African americans

by Barbara C. Bigelow


The continent of Africa, the second largest on the globe, is bisected by the equator and bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and to the east by the Indian Ocean. Roughly the shape of an inverted triangle—with a large bulge on its northwestern end and a small horn on its eastern tip—it contains 52 countries and six islands that, together, make up about 11.5 million square miles, or 20 percent of the world's land mass.

Africa is essentially a huge plateau divided naturally into two sections. Northern Africa, a culturally and historically Mediterranean region, includes the Sahara desert—the world's largest expanse of desert, coming close to the size of the United States. Sub-Saharan, or Black Africa, also contains some desert land, but is mainly tropical, with rain forests clustered around the equator; vast savanna grasslands covering more than 30 percent of continent and surrounding the rain forests on the north, east, and south; some mountainous regions; and rivers and lakes that formed from the natural uplifting of the plateau's surface.

Africa is known for the diversity of its people and languages. Its total population is approximately 600 million, making it the third most populous continent on earth. Countless ethnic groups inhabit the land: it is estimated that there are nearly 300 different ethnic groups in the West African nation of Nigeria alone. Still, the peoples of Africa are generally united by a respect for tradition and a devotion to their community.

Most of the flags of African nations contain one or more of three significant colors: red, for the blood of African people; black, for the face of African people; and green, for hope and the history of the fatherland.


Some historians consider ancient Africa the cradle of human civilization. In Before the Mayflower, Lerone Bennett, Jr., contended that "the African ancestors of American Blacks were among the major benefactors of the human race. Such evidence as survives clearly shows that Africans were on the scene and acting when the human drama opened."

Over the course of a dozen centuries, beginning around 300 A.D., a series of three major political states arose in Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. These agricultural and mining empires began as small kingdoms but eventually established great wealth and control throughout Western Africa.

African societies were marked by varying degrees of political, economic, and social advancement. "Wherever we observe the peoples of Africa," wrote John Hope Franklin in From Slavery to Freedom, "we find some sort of political organization, even among the so-called stateless. They were not all highly organized kingdoms—to be sure, some were simple, isolated family states—but they all ... [established] governments to solve the problems that every community encounters." Social stratification existed, with political power residing in a chief of state or a royal family, depending on the size of the state. People of lower social standing were respected as valued members of the community.

Agriculture has always been the basis of African economics. Some rural African peoples worked primarily as sheep, cattle, and poultry raisers, and African artisans maintained a steady trade in clothing, baskets, pottery, and metalware, but farming was a way of life for most Africans. Land in such societies belonged to the entire community, not to individuals, and small communities interacted with each other on a regular basis. "Africa was ... never a series of isolated self-sufficient communities," explained Franklin. Rather, tribes specialized in various economic endeavors, then traveled and traded their goods and crops with other tribes.

Slave trade in Africa dates back to the mid-fifteenth century. Ancient Africans were themselves slaveholders who regarded prisoners of war as sellable property, or chattel, of the head of a family. According to Franklin, though, these slaves "often became trusted associates of their owners and enjoyed virtual freedom." Moreover, in Africa the children of slaves could never be sold and were often freed by their owners.

Throughout the mid–1400s, West Africans commonly sold their slaves to Arab traders in the Mediterranean. The fledgling system of slave trade increased significantly when the Portuguese and Spanish—who had established sugar-producing colonies in Latin America and the West Indies, respectively—settled in the area in the sixteenth century. The Dutch arrived in Africa in the early 1600s, and a large influx of other European traders followed in ensuing decades with the growth of New World colonialism.


Much of Africa's land is unsuitable for agricultural use and, therefore, is largely uninhabited. Over the centuries, severe drought and periods of war and famine have left many African nations in a state of agricultural decline and impoverishment. Still, most nations in Africa tend to increase their rate of population faster than the countries on any other continent.

Agriculture, encompassing both the production of crops and the raising of livestock, remains the primary occupation in Africa. The more verdant areas of the continent are home to farming communities; male members of these communities clear the farmland and often do the planting, while women usually nurture, weed, and harvest the crops.

Africa is very rich in oil, minerals, and plant and animal resources. It is a major producer of cotton, cashews, yams, cocoa beans, peanuts, bananas, and coffee. A large quantity of the world's zinc, coal, manganese, chromite, phosphate, and uranium is also produced on the continent. In addition, Africa's natural mineral wealth yields 90 percent of the world's diamonds and 65 percent of the world's gold.

Much of Africa had become the domain of European colonial powers by the nineteenth century. But a growing nationalistic movement in the mid-twentieth century fueled a modern African revolution, resulting in the establishment of independent nations throughout the continent. Even South Africa, a country long gripped by the injustice of apartheid's white supremacist policies, held its first free and fair multiracial elections in the spring of 1994.

In 1999, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a group organized to investigate the crimes committed by the South African government under apartheid, announced that it had not been completely forthcoming in its account of the government's actions. Nevertheless, the commission issued strong reproaches of the government. "In the application of the policy of apartheid, the state in the period 1960–1990 sought to protect the power and privilege of a racial minority. Racism therefore constituted the motivating core of the South African political order, an attitude largely endored by the investment and other policies of South Africa's major trading partners in this period." P.W. Botha, former president of South Africa, was named as a major facilitator of apartheid, and Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, was chastised for establishing the Mandela United Football Club, a group that retaliated against apartheid with its own violence, torture, and murder.

South Africa is not the only African country to experience internal violence. In 1999, the United Nations disbanded and then re-deployed a peace-keeping force in Angola, a nation that has been suffering through a long civil war. In 1974, after 13 years of opposition from indigenous Angolans, Portugal withdrew as a colonial ruler of Angola and a struggle for power ensued. Although Angola is rich with fertile farming land and oil reserves, it has failed to tap into these resources because of its ongoing internal war.

The United Nations continued to seek justice in Rwanda in the wake of the genocide that occurred there in 1994. In 1999, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda charged former Women's Development and Family Welfare Minister Pauline Nyiramasuhuko with rape. She was not personally charged with rape; rather, Nyiramasuhuko was prosecuted, according to Kingsley Moghalu of the United Nations, "under the concept of command responsibility" for failing to prevent her subordinates from raping women during the 1994 uprising.

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) continued to spread death in African countries in the 1990s. In Kenya in August of 1999, President Daniel Arap Moi announced that AIDS was killing approximately 420 Kenyans each day.


Most Africans transported to the New World as slaves came from sub-Saharan Africa's northwestern and middle-western coastal regions. This area, located on the continent's Atlantic side, now consists of more than a dozen modern nations, including Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Upper Volta, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Gambia, and Senegal.

Africans are believed to have traveled to the New World with European explorers—especially the Spanish and the Portuguese—at the turn of the fifteenth century. They served as crew members, servants, and slaves. (Many historians agree that Pedro Alonzo Niño, who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his expedition to the New World, was black; in addition, it has been established that in the early 1500s, blacks journeyed to the Pacific with Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa and into Mexico with Cortéz.) The early African slave population worked on European coffee, cocoa, tobacco, and sugar plantations in the West Indies, as well as on the farms and in the mines that operated in Europe's South American colonies.

Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Dutch, the French, and the English became dominant forces in New World slave trade, and by the early eighteenth century, colonization efforts were focusing on the North American mainland. In August of 1619, the first ship carrying Africans sailed into the harbor at Jamestown, Virginia, and so began the history of African Americans.

During the early years of America's history, society was divided by class rather than skin color. In fact, the first Africans in North America were not slaves, but indentured servants. At the dawn of colonial time, black and white laborers worked together, side by side, for a set amount of time before earning their freedom. According to Lerone Bennett, "The available evidence suggests that most of the first generation of African Americans worked out their terms of servitude and were freed." Using the bustling colony of Virginia as an example of prevailing colonial attitudes, Bennett explained that the coastal settlement, in its first several decades of existence, "was defined by what can only be called equality of oppression.... The colony's power structure made little or no distinction between black and white servants, who were assigned the same tasks and were held in equal contempt."

But North American landowners began to face a labor crisis in the 1640s. Indians had proven unsatisfactory laborers in earlier colonization efforts, and the indentured servitude system failed to meet increasing colonial labor needs. As Franklin reflected in From Slavery to Freedom, "Although Africans were in Europe in considerable numbers in the seventeenth century and had been in the New World at least since 1501, ... the colonists and their Old World sponsors were extremely slow in recognizing them as the best possible labor force for the tasks in the New World."

By the second half of the 1600s, however, white colonial landowners began to see slavery as a solution to their economic woes: the fateful system of forced black labor—achieved through a program of perpetual, involuntary servitude—was then set into motion in the colonies. Africans were strong, inexpensive, and available in seemingly unlimited supplies from their native continent. In addition, their black skin made them highly visible in the white world, thereby decreasing the likelihood of their escape from bondage. Black enslavement had become vital to the American agricultural economy, and racism and subjugation became the means to justify the system. The color line was drawn, and white servants were thereafter separated from their black comrades. Slave codes were soon enacted to control almost every aspect of the slaves' lives, leaving them virtually no rights or freedoms.


Between 10 and 12 million Africans are believed to have been imported to the New World between 1650 and 1850. The process began slowly, with an estimated 300,000 slaves brought to the Americas prior to the seventeenth century, then reached its peak in the eighteenth century with the importation of more than six million Africans. These estimates do not include the number of African lives lost during the brutal journey to the New World.

Slave trade was a profitable endeavor: the more slaves transported to the New World on a single ship, the more money the traders made. Africans, chained together in pairs, were crammed by the hundreds onto the ships' decks; lying side by side in endless rows, they had no room to move or exercise and barely enough air to breathe. Their one-way trip, commonly referred to as the Middle Passage, ended in the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean. But sources indicate that somewhere between 12 and 40 percent of the slaves shipped from Africa never completed the Middle Passage: many died of disease, committed suicide by jumping overboard, or suffered permanent injury wrestling against the grip of their shackles.

By the mid-1700s, the majority of Africans in America lived in the Southern Atlantic colonies, where the plantation system made the greatest demands for black labor. Virginia took and maintained the lead in slave ownership, with, according to Franklin, more than 120,000 blacks in 1756— about half the colony's total population. Around the same time in South Carolina, blacks outnumbered whites. To the North, the New England colonies maintained a relatively small number of slaves.

The continued growth of the black population made whites more and more fearful of a black revolt. An all-white militia was formed, and stringent legislation was enacted throughout the colonies to limit the activities of blacks. It was within owners' rights to deal out harsh punishments to slaves—even for the most insignificant transgressions.

The fight against the British during the Revolutionary War underscores a curious irony in American history: the colonists sought religious, economic, and political freedom from England for themselves, while denying blacks in the New World even the most basic, human rights. The close of the American Revolution brought with it the manumission, or release, of several thousand slaves, especially in the North. But the Declaration of Independence failed to address the issue of slavery in any certain terms.

By 1790, the black population approached 760,000, and nearly eight percent of all blacks in America were free. Free blacks, however, were bound by many of the same regulations that applied to slaves. The ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 guaranteed equality and "certain inalienable rights" to the white population, but not to African Americans. Census reports counted each slave as only three-fifths of a person when determining state congressional representation; so-called free blacks—often referred to as "quasi-free"—faced limited employment opportunities and restrictions on their freedom to travel, vote, and bear arms.

It was in the South, according to historians, that the most brutal, backbreaking conditions of slavery existed. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 greatly increased the profitability of cotton production, thereby heightening the demand for slaves to work on the plantations. The slave population in the South rose with the surge in cotton production and with the expansion of plantations along the western portion of the Southern frontier. But not all slaves worked on Southern plantations. By the second half of the nineteenth century, nearly half a million were working in cities as domestics, skilled artisans, and factory hands.

A growing abolitionist movement—among both blacks and whites—became a potent force in the 1830s. After a century of subjugation, many blacks in America who could not buy their freedom risked their lives in escape attempts. Antislavery revolts first broke out in the 1820s, and uprisings continued for the next four decades. Black anger, it seemed, could only be quelled by an end to the slave system.

Around the same time, a philosophy of reverse migration emerged as a solution to the black dilemma. The country's ever-increasing African American population was cause for alarm in some white circles. Washington D.C.'s American Colonization Society pushed for the return of blacks to their fatherland. By the early 1820s, the first wave of black Americans landed on Africa's western coastal settlement of Liberia; nearly 1,500 blacks were resettled throughout the 1830s. But the idea of repatriation was largely opposed, especially by manumitted blacks in the North: having been "freed," they were now subjected to racial hatred, legalized discrimination, and political and economic injustice in a white world. They sought equity at home, rather than resettlement in Africa, as the only acceptable end to more than two centuries of oppression.

The political and economic turbulence of the Civil War years intensified racial troubles. Emancipation was viewed throughout the war as a military necessity rather than a human rights issue. In December of 1865, eight months after the Civil War ended, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted: slavery was abolished. But even in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the black population in the United States saw few changes in its social, political, and economic condition.

With no money, land, or livestock, freed slaves were hardly in a position to establish their own farming communities in the South. Thus began the largely exploitative system of tenant farming, which took the form of sharecropping. A popular post-slavery agricultural practice, sharecropping allowed tenants (most of whom were black), to work the farms of landlords (most of whom were white) and earn a percentage of the proceeds of each crop harvested. Unfortunately, the system provided virtually no economic benefits for the tenants; relegated to squalid settlements of rundown shacks, they labored as if they were still bound in slavery and, in most cases, barely broke even.

The price of cotton fell around 1920—a precursor to the Great Depression. Over the next few decades, the mass production and widespread use of the mechanical cotton picker signaled the beginning of the end of the sharecropping system. At the same time, the United States was fast becoming an industrial giant, and a huge labor force was needed in the North. This demand for unskilled labor, combined with the expectation of an end to the legal and economic oppression of the South, attracted blacks to northern U.S. cities in record numbers. On Chicago's South Side alone, the black population quintupled by 1930.

Migration to the North began around 1920 and reached its peak—with an influx of more than five million people—around World War II. Prior to the war, more than three-quarters of all blacks in the United States lived in the southern states. In all, between 1910 and 1970, about 6.5 million African Americans migrated to the northern United States. "The black migration was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history—perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation," wrote Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land. "In sheer numbers it outranks the migration of any other ethnic group—Italians or Irish or Jews or Poles—to this country."

But manufacturing jobs in the northern United States decreased in the 1960s. As the need for unskilled industrial laborers fell, hundreds of thousands of African Americans took government service jobs—in social welfare programs, law enforcement, and transportation sectors—that were created during President Lyndon Baines Johnson's presidency. These new government jobs meant economic advancement for some blacks; by the end of the decade, a substantial portion of the black population had migrated out of the urban ghettos.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by the year 2050, minorities (including people of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent) will comprise a majority of the nation's population. In 1991 just over 12 percent of the U.S. population was black; as of 1994, about 32 million people of African heritage were citizens of the United States. Within six decades, blacks are expected to make up about 15 percent of the nation's population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993).

Acculturation and Assimilation

History casts a dark shadow on the entire issue of black assimilation in the United States. For hundreds of years, people of African descent were oppressed and exploited purely on the basis of the blackness of their skin. The era of "freedom" that began in the mid-1780s in post-Revolutionary America excluded blacks entirely; black Americans were considered less than human beings and faced discrimination in every aspect of their lives. Many historians argue that slavery's legacy of social inequality has persisted in American society—even 130 years after the post-Civil War emancipation of slaves in the United States.

Legally excluded from the white world, blacks were forced to establish their own social, political, and economic institutions. In the process of building a solid cultural base in the black community, they formed a whole new identity: that of the African American. African Americans recognized their African heritage, but now accepted America as home.

In addition, African Americans began to employ the European tactics of petitions, lawsuits, and organized protest to fight for their rights. This movement, which started early in the nineteenth century, involved the formation and utilization of mutual aid societies; independent black churches; lodges and fraternal organizations; and educational and cultural institutions designed to fight black oppression. As Lerone Bennett stated in Before the Mayflower: "By 1837 ... it was plain that Black people were in America to stay and that room had to be made for them."

Some observers note that the European immigrants who streamed into America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also faced difficulties during the assimilation process, but these difficulties were not insurmountable; their light skin enabled them to blend more quickly and easily with the nation's dominant racial fabric. Discrimination based on race appears to be far more deeply ingrained in American society.


In Superstition and the Superstitious, Eric Maple provided examples of common African folklore and beliefs. For example, when a pregnant woman walks under a ladder, she can expect to have a difficult birth. When someone sneezes, an African wishes that person "health, wealth, prosperity, and children." In Nigeria it is believed that sweeping a house during the night brings bad luck; conversely, all evil things should be expelled from the house by a thorough sweeping in the morning. If a male is hit with a broom he will be rendered impotent unless he retaliates with seven blows delivered with the same broom. In Africa, ghosts are greatly feared because, according to Maple, "all ghosts are evil." One Yoruba tribesman was quoted as saying: "If while walking alone in the afternoon or night your head feels either very light or heavy, this means that there is a ghost around. The only way to save yourself is to carry something that gives off a powerful odor."


A wealth of proverbs from African culture have survived through the generations: If you want to know the end, look at the beginning; When one door closes, another one opens; If we stand tall it is because we stand on the backs of those who came before us; Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue; Where you sit when you are old shows where you stood in youth; You must live within your sacred truth; The one who asks questions doesn't lose his way; If you plant turnips you will not harvest grapes; God makes three requests of his children: Do the best you can, where you are, with what you have now; You must act as if it is impossible to fail.


African Americans have struggled against racial stereotypes for centuries. The white slaveholding class rationalized the institution of slavery as a necessary evil: aside from playing an integral part in the nation's agricultural economy, the system was viewed by some as the only way to control a wild, pagan race. In colonial America, black people were considered genetically inferior to whites; efforts to educate and Christianize them were therefore regarded as justifiable.

The black population has been misunderstood by white America for hundreds of years. The significance of Old World influences in modern African American life—and an appreciation of the complex structure of traditional African society— went largely unrecognized by the majority of the nation's nonblacks. Even in the latter half of the twentieth century, as more and more African nations embraced multiparty democracy and underwent massive urban and industrial growth, the distorted image of Africans as uncivilized continued to pervade the consciousness of an alarmingly high percentage of white Americans. As social commentator Ellis Cose explained: "Theories of blacks' innate intellectual inadequacy provided much of the rationale for slavery and for Jim Crow [legal discrimination based on race]. They also accomplished something equally pernicious, and continue to do so today: they caused many blacks (if only subconsciously) to doubt their own abilities—and to conform to the stereotype, thereby confirming it" (Ellis Cose, "Color-Coordinated Truths," Newsweek, October 24, 1994, p. 62).

For decades, these images were perpetuated by the American media. Prime-time television shows of the 1960s and 1970s often featured blacks in demeaning roles—those of servants, drug abusers, common criminals, and all-around threats to white society. During the controversial "blaxploitation" phase in American cinema—a period that saw the release of films like Shaft and Superfly— sex, drugs, and violence prevailed on the big screen. Though espoused by some segments of the black artistic community as a legitimate outlet for black radicalism, these films were seen by many critics as alienating devices that glorified urban violence and drove an even greater wedge between blacks and whites.

African American entertainment mogul Bill Cosby is credited with initiating a reversal in the tide of media stereotypes. His long-running situation comedy The Cosby Show— a groundbreaking program that made television history and dominated the ratings throughout the 1980s—helped to dispel the myths of racial inferiority. An intact family consisting of well-educated, professional parents and socially responsible children, the show's fictional Huxtable family served as a model for more enlightened, racially-balanced programming in the 1990s.

By 1999, however, Hollywood seemed to to be failing in its quest for more shows about blacks. The Fall 1999 television shows of the four major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX) featured only a smattering of black characters. Black leaders called on the networks to rectify the situation, and the networks immediately responded by crafting black characters.


Most African nations are essentially agricultural societies. For centuries, a majority of men have worked as farmers and cattle raisers, although some have made their living as fishers. Planting, sowing, and harvesting crops were women's duties in traditional West African society. The task of cooking also seems to have fallen to women in ancient Africa. They prepared meals like fufu—a traditional dish made of pounded yams and served with soups, stew, roasted meat and a variety of sauces— over huge open pits.

Many tribal nations made up the slave population in the American South. Africans seem to have exchanged their regional recipes freely, leading to the development of a multinational cooking style among blacks in America. In many areas along the Atlantic coast, Native Americans taught the black population to cook with native plants. These varied cooking techniques were later introduced to southern American society by Africans.

During the colonial period, heavy breakfast meals of hoecakes (small cornmeal cakes) and molasses were prepared to fuel the slaves for work from sunup to sundown. Spoonbread, crab cakes, corn pone (corn bread), corn pudding, greens, and succotash—cooked over an open pit or fireplace— became common items in a black cook's repertoire in the late 1700s and the 1800s.

African Americans served as cooks for both the northern and southern armies throughout the Civil War. Because of the scarcity of supplies, the cooks were forced to improvise and invent their own recipes. Some of the dishes that sprang from this period of culinary creativity include jambalaya (herbs and rice cooked with chicken, ham, sausage, shrimp, or oysters), bread pudding, dirty rice, gumbo, and red beans and rice—all of which remain favorites on the nation's regional cuisine circuit.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the establishment of many African American-owned eateries specializing in southern fried chicken, pork chops, fish, potato salad, turkey and dressing, and rice and gravy. In later years, this diet—which grew to include pigs' feet, chitlins (hog intestines), collard greens (a vegetable), and ham hocks—became known as "soul food."

Food plays a large role in African American traditions, customs, and beliefs. Nothing underscores this point more than the example of New Year's Day, a time of celebration that brings with it new hopes for the coming months. Some of the traditional foods enjoyed on this day are black-eyed peas, which represent good fortune; rice, a symbol of prosperity; greens, which stand for money; and fish, which represents the motivation and desire to increase wealth.


Over the centuries, various aspects of African culture have blended into American society. The complex rhythms of African music, for instance, are evident in the sounds of American blues and jazz; a growth in the study of American folklore—and the development of American-style folktales—can be linked in part to Africa's long oral tradition. But a new interest in the Old World began to surface in the 1970s and continued through the nineties. In an effort to connect with their African heritage, some black Americans have adopted African names to replace the Anglo names of their ancestors' slaveowners. In addition, increasing numbers of African American men and women are donning the traditional garb of their African brothers and sisters—including African-inspired jewelry, headwear, and brightly colored, loose-fitting garments called dashikis— to show pride in their roots.


In addition to Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter Sunday, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, other dates throughout the calendar year hold a special significance for African Americans. For example, on June 19th of each year, many blacks celebrate a special day known as Juneteenth. Although the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared an end to slavery in the Confederacy, took effect on January 1, 1863, the news of slavery's end did not reach the black population in Texas until June 19, 1865. Union General Gordon Granger arrived outside Galveston, Texas, that day to announce the freedom of the state's 250,000 enslaved blacks. Former slaves in Texas and Louisiana held a major celebration that turned into an annual event and spread throughout the nation as free blacks migrated west and north.

From December 26th to January 1st, African Americans observe Kwanzaa (which means "first fruits" in Swahili), a nonreligious holiday that celebrates family, culture, and ancestral ties. This week-long commemoration was instituted in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to promote unity and pride among people of African descent.

Kwanzaa comes directly from the tradition of the agricultural people of Africa, who gave thanks for a bountiful harvest at designated times during the year. In this highly symbolic celebration, mazeo (crops) represent the historical roots of the holiday and the rewards of collective labor; mekeka (a mat) stands for tradition and foundation; kinara (a candleholder) represents African forebears; muhindi (ears of corn) symbolize a family's children; zawadi (gifts) reflect the seeds sown by the children (like commitments made and kept, for example) and the fruits of the parents' labor; and the kikombe cha umoja functions as a unity cup. For each day during the week of Kwanzaa, a particular principle or nguzo saba ("n-goo-zoh sah-ba") is observed: (Day 1): Umoja ("oo-moe-ja")—unity in family, community, nation, and race; (Day 2): Kujichagulia ("coo-gee-cha-goolee-ah")—self-determination, independence, and creative thinking; (Day 3): Ujima ("oo-gee-mah")— collective work and responsibility to others; (Day 4): Ujamaa ("oo-jah-mah")—cooperative economics, as in the formation and support of black businesses and jobs; (Day 5): Nia ("nee-ah")—purpose, as in the building and development of black communities; (Day 6): Kuumba ("coo-oom-bah")—creativity and beautification of the environment; (Day 7): Imani ("ee-mah-nee")—faith in God, parents, leaders, and the righteousness and victory of the black struggle.

For African Americans, the entire month of February is set aside not as a holiday, but as a time of enlightenment for people of all races. Black History Month, first introduced in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week, is observed each February as a celebration of black heritage. A key tool in the American educational system's growing multicultural movement, Black History Month was designed to foster a better understanding of the role black Americans have played in U.S. history.


African Americans are at a high risk for serious health problems, including cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. Several studies show a direct connection between poor health and the problem of underemployment or unemployment among African Americans. One-third of the black population is financially strapped, with an income at or below the poverty level. Illnesses brought on by an improper diet or substandard living conditions are often compounded by a lack of quality medical care—largely a result of inadequate health insurance coverage.

Statistics indicate that African Americans are more likely to succumb to many life-threatening illnesses than white Americans. This grim reality is evident even from birth: black babies under one year of age die at twice the rate of white babies in the same age group. "When you collect all the information and search for answers, they usually relate to poverty," noted University of Iowa pediatrics professor Dr. Herman A. Hein in 1989 (Mark Nichols and Linda Graham Caleca, "Black Infant Mortality," Indianapolis Star, August 27, 1989, p. A-1). A lack of prenatal care among low-income mothers is believed to be the greatest single factor in the high mortality rate among African American infants.

A 1992 medical survey found that black Americans were more likely to die from cancer than white Americans: the age-adjusted cancer mortality rate was a full 27 percent higher for the nation's black population than the white population. African Americans also had a significantly lower five-year survival rate—only 38 percent compared to 53 percent for whites—even though the overall cancer incidence rates are actually lower for blacks than for whites. Black Americans who suffer from cancer seem to be receiving inferior medical treatment, and they are much more likely to have their cancer diagnosed only after the malignancy has metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body (Catherine C. Boring and others, "Cancer Statistics for African Americans," CA 42, 1992, pp. 7-17).

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, strikes a third more African Americans than whites. Although the Public Health Service reports that the hypertension is largely inherited, other factors such as poor diet and stress can play a key role in the development of the disorder. The effects of hypertension are especially devastating to the black population: blacks aged 24 to 44 are reportedly 18 times more likely than whites to suffer kidney failure as a complication of high blood pressure (Dixie Farley, "High Blood Pressure: Controlling the Silent Killer," FDA Consumer, December 1991, pp. 28-33). A reduction in dietary fat and salt are recommended for all hypertensive patients. African Americans are believed to be particularly sensitive to blood pressure problems brought on by a high-salt diet.

Sickle cell anemia is a serious and painful disorder that occurs almost exclusively in people of African descent. The disease is believed to have been brought to the United States as a result of African immigration, and by the last decade of the twentieth century it had found its way to all corners of the world. In some African nations, two to three percent of all babies die from the disease. In the United States, one in every 12 African Americans carries the trait; of these, about one in 600 develops the disease. Sickle cell anemia is generally considered to be the most common genetically determined blood disease to affect a single ethnic group (Katie Krauss, "The Pain of Sickle Cell Anemia," Yale-New Haven Magazine, summer 1989, pp. 2-6).

Normal red blood cells are round, but the blood cells of sickle cell victims are elongated and pointed (like a sickle). Cells of this shape can clog small blood vessels, thereby cutting off the supply of oxygen to surrounding tissues. The pain associated with sickle cell anemia is intense, and organ failure can result as the disease progresses. By the late 1980s, researchers had begun to make strides in the treatment and prevention of some of the life-threatening complications associated with sickle cell anemia, including damage to the heart, lungs, immune system, and nervous system.

Although the threats to the health of African Americans are numerous and varied, the number one killer of blacks in the United States is violent crime. In the early 1990s, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, began viewing violence as a disease. In an October 17, 1994 press conference, CDC director David Satcher noted that homicide is the leading cause of death among black Americans aged 15 to 34. The severity of the problem has led the CDC to take an active role in addressing violence as a public health issue.

In November of 1990, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that while life expectancy for whites increased in the 1980s, life expectancy actually fell among African Americans during the latter half of the decade. African American men have a life expectancy of only 65.6 years—more than seven years lower than that of the average white American male (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). Census projections suggest that between 1995 and 2010, life expectancy should increase to 67.3 years for black men and 75.1 years for white men.


More than 1,000 different languages are spoken in Africa, and it is often difficult for even the most studied linguistic scholars to differentiate between separate African languages and the dialects of a single language. The multitudinous languages of Africa are grouped into several large families, including the Niger-Congo family (those spoken mainly in the southern portion of the continent) and the Afro-Asiatic family (spoken in northern Africa, the eastern horn of Africa, and Southwest Asia).

Africa has a very long and rich oral tradition; few languages of the Old World ever took a written form. Literature and history in ancient Africa, therefore, were passed from generation to generation orally. After the fourteenth century, the use of Arabic by educated Muslim blacks was rather extensive, and some oral literature was subsequently reduced to a more permanent written form. But, in spite of this Arab influence, the oral heritage of Africans remained strong, serving not only as an educational device, but as a guide for the administration of government and the conduct of religious ceremonies.

Beginning with the arrival of the first Africans in the New World, Anglo-American words were slowly infused into African languages. Successive generations of blacks born in America, as well as Africans transported to the colonies later in the slave trading era, began to use standard English as their principal language. Over the years, this standard English has been modified by African Americans to encompass their own culture, language, and experience.

The social change movements of the 1960s gave birth to a number of popular black expressions. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the music of hip-hop and rap artists became a culturally significant expression of the trials of black urban life. In her book Talkin & Testifyin, linguistic scholar Geneva Smitherman offers this explanation of the formation of a very distinctive black English: "In a nutshell: Black Dialect is an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America's linguistic-cultural African heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression, and life in America. Black Language is Euro-American speech with Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture. The Black Idiom is used by 80 to 90 percent of American Blacks, at least some of the time. It has allowed Blacks to create a culture of survival in an alien land, and as a by-product has served to enrich the language of all Americans."

As recounted in Before the Mayflower, scholar Lorenzo Turner found linguistic survivals of the

African Americans have very strong family foundations that often extend outside of the nuclear family.
African Americans have very strong family foundations that often extend outside of the nuclear family.
African past in the syntax, word-formations, and intonations of African Americans. Among these words in general use, especially in the South, are "goober" (peanut), "gumbo" (okra), "ninny" (female breast), "tote" (to carry), and "yam" (sweet potato). Additionally, Turner discovered a number of African-inspired names among Americans on the South Side of Chicago, including: "Bobo," meaning one who cannot talk; "Geiji," the name of a language and tribe in Liberia; "Agona," after a country in Ghana; "Ola," a Yoruban word meaning that which saves; and "Zola," meaning to love.

Family and Community Dynamics

In From Slavery to Freedom, Franklin pointed out that "the family was the basis of social organization. . . [and] the foundation even of economic and political life" in early Africa, with descent being traced through the mother. Historians have noted that Africans placed a heavy emphasis on their obligations to their immediate and extended family members and their community as a whole. In addition, according to Franklin, Africans are said to have believed that "the spirits of their forefathers had unlimited power over their lives"; thus a sense of kinship was especially significant in the Old World.

Slavery exerted an undeniable strain on the traditional African family unit. The system tore at the very fiber of family life: in some cases, husbands and wives were sold to different owners, and children born into servitude could be separated— sold—from their mothers on a white man's whim. But, according to Nicholas Lemann in The Promised Land, "the mutation in the structure of the black family" that occurred during slavery did not necessarily destroy the black family. Rather, the enduring cycle of poverty among African Americans seems to have had the strongest negative impact on the stability of the family.

As of March of 1992, the U.S. Bureau of the Census estimated that 32.7 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty level (with family incomes of less than $14,000). It is this segment of the underclass that defines the term "families in crisis." They are besieged by poverty and further challenged by an array of cyclical social problems: high unemployment rates; the issue of teenage pregnancy; a preponderance of fatherless households; inadequate housing or homelessness; inferior health care against a backdrop of high health hazards; staggering school drop-out rates; and an alarming incarceration rate. (One out of four males between the ages of 18 to 24 was in prison in the early 1990s.) Experts predict that temporary assistance alone will not provide long-term solutions to these problems. Without resolutions, impoverished black families are in danger of falling further and further behind.

Another third of all African American families found themselves in tenuous financial positions in the mid-1990s, corresponding with the prevailing economic climate of the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These families faced increasing layoffs or job termination as the nation's once-prosperous industrial base deteriorated and the great business boom of the early 1980s faded. Still, they managed to hold their extended family units together and provide support systems for their children.

At the same time, more than 30 percent of African American families were headed by one or two full-time wage earners. This middle- and upper-middle-class segment of the nation's black population includes men and women who are second, third, or fourth generation college graduates—and who have managed to prosper within a system that, according to some observers, continues to breed legalized racism in both subtle and substantive ways. As models of community action and responsibility, these African American families have taken stock in an old African proverb: "It takes a whole tribe to raise one child."


As early as the 1620s and 1630s, European missionaries in the United States began efforts to convert Africans to Christianity and provide them with a basic education. Other inroads in the black educational process were made by America's early white colonists. The Pennsylvania Quakers (members of a Christian sect known as the Society of Friends) were among the most vocal advocates of social reform and justice for blacks in the first century of the nation's history. Staunch opponents of the oppressive institution of slavery, the Quakers began organizing educational meetings for people of African heritage in the early 1700s; in 1774, they launched a school for blacks in Philadelphia. By the mid-1800s, the city had become a center for black learning, with public, industrial, charity, and private schools providing an education for more than 2,000 African American students.

After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, groups known as Freedmen's organizations were formed to provide educational opportunities to former slaves. Under the Freedmen's Bureau Acts passed by Congress in the 1860s, more than 2,500 schools were established in the South.

Over the next decade or so, several colleges opened for black students. In the late 1870s, religious organizations and government-sponsored land-grant programs played an important role in the establishment and support of many early black institutions of higher learning. By 1900, more than 2,000 black Americans would graduate from college.

The end of the nineteenth century saw a surge in black leadership. One of the best-known and most powerful leaders in the black community at this time was educator and activist Booker T. Washington. A graduate of Virginia's Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Washington set up a similar school in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881, with a $2,000 grant from the Alabama legislature. Committed to the ideal of economic self-help and independence, the Tuskegee Institute offered teachers' training—as well as industrial and agricultural education—to young black men and women.

Activist Mary McLeod Bethune, the most prominent black woman of her era, also had a profound impact on black education at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1904, with less than two dollars in savings and a handful of students, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in Florida. Devoted mainly to the education of African American girls, the Daytona Institute also served as a cornerstone of strength for the entire black community. The school later merged with Cookman's Institute, a Florida-based men's college, to become Bethune-Cookman College.

Bethune's efforts, and the struggles of dozens of other black educational leaders, were made in the midst of irrefutable adversity. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned the practice of racial segregation: the court's ruling in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld the doctrine of "separate but equal" accommodations for blacks—and schools were among these accommodations. It took more than half a century for the Plessy decision to be overturned; in 1954, a major breakthrough in the fight for black rights came when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case: "To separate [black] children from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.... Segregation with the sanction

In the 1930s, schools were segregated throughout the North and South. These boys went to school in Missouri.
In the 1930s, schools were segregated throughout the North and South. These boys went to school in Missouri.
of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system.... In the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" (from the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, May 17, 1954, 347 U.S. 483).

Brown was clearly a landmark decision that set the tone for further social advancements among African Americans, but its passage failed to guarantee integration and equality in education. Even four decades after Brown, true desegregation in American public schools had not been achieved. The school populations in cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles remain almost exclusively black, and high school drop-out rates in poor, urban, predominantly black districts are often among the highest in the nation—sometimes reaching more than 40 percent.

U.S. Census reports suggest that by the year 2000, the country will witness a change in the face of school segregation. Hispanics, unprotected by the Brown decision, will outnumber blacks in the United States; the Hispanic community, therefore, will need to battle side by side with African Americans for desegregation and equity in education. As Jean Heller put it in the St. Petersburg Times, "The Brown decision outlawed de jure segregation, the separation of races by law. There is no legal remedy for de facto segregation, separation that occurs naturally. It is not against any law for whites or blacks or Hispanics to choose to live apart, even if that choice creates segregated school systems" (Jean Heller, A Unfulfilled Mission," St. Petersburg Times (Florida), December 10, 1989, p. 1A).

Not all attempts at school desegregation have failed. Heller points out that the East Harlem school district, formerly one of the worst in New York City, designed such an impressive educational system for its black and Hispanic students that neighboring whites began transferring into the district. Educational experts have suggested that the key to successful, nationwide school integration is the establishment of high quality educational facilities in segregated urban areas. Superior school systems in segregated cities, they argue, would discourage urban flight—thereby increasing the racial and economic diversity of the population—and bring about a natural end to segregation.

In 1990 the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that the gap between black and white high school graduation rates was closing. The department's census-based study showed an encouraging increase in the overall percentage of black high school graduates between 1978 and 1988. Only 68 percent of blacks and 83 percent of whites graduated from secondary school in 1978; ten years later, 75 percent of blacks and 82 percent of whites had graduated.

But studies show that fewer blacks than whites go on to college. Between 1960 and 1991, the percentage of black high school graduates who were enrolled in college or had completed at least one year of college rose from 32.5 to 46.1 percent, compared to a rise of 41 to 62.3 percent for white graduates (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). As the United States completes its move from a manufacturing society to an information-based, technological society, the need for highly educated, creative, computer-literate workers continues to grow.

In response to perceived inadequacies in black American education, a progressive philosophy known as Afrocentrism developed around 1980. An alternative to the nation's Eurocentric model of education, Afrocentrism places the black student at the center of history, thereby instilling a sense of dignity and pride in black heritage. Proponents of the movement—including its founder, activist and scholar Molefi Kete Asante—feel that the integration of the Afrocentric perspective into the American consciousness will benefit students of all colors in a racially diverse society. In addition, pro-Afro-centric educators believe that empowered black students will be better equipped to succeed in an increasingly complex world.


American tradition calls for the bride to have "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue" in her possession for luck on her wedding day. While modern African American couples marry in the western tradition, many are personalizing their weddings with an ancestral touch to add to the day's historical and cultural significance.

Among Africans, marriage represents a union of two families, not just the bride and groom. In keeping with West African custom, it is essential for parents and extended family members to welcome a man or woman's future partner and offer emotional support to the couple throughout their marriage. The bonding of the families begins when a man obtains formal permission to marry his prospective bride.

In the true oral tradition, Africans often deliver the news of their upcoming nuptials by word of mouth. Some African American couples have modified this tradition by having their invitations printed on a scroll, tied with raffia, and then hand-delivered by friends. The ancestral influence on modern ceremonies can also be seen in the accessories worn by the bride and groom. On African shores, the groom wears his bride's earring, and the bride dons an elaborate necklace reserved exclusively for her.

Because enslaved Africans in America were often barred from marrying in a legal ceremony, they created their own marriage rite. It is said that couples joined hands and jumped over a broom together into "the land of matrimony." Many twentieth-century black American couples reenact "jumping the broom" during their wedding ceremony or reception.


In the three decades between 1960 and 1990, interracial marriages more than quadrupled in the United States, but the number remains small. By 1992 less than one percent of all marriages united blacks with people of another racial heritage (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993).

"America has often been referred to as a melting pot, a heterogeneous country made up of diverse ethnic, religious, and racial groups," noted Boston Globe contributor Desiree French. But, in spite of the nation's diversity, it has taken more than 350 years for many Americans to begin to come to terms with the idea of interracial marriage (Desiree French, "Interracial Marriage," Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), January 25, 1990, p.3E; originally printed in the Boston Globe ). As late as 1967, antimiscegenation laws (laws that prohibited the marriage of whites to members of another race) were still on the books in 17 states; that year, the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared such laws unconstitutional.

Surveys indicate that young Americans approaching adulthood at the dawn of the twenty-first century are much more open to the idea of interracial unions than earlier generations. A decline in social bias has led experts to predict an increase in cross-cultural marriages throughout the 1990s.

Still, according to the 1994 National Health and Social Life Survey, 97 percent of black women are likely to choose a partner of the same race (John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata, Sex in America: A Definitive Survey [Boston: Little Brown, 1994]). Newsweek magazine quoted one young black woman as saying that "relationships are complicated enough" without the extra stress of interracial tensions (Michael Marriott, "Not Frenzied, But Fulfilled," Newsweek, October 17, 1994, p. 71). Conflict in the United States over black-white relationships stems from the nation's brutal history of slavery, when white men held all the power in society. More than a century after the abolition of slavery, America's shameful legacy of racism remains. According to some observers, high rates of abortion, drug abuse, illness, and poverty among African Americans seemed to spark a movement of black solidarity in the early 1990s. Many black women—"the culture bearers"—oppose the idea of interracial marriage, opting instead for racial strength and unity through the stabilization of the black family (Ruth Holladay, "A Cruel History of Colors Interracial Relationships," Indianapolis Star, May 6, 1990, p. H-1).


In From Slavery to Freedom, John Hope Franklin described the religion of early Africans as "ancestor worship." Tribal religions varied widely but shared some common elements: they were steeped in ritual, magic, and devotion to the spirits of the dead, and they placed heavy emphasis on the need for a knowledge and appreciation of the past.

Christianity was first introduced in West Africa by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Franklin noted that resistance among the Africans to Christianization stemmed from their association of the religion with the institution of slave trade to the New World. "It was a strange religion, this Christianity," he wrote, "which taught equality and brotherhood and at the same time introduced on a large scale the practice of tearing people from their homes and transporting them to a distant land to become slaves."

In the New World, missionaries continued their efforts to convert Africans to Christianity. As far back as 1700, the Quakers sponsored monthly Friends meetings for blacks. But an undercurrent of anxiety among a majority of white settlers curbed the formation of free black churches in colonial America: many colonists felt that if blacks were allowed to congregate at separate churches, they would plot dangerous rebellions. By the mid-1700s, black membership in both the Baptist and Methodist churches had increased significantly; few blacks, however, became ordained members of the clergy in these predominantly white sects.

African Americans finally organized the first independent black congregation—the Silver Bluff Baptist Church—in South Carolina in the early 1770s. Other black congregations sprang up in the first few decades of the 1800s, largely as outgrowths of established white churches. In 1816 Richard Allen, a slave who bought his own freedom, formed the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Philadelphia in response to an unbending policy of segregated seating in the city's white Methodist church.

An increase in slave uprisings led fearful whites to impose restrictions on the activities of black churches in the 1830s. In the post-Civil War years, however, black Baptist and Methodist ministers exerted a profound influence on their congregations, urging peaceful social and political involvement for the black population as Reconstruction-period policies unfolded.

But as segregation became a national reality in the 1880s and 1890s, some black churches and ministers began to advocate decidedly separatist solutions to the religious, educational, and economic discrimination that existed in the United States. AME bishop Henry McNeal Turner, a former Civil War chaplain, championed the idea of African migration for blacks with his "Back to Africa" movement in 1895—more than twenty years before the rise of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. By the early 1900s, churches were functioning to unite blacks politically.

Organized religion has always been a strong institution among African Americans. More than 75 percent of black Americans belong to a church, and nearly half attend church services each week ("America's Blacks: A World Apart," Economist, March 30, 1991). Black congregations reflect the traditional strength of community ties in their continued devotion to social improvement—evident in the launching of youth programs, anti-drug crusades, and parochial schools, and in ongoing efforts to provide the needy with food, clothing, and shelter.

Today, the largest African American denomination in the country is the National Baptist Convention of the U.S.A., Inc. Many African Americans belong to the AME and CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal) churches, and the Church of God in Christ—a Pentecostal denomination that cuts across socioeconomic lines—also has a strong black following. The 1990s saw a steady increase in black membership in the Islamic religion and the Roman Catholic church as well. (A separate African American Catholic congregation, not sanctioned by the church in Rome, was founded in 1989 by George A. Stallings, Jr.) Less mainstream denominations include Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, based on the black separatist doctrine of Elijah Muhammad. Though faulted by some critics for its seemingly divisive, controversial teachings, the Nation of Islam maintains a fairly sizeable following.

In 1995, black churches in the United States became the targets of arson. In what seemed to be a case of serial arsons, churches with black or mixed-race congregations were destroyed by fire. One church, the Macedonia Baptist Church in South Carolina sued four members of the Ku Klux Klan and the North and South Carolina klan organizations in civil court. In a stunning verdict, the jury ordered the Ku Klux Klan to pay $37.8 million in damages to the Macedonia Baptist Congregation.

Employment and Economic Traditions

When African Americans left the South in the early 1900s to move North, many migrants found jobs in manufacturing, especially in the automobile, tobacco, meat-packing, clothing, steel, and shipping industries; African Americans were hit especially hard by the decline of the nation's manufacturing economy later in the century. In the 1960s, U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson launched a "war on poverty." Some blacks were able to move out of the ghettos during these years, following the passage of the Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts, the inauguration of affirmative action policies, and the increase of black workers in government jobs. But John Hope Franklin contended in From Slavery to Freedom that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though "the most far-reaching and comprehensive law in support of racial equality ever enacted by Congress," actually reflected only "the illusion of equality."

Designed to protect blacks against discrimination in voting, in education, in the use of public facilities, and in the administration of federallyfunded programs, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the institution of affirmative action programs to redress past discrimination against African Americans. Affirmative action measures were initiated in the mid-1960s to improve educational and employment opportunities for minorities; over the years, women and the handicapped have also benefited from these programs. But opponents of affirmative action have argued that racial quotas breed racial resentment.

A strong feeling of "white backlash" accompanied the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; racial tensions sparked violence across the country as blacks tried to move beyond the limits of segregation—economically, politically, and socially—in the latter half of the twentieth century. Still, more than three decades after the act's passage, economic inequities persist in America.

The conservative policies of U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush dealt a serious blow to black advancement in the 1980s and early 1990s. The percentage of Americans living in poverty "rose in the 1980s, when the government [cut] back its efforts" to support social programs (Nicholas Lemann, "Up and Out," Washington Post National Weekly Edition, May 24-June 4, 1989, pp. 25-26). The budget cuts made by these Republican administrations drastically reduced black middle-class employment opportunities.

According to the U.S. Census, in 1991 the median family income for African Americans was $18,807, nearly $13,000 less than the median income for white families; 45.6 percent of black children lived below the poverty level, compared to 16.1 percent of white children; and black unemployment stood at 14.1 percent, more than twice the unemployment rate among whites.

But the outlook for African American advancement is encouraging. Experts predict that by the year 2000, blacks will account for nearly 12 percent of the American labor force. A strong black presence is evident in the fields of health care, business, and law, and a new spirit of entrepreneurship is burgeoning among young, upwardly-mobile African Americans. About 70 percent of blacks are making progress in nearly every aspect of American life: the black middle-class is increasing, white-collar employment is on the rise, and although the growth of black political and economic power is slow, it remains steady (Joseph F. Coates, Jennifer Jarratt, and John B. Mahaffie, "Future Work," Futurist, May/June 1991, pp. 9-19). The other 30 percent of the black population, however, is trapped by a cycle of poor education, multigenerational poverty, and underemployment. The civil rights struggles of the 1990s and beyond, then, must be primarily economic in nature.

Politics and Government

The abolitionist movement of the 1830s joined a multiracial coalition in the quest for black emancipation and equality. In addition to agitating for civil rights through traditional legal means, the abolitionists took a daring step by operating the legendary Underground Railroad system, a covert network of safe havens that assisted fugitive slaves in their flight to freedom in the North. "Perhaps nothing did more to intensify the strife between North and South, and to emphasize in a most dramatic way the determination of abolitionists to destroy slavery, than the Underground Railroad," Franklin wrote in From Slavery to Freedom. "It was this organized effort to undermine slavery ... that put such a strain on intersectional relations and sent antagonists and protagonists of slavery scurrying headlong into the 1850s determined to have their uncompromising way." Around 50,000 slaves are believed to have escaped to the northern United States and Canada through the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War.

The reality of the black plight was magnified in 1856 with the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Dred Scott vs. Sandford. A slave named Dred Scott had traveled with his master out of the slave state of Missouri during the 1830s and 1840s. He sued his owner for freedom, arguing that his journeys to free territories made him free. The Supreme Court disagreed and ruled that slaves could not file lawsuits because they lacked the status of a U.S. citizen; in addition, an owner was said to have the right to transport a slave anywhere in U.S. territory without changing the slave's status.

The Union victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery under President Abraham Lincoln consolidated black political support in the Republican party. This affiliation lasted throughout the end of the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth century—even after the Republicans began to loosen the reins on the Democratic South following the removal of the last federal troops from the area in 1876.

Earlier in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, African Americans made significant legislative gains—or so it seemed. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution were intended to provide full citizenship— with all its rights and privileges—to all blacks. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, granted black American men the right to vote.

But the voting rights amendment failed in its attempts to guarantee blacks the freedom to choose at the ballot box. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were established by some state and local governments to deny blacks their right to vote. (The poll tax would not be declared unconstitutional until 1964, with the passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment.) These legalized forms of oppression presented seemingly insurmountable obstacles to black advancement in the United States.

Around the same time—the 1870s—other forms of white supremacist sentiment came to the fore. The so-called "Jim Crow" laws of segregation—allowing for legal, systematic discrimination on the basis of race—were accepted throughout the nation. Voting rights abuses persisted. And violence became a common tool of oppression: between 1889 and 1922, nearly 3,500 lynchings took place, mainly in the southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but also in some northern cities.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington had gained prominence as the chief spokesperson on the state of black America and the issue of racial reconciliation. Recognized throughout the United States as an outstanding black leader and mediator, he advocated accommodationism as the preferred method of attaining black rights. His leading opponent, black historian, militant, and author W. E. B. Du Bois, felt it was necessary to take more aggressive measures in the fight for equality. Du Bois spearheaded the Niagara Movement, a radical black intellectual forum, in 1905. Members of the group merged with white progressives in 1910 to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After Washington's death in 1915, the NAACP became a greater force in the struggle for racial reform.

The massive black migration to the North in the 1920s showed that racial tension was no longer just a rural, southern issue. Anti-black attitudes, combined with the desperate economic pressures of the Great Depression, exerted a profound effect on politics nationwide. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt attracted black voters with his "New Deal" relief and recovery programs in the 1930s. For 70 years blacks had been faithful to the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln. But their belief in Roosevelt's "serious interest in the problem of the black man caused thousands of [African Americans] to change their party allegiance," noted John Hope Franklin in From Slavery to Freedom. Housing and employment opportunities started to open up, and blacks began to gain seats in various state legislatures in the 1930s and 1940s.

World War II ushered in an era of unswerving commitment to the fight for civil rights. According to Franklin, the continued "steady migration of [African Americans] to the North and West and their concentration in important industrial communities gave blacks a powerful new voice in political affairs. In cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland they frequently held the balance of power in close elections, and in certain pivotal states the [black vote] came to be regarded as crucial in national elections." Progress was being made on all fronts by national associations, political organizations, unions, the federal branch of the U.S. government, and the nation's court system.

President Harry S Truman, who assumed office on the death of Roosevelt in 1945, contributed to black advancement by desegregating the military, establishing fair employment practices in the federal service, and beginning the trend toward integration in public accommodations and housing. His civil rights proposals of the late 1940s came to fruition a decade later during President Eisenhower's administration. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, also known as the Voting Rights Act of 1957, was the first major piece of civil rights legislation passed by Congress in more than eight decades. It expanded the role of the federal government in civil rights matters and established the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to monitor the protection of black rights.

But the Commission soon determined that unfair voting practices persisted in the South; blacks were still being denied the right to vote in certain southern districts. Because of these abuses, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was followed three years later by a second act that offered extra protection to blacks at the polls. In 1965, yet another Voting Rights Act was passed to eliminate literacy tests and safeguard black rights during the voter registration process.

The postwar agitation for black rights had yielded slow but significant advances in school desegregation and suffrage—advances that met with bold opposition from some whites. By the mid- to late-1950s, as the black fight for progress gained ground, white resistance continued to mount. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., took the helm of the fledgling civil rights movement—a multiracial effort to eliminate segregation and achieve equality for blacks through nonviolent resistance. The movement began with the boycott of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and, by 1960, had broadened in scope, becoming a national crusade for black rights. Over the next decade, civil rights agitators—black and white—organized economic boycotts of racist businesses and attracted front-page news coverage with black voter registration drives and anti-segregationist demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins. Bolstered by the new era of independence

These African Americans picket and march in protest of lunch counter segregation during the 1960s.
These African Americans picket and march in protest of lunch counter segregation during the 1960s.
that was simultaneously sweeping through sub-Saharan Africa, the movement for African American equality gained international attention.

Around the same time, racial tensions—especially in the South—reached violent levels with the emergence of new white supremacist organizations and an increase in Ku Klux Klan activity. Raciallymotivated discrimination on all fronts—from housing to employment—rose as Southern resistance to the civil rights movement intensified. By the late 1950s, racist hatred had once again degenerated into brutality and bloodshed: blacks were being murdered for the cause, and their white killers were escaping punishment.

In the midst of America's growing racial tragedy, Democrat John F. Kennedy gained the black vote in the 1960 presidential elections. His domestic agenda centered on the expansion of federal action in civil rights cases—especially through the empowerment of the U.S. Department of Justice on voting rights issues and the establishment of the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Civil rights organizations continued their peaceful assaults against barriers to integration, but black resistance to racial injustice was escalating. The protest movement heated up in 1961 when groups like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized "freedom rides" that defied segregationist policies on public transportation systems. "By 1963," wrote John Hope Franklin, "the Black Revolution was approaching full tide."

Major demonstrations were staged that April, most notably in Birmingham, Alabama, under the leadership of King. Cries for equality met with harsh police action against the black crowds. Two months later, Mississippi's NAACP leader, Medgar Evers, was assassinated. Soon demonstrations were springing up throughout the nation, and Kennedy was contemplating his next move in the fight for black rights.

On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 black and white demonstrators converged at the Lincoln Memorial to push for the passage of a new civil rights bill. This historic "March on Washington," highlighted by King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech, brought the promise of stronger legislation from the president.

After Kennedy's assassination that November, President Johnson continued his predecessor's civil rights program. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 sparked violence throughout the country, including turmoil in cities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. The Ku Klux Klan stepped up its practice of black intimidation with venomous racial slurs, cross burnings, firebombings—even acts of murder.

The call for racial reform in the South became louder in early 1965. King, who had been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to race relations, commanded the spotlight for his key role in the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. But African Americans were disheartened by the lack of real progress in securing black rights. Despite the legislative gains made over two decades, John Hope Franklin noted that "between 1949 and 1964 the relative participation of [blacks] in the total economic life of the nation declined significantly."

Black discontent over economic, employment, and housing discrimination reached frightening proportions in the summer of 1965, with rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles. This event marked a major change in the temper of the civil rights movement. Nearly a decade of nonviolent resistance had failed to remedy the racial crisis in the United States; consequently, a more militant reformist element began to emerge. "Black Power" became the rallying cry of the middle and late 1960s, and more and more civil rights groups adopted all-black leadership. King's assassination in 1968 only compounded the nation's explosive racial situation. According to Franklin, King's murder symbolized for many blacks "the rejection by white America of their vigorous but peaceful pursuit of equality." The Black Revolution had finally crystallized, and with it came a grave sense of loss and despair in the black community. The new generation of black leaders seemed to champion independence and separatism for blacks rather than integration into white American society.

Fear of black advancement led many whites to shift their allegiance to the Republican party in the late 1960s. With the exception of President Jimmy Carter's term in office from 1977 to 1981, Republicans remained in the White House for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. But a new era of black activism arose with the election of Democratic president Bill Clinton in 1992. After a dozen years of conservatism under Presidents Reagan and Bush, Clinton was seen as a champion of "the people"— all people. Demonstrating a commitment to policies that would cut across the lines of gender, race, and economics, he offered a vision of social reform, urban renewal, and domestic harmony for the United States. Once in office, Clinton appointed African Americans to key posts in his Cabinet, and the black population began wielding unprecedented influence in government. For example, the 102nd Congress included 25 African American representatives; the elections in 1993 brought black representation in the 103rd Congress up to 38.

Despite the advancements made by African Americans in politics and business, gang violence continued to plague African American communities in the 1990s. To encourage positive feelings, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and civil rights activist Phile Chionesu organized the Million Man March. On October 16, 1995, close to one million African American men converged on the nation's capital to hear speeches and connect with other socially conscious black men. The Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke at the event, as did poet Maya Angelou, Damu Smith of Greenpeace, Rosa Parks, the Reverend Joseph Lowery, and other luminaries.

In October 1997, African American women held their own massive march. The Million Woman March attracted hundreds of thousands of African American women to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they experienced a sense of community and cohesion. The attendees heard speeches and discussed issues such as the rising prison populations, the idea of independent schools for black children, the use of alternative medicines, and the progress of black women in politics and business.


Brave African American men and women have advanced the cause of peace and defended the ideals of freedom since the 1700s. As far back as 1702, blacks were fighting against the French and the Indians in the New World. Virginia and South Carolina allowed African Americans to enlist in the militia, and, throughout the eighteenth century, some slaves were able to exchange their military service for freedom. African American soldiers served in the armed forces during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam conflict, the Persian Gulf War, and during peace-keeping ventures in Somalia and Haiti. For nearly two centuries, however, segregation existed in the U.S. military—a shameful testament to the nation's long history of racial discrimination.

On March 5, 1770, prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, a crowd of angry colonists gathered in the streets of Boston, Massachusetts, to protest unjust British policies. This colonial rally— which would later be remembered as the Boston Massacre—turned bloody when British soldiers retaliated with gunfire. A black sailor named Crispus Attucks is said to have been the first American to die in the conflict. The death of Attucks, one of the earliest acts of military service by blacks in America, symbolizes the cruel irony of the revolutionary cause in America—one that denied equal rights to its African American population.

The American Revolution focused increased attention on the thorny issue of slavery. An underlying fear existed that enslaved blacks would revolt if granted the right to bear arms, so most colonists favored the idea of an all-white militia. Although some blacks fought at the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill in 1775, General George Washington issued a ban on the enlistment of slaves that summer; by November, he had extended the ban to all blacks, slave or free. However, the Continental Congress—apprehensive about the prospect of black enlistment in the British Army— partially reversed the policy in the next year. An estimated 5,000 blacks eventually fought in the colonial army.

Integration of the fledgling American Army ended in 1792, when Congress passed a law limiting military service to white men. More than half a century later, blacks were still unable to enlist in the U. S. military.

Many African Americans mistakenly perceived the Civil War, which began in April of 1861, as a war against slavery. But as Alton Hornsby, Jr., pointed out in Chronology of African-American History, "[President Abraham] Lincoln's war aims did not include interference with slavery where it already existed." Early in the struggle, the president felt that a stand "against slavery would drive additional Southern and Border states into the Confederacy," a risk he could not afford to take at a time when the Union seemed dangerously close to dissolving. By mid-1862, though, the need for additional Union Army soldiers became critical. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Lincoln in 1863, freed the slaves of the Confederacy. With their new "free" status, blacks were allowed to participate in the Civil War. By the winter of 1864-65, the Union Army boasted 168 volunteer regiments of black troops, comprising more than ten percent of its total strength; over 35,000 blacks died in combat.

Between 300,000 and 400,000 African Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I, but only 10 percent were assigned to combat duty. Blacks were still hampered by segregationist policies that perpetuated an erroneous notion of inferiority among the troops; however, the stellar performance of many black soldiers during the era of the world wars helped to dispel these stereotypes. In 1940, for example, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., became the first black American to achieve the rank of brigadier general. Over the next decade, his son, U.S. Air Force officer Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., distinguished himself as commander of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the 332nd Fighter Group, the 477th Bombardment Group, and the 332nd Fighter Wing.

Several hundred thousand blacks fought for the United States in World War II. Still, according to John Hope Franklin in From Slavery to Freedom, "too many clear signs indicated that the United States was committed to maintaining a white army and a black army, and ironically the combined forces of this army had to be used together somehow to carry on the fight against the powerful threat of fascism and racism in the world."

In an effort to promote equality and opportunity in the American military, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, banning segregation in the armed forces. Six years later, the U.S. Department of Defense adopted an official policy of full integration, abolishing all-black military units. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a steady increase in the number of career officers in the U.S. military. By the mid-1990s, close to 40 percent of the American military was black. Some social commentators feel that this disproportionately high percentage of African Americans in the military—the entire black population in the United States being around 12 percent—calls attention to the obstacles young black people face in forging a path into mainstream American business.

Individual and Group Contributions

African Americans have made notable contributions to American popular culture, to government policy, and to the arts and sciences. The following is a mere sampling of African American achievement:


Alain Locke (1886–1954) was a prolific author, historian, educator, and drama critic. A Harvard University graduate and Rhodes Scholar, he taught philosophy at Howard University for 36 years and is remembered as a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. For more than three decades, social scientist and Spingarn medalist Kenneth B. Clark (1914– ) taught psychology at New York's City College; his work on the psychology of segregation played an important part in the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education . In 1987 dynamic anthropologist and writer Johnnetta B. Cole (1936– ) became the first African American woman president of Spelman College, the nation's oldest and most esteemed institution of higher learning for black women. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1950–), a respected literary scholar, critic, and the chairman of Harvard University's African American Studies Department, offers a fresh new perspective on the related roles of black tradition, stereotypes, and the plurality of the American nation in the field of education; he is best known for championing a multicultural approach to learning.


Actor Charles Gilpin (1878–1930) is considered the dean of early African American theater. In 1921, the former vaudevillian was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Award for his theatrical accomplishment. Richard B. Harrison (1864–1935) was an esteemed actor who gained national prominence for his portrayal of "De Lawd" in Green Pastures. For three decades Harrison entertained black audiences with one-man performances of William Shakespeare's Macbeth and Julius Caesar, as well as readings of poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Actor, writer, director, and civil rights activist Ossie Davis (1917– ) is committed to advancing black pride through his work. He has been a groundbreaking figure in American theater, film, and television for five decades.

Best known for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Hattie McDaniel (1895–1952) was awarded the 1940 Oscar for best supporting actress—the first Oscar ever won by an African American performer. Actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith (1950– ), a bold and intriguing new force in American theater, examines issues like racism and justice in original works such as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992.

Dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham (1910?– ) has been called the mother of Afro-American dance. She is best known for blending elements of traditional Caribbean dance with modern African American rhythms and dance forms. Also a noted activist, Dunham went on a 47-day hunger strike in 1992 to protest U.S. policy on Haitian refugees.

Dancer and actor Gregory Hines has earned a place among the great African American entertainers. A tap dancer since childhood, Hines has acted in numerous plays and movies and has received many awards for his efforts. In 1999, Hines starred in his own television sitcom, "The Gregory Hines Show."

Black Entertainment Television (BET) is a cable television network devoted to entertainment by and for African Americans. In 1999, the programmer announced the creation of an internet site for the network. was launched to attract more African Americans to the world wide web. BET founder and Chief Executive Officer Robert L. Johnson said, " is an effort to address how we can make African Americans a part of this economic engine the Internet has created."


Alexander Lucius Twilight, the first African American elected to public office, was sent to the Vermont legislature in 1836 by the voters of Orleans County. Less than a decade later, William A. Leidesdorf, a black political official, was named sub-consul to the Mexican territory of Yerba Buena (San Francisco); he also served on the San Francisco town council and held the post of town treasurer. Attorney and educator Charles Hamilton Houston (1895–1950) was a brilliant leader in the legal battle to erode segregation in the United States; his student, Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993), successfully argued against the constitutionality of segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). A director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund for more than two decades, Marshall went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1967. Career military officer Colin Powell (1937– ) made his mark on American history as the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position he held from 1989 to 1993. Some political observers have pegged him as a U.S. presidential candidate in the 1996 elections. An early follower of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson (1941– ) became a potent force in American politics in his own right. In 1984 and 1988 he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency. Founder of Operation PUSH and the National Rainbow Coalition, Jackson is committed to the economic, social, and political advancement of America's dispossessed and disfranchised peoples. Attorney and politician Carol Moseley-Braun (1947– ) won election to the U.S. Senate in 1992, making her the first black woman senator in the nation. Kweisi Mfume (born Frizzell Gray; 1948– ), a Democratic congressional representative from Maryland for half a dozen years, became the chairman of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus in 1993. In 1997 he became president of the NAACP.


Frederick Douglass (1818–1875), the famous fugitive slave and abolitionist, recognized the power of the press and used it to paint a graphic portrait of the horrors of slavery. He founded The North Star, a black newspaper, in 1847, to expose the reality of the black condition in nineteenth century America. John Henry Murphy (1840–1922), a former slave and founder of the Baltimore Afro-American, was inspired by a desire to represent black causes with honor and integrity. Activist and journalist T. Thomas Fortune (1856–1928), a staunch defender of black rights during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, used his editorial position at various urban newspapers in the North to crusade for an end to racial discrimination. Robert S. Abbott (1870–1940) was a key figure in the development of black journalism in the twentieth century. The first issue of his Chicago Defender went to press in 1905. Charlayne Hunter-Gault (1942– ) broke the color barrier at the University of Georgia, receiving her degree in journalism from the formerly segregated institution in 1963. A national correspondent for public television's MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, she has earned distinction for her socially-conscious brand of investigative reporting.


Langston Hughes (1902–1967) was a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of intense artistic and intellectual activity centered in New York City's black community during the early 1920s. The author of poetry, long and short fiction, plays, autobiographical works, and nonfiction pieces, Hughes infused his writings with the texture of urban African Americana. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley (1921–1992) traced his African heritage, his ancestors' agonizing journey to the New World, and the brutal system of slavery in the United States in his unforgettable 1976 bestseller Roots. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965), author of the classic play A Raisin in the Sun, was the first black recipient of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Bob Kaufman (1925–1986) was the most prominent African American beatnik poet, and he is considered by many to be the finest. Maya Angelou (1928– ), renowned chronicler of the black American experience, earned national acclaim in 1970 with the publication of the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; she presented her moving original verse, On the Pulse of Morning, at the inauguration of U.S. president Bill Clinton in January 1993. Cultural historian and novelist Toni Morrison (1931– ), author of such works as The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, Beloved, and Jazz, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. In the late 1980s, Terry McMillan (1951– ) emerged as a powerful new voice on the literary scene; her 1992 novel Waiting to Exhale was a runaway bestseller.


African Americans have made a profound impact on the nation's musical history. The blues and jazz genres, both rooted in black culture, exerted an unquestionable influence on the development of rock and soul music in the United States.

The blues, an improvisational African American musical form, originated around 1900 in the Mississippi Delta region. Some of its pioneering figures include legendary cornetist, bandleader, and composer W. C. Handy (1873–1958), often called the "Father of the Blues"; singing marvel Bessie Smith (1898–1937), remembered as the "Empress of the Blues"; and Muddy Waters (1915–1983), a practitioner of the urban blues strain that evolved in Chicago in the 1940s.

Jazz, a blend of European traditional music, blues, and Southern instrumental ragtime, developed in the South in the 1920s. Key figures in the evolution of jazz include New Orleans horn player and "swing" master Louis Armstrong ("Satchmo"; 1900–1971), who scored big with hits like "Hello, Dolly" and "What a Wonderful World"; Lionel Hampton (1909– ), the first jazz musician to popularize vibes; trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (1917–1993) a chief architect of a more modern form of jazz called "bebop"; singer Ella Fitzgerald (1918– ), a master of improvisation who came to be known as "The First Lady of Song"; innovative and enigmatic trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Miles Davis (1926–1991), who pioneered the genre's avantgarde period in the 1950s and electrified jazz with elements of funk and rock—beginning the "fusion" movement—in the late 1960s; and Melba Liston (1926– ), trombonist, arranger, and leader of an all-female jazz group in the 1950s and 1960s.

Vocalist, composer, and historian Bernice Johnson Reagon (1942– ), founder of the female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, is committed to maintaining Africa's diverse musical heritage.

In the field of classical music, Marian Anderson (1902–1993), one of the greatest contraltos of all time, found herself a victim of racial prejudice in her own country. A star in Europe for years before her American debut, she was actually barred from making an appearance at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution in April of 1939—an incident that prompted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the organization. Shortly thereafter, on Easter Sunday, Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Composer and pianist Margaret Bonds (1913–1972) wrote works that explore the African American experience. Her best known compositions include Migration, a ballet; Spiritual Suite for Piano ; Mass in D Minor ; Three Dream Portraits ; and the songs "The Ballad of the Brown King" and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

African Americans continue to set trends and break barriers in the music business, especially in pop, rap, blues, and jazz music. A partial list of celebrated African American musicians would include: guitarist Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970), Otis Redding (1941–1967), singer Aretha Franklin (1942– ), Al Green (1946– ), Herbie Mann (1930– ), Miles Davis (1926–1991), saxophonist John Coltrane (1926–1967), founder of the group "Sly and the Family Stone" Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart; 1944– ), singersongwriter Phoebe Snow (1952– ), rap artist Snoop Doggy Dog (1972– ), rap artist and record company executive Sean "Puffy" Combs (1969– ), pop-star and cultural icon Michael Jackson (1958– ), singer Lauryn Hill (1975?– ), pianist-songwriter Ray Charles (1930– ), singer Little Richard (1932– ), singer Diana Ross (1944– ), legendary blues guitarist B.B. King (1925– ), rap artist Easy-E (Erykah Badu; 1963–1995), singer Billy Preston (1946– ), and singer Whitney Houston (1963– ).


Granville T. Woods (1856–1910) was a trailblazer in the fields of electrical and mechanical engineering whose various inventions include a telephone transmitter, an egg incubator, and a railway telegraph. His contemporary, George Washington Carver (1861?–1943), was born into slavery but became a leader in agricultural chemistry and botany—and one of the most famous African Americans of his era. Inventor Garrett A. Morgan (1877–1963), a self-educated genius, developed the first gas mask and traffic signal. Ernest Everett Just (1883–1915), recipient of the first Spingarn medal ever given by the NAACP, made important contributions to the studies of marine biology and cell behavior. Another Spingarn medalist, Percy Lavon Julien (1889–1975), was a maverick in the field of organic chemistry. He created synthesized versions of cortisone (to relieve the pain and inflammation of arthritis) and physostigmine (to reduce the debilitating effects of glaucoma).

Surgeon and scientist Charles Richard Drew (1904–1950) refined techniques of preserving liquid blood plasma. Samuel L. Kountz (1930–1981), an international leader in transplant surgery, successfully transplanted a kidney from a mother to a daughter—the first operation of its kind between individuals who were not identical twins. He also pioneered anti-rejection therapy in transplant patients. Benjamin Carson (1951– ) is a pediatric neurosurgeon who gained international acclaim in 1987 by separating a pair of Siamese twins who were joined at their heads. Medical doctor and former astronaut Mae C. Jemison (1957– ) made history as the first black woman to serve as a mission specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She was a crew member on the 1992 flight of the space shuttle Endeavour.


Harriet Tubman (1820?–1913) was a runaway slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement. A nurse and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, she earned distinction as the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, leading an estimated 300 slaves to freedom in the North. Attorney, writer, activist, educator, and foreign consul James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was an early leader of the NAACP and a strong believer in the need for black unity as the legal fight for civil rights evolved. He composed the black anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in 1900. Labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph (1889–1979) fought for greater economic opportunity in the black community. A presidential consultant in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Randolph is probably best remembered for his role in establishing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black union in the country, in 1925.

Ella Baker (1903–1986), renowned for her organizational and leadership skills, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—groups that were at the forefront of civil rights activism in the United States. Mississippi native Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was an impassioned warrior in the fight for black voter rights, black economic advancement, and women's rights. Rosa Parks (1913– ) sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in December of 1955 when her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger landed her in jail. Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little; 1925–1965) advocated a more radical pursuit of equal rights than Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), the champion of nonviolent resistance to racism. A fiery speaker who urged blacks to seize self-determination "by any means necessary," Malcolm embraced the concept of global unity toward the end of his life and revised his black separatist ideas. In 1965 he was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam—an organization with which he had severed earlier ties. Attorney and activist Marian Wright Edelman (1939– ) founded the Children's Defense Fund in 1973. Randall Robinson (1942?– ), executive director of the human rights lobbying organization TransAfrica, Inc., has played a key role in influencing progressive U.S. foreign policy in South Africa, Somalia, and Haiti.


A Brooklyn Dodger from 1947 to 1956, Jackie Robinson (1919–1972) is credited with breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. In 1974 Frank Robinson (1935– ), a former National and American League MVP, became the first black manager of a major league baseball franchise. Phenomenal Cleveland Brown running back Jim Brown (1936– ), a superstar of the late 1950s and 1960s, helped change the face of professional football—a sport that for years had been dominated by whites. The on-court skills and charisma of two of the top NBA players of the 1980s and early 1990s, retired Los Angeles Laker Earvin "Magic" Johnson (1959– ) and Chicago Bull Michael Jordan (1963– ) left indelible marks on the game of basketball.

Track sensation Jesse Owens (1913–1980) blasted the notion of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Wilma Rudolph (1940– ) overcame the crippling complications of polio and became the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals in track and field. Always colorful and controversial, Olympic gold medalist and longtime heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay; 1942– ) was a boxing sensation throughout the 1970s and remains one of the most widely recognized figures in the sport's history. Althea Gibson (1927– ) and Arthur Ashe (1943–1993) both rocked the tennis world with their accomplishments: Gibson, the first black player ever to win at Wimbledon, was a pioneer in the white-dominated game at the dawn of the civil rights era. Ashe, a dedicated activist who fought against racial discrimination in all sports, was the first African American male to triumph at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open.


Sculptor Sargent Johnson (1888–1967), a three-time winner of the prestigious Harmon Foundation medal for outstanding black artist, was heavily influenced by the art forms of Africa. Romare Bearden (1914–1988) was a highly acclaimed painter, collagist, and photomontagist who depicted the black experience in his work. His images reflect black urban life, music, religion, and the power of the family. A series titled The Prevalence of Ritual is one of his best-known works. Jacob Lawrence (1917– ), a renowned painter, has depicted through his art both the history of racial injustice and the promise of racial harmony in America. His works include the Frederick Douglass series, the Harriet Tubman series, the Migration of the Negro series, and Builders.

Augusta Savage (1900–1962), a Harlem Renaissance sculptor, was the first black woman to win acceptance in the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Lift Every Voice and Sing, Black Women, and Lenore are among her notable works. Multimedia artist and activist Faith Ringgold (1930– ) seeks to raise the consciousness of her audience by focusing on themes of racial and gender-based discrimination. Ringgold is known for weaving surrealist elements into her artworks; her storytelling quilt Tar Beach inspired a children's book of the same title.



African American Review.

Founded in 1967 as Negro American Literature Forum, this quarterly publication contains interviews and essays on black American art, literature, and culture.

Contact: Joe Weixlmann, Editor.

Address: Indiana State University, Department of English, Terre Haute, Indiana 47809-9989.

Telephone: (812) 237-2968.

Fax: (812) 237-3156.

Online: .

Africa Report.

Founded in 1937, this periodical covers current political and economic developments in Africa.

Address: African-American Institute, 833 United Nations Plaza, New York, New York 10017.

Telephone: (212) 949-5666.

Amsterdam News.

Now known as the New York Amsterdam News, this source was founded in 1909 and is devoted to black community-interest stories.

Address: Powell-Savory Corp., 2340 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, New York, New York 10027.

Telephone: (212) 932-7400.

Fax: (212) 222-3842.

Chicago Daily Defender.

Founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott as a black weekly newspaper, it is now a daily paper with a black perspective.

Address: 2400 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60616.

Telephone: (312) 225-2400.


The official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, this monthly magazine, founded in 1910, features articles on civil rights issues.

Contact: Garland Thompson, Editor.

Address: 4805 Mt. Hope Drive, Baltimore, Maryland 21215.

Telephone: (212) 481-4100.

Online: .

Ebony and Jet.

Both of these publications are part of the family of Johnson Publications, which was established in the 1940s by entrepreneur John H. Johnson. Ebony, a monthly magazine, and Jet, a newsweekly, cover African Americans in politics, business, and the arts.

Contact: Ebony— Lerone Bennett, Jr., Editor; Jet— Robert Johnson, Editor.

Address: Johnson Publishing Co., Inc., 820 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60605.

Telephone: (312) 322-9200.

Fax: (312) 322-9375.

Online: .


First published in 1970, this monthly magazine targets a black female audience.

Contact: Susan L. Taylor, Editor.

Address: Essence Communications, Inc., 1500 Broadway, 6th Floor, New York, New York 10036.

Telephone: (212) 642-0600.

Fax: (212) 921-5173.


Founded in 1961, this source offers a quarterly review of progress made in the ongoing movement for human freedom.

Contact: Esther Jackson and Jean Carey Bond, Editors.

Address: 799 Broadway, Suite 542, New York, New York 10003.

Telephone: (212) 477-3985.


WESL-AM (1490).

Founded in 1934; gospel format.

Contact: Robert Riggins.

Address: 149 South 8th Sreet, East St. Louis, Illinois 62201.

Telephone: (618) 271-1490.

Fax: (618) 875-4315.

WRKS-FM (98.7).

Founded in 1941; an ABC-affiliate with an urban/ contemporary format.

Contact: Charles M. Warfield, Jr., Director of Operations.

Address: 395 Hudson Street, 7th Floor, New York, New York 10014.

Telephone: (212) 242-9870.

Fax: (212) 929-8559.


Black Entertainment Television (BET).

The first cable network devoted exclusively to black programming, BET features news, public affairs and talk shows, television magazines, sports updates, concerts, videos, and syndicated series.

Contact: Robert Johnson, President and Chief Executive Officer.

Address: 1900 West Place N.E., Washington, D.C. 20018-1121.

Telephone: (202) 608-2000.

Online: .

WGPR-TV, Channel 62, Detroit.

Groundbreaking black-owned television station that first went on the air September 29, 1975; began as an independent network; became a CBS-affiliate in 1994.

Contact: George Mathews, President and General Manager.

Address: 3146 East Jefferson Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48207.

Telephone: (313) 259-8862.

Fax: (313) 259-6662.

Organizations and Associations

Black Filmmaker Foundation (BFF).

Founded in 1978 to support and promote independently produced film and video work for African American artists.

Contact: Warrington Hudlin, President.

Addresses: 670 Broadway, Suite 304, New York, New York 10012.

Telephone: (212) 253-1690.

Black Resources, Inc.

A resource on race-related matters for corporations, government agencies, and institutions.

Address: 231 West 29th Street, Suite 1205, New York, New York 10001.

Telephone: (212) 967-4000.

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).

A nonprofit organization founded in 1940 to fight discrimination and civil rights violations through the nation's court system. (Independent of the NAACP since the mid-1950s.)

Contact: Elaine R. Jones, Director-Counsel.

Address: 99 Hudson Street, 16th Floor, New York, New York 10013.

Telephone: (212) 219-1900.

Fax: (212) 226-7592.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Founded in 1910, the NAACP is perhaps the best-known civil rights organization in the United States. Its goals are the elimination of racial prejudice and the achievement of equal rights for all people.

Address: Headquarters—4805 Mt. Hope Drive, Baltimore, Maryland 21215.

Telephone: For general information, contact New York office—(212) 481-4100.

Online: .

National Black United Fund.

Provides financial and technical support to projects that address the needs of black communities throughout the United States.

Contact: William T. Merritt, President.

Address: 40 Clinton Street, 5th Floor, Newark, New Jersey 07102.

Telephone: (973) 643-5122.

Fax: (973) 648-8350.


Online: .

The National Urban League.

Formed in 1911 in New York by the merger of three committees that sought to protect the rights of the city's black population. Best known for piloting the decades-long fight against racial discrimination in the United States, the National Urban League and its regional branches are also active in the struggle for political and economic advancement among African Americans and impoverished people of all colors.

Contact: Hugh Price, CEO & President.

Address: 120 Wall Street, New York, New York 10005.

Telephone: (212) 558-5300.

Fax: (212) 344-5332.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

An educational service agency founded in 1957 (with Martin Luther King, Jr., as its first president) to aid in the integration of African Americans in all aspects of life in the United States. Continues to foster a philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

Address: 334 Auburn Avenue, N.E., Atlanta, Georgia 30303.

Telephone: (404) 522-1420.

Fax: (404) 659-7390.

Museums and Research Centers

The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Founded in 1977 to encourage scholarly research in Afro-American history and genealogy.

Contact: Edwin B. Washington, Jr., Special Information.

Address: P.O. Box 73086, T Street Station, Washington, D.C. 20056-3086.

Telephone: (202) 234-5350.


Online: .

The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH).

Originally named the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, this research center was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1915. ASALH is committed to the collection, preservation, and promotion of black history.

Contact: Dr. Edward Beasley, President.

Address: 1401 14th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.

Telephone: (202) 667-2822.

Fax: (202) 387-9802.


Online: .

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

Founded in 1969 by Coretta Scott King to uphold the philosophy and work of her husband, the slain civil rights leader.

Contact: Dexter Scott King, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer; or Coretta Scott King, President.

Address: 449 Auburn Avenue, N.E., Atlanta, Georgia 30312.

Telephone: (404) 524-1956.

Fax: (404) 526-8901.

The Museum of African American Culture.

Preserves and displays African American cultural artifacts.

Address: 1616 Blanding Street, Columbia, South Carolina 29201.

Telephone: (803) 252-1450.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

An arm of the New York Public Library, the Schomburg Center was founded at the height of the Harlem Renaissance by historian Arthur A. Schomburg to preserve the historical past of people of African descent. It is widely regarded as the world's leading repository for materials and artifacts on black cultural life.

Contact: Howard Dodson, Jr., Director.

Address: 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, New York 10037-1801.

Telephone: (212) 491-2200.

Fax: (212) 491-6760.

Online: .

Sources for Additional Study

African American Almanac. 8th edition . Edited by Jessie Carney Smith and Joseph M. Palmisano. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2000.

African American Sociology: A Social Study of the Pan African Diaspora. Edited by Alva Barnett and James L. Conyers. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1998.

Asante, Molefi Kete. The Afrocentric Idea. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Bennett, Lerone, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America—The Classic Account of the Struggles and Triumphs of Black Americans, fifth revised edition. New York: Penguin, 1984.

A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, two volumes, edited by Herbert Aptheker. New York: Citadel Press, 1969 (originally published in 1951).

Franklin, John Hope, with Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, sixth edition. New York: Knopf, 1988 (originally published in 1947).

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Cornel West. The Future of the Race. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Harris, Joseph E. Africans and Their History. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Lemann, Nicholas. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Lynd, Staughton. Class Conflict, Slavery, and the U.S. Constitution. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980 (originally published in 1967).

Mannix, Daniel Pratt. Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865. NewYork: Viking, 1962.

Parham, Vanessa Roberts. The African-American Child's Heritage Cookbook. Sandcastle Publishing, 1993.

Segal, Ronald. The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin & Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Von Eschen, Penny M. Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Woodson, Carter G. The Negro in Our History. Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1962 (originally published by Associated Publishers, 1922).

User Contributions:

Theressa Wesley
This is an excellent resource. Please add my reference collection: Theressa Gunnels Rush. (My last name is now Wesley)"Black American Writers Past and Present: A Biographical and Bibliographical Collection." Scarecrow Press, Meteuchen, New Jersey, 1975.

Thanks! Theressa G. Wesley
William R.Taylor, M.D.
I appreciate your site, and would like permission to consider using the photo of a family sitting on the steps, as the "cover" of an ebook entitled: Stressed Family, Strong Family. This is a self-help book for families mainly addressing US readers but with some content relevent to other cultures.
I will probably use a montage with other family photos. I can supply more information on request.
Yours sincerely,
Bill Taylor
William R. Taylor, M.D.
Bloomfield CT USA
Alana Bostick
This article over African Americans was very helpful for me to prepare a presentation over the African American group in our society. Everything seemed to be correct and well presented material. I remember studying about the African Americans and the History of the U.S. but I was note nearly touched by the subject matter as I am today.
Its great to look back in History to see the roots of our country. I know all view points are different and are subject to all critism I am astonised on how how are country has progressed with peace through the implication of study and education.
This article was very inspiring. I cried, I smiled, but most of all I was very touched by all that African Americans had to go through to gain equality. It has inspired me to reach my full potential in life.
To press on and not give up. If those who was once inslaved didn't allow obstacles to get in their way. What is our excuse? The way have been paved.
No more excuses. One can do anything they put their heart and mind to do.
Perserverance is the key.
What is the percentage of blacks have lost their history as a result of slavery.
Is it fine with you if I use the photos on this page in a high school project? If so, they will be unaltered and cited.
I think your article is fairly well written, I won't nit-pick it. But, your sweeping statement that
"In the 1930s, schools were segregated throughout the North and South" is inaccurate. I went to grade-school in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania and I can assure you that they were not segregated in of after 1936.

Things in the United States have nearly always been in some state of conflict in my 80 plus years. Nor have the battle lines been drawn always been drawn because of race, religion or geographical locations. In my grandfather family (from Pennsylvania. he and a brother fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, while his brother Dan fought under Robert E. Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia. Another white man from Pennsylvania, (mw) participated in the civil rights movement an was in the Selma and Birmingham marches and share the hospitality of the Selma jail.

I have discovered that in all of our conflicts, you will find saints, sinners and scoundrels on both sides, but mostly you find plain ol' Americans who want to do what is right and decent. Some are just confused as to what that is.
This was a great article. I am doing an assigment for school and I was wondering how to use this in for reference and citation in APA format. Can u please cite this article for me. I learned a lot about African Americans in what they went through to have equal rights.
This website does not help me answer this question who suffered the most in urban areas because of the great depression women, men, children, african-americans, whites?

Please send more information about Africa and world.


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