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African American History


Black History Timeline


A Black History Timeline arranged by the Valley Crossroads Drama Group directed by Katrina Darrett.

African-American History is the portion of American history that specifically discusses the African American or Black American ethnic groups in the United States. Most African Americans are the descendants of captive Africans held in the United States from 1619 to 1865. Blacks from the Caribbean whose ancestors immigrated, or who immigrated to the U.S., also traditionally have been considered African American, as they share a common history of predominantly West African or Central African roots, the Middle Passage and slavery.

It is these peoples, who in the past were referred to and self-identified collectively as the American Negro, who now generally consider themselves African Americans. Their history is celebrated and highlighted annually in the United States during February, designated as Black History Month, and it is their history that is the focus of this article.

Others who sometimes are referred to as African Americans, and who may self-identify as such in US government censuses, include relatively recent Black immigrants from Africa, South America and elsewhere who self-identify as being of African descent.

African origins

The majority of African Americans descend from slaves, most of whom were sold into slavery as prisoners of war by African states or kidnapped by African, Arab, European or American slave traders. Slavery within Africa had already existed prior and after the arrival of the Europeans. The existing market for slaves in Africa was exploited and expanded by European powers in search of free labor for New World plantations. The “New World” is a phrase, coined by Amerigo Vespucci in the 16th century soon after the discovery of the Americas and is meant to include the lands of North America and the Caribbean Islands.

The American slave population was made up of the various ethnic groups from western and central Africa, including the BakongoIgbo,MandéWolofAkanFon and Makua amongst others. Although these different groups varied in customs, religious theology and language, what they had in common was a way a life that was different from the Europeans.   However, since a majority of the slaves came from these villages and societies, once sent to the Americas these different peoples did away with tribal differences and forged a new history and culture that was a creolization of their common pasts and present.   The Bakongo people were part of a large civilization, in fact, there was around two million people by the 1400s.   The Kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo (Angola), are where most African-Americans trace their ancestors to.   African political organizations were also in a monarchical system similar to the Europeans.

Studies of contemporary documents reveal seven regions from which Africans were sold or taken during the Atlantic slave trade. These regions were

The largest source of slaves to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean for the “New World” was West Africa. West Africans were skilled iron workers and were therefore able to make tools that aided in their agricultural labor. While there were many unique tribes with their own customs and religions, by the tenth century, Islam had been soaked up by many of the residents and became a common religion. Those villages in West Africa there were lucky enough to good conditions for growth and success, prospered. They also contributed their success to the slave trade.

Origins and Percentages of African Americans imported into British North America and Louisiana (1700–1820)



West Central Africa 26.1%
Bight of Biafra 24.4%
Sierra Leone 15.8%
Senegambia 14.5%
Gold Coast 13.1%
Bight of Benin 4.3%
Mozambique-Madagascar 1.8%

The Middle Passage – 
Africa before the Atlantic Slave Trade

Before the Atlantic Slave Trade there was already slavery going on in Africa. The countries in Africa would buy, sell, and trade slaves with each other and with Europeans because saw it as one society taking over another, there was no unified African identity. The people of Mali and Benin did not identify themselves as Africans any more than the people of France or Portugal identified themselves as Europeansthus Africans felt no moral distaste for the practice of capturing and selling slaves.

In the account of Equiano, he described the process of being transported to the colonies and being on the slave ships as a horrific experience. On the ships, the slaves were separated from their family and kept chained under the ship deck. Under the deck, the slaves were cramped and did not have enough space to walk around freely. Due to the lack of basic hygiene, malnourishment, and dehydration diseases spread wildly. Death was common and the women on the ships often endured rape by the crewmen.   In the midst of these terrible conditions, African slaves plotted mutiny. While rebellions did not happen often, they were usually unsuccessful. In order for the crew members to keep the slaves under control and prevent future rebellions, the crew members would instill fear into the slaves through brutality and harsh punishments. From the time of being captured in African to the arrival to the plantations of the European masters, took an average of six months.   Africans were completely cut off from their families, home, and community life.   They were forced to adjust to a new way of life.

Early African-American History: Slavery in the United States

The first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The English settlers treated these captives as indentured servants and released them after a number of years. This practice was gradually replaced by the system of race-based slavery used in the Caribbean.  As servants were freed, they became competition for resources. Additionally, released servants had to be replaced. This, combined with the still ambiguous nature of the social status of Blacks and the difficulty in using any other group of people as forced servants, led to the relegation of Blacks into slavery. Massachusetts was the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641. Other colonies followed suit by passing laws that passed slavery on to the children of slaves and making non-Christian imported servants slaves for life.

A former slave displays the telltale criss-cross, keloid scars from being bullwhipped.

Africans first arrived in 1619, when a Dutch ship sold 19 blacks as indentured servants (not slaves) to Englishmen at Point Comfort (today’s Fort Monroe), thirty miles downstream from Jamestown, Virginia. In all, about 10-12 million Africans were transported to the Western Hemisphere. The vast majority of these people came from that stretch of the West African coast extending from present-day Senegal to Angola; a small percentage came from Madagascar and East Africa. Only 3% (about 300,000) went to the American colonies. The vast majority went to the West Indies, where they died quickly. Demographic conditions were highly favorable in the American colonies, with less disease, more food, some medical care, and lighter work loads than prevailed in the sugar fields.

At first the Africans in the South were outnumbered by white indentured servants, who came voluntarily from Britain. They avoided the plantations. With the vast amount of good land and the shortage of laborers, plantation owners turned to lifetime slaves who worked for their keep but were not paid wages and could not easily escape. Slaves had some legal rights (it was a crime to kill a slave, and a few whites were hanged for it.) Generally the slaves developed their own family system, religion and customs in the slave quarters with little interference from owners, who were only interested in work outputs.

By 1700 there were 25,000 slaves in the American colonies, about 10% of the population. A few had come from Africa but most came from the West Indies (especially Trinidad, later Trinidad and Tobago), or, increasingly, were native born. Their legal status was now clear: they were slaves for life and so were the children of slave mothers. They could be sold, or freed, and a few ran away; some using the Underground Railroad to reach freedom. In the eyes of the slave owner, they were no more than livestock.   Slowly a free black population emerged, concentrated in port cities along the Atlantic coast from Charleston to Boston. Slaves in the cities and towns had many more privileges, but the great majority of slaves lived on southern tobacco or rice plantations, usually in groups of 20 or more.   Wealthy plantation owners eventually would become so reliant on slavery that they devastated their own lower class.   In years to come the institution of slavery would be so heavily involved in the South’s economy it would divide America into two opposing forces.

The most serious slave rebellion was the Stono Uprising, in September 1739 in South Carolina. The colony had about 56,000 slaves, who outnumbered whites 2:1. About 150 slaves rose up, and seizing guns and ammunition, murdered twenty whites, and headed for Spanish Florida. The local militia soon intercepted and killed most of them.

All the American colonies had slavery, but it was usually the form of personal servants in the North (where 2% of the people were slaves), and field hands in plantations in the South (where 25% were slaves.)  These statistics show the early imbalance that would eventually tip the scale and rid the United States of Slavery.

The Revolution and early America: American RevolutionHistory of the United States (1776–1789), and African Americans in the Revolutionary War.

The later half of the 18th century was a time of political upheaval in the United States. In the midst of cries for relief from British rule, several people pointed out the apparent hypocrisies of slave holders’ demanding freedom. The Declaration of Independence, a document that would become a manifesto for human rights and personal freedom, was written by Thomas Jefferson, who owned over 200 slaves. Other Southern statesmen were also major slaveholders. The Second Continental Congress did consider freeing slaves to disrupt British commerce. They removed language from the Declaration of Independence that included the promotion of slavery amongst the offenses of King George III. A number of free Blacks, most notably Prince Hall—the founder of Prince Hall Freemasonry, submitted petitions for the end of slavery. But these petitions were largely ignored.

This did not deter Blacks, free and slave, from participating in the Revolution. Crispus Attucks, a free Black tradesman, was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre and of the ensuing American Revolutionary War. 5,000 Blacks, including Prince Hall, fought in the Continental Army. Many fought side by side with White soldiers at the battles of Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill. But when George Washington took command in 1775, he barred any further recruitment of Blacks.

Approximately 5000 free African American men helped the American Colonists in their struggle for freedom. One of these men, Agrippa Hull, fought in the American Revolution for over six years. He and the other African American soldiers fought in order to improve their white neighbor’s views of them and advance their own fight of freedom.

By contrast, the British and Loyalists offered emancipation to any slave owned by a Patriot who was willing to join the Loyalist forces. Lord Dunmore, the Governor of Virginia, recruited 300 African American men into his Ethiopian regiment within a month of making this proclamation. In South Carolina 25,000 slaves, more than one-quarter of the total, escaped to join and fight with the British, or fled for freedom in the uproar of war. Thousands of slaves also escaped in Georgia and Virginia, as well as New England and New York. Well-known Black Loyalist soldiers include Colonel Tye and Boston King.

The Americans eventually won the war. In the provisional treaty, they demanded the return of property, including slaves. Nonetheless, the British helped up to 4,000 documented African Americans to leave the country for Nova ScotiaJamaica, and Britain rather than be returned to slavery.

Thomas Peters was one of the large numbers of African Americans who fought for the British. He was a North Carolina slave who left his master’s farm in order to receive Lord Dunmore’s promise of freedom. Peters fought for the British throughout the war. When the war finally ended, he and other African Americans who fought on the losing side were taken to Nova Scotia. Here, they were given pieces of land that they could not farm. They also did not receive the same freedoms of white Englishmen. Peters sailed to London in order to complain to the government. “He arrived at a momentous time, when English abolitionists were pushing a bill through Parliament to charter the Sierra Leone Company and to grant it trading and settlement rights on the West African coast.” Peters and the other African Americans on Nova Scotia left for Sierra Leone in 1792. Peters died soon after they arrived but the other members of his party lived on in their new home.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 sought to define the foundation for the government of the newly formed United States of America. The constitution set forth the ideals of freedom and equality while providing for the continuation of the institution of slavery through the fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths compromise. Additionally, free blacks’ rights were also restricted in many places. Most were denied the right to vote and were excluded from public schools. Some Blacks sought to fight these contradictions in court. In 1780, Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker used language from the new Massachusetts constitution that declared all men were born free and equal in freedom suits to gain release from slavery. A free Black businessman in Boston named Paul Cuffe sought to be excused from paying taxes since he had no voting rights.

In the Northern states, the revolutionary spirit did help African Americans. Beginning in the 1750s, there was widespread sentiment during the American Revolution that slavery was a social evil (for the country as a whole and for the whites) that should eventually be abolished.   All the Northern states passed emancipation acts between 1780 and 1804; most of these arranged for gradual emancipation and a special status for freedmen, so there were still a dozen “permanent apprentices” into the 19th century. In 1787 Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance and barred slavery from the large Northwest Territory.   In 1790, there were more than 59,000 free Blacks in the United States. By 1810, that number had risen to 186,446. Most of these were in the North, but Revolutionary sentiments also motivated Southern slaveholders.

For 20 years after the Revolution, more Southerners also freed slaves, sometimes by manumission or in wills to be accomplished after the slaveholder’s death. In the Upper South, the percentage of free blacks rose from about 1% before the Revolution to more than 10% by 1810. Quakers and Moravians worked to persuade slaveholders to free families. In Virginia the number of free blacks increased from 10,000 in 1790 to nearly 30,000 in 1810, but 95% of blacks were still enslaved. In Delaware, three-quarters of all blacks were free by 1810.   By 1860 just over 91% of Delaware’s blacks were free, and 49.1% of those in Maryland.

Among the successful free men was Benjamin Banneker, a Maryland astronomer, mathematician, almanac author, surveyor and farmer, who in 1791 assisted in the initial survey of the boundaries of the future District of Columbia.   Despite the challenges of living in the new country, most free Blacks fared far better than the nearly 800,000 enslaved Blacks. Even so, many considered emigrating to Africa.

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