christianity, but the religion spread widely and deeply among slaves over the first decades of the nineteenth century. The Great Awakening that moved across the rural South after 1800 brought evangelical fervor, especially to the newer Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations. Southern blacks and whites had common religious experiences that helped shape the nature of these churches. Their practices could include shouting, dancing, and spiritual travel, all having West African roots. As it turned out, these expanding Protestant denominations would be the major vehicles for converting plantation slaves as the nineteenth century progressed.

At the same time, free blacks, nearly all Christians, were realizing the impossibility of experiencing human brotherhood in biracial churches. Beginning with Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who left St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1787 to form their own "African" churches, free African Americans had formed independent churches in many urban areas by 1815. These churches, and mutual aid societies that affiliated with them, quickly became the centers of free black culture and the engines for driving a movement to educate young African Americans for the perilous world they would encounter.

how free is "free"?

In more than cultural matters—in challenges faced and ideas developed about their circumstances—slavery's existence and growth affected free African Americans. Most originally saw opportunity in free status. Through the first decade of the nineteenth century, many former slaves or offspring of former slaves held positive feelings toward their country and an optimistic outlook. But as restrictions based on race began to limit them, some came to view their future in the United States as hopeless and therefore began to consider relocating. The major scheme for doing so originated among whites who wished to rid the country of free blacks they considered potentially troublesome, both for social order and the well-being of slavery, and to relocate them where they might prosper, spread Christianity, and create commercial opportunities. Organized in Washington, D.C., by some of the nation's most prominent political leaders in 1816, this American Colonization Society soon selected a spot along Africa's west coast and by the early 1820s was transporting free blacks to the settlement that, two decades later, would become the Republic of Liberia.

But the inclination to leave rather than to work to change their situation did not permeate the free African American community. In fact, it steadily became less popular as more free blacks began identifying with their race, which led them to realize that so long as some African Americans remained enslaved, none would be truly free. As early as 1817, three thousand free African Americans met in Philadelphia to state their opposition to colonization. Then, when Missouri's admission to the Union as a slave state was debated across the land in 1819–1820, free blacks faced the reality that slavery, a burden to all Americans of their race, was not going to wither away. In this background, throughout the 1820s a certain militancy entered into their opposition to colonization and to slavery itself. Denmark Vesey, the free black in Charleston who in 1822 planned a rebellion to free slaves in the region and lead them to Haiti, was thus a person of his time. In his wake would appear African Americans, free and slave, who were increasingly ready to take on slavery, verbally or physically, to advance the race and reinterpret the nation's stated beliefs in liberty.

By this time, African Americans were not organizing, arguing, and striking against slavery out of an optimistic sense of hurrying their nation along in its natural movement toward granting blacks the same rights it guaranteed in theory to all its citizens. As the African American population had grown, matured, and developed its own distinct ways, most of its members had come to believe that the country would continue to separate its citizens by race and discriminate against those of African descent. Change, they knew in 1829, would not come without a long and difficult struggle by blacks, for blacks. It is an idea that, once formed, would remain in the African American consciousness for a long time.

See alsoColonization Movement; Constitutional Convention; Cotton; Cotton Gin; Liberia; Missouri Compromise; Revivals and Revivalism; Slavery: Overview; Slavery: Slave Insurrections; Slavery: Slave Trade, African; Slavery: Slave Trade, Domestic .


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Donald R. Wright

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African Americans: Overview

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African Americans: Overview