African American History

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Background[edit | edit source]

African American history is the portion of American history that specifically discusses the African American or Black American ethnic group in the United States. Most African Americans are the descendants of African slaves held in the United States from 1619 to 1865. Others who are considered African American by the US government include voluntary immigrants from Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. African American history is celebrated in the United States during Black History Month.

The majority of African-Americans descend from slaves that were either sold as prisoners of war by stronger African states or kidnapped directly by Europeans and Africans. The former was far more common than the latter, and the already existing market for slaves in Africa was put to full advantage by European powers in need of labor for New World plantations. The American slave population was made up of the various ethnic groups from these regions including the Bakongo, Igbo, Mandé, Wolof, Akan, Fon and Makua amongst others. Once mixed together in the Americas, these different peoples began to forge a new history and culture based on their similarities.

Studies of contemporary documents reveal seven regions from which Africans were sold or taken during the Atlantic slave trade. These regions were Senegambia, encompassing the coast from the Senegal River to the Casamance where captives as far away as the Upper and Middle Niger River Valley were sold. There was also the Sierra Leone region, which included territory from the Casamance to Assini in the modern countries of Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire.

Another region was the Gold Coast, which is mainly modern Ghana. The Bight of Benin was a region stretching from the Volta River to the Benue River in modern Togo, Benin and southwestern Nigeria. The Bight of Biafra extended from southeastern Nigeria through Cameroon into Gabon. West Central Africa, the largest region, included the Congo and Angola. The region of Mozambique-Madagascar included the modern countries of Mozambique, parts of Tanzania and Madagascar.

In the past few decades, African Americans have begun to uncover a history that was largely discarded, overlooked, and ignored. It is usually the case that history books are written by and for those in power and reflect their point of view.

European exploration of the New World in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries revealed both alien peoples thought to be in need of civilizing and vast tracts of underutilized land. As European traders tapped into the centuries-old internal African slave trade, they began to realize the potential benefits of slavery. They could draw on the tropical farming experience and disease resistance of Africans and work enormous tracts of land for only the upkeep of the slave population. In the process of developing the New World, Europeans transported millions of people from Africa. And as they sought to justify this practice and retain their advantages, they also created a racial system that would define social relationships throughout the world.

Despite all this, Africans and African Americans after them have risen above the positions to which they had been relegated. They created poetry, drama, literature, and film, they sang the blues, they invented jazz, and they fought for justice and equality.

Time Line[edit | edit source]

  • 1619 - first African slaves brought to Virginia
  • 1662 - law passed proclaiming that children born to enslaved mothers are also slaves
  • 1774 - first black congregations and churches were organized
  • 1776-1783 - many African Americans, both enslaved and free, fight in the American Revolution. Many who join the British are given freedom and land.
  • 1780 - Pennsylvania abolishes slavery, the first U.S. state to do so. Other northern states follow.
  • 1793 - the Fugitive Slave Act passed, guaranteeing the right for a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave
  • 1794 - Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin, dramatically increasing the need for enslaved labor
  • 1808 - the importation of slaves is banned
  • 1700s-1800s - abolitionist societies are founded
  • 1850 - another Fugitive Slave Act was passed
  • 1857 - the Supreme Court upholds slavery in Dred Scott v. Sandford
  • 1861-1865 - the American Civil War is fought. African Americans, both enslaved and freed, fight in the war, mainly for the Union.
  • 1863 - the Emancipation Proclamation goes into effect, granting freedom to slaves in the South
  • 1865 - the Thirteenth Amendment passed, abolishing slavery
  • 1866 - the first Civil Rights Act is passed

For more information, see Timeline of African-American history.

Statistics[edit | edit source]

In 1820, there were 1,528,038 black slaves in the United States. In 1860, there were 3,953,760.[1]

Websites[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. William O. Lynch, "The Westward Flow of Southern Colonists before 1861," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Aug. 1943):324. Digital version at JSTOR ($).