African American History

African American History


The Declaration of Independence gives a classic affirmation of Human Rights:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Despite this declaration, the history of African Americans in the United States has required legal, judicial, executive, and even military intervention to secure equality.  In so doing, the African-American struggle for equality has challenged the very underpinnings of Democracy, pitting such forces as Civil Rights, Minority Rights, and the Rule of Law against States’ Rights, Majority Rule, and the Tyranny of the Majority.


Most African Americans are descendants of slaves, brought directly from Africa or indirectly via the Caribbean between 1619 and 1808.  Although Congress banned the international slave trade in 1808, slave trading continued within the United States through the end of the Civil War in 1865.  Slaves were in particular demand in the American South, where manual labor was needed to harvest the crops of a largely agricultural economy.

According to the Census of 1860, approximately 13% of the population (4 million slaves out of 31 million citizens) lived in slavery.  Because of their high concentration in the South, slaves comprised nearly 40% of the population of the eleven states that seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy in 1861 at the onset of the Civil War.

What follows is a list of some of the key historical milestones in the struggle of African Americans to achieve freedom before, during, and after the Civil War.  Although this background information is helpful, your ability to comprehend the essentials—Main Idea, Detail, Inference—from what you are given to read is more important for answering questions than tapping into an encyclopedic memory.

Before the Civil War

1775  Revolutionary War begins.  Many African Americans fight on behalf of American independence.

1776  Declaration of Independence.  Despite its affirmation of human rights, this document contains no clause to free slaves.  Thomas Jefferson, the declaration’s author, owns slaves.  Jefferson also fathers children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

1789  Constitution.  Although the newly ratified United States Constitution promises the “blessings of liberty,” it also contains a fugitive slave clause and three-fifths compromise.  The fugitive slave clause requires that an escaped and captured slave be returned to its owner.  For census purposes, the three-fifths compromise counts each slave as three-fifths of a human being.  This formula increases the population count of the South, so that Southern states can have more Congressmen in the United States House of Representatives.

1791  Haitian Revolution.  A slave revolt ultimately leads to the elimination of slavery in Haiti and the establishment of the free Republic of Haiti.  This revolution gives inspiration to American abolitionists.

1820  Missouri Compromise.  This compromise, brokered by Henry Clay between pro- and anti-slavery factions in Congress, prohibits slavery north of the Louisiana Territory, with the exception of Missouri.  In order to achieve “balance,” Maine is admitted to the nation as a free state and Missouri as a slave state.

1831  Nat Turner Rebellion.  A slave revolt is quelled in Virginia.

1845  Frederick Douglass’ autobiography recounts his escape from slavery and spurs the abolitionist movement.

1849  Harriet Tubman uses the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses, to help slaves (like herself) escape.

1850  Compromise of 1850.  Like the Missouri Compromise of 1820, this compromise is arranged by Henry Clay between pro- and anti-slavery factions in Congress.  It admits California to the nation as a free state but leaves the free vs. slave status of other Southwestern territories undecided.  It also includes a Fugitive Slave Act, requiring Northerners to return escaped slaves to their Southern owners.

1851  Sojourner Truth, an escaped and emancipated slave, gives an extemporaneous, women’s-rights speech entitled, “Ain’t I A Woman?”

1852  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin fuels anti-slavery fervor.

1852  Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave gives a first-person, real-life account of slavery.

1857  Dred Scott, a slave, sues for his freedom.  In its Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court declares that African Americans are not eligible to be American citizens and have no right to sue in federal court.  This decision also overturns the Missouri Compromise, because it forbids Congress from regulating slavery in federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States.  Abolitionists in the North are outraged.

1859  Abolitionist John Brown leads a raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in an unsuccessful attempt to incite a slave revolt.

1860  Abraham Lincoln, running on a platform opposing slavery, is elected sixteenth President of the United States.

1861  The Confederate States of America (Confederacy) is formed when eleven Southern states secede from the Union to protect “states’ rights,” arguably a euphemism for slavery.

During the Civil War

1861  Civil War begins with Confederate attack of Union installation at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.  Many African Americans go on to fight for the Union cause.

1863  Emancipation Proclamation.  President Lincoln proclaims all slaves held by the Confederacy are from then on “forever free.”

1865  Civil War ends when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia.

1865  13th Amendment abolishes slavery throughout United States.

1865  President Lincoln assassinated.

After the Civil War

1865  Reconstruction, an effort to reincorporate the Southern states, including civil liberties for all, is begun.

1865  The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization opposed to Reconstruction and civil liberties for all, is begun.

1868  14th Amendment establishes all native-born and naturalized people as citizens with rights of due process, thereby overturning the Dred Scott decision.

1870  15th Amendment gives all men the right to vote, regardless of race, color, or previous slavery.

1896  Homer Plessy, a man of mixed race, rides in a whites-only section of a train.  In its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court declares racial segregation—the doctrine of “separate but equal”—to be constitutional.  Discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws, including but not limited to segregation of public schools, public transportation, and the U.S. military, soon follow.

1909  Under the leadership of African American W. E. B. Dubois, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is formed to mount legal challenges to racial segregation.

1910  The Great Migration, the movement of 1.5 million African Americans from Southern states to Northern cities in search of civil liberties and economic opportunities, begins.

1915  The Birth of a Nation, a popular silent movie, portrays African-American men as sexually threatening toward white women.  It also portrays members of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic.

1917  Many African Americans fight for the United States in World War I.

1940  The Second Great Migration, in which 5 million African Americans move from the South to the North and West, begins.

1941  Many African Americans fight for the United States in World War II.

1947  Jackie Robinson becomes the first African American allowed to play for a Major League baseball team (Brooklyn Dodgers), thereby breaking the “color barrier.”

1954  African American Oliver Brown seeks the right to send his daughter to a white elementary school closer to their home in Topeka, Kansas.  In its Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court declares racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, thereby overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine of its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

1955  African American Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  African Americans subsequently boycott the Montgomery buses for over a year until segregation of the bus system ends.  The Civil Rights Movement, consisting of nonviolent boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and freedom rides, begins.

1957  Little Rock Nine.  President Dwight Eisenhower federalizes the Arkansas National Guard, so that nine African-American students can attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School.

1958  Massive Resistance, a strategy to avoid desegregation of public schools in Virginia, is initiated but fails.

1963  President John F. Kennedy gives a speech in which he states that civil rights is a moral, as well as a legal, issue.  His brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, then arranges for the Alabama National Guard to escort two African-American students in their enrollment in the previously all-white University of Alabama.

1963  March on Washington.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his “I Have A Dream” speech to an audience of 300,000 people peaceably gathered in Washington, DC to promote civil rights.

1964  President Lyndon Baines Johnson achieves passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

1965  Designed to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits discrimination in voting, particularly against racial minorities.

1968  Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated.

1968  Robert F. Kennedy assassinated.

1984  African American Jesse Jackson runs for Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

1989  Douglas Wilder elected first African-American Governor (Virginia) in American history.

2008  Barack Obama elected 44th and first African-American President of the United States.

Mapping Slavery

1  Commercial lithographer Henry S. Graham printed the above map showing the distribution of the slave population in September 1861.  The map shows in graphic terms the density of the slave population in the Southern states, based on figures from the 1860 census.  Although the development of this map was a collaborative government effort, cartographers working for Edwin Hergesheimer, U.S. Coast Survey Drafting Division, created it.

2  The development of this map was revolutionary for its time for several reasons.  First, it was among the first of its kind, initiating a trend of statistical cartography in the United States that allowed the thematic mapping of larger social, political, and cultural trends.  Second, this map represented an early use of statistical information from the census.  Third, new techniques in shading developed by Hergesheimer were a path-breaking application of these new techniques to human geography.  Finally, its makers went as far to use “moral statistics” in order to affect political change.

3  The map was created to understand the secession crisis, by providing a visual link between secession and slavery.  The mapmakers consciously limited the map to just the Southern states, including the Border States of Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky, but not the Western slave states of Nebraska, New Mexico, and Utah.  During and after the war, the map then could be used by the Union to argue that the destruction of the Confederacy meant the destruction of slavery.  There is a strong message in the banner at the top of the map that reads “For the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the U.S. Army.”

4  According to artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter, this map was frequently consulted by President Abraham Lincoln in considering the relationship between emancipation and military strategy.  Carpenter took up residence at the White House in February 1864 to paint President Lincoln, after he was inspired by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Carpenter wrote that Lincoln would look at the map and send his armies to free blacks in some of the highest density areas in order to destabilize Southern order.

5  Carpenter painted the map into symbolic significance in his painting First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, which is now located in the U.S. Capitol.  In this painting, Carpenter captures the moment Lincoln announces his decision for emancipation to his cabinet.  The slave density map is purposely placed in the corner, demonstrating the weight of this proclamation in graphic and statistical terms.

Practice – Questions
1.  Which of the following can you infer from this passage?
A.  The mapmaker was neutral regarding slavery.
B.  The mapmaker was in favor of slavery.
C.  The mapmaker was against slavery.
D.  The mapmaker couldn’t care less.

2.  What is the main idea of this passage?
A.  A census map was created using old techniques.
B.  A census map was created that included the entire United States.
C.  A census map was created to provide a visual link between secession and slavery.
D.  A census map was created without much thought put into it.

3.  The map allowed for the following:
A.  no new techniques
B.  black and blue
C.  red, white, and blue
D.  thematic mapping of larger social, political, and cultural trends

4.  The banner at the top of the map says the following:
A.  For the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the U.S. Army

B.  In God We Trust
C.  In Order to Form a More Perfect Union
D.  Live Free or Die

5.  Which of the following is implied by the passage?
A.  President Lincoln ignored the map.
B.  President Lincoln was inspired by the map.
C.  President Lincoln was clueless.
D.  President Lincoln wanted a photo op.

Practice – Answers
1.   C.  The mapmaker was against slavery.

2.  C.  A census map was created to provide a visual link between secession and slavery.
Main Idea

3.  D.  thematic mapping of larger social, political, and cultural trends

4.  A.  For the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the U.S. Army

5.  B.  President Lincoln was inspired by the map.

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