African Americans are citizens of the United States with ancestors who came from Africa. Their forefathers were brought to American colonies as slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. About 40 million African Americans, 13% of the total population, live in the USA today.
In the past African Americans have been known by many names. They were called Negroes, Blacks and Coloureds. In the last 30 years the term African Americans has officially been used.
About half of them live in the southern states of the USA, the rest in large cities of the East, Midwest and West.
The Age of Slavery
European traders brought the first slaves from Africa to the new colonies in the 1600s. After arriving in the New World they were bought by white masters and had to work on large cotton and tobacco farms in the South. They didn’t get any money for their work and living conditions were very bad. The economy of the South depended on slaves.
Slave work was very difficult. Most women cooked, cleaned the house and raised the children of their white masters. Men were trained to be carpenters or masons. Most of them, however, were farm labourers. They planted and harvested crops.
Not all Blacks in America were slaves. “Free Blacks” lived and worked in big American cities but they had very few rights. Expressing political views, carrying guns and meeting with white people was forbidden.
Americans in the northern states thought that slavery shouldn’t be allowed in a free country. As time went on more and more people joined in the fight to end slavery. These abolitionists helped slaves escape to the North through secret routes. This system was called the Underground Railway.
In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. He was strongly against slavery. Many southern states withdrew from the union and formed their own country – the Confederate States of America. It was the beginning of the Civil War, which lasted until 1865.
In 1863 Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the Emancipation Proclamation. The northern states won the Civil War and American slaves were free.
The Reconstruction Period
Although they were officially free, most of them still lived in poverty and in very bad conditions. In the South they worked as sharecroppers, farmers who cultivated land and could keep a share of what they grew for themselves.
Whites continued to discriminate against African Americans. Blacks were not allowed to attend the same schools or go to the same churches as whites. Segregation meant a complete separation of life between the two groups. Blacks were also kept from voting.
During the second half of the 19th century violent groups started to terrorize the Blacks. The most famous was the Ku Klux Klan. Bands of white-hooded Klansmen rode through the countryside at night. They beat up and murdered many Blacks and white people who felt sympathy for them.
Three Ku Klux Klan members at a parade in 1922
Image: National Photo Company Collection,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The World Wars and the Great Depression
During World War I and in the years that followed more and more Blacks started to move to the cities of the North where they expected to find a job and lead a better life. Most of them, however, were disappointed because they were not educated and didn’t have the skills that they needed. Slums and black ghettos developed in the inner cities throughout the northern United States.
World War II opened up new opportunities for Black people. About a million men joined the army and served for their country – mostly in all-Black units. As time went on more and more Blacks succeeded in getting a higher position in the army. Some of them even became pilots and officers.
In the past hundred years African Americans have moved from the red states to the blue ones
The Civil Rights Movement
After World War II a new movement for civil rights began. African Americans started to have more confidence and believe more in themselves. They had served for their country with honour during the war and in the North many Blacks started living in better conditions. A new group came to life – the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). It attracted many members and received support from both Blacks and Whites.
The Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s. In 1954 the Supreme Court decided that segregation in schools was against the constitution. In 1955 a black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama because she refused to let a white passenger take her seat. Blacks in the city started boycotting buses. This boycott was led by Martin Luther King, who became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement reached its climax in 1963. Over a million people, Blacks as well as Whites took part in a protest demonstration in Washington D.C.
In the following year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. This law banned discrimination in school, public places, jobs and many other fields. African Americans received the right to vote and in 1967 Thurgood Marshall became the first Black judge to serve with the Supreme Court.
Image: See page for author,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Black Power Movement
While Martin Luther King and wanted to improve the situation of Blacks in a non-violent way, others were more violent and militant. In the 1960s Malcolm X preached that Blacks should use force and violence to achieve equal rights. Stokley Carmichael coined the term “Black Power”.
In the 1968 Olympic Games two American medal winners held their closed fist in the air and in protest, turned away from the American flag during the ceremony. In the same year the most respected leader of the American Blacks, Martin Luther King, was assassinated by a white man in Memphis, Tennessee.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith raise their fists
during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City
Image : Angelo Cozzi (Mondadori Publishers)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
African Americans Today
The largest cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have had black mayors. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were two African Americans who became Secretary of State, and in 2009 Barack Obama became the first African American President of the United States.
In the film industry Halle Berry and Denzel Washington are among the most famous stars. Bill Cosby was the first African American with his own comedy show and Oprah Winfrey is the most famous and best-earning talk master on American TV.
Despite these advances, about 25% of African Americans live in poverty. Discrimination still exists in many areas and the standard of living lags behind that of the white population. Compared to other groups, average income is much lower and the rate of unemployment higher. Nevertheless, African Americans have made big gains since slavery ended 150 years ago.