Historical Progression Of African Americans Since 1865 History Essay
The historical progression of African Americans has been one of great trials and tribulations. Throughout this paper I will discuss the different issues that African Americans faced and overcame throughout history despite great adversity.
Throughout the history of the United States no group of people, ethnic, religious or otherwise, has faced as much adversity as has the African Americans nation. Beginning during the settlement of the colonies and continuing on a large scale even today, African Americans have faced great hardship and tremendous difficulty in not only achieving the American ideal of ‘freedom’ but also in achieving equality. Beginning in the sixteenth century millions of Africans were kidnapped and shipped to the new world via the middle passage. Once in North America, these Africans were forced to work as slaves and many millions of Africans lived, worked and dies as slaves over the ensuing years. In the following paper I will discuss the difficulties African Americans have had since the termination of the Civil War in 1865 beginning with the freed slaves themselves and moving on to their descendants in the dawn of the 20th century, the WWII era, the baby boom years and finally we will discuss the issues relevant to African Americans in the modern world. Essentially, this paper will be an examination of the difficulties faced by African Americans historically, the progression of the people of African American descent and the evolution of their difficulties in the United States.
Historically considered the realm of undesirables and savages the slave trade had largely been legitimized and standardized by the time the American Civil War was beginning. In ancient Rome, for example, as much as 25% of the population of the empire was slaves (Imber). Slavery at the time of the Roman Empire was quite different, however, than it was in the 19th century. Slavery was not standardized as a trade and the slaves were usually foreigners or members of other religions that were considered undesirable. For example, many Christians were kept as slaves by the pagan ruling class. Many other slaves were debtors, prisoners or prisoners of war. The idea of using an entire continent as a ready holding tank for slaves had not occurred to the ruling class yet.
Pope Nicholas V issued ‘Dum Diversas’, a papal Bull in 1452. This gave King Afonso V of Portugal the right, approved by the church, to keep "Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers" in hereditary forced slavery. This legitimized the slave trade as in accordance with Catholic beliefs and provided a worldwide justification for enslaving those who commonly resided in North Africa. This approval of slavery was affirmed in the Romanus Pontifex bull issued in 1455. These two commandments by Pope Nicholas V came to be known widely and served as justification by every monarch of the next 400 years in upholding the righteousness of the act of mining Africa for slaves (Allard).
There is a direct correlation between slave trade and European colonialism. Slavery was regarded as an established and necessary institution which supplied the old world with the necessary workforce and had done so since time immemorial. Slaves came from Eastern Europe largely and from North Africa but by the 16th century central and south African slaves had taken the place of most other nationalities and ethnicities in Europe. To this end, the majority of Africa, the southern two-thirds, had become prime hunting ground for slave traders. As such, Africa essentially became a ‘slave mine’ very similar to the diamond mines that exist there today. One would simply pay a trapper, usually an African native working with Europeans to capture some victims, transport them to a port and ship them to their destination. When more were needed, more were captured. It became a real industry in Africa, for natives to capture other natives for a profit. When all eligible slaves were captured from a certain area – the hunters simply moved.
With the settlement of western world the need for slaves in the original 13 colonies grew exponentially. While slaves were also popular in South and Central America it was not a matter of routine to continually import more and more slaves, but rather to breed the existing group of slaves with a batch of natives. In Brazil, for example, slaves were not imported in large numbers but were instead cross bred between African slaves and local native ‘aborigines’. In addition, the need for slaves in the colonies grew so great that numerous nations answered the call to transport the new slaves’ across the middle passage. Portugal (who claimed Brazil) was the most prolific, followed by France (to Haiti, Martinique, etc), British (New England), Spanish (Florida, South and Central America) and the Dutch (North East America) were the largest offenders (Hochschild). This continued unabated until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freeing the slaves in the south and ineffectively abolishing the slave trade in the United States.
By 1865, slavery had actually ended in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation had actually made it illegal in 1863 but it was not until the surrender of the south that slavery was effectively abolished. The former slaves, however, had nowhere to go. Those who had stayed on at plantations were now regarded as employees but in reality had nowhere else to go and no other opportunity. Those who had abandoned their masters prior to the end of the war had two options. Many wandered up north where they found little work and even more resentment to the growing number of Africans. Others stayed in the south and attempted to eke out a living as free men in a hostile environment.
Prior to the collapse of the Confederacy the south had been a gentleman’s playground where large plantations were owned by a few of the elite wealthy landowners who got rich of the sweat of the slaves and the land. After the war was over, the ruling gentility had lost many of their sons and more of their homes and most had lost everything. The south was ruined. As a result, many farms were broken up and divided into smaller plots which were then leased out to freed slaves. The slaves, in turn, were able to help the ruined economy heal. Thus, in 5 years, the south went from a feudal, aristocratic paradise (for the wealthy) to the very model of integrated economy (Jones).
However, only a fortunate few were able to take advantage of the opportunity to have their own land. Many Africans had moved north into the poorer sections of New York, Chicago, Atlanta and other states. Historically, influxes of minority groups are never welcome in big cities even as one gives way to another. The English were hated by the Dutch when they arrived and the English in turn hated the Irish, German, Polish, Russian, Italian, African and Jewish immigrant waves that came after them. While it was believed that the slavery opposing north held some opportunity for freed slaves it was a bitter disappointment for many.
The greatest hardship for many freed slaves was that, while they were given the right to vote, they were not able to have proper representation in office. While African American males first voted in 1867 they were almost never voting for black candidates. This is a concern that many African Americans still feel today. However, being underrepresented in congress was a great concern for the freed slaves, and rightly so. In 1890 many of them lost the right to vote due to a change in law that required a literacy test in order to qualify for voting. As education was never a focus for slaves, the majority were not able to read or write (Feldman).
In the years following reconstruction, the late 1870’s, the dynamic in the south changed significantly. Beginning in 1876 as African American’s were voting, owning land, and beginning the long road towards equality, a devastating blow was struck in the form of standardized discrimination. The Jim Crow laws were a systemized racism that made African American’s into state mandated second class citizens. After the war the white southerners who had ruled the south prior to the Civil War regained power from the departing northern carpetbaggers these laws became more and more common (Woodward). During this era, white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan were formed and began to gain political clout in the south.
While the period between the end of the war and 1880 African American’s had been a progressive one for African Americans, sweeping changes beginning in 1890 brought this to an end. The white majority began to pass laws that eliminated the possibility of freed slaves taking office and even prevented many of them from voting. Richard Pildes tells us that;
In Louisiana, by 1900 black voters were reduced to 5,320 on the rolls although they comprised the majority of the state's population. By 1910, only 730 blacks were registered, less than 0.5 percent of eligible black men. "In 27 of the state's 60 parishes, not a single black voter was registered any longer; in 9 more parishes, only one black voter was." The cumulative effect in North Carolina meant that black voters were completely eliminated from voter rolls during the period from 1896-1904. The growth of their thriving middle class was slowed. In North Carolina and other Southern states, there were also the effects of invisibility: "Within a decade of disfranchisement, the white supremacy campaign had erased the image of the black middle class from the minds of white North Carolinians."(Pildes)
If African Americans could not vote then they could not hold office or have their voice heard at all. This was, effectively, the elimination of the African American from any relevant part of American life.
In the period immediately preceding the Second World War, African Americans faced a new set of challenges. During this time the ‘Great Migration’ occurred and over two million descendants of freed slaves left the discrimination of the south for the relative freedom of the northeast and Midwest. African Americas fled the south to get away from the forced segregation and poverty of the south. At this time there was also a lot of violence, including lynching, beatings and killings. In addition a boll weevil infestation forced many of the new sharecroppers from their new land. Many moved to major urban areas like New York, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. Also at this time the war effort and halt of importing new immigrants from Europe due to the war created jobs of for the African’s in the north. This created a large-scale conflict with other recently arrived immigrants like the poles, Italians and Germans who were in competition with the African Americans for skilled and unskilled labor jobs (The Great Migration).
During this time the notion of ‘black culture’ found its roots. Langston Hughes wrote what some consider the manifesto of black artists from the era;
"The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"
The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express
our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.
If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not,
it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too.
The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people
are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure
doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow,
strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain
free within ourselves.
During this pre-war period African Americans found their voice through culture and, as Langston Hughes says above, prepared to use it to the best effect in the period after the Second World War. However, a major shift had to occur first. This shift was the creation of African regiments during WWII. This allowed African Americans to fight for their nation right alongside white men.
The post war period was a very busy one indeed for African Americans. The Civil Rights Movement was launched in earnest in the late 1940’s in the Deep South but was largely kept at bay by cruel men in power. As the level of violence against African Americans increased he movement for equality became larger and more supported. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and others began a crusade that has changed America and the rest of the world dramatically. It was not easy and it did not fix everything. Violence continued and segregation did not end until the late 1970’s but the ball was rolling and momentum was gaining. The Civil Rights Movement culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which outlawed discrimination of any sort and provided for a system by which it could be ensured that African Americans would no longer be kept from voting (March).
The following period, the late 1960’s and 1970’s saw the largest expansion of integration in the United States history. The fact that the north did not have any laws concerning segregation does not mean that all was equal. Segregation it he north was systemic but not overt. While white and black could shop in the same store it was unlikely that that would happen. Societal norms generally kept the two classes apart and this was most widely noticeable in the school system. Even without mandated segregation, schools in the north were either white or black. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) allowed for forced busing to bring minority children into the white schools even though they were farther from home than other schools. This had the unfortunately effect of creating ‘white flight’ in which the white residents removed their children from public schools and enrolled them in private schools which did not adhere to forced bussing regulations. This essentially put African Americans right back where they were – in schools that were predominantly black (Frum).
The period after the 1970’s is one of the most progressive for African Americans in history. While major inroads were made during the previous 60 years, African Americans were now able to enjoy some of the fruits of their labors. African Americans went to university in record numbers, became accepted in the world of professional athletics, politics and art, music and literature. The first African American elected Governor of a state was in 1989, when Douglas Wilder was elected governor of Virginia – a historically racist state. Now, this is not all inclusive, many African Americans still suffer racism (either personal or institutional) on a daily basis. However, the majority of America has moved forward along with African Americans towards a common goal.
In conclusion, the long standing plight of African Americans has been a terrible one with much suffering and discontent. Stolen from their homeland, Africans were forced to labor for someone else’s benefit and never for their own. After the civil war ended slavery, African American’s were little better off. However, the Civil Rights Movement and the resulting Civil Rights Act have allowed for tremendous gains to be made by African Americans in the United States in the last 40 years.
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