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Running head: From Africa to America

From Africa to America

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From Africa to America

African American History is a history of black people in the United States from their arrival in the Americas in the 15th century until the present day. In 1996, 33.9 million Americans, about one out of every eight people in the United States, were black. Although blacks from the West Indies and other areas have migrated to the United States in the 20th century, most African Americans were born in the United States, and this has been true since the early 19th century. Until the mid-20th century, the African American population was concentrated in the Southern states. Even today, nearly half of all African Americans live in the South. Blacks also make up a significant part of the population in most urban areas in the eastern United States and in some mid-western and western cities as well.

Portuguese traders brought the first African slaves for agricultural labor to the Caribbean in 1502. From then until 1860, it is estimated that more than 10 million people were transported from Africa to the Americas. The great majority were brought to the Caribbean, Brazil, or the Spanish colonies of Central and South America. Only about 6 percent were traded in British North America. The Portuguese, Dutch, and British controlled most of the Atlantic slave trade. Most Africans taken to North America came from the various cultures of western and west central Africa. The territories that are now Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria were the origins of most slaves brought to North America, although significant numbers also came from the areas that are now Senegal, Gambia, and Angola. These areas were home to diverse linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups. Most of the people enslaved were subsistence farmers and raised livestock. Their agricultural and pastoral skills made them valuable laborers in the Americas.

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To transport the captured Africans to the Americas, Europeans loaded them onto specially constructed ships with platforms below deck designed to maximize the numbers of slaves that could be transported. Africans were confined for two to three months in irons in the hold of a slave ship during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean called the Middle Passage. The meager diet of rice, yams, or beans and the filthy conditions created by overcrowding resulted in a very high death rate. Many ships reached their destinations with barely half their cargo of slaves still alive to sell into forced labor in the Americas. The first Africans brought to the English colonies in North America came on a Dutch privateer that landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619. The ship had started out with about 100 captives, but it had run into extremely bad weather. When the ship finally put into Jamestown, it had only 20 surviving Africans to sell to the struggling colony. Soon many of the colonies along the Atlantic seaboard started importing African slaves. The Dutch West India Company brought 11 Africans to its garrison trading post in New Amsterdam (known today as New York City) in 1626, and Pennsylvanians imported 150 Africans in 1684.

The vast majority of Africans brought to the 13 British colonies worked as agricultural laborers; many were brought to the colonies specifically for their experience in rice growing, cattle herding, or river navigation. For example, South Carolina planters drew upon the knowledge of slaves from Senegambia in West Africa to begin cultivating rice, their first major export crop. In the South, slaves grew tobacco in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, and rice and indigo in South Carolina and Georgia. In the North, slaves also worked on farms. African Americans, slave and free, also worked in a wide variety of occupations. They were household workers, sailors, preachers, accountants, music teachers, medical assistants, blacksmiths, bricklayers, and carpenters, doing virtually any work American society required. By 1750 there were nearly 240,000 people of African descent in British North America, fully 20 percent of the population, though they were not evenly distributed. The greatest number of African Americans lived in Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina because large plantations with many slaves were concentrated in the South. Blacks constituted over 60 percent of the population in South Carolina, over 43 percent in Virginia, and over 30 percent in Maryland, but only about 2 percent in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. In the Northern colonies, enslaved people were much more likely to work in households having only one or a few slaves. Virtually all colonies had a small number of free blacks, but in colonial America, only Maryland had a sizeable free black population. Over the generations of enslavement, at least 95 percent of Africans in the United States lived in slavery. But even as early as the 1600s, some gained their freedom by buying themselves or being bought by relatives. Since slavery was inherited through the status of the mother, some blacks became free if they were born to non-slave mothers. Others gained their freedom from bondage for meritorious acts or long competent labor.

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Slavery was the most extreme, but not the only form of unfree labor in British North America. Many Europeans and some Africans were held as indentured servants. Neither slaves nor indentured servants were free, but there were important differences. Slavery was involuntary and hereditary. Indentured servants made contracts, often an exchange of labor for passage to America. They served for a limited time, commonly seven years, and generally received "freedom dues," often land and clothing, upon finishing their indenture. Although some slaves gained freedom after a limited term, others served for life, and a second generation inherited the slave status of their mothers. Gradually by the 18th century, colonial laws were consolidated into slave codes providing for perpetual, inherited servitude for Africans who were defined as property to be bought and sold.

In their day-to-day lives, slaves and servants shared similar grievances and frequently formed alliances. Advertisements seeking the return of slaves and servants who had run away together filled colonial newspapers. When a slave named Charles escaped in 1740, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that two white servants, a "Scotch man" and an Englishman, escaped with him. Sometimes interracial alliances involved violence. During Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, slaves and servants took up arms against Native Americans and the colonial government in Virginia. In 1712 New York officials executed Native Americans and African American slaves for plotting a revolt, and in 1741 four whites were executed and seven banished from colonial New York for participating with slaves in a conspiracy. People in similar circumstances—poor and unfree whites, Native Americans, and blacks-formed alliances throughout the colonial era.

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Slavery was important to American patriots. It was the opposite of liberty and served as a benchmark against which they measured their own freedom. They continually warned that they would not be denied their rights, saying they must not be the "slaves" of England. The ideals of the Revolution emphasized the incompatibility of slavery in a free land, and slaves petitioned for their freedom using the words of the Declaration of Independence. African Americans hoped that men who wrote such lofty words as “all men are created equal” would realize the immorality of continuing to enslave their fellow countrymen. "We expect great things," one group wrote, "from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow men to enslave them." The words slave and slavery did not appear in the Constitution written in 1787. However, the American Revolution and the American colonies’ fight against British oppression did not bring slavery to an end. The words slave and slavery did not appear in the Constitution written in 1787, but the framers of the Constitution struck a compromise allowing the slave trade to continue until 1808. Slavery remained important to the economy of the new nation, and after the Revolution, it became more concentrated in the South.

On large 19th-century cotton plantations, slaves usually worked in groups called gangs headed by slave drivers. The driver, who was generally a slave selected for intelligence and leadership ability, directly supervised the field laborers. Gangs worked the crop rows, plowing, planting, cultivating, or picking, depending on the season. Unlike those under the task system, these slaves had little control over their work schedule beyond the rhythm of the work songs that regulated the pace of their work. The vast majority of white Southerners could afford no slaves and struggled for basic self-sufficiency, but many slaveholding planters were rich and politically powerful. By the 1850s there were more millionaires in the plantations from Natchez, Mississippi, to New Orleans, Louisiana, than in all other areas of the nation combined. By 1860 the 12 richest counties in the nation were all located in the South. The Southern economy depended on slavery, and by 1860 the U.S. economy depended on the Southern cotton that accounted for almost 60 percent of the value of all the nation's exports.

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The first federal census in 1790 recorded nearly 60,000 free blacks, compared to more than 690,000 who lived in slavery. Although most African Americans lived in the South (about 90 percent), 27,000 lived in the North. South and North, free blacks tended to concentrate in urban areas, since cities afforded employment opportunities, greater freedom of movement, and larger concentrations of people to support churches, schools, and other organizations. However, African Americans faced many obstacles and prejudices not encountered by whites, even in areas where slavery had been abolished. They were barred from most educational institutions, limited to the least desirable residential and farming areas, often prohibited from practicing trades and opening businesses, and generally segregated in public conveyances and public worship. Except in a few New England states where their numbers were small, black voting was restricted. In many states, especially in the Midwest, they could not serve on juries or testify against whites in court. Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa prohibited black immigration, and Illinois threatened bondage for blacks who attempted to locate there permanently. In 1807 Ohio passed a series of "black codes" requiring free blacks to post a $500 bond assuring their good conduct and self-support before they could settle in the state. Although these restrictive laws were irregularly enforced, free blacks lived under their constant threat. African Americans' job opportunities were always restricted, and poverty was a continuing problem. Ironically, black skilled artisans were more likely to find employment in the South than in Northern cities where they faced competition from European immigrants. Most free black men in the North worked as servants, as day laborers finding temporary work where they could, or as sailors aboard trading ships or whalers. Black women most often worked as maids, laundresses, or cooks in homes, hotels, restaurants, or other businesses.

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Although African Americans also worked with white allies in integrated antislavery organizations, they were determined to let their own voices be heard. They published political and historical pamphlets such as David Walker's militant Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829). In 1827 John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish founded the first black owned and operated newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in New York. Ten years later Cornish became editor of the New York newspaper, Colored American.

Continuing discrimination and legal restrictions on social and political rights prompted some African Americans to leave the United States. Some immigrated to Africa, going to places such as the British African colony of Sierra Leone and Liberia, an area settled by freed American slaves. Other destinations included the West Indies, Mexico, or Europe. Paul Cuffe, a wealthy African American and Native American sea captain and shipbuilder from Massachusetts, promoted colonization in Sierra Leone and took a group of black settlers there in 1815. In 1816 the American Colonization Society was formed to resettle free blacks and freed slaves in Africa. White slaveholders were among its leaders, and most African Americans were suspicious, rejecting their overtures. Still, by 1827, the Society had taken over 1400 volunteers, mostly free blacks from the upper South, to Liberia. African Americans were also likely to seek fuller freedom and safety from kidnapping or reenslavement by emigrating to Canada where slavery was abolished in 1833. The vast majority, however, remained in the United States, tied to their homes by kinship and a sense of entitlement. They hoped to gain citizenship rights and were committed to fighting for the freedom of those still enslaved.

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Many members of interracial antislavery societies added their efforts to the work of black churches and other black organizations in a vast informally organized network known as the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad helped shelter and transport fugitive slaves who had escaped from the South. Most escaped slaves remained in Northern communities, but some fled to black settlements in Canada, where they would be safe from recapture. Although most slaves found aid from the Underground Railroad only when they reached the North, some were aided by such "conductors" as Harriet Tubman who ventured into the South to lead people to freedom. Through this underground, fugitives from slavery also escaped to freedom in the West Indies, Mexico, and Native American territories in Florida and the West.

People in the North became upset by the ease with which the Southern planters were reestablishing their dominance. Republicans in Congress fought with the president to change his Reconstruction policies. After the Democratic Party suffered a major defeat in the elections of 1866, the Republican Party took charge of Reconstruction, pursuing a more radical course. Congress passed the 14th Amendment in 1866 (ratified by the states in 1868). It extended citizenship to blacks and protected their civil rights by forbidding the states to take away “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. In March 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Act which was strengthened by three supplemental acts later the same year and in 1868. The Reconstruction acts divided the former ten Confederate states into five military districts, each headed by a federal military commander. This created a federal military occupation of the former Confederate states. (Tennessee was exempt because it had ratified the 14th Amendment and was considered reconstructed.) Before applying for readmission to the Union, the Southern states were required to ratify the 14th Amendment and revise their constitutions to ensure that blacks had citizenship rights, including the right to vote. Federal occupation temporarily extended democracy in the South, assuring former slaves the vote and thereby enabling them to elect black leaders to political office. In states with the largest black populations, African Americans and their white Republican allies established and improved public education for white and black students, ended property qualifications for voting, abolished imprisonment for debt, and integrated public facilities.

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Reconstruction came to an end gradually, as Democrats took over state governments from Republicans. In the last three states, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, Reconstruction ended as part of an apparent political compromise. Both Democrats and Republicans claimed victory in those states in the elections of 1876. However, leaders of the national Republican Party agreed to recognize Democratic claims to state offices in return for receiving the electoral votes of those states for Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, who thereby won the election. In the face of racial violence during the late 19th century, Booker T. Washington advised blacks to stop demanding equal rights and simply get along with whites. His willingness to accept segregation and inequality in exchange for economic advancement drew criticism from other black leaders, notably W. E. B. Du Bois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

During the last quarter of the 19th century, black urban societies in the South grew as many agricultural workers sought work and the relative safety of the city. Black women in particular found jobs as domestics in the homes of the growing white middle class. A few African Americans found work in the new Southern textile mills and tobacco factories, but most of those jobs were reserved for whites. Generally, Southern blacks in the cities, like those in rural areas, teetered on the edge of poverty, although such Southern cities as Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta had small but significant black middle class communities. As black urban communities grew, they offered a broader range of social institutions and educational opportunities. Cities attracted many blacks who had been educated at Howard, Fisk, Atlanta, Hampton, and other black colleges established during the 19th century. The growth in the size and literacy of the urban black populace stimulated cultural and intellectual activity. Blacks published newspapers and magazines in all substantial African American communities. The growth in the size and literacy of the urban black populace stimulated cultural and intellectual activity.  The composers Scott Joplin and W. C. Handy and the poet-novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar were among the black artists who achieved prominence at the turn of the century. Many other lesser-known musicians and writers combined Western musical styles with rhythmic and melodic forms rooted in Africa and in slavery to create American jazz. This musical style reflected African notions of improvisation and community and developed distinctive regional styles, from the Dixieland popular in New Orleans and the western South to the more sophisticated sounds that became the cool jazz of the southern Atlantic states. As blacks migrated to the West and the North, they carried these regional musical styles with them.

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During the first decade of the 20th century, the infestation of Southern cotton crops by insects called boll weevils diminished production and curtailed the need for farm labor. Growing unemployment and increasing racial violence encouraged blacks to leave the South. Soon after, in 1914, World War I broke out in Europe. Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, its factories supplied the combatants. American industry needed labor, and the war slowed European immigration. In response, Northern manufacturers recruited Southern black workers to fill factory jobs. From 1910 to 1930 between 1.5 million and 2 million African Americans left the South for the industrial cities of the North. By 1930 more than 200,000 blacks had moved to New York, about 180,000 to Chicago, and more than 130,000 to Philadelphia. The sudden influx of newcomers to established Northern black communities brought not only new vitality but also new problems. Tensions grew between long-time black residents and the new emigrants, who were generally poor and sometimes illiterate. Cheap taverns and dance halls sprang up to cater to them, and they established new churches (often storefront quarters) that rivaled older more traditional black churches. As black communities in Northern cities grew, black working people became the clientele for an expanding black professional and business class, gaining in political and economic power. This new black leadership replaced traditional leaders whose status often depended on their connection to influential whites. New leaders were more likely to have power based in the black communities and were freer to express a sense of racial pride and solidarity with working class African Americans. Under these conditions, many social conflicts gradually gave way to an increasing sense of racial pride and social cohesion. While Jim Crow laws and political terrorism continued to discourage blacks from voting in the South, African Americans in Northern cities became an important political force. Black fraternal orders, political organizations, social clubs, and newspapers asserted an urban consciousness that became the foundation for the militancy and African American cultural innovations of the 1920s.


Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords o/Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (Vintage Books, 1991).

Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds. History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996).

Mancall, Peter C (2004) A Companion to Colonial America.(Book Review) Journal of Southern History; November 1.

Miller-Widrick, Melinda (2000) Colonial America. The Book Report; September 1.

Funari, Ricardo (1998) Contemporary 'slavery' in Brazil: Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, but labor exploitation persists.   Hemisphere; Jan 1.

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