African Americans

views updated May 08 2018


by Barbara C. Bigelow


The continent of Africa, the second largest on the globe, is bisected by the equator and bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and to the east by the Indian Ocean. Roughly the shape of an inverted trianglewith a large bulge on its northwestern end and a small horn on its eastern tipit contains 52 countries and six islands that, together, make up about 11.5 million square miles, or 20 percent of the world's land mass.

Africa is essentially a huge plateau divided naturally into two sections. Northern Africa, a culturally and historically Mediterranean region, includes the Sahara desertthe world's largest expanse of desert, coming close to the size of the United States. Sub-Saharan, or Black Africa, also contains some desert land, but is mainly tropical, with rain forests clustered around the equator; vast savanna grasslands covering more than 30 percent of continent and surrounding the rain forests on the north, east, and south; some mountainous regions; and rivers and lakes that formed from the natural uplifting of the plateau's surface.

Africa is known for the diversity of its people and languages. Its total population is approximately 600 million, making it the third most populous continent on earth. Countless ethnic groups inhabit the land: it is estimated that there are nearly 300 different ethnic groups in the West African nation of Nigeria alone. Still, the peoples of Africa are generally united by a respect for tradition and a devotion to their community.

Most of the flags of African nations contain one or more of three significant colors: red, for the blood of African people; black, for the face of African people; and green, for hope and the history of the fatherland.


Some historians consider ancient Africa the cradle of human civilization. In Before the Mayflower, Lerone Bennett, Jr., contended that "the African ancestors of American Blacks were among the major benefactors of the human race. Such evidence as survives clearly shows that Africans were on the scene and acting when the human drama opened."

Over the course of a dozen centuries, beginning around 300 A.D., a series of three major political states arose in Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. These agricultural and mining empires began as small kingdoms but eventually established great wealth and control throughout Western Africa.

African societies were marked by varying degrees of political, economic, and social advancement. "Wherever we observe the peoples of Africa," wrote John Hope Franklin in From Slavery to Freedom, "we find some sort of political organization, even among the so-called stateless. They were not all highly organized kingdomsto be sure, some were simple, isolated family statesbut they all ... [established] governments to solve the problems that every community encounters." Social stratification existed, with political power residing in a chief of state or a royal family, depending on the size of the state. People of lower social standing were respected as valued members of the community.

Agriculture has always been the basis of African economics. Some rural African peoples worked primarily as sheep, cattle, and poultry raisers, and African artisans maintained a steady trade in clothing, baskets, pottery, and metalware, but farming was a way of life for most Africans. Land in such societies belonged to the entire community, not to individuals, and small communities interacted with each other on a regular basis. "Africa was ... never a series of isolated self-sufficient communities," explained Franklin. Rather, tribes specialized in various economic endeavors, then traveled and traded their goods and crops with other tribes.

Slave trade in Africa dates back to the mid-fifteenth century. Ancient Africans were themselves slaveholders who regarded prisoners of war as sellable property, or chattel, of the head of a family. According to Franklin, though, these slaves "often became trusted associates of their owners and enjoyed virtual freedom." Moreover, in Africa the children of slaves could never be sold and were often freed by their owners.

Throughout the mid1400s, West Africans commonly sold their slaves to Arab traders in the Mediterranean. The fledgling system of slave trade increased significantly when the Portuguese and Spanishwho had established sugar-producing colonies in Latin America and the West Indies, respectivelysettled in the area in the sixteenth century. The Dutch arrived in Africa in the early 1600s, and a large influx of other European traders followed in ensuing decades with the growth of New World colonialism.


Much of Africa's land is unsuitable for agricultural use and, therefore, is largely uninhabited. Over the centuries, severe drought and periods of war and famine have left many African nations in a state of agricultural decline and impoverishment. Still, most nations in Africa tend to increase their rate of population faster than the countries on any other continent.

Agriculture, encompassing both the production of crops and the raising of livestock, remains the primary occupation in Africa. The more verdant areas of the continent are home to farming communities; male members of these communities clear the farmland and often do the planting, while women usually nurture, weed, and harvest the crops.

Africa is very rich in oil, minerals, and plant and animal resources. It is a major producer of cotton, cashews, yams, cocoa beans, peanuts, bananas, and coffee. A large quantity of the world's zinc, coal, manganese, chromite, phosphate, and uranium is also produced on the continent. In addition, Africa's natural mineral wealth yields 90 percent of the world's diamonds and 65 percent of the world's gold.

Much of Africa had become the domain of European colonial powers by the nineteenth century. But a growing nationalistic movement in the mid-twentieth century fueled a modern African revolution, resulting in the establishment of independent nations throughout the continent. Even South Africa, a country long gripped by the injustice of apartheid's white supremacist policies, held its first free and fair multiracial elections in the spring of 1994.

In 1999, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a group organized to investigate the crimes committed by the South African government under apartheid, announced that it had not been completely forthcoming in its account of the government's actions. Nevertheless, the commission issued strong reproaches of the government. "In the application of the policy of apartheid, the state in the period 19601990 sought to protect the power and privilege of a racial minority. Racism therefore constituted the motivating core of the South African political order, an attitude largely endored by the investment and other policies of South Africa's major trading partners in this period." P.W. Botha, former president of South Africa, was named as a major facilitator of apartheid, and Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, was chastised for establishing the Mandela United Football Club, a group that retaliated against apartheid with its own violence, torture, and murder.

South Africa is not the only African country to experience internal violence. In 1999, the United Nations disbanded and then re-deployed a peace-keeping force in Angola, a nation that has been suffering through a long civil war. In 1974, after 13 years of opposition from indigenous Angolans, Portugal withdrew as a colonial ruler of Angola and a struggle for power ensued. Although Angola is rich with fertile farming land and oil reserves, it has failed to tap into these resources because of its ongoing internal war.

The United Nations continued to seek justice in Rwanda in the wake of the genocide that occurred there in 1994. In 1999, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda charged former Women's Development and Family Welfare Minister Pauline Nyiramasuhuko with rape. She was not personally charged with rape; rather, Nyiramasuhuko was prosecuted, according to Kingsley Moghalu of the United Nations, "under the concept of command responsibility" for failing to prevent her subordinates from raping women during the 1994 uprising.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) continued to spread death in African countries in the 1990s. In Kenya in August of 1999, President Daniel Arap Moi announced that AIDS was killing approximately 420 Kenyans each day.


Most Africans transported to the New World as slaves came from sub-Saharan Africa's northwestern and middle-western coastal regions. This area, located on the continent's Atlantic side, now consists of more than a dozen modern nations, including Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Upper Volta, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Gambia, and Senegal.

Africans are believed to have traveled to the New World with European explorersespecially the Spanish and the Portugueseat the turn of the fifteenth century. They served as crew members, servants, and slaves. (Many historians agree that Pedro Alonzo Niño, who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his expedition to the New World, was black; in addition, it has been established that in the early 1500s, blacks journeyed to the Pacific with Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa and into Mexico with Cortéz.) The early African slave population worked on European coffee, cocoa, tobacco, and sugar plantations in the West Indies, as well as on the farms and in the mines that operated in Europe's South American colonies.

Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Dutch, the French, and the English became dominant forces in New World slave trade, and by the early eighteenth century, colonization efforts were focusing on the North American mainland. In August of 1619, the first ship carrying Africans sailed into the harbor at Jamestown, Virginia, and so began the history of African Americans.

During the early years of America's history, society was divided by class rather than skin color. In fact, the first Africans in North America were not slaves, but indentured servants. At the dawn of colonial time, black and white laborers worked together, side by side, for a set amount of time before earning their freedom. According to Lerone Bennett, "The available evidence suggests that most of the first generation of African Americans worked out their terms of servitude and were freed." Using the bustling colony of Virginia as an example of prevailing colonial attitudes, Bennett explained that the coastal settlement, in its first several decades of existence, "was defined by what can only be called equality of oppression.... The colony's power structure made little or no distinction between black and white servants, who were assigned the same tasks and were held in equal contempt."

But North American landowners began to face a labor crisis in the 1640s. Indians had proven unsatisfactory laborers in earlier colonization efforts, and the indentured servitude system failed to meet increasing colonial labor needs. As Franklin reflected in From Slavery to Freedom, "Although Africans were in Europe in considerable numbers in the seventeenth century and had been in the New World at least since 1501, ... the colonists and their Old World sponsors were extremely slow in recognizing them as the best possible labor force for the tasks in the New World."

By the second half of the 1600s, however, white colonial landowners began to see slavery as a solution to their economic woes: the fateful system of forced black laborachieved through a program of perpetual, involuntary servitudewas then set into motion in the colonies. Africans were strong, inexpensive, and available in seemingly unlimited supplies from their native continent. In addition, their black skin made them highly visible in the white world, thereby decreasing the likelihood of their escape from bondage. Black enslavement had become vital to the American agricultural economy, and racism and subjugation became the means to justify the system. The color line was drawn, and white servants were thereafter separated from their black comrades. Slave codes were soon enacted to control almost every aspect of the slaves' lives, leaving them virtually no rights or freedoms.


Between 10 and 12 million Africans are believed to have been imported to the New World between 1650 and 1850. The process began slowly, with an estimated 300,000 slaves brought to the Americas prior to the seventeenth century, then reached its peak in the eighteenth century with the importation of more than six million Africans. These estimates do not include the number of African lives lost during the brutal journey to the New World.

Slave trade was a profitable endeavor: the more slaves transported to the New World on a single ship, the more money the traders made. Africans, chained together in pairs, were crammed by the hundreds onto the ships' decks; lying side by side in endless rows, they had no room to move or exercise and barely enough air to breathe. Their one-way trip, commonly referred to as the Middle Passage, ended in the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean. But sources indicate that somewhere between 12 and 40 percent of the slaves shipped from Africa never completed the Middle Passage: many died of disease, committed suicide by jumping overboard, or suffered permanent injury wrestling against the grip of their shackles.

By the mid-1700s, the majority of Africans in America lived in the Southern Atlantic colonies, where the plantation system made the greatest demands for black labor. Virginia took and maintained the lead in slave ownership, with, according to Franklin, more than 120,000 blacks in 1756 about half the colony's total population. Around the same time in South Carolina, blacks outnumbered whites. To the North, the New England colonies maintained a relatively small number of slaves.

The continued growth of the black population made whites more and more fearful of a black revolt. An all-white militia was formed, and stringent legislation was enacted throughout the colonies to limit the activities of blacks. It was within owners' rights to deal out harsh punishments to slaveseven for the most insignificant transgressions.

The fight against the British during the Revolutionary War underscores a curious irony in American history: the colonists sought religious, economic, and political freedom from England for themselves, while denying blacks in the New World even the most basic, human rights. The close of the American Revolution brought with it the manumission, or release, of several thousand slaves, especially in the North. But the Declaration of Independence failed to address the issue of slavery in any certain terms.

By 1790, the black population approached 760,000, and nearly eight percent of all blacks in America were free. Free blacks, however, were bound by many of the same regulations that applied to slaves. The ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 guaranteed equality and "certain inalienable rights" to the white population, but not to African Americans. Census reports counted each slave as only three-fifths of a person when determining state congressional representation; so-called free blacksoften referred to as "quasi-free"faced limited employment opportunities and restrictions on their freedom to travel, vote, and bear arms.

It was in the South, according to historians, that the most brutal, backbreaking conditions of slavery existed. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 greatly increased the profitability of cotton production, thereby heightening the demand for slaves to work on the plantations. The slave population in the South rose with the surge in cotton production and with the expansion of plantations along the western portion of the Southern frontier. But not all slaves worked on Southern plantations. By the second half of the nineteenth century, nearly half a million were working in cities as domestics, skilled artisans, and factory hands.

A growing abolitionist movementamong both blacks and whitesbecame a potent force in the 1830s. After a century of subjugation, many blacks in America who could not buy their freedom risked their lives in escape attempts. Antislavery revolts first broke out in the 1820s, and uprisings continued for the next four decades. Black anger, it seemed, could only be quelled by an end to the slave system.

Around the same time, a philosophy of reverse migration emerged as a solution to the black dilemma. The country's ever-increasing African American population was cause for alarm in some white circles. Washington D.C.'s American Colonization Society pushed for the return of blacks to their fatherland. By the early 1820s, the first wave of black Americans landed on Africa's western coastal settlement of Liberia; nearly 1,500 blacks were resettled throughout the 1830s. But the idea of repatriation was largely opposed, especially by manumitted blacks in the North: having been "freed," they were now subjected to racial hatred, legalized discrimination, and political and economic injustice in a white world. They sought equity at home, rather than resettlement in Africa, as the only acceptable end to more than two centuries of oppression.

The political and economic turbulence of the Civil War years intensified racial troubles. Emancipation was viewed throughout the war as a military necessity rather than a human rights issue. In December of 1865, eight months after the Civil War ended, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted: slavery was abolished. But even in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the black population in the United States saw few changes in its social, political, and economic condition.

With no money, land, or livestock, freed slaves were hardly in a position to establish their own farming communities in the South. Thus began the largely exploitative system of tenant farming, which took the form of sharecropping. A popular post-slavery agricultural practice, sharecropping allowed tenants (most of whom were black), to work the farms of landlords (most of whom were white) and earn a percentage of the proceeds of each crop harvested. Unfortunately, the system provided virtually no economic benefits for the tenants; relegated to squalid settlements of rundown shacks, they labored as if they were still bound in slavery and, in most cases, barely broke even.

The price of cotton fell around 1920a precursor to the Great Depression. Over the next few decades, the mass production and widespread use of the mechanical cotton picker signaled the beginning of the end of the sharecropping system. At the same time, the United States was fast becoming an industrial giant, and a huge labor force was needed in the North. This demand for unskilled labor, combined with the expectation of an end to the legal and economic oppression of the South, attracted blacks to northern U.S. cities in record numbers. On Chicago's South Side alone, the black population quintupled by 1930.

Migration to the North began around 1920 and reached its peakwith an influx of more than five million peoplearound World War II. Prior to the war, more than three-quarters of all blacks in the United States lived in the southern states. In all, between 1910 and 1970, about 6.5 million African Americans migrated to the northern United States. "The black migration was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in historyperhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation," wrote Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land. "In sheer numbers it outranks the migration of any other ethnic groupItalians or Irish or Jews or Polesto this country."

But manufacturing jobs in the northern United States decreased in the 1960s. As the need for unskilled industrial laborers fell, hundreds of thousands of African Americans took government service jobsin social welfare programs, law enforcement, and transportation sectorsthat were created during President Lyndon Baines Johnson's presidency. These new government jobs meant economic advancement for some blacks; by the end of the decade, a substantial portion of the black population had migrated out of the urban ghettos.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by the year 2050, minorities (including people of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent) will comprise a majority of the nation's population. In 1991 just over 12 percent of the U.S. population was black; as of 1994, about 32 million people of African heritage were citizens of the United States. Within six decades, blacks are expected to make up about 15 percent of the nation's population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993).

Acculturation and Assimilation

History casts a dark shadow on the entire issue of black assimilation in the United States. For hundreds of years, people of African descent were oppressed and exploited purely on the basis of the blackness of their skin. The era of "freedom" that began in the mid-1780s in post-Revolutionary America excluded blacks entirely; black Americans were considered less than human beings and faced discrimination in every aspect of their lives. Many historians argue that slavery's legacy of social inequality has persisted in American societyeven 130 years after the post-Civil War emancipation of slaves in the United States.

Legally excluded from the white world, blacks were forced to establish their own social, political, and economic institutions. In the process of building a solid cultural base in the black community, they formed a whole new identity: that of the African American. African Americans recognized their African heritage, but now accepted America as home.

In addition, African Americans began to employ the European tactics of petitions, lawsuits, and organized protest to fight for their rights. This movement, which started early in the nineteenth century, involved the formation and utilization of mutual aid societies; independent black churches; lodges and fraternal organizations; and educational and cultural institutions designed to fight black oppression. As Lerone Bennett stated in Before the Mayflower: "By 1837 ... it was plain that Black people were in America to stay and that room had to be made for them."

Some observers note that the European immigrants who streamed into America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also faced difficulties during the assimilation process, but these difficulties were not insurmountable; their light skin enabled them to blend more quickly and easily with the nation's dominant racial fabric. Discrimination based on race appears to be far more deeply ingrained in American society.


In Superstition and the Superstitious, Eric Maple provided examples of common African folklore and beliefs. For example, when a pregnant woman walks under a ladder, she can expect to have a difficult birth. When someone sneezes, an African wishes that person "health, wealth, prosperity, and children." In Nigeria it is believed that sweeping a house during the night brings bad luck; conversely, all evil things should be expelled from the house by a thorough sweeping in the morning. If a male is hit with a broom he will be rendered impotent unless he retaliates with seven blows delivered with the same broom. In Africa, ghosts are greatly feared because, according to Maple, "all ghosts are evil." One Yoruba tribesman was quoted as saying: "If while walking alone in the afternoon or night your head feels either very light or heavy, this means that there is a ghost around. The only way to save yourself is to carry something that gives off a powerful odor."


A wealth of proverbs from African culture have survived through the generations: If you want to know the end, look at the beginning; When one door closes, another one opens; If we stand tall it is because we stand on the backs of those who came before us; Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue; Where you sit when you are old shows where you stood in youth; You must live within your sacred truth; The one who asks questions doesn't lose his way; If you plant turnips you will not harvest grapes; God makes three requests of his children: Do the best you can, where you are, with what you have now; You must act as if it is impossible to fail.


African Americans have struggled against racial stereotypes for centuries. The white slaveholding class rationalized the institution of slavery as a necessary evil: aside from playing an integral part in the nation's agricultural economy, the system was viewed by some as the only way to control a wild, pagan race. In colonial America, black people were considered genetically inferior to whites; efforts to educate and Christianize them were therefore regarded as justifiable.

The black population has been misunderstood by white America for hundreds of years. The significance of Old World influences in modern African American lifeand an appreciation of the complex structure of traditional African society went largely unrecognized by the majority of the nation's nonblacks. Even in the latter half of the twentieth century, as more and more African nations embraced multiparty democracy and underwent massive urban and industrial growth, the distorted image of Africans as uncivilized continued to pervade the consciousness of an alarmingly high percentage of white Americans. As social commentator Ellis Cose explained: "Theories of blacks' innate intellectual inadequacy provided much of the rationale for slavery and for Jim Crow [legal discrimination based on race]. They also accomplished something equally pernicious, and continue to do so today: they caused many blacks (if only subconsciously) to doubt their own abilitiesand to conform to the stereotype, thereby confirming it" (Ellis Cose, "Color-Coordinated Truths," Newsweek, October 24, 1994, p. 62).

For decades, these images were perpetuated by the American media. Prime-time television shows of the 1960s and 1970s often featured blacks in demeaning rolesthose of servants, drug abusers, common criminals, and all-around threats to white society. During the controversial "blaxploitation" phase in American cinemaa period that saw the release of films like Shaft and Superfly sex, drugs, and violence prevailed on the big screen. Though espoused by some segments of the black artistic community as a legitimate outlet for black radicalism, these films were seen by many critics as alienating devices that glorified urban violence and drove an even greater wedge between blacks and whites.

African American entertainment mogul Bill Cosby is credited with initiating a reversal in the tide of media stereotypes. His long-running situation comedy The Cosby Show a groundbreaking program that made television history and dominated the ratings throughout the 1980shelped to dispel the myths of racial inferiority. An intact family consisting of well-educated, professional parents and socially responsible children, the show's fictional Huxtable family served as a model for more enlightened, racially-balanced programming in the 1990s.

By 1999, however, Hollywood seemed to to be failing in its quest for more shows about blacks. The Fall 1999 television shows of the four major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX) featured only a smattering of black characters. Black leaders called on the networks to rectify the situation, and the networks immediately responded by crafting black characters.


Most African nations are essentially agricultural societies. For centuries, a majority of men have worked as farmers and cattle raisers, although some have made their living as fishers. Planting, sowing, and harvesting crops were women's duties in traditional West African society. The task of cooking also seems to have fallen to women in ancient Africa. They prepared meals like fufua traditional dish made of pounded yams and served with soups, stew, roasted meat and a variety of sauces over huge open pits.

Many tribal nations made up the slave population in the American South. Africans seem to have exchanged their regional recipes freely, leading to the development of a multinational cooking style among blacks in America. In many areas along the Atlantic coast, Native Americans taught the black population to cook with native plants. These varied cooking techniques were later introduced to southern American society by Africans.

During the colonial period, heavy breakfast meals of hoecakes (small cornmeal cakes) and molasses were prepared to fuel the slaves for work from sunup to sundown. Spoonbread, crab cakes, corn pone (corn bread), corn pudding, greens, and succotashcooked over an open pit or fireplace became common items in a black cook's repertoire in the late 1700s and the 1800s.

African Americans served as cooks for both the northern and southern armies throughout the Civil War. Because of the scarcity of supplies, the cooks were forced to improvise and invent their own recipes. Some of the dishes that sprang from this period of culinary creativity include jambalaya (herbs and rice cooked with chicken, ham, sausage, shrimp, or oysters), bread pudding, dirty rice, gumbo, and red beans and riceall of which remain favorites on the nation's regional cuisine circuit.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the establishment of many African American-owned eateries specializing in southern fried chicken, pork chops, fish, potato salad, turkey and dressing, and rice and gravy. In later years, this dietwhich grew to include pigs' feet, chitlins (hog intestines), collard greens (a vegetable), and ham hocksbecame known as "soul food."

Food plays a large role in African American traditions, customs, and beliefs. Nothing underscores this point more than the example of New Year's Day, a time of celebration that brings with it new hopes for the coming months. Some of the traditional foods enjoyed on this day are black-eyed peas, which represent good fortune; rice, a symbol of prosperity; greens, which stand for money; and fish, which represents the motivation and desire to increase wealth.


Over the centuries, various aspects of African culture have blended into American society. The complex rhythms of African music, for instance, are evident in the sounds of American blues and jazz; a growth in the study of American folkloreand the development of American-style folktalescan be linked in part to Africa's long oral tradition. But a new interest in the Old World began to surface in the 1970s and continued through the nineties. In an effort to connect with their African heritage, some black Americans have adopted African names to replace the Anglo names of their ancestors' slaveowners. In addition, increasing numbers of African American men and women are donning the traditional garb of their African brothers and sistersincluding African-inspired jewelry, headwear, and brightly colored, loose-fitting garments called dashikis to show pride in their roots.


In addition to Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter Sunday, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, other dates throughout the calendar year hold a special significance for African Americans. For example, on June 19th of each year, many blacks celebrate a special day known as Juneteenth. Although the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared an end to slavery in the Confederacy, took effect on January 1, 1863, the news of slavery's end did not reach the black population in Texas until June 19, 1865. Union General Gordon Granger arrived outside Galveston, Texas, that day to announce the freedom of the state's 250,000 enslaved blacks. Former slaves in Texas and Louisiana held a major celebration that turned into an annual event and spread throughout the nation as free blacks migrated west and north.

From December 26th to January 1st, African Americans observe Kwanzaa (which means "first fruits" in Swahili), a nonreligious holiday that celebrates family, culture, and ancestral ties. This week-long commemoration was instituted in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to promote unity and pride among people of African descent.

Kwanzaa comes directly from the tradition of the agricultural people of Africa, who gave thanks for a bountiful harvest at designated times during the year. In this highly symbolic celebration, mazeo (crops) represent the historical roots of the holiday and the rewards of collective labor; mekeka (a mat) stands for tradition and foundation; kinara (a candleholder) represents African forebears; muhindi (ears of corn) symbolize a family's children; zawadi (gifts) reflect the seeds sown by the children (like commitments made and kept, for example) and the fruits of the parents' labor; and the kikombe cha umoja functions as a unity cup. For each day during the week of Kwanzaa, a particular principle or nguzo saba ("n-goo-zoh sah-ba") is observed: (Day 1): Umoja ("oo-moe-ja")unity in family, community, nation, and race; (Day 2): Kujichagulia ("coo-gee-cha-goolee-ah")self-determination, independence, and creative thinking; (Day 3): Ujima ("oo-gee-mah") collective work and responsibility to others; (Day 4): Ujamaa ("oo-jah-mah")cooperative economics, as in the formation and support of black businesses and jobs; (Day 5): Nia ("nee-ah")purpose, as in the building and development of black communities; (Day 6): Kuumba ("coo-oom-bah")creativity and beautification of the environment; (Day 7): Imani ("ee-mah-nee")faith in God, parents, leaders, and the righteousness and victory of the black struggle.

For African Americans, the entire month of February is set aside not as a holiday, but as a time of enlightenment for people of all races. Black History Month, first introduced in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week, is observed each February as a celebration of black heritage. A key tool in the American educational system's growing multicultural movement, Black History Month was designed to foster a better understanding of the role black Americans have played in U.S. history.


African Americans are at a high risk for serious health problems, including cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. Several studies show a direct connection between poor health and the problem of underemployment or unemployment among African Americans. One-third of the black population is financially strapped, with an income at or below the poverty level. Illnesses brought on by an improper diet or substandard living conditions are often compounded by a lack of quality medical carelargely a result of inadequate health insurance coverage.

Statistics indicate that African Americans are more likely to succumb to many life-threatening illnesses than white Americans. This grim reality is evident even from birth: black babies under one year of age die at twice the rate of white babies in the same age group. "When you collect all the information and search for answers, they usually relate to poverty," noted University of Iowa pediatrics professor Dr. Herman A. Hein in 1989 (Mark Nichols and Linda Graham Caleca, "Black Infant Mortality," Indianapolis Star, August 27, 1989, p. A-1). A lack of prenatal care among low-income mothers is believed to be the greatest single factor in the high mortality rate among African American infants.

A 1992 medical survey found that black Americans were more likely to die from cancer than white Americans: the age-adjusted cancer mortality rate was a full 27 percent higher for the nation's black population than the white population. African Americans also had a significantly lower five-year survival rateonly 38 percent compared to 53 percent for whiteseven though the overall cancer incidence rates are actually lower for blacks than for whites. Black Americans who suffer from cancer seem to be receiving inferior medical treatment, and they are much more likely to have their cancer diagnosed only after the malignancy has metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body (Catherine C. Boring and others, "Cancer Statistics for African Americans," CA 42, 1992, pp. 7-17).

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, strikes a third more African Americans than whites. Although the Public Health Service reports that the hypertension is largely inherited, other factors such as poor diet and stress can play a key role in the development of the disorder. The effects of hypertension are especially devastating to the black population: blacks aged 24 to 44 are reportedly 18 times more likely than whites to suffer kidney failure as a complication of high blood pressure (Dixie Farley, "High Blood Pressure: Controlling the Silent Killer," FDA Consumer, December 1991, pp. 28-33). A reduction in dietary fat and salt are recommended for all hypertensive patients. African Americans are believed to be particularly sensitive to blood pressure problems brought on by a high-salt diet.

Sickle cell anemia is a serious and painful disorder that occurs almost exclusively in people of African descent. The disease is believed to have been brought to the United States as a result of African immigration, and by the last decade of the twentieth century it had found its way to all corners of the world. In some African nations, two to three percent of all babies die from the disease. In the United States, one in every 12 African Americans carries the trait; of these, about one in 600 develops the disease. Sickle cell anemia is generally considered to be the most common genetically determined blood disease to affect a single ethnic group (Katie Krauss, "The Pain of Sickle Cell Anemia," Yale-New Haven Magazine, summer 1989, pp. 2-6).

Normal red blood cells are round, but the blood cells of sickle cell victims are elongated and pointed (like a sickle). Cells of this shape can clog small blood vessels, thereby cutting off the supply of oxygen to surrounding tissues. The pain associated with sickle cell anemia is intense, and organ failure can result as the disease progresses. By the late 1980s, researchers had begun to make strides in the treatment and prevention of some of the life-threatening complications associated with sickle cell anemia, including damage to the heart, lungs, immune system, and nervous system.

Although the threats to the health of African Americans are numerous and varied, the number one killer of blacks in the United States is violent crime. In the early 1990s, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, began viewing violence as a disease. In an October 17, 1994 press conference, CDC director David Satcher noted that homicide is the leading cause of death among black Americans aged 15 to 34. The severity of the problem has led the CDC to take an active role in addressing violence as a public health issue.

In November of 1990, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that while life expectancy for whites increased in the 1980s, life expectancy actually fell among African Americans during the latter half of the decade. African American men have a life expectancy of only 65.6 yearsmore than seven years lower than that of the average white American male (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). Census projections suggest that between 1995 and 2010, life expectancy should increase to 67.3 years for black men and 75.1 years for white men.


More than 1,000 different languages are spoken in Africa, and it is often difficult for even the most studied linguistic scholars to differentiate between separate African languages and the dialects of a single language. The multitudinous languages of Africa are grouped into several large families, including the Niger-Congo family (those spoken mainly in the southern portion of the continent) and the Afro-Asiatic family (spoken in northern Africa, the eastern horn of Africa, and Southwest Asia).

Africa has a very long and rich oral tradition; few languages of the Old World ever took a written form. Literature and history in ancient Africa, therefore, were passed from generation to generation orally. After the fourteenth century, the use of Arabic by educated Muslim blacks was rather extensive, and some oral literature was subsequently reduced to a more permanent written form. But, in spite of this Arab influence, the oral heritage of Africans remained strong, serving not only as an educational device, but as a guide for the administration of government and the conduct of religious ceremonies.

Beginning with the arrival of the first Africans in the New World, Anglo-American words were slowly infused into African languages. Successive generations of blacks born in America, as well as Africans transported to the colonies later in the slave trading era, began to use standard English as their principal language. Over the years, this standard English has been modified by African Americans to encompass their own culture, language, and experience.

The social change movements of the 1960s gave birth to a number of popular black expressions. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the music of hip-hop and rap artists became a culturally significant expression of the trials of black urban life. In her book Talkin & Testifyin, linguistic scholar Geneva Smitherman offers this explanation of the formation of a very distinctive black English: "In a nutshell: Black Dialect is an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America's linguistic-cultural African heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression, and life in America. Black Language is Euro-American speech with Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture. The Black Idiom is used by 80 to 90 percent of American Blacks, at least some of the time. It has allowed Blacks to create a culture of survival in an alien land, and as a by-product has served to enrich the language of all Americans."

As recounted in Before the Mayflower, scholar Lorenzo Turner found linguistic survivals of the African past in the syntax, word-formations, and intonations of African Americans. Among these words in general use, especially in the South, are "goober" (peanut), "gumbo" (okra), "ninny" (female breast), "tote" (to carry), and "yam" (sweet potato). Additionally, Turner discovered a number of African-inspired names among Americans on the South Side of Chicago, including: "Bobo," meaning one who cannot talk; "Geiji," the name of a language and tribe in Liberia; "Agona," after a country in Ghana; "Ola," a Yoruban word meaning that which saves; and "Zola," meaning to love.

Family and Community Dynamics

In From Slavery to Freedom, Franklin pointed out that "the family was the basis of social organization. . . [and] the foundation even of economic and political life" in early Africa, with descent being traced through the mother. Historians have noted that Africans placed a heavy emphasis on their obligations to their immediate and extended family members and their community as a whole. In addition, according to Franklin, Africans are said to have believed that "the spirits of their forefathers had unlimited power over their lives"; thus a sense of kinship was especially significant in the Old World.

Slavery exerted an undeniable strain on the traditional African family unit. The system tore at the very fiber of family life: in some cases, husbands and wives were sold to different owners, and children born into servitude could be separated soldfrom their mothers on a white man's whim. But, according to Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land, "the mutation in the structure of the black family" that occurred during slavery did not necessarily destroy the black family. Rather, the enduring cycle of poverty among African Americans seems to have had the strongest negative impact on the stability of the family.

As of March of 1992, the U.S. Bureau of the Census estimated that 32.7 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty level (with family incomes of less than $14,000). It is this segment of the underclass that defines the term "families in crisis." They are besieged by poverty and further challenged by an array of cyclical social problems: high unemployment rates; the issue of teenage pregnancy; a preponderance of fatherless households; inadequate housing or homelessness; inferior health care against a backdrop of high health hazards; staggering school drop-out rates; and an alarming incarceration rate. (One out of four males between the ages of 18 to 24 was in prison in the early 1990s.) Experts predict that temporary assistance alone will not provide long-term solutions to these problems. Without resolutions, impoverished black families are in danger of falling further and further behind.

Another third of all African American families found themselves in tenuous financial positions in the mid-1990s, corresponding with the prevailing economic climate of the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These families faced increasing layoffs or job termination as the nation's once-prosperous industrial base deteriorated and the great business boom of the early 1980s faded. Still, they managed to hold their extended family units together and provide support systems for their children.

At the same time, more than 30 percent of African American families were headed by one or two full-time wage earners. This middle- and upper-middle-class segment of the nation's black population includes men and women who are second, third, or fourth generation college graduatesand who have managed to prosper within a system that, according to some observers, continues to breed legalized racism in both subtle and substantive ways. As models of community action and responsibility, these African American families have taken stock in an old African proverb: "It takes a whole tribe to raise one child."


As early as the 1620s and 1630s, European missionaries in the United States began efforts to convert Africans to Christianity and provide them with a basic education. Other inroads in the black educational process were made by America's early white colonists. The Pennsylvania Quakers (members of a Christian sect known as the Society of Friends) were among the most vocal advocates of social reform and justice for blacks in the first century of the nation's history. Staunch opponents of the oppressive institution of slavery, the Quakers began organizing educational meetings for people of African heritage in the early 1700s; in 1774, they launched a school for blacks in Philadelphia. By the mid-1800s, the city had become a center for black learning, with public, industrial, charity, and private schools providing an education for more than 2,000 African American students.

After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, groups known as Freedmen's organizations were formed to provide educational opportunities to former slaves. Under the Freedmen's Bureau Acts passed by Congress in the 1860s, more than 2,500 schools were established in the South.

Over the next decade or so, several colleges opened for black students. In the late 1870s, religious organizations and government-sponsored land-grant programs played an important role in the establishment and support of many early black institutions of higher learning. By 1900, more than 2,000 black Americans would graduate from college.

The end of the nineteenth century saw a surge in black leadership. One of the best-known and most powerful leaders in the black community at this time was educator and activist Booker T. Washington. A graduate of Virginia's Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Washington set up a similar school in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881, with a $2,000 grant from the Alabama legislature. Committed to the ideal of economic self-help and independence, the Tuskegee Institute offered teachers' trainingas well as industrial and agricultural educationto young black men and women.

Activist Mary McLeod Bethune, the most prominent black woman of her era, also had a profound impact on black education at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1904, with less than two dollars in savings and a handful of students, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in Florida. Devoted mainly to the education of African American girls, the Daytona Institute also served as a cornerstone of strength for the entire black community. The school later merged with Cookman's Institute, a Florida-based men's college, to become Bethune-Cookman College.

Bethune's efforts, and the struggles of dozens of other black educational leaders, were made in the midst of irrefutable adversity. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned the practice of racial segregation: the court's ruling in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld the doctrine of "separate but equal" accommodations for blacksand schools were among these accommodations. It took more than half a century for the Plessy decision to be overturned; in 1954, a major breakthrough in the fight for black rights came when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case: "To separate [black] children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.... Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.... In the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" (from the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, May 17, 1954, 347 U.S. 483).

Brown was clearly a landmark decision that set the tone for further social advancements among African Americans, but its passage failed to guarantee integration and equality in education. Even four decades after Brown, true desegregation in American public schools had not been achieved. The school populations in cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles remain almost exclusively black, and high school drop-out rates in poor, urban, predominantly black districts are often among the highest in the nationsometimes reaching more than 40 percent.

U.S. Census reports suggest that by the year 2000, the country will witness a change in the face of school segregation. Hispanics, unprotected by the Brown decision, will outnumber blacks in the United States; the Hispanic community, therefore, will need to battle side by side with African Americans for desegregation and equity in education. As Jean Heller put it in the St. Petersburg Times, "The Brown decision outlawed de jure segregation, the separation of races by law. There is no legal remedy for de facto segregation, separation that occurs naturally. It is not against any law for whites or blacks or Hispanics to choose to live apart, even if that choice creates segregated school systems" (Jean Heller, A Unfulfilled Mission," St. Petersburg Times (Florida), December 10, 1989, p. 1A).

Not all attempts at school desegregation have failed. Heller points out that the East Harlem school district, formerly one of the worst in New York City, designed such an impressive educational system for its black and Hispanic students that neighboring whites began transferring into the district. Educational experts have suggested that the key to successful, nationwide school integration is the establishment of high quality educational facilities in segregated urban areas. Superior school systems in segregated cities, they argue, would discourage urban flightthereby increasing the racial and economic diversity of the populationand bring about a natural end to segregation.

In 1990 the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that the gap between black and white high school graduation rates was closing. The department's census-based study showed an encouraging increase in the overall percentage of black high school graduates between 1978 and 1988. Only 68 percent of blacks and 83 percent of whites graduated from secondary school in 1978; ten years later, 75 percent of blacks and 82 percent of whites had graduated.

But studies show that fewer blacks than whites go on to college. Between 1960 and 1991, the percentage of black high school graduates who were enrolled in college or had completed at least one year of college rose from 32.5 to 46.1 percent, compared to a rise of 41 to 62.3 percent for white graduates (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). As the United States completes its move from a manufacturing society to an information-based, technological society, the need for highly educated, creative, computer-literate workers continues to grow.

In response to perceived inadequacies in black American education, a progressive philosophy known as Afrocentrism developed around 1980. An alternative to the nation's Eurocentric model of education, Afrocentrism places the black student at the center of history, thereby instilling a sense of dignity and pride in black heritage. Proponents of the movementincluding its founder, activist and scholar Molefi Kete Asantefeel that the integration of the Afrocentric perspective into the American consciousness will benefit students of all colors in a racially diverse society. In addition, pro-Afro-centric educators believe that empowered black students will be better equipped to succeed in an increasingly complex world.


American tradition calls for the bride to have "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue" in her possession for luck on her wedding day. While modern African American couples marry in the western tradition, many are personalizing their weddings with an ancestral touch to add to the day's historical and cultural significance.

Among Africans, marriage represents a union of two families, not just the bride and groom. In keeping with West African custom, it is essential for parents and extended family members to welcome a man or woman's future partner and offer emotional support to the couple throughout their marriage. The bonding of the families begins when a man obtains formal permission to marry his prospective bride.

In the true oral tradition, Africans often deliver the news of their upcoming nuptials by word of mouth. Some African American couples have modified this tradition by having their invitations printed on a scroll, tied with raffia, and then hand-delivered by friends. The ancestral influence on modern ceremonies can also be seen in the accessories worn by the bride and groom. On African shores, the groom wears his bride's earring, and the bride dons an elaborate necklace reserved exclusively for her.

Because enslaved Africans in America were often barred from marrying in a legal ceremony, they created their own marriage rite. It is said that couples joined hands and jumped over a broom together into "the land of matrimony." Many twentieth-century black American couples reenact "jumping the broom" during their wedding ceremony or reception.


In the three decades between 1960 and 1990, interracial marriages more than quadrupled in the United States, but the number remains small. By 1992 less than one percent of all marriages united blacks with people of another racial heritage (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993).

"America has often been referred to as a melting pot, a heterogeneous country made up of diverse ethnic, religious, and racial groups," noted Boston Globe contributor Desiree French. But, in spite of the nation's diversity, it has taken more than 350 years for many Americans to begin to come to terms with the idea of interracial marriage (Desiree French, "Interracial Marriage," Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), January 25, 1990, p.3E; originally printed in the Boston Globe ). As late as 1967, antimiscegenation laws (laws that prohibited the marriage of whites to members of another race) were still on the books in 17 states; that year, the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared such laws unconstitutional.

Surveys indicate that young Americans approaching adulthood at the dawn of the twenty-first century are much more open to the idea of interracial unions than earlier generations. A decline in social bias has led experts to predict an increase in cross-cultural marriages throughout the 1990s.

Still, according to the 1994 National Health and Social Life Survey, 97 percent of black women are likely to choose a partner of the same race (John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata, Sex in America: A Definitive Survey [Boston: Little Brown, 1994]). Newsweek magazine quoted one young black woman as saying that "relationships are complicated enough" without the extra stress of interracial tensions (Michael Marriott, "Not Frenzied, But Fulfilled," Newsweek, October 17, 1994, p. 71). Conflict in the United States over black-white relationships stems from the nation's brutal history of slavery, when white men held all the power in society. More than a century after the abolition of slavery, America's shameful legacy of racism remains. According to some observers, high rates of abortion, drug abuse, illness, and poverty among African Americans seemed to spark a movement of black solidarity in the early 1990s. Many black women"the culture bearers"oppose the idea of interracial marriage, opting instead for racial strength and unity through the stabilization of the black family (Ruth Holladay, "A Cruel History of Colors Interracial Relationships," Indianapolis Star, May 6, 1990, p. H-1).


In From Slavery to Freedom, John Hope Franklin described the religion of early Africans as "ancestor worship." Tribal religions varied widely but shared some common elements: they were steeped in ritual, magic, and devotion to the spirits of the dead, and they placed heavy emphasis on the need for a knowledge and appreciation of the past.

Christianity was first introduced in West Africa by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Franklin noted that resistance among the Africans to Christianization stemmed from their association of the religion with the institution of slave trade to the New World. "It was a strange religion, this Christianity," he wrote, "which taught equality and brotherhood and at the same time introduced on a large scale the practice of tearing people from their homes and transporting them to a distant land to become slaves."

In the New World, missionaries continued their efforts to convert Africans to Christianity. As far back as 1700, the Quakers sponsored monthly Friends meetings for blacks. But an undercurrent of anxiety among a majority of white settlers curbed the formation of free black churches in colonial America: many colonists felt that if blacks were allowed to congregate at separate churches, they would plot dangerous rebellions. By the mid-1700s, black membership in both the Baptist and Methodist churches had increased significantly; few blacks, however, became ordained members of the clergy in these predominantly white sects.

African Americans finally organized the first independent black congregationthe Silver Bluff Baptist Churchin South Carolina in the early 1770s. Other black congregations sprang up in the first few decades of the 1800s, largely as outgrowths of established white churches. In 1816 Richard Allen, a slave who bought his own freedom, formed the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Philadelphia in response to an unbending policy of segregated seating in the city's white Methodist church.

An increase in slave uprisings led fearful whites to impose restrictions on the activities of black churches in the 1830s. In the post-Civil War years, however, black Baptist and Methodist ministers exerted a profound influence on their congregations, urging peaceful social and political involvement for the black population as Reconstruction-period policies unfolded.

But as segregation became a national reality in the 1880s and 1890s, some black churches and ministers began to advocate decidedly separatist solutions to the religious, educational, and economic discrimination that existed in the United States. AME bishop Henry McNeal Turner, a former Civil War chaplain, championed the idea of African migration for blacks with his "Back to Africa" movement in 1895more than twenty years before the rise of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. By the early 1900s, churches were functioning to unite blacks politically.

Organized religion has always been a strong institution among African Americans. More than 75 percent of black Americans belong to a church, and nearly half attend church services each week ("America's Blacks: A World Apart," Economist, March 30, 1991). Black congregations reflect the traditional strength of community ties in their continued devotion to social improvementevident in the launching of youth programs, anti-drug crusades, and parochial schools, and in ongoing efforts to provide the needy with food, clothing, and shelter.

Today, the largest African American denomination in the country is the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc. Many African Americans belong to the AME and CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal) churches, and the Church of God in Christa Pentecostal denomination that cuts across socioeconomic linesalso has a strong black following. The 1990s saw a steady increase in black membership in the Islamic religion and the Roman Catholic church as well. (A separate African American Catholic congregation, not sanctioned by the church in Rome, was founded in 1989 by George A. Stallings, Jr.) Less mainstream denominations include Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, based on the black separatist doctrine of Elijah Muhammad. Though faulted by some critics for its seemingly divisive, controversial teachings, the Nation of Islam maintains a fairly sizeable following.

In 1995, black churches in the United States became the targets of arson. In what seemed to be a case of serial arsons, churches with black or mixed-race congregations were destroyed by fire. One church, the Macedonia Baptist Church in South Carolina sued four members of the Ku Klux Klan and the North and South Carolina klan organizations in civil court. In a stunning verdict, the jury ordered the Ku Klux Klan to pay $37.8 million in damages to the Macedonia Baptist Congregation.

Employment and Economic Traditions

When African Americans left the South in the early 1900s to move North, many migrants found jobs in manufacturing, especially in the automobile, tobacco, meat-packing, clothing, steel, and shipping industries; African Americans were hit especially hard by the decline of the nation's manufacturing economy later in the century. In the 1960s, U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson launched a "war on poverty." Some blacks were able to move out of the ghettos during these years, following the passage of the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts, the inauguration of affirmative action policies, and the increase of black workers in government jobs. But John Hope Franklin contended in From Slavery to Freedom that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though "the most far-reaching and comprehensive law in support of racial equality ever enacted by Congress," actually reflected only "the illusion of equality."

Designed to protect blacks against discrimination in voting, in education, in the use of public facilities, and in the administration of federallyfunded programs, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the institution ofaffirmative action programs to redress past discrimination against African Americans. Affirmative action measures were initiated in the mid-1960s to improve educational and employment opportunities for minorities; over the years, women and the handicapped have also benefited from these programs. But opponents of affirmative action have argued that racial quotas breed racial resentment.

A strong feeling of "white backlash" accompanied the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; racial tensions sparked violence across the country as blacks tried to move beyond the limits of segregationeconomically, politically, and sociallyin the latter half of the twentieth century. Still, more than three decades after the act's passage, economic inequities persist in America.

The conservative policies of U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush dealt a serious blow to black advancement in the 1980s and early 1990s. The percentage of Americans living in poverty "rose in the 1980s, when the government [cut] back its efforts" to support social programs (Nicholas Lemann, "Up and Out," Washington Post National Weekly Edition, May 24-June 4, 1989, pp. 25-26). The budget cuts made by these Republican administrations drastically reduced black middle-class employment opportunities.

According to the U.S. Census, in 1991 the median family income for African Americans was $18,807, nearly $13,000 less than the median income for white families; 45.6 percent of black children lived below the poverty level, compared to 16.1 percent of white children; and black unemployment stood at 14.1 percent, more than twice the unemployment rate among whites.

But the outlook for African American advancement is encouraging. Experts predict that by the year 2000, blacks will account for nearly 12 percent of the American labor force. A strong black presence is evident in the fields of health care, business, and law, and a new spirit of entrepreneurship is burgeoning among young, upwardly-mobile African Americans. About 70 percent of blacks are making progress in nearly every aspect of American life: the black middle-class is increasing, white-collar employment is on the rise, and although the growth of black political and economic power is slow, it remains steady (Joseph F. Coates, Jennifer Jarratt, and John B. Mahaffie, "Future Work," Futurist, May/June 1991, pp. 9-19). The other 30 percent of the black population, however, is trapped by a cycle of poor education, multigenerational poverty, and underemployment. The civil rights struggles of the 1990s and beyond, then, must be primarily economic in nature.

Politics and Government

The abolitionist movement of the 1830s joined a multiracial coalition in the quest for black emancipation and equality. In addition to agitating for civil rights through traditional legal means, the abolitionists took a daring step by operating the legendary Underground Railroad system, a covert network of safe havens that assisted fugitive slaves in their flight to freedom in the North. "Perhaps nothing did more to intensify the strife between North and South, and to emphasize in a most dramatic way the determination of abolitionists to destroy slavery, than the Underground Railroad," Franklin wrote in From Slavery to Freedom. "It was this organized effort to undermine slavery ... that put such a strain on intersectional relations and sent antagonists and protagonists of slavery scurrying headlong into the 1850s determined to have their uncompromising way." Around 50,000 slaves are believed to have escaped to the northern United States and Canada through the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War.

The reality of the black plight was magnified in 1856 with the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Dred Scott vs. Sandford. A slave named Dred Scott had traveled with his master out of the slave state of Missouri during the 1830s and 1840s. He sued his owner for freedom, arguing that his journeys to free territories made him free. The Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that slaves could not file lawsuits because they lacked the status of a U.S. citizen; in addition, an owner was said to have the right to transport a slave anywhere in U.S. territory without changing the slave's status.

The Union victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery under President Abraham Lincoln consolidated black political support in the Republican party. This affiliation lasted throughout the end of the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth centuryeven after the Republicans began to loosen the reins on the Democratic South following the removal of the last federal troops from the area in 1876.

Earlier in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, African Americans made significant legislative gainsor so it seemed. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution were intended to provide full citizenship with all its rights and privilegesto all blacks. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, granted black American men the right to vote.

But the voting rights amendment failed in its attempts to guarantee blacks the freedom to choose at the ballot box. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were established by some state and local governments to deny blacks their right to vote. (The poll tax would not be declared unconstitutional until 1964, with the passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment.) These legalized forms of oppression presented seemingly insurmountable obstacles to black advancement in the United States.

Around the same timethe 1870sother forms of white supremacist sentiment came to the fore. The so-called "Jim Crow" laws of segregationallowing for legal, systematic discrimination on the basis of racewere accepted throughout the nation. Voting rights abuses persisted. And violence became a common tool of oppression: between 1889 and 1922, nearly 3,500 lynchings took place, mainly in the southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but also in some northern cities.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington had gained prominence as the chief spokesperson on the state of black America and the issue of racial reconciliation. Recognized throughout the United States as an outstanding black leader and mediator, he advocated accommodationism as the preferred method of attaining black rights. His leading opponent, black historian, militant, and author W. E. B. Du Bois, felt it was necessary to take more aggressive measures in the fight for equality. Du Bois spearheaded the Niagara Movement, a radical black intellectual forum, in 1905. Members of the group merged with white progressives in 1910 to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After Washington's death in 1915, the NAACP became a greater force in the struggle for racial reform.

The massive black migration to the North in the 1920s showed that racial tension was no longer just a rural, southern issue. Anti-black attitudes, combined with the desperate economic pressures of the Great Depression, exerted a profound effect on politics nationwide. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt attracted black voters with his "New Deal" relief and recovery programs in the 1930s. For 70 years blacks had been faithful to the Republican Partythe party of Lincoln. But their belief in Roosevelt's "serious interest in the problem of the black man caused thousands of [African Americans] to change their party allegiance," noted John Hope Franklin in From Slavery to Freedom. Housing and employment opportunities started to open up, and blacks began to gain seats in various state legislatures in the 1930s and 1940s.

World War II ushered in an era of unswerving commitment to the fight for civil rights. According to Franklin, the continued "steady migration of [African Americans] to the North and West and their concentration in important industrial communities gave blacks a powerful new voice in political affairs. In cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland they frequently held the balance of power in close elections, and in certain pivotal states the [black vote] came to be regarded as crucial in national elections." Progress was being made on all fronts by national associations, political organizations, unions, the federal branch of the U.S. government, and the nation's court system.

President Harry S Truman, who assumed office on the death of Roosevelt in 1945, contributed to black advancement by desegregating the military, establishing fair employment practices in the federal service, and beginning the trend toward integration in public accommodations and housing. His civil rights proposals of the late 1940s came to fruition a decade later during President Eisenhower's administration. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, also known as the Voting Rights Act of 1957, was the first major piece of civil rights legislation passed by Congress in more than eight decades. It expanded the role of the federal government in civil rights matters and established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to monitor the protection of black rights.

But the Commission soon determined that unfair voting practices persisted in the South; blacks were still being denied the right to vote in certain southern districts. Because of these abuses, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was followed three years later by a second act that offered extra protection to blacks at the polls. In 1965, yet another Voting Rights Act was passed to eliminate literacy tests and safeguard black rights during the voter registration process.

The postwar agitation for black rights had yielded slow but significant advances in school desegregation and suffrageadvances that met with bold opposition from some whites. By the mid- to late-1950s, as the black fight for progress gained ground, white resistance continued to mount. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., took the helm of the fledgling civil rights movementa multiracial effort to eliminate segregation and achieve equality for blacks through nonviolent resistance. The movement began with the boycott of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and, by 1960, had broadened in scope, becoming a national crusade for black rights. Over the next decade, civil rights agitatorsblack and whiteorganized economic boycotts of racist businesses and attracted front-page news coverage with black voter registration drives and anti-segregationist demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins. Bolstered by the new era of independence that was simultaneously sweeping through sub-Saharan Africa, the movement for African American equality gained international attention.

Around the same time, racial tensionsespecially in the Southreached violent levels with the emergence of new white supremacist organizations and an increase in Ku Klux Klan activity. Raciallymotivated discrimination on all frontsfrom housing to employmentrose as Southern resistance to the civil rights movement intensified. By the late 1950s, racist hatred had once again degenerated into brutality and bloodshed: blacks were being murdered for the cause, and their white killers were escaping punishment.

In the midst of America's growing racial tragedy, Democrat John F. Kennedy gained the black vote in the 1960 presidential elections. His domestic agenda centered on the expansion of federal action in civil rights casesespecially through the empowerment of the U.S. Department of Justice on voting rights issues and the establishment of the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Civil rights organizations continued their peaceful assaults against barriers to integration, but black resistance to racial injustice was escalating. The protest movement heated up in 1961 when groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized "freedom rides" that defied segregationist policies on public transportation systems. "By 1963," wrote John Hope Franklin, "the Black Revolution was approaching full tide."

Major demonstrations were staged that April, most notably in Birmingham, Alabama, under the leadership of King. Cries for equality met with harsh police action against the black crowds. Two months later, Mississippi's NAACP leader, Medgar Evers, was assassinated. Soon demonstrations were springing up throughout the nation, and Kennedy was contemplating his next move in the fight for black rights.

On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 black and white demonstrators converged at the Lincoln Memorial to push for the passage of a new civil rights bill. This historic "March on Washington," highlighted by King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech, brought the promise of stronger legislation from the president.

After Kennedy's assassination that November, President Johnson continued his predecessor's civil rights program. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sparked violence throughout the country, including turmoil in cities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. The Ku Klux Klan stepped up its practice of black intimidation with venomous racial slurs, cross burnings, firebombingseven acts of murder.

The call for racial reform in the South became louder in early 1965. King, who had been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to race relations, commanded the spotlight for his key role in the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. But African Americans were disheartened by the lack of real progress in securing black rights. Despite the legislative gains made over two decades, John Hope Franklin noted that "between 1949 and 1964 the relative participation of [blacks] in the total economic life of the nation declined significantly."

Black discontent over economic, employment, and housing discrimination reached frightening proportions in the summer of 1965, with rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles. This event marked a major change in the temper of the civil rights movement. Nearly a decade of nonviolent resistance had failed to remedy the racial crisis in the United States; consequently, a more militant reformist element began to emerge. "Black Power" became the rallying cry of the middle and late 1960s, and more and more civil rights groups adopted all-black leadership. King's assassination in 1968 only compounded the nation's explosive racial situation. According to Franklin, King's murder symbolized for many blacks "the rejection by white America of their vigorous but peaceful pursuit of equality." The Black Revolution had finally crystallized, and with it came a grave sense of loss and despair in the black community. The new generation of black leaders seemed to champion independence and separatism for blacks rather than integration into white American society.

Fear of black advancement led many whites to shift their allegiance to the Republican party in the late 1960s. With the exception of President Jimmy Carter's term in office from 1977 to 1981, Republicans remained in the White House for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. But a new era of black activism arose with the election of Democratic president Bill Clinton in 1992. After a dozen years of conservatism under Presidents Reagan and Bush, Clinton was seen as a champion of "the people" all people. Demonstrating a commitment to policies that would cut across the lines of gender, race, and economics, he offered a vision of social reform, urban renewal, and domestic harmony for the United States. Once in office, Clinton appointed African Americans to key posts in his Cabinet, and the black population began wielding unprecedented influence in government. For example, the 102nd Congress included 25 African American representatives; the elections in 1993 brought black representation in the 103rd Congress up to 38.

Despite the advancements made by African Americans in politics and business, gang violence continued to plague African American communities in the 1990s. To encourage positive feelings, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and civil rights activist Phile Chionesu organized the Million Man March. On October 16, 1995, close to one million African American men converged on the nation's capital to hear speeches and connect with other socially conscious black men. The Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke at the event, as did poet Maya Angelou, Damu Smith of Greenpeace, Rosa Parks, the Reverend Joseph Lowery, and other luminaries.

In October 1997, African American women held their own massive march. The Million Woman March attracted hundreds of thousands of African American women to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they experienced a sense of community and cohesion. The attendees heard speeches and discussed issues such as the rising prison populations, the idea of independent schools for black children, the use of alternative medicines, and the progress of black women in politics and business.


Brave African American men and women have advanced the cause of peace and defended the ideals of freedom since the 1700s. As far back as 1702, blacks were fighting against the French and the Indians in the New World. Virginia and South Carolina allowed African Americans to enlist in the militia, and, throughout the eighteenth century, some slaves were able to exchange their military service for freedom. African American soldiers served in the armed forces during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam conflict, the Persian Gulf War, and during peace-keeping ventures in Somalia and Haiti. For nearly two centuries, however, segregation existed in the U.S. militarya shameful testament to the nation's long history of racial discrimination.

On March 5, 1770, prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, a crowd of angry colonists gathered in the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, to protest unjust British policies. This colonial rally which would later be remembered as the Boston Massacreturned bloody when British soldiers retaliated with gunfire. A black sailor named Crispus Attucks is said to have been the first American to die in the conflict. The death of Attucks, one of the earliest acts of military service by blacks in America, symbolizes the cruel irony of the revolutionary cause in Americaone that denied equal rights to its African American population.

The American Revolution focused increased attention on the thorny issue of slavery. An underlying fear existed that enslaved blacks would revolt if granted the right to bear arms, so most colonists favored the idea of an all-white militia. Although some blacks fought at the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill in 1775, General George Washington issued a ban on the enlistment of slaves that summer; by November, he had extended the ban to all blacks, slave or free. However, the Continental Congressapprehensive about the prospect of black enlistment in the British Army partially reversed the policy in the next year. An estimated 5,000 blacks eventually fought in the colonial army.

Integration of the fledgling American Army ended in 1792, when Congress passed a law limiting military service to white men. More than half a century later, blacks were still unable to enlist in the U. S. military.

Many African Americans mistakenly perceived the Civil War, which began in April of 1861, as a war against slavery. But as Alton Hornsby, Jr., pointed out in Chronology of African-American History, "[President Abraham] Lincoln's war aims did not include interference with slavery where it already existed." Early in the struggle, the president felt that a stand "against slavery would drive additional Southern and Border states into the Confederacy," a risk he could not afford to take at a time when the Union seemed dangerously close to dissolving. By mid-1862, though, the need for additional Union Army soldiers became critical. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Lincoln in 1863, freed the slaves of the Confederacy. With their new "free" status, blacks were allowed to participate in the Civil War. By the winter of 1864-65, the Union Army boasted 168 volunteer regiments of black troops, comprising more than ten percent of its total strength; over 35,000 blacks died in combat.

Between 300,000 and 400,000 African Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I, but only 10 percent were assigned to combat duty. Blacks were still hampered by segregationist policies that perpetuated an erroneous notion of inferiority among the troops; however, the stellar performance of many black soldiers during the era of the world wars helped to dispel these stereotypes. In 1940, for example, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., became the first black American to achieve the rank of brigadier general. Over the next decade, his son, U.S. Air Force officer Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., distinguished himself as commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group, the 477th Bombardment Group, and the 332nd Fighter Wing.

Several hundred thousand blacks fought for the United States in World War II. Still, according to John Hope Franklin in From Slavery to Freedom, "too many clear signs indicated that the United States was committed to maintaining a white army and a black army, and ironically the combined forces of this army had to be used together somehow to carry on the fight against the powerful threat of fascism and racism in the world."

In an effort to promote equality and opportunity in the American military, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, banning segregation in the armed forces. Six years later, the U.S. Department of Defense adopted an official policy of full integration, abolishing all-black military units. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a steady increase in the number of career officers in the U.S. military. By the mid-1990s, close to 40 percent of the American military was black. Some social commentators feel that this disproportionately high percentage of African Americans in the militarythe entire black population in the United States being around 12 percentcalls attention to the obstacles young black people face in forging a path into mainstream American business.

Individual and Group Contributions

African Americans have made notable contributions to American popular culture, to government policy, and to the arts and sciences. The following is a mere sampling of African American achievement:


Alain Locke (18861954) was a prolific author, historian, educator, and drama critic. A Harvard University graduate and Rhodes Scholar, he taught philosophy at Howard University for 36 years and is remembered as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. For more than three decades, social scientist and Spingarn medalist Kenneth B. Clark (1914 ) taught psychology at New York's City College; his work on the psychology of segregation played an important part in the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. In 1987 dynamic anthropologist and writer Johnnetta B. Cole (1936 ) became the first African American woman president of Spelman College, the nation's oldest and most esteemed institution of higher learning for black women. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1950), a respected literary scholar, critic, and the chairman of Harvard University's African American Studies Department, offers a fresh new perspective on the related roles of black tradition, stereotypes, and the plurality of the American nation in the field of education; he is best known for championing a multicultural approach to learning.


Actor Charles Gilpin (18781930) is considered the dean of early African American theater. In 1921, the former vaudevillian was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Award for his theatrical accomplishment. Richard B. Harrison (18641935) was an esteemed actor who gained national prominence for his portrayal of "De Lawd" in Green Pastures. For three decades Harrison entertained black audiences with one-man performances of William Shakespeare's Macbeth and Julius Caesar, as well as readings of poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Actor, writer, director, and civil rights activist Ossie Davis (1917 ) is committed to advancing black pride through his work. He has been a groundbreaking figure in American theater, film, and television for five decades.

Best known for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Hattie McDaniel (18951952) was awarded the 1940 Oscar for best supporting actressthe first Oscar ever won by an African American performer. Actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith (1950 ), a bold and intriguing new force in American theater, examines issues like racism and justice in original works such as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992.

Dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham (1910? ) has been called the mother of Afro-American dance. She is best known for blending elements of traditional Caribbean dance with modern African American rhythms and dance forms. Also a noted activist, Dunham went on a 47-day hunger strike in 1992 to protest U.S. policy on Haitian refugees.

Dancer and actor Gregory Hines has earned a place among the great African American entertainers. A tap dancer since childhood, Hines has acted in numerous plays and movies and has received many awards for his efforts. In 1999, Hines starred in his own television sitcom, "The Gregory Hines Show."

Black Entertainment Television (BET) is a cable television network devoted to entertainment by and for African Americans. In 1999, the programmer announced the creation of an internet site for the network. was launched to attract more African Americans to the world wide web. BET founder and Chief Executive Officer Robert L. Johnson said, " is an effort to address how we can make African Americans a part of this economic engine the Internet has created."


Alexander Lucius Twilight, the first African American elected to public office, was sent to the Vermont legislature in 1836 by the voters of Orleans County. Less than a decade later, William A. Leidesdorf, a black political official, was named sub-consul to the Mexican territory of Yerba Buena (San Francisco); he also served on the San Francisco town council and held the post of town treasurer. Attorney and educator Charles Hamilton Houston (18951950) was a brilliant leader in the legal battle to erode segregation in the United States; his student, Thurgood Marshall (19081993), successfully argued against the constitutionality of segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). A director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund for more than two decades, Marshall went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1967. Career military officer Colin Powell (1937 ) made his mark on American history as the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position he held from 1989 to 1993. Some political observers have pegged him as a U.S. presidential candidate in the 1996 elections. An early follower of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson (1941 ) became a potent force in American politics in his own right. In 1984 and 1988 he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency. Founder of Operation PUSH and the National Rainbow Coalition, Jackson is committed to the economic, social, and political advancement of America's dispossessed and disfranchised peoples. Attorney and politician Carol Moseley-Braun (1947 ) won election to the U.S. Senate in 1992, making her the first black woman senator in the nation. Kweisi Mfume (born Frizzell Gray; 1948 ), a Democratic congressional representative from Maryland for half a dozen years, became the chairman of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus in 1993. In 1997 he became president of the NAACP.


Frederick Douglass (18181875), the famous fugitive slave and abolitionist, recognized the power of the press and used it to paint a graphic portrait of the horrors of slavery. He founded The North Star, a black newspaper, in 1847, to expose the reality of the black condition in nineteenth century America. John Henry Murphy (18401922), a former slave and founder of the Baltimore Afro-American, was inspired by a desire to represent black causes with honor and integrity. Activist and journalist T. Thomas Fortune (18561928), a staunch defender of black rights during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, used his editorial position at various urban newspapers in the North to crusade for an end to racial discrimination. Robert S. Abbott (18701940) was a key figure in the development of black journalism in the twentieth century. The first issue of his Chicago Defender went to press in 1905. Charlayne Hunter-Gault (1942 ) broke the color barrier at the University of Georgia, receiving her degree in journalism from the formerly segregated institution in 1963. A national correspondent for public television's MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, she has earned distinction for her socially-conscious brand of investigative reporting.


Langston Hughes (19021967) was a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of intense artistic and intellectual activity centered in New York City's black community during the early 1920s. The author of poetry, long and short fiction, plays, autobiographical works, and nonfiction pieces, Hughes infused his writings with the texture of urban African Americana. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley (19211992) traced his African heritage, his ancestors' agonizing journey to the New World, and the brutal system of slavery in the United States in his unforgettable 1976 bestseller Roots. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry (19301965), author of the classic play A Raisin in the Sun, was the first black recipient of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Bob Kaufman (19251986) was the most prominent African American beatnik poet, and he is considered by many to be the finest. Maya Angelou (1928 ), renowned chronicler of the black American experience, earned national acclaim in 1970 with the publication of the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; she presented her moving original verse, On the Pulse of Morning, at the inauguration of U.S. president Bill Clinton in January 1993. Cultural historian and novelist Toni Morrison (1931 ), author of such works as The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, Beloved, and Jazz, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. In the late 1980s, Terry McMillan (1951 ) emerged as a powerful new voice on the literary scene; her 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale was a runaway bestseller.


African Americans have made a profound impact on the nation's musical history. The blues and jazz genres, both rooted in black culture, exerted an unquestionable influence on the development of rock and soul music in the United States.

The blues, an improvisational African American musical form, originated around 1900 in the Mississippi Delta region. Some of its pioneering figures include legendary cornetist, bandleader, and composer W. C. Handy (18731958), often called the "Father of the Blues"; singing marvel Bessie Smith (18981937), remembered as the "Empress of the Blues"; and Muddy Waters (19151983), a practitioner of the urban blues strain that evolved in Chicago in the 1940s.

Jazz, a blend of European traditional music, blues, and Southern instrumental ragtime, developed in the South in the 1920s. Key figures in the evolution of jazz include New Orleans horn player and "swing" master Louis Armstrong ("Satchmo"; 19001971), who scored big with hits like "Hello, Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World"; Lionel Hampton (1909 ), the first jazz musician to popularize vibes; trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (19171993) a chief architect of a more modern form of jazz called "bebop"; singer Ella Fitzgerald (1918 ), a master of improvisation who came to be known as "The First Lady of Song"; innovative and enigmatic trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Miles Davis (19261991), who pioneered the genre's avantgarde period in the 1950s and electrified jazz with elements of funk and rockbeginning the "fusion" movementin the late 1960s; and Melba Liston (1926 ), trombonist, arranger, and leader of an all-female jazz group in the 1950s and 1960s.

Vocalist, composer, and historian Bernice Johnson Reagon (1942 ), founder of the female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, is committed to maintaining Africa's diverse musical heritage.

In the field of classical music, Marian Anderson (19021993), one of the greatest contraltos of all time, found herself a victim of racial prejudice in her own country. A star in Europe for years before her American debut, she was actually barred from making an appearance at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution in April of 1939an incident that prompted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the organization. Shortly thereafter, on Easter Sunday, Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Composer and pianist Margaret Bonds (19131972) wrote works that explore the African American experience. Her best known compositions include Migration, a ballet;Spiritual Suite for Piano ; Mass in D Minor ; Three Dream Portraits ; and the songs "The Ballad of the Brown King" and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

African Americans continue to set trends and break barriers in the music business, especially in pop, rap, blues, and jazz music. A partial list of celebrated African American musicians would include: guitarist Jimi Hendrix (19421970), Otis Redding (19411967), singer Aretha Franklin (1942 ), Al Green (1946 ), Herbie Mann (1930 ), Miles Davis (19261991), saxophonist John Coltrane (19261967), founder of the group "Sly and the Family Stone" Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart; 1944 ), singersongwriter Phoebe Snow (1952 ), rap artist Snoop Doggy Dog (1972 ), rap artist and record company executive Sean "Puffy" Combs (1969 ), pop-star and cultural icon Michael Jackson (1958 ), singer Lauryn Hill (1975? ), pianist-songwriter Ray Charles (1930 ), singer Little Richard (1932 ), singer Diana Ross (1944 ), legendary blues guitarist B.B. King (1925 ), rap artist Easy-E (Erykah Badu; 19631995), singer Billy Preston (1946 ), and singer Whitney Houston (1963 ).


Granville T. Woods (18561910) was a trailblazer in the fields of electrical and mechanical engineering whose various inventions include a telephone transmitter, an egg incubator, and a railway telegraph. His contemporary, George Washington Carver (1861?1943), was born into slavery but became a leader in agricultural chemistry and botanyand one of the most famous African Americans of his era. Inventor Garrett A. Morgan (18771963), a self-educated genius, developed the first gas mask and traffic signal. Ernest Everett Just (18831915), recipient of the first Spingarn medal ever given by the NAACP, made important contributions to the studies of marine biology and cell behavior. Another Spingarn medalist, Percy Lavon Julien (18891975), was a maverick in the field of organic chemistry. He created synthesized versions of cortisone (to relieve the pain and inflammation of arthritis) and physostigmine (to reduce the debilitating effects of glaucoma).

Surgeon and scientist Charles Richard Drew (19041950) refined techniques of preserving liquid blood plasma. Samuel L. Kountz (19301981), an international leader in transplant surgery, successfully transplanted a kidney from a mother to a daughterthe first operation of its kind between individuals who were not identical twins. He also pioneered anti-rejection therapy in transplant patients. Benjamin Carson (1951 ) is a pediatric neurosurgeon who gained international acclaim in 1987 by separating a pair of Siamese twins who were joined at their heads. Medical doctor and former astronaut Mae C. Jemison (1957 ) made history as the first black woman to serve as a mission specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She was a crew member on the 1992 flight of the space shuttle Endeavour.


Harriet Tubman (1820?1913) was a runaway slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement. A nurse and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, she earned distinction as the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, leading an estimated 300 slaves to freedom in the North. Attorney, writer, activist, educator, and foreign consul James Weldon Johnson (18711938) was an early leader of the NAACP and a strong believer in the need for black unity as the legal fight for civil rights evolved. He composed the black anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in 1900. Labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph (18891979) fought for greater economic opportunity in the black community. A presidential consultant in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Randolph is probably best remembered for his role in establishing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union in the country, in 1925.

Ella Baker (19031986), renowned for her organizational and leadership skills, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Partygroups that were at the forefront of civil rights activism in the United States. Mississippi native Fannie Lou Hamer (19171977) was an impassioned warrior in the fight for black voter rights, black economic advancement, and women's rights. Rosa Parks (1913 ) sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in December of 1955 when her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger landed her in jail. Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little; 19251965) advocated a more radical pursuit of equal rights than Martin Luther King, Jr. (19291968), the champion of nonviolent resistance to racism. A fiery speaker who urged blacks to seize self-determination "by any means necessary," Malcolm embraced the concept of global unity toward the end of his life and revised his black separatist ideas. In 1965 he was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islaman organization with which he had severed earlier ties. Attorney and activist Marian Wright Edelman (1939 ) founded the Children's Defense Fund in 1973. Randall Robinson (1942? ), executive director of the human rights lobbying organization TransAfrica, Inc., has played a key role in influencing progressive U.S. foreign policy in South Africa, Somalia, and Haiti.


A Brooklyn Dodger from 1947 to 1956, Jackie Robinson (19191972) is credited with breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. In 1974 Frank Robinson (1935 ), a former National and American League MVP, became the first black manager of a major league baseball franchise. Phenomenal Cleveland Brown running back Jim Brown (1936 ), a superstar of the late 1950s and 1960s, helped change the face of professional footballa sport that for years had been dominated by whites. The on-court skills and charisma of two of the top NBA players of the 1980s and early 1990s, retired Los Angeles Laker Earvin "Magic" Johnson (1959 ) and Chicago Bull Michael Jordan (1963 ) left indelible marks on the game of basketball.

Track sensation Jesse Owens (19131980) blasted the notion of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Wilma Rudolph (1940 ) overcame the crippling complications of polio and became the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals in track and field. Always colorful and controversial, Olympic gold medalist and longtime heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay; 1942 ) was a boxing sensation throughout the 1970s and remains one of the most widely recognized figures in the sport's history. Althea Gibson (1927 ) and Arthur Ashe (19431993) both rocked the tennis world with their accomplishments: Gibson, the first black player ever to win at Wimbledon, was a pioneer in the white-dominated game at the dawn of the civil rights era. Ashe, a dedicated activist who fought against racial discrimination in all sports, was the first African American male to triumph at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open.


Sculptor Sargent Johnson (18881967), a three-time winner of the prestigious Harmon Foundation medal for outstanding black artist, was heavily influenced by the art forms of Africa. Romare Bearden (19141988) was a highly acclaimed painter, collagist, and photomontagist who depicted the black experience in his work. His images reflect black urban life, music, religion, and the power of the family. A series titled The Prevalence of Ritual is one of his best-known works. Jacob Lawrence (1917 ), a renowned painter, has depicted through his art both the history of racial injustice and the promise of racial harmony in America. His works include the Frederick Douglass series, the Harriet Tubman series, the Migration of the Negro series, and Builders.

Augusta Savage (19001962), a Harlem Renaissance sculptor, was the first black woman to win acceptance in the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Lift Every Voice and Sing, Black Women, and Lenore are among her notable works. Multimedia artist and activist Faith Ringgold (1930 ) seeks to raise the consciousness of her audience by focusing on themes of racial and gender-based discrimination. Ringgold is known for weaving surrealist elements into her artworks; her storytelling quilt Tar Beach inspired a children's book of the same title.



African American Review.

Founded in 1967 as Negro American Literature Forum, this quarterly publication contains interviews and essays on black American art, literature, and culture.

Contact: Joe Weixlmann, Editor.

Address: Indiana State University, Department of English, Terre Haute, Indiana 47809-9989.

Telephone: (812) 237-2968.

Fax: (812) 237-3156.


Africa Report.

Founded in 1937, this periodical covers current political and economic developments in Africa.

Address: African-American Institute, 833 United Nations Plaza, New York, New York 10017.

Telephone: (212) 949-5666.

Amsterdam News.

Now known as the New York Amsterdam News, this source was founded in 1909 and is devoted to black community-interest stories.

Address: Powell-Savory Corp., 2340 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, New York, New York 10027.

Telephone: (212) 932-7400.

Fax: (212) 222-3842.

Chicago Daily Defender.

Founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott as a black weekly newspaper, it is now a daily paper with a black perspective.

Address: 2400 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60616.

Telephone: (312) 225-2400.


The official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, this monthly magazine, founded in 1910, features articles on civil rights issues.

Contact: Garland Thompson, Editor.

Address: 4805 Mt. Hope Drive, Baltimore, Maryland 21215.

Telephone: (212) 481-4100.


Ebony and Jet.

Both of these publications are part of the family of Johnson Publications, which was established in the 1940s by entrepreneur John H. Johnson. Ebony, a monthly magazine, and Jet, a newsweekly, cover African Americans in politics, business, and the arts.

Contact: Ebony Lerone Bennett, Jr., Editor; Jet Robert Johnson, Editor.

Address: Johnson Publishing Co., Inc., 820 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60605.

Telephone: (312) 322-9200.

Fax: (312) 322-9375.



First published in 1970, this monthly magazine targets a black female audience.

Contact: Susan L. Taylor, Editor.

Address: Essence Communications, Inc., 1500 Broadway, 6th Floor, New York, New York 10036.

Telephone: (212) 642-0600.

Fax: (212) 921-5173.


Founded in 1961, this source offers a quarterly review of progress made in the ongoing movement for human freedom.

Contact: Esther Jackson and Jean Carey Bond, Editors.

Address: 799 Broadway, Suite 542, New York, New York 10003.

Telephone: (212) 477-3985.


WESL-AM (1490).

Founded in 1934; gospel format.

Contact: Robert Riggins.

Address: 149 South 8th Sreet, East St. Louis, Illinois 62201.

Telephone: (618) 271-1490.

Fax: (618) 875-4315.

WRKS-FM (98.7).

Founded in 1941; an ABC-affiliate with an urban/ contemporary format.

Contact: Charles M. Warfield, Jr., Director of Operations.

Address: 395 Hudson Street, 7th Floor, New York, New York 10014.

Telephone: (212) 242-9870.

Fax: (212) 929-8559.


Black Entertainment Television (BET).

The first cable network devoted exclusively to black programming, BET features news, public affairs and talk shows, television magazines, sports updates, concerts, videos, and syndicated series.

Contact: Robert Johnson, President and Chief Executive Officer.

Address: 1900 West Place N.E., Washington, D.C. 20018-1121.

Telephone: (202) 608-2000.


WGPR-TV, Channel 62, Detroit.

Groundbreaking black-owned television station that first went on the air September 29, 1975; began as an independent network; became a CBS-affiliate in 1994.

Contact: George Mathews, President and General Manager.

Address: 3146 East Jefferson Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48207.

Telephone: (313) 259-8862.

Fax: (313) 259-6662.

Organizations and Associations

Black Filmmaker Foundation (BFF).

Founded in 1978 to support and promote independently produced film and video work for African American artists.

Contact: Warrington Hudlin, President.

Addresses: 670 Broadway, Suite 304, New York, New York 10012.

Telephone: (212) 253-1690.

Black Resources, Inc.

A resource on race-related matters for corporations, government agencies, and institutions.

Address: 231 West 29th Street, Suite 1205, New York, New York 10001.

Telephone: (212) 967-4000.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).

A nonprofit organization founded in 1940 to fight discrimination and civil rights violations through the nation's court system. (Independent of the NAACP since the mid-1950s.)

Contact: Elaine R. Jones, Director-Counsel.

Address: 99 Hudson Street, 16th Floor, New York, New York 10013.

Telephone: (212) 219-1900.

Fax: (212) 226-7592.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Founded in 1910, the NAACP is perhaps the best-known civil rights organization in the United States. Its goals are the elimination of racial prejudice and the achievement of equal rights for all people.

Address: Headquarters4805 Mt. Hope Drive, Baltimore, Maryland 21215.

Telephone: For general information, contact New York office(212) 481-4100.


National Black United Fund.

Provides financial and technical support to projects that address the needs of black communities throughout the United States.

Contact: William T. Merritt, President.

Address: 40 Clinton Street, 5th Floor, Newark, New Jersey 07102.

Telephone: (973) 643-5122.

Fax: (973) 648-8350.

E-mail: [email protected].


The National Urban League.

Formed in 1911 in New York by the merger of three committees that sought to protect the rights of the city's black population. Best known for piloting the decades-long fight against racial discrimination in the United States, the National Urban League and its regional branches are also active in the struggle for political and economic advancement among African Americans and impoverished people of all colors.

Contact: Hugh Price, CEO & President.

Address: 120 Wall Street, New York, New York 10005.

Telephone: (212) 558-5300.

Fax: (212) 344-5332.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

An educational service agency founded in 1957 (with Martin Luther King, Jr., as its first president) to aid in the integration of African Americans in all aspects of life in the United States. Continues to foster a philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

Address: 334 Auburn Avenue, N.E., Atlanta, Georgia 30303.

Telephone: (404) 522-1420.

Fax: (404) 659-7390.

Museums and Research Centers

The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Founded in 1977 to encourage scholarly research in Afro-American history and genealogy.

Contact: Edwin B. Washington, Jr., Special Information.

Address: P.O. Box 73086, T Street Station, Washington, D.C. 20056-3086.

Telephone: (202) 234-5350.

E-mail: [email protected].


The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH).

Originally named the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, this research center was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1915. ASALH is committed to the collection, preservation, and promotion of black history.

Contact: Dr. Edward Beasley, President.

Address: 1401 14th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.

Telephone: (202) 667-2822.

Fax: (202) 387-9802.

E-mail: [email protected].


The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

Founded in 1969 by Coretta Scott King to uphold the philosophy and work of her husband, the slain civil rights leader.

Contact: Dexter Scott King, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer; or Coretta Scott King, President.

Address: 449 Auburn Avenue, N.E., Atlanta, Georgia 30312.

Telephone: (404) 524-1956.

Fax: (404) 526-8901.

The Museum of African American Culture.

Preserves and displays African American cultural artifacts.

Address: 1616 Blanding Street, Columbia, South Carolina 29201.

Telephone: (803) 252-1450.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

An arm of the New York Public Library, the Schomburg Center was founded at the height of the Harlem Renaissance by historian Arthur A. Schomburg to preserve the historical past of people of African descent. It is widely regarded as the world's leading repository for materials and artifacts on black cultural life.

Contact: Howard Dodson, Jr., Director.

Address: 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, New York 10037-1801.

Telephone: (212) 491-2200.

Fax: (212) 491-6760.


Sources for Additional Study

African American Almanac. 8th edition. Edited by Jessie Carney Smith and Joseph M. Palmisano. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2000.

African American Sociology: A Social Study of the Pan African Diaspora. Edited by Alva Barnett and James L. Conyers. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1998.

Asante, Molefi Kete. The Afrocentric Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Bennett, Lerone, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black AmericaThe Classic Account of the Struggles and Triumphs of Black Americans, fifth revised edition. New York: Penguin, 1984.

A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, two volumes, edited by Herbert Aptheker. New York: Citadel Press, 1969 (originally published in 1951).

Franklin, John Hope, with Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, sixth edition. New York: Knopf, 1988 (originally published in 1947).

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Cornel West. The Future of the Race. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Harris, Joseph E. Africans and Their History. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Lynd, Staughton. Class Conflict, Slavery, and the U.S. Constitution. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980 (originally published in 1967).

Mannix, Daniel Pratt. Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865. NewYork: Viking, 1962.

Parham, Vanessa Roberts. The African-American Child's Heritage Cookbook. Sandcastle Publishing, 1993.

Segal, Ronald. The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin & Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Von Eschen, Penny M. Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Woodson, Carter G. The Negro in Our History. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1962 (originally published by Associated Publishers, 1922).

African Americans

views updated May 11 2018

African Americans

Brenda Gayle Plummer

Race and foreign affairs have intersected at numerous points in U.S. history. Officials in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not always explicitly aware of the impact of race on foreign relations or on their own decision making, but its impact on historical events is demonstrable. Beginning with the American Revolution and continuing through the twentieth century, race influenced what the United States did and how it pursued its interests abroad.


Black volunteers, detesting slavery and wanting liberty, fought on both sides of the revolutionary war. The activities of African-American revolutionaries were matched by those of black loyalists, some of whom were deliberately recruited into military service by British commanders eager to destabilize the plantation economy, especially in tidewater Virginia. This British policy was bitterly resented by slaveholders. Many of these soldiers retreated to Canada with the British after 1783. Freedom proved elusive for black protagonists on both sides. The U.S. flirtation with freedom for blacks proved ephemeral. Slavery persisted as a national institution and free people of color increasingly faced racial discrimination during the course of the antebellum period. Some loyalists who evacuated with the British were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Others found barriers to civil equality in their new Canadian homes.


Race was a factor in the maritime trades and in navies during the age of sail. Black men from North America, the Caribbean, and Africa, slave and free, were among the thousands employed in a range of industries and at war. They served on slavers, whalers, packet boats, warships, and were represented as sailors in almost all sectors of maritime activity. Rules governing the movements of both enslaved sailors and free men of color affected relations among states. In the antebellum South during periods of slave unrest, authorities enforced regulations that restricted the portside activities of West Indian seamen. Violators were threatened with enslavement. Abuse of foreign black sailors in U.S. ports sometimes brought protests from consuls or influential persons to whom they turned for support. The seamen's papers given black American sailors in 1796 did not afford them substantial protection from infringements on their rights, and until 1823, when civil equality was extended to black sailors in the British navy, black seamen of all nationalities were readily exploited, and those who were free faced the risk of illegal enslavement.

Impressment was a danger for all U.S. seamen, regardless of race, before and during the War of 1812. Those recruited into the British navy could expect harsher treatment than that experienced aboard U.S. ships. The fate of black loyalists enslaved in the West Indies during the American Revolution contributed to anti-British feeling among some African Americans in the early nineteenth century and helped preserve their loyalty to the United States during those years. The United States, however, was reluctant to recruit blacks into any armed forces except the navy. As a result, there were few black combatants except for those enlisted as volunteers in state units. The United States and Britain ultimately employed the same tactic that had been used in the revolutionary war in promising manumission to those who fought or served as military laborers. Those who allied themselves with Britain were taken to Canada at the end of the war and settled on plots of land. While many of the manumission promises made by U.S. authorities were honored, African Americans had no guarantee of civil equality.


In Western countries, efforts to limit slavery began with the prohibition of the African slave trade and attempts to enforce an international ban on this traffic. Britain outlawed the slave trade in its possessions in 1807, and the United States soon followed suit, effective as of 1 January 1808. While the U.S. law curtailed the international supply of slaves, American traders continued to retail slaves through a domestic market. The abolitionist movement then focused on eradicating slavery itself. Antislavery activists created cooperative networks where they proselytized against slavery and abetted the escape of fugitives. Some antislavery activities had an international character. One campaign, noted in the cities of the northeastern United States and in Great Britain, focused on encouraging consumers to buy products grown without slave labor. The effort met with indifferent success but provided small ephemeral markets for imports from Haitia country that had gained its independence through slave rebellionand after 1833, the British West Indies. The promotion of free labor produce coincided with a growing conviction in the northern United States and Britain that wage labor was the most rational, just, and efficient method of work, and with the social and political evolution of industrial society in those areas.

The British Parliament in 1833 enacted a gradual abolition program that ended slavery in British dominions by 1838. Between 1830 and 1860 a small African-American community had gathered in Britain. As most American universities barred black students, some were attending universities of far higher caliber than those in the United States. Others were fugitives who had made their way to a country where slavery was prohibited. Such prominent U.S. abolitionists as Frederick Douglass and Charles Lenox Remond and his sister Sarah Remond visited Britain to enlist both the working classes and the bourgeoisie in the American antislavery cause. Black abolitionists gave public lectures and sold copies of slave narratives written by themselves and others. They succeeded in thwarting many of the fund-raising efforts of the American Colonization Society, established in 18161817 to resettle blacks on the west coast of Africa. In Ireland, the Irish nationalist Daniel O'Connell, an outspoken foe of slavery, embraced Frederick Douglass. Douglass spent nineteen months lecturing in the British Isles between 1845 and 1847. British Quakers raised the money to buy Douglass's freedom from his Maryland owner.

Antislavery activists hoped that pressure applied by Britain, then the world's most powerful nation, would persuade the United States to deal forthrightly with the slavery question. Abolitionists did not succeed in capturing all Britons. They faced the opposition of those manufacturers and workers most dependent on imports of U.S. cotton, but benefited from a widespread revulsion among all classes against slavery. The groundwork that Douglass, the Remonds, and others laid helped neutralize British sympathies for southern slaveholders. This was a critical issue during the 1850s, when sectional animosity reached a crisis point in the United States. If Britain, despite its own antislavery stand within its realms, allied with the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War, the United States would likely be defeated. While American abolitionists often avoided direct discussions of class conflict because of their frequent reliance on elite patronage in Britain and their desire to keep the focus on slavery, the zenith of their activity coincided with the Chartist movement, which sought to improve conditions for the industrial working class, and debates over the status of labor.

American slavery was also drawn into the international arena as a result of the activities of fugitive slaves. In the course of the nineteenth century some thirty thousand black persons from the United States entered Canada. Periods of domestic crisis, such as the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Dred Scott decision, accelerated this immigration. The Fugitive Slave Act made it easy for slaveholders and bounty hunters to threaten the liberty of free people of color. In an explicitly racist finding, the Supreme Court, in the 1857 case Scott v. Sandford, ruled that blacks could not be citizens and had no civil rights. The decision effectively ended the prospects of free people of color in the United States until after the Civil War. Many who were able left the country. In addition to the relatively familiar escapes to Canada by slaves and free people alike, blacks from Texas crossed the border into Mexico, where slavery was illegal. During the early years of the Republic, when Spain loosely administered Florida, fugitives in combination with the Seminole nation engaged the United States in wars in 18171818 and 18351842. In the aftermath of the first Seminole war, Spain, unable and unwilling to guarantee the security of U.S. real and chattel property along its Florida borders, and wishing to avoid armed conflict with Americans, ceded the rebellious territory to the United States.

Fugitives also included those whose antislavery activities put them in jeopardy of the law. Frederick Douglass in 1859 was a suspect in John Brown's conspiracy to seize the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Douglass fled to England to avoid arrest. Once there, he contacted the U.S. minister to the Court of St. James's hoping to secure a passport to visit France. The passport was denied on grounds that Douglass, according to Supreme Court dicta, was not a U.S. citizen. Douglass was an early victim of passport denial, a practice that would be used in the twentieth century to restrict the movements of blacks who were known critics of racial discrimination.


Opinion leaders on both sides of the slavery question during the antebellum period expressed fears about the consequences of emancipation. Some abolitionists believed that slavery was morally wrong but did not think that freed slaves could be assimilated into American society for racial reasons. Certain proslavery advocates used these doubts about assimilation to argue that slavery could not be eradicated. A third alternative to slavery or abolition was the removal of freed slaves from the United States. The option appealed to blacks who wished a homeland of their own, and to proslavery and antislavery advocates alike who thought blacks could not be assimilated into American life. Paul Cuffe, a black New England shipowner, was committed to civil rights for African Americans and an outspoken opponent of slavery. He nevertheless employed his own resources in a back-to-Africa project in the early 1810s. After correspondence with prominent British abolitionists, including the parliamentarian William Wilberforce, Cuffe sought to repatriate selected emigrants to the British African colony of Sierra Leone. His plans were interrupted by the War of 1812 and by his own death not long thereafter, but he did succeed in settling some thirty-eight persons in Africa.

In 1821 the American Colonization Society resumed Cuffe's work. Members of the organization included such figures as Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, and other prominent white Americans for whom the United States had to remain a white man's country. The society purchased African land from local rulers, and in 1847 the settlement, called Liberia, became an independent republic. Many antislavery activists opposed the American Colonization Society, believing that it was simply a stratagem to solidify slavery by removing from the United States the only blacks in a position to contest it. Others endorsed colonization and emigration in principle, reserving their objections for the society per se. There were, accordingly, other colonization ventures. In the 1820s and 1850s, two emigration movements to Haiti were organized with the cooperation of the Haitian government. A project in the 1830s involved the removal of American blacks to the island of Trinidad. President Abraham Lincoln, who endorsed colonization as a strategy to prevent a civil war over the slavery question, researched the possibility of a black homeland on the isthmus of Central America. These schemes involved negotiations with heads of state for land grants and concessions. Foreign leaders had their own reasons for endorsing these programs. Haiti had traditionally offered itself as an asylum for blacks in the Western Hemisphere and in the 1820s wanted to create a buffer on its frontier with Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) by settling African Americans there. Great Britain in the 1830s sought labor to work on the Trinidad plantations abandoned by the beneficiaries of its own emancipation laws, a need for which it later recruited workers from India.


During the nineteenth century, slavery and its accompanying racist ideology prevented the United States from conducting full diplomatic relations with Haiti and Liberia, states modeled on modern republics that were populated and governed by blacks. Many U.S. diplomats did not believe it possible to consort with black counterparts on an equal basis and receive them into the polite society of the period. Proslavery southerners saw Haiti as anathema on social and political grounds and as a security problem. Some southern states passed laws that forbade the entry of sailors and other free people of color from Haiti. Before the Civil War, the U.S. government did not recognize Haiti and was represented there only by consuls. Southern secession removed the obstacles to recognition, which occurred on 12 July 1862 when the State Department appointed a chief of mission, Benjamin Whidden. In 1869, U.S. representation was raised to the ministerial level with the appointment of the first African American in such a post, Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett. The defeat of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery meant improvement in Haitian-American relations, ending the threat of slavery expansionism and filibustering raids on Haitian coasts. Beginning with Bassett's appointment, diplomatic and consular posts to Haiti and Liberia became patronage posts for loyal black Republicans, a pattern that persisted until well into the mid-twentieth century.

In the late nineteenth century, American activists sought to bring international attention to the lynching problem in the "Jim Crow" South. Hampered by lack of access to sources of state power, activists such as the anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells-Barnett searched for unconventional and less restrictive venues for international contact. Just as American activists had sought British support for abolition during the slavery era, Wells-Barnett toured the United Kingdom in 1893 and 1894 to publicize the lynching problem and bring the weight of British public opinion to bear on the issue. She devised another way to focus international attention on U.S. domestic affairs when, in 1893, Chicago hosted the Columbian Exposition, which brought visitors from all over the world. Through the mediation of Frederick Douglass, the government of Haiti selected Wells-Barnett to manage its exhibit and provided her with a table in the Haitian pavilion. There she sold copies of a book she had written to document lynching and the context in which it occurred. Wells-Barnett was thereby able to reach a wide audience in one of the first efforts to employ an international cultural festival to air concerns about U.S. race relations.


World War I shattered the balance of power in Europe and destroyed the Russian, German, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires. These state systems lost control of the diverse ethnic groups previously under their control. Subject nations and national minorities began demanding language rights, sovereignty, and democratic governments. When the Allies met in the Paris suburb of Versailles in 1919 to rebuild the world order, their agenda included the construction of nations in eastern Europe and the revitalization of the empires that remained. European debates on political autonomy and territoriality were the model for Asians and Africans seeking to bring their own interests to world attention.

The Pan-African Congress was an important vehicle for formulating and disseminating such demands. The association emerged from a 1900 London conference. Organized by a Trinidadian attorney resident in London and an African-American bishop, the congress brought together blacks from Britain and its colonies, the United States, and South Africa. The purpose was to discuss colonialism and racism and suggest strategies for reform. The association made little headway in its first twenty years, the zenith of European colonial domination of Africa. World War I provided an opportunity to renew its goals, however, and it planned a Paris conference that would convene simultaneously with the Versailles peace conference.

African-American leaders sought representation as observers at the peace conference and began discussing it before the war ended. Those most interested included the intellectual activist W. E. B. Du Bois, entrepreneur C. J. Walker, National Equal Rights League founder William Monroe Trotter, and activist Wells-Barnett. The Universal Negro Improvement Association, an international organization founded by Marcus Garvey, named delegates to the congress, including the labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Other interested organizations included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Race Congress. The thinking was that if representatives of black organizations were denied admission to the proceedings or audiences with principals, they could use the Pan-African Congress and their proximity to the peace talks to bring their issues to public attention.

President Woodrow Wilson led the U.S. delegation at Versailles. Wilson believed in international organization and saw the peace conference as an opportunity to put the United States permanently at the center of power in the global community. Like other Allied leaders, Wilson wished to maintain control over national minorities. He was, additionally, a committed segregationist who as president of Princeton University had excluded African-American students from dormitories, and as president of the United States had separated federal civil servants by race, placing black employees behind partitions.

The Wilson administration did not want minority observers or protesters in Europe. The State Department accordingly refused passports to most of the black Americans wishing to go to France. Those who managed to cross the Atlantic attended a Pan-African Congress composed of fifty-seven delegates who discussed, under the careful scrutiny of the French government, such issues as the status of defeated Germany's colonies and colonial reform. The more militant civil rights activists and nationalists were less interested in the Pan African Congress than in addressing the peace conference, the forum where decisions affecting the world's national minorities and subject peoples would be made. President Wilson was determined to prevent such initiatives. He refused to see either Trotter or a young Vietnamese leader, Nguyen That Thanh, later known as Ho Chi Minh. Wilson and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George prohibited the presence of delegates of colonized peoples and racial minorities at Versailles, but Du Bois succeeded in representing the NAACP at the first conference of the League of Nations in 1921.


In October 1935, Benito Mussolini's fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia. The war there occurred at the height of isolationist sentiment in the U.S. Congress and the nation at large. While public sympathy for Ethiopia was considerable, so was the disinclination to intervene. The minority that pressed for a more forthright stand included African Americans and Irish Catholics who broke with the Catholic majority on the issue. The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt showed concern about Italian aggression, but domestic opposition to even rhetorical intervention discouraged firm action. When Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Roosevelt sent Mussolini a note suggesting that the United States would not necessarily remain indifferent to what his government did in Africa, the message was so subdued that Mussolini readily dismissed it. A neutrality act banned the sale of finished war products to belligerents, but it did not deny them access to strategic materials, which could be purchased proportionately to the rate of prewar consumption. Italy, a growing industrial power, bought large quantities of American oil. Ethiopia, still feudal, bought none. The neutrality act thus helped ensure that Italy would be well equipped to defeat its decrepit adversary.

Administration officials shrank from the prospect of ventilating an issue that would bring down isolationist wrath. For actors at the policy center, domestic considerations and the ultimate collapse of Ethiopian resistance tabled the question for the duration of World War II. At the periphery, however, the Ethiopian issue enabled the development of linkages that remained timely. Ethiopia was a ready-made issue for black nationalists and permitted liberals and leftists to focus their general opposition to fascism. The Ethiopian government-in-exile played a leading role itself in keeping public interest alive through publicity campaigns and appeals for funds. It also made explicit appeals to African Americans as a usable pressure group. Ethiopia's experience with fascist conquest facilitated a sharper critique of racism and imperialism and focused postwar attention on the disposition of colonies in northeast Africa and colonialism in general.


In 1945 the Allies claimed victory over a German state that had taken racism to its logical extreme in the pursuit of eugenic purity and the destruction of millions of lives. African-American troops were part of the force that occupied Germany from 1945 to 1955, when efforts were made on all fronts to reform its institutions and reconstruct it physically. From the beginning of the occupation, U.S. racial practices in the military contradicted the essence of its mission in Germany and led to confusion and resentment among the conquered.

In the American zone of occupation, commanding officers could approve soldiers' marriages as they saw fit. Many of those holding conventional American ideas about race often prohibited mixed marriages even when children were involved. When individual soldiers appealed these prohibitions, military judges relied on the laws of the various U.S. states to determine whether a proposed union could be approved and compiled the relevant statutes for their own use. If a soldier resided in a state where interracial marriages were illegal, his application to marry outside his race would be turned down. Racial record keeping on marriages began in 1947. German courts followed this example. The Allies, having struck down the racist Nuremberg laws, oddly found themselves reapplying them in the American zone of occupation, where the German courts followed suit.

Military opposition to mixed marriages gradually declined, but in the interim approximately three thousand biracial children were born in Germany between 1945 and 1951, almost all the offspring of African-American servicemen. As a result of the continuing ambivalence among all parties about the children's prospects for adoption in the United States, the West German state, autonomous in 1955, was charged with the responsibility for absorbing them into German society. Germans witnessed the contradictions between U.S. opposition to nazi racism and policies governing intermarriage. The first cohort of biracial children reached their teens as violence associated with segregation in the United States made international headlines. While some Germans continued to believe that homes in the United States should be sought for those who were not already adopted, the prevailing opinion was that the orphans should not be sent into a society characterized by racial violence. If the United States' goal had been to transform Germany into a democracy characterized by tolerance, the biracial orphans provided them a paradoxical opportunity to show the world they had shed Hitlerism.


At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in the autumn of 1944, delegates planned the foundations of a postwar international organization that would reprise the work of the League of Nations. Conferees rejected a racial and national equality clause that the Chinese government had put forward but failed to energetically defend. In the early years of the United Nations, efforts were made to insert ethnic and linguistic rights into the UN Charter and other central documents. Cold War tensions entered the deliberations of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in the late 1940s, as many sovereign states proved reluctant to permit international oversight of their treatment of national minorities.

For African Americans in particular the era reflected a rising interest in social science and world affairs and the secularization of black protest that moved it away from philanthropic church control. Black opinion widely supported a pluralist United Nations that would counter the "Anglo-American" conception of a postwar peace elaborated by Winston Churchill in his Fulton, Missouri, "Iron Curtain" speech. While no blacks attended the 1945 United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, Walter White, secretary of the NAACP; W. E. B. Du Bois, the NAACP's director of special research; and Mary McLeod Bethune, of the National Council of Negro Women, were present as observers. Their attendance resulted from extensive organizing activities by black nongovernmental organizations to formulate an agenda for international activism. The black Republican Perry Howard urged blacks to send telegrams to their congressional representatives to demand that the UN Charter protect minority rights. Despite setbacks, the UN continued to be seen as a potentially useful instrument in checking Western abuses of national minorities and colonial subjects. In 1948 the chair of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP urged UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie to reject the University of Maryland's offer to house the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Segregation at the institution, including its college of agriculture, would inconvenience FAO personnel from non-European countries.

Attempts in 1945 to influence the United Nations to protect minority rights were among the first of several efforts. Backed by labor, professional, fraternal, and veterans' associations, the National Negro Congress drafted a petition to the United Nations in mid-1946. It was formulated at the same time that similar petitions were being presented by Indonesians and the Jewish diaspora, and shortly before the General Assembly voted to censure South Africa for its treatment of its East Indian resident population. Encouraged by parallel international events, the NAACP followed suit with its own petition in 1947. The NAACP asked the UN Commission on Human Rights to investigate racial discrimination in the United States. Supported by hundreds of black organizations across the political spectrum, and by African and Caribbean nationalists and labor federations overseas, the appeal was also viewed favorably by India, Pakistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Belgium, Haiti, Norway, China (Formosa), and the USSR, which introduced the petition in October 1947. Despite its popularity with the black public in the United States and international endorsement, the petition died in the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Pressure applied on the United Nations by the United States, the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt, then a UNESCO commissioner, and misgivings among certain NAACP officials about Soviet support of the appeal, led to its demise.


The U.S. rivalry with the Soviet Union and its Cold War partners involved political as well as military competition. President Harry S. Truman articulated the need to improve U.S. race relations not only because the Soviets were exploiting the race issue but also because U.S. credibility was at stake. Truman and his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, articulated a need for reform and coupled this with the same repression of black communists and other radical black critics of America that generally characterized the early Cold War period in U.S. society. Such activists as Du Bois and Paul Robeson were refused passports. U.S. representatives abroad interfered with American-born dancer Josephine Baker, a French citizen and an outspoken critic of U.S. racial mores. The Eisenhower administration, committed to the reduction of military spending but putting greater emphasis on promoting the economic and cultural superiority of American life, had come to associate winning the Cold War with improving the civil rights climate for black Americans. While Eisenhower was not enthusiastic about desegregation, he was committed enough to the principle of civil equality to support a modest civil rights bill in 1957.

The belief that America's ability to champion democracy depended on its success at practicing it at home continued during the Kennedy years. The Cold War rationale for racial reform was strengthened by evidence that hostile countries utilized negative news about race relations to discredit the United States. In an increasingly decolonized world, where Africans and Asians now headed sovereign states, racial discrimination could no longer be endorsed or accepted. Technological change meant that journalists could record instances of racial violence and broadcast them to the world. The Soviet Union and its allies were not the only critics. Disapproval emanated from nonaligned countries, especially India, and from such conventional Western states as Denmark. In contrast to the world press, pro-apartheid South African journalists played up racial incidents in the United States, especially the exploits of white supremacists. This also constituted part of the embarrassment that necessitated a significant propaganda effort to neutralize damaging racial news stories about segregation.

Members of the intelligentsia and business communities also employed arguments that linked foreign and domestic affairs. In September 1950, for example, the NAACP convened the Breakneck Hill Conference, where senators, UN officials, journalists and broadcast executives, State Department representatives, educators, and activists considered the impact of racial discrimination on the nation's foreign policy objectives. Civil rights proponents, including participants in sit-ins and other demonstrations in the 1960s, also used Cold War arguments to rationalize their challenge to discriminatory statutes. Segregation tainted the U.S. reputation abroad, they claimed, and the limited opportunities for minorities that resulted from it meant fewer human resources available to defend the nation and extend its interests.

U.S. government efforts to counter the bad publicity involved activities sponsored by the State Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA). These included providing news to international readers, stocking U.S. libraries abroad with what was perceived as balanced information about black life in the United States, and enlisting African-American lecturers and entertainers to travel abroad and entertain or provide information to interested foreigners. Some individuals who toured foreign countries for this purpose sometimes exaggerated the amount of progress made in race relations. The State Department and USIA, for their part, did not deny the existence of racism but rather emphasized what they portrayed as a national commitment to effect change through nonviolent means. The appointment in 1964 of the African-American journalist Carl Rowan as USIA director was intended to emphasize the latter. Rowan had previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for public affairs and as ambassador to Finland.


The civil rights movement presented the State Department and other government branches not only with the problem of trying to counter America's racist image abroad but also that of dealing with discrimination within their own ranks. Since Reconstruction, most African-American consuls, ministers, and ambassadors had been political appointees posted to black countries. The number of career black foreign service officers and consular officials remained minuscule until the second half of the twentieth century. The State Department, an executive department in a staunchly segregated capital, steadfastly resisted integration. In addition to racial segregation, its institutional culture traditionally relied on eastern elites. The democratization of the State Department through geographic and demographic diversification evolved only gradually. Its racial desegregation occurred chiefly at the initiative of presidential administrations and informal pressure from black leadership.

Civil rights organizations had expressed dissatisfaction with the unrepresentative character of the State Department since the 1940s, but changes were desultory until the early 1960s. The Kennedy White House, seeking to consolidate its gains with the African-American electorate while maintaining a moderate posture on civil rights, looked to Africa for the solution. Well-publicized visits from African heads of state and the appointment of African Americans to diplomatic posts provided the symbolic politics the situation required. The United States would also realize the additional benefit of encouraging ostensibly nonaligned African states to view the West more favorably and limit their contacts with Warsaw Pact states. The State Department remained slow to change, however, and only after criticism of the pace and scope of reform accelerated were significant numbers of African-American diplomatic representatives named to countries outside Africa and the Caribbean.

In line with the perceived need to court newly independent African states and encourage them to maintain close ties with the West, U.S. officials tried to insulate U.S. foreign relations from the repercussions of domestic racism by assisting diplomats from Africa, the Caribbean, and other regions who encountered discrimination while living and traveling in the United States. In the 1950s and early 1960s, negative experiences of foreign envoys chiefly involved the refusal of service to Africans (as well as South Asians and others) in states where segregation was official, the relegation of nonwhites to Jim Crow sections of public facilities, and housing discrimination in states ranging from New York to Virginia.

Initially, the State Department dealt with the problem by attempting to isolate foreign blacks from African Americans, a task facilitated by the nature of diplomatic relations. Nonwhite envoys could, for example, simply be exempted from segregation laws by virtue of their status. Federal officials could intervene in particular cases, but they were not always present when visitors experienced embarrassments. When the Ghanaian finance minister was denied service at a Delaware restaurant in 1957, Eisenhower invited him to breakfast at the White House, and Vice President Richard Nixon sent him a formal apology. The State Department discussed the matter with the restaurant's franchisee. The most serious incident was the beating of a Guinean foreign service officer by New York City police officers following a traffic accident. The presence of nonwhite envoys also forced adjustments in the elite social life of Washington. State Department chief of protocol Angier Biddle Duke resigned in 1961 from the prestigious Metropolitan Club because of its refusal to continue extending what had previously been automatic membership to foreign diplomats and its absence of black members.

To be sure, another consideration that drove reform within the diplomatic corps was the awareness that segregation as a whole made a bad impression on foreigners regardless of race. As early as June 1951, the solicitor general of the United States, Philip Perlman, filed an amicus curiae brief in a U.S. Court of Appeals case that involved a Washington, D.C., restaurant's refusal of service to a U.S. citizen on racial grounds. Perlman argued that foreigners judge the United States by their experiences in its capital and that segregation marred the image of American democracy. The solicitor general thus linked the reform of racial policies in the United States to the nation's best interests abroad.

In August 1961 the Kennedy administration created a task force composed of representatives from the White House, State Department, and local state governments to address the problem of racial discrimination. Because of local entrepreneurs' inability to distinguish between Africans and African Americans and favor the former, public facilities along the Washington-Maryland corridor ultimately had to be desegregated for everyone.


African-American opposition to the war in Vietnam, the overriding U.S. foreign policy concern of the 1960s and early 1970s, reflected perceptions of self-interest. During the 1950s the major civil rights organizations had stopped taking action on foreign policy questions. As the war escalated, civil rights leaders feared both the loss of organizational revenues if prowar advocates withdrew their support and the prospect of internal friction among organizations over the peace issue. Anxiety about possible accusations of subversion, and concern lest the civil rights focus be dissipated, were other causes of apprehension. The immediacy of civil rights insurgency in the South provided a powerful pretext for channeling organizational energies to domestic questions only.

Moreover, by the mid-1960s the reluctance of black leaders to engage in issues apart from domestic civil rights was reinforced by an increasingly beleaguered presidential administration fighting to maintain a "one voice" approach for U.S. foreign policy around the globe. President Lyndon B. Johnson, for whom Africa was a low priority, particularly opposed the consolidation of an African-American foreign policy constituency. Johnson did not want to multiply the number of players in international affairs and perceived such a constituency as contradicting the goal of fully integrating blacks into American life. Johnson believed that racially and ethnically based interest groups generally fragmented what should be a unitary national position on foreign affairs as government experts defined them.

In 1965, however, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, at the center of some of the most sweeping changes in American society, publicly advocated draft resistance. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee became the first national body to oppose the war. While antiwar sentiment did not overtake the black majority until 1969, activist organizations mounted pressure on Martin Luther King, Jr., to take a stand. Vietnamese Buddhists who sent him an "open letter" joined with domestic war critics in urging action. In 1967, King formally reiterated his inability to square the war with his conscience, his belief that the war was sapping the economic and spiritual vigor of the country, and his conviction that the national mission needed redefinition. In an April speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, King delivered a radical critique of U.S. foreign policy.

Ultimately, Vietnam was a broad enough issue to absorb many of the questions that had long preoccupied African Americans. Critiques of the war called into question the integrity of the political process and opened the door to largescale insurgency. On this issue black foreign policy audiences entered the controversy late, had dwindling access to increasingly less responsive policymakers, and were considerably alienated from "normal politics." Their efforts to influence the conduct of the war were also hampered by strategies that were based on addressing legislatures and courts rather than executive officials.

The spirit of insurgency in the late 1960s combined with new global media to afford African-American activists new forums for international exposure to U.S. domestic problems. One of the most prominent examples was the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, from which South Africa had been excluded owing to worldwide opposition to that country's apartheid policy. Certain African-American athletes had contemplated a boycott of the games because of their dissatisfaction with racial conditions in the United States, but they ultimately decided to participate. African-American medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, feeling the need to make at least a symbolic gesture, raised their fists in protest at U.S. racial injustice as the "Star-Spangled Banner" was being played. Both athletes were widely criticized and their careers were destroyed. In an ironic twist in 1980, the U.S. government asked African-American boxing champion Muhammad Ali to persuade various countries to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.


By the mid-1950s, only in South Africa could U.S. diplomats be committed and outspoken racists. The State Department sent envoys to South Africa whose own outlook aligned closely with that of their hosts. In light of U.S. reliance on South African raw materials, mutual anticommunism, and interest in free trade, policymakers acquiesced to South African segregation laws that paralleled those that were still current in the United States. As civil rights insurgency and changing views toward race worldwide eroded segregation at home, U.S. official acceptance of South African racial practices could no longer be direct. Washington attempted to distance itself rhetorically from apartheid while continuing harmonious relations with South Africa.

As noted, the State Department and USIA often sponsored goodwill tours of African-American entertainers to foreign countries, and these included South Africa. U.S. authorities may have believed that exposure to the diversity of U.S. society would give proponents of apartheid pause. Visits to South Africa by American performers were not limited to government-sponsored ventures. South African promoters signed U.S. artists to lucrative contracts, but they were often required to perform before segregated audiences.

The gap between U.S. democratic beliefs on one hand, and government and private sector ties to the South African regime on the other, led in the 1980s to an international protest movement against apartheid. Anti-apartheid activists set out to discourage artist exchanges in the belief that they had no effect on apartheid, degraded the artist involved, and lent credibility to the South African regime. Through adverse publicity and boycott, many U.S. entertainers were pressured into avoiding South Africa. Similar actions were mounted when the South African government sent African troupes to the United States if they apologized for conditions in their homeland.

Pressure from advocacy groups was a crucial factor in leading the United States to impose economic sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s. Thus, in February 1990, South African President F. W. de Klerk released the African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela from his twenty-seven-year imprisonment, and in March 1992 white South Africans passed a referendum that would end white minority rule.


Ahrari, Mohammed E., ed. Ethnic Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York, 1987.

Blackett, R. J. M. Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 18301860. Baton Rouge, La., 1983.

Borstelmann, Thomas. Apartheid's Reluctant Uncle. New York, 1993.

Collum, Danny Duncan, ed. African Americans in the Spanish Civil War: "This Ain't Ethiopia, but It'll Do." New York, 1992.

DeConde, Alexander. Ethnicity, Race, and American Foreign Policy: A History. Boston, 1992.

Du Bois, W. E. B. "Inter-Racial Implications of the Ethiopian Crisis: A Negro View." Foreign Affairs 14 (October 1935): 8292.

Dudziak, Mary L. "Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative." Stanford Law Review 41 (November 1988): 61120.

. Cold War Civil Rights. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Fairclough, Adam. "Martin Luther King Jr. and the War in Vietnam." Phylon 45, no. 1 (1984): 1939.

Füredi, Frank. The Silent War: Imperialism and the Changing Perception of Race. New Brunswick, N.J., 1998.

Gatewood, Willard B. Black Americans and the White Man's Burden, 18981903. Urbana, Ill., 1975.

Hannaford, Ivan. Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Washington, D.C., 1996.

Harris, Robert L., Jr. "Racial Equality and the United Nations Charter." In Armstead L. Robinson and Patricia Sullivan, eds. New Directions in Civil Rights Studies. Charlottesville, Va., 1991.

Horne, Gerald. Black and Red: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 19441963. Albany, N.Y., 1986.

Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn., 1987.

Isaacs, Harold Robert. The New World of Negro Americans. New York, 1964.

Krenn, Michael L. Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department, 19451969. Armonk, N.Y., 1999.

Krenn, Michael L., ed. The Impact of Race on U.S. Foreign Policy: A Reader. New York, 1999.

Lauren, Paul Gordon. Power and Prejudice: The Politics and Diplomacy of Racial Discrimination. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo., 1996.

Lockwood, Bert, Jr. "The UN Charter and U.S. Civil Rights Litigation: 19461955." Iowa Law Review 5 (1984): 901956.

Noer, Thomas J. Cold War and Black Liberation: The United States and White Rule in Africa, 19481968. Columbia, Mo., 1985.

Plummer, Brenda G. Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 19351960. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996.

Smith, Tony. Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Weston, Rubin Francis. Racism in U.S. Imperialism: The Influence of Racial Assumptions on American Foreign Policy, 18931946. Columbia, S.C., 1972.

See also Civil War Diplomacy; Peace Movements; Race and Ethnicity .


"A vast literature has explored the major American cold war initiatives of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The decision-making processes and ramifications of the Truman Doctrine, the European Recovery Plan (Marshall Plan), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and National Security Council document 68 (NSC 68) have received painstaking analysis from a variety of political perspectives. But there has been only occasional attention paid either to the ways in which these policy initiatives emerged from a racially hierarchical domestic and international landscape or to their racial meanings and ramifications. Yet, people of color at the time were well aware of this other context. Winston Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech of February 1946 represented a declaration of cold war, but it also served as a call for Anglo-American racial and cultural unity. The Truman Doctrine of March 1947 opposed potential 'armed minorities' of the left but not those of the right who actually ruled much of the world: European colonialists. The Marshall Plan (1948) and NATO (1949) bolstered anticommunist governments west of the Elbe River but also indirectly funded their efforts at preserving white rule in Asia and Africa. NSC 68 laid out an offensive strategy of diminishing Soviet influence abroad, but it also revealed American anxieties about a broader 'absence of order among nations' that was 'becoming less and less tolerable' when the largest change in the international system was coming not from communist revolutions but from the decolonization of nonwhite peoples."

From Thomas Borstelmann, "Jim Crow's Coming Out: Race Relations and American Foreign Policy in the Truman Years," Presidential Studies Quarterly 29, no. 3 (1999): 549569

African Americans

views updated May 23 2018

African Americans

Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) enumerates two crimes against humanity—enslavement and apartheid—whose delineation as crimes against humanity could have applied to the treatment of African Americans by the United States government, state governments within the United States, and the states' colonial predecessor regimes. Article 7 defines enslavement as "the exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person and includes the exercise of such powers in the course of trafficking in persons, in particular women and children." The crime of apartheid refers to "inhumane acts . . . committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime." As set forth in Article 7, other crimes against humanity (e.g., murder, imprisonment, and torture) that have been committed against African Americans within the context of enslavement and/or apartheid are ancillary to the crimes of enslavement and apartheid.

Enslavement and apartheid (as well as other crimes against humanity) have long histories within the United States and North America. Slavery's tenure in the United States extended across roughly 225 years (c. 1640–1865), beginning in the colonial period and ending with the Civil War. Although some African Americans living in the South experienced a measure of racial equality during the brief period known as Reconstruction (1867–1877), most lived under an oppressive system of apartheid that defined racial relations for the next one hundred years (1877–1972). The duration of the two crimes against humanity suggests that they were not episodic in character, but, instead, were systemic. They were part of the "normal" way in which American society functioned, and were operative almost from the beginning of the colonial regime.


The exercise of ownership and control over a human being by another human being—in other words, chattel slavery—has deep roots in Western civilization. Virtually every Western society has condoned slavery, and most have practiced it. Slavery, however, took on a unique form when it became established in the New World (the Americas and West Indies) by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century.

Most important, the element of "race" (i.e., skin color) was introduced into the master/slave relationship as slavery was practiced in the New World. For the first time in the history of slavery, dark skin became the marker that gave the slave his or her cultural status and identity. To rationalize the new face of slavery, the enslavers and their supporters created a race-specific ideology of white superiority and of black inferiority. It was argued that chattel slavery and, more generally, white hegemony were part of the natural order of things, that the white race was innately superior to all other races. It was further argued that this racial hierarchy was not the design of human beings but, rather, was ordained by God and/or nature. Similarly, it was part of the human condition—and something that mere mortals ought not to disturb. This racist rhetoric was not only devoid of empirical support or logic, but it also had an unprecedented effect on chattel slavery. Because skin color had become the sine qua non of bondage, the condition of the slave of the ancient Mediterranean world whereby a slave could become a senator, a teacher of the slaveholding class, or even his master's master was annulled. Nor was it possible for a slave to become related to his master by way of marriage or adoption—events unremarkable in the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.

But what is perhaps most pernicious about the rhetoric that was used to justify chattel slavery in the New World is that it has outlasted slavery itself. Racism continued to make life perilous for African Americans long after 1865. In the early twenty-first century, components of U.S. culture (specifically, the belief that African Americans have a pathological values system) are often used as a proxy for racism. Whether it is oldfashioned racism (white supremacy) or the new form of racism (culture), the rhetoric has the same ring: it subordinates and stigmatizes African Americans, maintaining the system of race-based advantages (for whites) and disadvantages (for blacks) that began during slavery. To the extent that the ideas and concepts used to justify slavery have outlived slavery, it can be argued that slavery's rhetoric is in the final analysis more productive of harm than slavery itself.

Although reinforced by racist ideology, the enslavement of African Americans was initiated and sustained by quite a different motivation—profit. Indeed, if chattel slavery had been less profitable, it could not have endured nor would even have come into existence. But in fact slavery was enormously profitable; the demand for cheap labor needed to harvest the riches of the New World grew each decade. Chattel slavery, then, was part of an international economic network. That network, called the Atlantic Slave Trade, consisted of a triangular trade route that involved Africa, the New World, and Europe. The first leg of a typical trade route—commonly referred to as the Middle Passage—consisted of the passage from Africa to the New World; the second leg, from the New World to Europe; and the third, from Europe to Africa. Slaves were transported from the west coast of Africa to the Americas and West Indies, where they were auctioned off to the owners of plantations and small farms and other individuals. Sugar, tobacco, cotton, and other goods harvested and/or produced by slave labor were sent to Europe in exchange for cash and such items as textiles and hardware. Ships full of rum and iron would then set sail for Africa, where these goods would be used in the bartering for slaves.

Viewed from the perspective of the slave, the Atlantic slave trade was nothing less than a brutal, even diabolic process of human bondage that consisted of capture, the Middle Passage, the auction block, and plantation life (or the peculiar institution). Together, the four stages bring to light the contradictory nature of chattel slavery within a (putatively) free society.


Kindnapping and the taking of prisoners by the victors of intertribal wars were the primary methods used in the procurement of Africans for the Atlantic slave trade. Victorious African tribal chiefs used defeated enemies, traditionally regarded as the spoils of war, as currency for the acquisition of iron products (e.g., guns and ammunition), rum, and other goods. A tribal leader sometimes waged war for the sole purpose of taking possession of persons, who could then be commodified and sold for profit. Wars were sometimes waged against distant tribes even in instances in which the tribes posed no reasonable threat to the aggressors' security. As Charles Ball, the author of a slave narrative, recounted of his experience while still in Africa: "It was not the object of our enemies to kill; they wished to take us alive and sell us as slaves" (1854, p. 158).

There is some question as to whether the African chieftains understood that they were participating in a system of slavery very different from the one to which they were accustomed. Did they understand that their transactions with proprietors of the Atlantic slave trade were not "business as usual"? Did they have knowledge of the likely fates of their captives? Had they known what lay ahead for the Africans being put on ships, might they have banded together to resist the white slave traders? Could the system have operated for as long as it did without African complicity? These are perhaps unanswerable questions.

Captives were sometimes force-marched across interior regions of Africa to the villages of victorious tribes or armies. From there, they would continue on to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Some offered resistance by fleeing from slave forts on the West African coast. But most were less fortunate, and were forced to board ships to begin the infamous Middle Passage.

Middle Passage

The Middle Passage was, without a doubt, the most arduous part of the slave experience. Once on board sailing vessels, individual slaves were allotted spaces no larger than coffins. Some captives mutinied. It is estimated that as many as one-third of all slaves transported to the Americas and the West Indies died en route. Some died by suffocation; others from sickness that had been brought on by conditions on board ship and mistreatment by the slave traders. Babies who were thought to be incapable of surviving the passage were sometimes thrown overboard by ship captains. Mothers often leapt overboard in futile attempts to rescue their babies. It was not uncommon for a mother to hold her child to her bosom and cast herself into the ocean, choosing death over enslavement for herself and her child. It is estimated that from 14 to 21 million Africans endured the Middle Passage during the nearly four centuries of slavery in the New World.

Auction Block

At the conclusion of the Middle Passage, slaves faced the auction block. Before being put on display, slaves were cleaned up. These grooming gestures were not acts of kindness, but acts guided by self-interest, calculated toward the reaping of profit. The healthier a slave looked, the higher his or her selling price. Once spruced up, slaves were marched into a public square, put on display, inspected by prospective buyers as though they were livestock, and sold to the highest bidder. Families were often broken up on the auction block. Children were ripped from the arms of their parents, wives were taken away from husbands, and siblings were separated from each other—never to be rejoined.


From the auction block, slaves were taken to the properties of their new masters—usually the plantations and farms of the American South. There they became slave laborers, forced to toil for the rest of their lives and for the aggrandizement of others. A child born into slavery remained a slave for life.

Southern states had precise laws that governed the freeing of slaves for fear of creating a large free black population. Free blacks in slaveholding states were regarded by whites living in those states as threats to the security of the white population. It was thought that the mere presence of free blacks would be an incitement to slave revolts. Some slaves did, however, succeed in gaining their freedom—in a variety of ways, such as reward for having provided "exceptional service" to their masters and, for those slaves who were allowed to hold assets, self-purchase. Slaves were sometimes freed upon the deaths of their masters, usually via provisions in their masters' wills. For example, George Washington, who predeceased his wife, stipulated in his will that his slaves were to be freed upon his wife's death.

Slaveholders would often give accounts of the peculiar institution that tended toward the purely fictional. They strove to portray themselves as benevolent slave masters in pursuit of the noble goal of bringing civilization and Christianity to the lives of savages. Southern historians, in their accounts, frequently added to this falsification during the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century. In so doing they ignored concrete evidence of slave accomplishments, as well as of slave resistance—including evidence that showed that many slaves ran away to live among Native Americans and to live in free states or in Canada, as well as evidence that it was not uncommon for slaves to revolt openly, to feign sickness (in order to evade degradation), and to participate in work slowdowns.

In the second half of the twentieth century scholars were providing far more accurate accounts of the peculiar institution. Much of the new historiography was based on primary source materials that scholars had previously ignored—the slave narratives, which are autobiographical accounts of the slave experience. Slave narratives provide a vivid panorama of the horrors of human bondage. Although many slave narratives were committed to writing after slavery had ended in the United States, a good many of them came into existence during the period of slavery, often with the help of the abolitionists who wished to use the documents in their fight against slavery. Frederick Douglass's narrative, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History, is perhaps the best known of this genre.

The enslavement of Africans in America in all its cruel dimensions—capture, Middle Passage, auction block, and the peculiar institution—would not have been possible were it not for the imprimaturs given to slavery by U.S. governments, both before and after the Revolutionary War. Laws that recognized or even made mention of the institution of slavery did not exist in 1619 when Africans first arrived in what was to become the United States. These Africans (all twenty of them) were put ashore at Jamestown, in the colony of Virginia, by the captain of a Dutch frigate. They had not entered his country (the Netherlands) as slaves, nor had they ever been treated as such. Most were indentured servants at the time of their arrival in Virginia (as were some of the white arrivals), and were listed as such in the Jamestown census counts of 1623 and 1624. After their periods of service had expired, the African settlers were "assigned land in much the same way that it was being assigned to whites who had completed their indenture" (Franklin and Moss, 1988, p. 53). Those African settlers who were not indentured were not slaves and were not treated as slaves by the colonists. Over time, however, slavery reared its head and became institutionalized in the North American colonies—first by custom, in the New England colonies in 1638, and then by law, in Massachusetts in 1641. From the vantage point of the slave owner, the enslavement of Africans was more cost-efficient than that of Native Americans or poor whites, because the Africans' general unfamiliarity with the land (and the skin color that was making them conspicuous) made it difficult for them to hide or to escape.

Once slavery had taken hold in colonial America, African Americans had no legal rights with which to protect themselves from enslavement. The U.S. Supreme Court made clear this vulnerability when, in 1857, it summarized (in the famous Dred Scott decision) the legal status of slaves and free blacks alike under colonial laws and the laws that existed at that time. Writing for the court, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney observed that African Americans were ". . . regarded as beings of an inferior order . . . unfit to associate with the white race" and, as such, ". . . they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Accordingly, "[T]he negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit" (Dred Scott v. Sandford [1857]).

This grim assessment of the U.S. Supreme Court has antecedents in the U.S. Constitution of 1787. No less than five provisions of the Constitution unambiguously sanction and protect slavery. Article I, Section 2, Paragraph 3 (the "three-fifths clause") ruled that a slave counted as three-fifths of a person in the calculation of a state's population for purposes of congressional representation and any "direct taxes." Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 1 (the "slave-trade clause") prohibited Congress from ending the slave trade before the year 1808, but did not require Congress to ban it after that date. Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 4, somewhat redundant of the three-fifths clause, ensured that a slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person if a head tax were to be levied. Article V, Section 2, Paragraph 3 (the "fugitive-slave clause") required the return of fugitive slaves to their owners "on demand, " and, finally, Article V prohibited Congress from amending the slave-trade clause before 1808.

These constitutional directives—plus about a dozen others that indirectly support slavery—made the Constitution of 1787 a slaveholder's constitution. William Lloyd Garrison, the nineteenth-century abolitionist, was not exaggerating when he referred to the Constitution as "a covenant with death," "an agreement with Hell," and "a pro-slavery" Constitution (Finkelman, 1996, p. 3). Modern historians, overwhelmingly, are in agreement with this view. Civil war scholar Don Fehrenbacher, for example, asserted, "prior to 1860, the United States was a slaveholding republic" (2001, p. 5). Similarly, historian David Brion Davis argues: "The U.S. Constitution was designed to protect the rights and security of slaveholders, and between 1792 and 1845 the American political system encouraged and rewarded the expansion of slavery into nine new states" (2001, p. 134).

Slavery ended on the battlefield rather than in the statehouse or the courthouse. The Union's defeat of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War brought down the peculiar institution. The U.S. Congress and the individual states then codified that victory with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863, did not and could not free all slaves. It stated that "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Thus, the Proclamation did not purport to free slaves in states that were not in rebellion against the United States, nor did it have the power to free the great majority of slaves who were under subjugation by the Confederacy. But the Emancipation Proclamation did have the effect of transforming the Civil War from a war to save the Union, which is how Lincoln and the North initially characterized the war, to a crusade to free the slaves, with Lincoln as the commander-in-chief of the liberation force.

After 1865

Following the Civil War, Congress passed a great many laws intended to reshape the South into a more democratic, racially inclusive society. These laws included the Reconstruction Acts, a series of acts that began with the Reconstruction Act of March 2, 1867. The purpose of these acts was to "provide for the more efficient government of the rebel states"—in other words, to facilitate restoration of the war-torn South. Congress also enacted legislation establishing the Freedmen's Bureau, a U.S. government bureau that helped the freed slaves adjust to a new life.

Early Civil Rights Gains and Losses

The Party of Lincoln spearheaded ratification of the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments abolished slavery and involuntary servitude; established citizenship for the freed slaves, plus guaranteed them due process and equal protection of the laws; and granted them the right to vote, respectively. Federal troops were sent into the South to enforce these rights. A number of civil rights laws that protected the rights of the freed slaves were also passed by the Republican Congress. These laws were mainly a response to the "Black Codes" that had been enacted in most Southern states—laws that, like the Jim Crow laws that would come later, sought to return the newly freed slaves to a slavelike existence. The most important of the laws that were a response to the Black Codes were the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the latter of which was enacted in response to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in 1868 (and thus is also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871). Congress also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which the Supreme Court effectively overturned in a series of decisions it made in 1883 (the cases collectively known as the Civil Rights Cases).

As a result of this action, African Americans enjoyed degrees of freedom that were unprecedented, which they used to garner economic prosperity, not only for themselves but for the region as a whole. For the first time in U.S. history, African Americans were elected to Congress and state legislatures. But this era of racial progress turned out to be short-lived, and abruptly ended with the Compromise of 1877.

The Compromise of 1877 decided the outcome of the disputed U.S. presidential election of 1876, which had been a contest between the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, and the Democratic candidate, Samuel L. Tilden. The popular vote favored Tilden, but twenty Electoral College votes, representing four states, were in dispute. An ad hoc electoral commission, composed of Republican and Democratic leaders, decided, as a way of ending the stalemate, that the Republicans would be given the presidency and Southern Democrats would gain control of the South. In other words, it was agreed that the new president would remove all federal troops from the South. With the removal of federal troops, Southern whites were given free reign to reestablish white hegemony—marking the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.

Lasting for approximately one hundred years, Jim Crow was America's age of apartheid. It was a time of legalized racial discrimination and segregation—a time in which African Americans lived under the yoke of white supremacy and were accorded second-class citizenship under the law. During the years of Jim Crow African Americans inhabited a world of limited opportunities and fear. They were vulnerable to beatings, maimings, lynchings, murders, and a constant stream of indignities.

African-American Disfranchisement

To lend legitimacy to this regime of racial repression, whites in positions of power devised stratagems to wrest from African Americans rights they had already been given, including the right to vote. Without this right, without political power, without access to the power of government, African Americans would then be powerless to prevent the erosion of other basic rights. To fulfill their agenda, Southern whites found ways to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment (which had given African Americans the right to vote).

With African Americans constituting a majority of its population, Mississippi became the first state to move toward this disfranchisement. A state constitutional convention was convened in 1890. The delegates to the convention made their intentions clear: they had come together for the express purpose of disfranchising all African-American residents who had attained any measure of socioeconomic status. In the words of a delegate to the convention:


ARTICLE 8—EDUCATION. Sec. 243. A uniform poll tax of two dollars, to be used in aid of the common schools, and for no other purpose, is hereby imposed on every male inhabitant of this State between the ages of twenty-one and sixty years, except persons who are deaf and dumb or blind, or who are maimed by loss of hand or foot; said tax to be a lien only upon taxable property. The board of supervisors of any county may, for the purpose of aiding the common schools in that county, increase the poll tax in said county, but in no case shall the entire poll tax exceed in any one year three dollars on each poll. No criminal proceedings shall be allowed to enforce the collection of the poll tax.

Sec. 244. On and after the first day of January, A. D., 1892, every elector shall, in addition to the foregoing qualifications, be able to read any section of the constitution of this State; or he shall be able to understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof. A new registration shall be made before the next ensuing election after January the first, A.D., 1892.

"I am just as opposed to Booker Washington [the leading African American figure of the day] as a voter, with all his Anglo-Saxon re-enforcements, as I am to the coconut-headed, chocolate-colored, typical little coon, Andy Dotson, who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship" (Brooks, 1999, p. 395).

Accordingly, the Mississippi constitution was amended to include the establishment of a $2 poll tax and a literacy test as preconditions to exercising the right to vote. The latter required the prospective voter to read a section of the state constitution selected by an election official (who was invariably white) and/or to answer questions in such a way as to prove to the official that he had understood what had been read. As a result of these constitutional amendments, scores of African Americans who had been eligible to vote during Reconstruction were suddenly ineligible.

Other states followed the lead of Mississippi. South Carolina disfranchised African Americans in 1895, by adopting amendments to its constitution that called for a two-year residence test, a $1 poll tax, a literacy test, and a property-ownership test. The property-ownership test established ownership of property in the state valued at $3000 (or greater) as another prerequisite to voting. Similarly, Louisiana amended its constitution in 1898 by adopting a new stratagem of disfranchisement called the grandfather clause. Under this clause, any male citizen whose father and grandfather had been qualified to vote on January 1, 1867 (just before the start of Reconstruction), was automatically eligible to vote, regardless of his ability to pass any of the new eligibility tests or to pay the poll tax. Prior to January 1, 1867, African Americans had not been eligible to vote in Louisiana. Thus, it was established that African Americans would be required to comply with the various eligibility tests and pay the poll tax in order to exercise their Fifteenth Amendment right to vote in Louisiana.

By 1910 African Americans were effectively disfranchised by constitutional amendments in North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, and Oklahoma, and other Southern states. The campaigns to reestablish white hegemony were often buttressed by violence. Race riots flared up—in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898; in Atlanta, Georgia, after an election in 1906; and in other cities. Dozens of African Americans died in their attempts to exercise their Fifteenth Amendment rights.

Effectiveness of Disfranchisement

The disfranchisement of African Americans yielded the sought-after results. For example, 130,344 African Americans were registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896 and constituted voting majorities in twenty-six parishes. But in 1900, just two years after the adoption of the new state constitution, only 5,320 African Americans were registered to vote. Similarly, of 181,471 African Americans of voting age in Alabama in 1900, only 3,000 were eligible to vote under that state's new constitution.

The disfranchisement of African Americans was hailed throughout the South as a furtherance of progressive statesmanship. African Americans were viewed as too ignorant, too poor, and/or too inferior to participate in their own self-governance. Those who were in basic agreement with this credo would have taken comfort in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which provided "scientific" justification for the systematic, government-sanctioned exclusion of African Americans from mainstream society. According to its editors: "[T]he negro would appear to stand on a lower evolutionary plane than the white man, and to be more closely related to the highest anthropoids." In response to such charges, African Americans pointed to the exemplary record of African-American achievement during Reconstruction, which included innovative achievements in public finance, building construction, and public education. Indeed, African Americans had been responsible for the establishment of the first public school systems in many Southern states. But no quantity of truth or logic was going to persuade white Southerners to abandon their designs.

Jim Crow Appears

The major push for the installment of Jim Crow laws in the South came after Reconstruction; especially after the state constitutions had been amended so as to remove the only obstruction to the creation of Jim Crow laws that had remained (the authority of politically powerful African Americans). These laws were established throughout the South. They mandated racial segregation in all public facilities, including hotels, restaurants, theaters, schools, vehicles of public transportation, and other places of public accommodation. Jim Crow laws denied African Americans employment and housing opportunities. Worse, African Americans were often arrested under local vagrancy and peonage laws, and subsequently hired out by sheriffs, who made tidy profits in the ventures. Thus, having enshrined white supremacy in new constitutions—the fundamental laws of the states—Southern states securely established the color line as the point at which African Americans and whites would be segregated.

The federal government was more than complicit in the apartheid system that became established in the South. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court upheld the separate-but-equal doctrine as the federal constitutional underpinning of the Jim Crow laws. Despite passage of federal civil rights legislation, Congress continued to segregate Washington, D.C., and refused to pass an anti-lynching law—something that African-American activist Ida B. Wells had fought for so courageously. Wells had been galvanized into action by the ritualized lynching of African Americans (mostly male African Americans).

Lynchings began in the South shortly after the Civil War. They were an effort to terrorize the newly freed slaves—an attempt "to keep them in their place"—and continued well into the twentieth century. Indeed, at the start of the twentieth century, there were in the public record 214 lynchings from the first two years alone. Before the end of Jim Crow thousands of African-American males and females would die by lynching. So rampant and targeted were the lynchings (often taking place in carnival-like atmospheres) that a white poet and songwriter, Abel Meeropol (also known as Lewis Allan), was motivated to write a musical protest song entitled "Strange Fruit." Made famous in 1939 by Billie Holiday, an African-American blues singer, the ballad gives a mock-lyrical description of black bodies left hanging from trees for all to see. The lyrics include: "Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood on the root / Black body swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."

Although the Jim Crow ethos manifested itself in the form of rigid, racially repressive laws in the South, it reared its head in the North mainly in the form of social norms. Though the norms in many ways required less segregation than the laws, they were rigorously enforced and often just as racially repressive. Both the laws and the social customs denied opportunities to African Americans. As one white Southerner observed of his first visit to the North in the 1930s: "Proudly cosmopolitan New York was in most respects more thoroughly segregated than any Southern city: with the exception of a small coterie of intellectuals, musicians, and entertainers there was little traffic between the white world and the black enclave in upper Manhattan called Harlem" (Brooks, 1999, p. 396).

Death of Jim Crow

Jim Crow began its death march in 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education (actually four similar cases that the court decided to hear simultaneously). This decision, quite simply, changed forever the course of race relations in the United States. In the Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for a unanimous court, held that "in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place." With those carefully chosen words a judicial decision that had to do with public education became the most important action of the U.S. government since the Emancipation Proclamation.

In banning racial segregation in public schools, the Supreme Court sought nothing less than to use society's most basic outpost of acculturation as the setting in which African Americans and whites (indeed all races, ethnic groups, and cultures) could be brought together for a lateral transmission of values. Hence, much more than school segregation was at stake in Brown. The court had been called upon to pass judgment on a morally corrupted way of life that the nation had known in one form or another since its inception—indeed a regime of racial domination and subjugation that predated the republic itself. The Supreme Court, thereby, placed itself in the vanguard of a third American revolution—the revolution that followed behind the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

This third revolution was engineered by a team of lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP). The lawyers included Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall (who would later become the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court), Constance Baker Motley, and Robert Carter. Carter, who along with Motley would later become a federal judge, summarized the significance of Brown when he observed that the case had transformed the legal status of African Americans from that of "mere supplicants seeking, pleading, [and] begging to be treated as full-fledged members of the human race" to persons entitled to equal treatment under the law.

Although Brown did not put an end to Jim Crow in 1954, it was a stimulus to the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Martin Luther King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech, which so galvanized the supporters of the civil rights movement who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, was a stab in the heart of Jim Crow—its norm of white supremacy—no less than was Brown. Both struck strong blows for racial equality. Certainly, the civil rights legislation enacted by Congress in the 1960s and early 1970s—beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and ending with the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972—would not have been possible without Brown. It is doubtful that, in the absence of the Brown decision, a racially skittish Congress would have passed civil rights statutes in contravention of the constitutional principle of separate but equal.

In the South and the North, African Americans were a subordinated people in the Jim Crow era. As during the period of slavery, African Americans during Jim Crow were targets for ill treatment and exploitation, singled out for invidious discrimination. They were abused physically and psychologically. They were the victims of a "crime against humanity." Neither Brown, the civil rights movement, nor the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s has fully repaired the damaged visited upon African Americans by three and a half centuries of criminal treatment.

SEE ALSO Racism; Rosewood; Slavery, Historical; Slavery, Legal Aspects of


Ball, Charles (1854). A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, 3rd edition. Pittsburgh, Pa.: John T. Shryock.

Brooks, Roy L. (1999). "Redress for Racism?" In When Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice, ed. Roy L. Brooks. New York: New York University Press.

Davis, David Brion (2001). In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Douglass, Frederick (1892). Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History, Written by Himself. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

Feagin, Joe R. (2000). Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. (2001). The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery, ed. Ward M. McAfee. New York: Oxford University Press.

Finkelman, Paul (1966). Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. (1988). From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, 6th edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Friedman, Leon, ed. (1965). Southern Justice. New York: Pantheon Books.

Higginbotham, A. Leon, Jr. (1978). In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Paul (1998). A History of the American People. New York: HarperCollins.

Klarman, Michael J. (2003). From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kluger, Richard (1976). Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Litwack, Leon (1961). North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Litwack, Leon (1979). Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Litwack, Leon (1999). Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

McPherson, James M. (1997). For Cause & Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nichols, Charles H. (1963). Many Thousand Gone: The Ex-Slaves' Account of Their Bondage and Freedom. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Roy L. Brooks

African Americans

views updated May 29 2018

African Americans


The term African American has typically referred to descendants of enslaved and indentured black Africans transplanted by force into what is now the United States. The terms African American, black, and Afro-American are sometimes used interchangeably. African American has supplanted other designations, such as Negro, derived from the word Negroid, coined in the eighteenth century by European anthropologists. African American is sometimes applied more broadly to descendants of all ten million or more Africans forcibly transported to the Western Hemisphere from the beginning of the sixteenth century until the 1860s.

Africans shipped to the United States represented over forty ethnic groups from twenty-five different kingdoms, but constituted only 7 percent of all Africans transported to the Western Hemisphere by 1810. Over time, their descendants in the United States formed a composite identity shaped primarily by shared conditions, since historical circumstances and systematic de-Africanization efforts precluded the tracing of ancestry to precise points of origin. African American identity has been and is continuing to be constructed out of an African cultural and historical legacy, but it is shaped within the framework of intragroup cooperation and intergroup conflict within American society.

Chattel slavery contributed significantly to preCivil War economic growth in the United States. The invention of the cotton gin (1793) dramatically increased the demand for slaves by lowering the cost of cotton production and inducing landowners to expand production beyond coastal areas. Approximately one million African Americans were redeployed from the upper to the lower South via a well-organized urban-based internal slave trade. Slavery was a normal feature of southern American citiesin 1860 there were approximately seventy thousand urban slaves. Exploitation of African American labor resulted in a massive increase in cotton production from 300,000 bales in 1820 to nearly 4.5 million bales in 1860. Plantation owners used harsh physical punishments such as whippings, brandings, and amputations along with incentives to garner compliance. Incentives included prizes for the largest quantity of cotton picked, year-end bonuses, time off, and plots of land. Developing reliable estimates of income and wealth generated by slavery is difficult because much of the accumulated wealth of the slave regime was destroyed by the Civil War. Some income financed planters conspicuous consumption, a portion was converted into personal wealth holdings, and another fraction provided capital for large-scale industrial ventures.

A dramatic disparity in wealth holdings between African Americans and white Americans constitutes one of the most enduring legacies of slavery. While emancipation enabled African Americans to increase the portion of income actually received from agricultural pursuits, forces reproducing wealth disparities ensured continuing subjugation. The arrangements by which most African Americans remained tied to the agricultural sector were characterized as the tenancy system. Three different classes of tenancy emerged: cash tenancy, share tenancy, and sharecropping. Sharecroppers, the status to which African Americans were disproportionately relegated, owned nothing. Implements were supplied by the landowners on credit and the sharecropper paid half the crop as rent to the landowner. Debt peonage emerged when the croppers share of the harvest was insufficient to repay the landlord. Landlords often charged exorbitant interest rates for supplies and failed to give croppers their full share of the harvest value. Sharecropping laws required that indebted croppers remain on landlords land until all debts were satisfied.

Prior to World War I (1914-1918), African Americans remained overwhelmingly rural residents. In 1910 over 90 percent of the 9.8 million African Americans lived in the South and only 25 percent lived in cities of 2,500 or more. Between 1890 and 1910 the percentage of African American males employed in agriculture fell only slightly; the occupational situation of females actually worsened. The persisting effects of institutional discrimination introduced during earlier periods led to an unusual set of circumstances whereby the occupational and economic status of African Americans declined as their absolute and relative education was increasing. The opposite pattern would have been predicted by traditional economic models. Moreover, the trends in inequality that developed during this period were reproduced into the 1980s.

Spurred by floods, crop destruction by boll weevils, and the need for workers in war-related industries, the first net exodus from the South of about 454,000 African Americans occurred between 1910 and 1920. During World War I, the Division of Negro Economics was established within the U.S. Department of Labor to reduce tensions resulting from the introduction of African American workers into northern factories. The wisdom of this initiative was reinforced by race riots in Chicago, Omaha, and Washington, DC, during the summer of 1919.

Northward migration initiated a redefinition of African American identity that manifested itself most visibly in the cultural movement termed the Harlem Renaissance and the associated concept of the New Negro. The negritude movement that developed in the French African and Caribbean colonies introduced similar reconceptualizations of black identity. The African American scholar Alain Locke (1886-1954) declared that this redefined identity reflected a transformation in psychology such that the mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority (1925, p. 631).

Efforts to translate this new sense of identity into economic gains proved, however, to be problematic. Throughout the interwar period, rapid technological change increasingly pushed African Americans out of the agricultural sector. By 1930 the percentages of African American males and females employed in agriculture had fallen to 45 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Opportunities for manufacturing employment for African Americans were largely restricted to nonunionized industries, prompting a resurgence of self-organizing efforts, such as those of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, formed by the labor leader A. Philip Randolph (1889 1979).

Many African Americans capitalized on the new industrial employment opportunities generated by World War II (1939-1945), and this prospect contributed to a net southern out-migration of 1.6 million between 1940 and 1950. Between 1910 and 1950 the proportion of African American males employed as operatives increased from 6 percent to 22 percent. By 1950 the proportion of African American males and females employed in agriculture had fallen to 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively. For African American women, the decline in agricultural employment was associated with increases in employment as service workers, operatives, clerical and sales workers, and private household workers. These employment shifts contributed to a marked improvement in African Americans economic progress after World War II. Even before the civil rights movement took center stage in 1956, one in every three urban African American families owned their own home.

The civil rights and Black Power movements signaled shifts in the political and economic consciousness of African Americans catalyzed, in part, by the emergence of a larger and more diverse middle class. The two movements offered different approaches to addressing identity and economic advancement issues. The civil rights movement promoted complete integration of African Americans through elimination of all legalized segregation and discrimination, whereas the Black Power movement emphasized group solidarity and self-determination. It is important to note that the ideologies undergirding these movements were influenced significantly by such Caribbean scholars as Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), C. L. R. James (1901-1989), and Eric Williams (1911-1981), as well as the liberation movements that developed in the African colonies. The most concrete policy outcomes of the civil rights movement were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Equal Housing Act of 1968. Measures focusing on redistribution of economic benefits, such as affirmative action, have proved to be more controversial and less successful.

While nondiscrimination and affirmative action policies have undoubtedly contributed to increases in the relative income of African Americans, as well as significant improvements in occupational distribution, many African Americans have not experienced significant improvements in economic well-being. Moreover, data covering the mid-1990s to the first decade of the twenty-first century paint a fairly consistent picture of racial wealth disparitiesnamely, that the wealth of African American families is less than one-fifth that of whites. Stagnation in the quality of life of many African Americans has resulted, in part, from disproportionate vulnerability to forces associated with transformation of the U.S. economy. Between 1960 and 2000, the percentage of men working as operatives, fabricators, and laborers has declined from 46 to 29 for African Americans and from 25 to 18 for white Americans. About 50 percent of all workers displaced as a result of plant closings and relocations had been employed in manufacturing, and African Americans have been significantly overrepresented among displaced workers. In the wake of these employment shifts, African American men have a much higher unemployment rate than other groups, and between 1991 and 2000 the percentage of African American men not in the labor force has averaged 26, compared to 15 for whites.

Black Power ideology emphasizes African American self-determination, economic self-sufficiency, and black pride; these foci became a catalyst for the displacement of terms like Negro and colored. Black and Afro-American were in vogue briefly, but African American became the most popular term during the 1980s. Advocates of African American argue that this term is consistent with the nations immigrant tradition of hyphenated Americans, which preserves links between people and their or their ancestors geographic origins. For many, African American describes cultural and historical roots and also conveys pride and a sense of kinship and solidarity with other African diasporans.

Embracing the designation African American is not symbolic of a commitment to the type of cultural nationalism advocated by Black Power proponents. This is especially the case in the economic arena, although some contemporary commentators claim that African Americans disposable income constitutes a potential form of collective economic power, an argument reminiscent of those advanced in the past. However, suburbanization of a significant segment of the black middle class has stymied efforts to promote any functional type of economic development in the black community, which would require, among other conditions, the capacity to exercise sufficient control over economic resources to mobilize production processes and create markets.

Ironically, African American suburbanization has also not produced outcomes anticipated by integrationists, such as substantial reductions in residential segregation. Like their inner-city counterparts, African American suburban dwellers experience a high degree of residential segregation. In addition, middle-class suburbanization has increased the isolation experienced by inner-city African American residents, and has made it increasingly difficult to ameliorate persisting economic and social inequalities. The economic prospects of inner-city African American residents are constrained, in part, by a spatial mismatch between job location and place of residence as African Americans generally have the longest travel times to work in all regions of the country where public transportation is available.

Divergence of interests between middle-class and other African Americans creates new complications in defining African American identity. Each group accesses different configurations of social capital, that is, the complex of resources associated with group membership that individuals can use to enhance well-being. Persisting differences in social capital can generate disparate conceptions of group identity. Conventional notions of African American identity are also challenged by phenotypical discrimination reminiscent of patterns associated with the one-drop rule operative during the slavery and Jim Crow eras that led to formal designations of the extent of African parentagemulatto (1/2), quadroon (1/4), and octoroon (1/8).

Phenotypical discrimination results in African Americans and Latinos with the darkest and most non-European phenotype receiving lower incomes, having less stable employment, and obtaining less prestigious occupations than counterparts who are lighter or have more European physical features. In some studies, skin tone has been found to be the most important determinant of occupational status other than an individuals education. Internalization of beliefs that skin-shade differences reflect membership in different groups adds ambiguity to efforts to define African American identity. In the 1980s parents of mixed-race children lobbied for the addition of a more inclusive term in census racial designations to reflect the multiple heritages of their offspring, and the term biracial has become more widely used and accepted to classify people of mixed race, reintroducing divisions between black and biracial subgroups into the American social-identity fabric.

Contemporary immigration patterns also have important economic and identity consequences for those traditionally defined as African American. There is ongoing disagreement about the impact of international migration on African American employment, but some researchers maintain that immigration lowers the wages and reduces the labor supply of competing native workers, with the largest effects on high school dropouts. Increasingly, African American is applied to recent immigrants and their offspring from African and diasporan countries, irrespective of preferred self-identification. In every year between 1995 and 2003 (with the exception of 1999), over forty thousand documented immigrants from African nations entered the United States, with the largest numbers originating in Nigeria and Ghana. First-generation African and Caribbean immigrants tend to identify most strongly with their country of origin, although many of their offspring identify with domestic African Americans. Some immigrants from South American countries are also classified as African American, but are even less likely to identify with domestic African Americans.

To the extent that the designation African American and related terms are increasingly used to collect information regarding economic outcomes for diverse subgroups, researchers should practice extreme care in interpreting data to ensure that aggregate data do not mask inequalities experienced by identifiable subgroups. There are likely to be differences across subgroups in income-generating characteristics. In addition, the types of phenotypical and linguistic discrimination experienced by immigrants may parallel forms of discrimination experienced by domestic African Americans, but, a priori, it cannot be assumed that the consequences for economic outcomes are identical. As a consequence, ameliorative strategies may need to be tailored specifically to address the unique circumstances of various subgroups.

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; African American Studies; Black Arts Movement; Black Conservatism; Black Liberalism; Black Middle Class; Black Panthers; Black Power; Blackness; Capitalism, Black; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Discrimination ; Dred Scott v. Sanford; Ethnic Enterprises; Harlem Renaissance; Harris, Abram L.; Jim Crow; Lewis, W. Arthur; Politics, Black; Politics, Urban; Race; Race and Anthropology; Rand Economics; Race and Education; Race Relations; Racial Classification; Racism; Reconstruction Era (U.S.); Reparations; Separate-but-Equal; Slave Trade; Slavery; U.S. Civil War; Weaver, Robert C.


America, Richard, ed. 1990. The Wealth of Races: The Present Value of Benefits from Past Injustices. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Baugh, John. 1991. The Politicization of Changing Terms of Self Reference Among American Slave Descendants. American Speech 66 (2): 133-146.

Borjas, George. 2003. The Labor Demand Curve Is Downward Sloping: Reexamining the Impact of Immigration on the Labor Market. Quarterly Journal of Economics 118 (4): 1335-1374.

Conrad, Cecilia, John Whitehead, Patrick Mason, and James Stewart, eds. 2005. African Americans in the U.S. Economy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Darity, William, Jr., Patrick Mason, and James Stewart. 2006. The Economics of Identity: The Origin and Persistence of Racial Norms. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 60 (3): 283-305.

Fogel, Robert. 1989. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: Norton.

Hughes, Emmet. 1956. The Negros New Economic Life. Fortune (September): 127-131.

Jacobson, Louis, Robert LaLonde, and David Sullivan. 1993. The Costs of Worker Dislocation. Kalamazoo, MI: Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Keith, Verna, and Cedric Herring. 1991. Skin Tone and Stratification in the Black Community. American Journal of Sociology 97 (3): 760-778.

Locke, Alain. 1925. Enter the New Negro. Survey Graphic Harlem 6 (6) (March): 631-634.

Office of Immigration Statistics, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2004. 2003 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Editions from 1975 to 2003 available online at

Smitherman, Geneva. 1991. What Is Africa to Me?: Language, Ideology, and African American. American Speech 66 (2): 115-132.

Stewart, James. 1977. Historical Patterns of Black-White Political Economic Inequality in the United States and the Republic of South Africa. Review of Black Political Economy 7 (3): 266-295.

Stewart, James. 2004. Globalization, Cities, and Racial Inequality at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Review of Black Political Economy 31 (3): 11-32.

Trotter, Joe, Jr. 2001. The African American Experience. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

James B. Stewart

African Americans

views updated May 18 2018

African Americans

LOCATION: United States
POPULATION: 37 million (half of whom live in the Southern states, 2006)
LANGUAGE: English (sometimes with Black English variants)
RELIGION: National Baptist Convention; Church of God in Christ (Pentecostal); Roman Catholicism; Nation of Islam; African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Orthodox Church; Judaism; Rastafarianism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Americans


Unlike other immigrants to the United States, the ancestors of today's African Americans did not come to America of their own free will. Beginning in 1619, they were captured and forcibly brought from their West African homelands to serve as slaves, mostly on Southern plantations. The inhuman conditions aboard the ships on which they traveled killed many Africans before they reached the New World. When the thirteen British colonies declared and ultimately won their independence from Britain in the 18th century, the institution of slavery was retained, although largely confined to the Southern states. During the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the Southern slaves; the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed in December 1865, abolished all slavery in the United States. At the close of the Civil War, African Americans accounted for 14% of the U.S. population.

The newly freed slaves made progress during Reconstruction, especially in education, but the end of this period, in 1877, brought a new era of repression marked by lynchings and other forms of persecution, in which the recently formed Ku Klux Klan played a prominent role. In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed. The following two decades saw the migration of about 1.6 million Southern blacks to Northern cities in search of newly available industrial jobs. Weathering the hardships of the Depression, blacks continued their northward migration through the years of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies and World War II.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the country's most egregious forms of racism were eliminated, as blacks joined forces to demand their legal and human rights through civil disobedience and other forms of protest and social activism. The 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declared school segregation illegal. Progress was also made in the area of voting rights, as well as the desegregation of public facilities, especially in the South. In 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The 1960s also saw the growth of the black nationalist movement, whose leadership was assumed by the Black Panthers following the assassination of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X.

By the 1970s, African Americans had been elected as mayors of several major cities, and affirmative action programs had created new opportunities in employment and education. However, many of these programs were weakened or eliminated during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the country's continuing racial tensions were brought to the forefront of national attention by events including the riots in Los Angeles in response to the court's decision in the Rodney King case and the 1995 acquittal in the O. J. Simpson murder trial.

African-American achievement in American society has been remarkable in the 21st century. Black political leaders in the late 20th and early 21st centuries included: civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who ran for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988; Douglas Wilder, elected the first state governor (Virginia) in the United States in 1989; Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, who became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate (1992); General Colin Powell, Chairman of the U.S. Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989–1993, and Secretary of State, 2001–2005; Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser from 2001–2004, and Secretary of State beginning in 2005; Ron Brown, United States Secretary of Commerce, 1993–1996; Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas; and President Barack Obama, who was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in 2009.


According to the United States Census Bureau, there were an estimated 37 million African Americans in the United States in 2006, a population larger than that of most African nations and one that represents 12.4% of the total U.S. population. The Census Bureau projects the black population of the United States to rise to 61.4 million by July 1, 2050. On that date, blacks would constitute 14.6% of the nation's total population. As of 2006, 18 U.S. states had a black population of at least 1 million. New York, with 3.5 million blacks, led the way. The 17 other states were Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Approximately 31% of the black population was younger than 18 in 2006. At the other end of the spectrum, 8% of the black population was 65 and older.


African Americans speak English, although some blacks, either in addition to or instead of Standard American English, speak a variant known as Black English Vernacular (BEV), or Black English. In the late 1990s, the term ebonics was coined by linguists to refer to the grammar of Black English. The grammar and syntax of Black English are traceable to West African and Niger-Congo languages. They include the frequent omission of forms of the verb "to be" ("He nice" instead of "He is nice"); the use of "be" in place of "is" ("He be home today"); the absence of endings from third person singular verbs ("She know"); absence of the possessives when possession is signified by word order ("That John house"); replacement of a final "th" sound in a word by an "f" sound ("I going wif you"); and replacement of indefinite pronouns such as "anyone" by negative pronouns when verbs are negated ("He don't like nobody"). Black English Vernacular has introduced African words such as goober (peanut), tote (carry), juke (juke box), and okay into the English language, as well as produced original terms later incorporated widely into general informal or conversational use, such as jive, hip, and jazz. In other cases, Standard English terms have been given new meanings, as in the case of cat, rap, bad, and awesome.

In 1996, Black English Vernacular, newly labeled Ebonics, was the subject of nationwide debate when the Oakland, California, school board passed a resolution declaring it a separate language distinct from standard English in order to institute programs aimed at educating teachers in this dialect and inculcating respect for its African linguistic roots.


African Americans have a folklore tradition that dates back to the period of black slavery. Early forms of African-American folklore include animal-trickster tales, spirituals, and folk beliefs, such as the belief in conjurers, figures similar to African medicine men who, by using spells and charms, could either heal or cause injury. Folk traditions were also passed down through the generations by proverbs, sermons, prayers, and a variety of folktales.

Modern African-American folklore includes the "dozens," insult matches favored especially by young men and generally including disparaging remarks about each other's mothers. Another popular type of folklore consists of rumors about organized anti-black conspiracies. Today these rumors take the form of "urban legends" that are in widespread circulation in the black community but virtually unknown to other ethnic communities. Examples include the assertions that the Ku Klux Klan tampers with Church's fried chicken in ways that cause sterility among black men; that American scientists de-liberately created the AIDS virus and then attempted to test it by infecting African populations with it; and that twenty-eight African Americans were killed in the course of interferon research at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.


The National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc., with some 7.5 million members in 2008, is the largest black religious denomination, followed by the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal sect (2008 membership of over 6 million). Roman Catholicism (with a black membership of more than 2 million in 2008) and the Nation of Islam both claim large black followings as well. Other religious affiliations include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Orthodox Church, Judaism, and Rastafarianism.


African Americans observe the national holidays of the United States and the religious holidays of the faiths to which they belong. Dates with special significance for African Americans are the birthdays of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., on January 15 and of Malcolm X on May 19, and Juneteenth, which commemorates the date on which black slaves in Texas learned that they were free—June 19, 1865. In 1994 Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, designating the third Monday in January (near Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday) as a national day of volunteer service. The joyous holiday of Kwanzaa, the festival of first fruits, is celebrated from December 26 to January 1. Each day of this holiday, inaugurated by the philosopher Maulana Karenga in 1966, is devoted to and named for a particular virtue.


African Americans with active religious involvement mark major life events such as birth, marriage, and death within their respective religious traditions. "Jumping the broom" is a time-honored custom at African-American weddings. The African Americans of Louisiana's New Orleans Creole community are known for their jazz funerals. Observers within the black community have decried the lack of coming-of-age rituals for young black men, and some groups, including the Urban League and PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) have developed rite-of-passage programs that focus on responsibility, values, character, and discipline. (PUSH also offers such programs for young women.) Increasing numbers of parents are also adopting African-based rites of passage for children, which are called mfundalai, or Changing Season rites.


Common greetings in Black English Vernacular include "Word up," "Yo," and "Look out." A common nonverbal greeting consists of slapping another person's outstretched palm. When done above the head it is called a "high five"; at knee level it is a "low five." The women's version of this greeting consists of sliding one's forefinger across the forefinger of the other woman. Expressions of farewell include "See you later," "Word to the Mother" (referring to the motherland of Africa), and "Stay black." "Man" is commonly used in informal situations as a form of address for men; black women often address each other as "girlfriend" or "sista." Many young African Americans still observe the West African custom of addressing their elders as "Aunt" or "Uncle." Like people from many Asian and Latin American cultures, African Americans, especially those from the South, often avoid eye contact as a sign of respect.


African Americans have a disproportionately high incidence of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, AIDS, obesity, and asthma than whites. The health of low-income blacks in particular is affected by a lack of affordable high-quality medical care and the health insurance that could pay for it. The rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) for black infants is as much as twice as high as for whites, a fact attributed to the lower quality of prenatal care many black mothers receive. However, recent increases in life expectancy have been pronounced among black males, whose average life expectancy increased from 64.5 years in 1990 to 69.5 years in 2004, following a decline in life expectancy in the late 1980s. Some of this increase reflects declines in homicide rates among black males during the mid- and late-1990s. Despite these increases, however, black children are still almost twice as likely as white children to die before reaching age 20. In 2004, white newborns had an average life expectancy of 78.3 years, compared with 73.1 years among black newborns.

Limited in their choice of housing by income and racial discrimination, the great majority of African Americans lived in substandard housing until the middle of the 20th century. Between 1950 and 1970 the proportion of blacks living in sub-standard dwellings dropped from 73% to 23%. In 2005, 48.2% of blacks owned their own homes, compared with 69% of the total population and 72.7% of whites. Blacks are disproportionately represented among the impoverished of the United States: in 2006, 24.2% of blacks were below the poverty line, compared to 12.3% for the total population. As a result, they are more likely than whites to need housing assistance. African Americans are also disproportionately represented among those who have criminal records, and as such are more likely to be rejected for public housing on that basis.


African-American family life offers many variations on the nuclear-family model, including single-parent families (usually headed by women); "blended" families that include a couple's children with previous partners as well as any children they may have together; adults, who live together, with or without children; and extended families, which have long played an especially important role in the lives of African Americans. In addition to grandparents, extended families may include aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives, who may join the nuclear family either temporarily or long-term. One prominent social trend has been a decrease in the number of married African-American couples, which has been associated with a variety of factors, including a demographic shortage of black men; increased opportunities for black women in the labor market; imprisonment of large numbers of black men; unemployment and low earnings among black men; and rising rates of intermarriage.


African Americans wear clothing similar to that worn by other Americans. Certain fashions among inner-city youth, such as baggy, loose-fitting pants that hang down far below the waist and baseball caps worn backwards, have caught on among young men of other ethnic and racial groups. Doo rags are also in vogue among black men. Doo rags are made of a silk-like material, usually black, that wraps around the skull, with a small flap hanging down in the rear, over the neck. They were popularized by hip hop artists in the 2000s.


Traditional African-American food, commonly known as "soul food," originated with the mingling of the West African culinary heritage of black slaves with the cooking styles and available foods of the American South. In particular, the African custom of using all edible parts of both plants and animals was of great importance to the sustenance of blacks, who had to make do with scraps and leftovers. This practice has been especially evident in the preparation of pork, which has long been the most common meat eaten by African Americans, who traditionally used virtually all parts of the animal, including the hocks, snout, ears, feet, and tail—everything, it was said, "but the oink." Other dietary staples of African-American diet have included chicken, corn, both white and sweet potatoes, okra, and a variety of greens. Barbecues are popular among African Americans, who take great pride in their sauce recipes. Depending on geographical region, fish has also been a staple of the African-American diet, and fish sandwiches with hot sauce on white bread are a current favorite in black communities. Popular desserts, including pralines and shortening bread, are often sweetened with molasses; and watermelon, which was brought to the New World from Africa, is still a favorite food.


Education has been a strong concern of those seeking to improve the lives of African Americans, especially those in inner-city neighborhoods. In 2005, 6% of non-Hispanic whites ages 16 to 24 were not enrolled in school and had not completed high school, compared with 11% of blacks. As of the 2000 census, there were 14.4 million African Americans who held at least a high school diploma, and 2.8 million African Americans who held a bachelor's degree or higher. Cities including Baltimore, Detroit, and Milwaukee have experimented with Afrocentric and multicultural curricula and other programs geared toward the cultural background and educational needs of African-American youth. Among the oldest black colleges in the nation are Wilberforce University, Fisk University, Talladega College, Morehouse College, Howard University, and Tougaloo College.


The most famous period in African-American literature was the Harlem Renaissance between the two World Wars, when writers including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston exposed racial injustice in works that reflected their personal experience. Classics of black literature in the years following this period included Richard Wright's Native Son, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. The Black Aesthetic Movement of the 1960s and 1970s reflected developments of the civil rights and black nationalist movements, as well as African Americans' growing awareness of their African cultural roots. Since the 1970s, many black women writers have risen to prominence, including Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Carolyn Ferrell.

Important genres of African-American music include spirituals, gospel, rhythm and blues ("R&B"), ragtime, jazz, soul, Motown, funk, rap, and hip hop music. Some of the greatest names of the jazz tradition include trumpeter Louis Armstrong, vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, bandleaders Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker, and trumpeter Miles Davis.

Prominent African-American visual artists in the 20th century have included Romare Bearden, Benford Delaney, Jacob Douglas, Aaron Douglas, Horace Pippin, Clementine Hunter, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Kara Walker is a 21st century American artist whose works are known for their exploration of race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity.


African Americans—and especially black men—are more likely to be unemployed and to work in low paying jobs than whites. But trends are showing that African Americans are making strides in employment in the 21st century. For instance, in 2007, for the first time in five years, the African-American unemployment rate dropped, from 8.4% in December 2006 to 8% in January 2007. In 1991 only 18% of blacks were employed in professional and managerial jobs. By 2006, 27% of blacks age 16 and older worked in management, professional, and related occupations. Nevertheless, black households had the lowest median income in 2004 ($30,134). Asian households had the highest median income ($57,518); the median income for non-Hispanic white households was $48,977 and $34,241 for Hispanic households.


Many disadvantaged black youths have dreamed of a professional sports career—especially in basketball—as a way out of the urban ghetto, a dream most poignantly portrayed in the 1994 documentary film Hoop Dreams, which chronicled the lives of two talented inner-city teens over several years. Although the chances of making it as a professional athlete are slim, sports scholarships give many young blacks educational opportunities that can provide solid, if less spectacular, forms of upward mobility.

Within the field of professional sports, current issues include the hiring of blacks in coaching and front-office positions. In addition to the accomplishments of great African-American athletes in basketball, baseball, boxing, and football, black athletes have more recently made pioneering achievements in what had been all-white sports, tennis and golf. Arthur Ashe became the first black American to garner the Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships, and African American tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams have both been ranked number one in the world. In 1997 21-year-old Tiger Woods became the first athlete of black ancestry to win the Masters' Tournament. As of 2008, Woods was the top golf player in the world and the highest-paid professional athlete in 2006. By 2008 Woods had won 13 major golf championships, the second highest of any male player, and 64 PGA Tour events.


African Americans enjoy many of the same types of leisure-time activities as other Americans, including television, movies, concerts, dancing, family gatherings, and both participatory and spectator sports. The Black Entertainment Television cable network broadcasts hip-hop and R&B music videos, black collegiate sports, public affairs programs, reruns of popular programs, religious programming, and urban-oriented movies and series. Dance clubs, at which music is provided by disk jockeys, create a sense of community for many young people, with popular dance styles including hip-hop, lofting, and house.


Traditional forms of African-American folk art include basket weaving, pottery, wood-carving, quilting, and the making of musical instruments. Prominent characteristics of black folk art include a pervasive religious theme; the frequent appearance of bird, serpent, and other animal imagery; the use of significant figures in African-American history, both white and black, including Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and a talent for transforming scrap objects into works of art. Precisely this form of art was in evidence in "The Quilts of Gee's Bend," a nationwide exhibition of more than 60 quilts made between 1930 and 2000 by four generations of quilt makers from a rural community in Alabama. The New York Times declared that the exhibition featured "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced."


Social problems faced by African Americans include the lack of good jobs, high unemployment, gang violence, the sale and use of crack cocaine in inner-city areas, reductions in social spending by governments at all levels, the high teen pregnancy rate and high percentage of households headed by young single mothers, and tensions with recently arrived Asian and Hispanic immigrants. In 2006, 46% of all African-American children in the United States lived below the poverty level.


African American women face some of the same problems as other American women when it comes to gender discrimination. However, black women are more likely than white women to become pregnant when they are young and unmarried, which not only makes it difficult for them to hold together and support their families, but also may prevent them from furthering their educations or careers.

Gay and lesbian African Americans face disproportionate degrees of homophobia from the black community than whites face in the general culture. Researchers have suggested this is due in part to the prominence of the black church in African Americans' lives. Beginning in the 1980s, HIV/AIDS became a dominant area of concern for homosexuals.

BIBLIOGRAPHY, (March 31, 2008).

Bates, Karen Grigsby, and Karen Elyse Hudson. Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Billingsley, Andrew. Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 7thed. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Harris, Jessica B. The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Kelley, Robin D. G. "Into the Fire: African Americans Since 1970." The Young Oxford History of African Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Medearis, Angela Shelf. A Kwanzaa Celebration: Festive Recipes and Homemade Gifts from an African-American Kitchen. New York: Dutton, 1995.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, (March 31, 2008).

—revised by J. Hobby

African Americans

views updated May 08 2018

African Americans

ETHNONYMS: (contemporary) : Black Americans, Afro-Americans; (archaic): Colored, Negro


Identification. African Americans constitute the largest non-European racial group in the United States of America. Africans came to the area that became the United States in the sixteenth century with the Spaniards, but their first appearance as a group in the English colonies occurred in 1619, when twenty Africans were brought as indentured servants to Jamestown, Virginia. Subsequent importations of Africans from western Africa stretching from Morocco on the north to Angola on the south over a period of two hundred years greatly increased the African population in the United States. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, they numbered 4.5 million people. A composite People, comprised of numerous African ethnic groups including Yoruba, Wolof, Mandingo, Hausa, Asante, Fante, Edo, Fulani, Serer, Luba, Angola, Congo, Ibo, Ibibio, Ijaw, and Sherbro, African Americans have a common origin in Africa and a common struggle against racial oppression. Many African Americans show evidence of racial mixture with Native Americans, particularly Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Pawnee, as well as with Europeans from various ethnic backgrounds.

Location. African Americans were predominantly a rural and southern people until the Great Migration of the World War II era. Thousands of Africans moved to the major urban centers of the North to find better jobs and more equitable living conditions. Cities such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit became magnets for entire southern communities of African Americans. The lure of economic prosperity, political enfranchisement, and social mobility attracted many young men. Often women and the elderly were left on the farms in the South, and husbands would send for their families, and children for their parents, once they were established in their new homes. Residential segregation became a pattern in the North as it had been in the South. Some of these segregated communities in the North gained prominence and became centers for culture and commerce. Harlem in New York, North Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Woodlawn in Detroit, South Side in Chicago, and Hough in Cleveland were written into the African Americans' imagination as places of high style, fashion, culture, and business. The evolution of the African American communities from southern and rural to northern and urban has been going on since 1945. According to the 1980 census, the largest populations are found in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Houston, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Memphis. In terms of percentage of population, the five leading cities among those with populations of over 300,000 are Washington, D.C., 70 percent; Atlanta, 67 percent; Detroit, 65 percent; New Orleans, 55 percent; and Memphis, 49 percent. (East St. Louis, Illinois, is 96 percent African American, but its population is less than 100,000.)

Demography. The 1990 population of African Americans is estimated to be 35 million. In addition to those in the United States, there are approximately 1 million African Americans abroad, mainly in Africa, Europe, and South America. African Americans constitute about 12 percent of the American population. This is roughly equal to the percentages of Africans in the populations of Venezuela and Colombia. The largest population of African people outside the continent of Africa resides in Brazil; the second largest is in the United States of America. The following countries have the largest populations of Africans in the world: Nigeria, Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, Zaire, and the United States. The cities with the largest populations of African Americans are New York, 2.1 million; Chicago, 1.4 million; Detroit, over 800,000; Philadelphia, close to 700,000; and Los Angeles, more than 600,000. Seven states have African American populations of more than 20 percent. These are southern and predominantly rural: Mississippi, 35 percent; South Carolina, 30 percent; Louisiana, 29 percent; Georgia, 27 percent; Alabama, 16 percent; Maryland, 23 percent; and North Carolina, 22 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. African Americans are now native speakers of English. During the seventeenth century, most Africans in the Americas spoke West African languages as their first languages. In the United States, the African Population developed a highly sophisticated pidgin, usually referred to by linguists in its creolized form as Ebonics. This language was the prototype for the speech of the vast majority of African Americans. It was composed of African syntactical elements and English lexical items. Use of this language made it possible for Africans from various ethnic and linguistic groups (such as Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa, Akan, Wolof, and Mande) to communicate with one another as well as with the Europeans with whom they came in contact.

The impact of the African American language on American society has been thorough and all-embracing. From the ubiquitous "O.K.," a Wolof expression from Senegal, to the transformations of words like "bad" and "awesome" into different and more adequate expressions of something entirely original, one sees the imprint of African American styles that are derived from the African heritage. There are more than three thousand words, place names, and concepts with African origins found in the language of the United States. Indeed, the most dynamic aspects of the English language as spoken in the United States have been added by the popular speakers of the African American idiom, whether Contemporary rap musicians, past jazz musicians, or speakers of the street slang that has added so much color to American English. Proverbs, poems, songs, and hollers, which come with the historical saga of a people whose only epics are the spirituals, the great songs, provide a rich texture to the ever-evolving language of the African American people.

History and Cultural Relations

African Americans did not come freely to America. Theirs is not a history of a people seeking to escape political oppression, economic exploitation, religious intolerance, or social injustice. Rather, the ancestors of the present African Americans were stolen from the continent of Africa, placed on ships against their wills, and transported across the Atlantic. Most of the enslaved Africans went to Brazil and Cuba, but a great portion landed in the southern colonies or states of the United States. At the height of the European slave trade, almost every nation in Europe was involved in some aspect of the enterprise. As the trade grew more profitable and European captains became more ambitious, larger ships with specially built "slave galleries" were commissioned. These galleries between the decks were no more than eighteen inches in height. Each African was allotted no more than a sixteeninch wide and five-and-a-half-foot-long space for the many weeks or months of the Atlantic crossing. Here the Africans were forced to lie down shackled together in chains fastened to staples in the deck. Where the space was two feet high, Africans often sat with legs on legs, like riders on a crowded sled. They were transported seated in this position with a once-a-day break for exercise. Needless to say, many died or went insane.

The North made the shipping of Africans its business; the South made the working of Africans its business. From 757,208 in 1790 to 4,441,830 in 1860, the African American population grew both through increased birthrates and through importation of new Africans. By 1860, slavery had been virtually eliminated in the North and West, and by the end of the Civil War in 1865, it was abolished altogether. After the war, 14 percent of the population was composed of Africans, the ancestors of the overwhelming majority living in the United States today.

During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, African American politicians introduced legislation that provided for public education, one of the great legacies of the African American involvement in the legislative process of the nineteenth century. Education has always been seen as a major instrument in changing society and bettering the lives of African American people. Lincoln University and Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, Hampton in Virginia, and Howard University are some of the oldest institutions of learning for the African American community. Others, such as Tuskegee, Fisk, Morehouse, Spelman, and Atlanta University, are now a part of the American educational story of success and excellence.

The Great Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a new generation of African Americans who were committed to advancing the cause of justice and equality. Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a White man on a Montgomery city bus and created a stir that would not end until the most visible signs of racism were overthrown. Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as the leading spokesperson and chief symbol of a people tired of racism and segregation and prepared to fight and die if necessary in order to obtain legal and human rights. Malcolm X took the battle a step further, insisting that the African American was psychologically lost as well and therefore had to find historical and cultural validity in the reclamation of the African connection. Thus, out of the crucible of the 1960s came a more vigorous movement toward full recognition of the African past and legacy. Relationships with other groups depended more and more on mutual respect rather than the African Americans acting like clients of these other groups. African Americans expressed their concern that the Jewish community had not supported affirmative action, although there was a long history of Jewish support for African American causes. Accepting the role of vanguard in the struggle to extend the protection of the American Constitution to oppressed people, African Americans made serious demands on municipal and federal officials during the civil rights movement. Voting rights were guaranteed and protected, educational segregation was made illegal, and petty discriminations against African Americans in hotels and public facilities were eradicated by the sustained protests and demonstrations of the era.


African Americans have been key components in the Economic system of the United States since its inception. The initial relationship of the African American population to the economy was based upon enslaved labor. Africans were instrumental in establishing the industrial and agrarian power of the United States. Railroads, factories, residences, and places of business were often built by enslaved Africans. Now African Americans are engaged in every sector of the American economy, though the level of integration in some sectors is less than in others. A considerable portion of the African American population works in the industrial or service sectors. Others are found in the professions as opposed to small businesses. Thus, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and managers account for the principal professional workers. These patterns are based upon previous conditions of discrimination in businesses throughout the South. Most African Americans could find employment in communities where their professional services were needed; therefore, the above-mentioned professions and others that cater to the African American population provide numerous opportunities for employment. During the past twenty years, the number of businesses opened by African Americans has begun to increase again. During the period of segregation, many businesses existing solely for the convenience of the African American population flourished. When the civil rights movement ended most of the petty discriminations and it became possible for African Americans to trade and shop at other stores and businesses, the businesses located in the African American Community suffered. There is now a greater awareness of the need to see businesses as interconnected and interdependent with the greater American society. A larger and more equitable role is being played by women in the African American Community. Indeed, many of the chief leaders in the economic development of the African American community are and have been women. Both men and women have always worked in the majority of African American homes.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Marriage and Family. African American marriage and kinship patterns are varied, although most now conform to those of the majority of Americans. Monogamy is the overwhelming choice of most married people. Because of the rise of Islam, there is also a growing community of persons who practice polygyny. Lack of marriageable males is creating intense pressure to find new ways of maintaining traditions and parenting children. Within the African American population, one can find various arrangements that constitute Family. Thus, people may speak of family, aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers, and children without necessarily meaning that there is a genetic kinship. African Americans often say "brother" or "sister" as a way to indicate the possibility of that being the actual fact. In the period of the enslavement, individuals from the same family were often sold to different plantation masters and given the names of those owners, creating the possibility that brothers or sisters would have different surnames. Most of the names borne by African Americans are derived from the enslavement period. These are not African names but English, German, French, and Irish names, for the most part. Few African Americans can trace their ancestry back before the enslavement. Those that can do so normally have found records in the homes of the plantation owners or in the local archives of the South. African Americans love children and believe that those who have many children are fortunate. It is not uncommon to find families with more than four children.

Socialization. African American children are socialized in the home, but the church often plays an important role. Parents depend upon other family members to chastise, instruct, and discipline their children, particularly if the family Members live in proximity and the children know them well. Socialization takes place through rites and celebrations that grow out of religious or cultural observances. There is a growing interest in African child socialization patterns with the emergence of the Afrocentric movement. Parents introduce the mfundalai rites of passage at an early age in order to provide the child with historical referents. Increasingly, this rite has replaced religious rites within the African American tradition for children. Although it is called mfundalai in the Northeast, it may be referred to as the Changing Season rite in other sections of the United States. This was done in the past in the churches and schools, where children had to recite Certain details about heroines and heroes or about various aspects of African American history and culture in order to be considered mature in the culture. Many independent schools have been formed to gain control over the cultural and psychological education of African American children. A distrust of the public schools has emerged during the past twenty-five years because African Americans believe that it is difficult for their children to gain the self-confidence they need from teachers who do not understand or are insensitive to the culture. Youth clubs established along the lines of the African age-set groups are popular, as are drill teams and Formal youth groups, often called "street gangs" if they engage in delinquent behavior. These groups are, more often than not, healthy expressions of male and sometimes female socialization clubs. Church groups and community center organizations seek to channel the energies of these groups into positive socialization experiences. They are joined by the numerous Afrocentric workshops and seminars that train young people in traditional behaviors and customs.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. African Americans can be found in every stratum of the American population. However, it remains a fact that the vast majority of African Americans are outside of the social culture of the dominant society in the United States. In a little less than 130 years, African Americans who were emancipated with neither wealth nor good prospects for wealth have been able to advance in the American society against all odds. Considered determined and doggedly competitive in situations that threaten survival, African Americans have had to outrun economic disaster in every era. Discrimination against African Americans remains in private clubs, country clubs, social functions, and in some organizations. Nevertheless, African Americans have challenged hundreds of rules and regulations designed to limit choice. Among the major players in the battle for equal rights have been the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) and the Urban League. These two Organizations have advanced the social integration of the African American population on the legal and social welfare fronts. The naacp is the major civil rights organization as well as the oldest. Its history in the struggle for equality and justice is legendary. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court, was one of the organization's most famous lawyers. He argued twenty-four cases before the Supreme Court as a lawyer and is credited with winning twenty-three. Although there is no official organization of the entire African American population, and no truly mass movement that speaks to the interests of the majority of the people, the naacp comes closest to being a conscience for the nation and an organized response to oppression, discrimination, and racism. At the local level, many communities have organized Committees of Elders who are responsible for various activities within the communities. These committees are usually informal and are set up to assist the communities in determining the best strategies to follow in political and legal situations. Growing out of an Afrocentric emphasis on Community and cohesiveness, the committees are usually composed of older men and women who have made special contributions to the community through achievement or philanthropy.

Political Organization. African Americans participate freely in the two dominant political parties in the nation, Democratic and Republican. Most African Americans are Democrats, a legacy from the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats who brought about a measure of social justice and respect for the common people. There are more than six thousand African Americans who are elected officials in the United States, including the governor of Virginia and the mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit. A previous mayor of Chicago was also an African American. Concentrated in the central cities, the African American population has a strong impact on the Political processes of the older cities. The national Democratic party chairperson is of African American heritage, and some of the most prominent persons in the party are also African Americans. The Republican party has its share, though not as large, of African American politicians. There is no independent political party in the African American community, although it has remained one of the dreams of leading strategists.

Social Control and Conflict. Conflict is normally resolved in the African American community through the legal system, although there is a strong impetus to use consensus first. The idea of discussing an issue with other members of the community who might share similar values is a prevalent one within the African American society. A first recourse when problems arise is another person. This is true whether it is a personal problem or a problem with family members. Rather than calling a lawyer first, the African American is most likely to call a friend and seek advice. To some extent, the traditional African notion of retaining and maintaining harmony is at the heart of the matter. Conflicts should be resolved by people, not by law, is one of the adages.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. African Americans practice the three main monotheistic religions, as well as Eastern and African religions. The predominant faith is Christian, the second largest group of believers accept the ancestral religions of AfricaVodun, Santeria, Myaland a third group of followers practice Islam. Judaism and Buddhism are also practiced by some people within the community. Without understanding the complexity of religion in the African American Community, one should not venture too deeply into the nature of the culture. While the religions of Christianity and Islam seem to attract attention, the African religions are present everywhere, even in the minds of the Christians and Muslims. Thus, traditional practitioners have introduced certain rites that have become a part of the practices of the Christians and Muslims, such as African greetings and libations to ancestors. The African American is spiritually oriented; having given to the American society the spirituals, the master songs, the African American people have learned how to weave religion into everything so that there is no separation between religion and life. Many of the practitioners of the African religions use the founding of Egypt as the starting date for the calendar; thus 6290 a.f.k. (After the Founding of Kernet) is equivalent to 1990. There is no single set of beliefs to which all African Americans subscribe.

Ceremonies. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, birthday, January 15, and Malcolm X's birthday, May 19, are the two most important days in the African American calendar. Kwanzaa, a celebration of first fruits, initiated by the philosopher Maulana Karenga, is the most joyous occasion in the African American year. Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 to January 1, and each day is named after an important virtue.

Death and Afterlife. There is no wide acceptance of Cremation in the African American culture; the majority of African Americans choose burial. Funerals are often occasions of sadness followed by festivities and joyousness. "When the Saints Go Marching In" was made famous as the song to convey African Americans to the other world by African American musicians in New Orleans. Sung and played with gusto and great vigor, the song summed up the victorious attitude of a people long used to suffering on earth.

See alsoBlack Creoles of Louisiana, Sea Islanders


Asante, Molefi, and Mark Mattson (1990). The Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans. New York: Macmillan.

Baughman, E. Earl (1971). Black Americans. New York: Academic Press.

Frazier, Thomas R. (1988). Afro American History: Primary Sources. 2nd ed. Chicago: Dorsey Press.

Harding, Vincent (1981). There Is a River. New York: Vintage.

Henry, Charles (1990). Culture and African American Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McPherson, James, et al. (1971). Blacks in America: Bibliographic Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books.


African Americans

views updated May 21 2018


AFRICAN AMERICANS. African American history lies at the foundation of United States history. The story of African Americans began in Africa, where ethnic groups such as the Ashanti, Bantu, Congolese, and Yoruba began their chaotic and protracted journey to what would become the United States.

The First African Americans

The arrival of Africans in America began almost five hundred years ago in 1528, with the arrival of the Moroccan Esteban de Dorantes in Texas. He was the first of many Spanish-speaking Africans who were populating western America. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, Africans were imported as property to the "New World" for slave plantations via the transatlantic slave trade. Conservative estimates place the number at 8 to 12 million, but the total may be as high as 20 million. The trade in African men, women, and children exploded into one of the most massive and despotic extractions of a people from their land and way of life in history. These migrants became unwilling participants in a system of enslavement that gave rise to the African diaspora and African Americans. Of the total number of Africans sold into slavery, 600,000 to 1,000,000, or about 6 percent, were brought to the British North American colonies.

The first English-speaking Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Initially British colonists and Africans coexisted, but developments in colonial America precipitated the enslavement of black people. By the late sixteenth century, it became clear to white colonists that Indians would not be a viable source of forced labor. Increasingly, white and black indentured servants became targets of the New World's economic development. Eventually, the labor of indentured servants became problematic and scarce. The number of indentured white servants who made the journey to America began to dwindle, and those already in America started to demand an equal share of the wealth, while life expectancies rose sufficiently to make the purchase of slaves financially sensible. Colonists, therefore, turned to the African slave trade to meet their labor needs.

Initially, some European indentured servants and laborers joined with Africans to oppose the exploitation of white and black laborers, but when attitudes and laws changed and as black skin became commensurate with slavery, whites understood that being white—no matter how poor—exempted them from outright slavery. White slave owners came to understand the value of their investments in black human property. White wealth and dreams of prosperity became tied to the survival of black slavery as an institution. As a result, whites began to support statutes that strengthened the chains of black slavery. As the eighteenth century came to a close, Africans were generally considered capital. Black people resisted enslavement, however, and often worked to undermine the institution. They ran away or feigned ignorance and illness, for example, to undermine the commercial success of the farms for which they labored. Slaves such as Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser physically confronted their masters and overseers in both individual clashes and collective rebellion.

Africans in America, despite their subordinate status, were able to forge a strong sense of community. They learned to speak English and, in the process, expanded and enhanced the language through new words and pronunciations. Many Africans also embraced Christianity and reconstructed it, while some continued to follow their original religions, including Islam. Usually, black people merged their faith with that of the ruling class. From their earliest arrival in America, many blacks also endeavored to give meaning to America's professed belief in freedom by calling upon colonial officials to recognize their right to liberty. In 1791, for example, Benjamin Banneker, an astronomer and publisher of almanacs, and perhaps the most accomplished black person in early America, wrote to Thomas Jefferson to argue for the respect and inclusion of black people in America's experiment in democracy. Most Africans in America, however, could not rely on petitions or whites to recognize their "unalienable" right to secure their freedom. Rather, they articulated belief in their own inherent worth through ongoing resistance to white supremacy and racial slavery.

By the eighteenth century, black acculturation gave rise to a stable, identifiable, and diverse African American culture, both in slave societies and in free black communities. This black culture was anchored in an expanded, flexible family structure and an emerging black church that found the means to survive under difficult circumstances. During this period, nothing exposed the contradiction between slavery and freedom for Africans as much as the American fight for independence from Great Britain. Some black people such as Crispus Attucks, one of the first casualties of the American Revolution, demonstrated their desire to be free from British rule, both as people of African descent and as Americans. On the other hand, having been promised liberation by the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, in 1775, some black people were loyal to the English monarchy only to witness its demise at the hands of tenacious American colonists. But whether in the poems of Phillis Wheatley, the legal action of Quok Walker, or the efforts of Paul Cuffee, Americans of African descent helped define what it meant to be revolutionary citizens. For black slaves in particular, independence was not simply a philosophical debate; it stood as an essential alternative to permanent bondage.

As blacks fought for freedom from both American slavery and British colonial rule, the debate over slavery intensified. As the United States emerged from the crucible of war, black slavery endured and expanded, especially in the South. Between the mid-1600s and 1865, most blacks were considered possessions. They were examined, marketed, sold, purchased, exchanged, and treated as chattel. Black people were ridiculed as aberrant and inferior, and most were denied the freedoms set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Out of this ordeal, Africans in America became a new people. They were no longer Ashanti, Bantu, Kongolese, and Yoruba; they constructed new identities rooted in their African past, yet inextricably linked to a burgeoning American culture.

By 1789, despite America's proclamation that "all men are created equal," slavery as an institution was still legal in eleven of the thirteen States. Moreover, the Atlantic slave trade, which was officially banned in 1808 but continued extralegally until the 1850s, continued to bring thousands of enslaved Africans to America. The primary destinations of black slaves were the rice plantations of low-country South Carolina and the tobacco farms of Piedmont, Virginia. Although there were, as there had always been, "free" blacks in the United States, by 1789, there were fewer than 60,000 of them out of a total black population of 700,000.

By 1831, slavery had emerged as an even more powerful and "peculiar institution." It existed, for example, in twelve southern states, but was almost nonexistent in the twelve northern states. Moreover, although the slave trade had not existed as a legally sanctioned enterprise in almost twenty-five years, cotton plantations from Georgia to Mississippi that depended upon slave labor became inextricably linked to the "Southern way of life." The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made cotton cultivation a lucrative business. Between 1811 and 1821 it fueled the expansion of slavery from the Atlantic coastal states to Texas. Slave labor also emptied swamps and cleared land for settlement and agriculture. This territorial expansion in turn stimulated an enormous surge in the slave population. By 1831, there were over two million black slaves in the United States, primarily in the deep South. By 1860 the number had risen to 3,953,760. In 1831 the United States was also home to 300,000 free black people, primarily located in the North and upper South; by 1860 there were 488,070.

Major social and cultural changes had taken place among black people in America by 1831. Resistance to slavery intensified as black communities and slaves watched their hopes of freedom continually dissolve and began to learn the ideology behind the American and French revolutions and gain knowledge of the successful slave revolt in Saint Domingue (Haiti). Despite the odds, some blacks continued to gain their freedom from bondage; most of those who succeeded had to struggle to survive the transition from slavery to freedom. Like their enslaved counterparts, free black people were relegated to the bottom of the American racial hierarchy, dominated by the theory of white supremacy. Despite being the objects of white racism, "free" blacks often set themselves apart from black slaves. This class—small, sometimes prosperous, and often literate—usually considered themselves superior to their enslaved counterparts.

Many "free" black people, however, in the North and upper South, expanded their concept of the black community to include those blacks still held in bondage. Many in this group, including celebrated abolitionist Frederick Douglass, championed black equality and freedom in all quarters. By 1831, Africans in America understood that only by destroying slavery could true freedom and equality be secured. Many believed—as did Nat Turner, who initiated a large-scale slave uprising in the fall of 1831—that it would take a devastating event such as a sustained revolt to abolish the institution. By 1840, slavery and its expansion became the most controversial and divisive issue in the nation. By 1860, northern and southern leaders could not avoid the problem of slavery and its expansion, thanks to pressure from a small but influential band of abolitionists—including Maria W. Stewart, David Walker, and William Lloyd Garrison.

Emancipation and the Illusion of Freedom

The end of slavery as an institution in American life can be tied to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lincoln, a Republican, believed that the Constitution protected slavery in the states, but was opposed to its extension. He objected to the spread of slavery into Kansas and other territories. Southerners believed the Constitution protected slavery and saw Lincoln's resolve as a threat to their political standing in Congress and to their "way of life." Lincoln was elected in 1860, and following his inaugural address in March 1861, South Carolina seceded from the Union in retaliation. By February 1861, it was followed by six more southern states. Lincoln's calls for healing were unsuccessful. The Confederacy launched an artillery attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina on 12 April, and Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion. America's divided house fell, and the sectional conflict exploded into Civil War. After five years of fighting, the Southern Confederacy was forced to surrender to Northern troops on 9 April 1865. Four million African Americans emerged from the conflict legally free. Ratification

of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 abolished slavery. The Confederate defeat, however, did not end white supremacy or black subjugation. As one nineteenth-century observer noted, "cannons conquer, but they do not necessarily convert." Former slaveholders faced emancipation with despair and fury and immediately embarked upon a crusade to "redeem" the South and force blacks into a state of virtual slavery.

Emancipated blacks set out to make the best of their new status. Millions of former slaves searched the South for loved ones from whom they had been separated. Women like the writer Harriet Jacobs attempted to re-construct their shattered lives and families, while creating a space for themselves to enjoy their freedom. To gain control over their labor, black washerwomen and domestic workers in Atlanta organized to raise their wages through strikes and demonstrations. In South Carolina, black women took a leading role in negotiating labor arrangements with their former masters. Black men sought

wage labor, worked to acquire land, and made use of the ballot. Out of this movement to reclaim themselves and their families, black communities in the postwar South grew, while organizing schools and health care services. Legally, black people benefited from the enactment of several Constitutional amendments during the subsequent "Reconstruction" period. The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment on 28 July 1868 affirmed state and federal citizenship rights for African Americans, and the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified on 30 March 1870, guaranteed that no American would be denied the right to vote on the basis of race. Radical Republicans also pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was supposed to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations throughout the South.

Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction on 8 December 1863 allowed blacks to secure fleeting political success. Blacks seized this opportunity to elect state and national Congressmen. Six hundred blacks, most of them former slaves, served as state legislators. During Reconstruction, there were two black senators in Congress—Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, both Mississippi natives who were educated in the North—and fourteen black members of the House. African Americans also sought to improve their lives by carving out spaces where they could congregate and build community away from the watchful eyes of whites. Reestablished, primarily Protestant, black churches emerged as spiritual havens for African Americans. Education was extremely important to African Americans as well. With the assistance of philanthropic northern whites, blacks established primary and secondary schools, as well as predominantly black colleges, across the South in the postwar period. Tuskegee Institute (1881) in Alabama and Howard University (1867) in Washington, D.C., represent two of the more celebrated examples of historically black colleges and universities founded during this era.

For African Americans, however, the ability to exercise their new rights was short-lived. Southern whites created laws and practices to circumscribe and oppress the lives of blacks. They created black codes, which limited the areas in which blacks could purchase or rent property, and vagrancy laws that forced African Americans to return to work on the plantations from which they were recently liberated. These measures helped force blacks into a state of peonage that would last well into the second half of the twentieth century. Blacks were not permitted to testify in court, except in cases involving other blacks, and fines were levied against them for alleged seditious speeches, insulting gestures and acts, absence from work, violating curfews, and the possession of firearms. Blacks had their freedom assaulted by white terrorist organizations as well. The prototype of these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, organized in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee, as a "social club." The Klan was responsible for whippings, mutilations, burnings, and murders of men, women, and children. Violence emerged as one of the most effective ways of keeping blacks politically powerless.

Politically, whites used quasi-legal measures to oppress blacks. Polling places were often erected far from black communities and changed without warning, ballot boxes were stuffed, votes were manipulated, poll taxes were levied, and gerrymandering ran rampant. Black people were separated from whites on trains and ships and were banned from white hotels, barbershops, restaurants, and theaters. By 1885, most Southern states had laws requiring separate schools, and in 1896, the Supreme Court upheld segregation in its landmark "separate but equal" doctrine set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson. The rights of blacks had been neutralized. By 1900, the "New South" was free to conduct its affairs as it saw fit. The New South, however, looked very much like the old. The new century, in fact, opened tragically with 214 lynchings in the first two years. The law, the courts, the schools, and almost every institution in the South favored whites. In the face of this opposition, African Americans and their supporters had few answers. This was an era of white supremacy.

African Americans in the South began to vote with their feet. Between 1900 and 1910, black people tried to escape the South by migrating to the northern and western United States in relatively modest numbers. When wartime industrial needs and labor demands increased between World Wars I and II, however, more than two million black southerners were motivated to migrate north and west to urban areas like Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. This flight erupted into the largest African American migration in history. These migrants sought refuge and opportunity, and many found what they were looking for, while others found social isolation, political marginalization, and economic oppression.

All African Americans, whether they remained in the South or migrated to the North, experienced fundamental changes in their lives during the first decades of the twentieth century. African American men returned home from World War I—a war fought to make the world safe for democracy—prepared and determined to demand democracy for themselves and their community. Their militancy was rewarded with violence. African American men were lynched in their military uniforms, black institutions were attacked by white mobs, and African American workers, who were often the last hired, were the first to be fired during demobilization. On the other hand, many African Americans worked to "uplift the race" in northern and western urban areas by organizing groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Even though the 1920s witnessed ongoing race-related social, economic, and political problems, many black artists experienced "renaissances" in African American art, literature, and music in Harlem and Chicago. Some African American leaders became political agents, and others became successful in business.

When the Great Depression struck America in 1929, African Americans were among the hardest hit. The years between 1929 and 1940 were marked by both progress and persistent problems for black people. At a time when a black leader like Mary McLeod Bethune could hold an influential appointment in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, African American workers had the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Moreover, while New Deal legislation displaced black sharecroppers in the South, the federal government also offered unprecedented opportunities for African American artists and writers such as Aaron Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston. However, discrimination and racial violence, unemployment, and housing shortages remained complicated and dispiriting issues for African Americans. As the United States entered World War II in 1941, blacks seized this opportunity to demand full inclusion in American society. African Americans were critical of the United States for fighting for democracy overseas while blacks lived in a segregated and unjust society in America. Black people fought fascism in Europe and white supremacy in the United States, which they christened the "Double-V": victory abroad and victory at home.

The Civil Rights Movement and Beyond

World War II and the industries that arose to support it also improved the prospect of good jobs and a freer life for African Americans, particularly in the West. As a result, a huge migration ensued that increased black populations in those urban areas. In the western region, some black populations grew tenfold. This migration gave rise to the nation's Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s, and ignited the careers of local black leaders such as Dr. Lincoln J. Ragsdale Sr. in Phoenix, Arizona, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at the national level. The black American freedom struggle quickly became a more inclusive beacon in the global fight for human rights, the defeat of European colonialism, and the destruction of racism. It ushered in profound and positive changes.

The Civil Rights Movement produced several pieces of legislation, which reaffirmed the rights of African Americans. The most effective were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in public places, and discrimination by employers of labor unions on the basis of color, race, religion, national origin, and sex. The Voting Rights Act re-enfranchised blacks by outlawing obstructionist educational requirements for voting and by

empowering the attorney general to have the Civil Rights Commission assign federal registrars to uphold the voting rights of African Americans.

The impact of the Civil Rights Movement was monumental. Although their tremendous accomplishments did not end racial inequality or usher in true socioeconomic integration, black Americans did enjoy some major gains. However, jobs, infrastructure, and opportunity moved to predominantly white suburbs; unemployment remained disproportionately high among African Americans; and dislocations in black family structures, drug use, gang violence, police brutality, and urban poverty all emerged as disheartening and complex issues for black communities. Although African Americans had ended de jure segregation, they quickly realized that de facto segregation and racial socioeconomic inequality were just as debilitating and often more difficult to combat. Despite these problems, the black middle class continued to grow, most black families remained intact, and African American organizations continued to work for the advancement of the community as a whole.

By 1970, most black people were optimistic about the future of race relations and the black community. Many black people believed that the Black Power movement would instill a new confidence and independence in African Americans. Furthermore, a rash of victories in electoral politics gave hope to millions of African Americans. By the 1970s, in fact, several blacks, such Carl Stokes in Cleveland and Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana, were elected mayors of major urban centers. In 1972, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American to make a serious bid for a major-party presidential nomination; Jesse Jackson, a protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s did it again in 1984. By the end of the twentieth century an influential and growing black middle class had emerged. Multimillionaires such as the journalist, actor, talk show host, producer, and entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey and the athlete and businessman Michael Jordan stood as symbols of the ability of blacks to achieve against overwhelming odds. Despite persistent problems such as joblessness, police brutality, and economic and political inequality, African Americans—whose population stood at thirty mil-lion, or slightly over 10 percent of the population, by 2000—continued to make substantial gains. Indeed, the poverty, economic isolation, political marginalization, and racism in African American history are really aspects of a larger history of black progress through struggle, a history of survival and achievement.


Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. The African American Odyssey. 2d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis, eds. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Marable, Manning. Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945–1990. 2d ed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Taylor, Quintard, Jr. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990. New York: Norton, 1998.

White, Deborah G. Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994. New York: Norton, 1999.


See alsoDiscrimination: Race ; Harlem Renaissance ; Lynching ; Migration, African American ; South, the ; Suffrage: African American ; Tuskegee University .

African Americans

views updated May 09 2018

African Americans


Black Population. The number of enslaved and free Africans in both New France and the Spanish borderlands was small compared to the slave population of British North America. African slaves accompanied the Spanish who explored and settled the borderlands. In 1763 the Spanish evacuated from Florida eighty-seven free blacks and over three hundred slaves. Black slavery in the Spanish borderlands of the Southwest has not yet been studied extensively. Some black servants and slaves accompanied Juan de Oñate and the colonists he brought into New Mexico in 1598. Their numbers there in the colonial era do not appear to have been great since most slaves were Indian captives, as was the case also in Texas and Arizona. According to a census in 1779 there were 20 slaves out of a population of almost 4,000. Similarly, African slaves trickled into New France, numbering about 1,000 in Canada and 450 in the Illinois Country by 1750. Louisiana had perhaps 4,000 slaves by 1732 and an even larger number by the time France ceded the territory to Spain in 1763. In contrast, of the 1.2 million colonists in British North America perhaps 250,000 were African slaves by 1750. They numbered almost 500,000 by 1776. Most were located in the colonial South, where South Carolina had a black majority by 1730, but slavery existed in the Middle Colonies and New England as well.

Catholic Colonies. The Catholic Church mightily influenced the nature of slavery and slave education in both the Spanish and French colonies. In the Spanish borderlands the church catechized and baptized black slaves as well as Indian slaves, thereby acknowledging that bondsmen possessed souls and were not mere chattel. Under church law slaves could marry, and their family life was to be respected. Masters were expected to provide minimum care for their slaves and not punish them unreasonably. In Spanish America slaves were often allowed to earn money to buy their freedom, and manumission was rather commonplace. Moreover, because of the lack of Spanish women, Spanish men married African women. These conditions are the reasons there were more free blacks than slaves in Spanish America by the end of the colonial era. Aside from some religious training, slaves were usually educated in a particular calling, whether household servant, cook, carpenter, or other artisan. Their training began in childhood and led naturally into its adult role. Literacy training for all but the elite was scarce in the Spanish borderlands, and one may assume that few blacks, slave or free, received much schooling. A similar situation prevailed in New France, where the Catholic Church was much concerned with both public and private behavior of the colonists. In 1685 Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIVs chief minister, issued a Code Noir (Black Code) for the French West Indies that also applied in Canada and Louisiana. Indians as well as blacks were enslaved in New France, but after 1700 black slaves became the norm. All slaves were to receive religious instruction and be converted to Catholicism. As in the Spanish borderlands, slave marriages were allowed and family life respected. However, frontier conditions, especially in Louisiana, kept the Code Noir from being rigorously enforced. Particularly in Louisiana, some black women who became concubines to white men won their freedom and that of their children born under the union. Such free black children might be schooled and otherwise well educated, but generally slave children seldom got any schooling and were much more apt to learn through formal or informal apprenticeship their lifes work.

New Netherland. Under Roman-Dutch law slavery was a recognized status with certain basic protections for those enslaved. There were both slaves and free blacks in New Netherland, and slavery became quite common, but a slave code was never instituted. Consequently, the status of a slave was more flexible in New Netherland than in most places of colonial America. The Dutch West India Company, which made huge profits importing Africans slaves into Brazil and Spanish America, owned most of the slaves before 1650. The Dutch West India Company was known to manumit bondsmen who served it well. Other slaves were granted half-freedom by the company, thus allowing them to live in family groupings and to own property while still working for the company when called upon to do so. As the white population increased in the 1650s, so did the number of privately owned slaves. Whether slave or free, most black parents taught their children the trades they knew, including housekeeping, farming, and craft. Blacks joined the Dutch Reformed Church at New Amsterdam, some of whom may well have been slaves. Whether enslaved or free, Africans were given religious instruction by the domines, though the latter sometimes suspected that slaves wanted baptism for themselves and their children to mitigate the hardship of their bondage. One might assume that few blacks got any schooling in New Netherland, but Peter Stuyvesant hired a schoolmaster for the slave children on his farm, where free blacks children probably also received instruction. Free black parents, on occasion, apprenticed their children to whites who promised to treat them well and bring them up in a trade. In 1664, when the English captured New Netherland, there were about five hundred slaves scattered about the colony, concentrated in and around New Amsterdam, where at least seventy-five free blacks lived and worked. Despite the hardships of slavery and racial prejudice, blacks in New Amsterdam shared a community of interest that ran from slavery to freedom in which families and neighbors assisted one another in educating the young as in so much else.

British Colonies. In the Chesapeake colonies slaves were early on taught the laborious tasks that attended growing tobacco, stripping it from the stalk, curing it, and preparing it for shipment to England. Young slaves were also introduced by their elders to household work in the masters home and to the many arts and crafts that became an integral part of life on the larger plantations. However, literacy training was generally deemed inappropriate for blacks, given racial prejudice and their servile status. Even the issue of religious instruction aroused controversy because of the popular notion that Christians could not enslave fellow Christians. Would not conversion, symbolized by baptism, transform the infidel or heathen slave into a free Christian man or woman? That question made the catechizing of slaves problematic, especially in the colonial South. However, between 1664 and 1706 all the southern colonies, plus New York, passed laws declaring that baptism did not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.

Reluctance. Despite such legislative assurance most colonial slave owners remained reluctant to give their slaves religious instruction. In 1724 the Anglican rector of Dorchester, Saint Georges Parish, in South Carolina, reported, I have hitherto indeavored in vain to prevail with their masters to convince them of the necessity of having their slaves made Christians. In 1740 South Carolina prohibited teaching slaves to read and write under penalty of £100. Slave and free blacks were less likely to be catechized, or even to attend white Anglican congregations, in South Carolina than elsewhere. Some blacks were also given literacy training, but that was certainly the exception. In Virginia a charity school for orphans, poor children, and Negroes opened in 1750 and operated for a few years in Saint Peters Parish, and there is evidence that several schools, especially after 1750, admitted at least some blacks, slave and free. Despite the law prohibiting teaching literacy skills to slaves, blacks were taught at schools in Charleston. Due largely to the work of Commissary Alexander Garden, the most significant of these was founded by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (S.P.G.) in 1743 and functioned for the next twenty years, having as many as sixty students at one time. S.P.G. missionaries scattered throughout the Carolinas and Georgia also provided religious instruction and some literacy training to slaves and free blacks on occasion. Quakers in Virginia and the Carolinas preached the Christian message to blacks and sometimes taught them literacy skills, as did various Presbyterian divines. However, without denigrating the impact upon the individuals involved, both white and black, such religious and educational activities were intermittent and affected relatively few African Americans.

New England. By the time of the American Revolution, less than 3 percent of the population of New England were African Americans; most lived in and around Boston. In the seventeenth century John Eliot was an early advocate of catechizing blacks, though there is little indication that his voice was much heeded in that regard. In 1717 Cotton Mather, who advocated more religious instruction for blacks, was a leading spirit behind the founding of a short-lived charity school for Africans and Indians in Boston. There is also evidence that some children of free blacks attended schooling with white children at various times in New England. Again, though, literacy training for blacks was quite limited and took place largely in the household rather than the classroom. A remarkable prodigy by any standard, the young Phillis Wheatley, a slave girl brought from Africa in 1761, learned both English and Latin in her masters household and became the leading black poetess of her day.

Middle Colonies. Because of the work of the S.P.G. and the Quakers, there may have been more formal instructions of slaves and free blacks in the Middle Colonies than elsewhere in British America. In New York, Dutch Reformed domines continued their limited ministry to catechizing blacks, slave and free. Much more systematic after 1700 were Anglican efforts, especially in New York City. Under the auspices of the S.P.G., Elias Neau, a Huguenot refugee and merchant by trade, opened a catechetical school in the evening for adult slaves in 1704. Neau was an extraordinary teacher whose success at catechizing was roundly praised and prevailed against strong opposition in the wake of the slave revolt in New York City in 1712. Upon Neaus death in 1722 William Huddleston, master of the S.P.G.-sponsored charity school, continued Neaus work. Huddleston was followed by a succession of young Anglican clericsJames Wetmore, James Colgan, Richard Charlton, and Samuel Auchmuty. Between 1728 and 1734 John Beasley conducted an S.P.G. school for whites in Albany, where he also taught blacks reading, writing, and Christianity. Outside New York City S.P.G. ministers reported little instruction among African Americans, whether slave or free. In Pennsylvania prominent Quakers opened a school for black children in 1700. Growing Quaker opposition to slavery produced more opportunities for blacks to obtain schooling in Pennsylvania, though the extent to which this occurred is difficult to determine. In 1738 the Moravian brethren began a short-lived mission to blacks at Bethlehem. In Philadelphia the Anglican Christs Church began a school just for black children in 1758, as did another Anglican congregation, Saint Pauls. The antislavery leader Anthony Benezet prodded Quakers to found a school for both black and white children in 1770.


John Calam, Parsons and Pedagogues: The S.P.G. Adventure in American Education (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971);

Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970);

Donald Everett, Free Persons of Color in Colonial Louisiana, Louisiana History, 7 (1966): 221-250;

Philip S. Foner, History of Black Americans from Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975);

Joyce Goodfriend, Burghers and Blacks: The Evolution of a Slave Society at New Amsterdam, New York History,59 (1978): 125-144;

Lorenzo Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776 (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1942);

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992);

Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1973);

McManus, A History of Negro Slavery in New York (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1966);

Gary B. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphias Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988);

Jean R. Soderlund, Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985);

Robin W. Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971);

Donald R. Wright, African-Americans in the Colonial Era: From African Origins Through the American Revolution (Arlington Heights, III.: Harlan Davidson, 1990).

African Americans

views updated May 08 2018


The use of the taxonomic category African American, either in public or health or other disciplines, fundamentally reflects the historic and contemporary systems of racial stratification in American society. The term "African American," as a categorical descriptor, includes many different segments of the American population referred to as "black" or Americans of sub-Saharan African ancestry. It is also a product of the group self-definition process in which African Americans have historically engaged as an expression of identity, power, defiance, pride, and the struggle for human rights. These designations were often in contradistinction to official government classifications and popular characterizations, which frequently reflected prevailing ideas about white supremacy intended to denigrate African Americans.

The historical roots of the nominal identity of African Americans date back to the early nineteenth century, when there were intense debates and political movements, mostly among free blacks in the North, to reunite with their African heritage. Part of the discussion and designation also involved classification of "mixed-race" populations, whose identity raised serious questions about the relevance of racial classification based on pigmentation. According to Collier-Thomas and Turner,

From the 1830s to the middle of the 1890s, Colored American and the more commonly used derivation Colored were the most popular terms. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Negro gained considerable support as a generic term, becoming by 1920 the most commonly used expression of race. Increasing dissatisfaction with the term Negro, most noted in the late 1930s, culminated with the Black power movement of the 1960s.

During the latter period of heightened cultural nationalism, "Black" and "Afro-American" emerged as key terms for race designation and were frequently used interchangeably. More recently, in the late 1980s, "African American" was posited as the most appropriate and comprehensive race designation. This current designation not only reflects a historical lineage, but it also establishes an identity that is rooted in cultural and ethnogeographic origins, rather than skin pigmentation as defined by United States politics and policy.

One reason for the attention African Americans have given to group designations is that group classifications by the white majority were highly instrumental in attempting to justify slavery, deny basic human rights, and restrain social opportunities. These oppressive practices had the effect of subordinating African Americans. Richard B. Moore in a book entitled The Name "Negro": Its Origin and Evil Use described how the skin color and other physical features of Africans who were brought into slavery "were identified in the mind of the people generally with ugliness, repulsion, and baseness." During earlier periods of the twentieth century, white media, publishers, and the scientific community largely refused to capitalize group designations such as Black, Colored, Negro, or African. This practice was in clear contrast to references in print to whites or the Caucasian "race." Moreover, scientific research and theories about so-called racial group differences (e.g., eugenics) were highly influential in promoting white supremacy.

Public health and medicine have historically reflected the racial inequities of American society as manifested in discrimination in medical care, research ethics and applications, professional education, and ideas about the disease etiology. Physicians in the antebellum period gave different treatment to blacks because of the belief that the black physiology was inferior to whites and thus differed with regard to intelligence, sexuality, and sensitivity to pain. These racist beliefs in the subhuman qualities of the "Black race" were responsible for blacks being used as subjects in excruciating medical experiments. For example, between 1845 and 1849, Dr. J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, subjected three African-American women in Alabama to 30 operations without anesthesia to perfect a surgical technique to repair vesicovaginal fistulas. During the same period, another physician in Georgia, Dr. Thomas Hamilton, subjected black bodies to high temperatures by burying them with their heads above ground in his quest to test the remedy for heatstroke so that slaves could work longer hours in the field. This tragic legacy of unethical race biology research was evident in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which 399 black men in Alabama unknowingly participated in a study (from 1932 to 1972) to determine the health consequences of untreated syphilis, even though there were known treatments for the disease during this period.

Some scholars have asserted that a lasting effect of this type of institutional racism has been the reluctance of many African Americans to seek medical care. The apprehension of being given different and inferior treatment or being used as guinea pigs in unethical medical research is also believed to have led to the present distrust by African Americans of prevention and treatment in HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Indeed, the persistence in the disparity of health outcomes between African Americans and the white population was the subject of a governmental report in 1985 documenting 60,000 excess deaths among African Americans.

Implicit in most discussions of race and health is the suggestion of a direct "racial" or genetic lineage between African Americans and Africans, advancing the notion of a defective gene pool in these populations. Ancestors of most African Americans were primarily from West Africa, and therefore the imputed genetic heritage may not necessarily be applicable to Africans from other parts of the continent. Additionally, sickle cell anemia, which has been conventionally viewed as an African-American or "Black" genetic disease, actually evolved from a biologic adaptation among persons residing in tropical climates as a protection against malaria. However, many non West Africans, for example, people of the Mediterranean region or descent, also have a high incidence of this disease or carry the trait but would not be considered "Black" or African American. Also, some diseases such as stomach, lung, and esophageal cancers, as well as hypertension, are higher in African Americans than many Africans and, according to a study in Chicago, low birthweight is higher among African Americans compared to Africans. These examples suggest the strong role of environmental influences rather than genetic factors. Thus putative associations with "black" skin color or other phenotypic similarities are more complex and will continue to be the subject of more public health debate with regard to the human genome project, gene therapy applications, and sociobiologic research.

Within the field of public health, there has been extensive discussion of what the term "race" actually means and its overall value. One problem is that it is seldom defined by researchers. References are frequently made to biologic, cultural, and socioeconomic factors, as well as racism and political differences, without explicitly stating their meaning or relevance. For example, although the term "African American" is generally used inter-changeably with "Black" or "Negro," this is not the case with the descriptor of "non-white," which was widely used prior to 1960. This "racial" category included mostly African Americans but also Hispanic populations, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

About 30 million persons were identified as African American in the U.S. Census of 1990. From the perspective of public health research, practice, and policy, it is not possible to view them as a monolithic or single group. While they have many commonalities, especially in terms of political opinions and interests, geographic concentrations, and some cultural patterns, it is crucial that public health professionals recognize within-group differences. Social heterogeneity among African Americans regarding health practices or risk factors and outcomes must be carefully examined in terms of age, gender, geographic location, migratory status, social class or socioeconomic status (e.g., education and income), and nativity.

The history of social designations applied to African Americans suggests that the nominal identity of this group may change in the future to reflect the evolution of internal group consciousness, political interests, and social heterogeneity or diversity. Some groups such as "biracial" persons or foreign-born immigrants from African or Caribbean countries may choose in increasing numbers not to be viewed strictly as African American. These issues point to the dynamic nature and significance of racial classificationit has changed and will continue to change. It is also important to note that African American as a racial classification in the United States reflects the unique historical experience and journey of identity in ways that render international comparisons problematic.

In summary, being classified as African American is quite significant because it reflects an important social group transformation and reality in terms of group identity, political orientation, life chances or social opportunity, normative standards and lifestyles, and discriminatory behavior. These are some of the factors that strongly relate to disease susceptibility, quality of life, morbidity and mortality, and longevity. It is only when the reality of racial classification carries little social impact that the term will become obsolete. At the present time, it is unlikely that serious consideration can be given to eliminating the use of racial designations such as "African American" in public health.

Collins O. Airhihenbuwa

Gary King

(see also: Ethnicity and Health; Ethnocentrism; Immigrants, Immigration )


Airhihenbuwa, C. O. (1989). "Health Education for African Americans: A Neglected Task." Health Education 20(5):914.

Charatz-Litt, C. (1992). "A Chronicle of Racism: The Effects of the White Medical Community on Black Health." The Journal of the National Medical Association 84:717725.

Collier-Thomas, B., and Turner, J. (1994). "Race, Class and Color: The African American Discourse on Identity." Journal of American Ethnic History 14:531.

Cooper, R. S. (1998). "A Note of the Biological Concept of Race and Its Application in Epidemiologic Research." American Heart Journal 108:715723.

David, R. J., and Collins, J. W., Jr. (1997). "Differing Birth Weight Among Infants of U.S.-Born Blacks, African-Born Blacks, and U.S.-Born Whites." New England Journal of Medicine 337:12091214.

Gamble, V. N. (1997). "Under the Shadow of Tuskegee: African Americans and Health Care." The American Journal of Public Health 87:17731778.

Gould, S. J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton Press.

Jones, J. (1981). Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment: A Tragedy of Race and Medicine. New York: The Free Press.

King, G. (1997). "The 'Race' Concept in Smoking: A Review of the Research on African Americans." Social Science and Medicine 45:10751087.

King, G., and Williams, D. R. (1995). "Race and Health: A Multidimensional Approach to African-American Health." In Society and Health, ed. by Amick, Levine, Tarlov, and Walsh. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, R. B. (1992). The Name "Negro": Its Origin and Evil Use, 2nd edition. Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press.

Polednak, A. (1989). Racial and Ethnic Differences in Disease. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stanton, J. (1960). The Leopard Spots. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thomas, S. B., and Quinn, S. C. (1991). "The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 19321972: Implications for HIV Education and AIDS Risk Education Programs in the Black Community." The American Journal of Public Health 81:14981504.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1985). U.S. Department of Human Services. Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Black and Minority Health. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

African Americans

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African Americans


Slavery. During the early national period, most African Americans were slaves. Of more than 750, 000 black Americans in 1790, all but 60, 000 were enslaved. Their enslavement was the single most important feature of African American religious life in this period. Black Americans used religion to find some relief from slavery even as the forms of religion they practiced were shaped by this peculiar institution. Because they were in bondage, the religious history of African Americans is a telling example of the limitations of religious freedom in early America, as well as of its growth. For despite the limitations and deprivations slavery and racism imposed on many African Americans, a richly varied religious culture evolved that was a powerful force in black life and was just as complex as the religions of white Americans.

African Religions. Africans brought their own religions with them from Africa, although we cannot know how many traditional practices and beliefs survived or how they changed once in America. The importation of these religions continued well into the early national period. Traffic in slaves was heavy from the Revolution to 1808, when the slave trade ended, with as many Africans being imported into the United States in these years as had arrived over the entire colonial period. Although the native-born black population was quickly growing, there was a steady infusion of African traditions into the slave communities. This meant that for many blacks, religion meant not Christianity, but some variant of African folk traditions. These included ideas such as reincarnation and the veneration of ancestors shared by many West African religions, as well as a wide variety of healing practices and magical beliefs, often called conjure. Conjuring was widely and informally practiced, often including such things as herbal medicines, charms, aphrodisiacs, and witchcraft lore. Sometimes conjuring became a set of more-formal practices, as was the case with the voodoo cults of French Louisiana. But usually it was extremely flexible and open to all who could find meaning in the various practices it included. African Americans were by no means alone in having such beliefs at the center of their religious lives. Many white Americans held similar beliefs, and folk traditions were a primary area of interchange between the races. Many whites took up the healing traditions of Africa, and the African American witchcraft stories that have come down to us show the important influence of the European witchcraft traditions that easily survived the Salem witch-hunts of 1692.

Christians. The presence of African traditions did not mean there was no room for Christianity in the black community. With the emergence of the revivals in the South, Christianity made important gains in the African American population during the early national period. The emotionalism and egalitarianism of the evangelical churches of the Baptists and the Methodists appealed to many black Americans. These religions resonated with their cultural legacy from Africa and spoke to their condition as slaves or, at best, second-class free people. As the numbers of black Christians grew and the racism of European Americans persisted, African Americans began to assert themselves as independent religious leaders. Black pastors emerged, and they contributed to the growth of black Christianity with their greater willingness to pursue mission work among the black community. This process was not an easy one, especially in the South, as the example of Andrew Bryan shows.

Andrew Bryan. A former slave living in Savannah, Georgia, Bryan in the late 1780s began to preach and gathered a following among other blacks. They began to meet together to worship but were harassed by whites who feared the slaves were meeting to plot their escape. Bryan and others were imprisoned and whipped, but Bryan turned persecution into opportunity and praised the chance to suffer for Christ. Finally, in 1788 Bryan was able to organize the First African Baptist Church, with the help of a white Baptist sponsor. The church had 40 members at first and grew quickly; by 1790 there were 225 communicants and 350 other baptized members. Persecution by neighboring whites let up by 1800, but it was an uneasy truce. Despite the survival of Bryans church and the founding of two other black Baptist churches in Savannah in the early 1800s, slavery was a fact of life for most black congregants. Some were forbidden by their owners to become full members. Bryans brother Sampson assisted in his duties while remaining a slave. And Bryan himself, despite his experiences, was a slave holder. He reported to English Baptists in 1800 that he was well provided for having a house and a

lot and a fifty-six acre tract of land and eight slaves; for whose education and happiness, I am enabled thro mercy to provide.

Richard Allen. In the North the gradual abolition of slavery may have made it easier for African Americans to assert religious independence, but those assertions were still shaped by the oppression of blacks by whites. Like Andrew Bryan, Richard Allen was a former slave who had converted to Christianity and become a preacher. Despite his piety and his long membership in Saint Georges Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Allen suffered the effects of discrimination against blacks. In 1787 he and two other black members of Saint Georges were forced from their knees and told to go to the churchs gallery by white members angry that blacks had presumed to leave their assigned area. Allen and his friends responded by separating from Saint Georges and founding an independent black congregation, eventually called Bethel Methodist Church. Once again separation did not mean the end of troubles. Saint Georges later tried to take control of Bethel Churchs property, leading the black congregation to sue for their rights, a legal struggle that lasted until 1816, when Allen and his group were finally successful. In the meantime Allen had initiated an even more important step in securing religious independence for black Christians. Tensions continued between white church leaders and the black Methodist congregations growing up with Allens help in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware. The discord led Allen to call a meeting of the black churches in 1816. When the delegates gathered, they formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African American denomination, and elected Allen as their bishop. This move gave black Christians a stronger institutional voice and was a mark of how important these new churches were becoming to African American life and identity. Black Methodists were not alone in forming such churches. The first black Episcopal Church, established in Philadelphia in 1794, was joined in 1807 by a black Presbyterian congregation. Black Baptist churches were formed in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston between 1804 and 1809. These institutions offered significant opportunities for leadership and public presence, and they became centers of the free black communities in these cities. They had social, economic, and political significance in addition to supporting the spiritual lives of their members. Black churches began to find their place as a key expression of African American independence and resistance to white racism, a role that continued through the civil rights movement of the twentieth century.

The Invisible Institution. Despite these important developments in the northern states, most African Americans lived in the South. This meant that slavery was at the heart of their religious lives, in one way or another. For some whites and blacks alike, the southern evangelical emphasis on an intensely individual conversion experience gave an African American Christian a dignity that was hard to reconcile with slave status. Within the black communities slavery prompted much soul-searching. Leading black ministers such as Richard Allen were early public opponents of slavery. They articulated religious as well as political arguments against the institution and sought to ease its effects through the missionary work they sponsored. They struggled with the theological question of why God permitted the evil of slavery to exist. In the South, where black churches were not as strongly established and where the slave codes limited the public presence of black preaching, the response to slavery took a different tack. Many slaves made Christianity into a religion that spoke to their condition. They gathered together outside the view of white missionaries and their churches, creating an invisible institution beyond the sight of their masters. In these meetings the slaves rejected their owners view that the Bible justified slavery and developed their own view that emphasized themes of freedom and deliverance by Christ, though for their safety they cast this in ambiguous terms. Slaves expressed these beliefs in the sermons they preached, the Bible stories they told each other, and, most dramatically, in the songs they sang. These spirituals are the deepest expressions of both their painful position and the hope they found in their form of Christianity. They expressed how their religion let African Americans accept their condition at the same time as they were resisting it. The performance of these songs, in dances called shouts that dramatized the stories they told, was much like the enthusiasm of many participants in the revivals of the era. In these songs African Amerians were participating in one of the most important developments of American religion, while at the same time making that development distinctively their own.


Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977);

Donald G. Mathews, Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977);

Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

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