Home Random Page




By Michael Cusack

(Senior Editor, Scholastic Magazine)


The history of blacks in North America began in August 1619, when a small Dutch warship sailed up the James River to the young English colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

The Dutch ship had captured a Spanish ship in the Caribbean Sea carrying black men and women to Spanish colonies in South America. At that time, the Jamestown colonists needed workers to help clear and till the land and build houses. So the Jamestown settlers welcomed the blacks as a source of free labor.

In 1619, the English did not have the practice of slavery—the complete ownership of one person by another person. But they did have the practice of indentured service. That is the ownership of a person's labor for a period of time by another person or group of people. Many of the first English settlers in North America were indentured servants. They had pledged their labor to pay for their ship passage to the New World, to pay old debts, or to make up for some small crime. In some cases, they were tricked, cheated, or even kidnapped into indentured service.

The 20 blacks landed from the Dutch ship were viewed as indentured servants. Black and white indentured servants worked side by side at Jamestown, clearing fields, planting crops,

Martin Luther King, Jr. one cfthe outstanding black leaders cfthe 20th century, joins with fellow civil rights activists in escorting black children to a previously all-white school in Mississippi in 1966. The civil rights movement to end racial discrimination is one of the milestones of modern American history. Wide World Photos making roads and building houses. The death rate at Jamestown was extremely high—for landowners and servants, black and white—and the need for labor was great. To meet this demand, ships' captains often bought, traded or captured blacks from the Spanish and Portuguese.

Though an increasing number of black servants arrived in the English colonies during the early 1600s, the vast majority of indentured servants were white. During the period, black and white indentured servants had the same status. When their period of service was over, they were considered to be free. They were then able to marry, own property and, in some colonies, exercise all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.


Gradually, however, the status of black servants changed. Between 1640 and 1680, Virginia and the other southern colonies drifted steadily toward the establishment of a system of slave labor.

Most white indentured servants had a set term of servitude, and they knew it. No matter how badly they were treated, they could look forward to eventual freedom. They usually had written contracts stating when they would be free.

Blacks had no such contracts. They were brought to America by ships' captains who sold them to the highest bidder. In the early 1600s, the buyers and sellers sometimes agreed on a period of servitude for black indentured servants. That helped support the feeling that the buyers and sellers were trading in labor not people. However, the black servants had no voice in these dealings. And since the buyers wanted to get the greatest value for the price they paid, it became commonplace that black servants were indentured for life. It also became customary that the children of black indentured servants were considered to be indentured from birth to death—in other words, they were held in slavery. Near the end of the 17th century, all pretense that such a system wasn't slavery faded away.

Because blacks could be owned for life, the demand for black slaves outstripped the demand for white indentured servants. The demand for black labor on the large plantations of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas was great. To satisfy this demand, special ships were built to transport captive blacks directly from the west coast of Africa to the slave markets of North America. During the 18th century, the slave trade boomed. It brought death and untold suffering to millions of blacks. At the same time it made a number of people in Britain and in the British American colonies immensely wealthy.

Throughout the 18th century, an increasing number of people in Britain and North America spoke out against the slave trade. But the wealthy slave owners and slave traders had powerful friends in government and were able to defeat all attempts to end the slave trade.


During the late 1600s and early 1700s, slavery existed in practically all the North American colonies. While most black slaves were held on large farms and plantations, it wasn't unusual for small farmers and tradespeople to own one or two slaves.

By the mid-1700s, many small farmers and tradespeople had mixed feelings about slavery. They wanted cost-free labor, but they were uncomfortable with the idea of owning

another person. This was in conflict with the growing revolutionary idea that all men are created equal.

At about the same time, many small farmers and tradespeople found that it was not always profitable to own slaves. Slaves and indentured servants had to be fed all year round, but the need for their labor might vary from season to season. Some farmers found that it was cheaper to hire day laborers when needed than to own slaves.

As small farmers started disposing of their slaves, some were freed, but most were sold to plantations in the West Indies, Virginia and the Carolinas. Unlike a small farm or tradesman's shop, a plantation provided an impersonal setting for slavery. Hundreds—even thousands—of slaves might live and work on a large plantation. The plantation owner, who hired professional overseers, did not usually have daily contact with most of the slaves. Food, housing and clothes for the slaves were seen as costs to be kept as low as possible.

The plantation economy was based on the large scale production of cash crops, such as tobacco and cotton, through the use of very cheap labor. The farmland of entire regions— much of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia— became linked to that economy. It was felt that any change in the institution of slavery could cause the economic and social collapse of those regions. This fear caused a number of people to contradict their own ideals of freedom, equality and the rights of man.

During the 1770s and '80s, the American colonists fought for independence from Britain. They called for self-determination, democracy, equality and recognition of the natural rights of man. Yet many outspoken advocates of American freedom—including Patrick Henry, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—lived within a system of slavery. They sometimes wrote against slavery, and Washington even wrote a provision in his will that led to the eventual freedom of his slaves. But the system of slavery was firmly entrenched. Some colonists said that while they personally deplored slavery, they had to accept it as an economic necessity. Others argued that blacks were secure and happy as slaves.

Other advocates of slavery went a step further. They used pseudoreligious and pseudoscientific arguments to "prove" that blacks were inferior and therefore suited to be slaves. All these attempts to justify slavery in a land where personal freedom was highly valued created a barrier between black and white communities.

Over the years, several black men and women achieved fame and fortune in the arts, sciences, religion and commerce. Some had high standing in colonial society. Many joined in the struggle to forge a new nation—the United States. Yet all were subject to the constant handicaps and indignities imposed by prejudice and discrimination.


As the United States of America entered its first century of existence, free blacks faced a double struggle. One part of the struggle was for personal achievement—for a chance to use one's talents and abilities to gain a secure, respected place in society. The other part was

to cast off the yoke of slavery that oppressed all blacks—free and captive.

Against tremendous odds, many blacks raised themselves to positions of influence in American society. From those positions, they campaigned for freedom and dignity for all blacks.

Many names stand out. One was Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) who gained fame as an astronomer, mathematician, author and inventor. He also helped design the city of Washington, D.C. Banneker, who had always been free, could have enjoyed his prestige and wealth without conflict. Yet he chose to challenge the American establishment on the issue of slavery. In a famous letter to Thomas Jefferson, Banneker asked the statesman to live up to the full meaning of his words, "all men are created equal."

Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) was one of 10 children of a former slave. Growing up free but poor, in Massachusetts, Cuffe gradually gained wealth through farming and shipping. By 1800, he was one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts. But he used most of his wealth to help others. At his own expense, he built a public school and hired a teacher to educate all the children of Westport, Massachusetts— white and black.

Cuffe worked hard to end slavery. He helped to free many individual slaves. But as he saw that many free blacks ended up in conditions of inequality, dire poverty and frequent humiliation, he concluded that freedom alone was not enough. In Cuffe's opinion, the answer was in Africa, the continent of their ancestors.

Cuffe organized the Friendly Society to help former slaves go to Africa as free people to set up a new nation. After Cuffe's death, this resulted in the creation of the Republic of Liberia. Between 1820 and 1860, about 11,000 American blacks moved to Liberia.

Though Cuffe's "back to Africa" idea has been echoed several times during the long struggle for freedom and equality, most American blacks never considered it the best solution. A number of black leaders who had at first been in favor of the idea, turned against it in the 1840s and '50s. In their opinion, the best course would be an all-out drive to end slavery and then gain full equality and citizenship rights for all blacks.

One of the leaders who held this view was Frederick Douglass (1817-1895). Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass escaped when he was 21. He went north to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he was welcomed by black and white abolitionists—people trying to end slavery. There, it soon became obvious that Douglass was a great writer and public speaker. And he used both talents to rally people against slavery. He demanded full freedom and complete equality for all blacks. He argued that blacks were as much a part of the American tradition as any other group. And he urged that they be given the freedom and opportunity to contribute and participate in all aspects of American life.

Contending that slavery was morally wrong, Douglass and other abolitionists openly encouraged blacks to escape to freedom. Means of helping runaway slaves were set up in various places. This led to the creation of an escape route called "the underground railroad."


From the first days of slavery in America, there were escape attempts. In colonial times, runaway slaves often took refuge in swamps, forests, mountains, and among Indian tribes. Then, starting with Pennsylvania in 1780, several northern states abolished slavery. So fugitive slaves frequently sought refuge in those "free" states. To stop that, the Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. This law required the authorities of all states and territories to arrest and return fugitive slaves. It also led to "bounty hunting."

Slave owners offered bounties (rewards) for the return of runaways. Not only did this tempt people along the way to capture fugitive slaves, it also created a group of professional "bounty hunters." These hunters pursued fugitives across state borders in the hope of collecting rewards.

During the early 1800s, the men and women who tried to escape from slavery were usually alone and unaided. Their attempts often ended in recapture or death. Then, starting in the 1830s, people opposed to slavery provided money, food and hiding places for fugitives. Escape routes were mapped out, and word of them spread through the slave quarters of plantations.

The system of escape routes became known as the "underground railroad." Hiding places were called "depots." People providing money were called "stockholders." And guides who led fugitives along the escape routes were called "conductors."

Many of the "conductors" were free blacks or former slaves. They often plunged deep into slave states to contact escapees. This was dangerous. If captured, former slaves went back to slavery. But free black "conductors" were also likely to end up in slavery ... or dead. Gunfights between bounty hunters and armed "conductors" increased as the number of escapes from slavery sharply increased.

To blunt the work of the "underground railroad," a tougher Fugitive Slave Law was passed by Congress in 1850. The 1850 law called for "severe penalties to be imposed on anyone assisting Negroes to escape from bondage." It also authorized federal marshals to "command all good citizens to aid in the capture of fugitives." As a result, bounty hunters were appointed as marshals in slave states. Then, with the full backing of the law, they were able to prowl the free states in search of fugitive slaves. This did not stop the "underground railroad conductors." It just made their work harder.

The most famous of the underground conductors was a young woman named Harriet Tubman (1821-1913). In 1849, she escaped from slavery in Maryland and made her way to Philadelphia. Over the next 10 years, Harriet Tubman made 19 trips into slave states and led more than 300 men, women and children to freedom. On early trips, Harriet Tubman led the fugitives to such northern cities as New York and Philadelphia. But the 1850 law made those cities unsafe. So Tubman decided to lead the people in her care all the way to Canada, where they would be beyond the reach of lawmen and bounty hunters


Emancipation, or the ending of slavery, didn't happen in a single day. The process began in April 1861 with the outbreak of the American Civil War between free states of the North and slave states of the South. During the war, wherever the Union or Northern Army gained control, slavery, for all practical purposes, was ended. It's estimated that half-a-million slaves escaped to Union-controlled areas.

The next big step in the process took place on January 1,1863. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that slaves in states, or portions of states, at war against the United States were free. Few slaves were freed, however, since most lived in the rebellious South. Nevertheless, the Proclamation was a critical turning point: It increased Northern support by making the end of slavery a principal objective of the war. Freedom for all slaves came later, in 1865, when the war ended and Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which completely abolished slavery. Another Amendment, the 14th, gave blacks full citizenship rights. For a time, many hoped that blacks and whites could live together in a state of equality and tolerance. But local laws and customs were used to deprive blacks of voting rights. In most former slave states, a system of racial segregation arose, and blacks had to use separate schools, churches, hospitals, parks, swimming pools, lunchrooms, washrooms, bus sections and theater sections.

In the early years of the 20th century, lynchings—the illegal killing of people for real or imagined crimes—greatly increased After the First World War, the promise of equality and opportunity in the South for blacks seemed further away than ever. As a result, many blacks moved from the rural South to the great cities of the North. Although northerners did not practice formal segregation, blacks encountered discrimination in jobs and housing.

However, progress did occur during the difficult years from 1919 to 1950. Individual blacks made breakthroughs in education, science, sports, entertainment, business, engineering and most of all in music and the arts. Blacks gained influence in organized labor, industry and government. There were black university presidents and black millionaires.

American blacks also achieved fame far from home. Dr. Charles Drew (1904-1950) advanced medical science and saved millions of lives during World War Ï by his discovery of a way to preserve blood. Dr. Ralph Bunche (1904-1971), Undersecretary General of the United Nations, saved countless lives by promoting peace in the Middle East during the late 1940s. For this achievement, he was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.


Black talent in the arts and music flowered during the 1920s, '30s and '40s. This artistic awakening began in Harlem, a mostly black section of New York City, and was known as "the Harlem Renaissance."

The Harlem Renaissance produced the novels of Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960) Richard Wright (1908-1960) and Frank Yerby (1916- ). It inspired the poetry of Countee Cullen (1903-1946), Langston Hughes (1902- 1967), James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), Claude McKay (1890-1948) and Sterling Brown (1901-1984). It drew strength from the philosophical writings of Alain Locke (1899- 1974), the first black to win a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University in England. It echoed with the music of Duke Ellington (1899-1974), Count Basie (1904-1984) and Louis Armstrong (1900- 1971), and the glorious voices of Paul Robeson (1896-1976), Roland Hayes (1887- ) and Marian Anderson (1902-). And it glowed with the paintings and murals of Jacob Lawrence (1917- ), Charles White (1918- ) and Lois Mailou Jones (1908- ).

However, neither the glory of the Harlem Renaissance nor the achievements of individual artists did much to improve the daily lives of most blacks. The decade of the Great Depression—the 1930s—was a difficult time for all Americans, but it was particularly hard for black Americans. In many communities, when welfare aid or jobs were given out, whites came first. For many black families, staying alive was a daily struggle.

The economic depression ended with the outbreak of World War II. As America's factories started turning out the weapons of war, blacks as well as whites benefited from the employment boom. American society became more mobile during the war years and many of the discriminatory practices against blacks were eased, particularly in the North.

In September 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the nation's first peacetime conscription. Young men—blacks and whites—answered the call. But the call affected blacks and whites differently. White youths were rushed to training camps. But black youths had to wait around for months until there was room for them in black units.

Before the draft, fewer than 4,000 blacks were serving in the Army. Most were in support units—supply, construction, food service and transportation. Saying "we want to be soldiers not servants," young blacks strongly objected to this situation. And they were backed up by the entire black community. Many whites, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the president's wife, joined the campaign to get blacks the right to fight for their country.

The campaign succeeded. On December 1, 1941, all specialties in the Army, including the Army Air Force, were opened to qualified blacks. Six months later, the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps followed suit. As the war continued, black combat units fought on all fronts and gained the admiration of the entire nation. One black unit in particular made a name for itself. It was the 332nd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force. In the skies over France and Germany, pilots of the 332nd destroyed 261 enemy planes. In March 1945, the Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation. Individual pilots were awarded a total of 904 medals for bravery. The actions of the 332nd group came to symbolize the struggle of all blacks for full equality and an end to segregation in the armed forces.

That goal was achieved on July 26, 1948. President Harry S Truman ordered "...equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." This was one of several cracks that appeared in the wall of segregation in the late 1940s and early '50s. Another was the Supreme Court decision on May 17, 1954 banning segregation of the races in public schools. This was a major blow against segregation, and it inspired many black leaders to press for integration in all aspects of American life.


At the same time, black leaders felt that the people themselves would have to take action to end discrimination and denial of civil rights. One opportunity for action was presented by the arrest of a woman named Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1,1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a city bus.

After getting Rosa Parks out of jail on bail, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) planned a course of action to end segregation on buses. They decided to ask Montgomery's blacks to boycott—not use—the city's buses. This would be costly for the bus company since most of their riders were blacks. But it would also be hard on Montgomery's poor blacks who didn't have cars and couldn't afford taxis.

The following Monday was set for the boycott. Montgomery's black churches joined in the planning and preparation. Car pools were organized. Black taxi owners made their cars available. Leaflets were handed out to black families all over the city.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was asked to take charge of the boycott. Several people wondered about that choice. Dr. King was only 27 years old at that time and had had no experience in social action. He was a great preacher who could capture the emotions of a congregation, but could he manage a bus boycott? °°5r

Early on Monday morning, December 5, 1955, King and his wife Coretta Scott King started watching the bus stop near their home. The first bus was empty. So was the second. The third had two passengers—both white. The boycott was working.

Over 95 percent of the black riders stayed off the buses. The boycott lasted over a year and cost the city more and more money each day. Finally, on November 13,1956, the Supreme Court decided that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. The Montgomery bus boycott showed that nonviolent direct action could produce results. It brought blacks from all walks of life together in an almost religious fellowship. And it produced a black leader—Martin Luther King, Jr.—who could move millions to action and touch the conscience of the nation.

Moving on from Montgomery, King led ' direct nonviolent actions for civil rights in all parts of the country. In the South, old barriers of segregation crumbled. In the North, more subtle forms of discrimination in housing and jobs were slowly chipped away.

In the spring of 1963, King went to Birmingham, Alabama, a city with a bad record of discrimination. Parks, eating places, drinking fountains and rest rooms were segregated. King organized local blacks to march quietly and nonviolently through downtown areas of Birmingham. At first, the police arrested thousands of marchers. When that failed to stop the marches, the police attacked the demonstrators with clubs, dogs and firehoses. Through it all, the demonstrators remained nonviolent. And the whole nation watched by means of television. This caused such a public outcry against the white authorities of Birmingham that they had to back down and desegregate their public facilities.

A high point of the civil rights movement occurred on August 28,1963 when 250,000 people of all races marched in Washington, D.C., to demand that the nation keep its pledge of "justice for all." In a moving and dramatic speech,

Martin Luther King said: "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveholders will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.... I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

The focus of civil rights activity then shifted to Washington, where, after lengthy debate, the Congress passed laws prohibiting discrimination in voting, education, employment, housing and public accommodations.

The Civil Rights Acts of 1964,1965 and 1968 were landmarks in dismantling the legal basis for discrimination.


Martin Luther King continued to conduct civil rights campaigns throughout the country, and in 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his decade of leadership in nonviolent protest against discrimination. Tragically, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4,1968.

King's murder led to riots in several cities, and also lent strength to another wing of the civil rights movement While King had preached non-violence and worked with whites, other black leaders repudiated those tactics.

'The day of non-violence is over," said Malcolm X, a leader of the "Black Power" movement.

Nevertheless, most historians credit King—who made the white establishment see the injustices inflicted on blacks—with doing the most to raise the status of black people.

How much of Dr. King's dream has come true? And what problems remain to be solved?

There are still poor, all-black areas in American cities. The average income of blacks is lower than that of whites. Unemployment of blacks—particularly of young men—is higher than that of whites.

On the other hand, the black middle class continues to grow. In 1989,44 percent of employed blacks held "white color" jobs—managerial, professional and administrative positions rather than service jobs or jobs requiring physical labor— compared to 40 percent in 1983. And this trend is expected to continue, partly because more blacks are getting a university education. In 1989,23.5 percent of blacks between 18 and 24 were enrolled in college, compared to 15.5 percent in 1983.

In recent years, the civil rights debate has focused less on outright racial discrimination, which the overwhelming majority of Americans agree is wrong, than on whether the effects of past discrimination require further programs by the government Such programs are often referred to by the term "affirmative action." They may set goals for employing a certain number of blacks (or other minorities) in a business by a target date, or call for enrolling a certain number of minority students in a school or college. The necessity and effectiveness of such "affirmative action" programs remains a controversial issue in the United States today.

In 1991, as Congress—and the public—debated the merits of legislation designed to combat job discrimination, the focus was on these issues. Supporters of the legislation said it was needed because some Supreme Court decisions had made it harder to prove discrimination. Opponents said it would force employers to hire blacks even if they woe less qualified than whites. And since an economic slowdown was making competition for jobs very tough, many people felt very strongly about the legislation.

But, although such issues remain to be resolved,

there will be no turning back from the goals of Dr. King's dream.

Young white Americans now share with black Americans a new appreciation of blacks in history. Older generations were often aware of just three outstanding blacks. These were educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), founder of Tuskegee Institute, George Washington Carver (1864-1943), world- renowned botanist and Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), promoter of equal education for black women. Now most young people are aware that blacks have played important roles in all phases of American history. They are aware of the early American poet Phyllis Wheatley (1753- 1784), the exploits of black frontiersman Jim Beckwourth (1798-1867), Arctic explorer Matthew Henson (1866-1955), aviation pioneer Eugene J. Bullard (1894-1961) and crusading journalist Ida Wells Barnett (1862-1931).

Moreover, increasing numbers of blacks are playing important roles in American life. In 1983, Guion S. Bluford, Jr., a black astronaut, traveled in space. In 1988, Jesse Jackson, once an aide to Martin Luther King, was a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for President, and in 1991, Douglas Wilder of Virginia, the first black governor in the U.S. announced his candidacy for the Presidency. In 1990, blacks held more than 7,000 elective offices, ranging from school board officials to members of Congress and mayors of major cities—including the nation's largest city, New York.

Perhaps the greatest change in the past few decades has been in the attitudes of America's white community. A generation has come of age since Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. Characteristic of this new generation is a new tolerance between blacks and whites and an increasing acceptance by whites of blacks in all walks of life and social situations.


Date: 2015-02-28; view: 4670

<== previous page | next page ==>
doclecture.net - lectures - 2014-2024 year. Copyright infringement or personal data (0.012 sec.)