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African American History

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African American History

I INTRODUCTION African American History or Black American History, 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

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as a leader of the American civil rights movement after organizing the famous 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Throughout his career he pressed for equal treatment and improved circumstances for blacks, organizing nonviolent protests and delivering powerful speeches on the necessity of eradicating institutional racial inequalities. In 1963 King led a peaceful march between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his most famous speech, "I Have a Dream."

Courtesy of Gordon Skene Sound Collection. All rights reserved./UPI/THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE

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.


Africans and their descendants have been a part of the story of the Americas at least since the late 1400s. As scouts, interpreters, navigators, and military men, blacks were among those who first encountered Native Americans. Beginning in the colonial period, African Americans provided most of the labor on which European settlement, development, and wealth depended, especially after European wars and diseases decimated Native Americans.

African workers had extensive experience in cultivating rice, cotton, and sugar, all crops grown in West and North Africa. These skills became the basis of a flourishing plantation economy. Africans were also skilled at ironworking, music and musical instruments, the decorative arts, and architecture. Their work, which still marks the landscape today, helped shape American cultural styles. They brought with them African words, religious beliefs, styles of worship, aesthetic values, musical forms and rhythms. All of these were important from the beginning in shaping a hybrid American culture.


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.

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.


A Occupation of Slaves 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.

B Slave Populations 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



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