Black Americans


     Black Americans are those persons in the United States who trace their
ancestry to members of the Negroid race in Africa. They have at various times in

United States history been referred to as African, coloured, Negro,

Afro-American, and African-American, as well as black. The black population of
the United States has grown from three-quarters of a million in 1790 to nearly

30 million in 1990. As a percentage of the total population, blacks declined
from 19.3 in 1790 to 9.7 in 1930. A modest percentage increase has occurred
since that time. Over the past 300 and more years in the United States,
considerable racial mixture has taken place between persons of African descent
and those with other racial backgrounds, mainly of white European or American

Indian ancestry. Shades of skin colour range from dark brown to ivory. In body
type black Americans range from short and stocky to tall and lean. Nose shapes
vary from aquiline to extremely broad and flat; hair colour from medium brown to
brown black; and hair texture from tightly curled to limp and straight.

Historically, the predominant attitude toward racial group membership in the

United States has been that persons having any black African ancestry are
considered to be black. In some parts of the United States, especially in the
antebellum South, laws were written to define racial group membership in this
way, generally to the detriment of those who were not Caucasian. It is important
to note, however, that ancestry and physical characteristics are only part of
what has set black Americans apart as a distinct group. The concept of race, as
it applies to the black minority in the United States, is as much a social and
political concept as a biological one. Blacks Under Slavery: 1600-1865 The first

Africans in the New World arrived with Spanish and Portuguese explorers and
settlers. By 1600 an estimated 275,000 Africans, both free and slave, were in

Central and South America and the Caribbean area. Africans first arrived in the
area that became the United States in 1619, when a handful of captives were sold
by the captain of a Dutch man-of-war to settlers at JAMESTOWN. Others were
brought in increasing numbers to fill the desire for labour in a country where
land was plentiful and labour scarce. By the end of the 17th century,
approximately 1,300,000 Africans had landed in the New World. From 1701 to 1810
the number reached 6,000,000, with another 1,800,000 arriving after 1810. Some

Africans were brought directly to the English colonies in North America. Others
landed as slaves in the West Indies and were later resold and shipped to the
mainland. Slavery in America The earliest African arrivals were viewed in the
same way as indentured servants from Europe. This similarity did not long
continue. By the latter half of the 17th century, clear differences existed in
the treatment of black and white servants. A 1662 Virginia law assumed Africans
would remain servants for life, and a 1667 act declared that "Baptism do
not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom." By

1740 the SLAVERY system in colonial America was fully developed. A Virginia law
in that year declared slaves to be "chattel personal in the hands of their
owners and possessors . . . for all intents, construction, and purpose
whatsoever." In spite of numerous ideological conflicts, however, the
slavery system was maintained in the United States until 1865, and widespread
antiblack attitudes nurtured by slavery continued thereafter. Prior to the

American Revolution, slavery existed in all the colonies. The ideals of the

Revolution and the limited profitability of slavery in the North resulted in its
abandonment in northern states during the last quarter of the 18th century. At
the same time the strength of slavery increased in the South, with the
continuing demand for cheap labour by the tobacco growers and cotton farmers of
the Southern states. By 1850, 92 percent of all American blacks were
concentrated in the South, and of this group approximately 95 percent were
slaves. Under the plantation system gang labour was the typical form of
employment. Overseers were harsh as a matter of general practice, and brutality
was common. Slaves could own no property unless sanctioned by a slave master,
and rape of a female slave was not considered a crime except as it represented
trespassing on another's property. Slaves could not present evidence in court
against whites. In most of the South it was illegal to teach a black to read or
write. Opposition by Blacks Blacks were forbidden to carry arms or to gather in
numbers except in the presence of a white person. Free blacks, whether living in
the North or South, were confronted with attitudes and actions that differed
little from those facing Southern black slaves. Discrimination existed in most
social and economic activities as well as in voting and education. In 1857 the

DRED SCOTT V. SANDFORD case of the U.S. Supreme Court placed the authority of
the Constitution behind decisions made by states in the treatment of blacks. The

Dred Scott decision was that black Americans, even if they were free, were not
intended to be included under the word citizen as defined in the Declaration of

Independence and could claim none of the rights and privileges provided for in
that document. Blacks responded to their treatment under slavery in a variety of
ways. In addition to such persons as Prosser, Vesey, and Turner, who openly
opposed the slave system, thousands of blacks escaped from slavery and moved to
the northern United States or to Canada. Still others accepted the images of
themselves that white America sought to project onto them. The result in some
cases was the "Uncle Tom" or "Sambo" personality, the black
who accepted his or her lowly position as evidence that whites were superior to
blacks. Much religious activity among slaves reflected the influences of African
religious practices and served as a means by which slaves could develop and
promote views of themselves different from those held by the slave owner. The

Civil Rights Movement Many things influenced the changes in U.S. race relations
after World War II. The anti-Nazi propaganda generated during the war increased
the realisation by many Americans of the conflict between ideals and the reality
of racism in their own country. The concentration of large numbers of blacks in
cities of the North and West increased their potential for political influence.

It also projected the problems related to race as national rather than regional.

The establishment of the United Nations headquarters in the United States made

American racial inequality more visible to a world in which the United States
sought to give leadership during the Cold War with the USSR. The growth of a
white minority willing to speak out against racism provided allies for blacks.

Most important in altering race relations in the United States, however, were
the actions of blacks themselves. Legal Action Against Racism The first major
attack by blacks on racism was through the courts. In a series of cases
involving professional and graduate education, the Supreme Court required
admission of blacks to formerly all-white institutions when separate facilities
for blacks were clearly not equal. The major legal breakthrough came in 1954. In
the case of BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, KANSAS, the Supreme Court
held that separate facilities are, by their very nature, unequal. In spite of
this decision, more than a decade passed before significant school integration
took place in the South. In the North, where segregated schools resulted from
segregated housing patterns and from manipulation of school attendance
boundaries, separation of races in public schools increased after 1954. A second
major breakthrough in the fight against segregation grew out of the Montgomery,

Ala., bus boycott in 1955. The boycott began when Rosa Parks, a black woman,
refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. Her arrest resulted in
a series of meetings of blacks in Montgomery and a boycott of buses on which
racial segregation was practiced. The boycott, which lasted for more than a
year, was almost 100 percent effective. Before the courts declared
unconstitutional Montgomery's law requiring segregation on buses, Martin Luther

KING, Jr., a Baptist minister, had risen to national prominence and had
articulated a strategy of non-violent direct action in the movement for CIVIL

RIGHTS. Culture Today Blacks in the United States today are mainly an urban
people. Their shift from the rural South to cities of the North and West during
the 20th century constitutes one of the major migrations of people in U.S.
history. This enormous shift of population has put severe strains on the fabric
and social structure within both the old and new communities of migrating
blacks. If one adds to this the problems of low income, high unemployment, poor
education, and other problems related to racial discrimination, it could be said
that the black community in the 20th century has existed in a perpetual state of
crisis. The black community, however, has developed a number of distinctive
cultural features that black Americans increasingly look upon with pride. Many
of these features reflect the influence of cultural traditions that originated
in Africa; others reflect the uniqueness of the black American in the United

States. The unique features of black American culture are most noticeable in
music, art and literature, and religion. They may also exist in speech, extended
family arrangements, dress, and other features of life-style. Whether African
ancestry or survival in the hostile environment of slavery and Jim Crow was more
important in shaping existing cultural patterns of black American life is a
question that requires further study. Music and the Arts Black American
traditions in music reflect the mingling of African roots with the American
experience. BLUES and can be traced back to the African call-and-response chant,
in which a solo verse line is alternated with a choral response of a short
phrase or word. They also reflect the personal experiences of blacks and the
difficult adjustments demanded in the American environment. Bessie SMITH and W.

C. HANDY stand out as major figures in the development of this form of music.

JAZZ, a direct descendant of blues, developed among blacks in New Orleans and
spread with their migration. By 1920 it was popular throughout the country. The
enduring popularity of Louis ARMSTRONG and Duke ELLINGTON over several decades
attests to its continuing attraction. The influence of jazz on other forms of
popular music in America is clearly recognized. After World War II such popular
performers as Nat King COLE and Lena HORNE gained international acclaim. Later
international audiences were won by Johnny MATHIS, Diana ROSS, and Michael

JACKSON. BLACK AMERICAN LITERATURE and art were slower to develop than was black
music. Early artists and writers who were black dealt with themes that, in
selection and approach, were indistinguishable from the works of whites. By the

1920s centers of artistic activity had developed, the best known being in New

York. The HARLEM RENAISSANCE, as this artistic outpouring was known, produced
outstanding figures. Among them were poets Langston HUGHES, Countee CULLEN, and

James Weldon JOHNSON; writers Claude MCKAY and Jean TOOMER. The work of the

Harlem Renaissance and writers such as Richard WRIGHT reflected the growing race
consciousness among blacks and their opposition to the segregation encountered
in all forms of life. These themes continue to be important in the work of such
writers as James BALDWIN, Amiri BARAKA, Gwendolyn BROOKS, Ralph ELLISON, Douglas

Turner WARD, and John A. WILLIAMS. Religion Religion has traditionally been
important to black American life. The first major denomination among blacks, the

African Methodist Episcopal Church, grew from the church established by Richard

Allen in Philadelphia in 1787. With Emancipation, most former slaves joined

Baptist or Methodist churches. These remain today as the church groups with the
largest black memberships. Smaller numbers belong to other denominations and to
independent churches of varying sizes. Among non-Christian religious groups that
have attracted sizeable followings are the Peace Mission of Father DIVINE and
the Nation of Islam, often referred to as the Black MuslimsThe Peace Mission is
strongly integrationist in teachings, a concept opposed by the Nation of Islam
during most of its history. In recent years the racial character of leadership
and members of the Peace Mission have become increasingly white. In 1985 the
main Black Muslim group was unified with the Muslim community world-wide. Black
ministers who have figured prominently in politics during the post-World War II
period include Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,

Leon Sullivan, and Andrew YOUNG. The Family The black family through much of

U.S. history has borne the strain of slavery and Jim Crow. These institutions
limited the opportunity for the black male to fulfill his traditional role of
head of household and protector of and provider for his family. Because women
were often able to find domestic employment when no jobs were available to black
men, women often provided more dependable and regular incomes. Statistically,
black women are more frequently the head of families than is the case in
nonblack families. In addition to problems of unemployment, urbanisation
produced strains of overcrowding, weakening of the extended family concept, and
alienation. Nevertheless, relations among family members have traditionally been
close. Many first-and second-generation city-dwelling blacks continue to think
of home as the Southern place from which the family came. Education Until the
post-World War II period, most blacks seeking higher education attended private

BLACK COLLEGES located mainly in the South. Most of these had been started in
the years immediately following the Civil War as a joint effort of blacks,

Northern church groups, and the Freedmen's Bureau. Among these were Fisk

University, Atlanta University, Talladega College, Morehouse College, and

Spelman College. Late in the 19th century Tuskegee Institute was founded by

Booker T. Washington, and a number of colleges were established by black church
groups. Almost all blacks who received a college education before 1940 attended
these institutions. In the 1940s some improvement was made in publicly supported
institutions of higher education for blacks, and for the first time black
students began to appear in colleges that had previously been all white. In the

1970s the percentage of blacks attending college increased markedly, but in the

1980s blacks lost ground. Although desegregation of the public schools in the

South proceeded slowly for the first decade after the Brown v. Board of

Education decision, by 1969 school districts in every state were at least in
token compliance with the 1954 ruling. By that time all forms of de jure
segregation had been struck down by the courts. De facto school segregation
continued, however, in large part because the communities the schools served
were segregated in their residential patterns. This was particularly true in
large urban areas and more prevalent in the North than in the South. One method
adopted to overcome such segregation was to bus children across school district
lines in order to achieve racial balance in the schools. This caused major
controversy and led to instances of violent opposition . The overwhelming
majority of black children now attend formally integrated schools, although they
may have little contact with white pupils even within the schools.