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 by a “legal” slave trade 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
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.
Visualizing Slavery [See map at top of page.]
– Susan Schulten
– newyorktimes.com (2010)
1 The 1860 Census was the last time the federal government took a count of the South’s vast slave population. Several months later, the United States Coast Survey—arguably the most important scientific agency in the nation at the time—issued [a map that drew on the Census data] of Southern states as a whole. Though many Americans knew that dependence on slave labor varied throughout the South, [this map] uniquely captured the complexity of the institution and struck a chord with a public hungry for information about the rebellion.
2 The map uses what was then a new technique in statistical cartography: Each county not only displays its slave population numerically, but is shaded (the darker the shading, the higher the number of slaves) to visualize the concentration of slavery across the region.
The counties along the Mississippi River and in coastal South Carolina are almost black, while Kentucky and the Appalachians are nearly white.
3 The map reaffirmed the belief of many in the Union that secession was driven not by a notion of “state rights,” but by the defense of a labor system. A table at the lower edge of the map measured each state’s slave population, and contemporaries would have immediately noticed that this corresponded closely to the order of secession. South Carolina, which led the rebellion, was one of two states which enslaved a majority of its population, a fact starkly represented on the map.
4 Conversely, the map illustrated the degree to which entire regions—like eastern Tennessee and western Virginia—were virtually devoid of slavery, and thus potential sources of resistance to secession. Such a map might have reinforced President Abraham Lincoln’s belief that secession was animated by a minority and could be reversed if Southern Unionists were given sufficient time and support.
5 The map quickly caught the public’s attention, and was reproduced throughout the war.
Its banner headline, “for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers,” also became the slogan of the Union’s most important homefront organization, the United States Sanitary Commission. The map gave a clear picture of what the Union was up against, and allowed Northerners to follow the progress of the war and the liberation of slave populations.
Practice – Questions
1. Which of the following can you infer from this passage?
A. Slavery was spread uniformly.
B. There were no differences between the North and the South.
C. The South was all the same.
D. A census can be a powerful tool.
2. What is the main idea of this passage?
A. A census is inherently biased.
B. A map should not be illustrated.
C. A census map helped the public to visualize slavery.
D. The South hated the North.
3. In the map, coastal South Carolina is:
C. almost black
4. In the map, eastern Tennessee is:
A. virtually devoid of slavery
B. known for whiskey
C. next to the ocean
D. virtually devoid of religion
5. Which of the following is implied by the passage?
A. Nobody from the North had ever seen a slave.
B. “States’ Rights” is a euphemism for slavery.
C. Slavery had an upside.
D. Everybody from the North was against slavery.
Practice – Answers
1. D. A census can be a powerful tool.
2. C. A census map helped the public to visualize slavery.
3. C. almost black
4. A. virtually devoid of slavery
5. B. “States’ Rights” is a euphemism for slavery.