The Black America

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The Beginning

The first truly successful English colony in North America, Virginia, was established in 1607. The first settlers used indentured labourers to work farms and mines. But there were few indentured servants and they only worked for seven years before their contracts were fulfilled and they were free again. Because of these problems and the desire to make money, Europeans began to enslave Africans. In 1619, the first of many slave ships arrived to Virginia.


To Africa

The first European slave traders went to the western coast of Africa. They exchanged their horses, guns and alcohol for food, ivory, gold and slaves. Later they wanted only slaves.

The slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean changed the whole course of African history. The kings and chiefs of the African coastal communities became trading partners with the European merchants who had set up business there. Kings who had once protected their people now became warmongers and kidnappers. As the demand for slaves grew, raiding and kidnapping spread terror deep into Africa.

The crossing from Africa to America was called the Middle Passage. Conditions on the Middle Passage were so cruel that some slaves committed suicide to escape their misery. In a few cases the slaves mutinied: they took over the ship and could escape.


In America

In America the slaves were sold at slave markets. Each state received a large income by making owners pay a tax on every slave they bought.

In the Northern States the settlements and farms were small. Some of the families used enslaved Africans as household and as craftsworkers such as carpenters, stonemasons, barrelmakers, carriage makers, blacksmiths and weavers. Some owners hired out skilled slaves by the day; others set up slave-staffed shops such as tailors, shoemakers and watchmakers. Slaves also worked in the forests, cutting timber and making charcoal.

Slavery was not widespread in the Northern States. The number of slaves there was small compared with the rest of America.

Slaves in the Southern States had the same kinds of work as the slaves in the North. They also laboured on farms growing rice, sugar, tobacco, coffee and cotton. After 1793 technology for processing cotton improved. More cotton was exported, so slaves had to work harder than ever. In 1850, about 1 850 000 slaves were engaged in the production of cotton.


Slave Laws

Slaves had no rights. They were seen as possessions, rather than human beings. They were not paid wages, they were not allowed to legally marry, own property or read or write. If an owner worked his slaves to death, there was no punishment.

All the states had these kinds of slave laws, but the laws varied in harshness from state to state. Some of them changed slowly, for different reasons. Some Europeans who had fathered children born to slave mothers wanted to free their children, to educate them and to give them property. There were also some churchmen, missionaries and liberals who forced some improvements.

A society with different levels came up. The top level of society was the Europeans. Next came the free people of African descent, then the slaves of mixed race and finally slaves of unmixed African descent.

There were also levels in slave societies. Highly skilled slaves, some of whom could earn some money for themselves, were on the highest level. On plantations, the drivers (the slaves who drove the pace of work with a whip) were on the top. They were often of mixed race. Next came those with special skills and domestic servants. Finally there were the field labourers.

Some owners encouraged the slaves born in the colony to feel superior to newly arrived Africans. Owners hoped that this would prevent slaves from joining together in rebellion.


Independence and Equality

In 1776, after the War of Independence, the Declaration of Independence was written. Though it said “all men all created equal”, it did not change the life of the slaves, why they were not counted as men. Some states abolished slavery. Some new states were “free” which meant that slavery was prohibited, but some had laws stopping Blacks from entering.

Congress was dominated by the Southern states, which depended on slaves for their wealth. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington, owned slaves themselves. Big landowners in the South claimed that they could not cultivate their fields of tobacco, rice and cotton without their slaves.

In the North the farms were smaller and the climate cooler and farmers did not need slaves. Some northerners also opposed slavery for moral and religious reasons. In the early 19th century many Northern states had abolished slaves by law and in 1808 they persuaded Congress to make it illegal for ships to bring any new slaves from Africa into the US. In 1820 congress voted to keep new states “free” north and west of the Missouri River, but in 1854 this law was rejected.

Though some states were “free” it did not mean equality. There was segregation of Blacks and Whites. Blacks had separate schools, churches and burial grounds. Segregation was the law in the South and custom in the North.

Many new European immigrants came to America and many of them feared competition from Blacks. They voted to limit Blacks’ rights and to stop them working in some trades and professions. But there were also many abolition societies formed with both Black and White members.


War and Reconstruction

In 1861, civil war between the Confederacy (Southern States) and the Union (Northern States) broke out. Both Black men and women served in the Union forces, but the Blacks in the Southern states were not permitted to join the Confederate army until it was about a month left of the war.

In the North anti-Black violence had grown; there were serious riots and segregation remained. Blacks demanded an end to discrimination and segregation. In 1866 Congress introduced the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. This gave Blacks full right to citizenship, including the right to vote. These new opportunities were quickly seized. Black candidates were elected to Congress, state governments and city councils. Blacks set up farms and business, went to school and universities.

This alarmed Southern Whites. Many joined anti-Black terrorist organizations. The largest and most feared of these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, which attacked Blacks and pro-Black Whites.

In the end of the 19th century many laws were passed in the South to enforce segregation. Marriage between Blacks and Whites was banned in some states and the Blacks’ right to vote was taken away. Many lost their property and returned to poverty.


The 20th Century

Now, when the Blacks had nothing, some of them returned to education. But the state schools where overcrowded, and black children often did not get as much education as white children. To overcome this problem, Black churches and organizations set up their own schools; both high schools and colleges. Thousand of Blacks moved to the West; some joined the US Army.

The situation was particularly difficult for Black women, who were rejected by White women and sometimes treated as inferior by Black men. Some of the Black women started their own organizations. They offered help to poor, raised money for schools, orphanages and old people’s homes.


The Civil Rights Movement

The Black struggle for equal treatment was called the Civil Rights movement. One of the most famous events in the movement was what happened in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. A black woman named Rosa Parks got on a bus. She took a seat in the back, as Blacks were supposed to do. But then Whites came and filled the bus up. The driver ordered Mrs Parks to give her seat up, but she decided that she would not be treated that way and refused to move.

For this she was arrested, but the black people of Montgomery supported her and she was released from jail. A campaign, led by a young clergyman named Martin Luther King, began. They started a boycott of the city’s bus services. After a year the Supreme Court declared that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.

This success encouraged Blacks in other places to act against segregation. They boycotted stores where Black workers were refused jobs, refused to pay rent until their housing conditions were improved, and held “sit-ins” in restaurants that would not serve black costumers. They achieved many successes.

A climax of the Civil Rights movement came in August 1963. About 200 000 people, Blacks and Whites, took part in a mass demonstration in Washington to...

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Inactive member [2008-02-29]   The Black America
Mimers Brunn [Online]. https://mimersbrunn.se/article?id=9352 [2019-10-18]

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