One of the largest ethnic groups in the United States is African Americans. They are primarily of African descent, but many also have non-Black ancestry.
African Americans are primarily the descendants of enslaved people who have been forcibly evicted from their African land to work in the New World. Their rights have been severely restricted and have long been denied legitimate participation in the economic, social, and political progress of the United States. However, African Americans have made fundamental and lasting contributions to American history and culture.
The Early History of Blacks in America
Africans supported the Spaniards and Portuguese in their early exploration of America. In the 16th century, some black explorers settled in the Mississippi Valley, South Carolina, and New Mexico. America’s most famous black explorer was Estéban, who traveled the southwest in the 1530s.
In 1619, the uninterrupted history of blacks in the United States began when 20 Africans landed in the English colony of Virginia. These individuals were not enslaved people but contracted servants – individuals tied to an employer for a limited number of years – like many settlers of European descent (whites). In the 1660s, many Africans were brought into the English colonies. In 1790, blacks and made up almost a fifth of the population of the United States numbered nearly 760,000.
Attempts to retain black servants beyond the typical contract period culminated in the legal introduction of black movable property slavery in Virginia in 1661 and all English colonies until 1750. Black people were easily distinguishable by their skin color (the result of evolutionary pressures that the presence of a dark pigment called melanin in the skin of populations in equatorial climates) from the rest of the people, making them obvious targets for enslavement. In addition, the development of the belief that they were an “inferior” race with a “pagan” culture made it easier for whites to rationalize black slavery. Enslaved blacks were used to clear and cultivate the farmlands of the New World.
Of an estimated 10 million Africans brought to America through the trafficking of enslaved peoples, about 430,000 came to the United States. The overwhelming majority came from West Africa from present-day Senegal to Angola, where political and social organization and art, music, and dance were highly developed. On or near the African coast, the great kingdoms of Oyo, Ashanti, Benin, Dahomey, and the Congo came into being. In the interior of the Sudanese, the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai had emerged; the Hausa states; and the states of KanemBornu. African cities like Djenné and Timbuktu, both now in Mali, were once important centers of trade and education.
With the increasing profitability of slavery and the trafficking of enslaved peoples, some Africans themselves sold prisoners to European traders. The captured Africans were generally marched in chains to the coast and pushed into the holds of slave ships for the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic, usually to the West Indies. Shock, illness, and suicide accounted for the deaths of at
least one-sixth during the voyage. In the West Indies, the survivors became “experienced” – they learned the basics of English and learned the routines and disciplines of plantation life.
All southern states passed slave codes aimed at controlling slaves and preventing any form of opposition. However, there were outbreaks of opposition, including the Gabriel Prosser Revolt of 1800, the Denmark Vesey-led revolt of 1822, the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, and many minor uprisings. As a result, the substance and enforcement of repressive laws against blacks have been tightened. Blacks were forbidden to carry weapons or gather in groups except in the presence of a white man.
Whether north or south, free blacks were confronted with attitudes and actions that differed from those faced by black slaves from the south. Discrimination existed in most social and economic activities, as well as in elections and education. In 1857, the Dred Scott v Sandford case of the US Supreme Court placed the authority of the Constitution behind state decisions about the treatment of blacks. According to the Dred Scott Decision, African Americans should not fall under the word “citizen” for the Declaration of Independence, even if they were free. Therefore, they could not claim any of the rights and privileges provided for in this document.
African Americans responded to their treatment of slavery in several ways. In addition to people like Prosser, Turner, and Vesey, who openly opposed the slave system, thousands of blacks fled slavery and moved to the northern United States or Canada. Others looked for ways to preserve some degree of individuality and remnant of their African heritage under challenging circumstances. Still, others accepted the images of themselves that white America sought to project onto them. The result, in some cases, was the personality “Uncle Tom” or “Sambo,” the black who accepted their low position as evidence that whites were superior to blacks.
Despite the lack of legal status and the adverse effects of the domestic slave trade, the African American family retained its traditional role in organizing adult-child relationships. Many religious activities among slaves reflected the influences of African spiritual practices. They served as a means by which slaves could develop and promote different views of themselves than those of the slave owner. Outside the south, blacks founded their churches and eventually denominations within Protestantism, including many black Baptist churches. Another early denominational effort was the African Methodist Episcopal Church, originally called the Free African Society, founded by Richard Allen in Philadelphia (1787).