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Africa Before American Slavery

The peoples of West Africa had rich and diverse histories and cultures centuries before Europeans arrived. Africans had kingdoms and city-states, each with its own language and culture. The empire of Songhai and the kingdoms of Mali, Benin, and Kongo were large and powerful with monarchs heading complex political structures governing hundreds of thousands of people. In other areas, political systems were smaller, relying on agreement between people at the village level.

Art, learning and technology flourished, and Africans were especially skilled with medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. In addition to domestic goods, they made fine luxury items in bronze, ivory, gold, and terracotta for both local use and trade.

West Africans had traded with Europeans through merchants in North Africa for centuries. The first traders to sail down the West African coast were the Portuguese in the 15th century. The Dutch, British, French and Scandinavians followed. They were interested in precious items such as gold, ivory and spices, particularly pepper.

From their first contacts, European traders kidnapped and bought Africans to be sold in Europe. However, it was not until the 17th century, when plantation owners wanted more slaves to satisfy the increasing demand for sugar in Europe, that transatlantic slaving became the dominant trade. This material was derived, in large part, from the writings of the International Museum of Slavery.

Slavery in the US

Slavery in America (view timeline)

Within several decades of being brought to the American colonies, Africans were stripped of human rights and enslaved as chattel, an enslavement that lasted more than two centuries. Slavers whipped slaves who displeased them. Clergy preached that slavery was the will of God. Scientists "proved" that blacks were less evolved-a subspecies of the human race. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 solidified the importance of slavery to the South's economy. By the mid-19th century, America's westward expansion, along with a growing anti-slavery movement in the North, provoked a national debate over slavery that helped precipitate the American Civil War (1861-65). Though the Union victory freed the nation's four million slaves, the legacy of slavery influenced American history, from the chaotic years of Reconstruction (1865-77) to the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1950s.




In the tumultuous years following the United States Civil War, the federal government was faced with two conflicting challenges: to reincorporate the eleven states that had seceded from the Union, and to define and implement a strategy for ensuring the economic, political, and social rights of newly-freed black Americans.

Radical Republicans, with support from the United States Army and the Freedmen's Bureau, led the effort to pass and implement laws that ensured first-class citizenship for blacks. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution (1868) affirmed that black Americans were citizens of the United States and entitled to due process and equal protection under the law. The 15th Amendment (1870) stated that the right of citizens to vote "shall not be denied...on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

Conservative white southerners, and their northern allies in the Democratic Party, opposed all efforts to extend human rights to blacks. By 1877, the white southerners who wanted blacks "re-enslaved" had won; the new "slavery" was Jim Crow segregation.

Jim Crow Era

Jim Crow (view timeline)

Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a struggling white actor, became famous by performing in blackface makeup as "Jim Crow," an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character. By 1838, the term "Jim Crow" was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as nigger, but as offensive as coon or darkie. The popularity of minstrel shows aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racial slur. By the end of the 19th century, Jim Crow was being used to describe laws and customs that oppressed blacks.


Civil Rights Image

Civil Rights (view timeline)

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the resistance of African Americans to their oppression was expressed in three general approaches, as illustrated by prominent leaders. Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) stressed industrial schooling for African Americans and gradual social adjustment rather than political and civil rights. Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) called for racial separatism and a "Back-to-Africa" colonization program. W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) argued that African Americans were in the United States to stay and should fight for their freedom and political equality; it was this approach that laid the foundation for the American civil rights movement.

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Post Civil Rights (view timeline)

African Americans did not emerge from the civil rights movement fully integrated into American society; this is evident by the disproportionately large numbers of blacks who are in poverty, under-educated, and incarcerated. Nevertheless, the civil rights movement did force the end of legal segregation, and spur the creation of a sizeable black middle class. In the 21st century, race relations remain a contentious issue in many sections of society.