African Americans - History and Cultural Relations

African Americans did not come freely to America. Theirs is not a history of a people seeking to escape political oppression, economic exploitation, religious intolerance, or social injustice. Rather, the ancestors of the present African Americans were stolen from the continent of Africa, placed on ships against their wills, and transported across the Atlantic. Most of the enslaved Africans went to Brazil and Cuba, but a great portion landed in the southern colonies or states of the United States. At the height of the European slave trade, almost every nation in Europe was involved in some aspect of the enterprise. As the trade grew more profitable and European captains became more ambitious, larger ships with specially built "slave galleries" were commissioned. These galleries between the decks were no more than eighteen inches in height. Each African was allotted no more than a sixteeninch wide and five-and-a-half-foot-long space for the many weeks or months of the Atlantic crossing. Here the Africans were forced to lie down shackled together in chains fastened to staples in the deck. Where the space was two feet high, Africans often sat with legs on legs, like riders on a crowded sled. They were transported seated in this position with a once-a-day break for exercise. Needless to say, many died or went insane.

The North made the shipping of Africans its business; the South made the working of Africans its business. From 757,208 in 1790 to 4,441,830 in 1860, the African American population grew both through increased birthrates and through importation of new Africans. By 1860, slavery had been virtually eliminated in the North and West, and by the end of the Civil War in 1865, it was abolished altogether. After the war, 14 percent of the population was composed of Africans, the ancestors of the overwhelming majority living in the United States today.

During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, African American politicians introduced legislation that provided for public education, one of the great legacies of the African American involvement in the legislative process of the nineteenth century. Education has always been seen as a major instrument in changing society and bettering the lives of African American people. Lincoln University and Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, Hampton in Virginia, and Howard University are some of the oldest institutions of learning for the African American community. Others, such as Tuskegee, Fisk, Morehouse, Spelman, and Atlanta University, are now a part of the American educational story of success and excellence.

The Great Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a new generation of African Americans who were committed to advancing the cause of justice and equality. Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a White man on a Montgomery city bus and created a stir that would not end until the most visible signs of racism were overthrown. Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as the leading spokesperson and chief symbol of a people tired of racism and segregation and prepared to fight and die if necessary in order to obtain legal and human rights. Malcolm X took the battle a step further, insisting that the African American was psychologically lost as well and therefore had to find historical and cultural validity in the reclamation of the African connection. Thus, out of the crucible of the 1960s came a more vigorous movement toward full recognition of the African past and legacy. Relationships with other groups depended more and more on mutual respect rather than the African Americans acting like clients of these other groups. African Americans expressed their concern that the Jewish community had not supported affirmative action, although there was a long history of Jewish support for African American causes. Accepting the role of vanguard in the struggle to extend the protection of the American Constitution to oppressed people, African Americans made serious demands on municipal and federal officials during the civil rights movement. Voting rights were guaranteed and protected, educational segregation was made illegal, and petty discriminations against African Americans in hotels and public facilities were eradicated by the sustained protests and demonstrations of the era.

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