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African American History

African-American history starts in the 17th century with indentured servitude in the American colonies and progresses onto the election of Barack Obama as the 44th and current President of the United States. Between those landmarks there were other events and issues, both resolved and ongoing, that were faced by African Americans. Some of these were slavery, reconstruction, development of the African-American community, participation in the great military conflicts of the United States, racial segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement.

The first recorded Africans in British North America arrived in 1619 as indentured servants who settled in Jamestown, Virginia. As English settlers died from harsh conditions more and more Africans were brought to work as laborers. Africans for many years were similar in legal position to poor English indentured servants, who traded several years labor in exchange for passage to America.

Africans could legally raise crops and cattle to purchase their freedom. They raised families, marrying other Africans and sometimes intermarrying with Native Americans or English settlers. By the 1640s and 1650s, several African families owned farms around Jamestown and some became wealthy by colonial standards.

African American fighting in the Union Army during the Civil WarThe popular conception of a race-based slave system did not fully develop until the 18th century. By 1860, there were 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the United States due to the Atlantic slave trade, and another 500,000 African Americans lived free across the country. In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared that all slaves in states which had seceded from the Union were free. Advancing Union troops enforced the proclamation with Texas being the last state to be emancipated in 1865.

African Americans quickly set up congregations for themselves, as well as schools, community and civic associations, to have space away from white control or oversight. While the post-war reconstruction era was initially a time of progress for African Americans, in the late 1890s, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation and disenfranchisement. Most African Americans followed the Jim Crow laws, using a mask of compliance to prevent becoming victims of racially motivated violence. To maintain self-esteem and dignity, African Americans such as Anthony Overton and Mary McLeod Bethune continued to build their own schools, churches, banks, social clubs, and other businesses.

In the last decade of the 19th century, racially discriminatory laws and racial violence aimed at African Americans began to mushroom in the United States. These discriminatory acts included racial segregation, which was legally mandated by southern states and nationwide at the local level of government, voter suppression or disenfranchisement in the southern states, denial of economic opportunity or resources nationwide, and private acts of violence and mass racial violence aimed at African Americans unhindered or encouraged by government authorities.

The desperate conditions of African Americans in the South that sparked the Great Migration of the early 20th century, combined with a growing African American intellectual and cultural elite in the Northern United States, led to a movement to fight violence and discrimination against African Americans that, like abolitionism before it, crossed racial lines.

Marcus Garvey founder of the UNIA is a Nationilist parade in HarlemThe Civil Rights Movement between 1954 to 1968 was directed at abolishing racial discrimination against African Americans, particularly in the Southern United States. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the conditions which brought it into being are credited with putting pressure on President John F. Kennedy and then Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson put his support behind passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labor unions, and the Voting Rights Act (1965), which expanded federal authority over states to ensure black political participation through protection of voter registration and elections. By 1966, the emergence of the Black Power movement, which lasted from 1966 to 1975, expanded upon the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from white authority.

Politically and economically, blacks have made substantial strides in the post-civil rights era. In 1989, Douglas Wilder became the first African-American elected governor in U.S. history. There are currently two black governors serving concurrently; governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and governor David Paterson of New York. Clarence Thomas became the second African-American Supreme Court Justice. In 1992 Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. There were 8,936 black officeholders in the United States in 2000, showing a net increase of 7,467 since 1970. In 2001 there were 484 black mayors.

On November 4, 2008, Democratic then-Senator Barack Obama defeated Republican Senator John McCain to become the first black American to be elected President of the United States. At least 95 percent of African-American voters voted for Obama.  Obama lost the overall white vote, although he won a larger proportion of white votes than any previous non-incumbent Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter.

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on the historic eras of Black history in the United States.

African American Roots     Trans Atlantic Slave Trade     Slavery in British North America   The Revolutionary War    
The First Emancipation    The Cotton Kingdom     Nat Turner's Rebellion     Dred Scott Decision    The Abolitionists    
The Civil War    Reconstruction    Jim Crow Laws    The Great Migration   The Harlem Renaissance   Rosewood Florida 
The UNIA    Rosa Parks    Voting Rights   Black Nationalism    The Nation of Islam    African American Culture    Urbanization
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