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With the end of the American Civil War the African American people became free from slavery and supposedly free to be citizens of the nation like everyone else did. However, as anyone who knows anything about American history, this was clearly not the case. African American people continued, and continue today, to struggle for the same rights and freedoms as the white people of the nation. The following paper examines the progression of African American’s since the end of Civil War in 1865.
Some five hundred years ago, ships began transporting millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. This massive population movement helped create the African Diaspora in the New World. Many did not survive the horrible ocean journey. Enslaved Africans represented many different peoples, each with distinct cultures, religions, and languages. Most originated from the coast or the interior of West Africa, between present-day Senegal and Angola. Other enslaved peoples originally came from Madagascar and Tanzania in East Africa.
A strong family and community life helped sustain African Americans in slavery. People often chose their own partners, lived under the same roof, raised children together, and protected each other. Brutal treatment at the hands of slaveholders, however, threatened black family life. Enslaved women experienced sexual exploitation at the hands of slaveholders and overseers. Bonds people lived with the constant fear of being sold away from their loved ones, with no chance of reunion. Historians estimate that most bonds people were sold at least once in their lives. No event was more traumatic in the lives of enslaved individuals than that of forcible separation from their families. People sometimes fled when they heard of an impending sale.
Even though slavery existed throughout the original thirteen colonies, nearly all the northern states, inspired by American independence, abolished slavery by 1804. As a matter of conscience some southern slaveholders also freed their slaves or permitted them to purchase their freedom. Until the early 1800s, many southern states allowed these manumissions to legally take place. Although the Federal Government outlawed the overseas slave trade in 1808, the southern enslaved African-American population continued to grow.
The demands of European consumers for New World crops and goods helped fuel the slave trade. Following a triangular route between Africa, the Caribbean and North America, and Europe, slave traders from Holland, Portugal, France, and England delivered Africans in exchange for products such as colonial rum, sugar, and tobacco. Eventually the trading route also distributed Virginia tobacco, New England rum and indigo and rice crops from South Carolina and Georgia. (http://www.nps.gov/history/delta/underground/slave.htm)
To meet the growing demands of sugar and cotton, slaveholders developed an active domestic slave trade to move surplus workers to the Deep South. New Orleans, Louisiana, became the largest slave mart, followed by Richmond, Virginia; Natchez, Mississippi; and Charleston, South Carolina. Between 1820 and 1860 more than 60 percent of the Upper South’s enslaved population was “sold south.” Covering 25 to 30 miles a day on foot, men, women, and children marched south in large groups called coffles. Former bondsman Charles Ball remembered that slave traders bound the women together with rope. They fastened the men first with chains around their necks and then handcuffed them in pairs. The traders removed the restraints when the coffle neared the market.
By 1860 some 4 million enslaved African Americans lived throughout the South. Whether on a small farm or a large plantation, most enslaved people were agricultural laborers. They toiled literally from sunrise to sunset in the fields or at other jobs, such as refining sugar. Some bonds people held specialized jobs as artisans, skilled laborers, or factory workers. A smaller number worked as cooks, butlers, or maids.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enslaved African Americans in the Upper South mostly raised tobacco. In coastal South Carolina and Georgia, they harvested indigo for dye and grew rice, using agricultural expertise brought with them from Africa. By the 1800s rice, sugar, and cotton became the South’s leading cash crops. The patenting of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 made it possible for workers to gin-separate the seeds from the fiber-some 600 to 700 pounds daily, or ten times more cotton than permitted by hand. The Industrial Revolution, centered in Great Britain, quadrupled the demand for cotton, which soon became America’s leading export. Planters’ acute need for more cotton workers helped expand southern slavery. By the Civil War the South exported more than a million tons of cotton annually to textile manufactories in Great Britain and the North. Short-staple, or upland cotton, dominated the market. An area still called the Black Belt, which stretched across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, grew some 80 percent of the nation’s crop. Simultaneously cotton expanded into the new states of Arkansas and Texas. In parts of the Black Belt enslaved African Americans made up more than three-fourths of the total population (Bruchey, Stuart. Cotton and the Growth of the American Economy: 1790-1860. New York: Random House, 1967).
By 1800 or so, however, African American slavery was once again a thriving institution, especially in the Southern United States. One of the primary reasons for the reinvigoration of slavery was the invention and rapid widespread adoption of the cotton gin. This machine allowed Southern planters to grow a variety of cotton–short staple cotton–that was especially well suited to the climate of the Deep South. The bottle neck in growing this crop had always been the labor needed to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers. But Eli Whitney’s gin made it much easier and more economical to do. This fact made cotton production much more profitable and hence very attractive to planters and farmers in the South. Still, growing cotton was very labor intensive and cotton growers needed a large supply of labor to tend the fields. African American slaves supplied this labor.
It is important to remember, however, that not all slaves worked on large cotton plantations. African American slaves also worked in many other types of agriculture, including tobacco, hemp (for rope-making), corn, and livestock. Many slaves also worked in Southern cities, working at a variety of skilled trades as well as common laborers. It was not unusual for slaves working in the cities to put away enough money to buy their freedom. Indeed, Southern cities, as well as many in the North, had large so-called free black populations. (http://memory.loc.gov/learn///features/timeline/expref/slavery/slavery.html)
A slave’s day usually consisted of long hours of physical labor. For a field hand, the workday usually began before dawn and ended well after sunset, often with a two-hour break for the noon meal. Many free white farmers in the South (and North) also put in very long work-days, but the great difference was they were working for themselves and controlled their own work time. African American slaves had no such control and they worked under constant supervision and the threat of physical punishment by their overseers. Indeed, no matter how kindly a slave owner might have been, the slaves did not possess that which Americans most prized their freedom.
Despite overall harsh conditions and the absence of freedom, slaves were not just powerless victims of their owners and the slave system. Slave families and communities became very important institutions. Slaves on large plantations also lived in a community that extended well beyond the family and in many cases beyond the single plantation or farm. The slave cabins (or “quarters”) provided one of the few places where slaves could be more or less free from constant supervision by slave overseers. There the slaves created a vibrant social and cultural life beyond the reach of their masters.
While no rational person would wish to be a slave, the slaves were active agents in their own lives. And though their lives were circumscribed in many significant ways, they sought to make the best of their circumstances. They succeeded to a remarkable extent, a testimonial to the endurance of the human spirit.
Over on the East coast, back in the mid-1800, it was very hard for black people to get an education. Black children did not go to school, but some learned to read and write from whites who wanted them to be able to read the Bible. In most Southern states it was against the law to teach blacks to read and write. The white people didn’t want the slaves to read about freedom in the north because they might run away. They didn’t want them writing because they would probably write passes to leave the plantation.
People caught teaching African-Americans would get arrested or have to pay large fines. Blacks caught learning would get a whipping or some other punishment. Even though it was very dangerous, many black people still learned. Some were taught at night. Others traded something for lessons. For example, one boy would teach another to play marbles for a lesson on the alphabet. Slave children listened under school doors and learned as much as they could.
Even in the North, the schooling for African-Americans was poor. Some cities had public schools for black children, but they were separate from white children. This is called segregation. Black schools were weaker in studies and had fewer supplies than white schools. Some black parents paid white tutors to teach their kids rather than send them to the over-crowded public school. The schools taught most things they teach us now. Some schools taught special things like music, drawing and knitting. Children learned and sang patriotic songs like Rally ’round the Flag in schools. Many slaves got their freedom after the Civil War. The slaves that were freed were called Freedmen and flocked to newly-set up schools around the South to get an education.
In 1883, the convict lease system was enacted which allows American prisoners to be used outside the prison for manual labor and would return to their cells after the days work was over. These independent companies would pay a fee to the state which would be much less than the cost of hiring the work out to free individuals. Again this hit the African American prison population hardest. Because as time went by the percentage of African Americans in the prison system went up this also meant that the percentage of African American’s participating in the convict lease system also went up. Since many times they were imprisoned for a minor offense, and the prison workers were not being paid, the convict lease system was inherently racist and could even be argued to be similar to slavery.
It was not only the south that was racist. The United States supreme court could have stepped in when southern states tried to disfranchise African American voters but they failed to do so. Also Jim Crowe laws were placed at the state level in terms of legeslation and segregation was the official stance of the south by 1905. The Supreme Court during the reconstruction was seen as a friend of the African Americans but would change during post reconstruction. In decision after decision the Supreme Court would destroy the very fiber in which many of these civil rights legislation had been passed. In the case of Hall vs. Ducuir in 1878, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to tell someone that they could not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, or color.
Also, the public accommodations act of the civil rights act of 1878 was rendered null and void by the Supreme Court when they ruled that it was in fact unconstitutional to prohibit discrimination in the area of public transportation and other public places. Therefore, restaurants, parks, busses etc. would be segregated because the Supreme Court was not allowing it. The Supreme court concluded, this attack on African American rights with Plessey vs. Ferguson in 1896. In this decision the Supreme Court argued that it was not unconstitutional to segregate individuals on basis of race, creed, or color as long as accommodations offered to African Americans were not inferior to those offered to whites, i.e. “separate but equal.” This decision was placed knowing that schools, and pretty much any public institution would be inferior for African Americans (http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Jesus_Smith).
A mixture of racism, resentment and base political strategizing led to this shameful chapter in American women’s struggle for the right to vote. Although the leading suffrage organizations worked for equal rights under the law, they did not have the rights of all American women in mind. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) spurned African American women’s attempts to join the movement. The White suffragists’ rejection of Black women was a particularly bitter irony in light of the fact that the women’s rights movement had grown out of the abolition movement. In the mid-1800s, many White women had been fierce opponents of slavery.
However, they split from the abolition movement to create women’s rights organizations when they found themselves shut out from leadership roles. After slavery was abolished and African American men gained the vote in 1870 by way of the 15th amendment, White suffragists perceived Black men to be making political gains at their expense and their bitterness intensified.
Around 1900, growing numbers of White southern women joined the suffrage movement. To appease them and win support for women’s suffrage throughout the South, northern suffragists began espousing racist ideas.
They pointedly reminded White southerners that giving women the vote would prevent Blacks from gaining too much political power, since there were more White women in the southern states than Black men and women combined. Even Sara Bard Field used this racist argument.
Unwelcome in the mainstream suffrage movement, African American women formed their own suffrage organizations. They viewed the ballot as a powerful tool for improving their lives and communities. They also wanted to reclaim the political power lost by Black men in Southern states that were violating their constitutionally protected right to vote.
By the early 1900s, Black women’s suffrage clubs had sprung up across the country, from New York and Massachusetts to Texas. Club members organized voter-education campaigns in their communities, circulated petitions calling for women’s suffrage, worked in political campaigns and voted in states where they had the ballot. (http://www.wic.org/misc/history.htm)
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a journalist and anti-lynching crusader, was a guiding spirit in the African American women’s suffrage movement. Petite in stature but a powerhouse of courage and determination, she lectured up and down the East Coast, establishing anti-lynching organizations and Black women’s clubs.
In 1913, she organized the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first African-American women’s suffrage group in Illinois, where Wells-Barnett lived. She firmly believed that Black women would use the ballot to end lynchings and other injustices against African Americans.
“With no sacredness of the ballot there can be no sacredness of human life itself,” Wells wrote in one article. “For if the strong can take the weak man’s ballot, when it suits his purpose to do so, he will take his life also. Having successfully swept aside the constitutional safeguards to the ballot, it is the smallest of small matters for the South to sweep aside its own safeguards to human life.” (http://www.wic.org/misc/history.htm)
In 1913, the Alpha Suffrage Club chose Wells-Barnett to march in a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., sponsored by NAWSA. The parade drew suffrage organizations from around the country and thousands of spectators.
Eager to placate White delegates from the South, White suffrage leaders urged Wells-Barnett to march at the back of the procession with the other Black delegates. But she firmly refused, declaring, “I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner.”
When the parade started, Wells-Barnett was nowhere to be seen, and the other delegates from Illinois assumed she had given up and joined her Black sisters in the back. But as the marchers proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue, Wells-Barnett slipped out of the crowd of spectators and marched with her state delegation.
Three years later, she proudly led her suffrage club in a parade through Chicago, when 5,000 suffragists marched to the 1916 Republican National Convention to demand the party’s support for women’s suffrage. When American women finally received the right to vote in 1920, Wells-Barnett urged Black women to exercise this right as a means of achieving social and political equality for all African Americans.
The following individuals have been selected from thousands of examples of selfless acts, sacrificing, in some cases, their own lives for the betterment of all. Nat Turner, a rebellion leader. In 1831, he led a failed slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia; the most remarkable instance of black resistance to enslavement. Martin Delany was an abolitionist. He was the first African American field officer in the United States Army in 1812-1885. Frederick Douglas was an abolitionist, an editor, an orator, an author, a statesman, and a reformer. He was among the most prominent and influential African American lecturers and authors in U.S. history. William Carney was a civil war hero in 1942-1908. Sgt. Carney was the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Harriet Wilson, a novelist in 1825-1900, was the first African American of either gender to publish a novel on the North American continent.
The history of African-American literature is as old and varied as the United States itself, but there are several recurrent themes: combating racism, searching for a black identity, and maintaining a unique quality of life. One of the first published African Americans was Phillis Wheatley, whose collection of poetry precedes the U.S. Revolutionary War by three years (1773). Eighteenth-century “Slave Narratives,” journals of personal experiences by slaves, were (and still are) a source of insight and inspiration to readers. African-American literature of the 1800s was dominated by autobiographical works, culminating in Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery at the turn of the century. The early twentieth century produced many influential African-American writers, among them Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Contemporary authors such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou continue to expand the canon of African-American literature (http://www.enotes.com/topics/african-american-literature).
From the earliest days of the African presence in the United States, blacks have contributed to the fiber of American culture, ranging from useful inventions to innovative musical interludes, and beyond. Blacks have served and died in defense of their adopted homeland. The individuals that make up the whole of the black population have offered up their talents to forward the cause of peace and prosperity in America.
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