The first African slaves arrived via Santo Domingo to the San Miguel de Gualdape colony (most likely located in the Winyah Bay area of present-day South Carolina), founded by Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in 1526.
The marriage between Luisa de Abrego, a free black domestic servant from Seville and Miguel Rodríguez, a white Segovian conquistador in 1565 in St. Augustine (Spanish Florida), is the first known and recorded Christian marriage anywhere in what is now the continental United States.
The ill-fated colony was almost immediately disrupted by a fight over leadership, during which the slaves revolted and fled the colony to seek refuge among local Native Americans. De Ayllón and many of the colonists died shortly afterwards of an epidemic and the colony was abandoned. The settlers and the slaves who had not escaped returned to Haiti, whence they had come.
The first recorded Africans in British North America (including most of the future United States) were "20 and odd negroes" who came to Jamestown, Virginia via Cape Comfort in August 1619 as indentured servants. As English settlers died from harsh conditions, more and more Africans were brought to work as laborers.
Slaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia
An indentured servant (who could be white or black) would work for several years (usually four to seven) without wages. The status of indentured servants in early Virginia and Maryland was similar to slavery. Servants could be bought, sold, or leased and they could be physically beaten for disobedience or running away. Unlike slaves, they were freed after their term of service expired or was bought out, their children did not inherit their status, and on their release from contract they received "a year's provision of corn, double apparel, tools necessary", and a small cash payment called "freedom dues".
Africans could legally raise crops and cattle to purchase their freedom. They raised families, married other Africans and sometimes intermarried with Native Americans or English settlers.
The First Slave Auction at New Amsterdam in 1655
, by Howard Pyle
By the 1640s and 1650s, several African families owned farms around Jamestown and some became wealthy by colonial standards and purchased indentured servants of their own. In 1640, the Virginia General Court recorded the earliest documentation of lifetime slavery when they sentenced John Punch, a Negro, to lifetime servitude under his master Hugh Gwyn for running away.
In the Spanish Florida some Spanish married or had unions with Pensacola, Creek or African women, both slave and free, and their descendants created a mixed-race population of mestizos and mulattos. The Spanish encouraged slaves from the southern British colonies to come to Florida as a refuge, promising freedom in exchange for conversion to Catholicism. King Charles II of Spain issued a royal proclamation freeing all slaves who fled to Spanish Florida and accepted conversion and baptism. Most went to the area around St. Augustine, but escaped slaves also reached Pensacola. St. Augustine had mustered an all-black militia unit defending Spain as early as 1683.
One of the Dutch African arrivals, Anthony Johnson, would later own one of the first black "slaves", John Casor, resulting from the court ruling of a civil case.
The popular conception of a race-based slave system did not fully develop until the 18th century. The Dutch West India Company introduced slavery in 1625 with the importation of eleven black slaves into New Amsterdam (present-day New York City). All the colony's slaves, however, were freed upon its surrender to the British.
Reproduction of a handbill advertising a slave auction in Charleston
, South Carolina, in 1769.
Massachusetts was the first British colony to legally recognize slavery in 1641. In 1662 Virginia passed a law that children of enslaved women (who were of African descent and thus foreigners) took the status of the mother, rather than that of the father, as under English common law. This principle was called partus sequitur ventrum.
By an act of 1699, the colony ordered all free blacks deported, virtually defining as slaves all people of African descent who remained in the colony. In 1670 the colonial assembly passed a law prohibiting free and baptized negroes (and Indians) from purchasing Christians (in this act meaning English or European whites) but allowing them to buy people "of their owne nation".
In the Spanish Louisiana although there was no movement toward abolition of the African slave trade, Spanish rule introduced a new law called coartación, which allowed slaves to buy their freedom, and that of others. Although some did not have the money to buy their freedom that government measures on slavery allowed a high number of free blacks. That brought problems to the Spaniards with the French Creoles who also populated Spanish Louisiana, French creoles cited that measure as one of the system’s worst elements. In spite of that, there was a greater number of slaves as the years passed, as also the entire Spanish Louisiana population increased.
The earliest African-American congregations and churches were organized before 1800 in both northern and southern cities following the Great Awakening. By 1775, Africans made up 20% of the population in the American colonies, which made them the second largest ethnic group after the English.
From the American Revolution to the Civil War
During the 1770s, Africans, both enslaved and free, helped rebellious English colonists secure American independence by defeating the British in the American Revolution. Africans and Englishmen fought side by side and were fully integrated. Blacks played a role in both sides in the American Revolution. Activists in the Patriot cause included James Armistead, Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell.
In the Spanish Louisiana, Governor Bernardo de Gálvez organized Spanish free blackmen into two militia companies to defend New Orleans during the American Revolution. They fought in the 1779 battle in which Spain took Baton Rouge from the British. Gálvez also commanded them in campaigns against the British outposts in Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida, he recruited slaves for the militia by pledging to free anyone who was seriously wounded and promised to secure a low price for coartación (buy their freedom and that of others) for those who received lesser wounds. During the 1790s, Governor Francisco Luis Héctor, baron of Carondelet reinforced local fortifications and recruit even more free blackmen for the militia. Carondelet doubled the number of free blackmen who served, creating two more militia companies—one made up of black members and the other of pardo (mixed race). Serving in the militia brought free blackmen one step closer to equality with whites, allowing them, for example, the right to carry arms and boosting their earning power. However actually these privileges distanced free blackmen from enslaved blacks and encouraged them to identify with whites.
Slavery had been tacitly enshrined in the U.S. Constitution through provisions such as Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, commonly known as the 3/5 compromise. Slavery, which by then meant almost exclusively African Americans, was the most important political issue in the antebellum United States, leading to one crisis after another. Among these were the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Dred Scott decision.
Prior to the Civil War, eight serving presidents owned slaves, a practice protected by the U.S. Constitution. By 1860, there were 3.5 to 4.4 million enslaved blacks in the U.S. due to the Atlantic slave trade, and another 488,000–500,000 African Americans lived free (with legislated limits) across the country. With legislated limits imposed upon them in addition to "unconquerable prejudice" from whites according to Henry Clay, some blacks who weren't enslaved left the U.S. for Liberia in Africa. Liberia began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1821, with the abolitionist members of the ACS believing blacks would face better chances for freedom and equality in Africa.
The slaves not only constituted a large investment, they produced America's most valuable product and export: cotton. They not only helped build the U.S. Capitol, they built the White House and other District of Columbia buildings. (Washington was a slave trading center.) Similar building projects existed in slaveholding states.
In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared that all slaves in Confederate-held territory were free. Advancing Union troops enforced the proclamation with Texas being the last state to be emancipated, in 1865.
Slavery in Union-held Confederate territory continued, at least on paper, until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Prior to the Civil War, only white men of property could vote, and the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to whites only. The 14th Amendment (1868) gave African-Americans citizenship, and the 15th Amendment (1870) gave African-American males the right to vote (only males could vote in the U.S. at the time).
Reconstruction Era and Jim Crow
African Americans quickly set up congregations for themselves, as well as schools and community/civic associations, to have space away from white control or oversight. While the post-war Reconstruction era was initially a time of progress for African Americans, that period ended in 1876. By the late 1890s, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation and disenfranchisement. Segregation, which began with slavery, continued with Jim Crow laws, with signs used to show blacks where they could legally walk, talk, drink, rest, or eat. For those places that were racially mixed, non whites had to wait until all white customers were dealt with. Most African Americans obeyed the Jim Crow laws, in order to avoid racially motivated violence. To maintain self-esteem and dignity, African Americans such as Anthony Overton and Mary McLeod Bethune continued to build their own schools, churches, banks, social clubs, and other businesses.
In the last decade of the 19th century, racially discriminatory laws and racial violence aimed at African Americans began to mushroom in the United States, a period often referred to as the "nadir of American race relations". These discriminatory acts included racial segregation—upheld by the United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896—which was legally mandated by southern states and nationwide at the local level of government, voter suppression or disenfranchisement in the southern states, denial of economic opportunity or resources nationwide, and private acts of violence and mass racial violence aimed at African Americans unhindered or encouraged by government authorities.
Great migration and civil rights movement
A group of white men pose for a 1919 photograph as they stand over the black victim Will Brown who had been lynched
and had his body mutilated and burned during the Omaha race riot of 1919
in Omaha, Nebraska
. Postcards and photographs of lynchings were popular souvenirs in the U.S.
The desperate conditions of African Americans in the South sparked the Great Migration of the early 20th century which led to a growing African-American community in the Northern United States. The rapid influx of blacks disturbed the racial balance within Northern cities, exacerbating hostility between both black and white Northerners. Urban riots—whites attacking blacks—became a northern problem. The Red Summer of 1919 was marked by hundreds of deaths and higher casualties across the U.S. as a result of race riots that occurred in more than three dozen cities, such as the Chicago race riot of 1919 and the Omaha race riot of 1919. Overall, blacks in Northern cities experienced systemic discrimination in a plethora of aspects of life. Within employment, economic opportunities for blacks were routed to the lowest-status and restrictive in potential mobility. Within the housing market, stronger discriminatory measures were used in correlation to the influx, resulting in a mix of "targeted violence, restrictive covenants, redlining and racial steering". While many whites defended their space with violence, intimidation, or legal tactics toward African Americans, many other whites migrated to more racially homogeneous suburban or exurban regions, a process known as white flight.
By the 1950s, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. A 1955 lynching that sparked public outrage about injustice was that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago. Spending the summer with relatives in Money, Mississippi, Till was killed for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman. Till had been badly beaten, one of his eyes was gouged out, and he was shot in the head. The visceral response to his mother's decision to have an open-casket funeral mobilized the black community throughout the U.S. Vann R. Newkirk| wrote "the trial of his killers became a pageant illuminating the tyranny of white supremacy". The state of Mississippi tried two defendants, but they were speedily acquitted by an all-white jury. One hundred days after Emmett Till's murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Alabama—indeed, Parks told Emmett's mother Mamie Till that "the photograph of Emmett’s disfigured face in the casket was set in her mind when she refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus."
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the conditions which brought it into being are credited with putting pressure on Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson put his support behind passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labor unions, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which expanded federal authority over states to ensure black political participation through protection of voter registration and elections. By 1966, the emergence of the Black Power movement, which lasted from 1966 to 1975, expanded upon the aims of the civil rights movement to include economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from white authority.
During the postwar period, many African Americans continued to be economically disadvantaged relative to other Americans. Average black income stood at 54 percent of that of white workers in 1947, and 55 percent in 1962. In 1959, median family income for whites was $5,600, compared with $2,900 for nonwhite families. In 1965, 43 percent of all black families fell into the poverty bracket, earning under $3,000 a year. The Sixties saw improvements in the social and economic conditions of many black Americans.
From 1965 to 1969, black family income rose from 54 to 60 percent of white family income. In 1968, 23 percent of black families earned under $3,000 a year, compared with 41 percent in 1960. In 1965, 19 percent of black Americans had incomes equal to the national median, a proportion that rose to 27 percent by 1967. In 1960, the median level of education for blacks had been 10.8 years, and by the late Sixties the figure rose to 12.2 years, half a year behind the median for whites.
Post–civil rights era
Politically and economically, African Americans have made substantial strides during the post–civil rights era. In 1989, Douglas Wilder became the first African American elected governor in U.S. history. Clarence Thomas became the second African-American Supreme Court Justice. In 1992 Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. There were 8,936 black officeholders in the United States in 2000, showing a net increase of 7,467 since 1970. In 2001 there were 484 black mayors.
In 2005, the number of Africans immigrating to the United States, in a single year, surpassed the peak number who were involuntarily brought to the United States during the Atlantic Slave Trade. On November 4, 2008, Democratic Senator Barack Obama defeated Republican Senator John McCain to become the first African American to be elected President. At least 95 percent of African-American voters voted for Obama. He also received overwhelming support from young and educated whites, a majority of Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans picking up a number of new states in the Democratic electoral column. Obama lost the overall white vote, although he won a larger proportion of white votes than any previous nonincumbent Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter. Obama was reelected for a second and final term, by a similar margin on November 6, 2012.