I’ve had the most amazing conversation with my grandmother last night. She told me so much interesting information about my ancestors and all the difficulties they had to face being African Americans in the U.S. It is so unbelievable that I want you to know about it and share your opinion with me especially since your family represents native part of Americans. The ancestors of the majority African Americans were brought to North America to be slaves. Did you know that the very first black people arrived in 1619, just a year before the Pilgrims came on the Mayflower? By 1860 around 4 million slaves made one third of the general population of the southern states. Slaves lived in dreadful conditions, had no rights and were often sold, beaten and killed. Despite popular belief, around 11% of the total African population in the U.S. was free at that time. I didn’t know this, did you? It’s amazing. Later during the Civil War in 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the South at war with the North.
Between 1865 and 1870 the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution were ratified. They banned slavery, provided blacks the right to vote and granted them full citizenship. After the War, blacks from the South started to vote, hold local public offices, establish schools, build businesses and towns as well as were elected to the U.S. Congress. Attempting to put blacks back to their subordinate status, white supremacists ratified new laws forcing the segregation. After its establishment in 1867, the Ku Klux Klan became the power that employed cross burning, lynching, and other “forms of violence, terrorism and intimidation of African Americans” (Chalmers).
In 1905, W.E.B. Du Bois and African Americans leaders proclaimed a manifesto asking for an end to the racial discrimination, recognition of human brotherhood and full civil liberties for African American people. In 1909 they were joined by a group of concerned European Americans to form National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
During the first part of the 20th century, around 5 million African Americans made a move from the South to northern cities to try to find greater equality and better jobs. By the 1930s, the concentration of blacks led to the cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance. In the army such all-black units as the U.S. 761st Tank Battalion and Tuskegee Airmen provided their great value in combat, leading and moving towards desegregation of all U.S. Armed Forces by order of President Truman in July of 1948. In 1954 in the hearing of Topeka Board of Education versus Brown, the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools. This very verdict led to the disassembling of the legal segregation in every area of life in South. In 1955 famous Martin Luther King, Jr. led the bus boycott that finished with segregated busing in Montgomery, and afterwards nine years later received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also a key-note speaker and co-organizer at the 1963 March on Washington, which gathered more than 200,000 people to the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial.
In 1964 the “Mississippi Freedom Summer” brought idealistic youth, both white and black, to the state to run so-called “freedom schools” that taught history, civics and basic literacy to prospective black voters (Danielson). The murder of James Chaney, a black freedom rider, and two of his white friends, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, caused national outrage and led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It struck down barriers to black emancipation and became the milestone to more than a decade of the most important civil rights legislation regulations. At that time African Americans who questioned the efficiency of peaceful protest had gained a superior voice. More militant black leaders, like Malcolm X and Black Panther, urged blacks to protect themselves by means of violence. In 1980’s black politicians started gaining majority acceptance, culminating with the presidential campaigns done by Jesse Jackson.
Even though the 1990’s were mainly a period of an increasing social integration and racial optimism, the country’s racial tensions were shown by events like trial of O.J. Simpson, the beating of Rodney King and Amadou Diallo’s shooting. Nowadays, blacks in the U.S. still see many challenges like a high rate of imprisonment or unbalanced poverty.
African Americans have strongly contributed to art, literature, agricultural skills, clothing styles, music, foods, language, technological and social innovation to American culture. Such African-American names as art dancers Alvin Ailey and Bill T., pop culture phenomenon Michael Jackson, famous poets like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, artists like Romare Bearden and Aminah Robinson, medical pioneers Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and Dr. Charles Drew, famous inventor George Washington Carver and Jan Matzeliger, are among a very long list of contributors. Every year brings more new names. In 1967, attorney Thurgood Marshall became “the first black Supreme Court Justice” (Greene). In 1989, Douglas Wilder was elected the country’s first black Governor. General Colin Powell in 2001 became the first black Secretary of State while in 2005 Condoleezza Rice was elected the first black woman Secretary of State. In 2008 Barack Obama became the first self-identified “African American to be elected to the office of President of the United States of America” (Maraniss).
It was amazing to recollect all this memories with my granny. Amazing how much things took place to bring us to where we stand today as the citizens of the glorious United States of America. If you would like to learn more details about all these events, I would love to discuss them with you in February when we met.
- Danielson, C. After Freedom Summer: How Race Realigned, Mississippi Politics,
1965-1986. University Press of Florida: Gainesville.
- Maraniss, D. (2012). Barack Obama: The Story. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New
- Greene, C. (1991). Thurgood Marshall: First African-American Supreme Court
Justice (Rookie Biographies). Childrens Pr: New York.
- Chalmers, D. M. (1987). Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan,
3rd ed. Duke University Press Books: North Carolina.