The history of African-Americans in North America goes back to the arrival of Africans on the continent. Some African countries like Mali and Benin sold prisoners of war and unwanted people as slaves. Even before the transatlantic slave trade, some Africans were already sold or traded by other African countries. Enslaved Africans had a terrible journey to America, as described by Equiano. The first group of enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 through a Dutch slave ship and were treated as indentured servants at first. Later on, they were sold as chattel slaves to work on cash crop plantations.
Due to poverty and improper nutrition, enslaved people were more susceptible to diseases, and their death rates were much higher. European physicians in the West Indies knew a lot about “negro diseases,” which were common on plantations. Enslaved people were fed fatty pork and corn or rice, which were enough in quantity but not quality. They suffered from vitamin and nutrient insufficiencies, leading to diseases. The clothes given to them were not suitable for field work, and men’s health broke down quickly. Enslavers provided some health care, but they also relied on their self-taught skills and African heritage for medical care. Many enslaved people became subjects of physician’s experimental interests, leading to mutilation and death.
Enslaved people were punished in many ways like whipping, shackling, hanging, beating, burning, mutilation, branding, rape, and imprisonment. Enslavers punished people if they disobeyed them or if they thought they did something wrong. Sometimes, they did it just to show that they were in control. Even if someone was pregnant, they could still be punished. Enslavers found ways to hurt people with lashes without hurting the baby, like making a hole for the stomach to lie in during the punishment.
During the colonial era, branding was common to identify enslaved people, but by the 19th century, it was mainly used as punishment. Mutilation was another punishment; castration, removing a tooth or teeth, and ear amputation were common, as they helped identify runaway slaves. Punishments were inflicted for various reasons, such as working too slowly, breaking a law, leaving the plantation without permission, insubordination, or just to assert the owner’s dominance. Punishments were carried out publicly to set an example, and failure to show politeness and submission was also considered insolence and punishable.
Historian Kenneth M. Stampp identified recurring themes in the efforts of enslavers to produce the “ideal slave” by studying various historical sources. These themes included maintaining strict discipline and unconditional submission, creating a sense of personal inferiority to ensure that slaves “know their place,” instilling fear, teaching servants to take an interest in their master’s enterprise, and preventing access to education and recreation to keep slaves uneducated, helpless, and dependent.
The Early United States
The American Revolution brought about significant changes for African Americans. While the Constitutional Convention of 1787 sought to uphold the ideals of freedom and equality for white men, it continued to allow for ongoing enslavement through the fugitive slave clause and the three-fifths compromise. Then in the aftermath of the war, the colonists demanded the return of all property, including enslaved people. The British helped up to 3,000 documented African Americans to leave the country for Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Britain instead of returning them to enslavement.
The Northern states gradually moved towards the abolition of enslavement, freedom was not equal or equitable treatment. The Northern states, inspired by revolutionary sentiments, began passing emancipation acts between 1780 and 1804. Congress also barred enslavement from the large Northwest Territory in 1787. Despite the challenges of living in the new country, free Black people fared better than the enslaved Black population, which numbered nearly 800,000.
Although free Black people faced restricted rights, including the right to vote and access to public schools, more Southerners freed people they had enslaved in the two decades following the Revolution. The number of free Black people rose from around 1% before the Revolution to over 10% by 1810 in the Upper South. Among the successful free men was Benjamin Banneker, who assisted in the initial survey of the boundaries of the future District of Columbia in 1791.
The early years of the United States were marked by enslaved people’s attempts to gain freedom and anti-black riots driven by economic fear and resistance to the abolitionist movement. The 1811 German Coast Uprising was the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, leading to the death of 95 slaves. The Southampton Insurrection led by Nat Turner in August 1831 was the deadliest slave revolt in US history, leading to the execution of 56 enslaved people accused of participating in the rebellion.
Hard Scrabble, a mostly black neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, was attacked by a white mob in 1824, leading to the destruction of around 20 black homes. The Cincinnati race riots of 1829 and the subsequent 1831 Snow Town riot were both triggered by competition for jobs and resulted in the destruction of black homes. The New York City anti-abolitionist riot of 1834 was caused by the combination of nativism and abolitionism among Protestants who controlled the city and fear and resentment of blacks among the growing underclass of Irish immigrants.
In 1831, Prudence Crandall’s creation of the Canterbury Female Boarding School for African-American girls led to her arrest and national publicity, influencing the outcome of two major Supreme Court decisions. Elijah Parish Lovejoy became a martyr to the abolitionist cause and to a free press after being fatally shot during an attack by a pro-slavery mob while seeking to destroy his printing press and abolitionist materials in Alton, Illinois in 1837.
The period between 1840 and 1860 saw the growth of anti-enslavement campaigns by abolitionists in Britain and the United States. Black abolitionist speakers played a crucial role in the movement, using moral, economic, and political arguments to push for the end of enslavement. The Haitian revolution, which began in 1791 and lasted until 1801, significantly influenced enslaved people and abolitionists in the United States. Nile’s Weekly Register, in its 1833 edition, pointed out that freed Black people in Haiti enjoyed better living conditions than their Jamaican counterparts.
Violence and rioting against both the free black population and the abolitionist movement continued. The Cincinnati riots of 1841 were caused by widespread unemployment, leading to several days of attacks on black residents and their property by unemployed white men in a crowded, economically diverse city controlled by businessmen hostile to abolitionists and blacks.
In 1842, the Muncy Abolition riot occurred when an abolitionist speaker spoke against slavery at a schoolhouse in Muncy, Pennsylvania, resulting in the arrest of eighteen men and the conviction of thirteen men, who were ultimately pardoned by Pennsylvania Governor David R. Porter. The same year, the Lombard Street riot broke out in Philadelphia and lasted three days, driven by social and economic competition, particularly between Irish Catholics and blacks, who were generally at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It was the last in a 13-year period marked by frequent racial attacks in the city.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, significantly impacted how many white people viewed enslavement. The violent assault of Massachusetts congressman and abolitionist leader Charles Sumner by a South Carolina representative on the House floor in 1856 made him a political icon in the North. The Black community was shocked by the Supreme Court’s “Dred Scott” decision in March 1857.
In the mid-1800s, over a million enslaved people were moved from the older seaboard states to the southwest cotton states as enslavers in the old south sold enslaved people for use as field labor. These forced migrations led to the establishment of oppositional ideologies and institutions by enslaved and free Black people. Free Black people created Black churches in the South before 1800 and established schools for Black children since they were often banned from public schools.
The Civil War (1861–1865)
The American Civil War, fought between the Union and Confederacy from 1861 to 1865, was sparked by political controversy over slavery and was won by the Union, leading to the abolition of slavery and the freedom of four million enslaved Black people. The war, with its intensive combat and use of industrial warfare, resulted in between 620,000 and 750,000 soldiers dead, as well as many civilian casualties, and left much of the South’s infrastructure destroyed. It also paved the way for the Reconstruction era to rebuild the country and grant civil rights to formerly enslaved people.
The causes of the American Civil War were complex, but most scholars identify slavery as the central cause, as it was the source of escalating political tension in the 1850s. The Republican Party was determined to prevent the spread of slavery to the territories, which would give the North greater representation in Congress and the Electoral College, while many Southern leaders threatened secession if the Republican candidate, Lincoln, won the 1860 election. After Lincoln’s victory, many Southern leaders felt that disunion was their only option, fearing the loss of representation would hamper their ability to enact pro-slavery laws and policies. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln stated that “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest,” and that the war was being fought to either strengthen, perpetuate, and extend slavery or to restrict its territorial enlargement.
The Civil War era was marked by two violent riots that impacted Black people in the United States. These took place in Detroit, Michigan and in New York City. Both began as protests against the war draft and inequalities. The Detroit race riot of 1863 occurred in Detroit, Michigan. Here racism and anti-draft sentiment was heightened after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln. The riot resulted in two civilians being killed and numerous others, mostly African Americans, being badly beaten and injured. There were 35 buildings destroyed by fire, with many others damaged, leading to the establishment of a full-time police force dominated by whites into the late 20th century. The New York City draft riots of 1863 began as a Civil war draft protest. Working-class Irish men resented that the wealthy could pay a commutation fee to hire a substitute. However, it quickly turned into a race riot, with white rioters attacking black people throughout the city. An official death toll listed at either 119 or 120 individuals, and many public buildings, churches, abolitionists’ homes, and black homes destroyed. These included the Colored Orphan Asylum at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, which was burned to the ground. By 1865, the black population in New York had fallen below 11,000 for the first time since 1820.
The Emancipation Proclamation was a significant executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. By June 1865, the Union Army had taken control of all Confederate territories and freed all enslaved people in the Confederate states. However, enslaved people in Union states and territories were not fried until after the war ended.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 followed the Confederacy’s surrender. It granted Black people a full U.S. citizenship and repealed the infamous Dred Scott decision. Black men, though not women, gained the right to vote and were elected to Congress and local offices, with Hiram Revels becoming the first African-American senator in 1870.
Black people also established their own churches, towns, businesses, and migrated to Mississippi for land ownership. However, they faced numerous rules and regulations that restricted their freedom, while the government retreated from its pledge to protect them.
Following the Union’s victory over the Confederacy and the readmission of seceded states, the Reconstruction era began, with some progress made towards equal rights for African Americans between 1865 and 1877, protected by Union troops.
This act marked the start of the Reconstruction era, where the federal government attempted to rebuild and reform the South. Reconstruction also saw the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished enslavement, granted citizenship and equal protection under the law, and prohibited denying the right to vote based on race or previous enslavement. Despite these significant steps towards equality, the Reconstruction era faced significant backlash from white supremacists, and the gains made by Black people during this time were ultimately short-lived. During reconstruction, tens of thousands of Black northerners migrated to the South, building schools, printing newspapers, and opening businesses.
The loss of political power followed the withdrawal of Union troops from the South in 1877, with Black people moving to Kansas during the Exodusters movement between 1879 and 1880, where they found more freedom and opportunities to acquire land. Despite the challenges, the Reconstruction era was a significant step towards equality for African Americans in the United States. It was a time of change and progress, where Black people started to enjoy some of the same rights as white citizens, but it was also a time of opposition and backlash that would eventually lead to the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination.
This period was also marked by ongoing violence as white supremacists pushed back against justice.
The Ku Klux Klan, a secret white supremacist criminal organization, terrorized Black leaders through violence and property damage, leading to government legislation against the group in the 1870s. However, violence continued, with massacres in Louisiana in the 1870s leading to a much higher rate of African American deaths than European Americans. Paramilitary organizations that emerged in the mid-1870s proved more effective than the Klan in suppressing the Black vote and achieving political goals.
Between 1866 and 1868, several violent incidents occurred in the southern United States during the Reconstruction period. The Memphis massacre of 1866 was a result of political and social racism in Memphis, Tennessee. It lasted from May 1 to 3, 1866, after a shooting altercation between white policemen and black veterans led to mobs of white residents and policemen rampaging through black neighborhoods, attacking and killing black soldiers and civilians.
On July 30, 1866, the New Orleans Massacre resulted in the deaths of at least 38 people and many more wounded. The massacre was caused by political and social tensions between white Democrats and Black Republicans in Louisiana. It led to a full-scale massacre of mostly Black Freedmen who were demonstrating outside the Mechanics Institute.
The Camilla massacre occurred on September 19, 1868, in Camilla, Georgia. Following the passage of Georgia’s 1868 state constitution granting African Americans the right to vote, violence by whites, including the Ku Klux Klan, against freedmen was reported. The Georgia agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau recorded 336 cases of murder or assault with intent to kill between January and November of that year.
On September 28, 1868, the Opelousas massacre resulted in the deaths of an estimated 150-300 Black people and several dozen whites. It happened during the Reconstruction era in the United States when tensions escalated between white Democrats and Black Republicans in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, after the ratification of Louisiana’s Constitution of 1868 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Days before the Presidential election, the St. Bernard Parish massacre occurred, which was one of the deadliest massacres in Louisiana history. Armed white Democrats mobilized to violently silence recently emancipated black voters who gained the right to vote, fearing a loss of their majority. It resulted in the murder of many freedmen and others fleeing to hide from the perpetrators.
Lastly, the Pulaski riot of January 7, 1868, was a race riot in Pulaski, Tennessee. It started with a trade dispute between a white man and an African American, escalating when the white man shot an African American’s friend, resulting in the murder of one man, the mortal wounding of another, and the injury of four others. There were no white injuries or prosecutions. It was investigated by the Freedmen’s Bureau office of Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1870, the Kirk-Holden war was waged in North Carolina to combat the Ku Klux Klan’s violent attacks on freed slaves and Republican Party members trying to vote. Colonel George Washington Kirk led two troops to restore order and arrest Klansmen. The Eutaw riot occurred on October 25, 1870, in Eutaw, Alabama. It was part of the Reconstruction Era in the United States, and white Democrats used terrorism to suppress black Republican voting. The Republican rally of 2,000 black citizens was attacked by white Klan members, killing as many as four and wounding 54.
The Meridian race riot of 1871 was a major event in Mississippi violence. Whites killed as many as 30 blacks. This was part of the post-war violence by whites to restore white supremacy and drive Reconstruction Republicans from office, leading to a Democratic Party victory in state elections, and eventually to the withdrawal of federal government’s military forces from the South in 1877.
The Pattenburg Massacre of 1872 occurred when black laborers were attacked by Irish laborers, resulting in the deaths of three black men and the arrest of three other black men. In the Colfax massacre on April 13, 1873, an estimated 62-153 black militia men who surrendered to a mob of former Confederate soldiers and Ku Klux Klan members were murdered, along with three white men.
On December 7, 1874, a massacre in Vicksburg, Mississippi resulted in the death toll ranging from 75 to 300 black citizens. The Coushatta massacre in Louisiana occurred in 1874 when the White League attacked Republican officeholders and freedmen, resulting in the assassination of six white Republicans and five to 20 freedmen. The Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans on September 14, 1874, was an attempted coup by the Crescent City White League against the Reconstruction Era Louisiana Republican state government.
During the 1875 election campaign in Clinton, Mississippi, white insurgents disrupted a Republican political rally, resulting in the deaths of several white men and an estimated 50 blacks over the next few days. In September 1876, a series of disturbances occurred near Silverton in Aiken County, South Carolina, where at least 25-30 black men and potentially up to 100 were killed. The Hamburg Massacre occurred in July 1876 in Hamburg, South Carolina, as part of a series of planned civil disturbances by white Democrats to suppress black Americans’ civil and voting rights during the last election season of the Reconstruction Era.
The South Carolina civil disturbances of 1876 were a series of race riots and civil unrest caused by the Democratic Party’s political campaign to suppress black voting and disrupt Republican political activity. The Red Shirts division was used to take back control of the state legislature and governor’s office.
The 1889 Forrest City riot occurred due to political developments that upset many white Democrats in St. Francis County, Arkansas, where an alliance between the Union Labor Party and Republican Party saw many African Americans elected on the fusion ticket, leading to a fight breaking out during elections, resulting in several deaths and ultimately leading to white Democrats regaining control and effectively disenfranchising African Americans.
The Thibodaux massacre was a violent episode of racial violence that took place on November 23, 1887, when local white paramilitary forces attacked black workers and their families in response to tensions that had arisen during a three-week strike by an estimated 10,000 workers protesting against the living and working conditions on sugar cane plantations in four parishes in Louisiana. At least 35 black people were killed over three days and it ended the organizing of sugar workers for decades until the 1940s.
In 1887, tensions rose in four parishes in Louisiana due to a three-week strike by an estimated 10,000 workers who were protesting the poor living and working conditions on sugar cane plantations. The strike culminated in the Thibodaux massacre, a violent episode of racial violence that took place on November 23, 1887.
Local white paramilitary forces attacked black workers and their families in response to the strike. At least 35 black people were killed over three days. The violence effectively ended the organizing of sugar workers for decades until the 1940s.
The Forrest City riot of 1889 occurred in St. Francis County, Arkansas. It was caused by political developments that upset many white Democrats. An alliance between the Union Labor Party and Republican Party saw many African Americans elected on the fusion ticket. During elections, a fight broke out resulting in several deaths. White Democrats ultimately regained control and effectively disenfranchised African Americans.
Jim Crow Era (1890 – 1940)
From the 1890s to 1908, Southern states implemented new measures that aimed to prevent most Black people and many poor whites from voting, including poll taxes, residency requirements, and literacy tests. These measures, combined with a system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow laws, resulted in the widespread disfranchisement of African Americans in the South.
The Jim Crow era, which lasted from 1890 to 1940, saw millions of African Americans disenfranchised, killed, and brutalized. During this period, approximately 5,000 documented extrajudicial mob violence lynchings occurred, with potentially up to 20,000 similar executions.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, racial violence continued to plague the United States. Joe Coe, an African-American laborer, was lynched in Omaha, Nebraska in 1891 after being accused of assaulting a white child. A mob of several hundred to 1,000 men formed and overwhelmed the police at the courthouse. They beat Coe and dragged him through the city streets before hanging him from a streetcar wire. The mayor called the lynching “the most deplorable thing that has ever happened in the history of the country.”
In 1894, coal miners in the United States went on strike, demanding a return to the wages of May 1, 1893. Despite initially successful strikes with over 180,000 miners striking in five states, the mine owners refused to comply, and the strike ultimately failed due to the deepening depression. The United Mine Workers was shattered, and the union almost ceased to exist.
Racially unified unions in New Orleans ended in 1895 when white union dockworkers attacked non-union black dockworkers, killing six people in response to the economic pressure caused by the Panic of 1893. The incident marked the result of a “race to the bottom” bidding war between white and black workers.
The Spring Valley race riot of 1895 was a violent conflict between European immigrants and African American coal workers in Illinois, sparked by the robbery and shooting of an Italian miner who claimed that his assailants were black men. White immigrant workers violently rioted against the black miners and their families, causing them to flee to Princeton.
Frazier B. Baker, an African-American postmaster of Lake City, South Carolina, appointed in 1897, and his infant daughter were killed by a white mob on February 22, 1898, and his house was set on fire. The attack was the result of local whites objecting to his appointment and their campaign to remove him.
The Phoenix election riot occurred in 1898 in South Carolina when white Democrats attempted to stop a Republican election official from taking affidavits of disenfranchised African Americans to challenge the constitutional provisions that had formalized disfranchisement. A group of local Democrats led by J. I. “Bose” Ethridge approached the store where the official was collecting affidavits and beat and terrorized him.
The Wilmington insurrection of 1898 was a violent overthrow of the elected government in Wilmington, North Carolina, carried out by white supremacists. It resulted in the expulsion of black and white political leaders from the city, the destruction of black citizens’ property and businesses, and the deaths of an estimated 60 to over 300 people. The coup marked a turning point in post-Reconstruction North Carolina politics, contributing to more severe racial segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South.
In July 1900, Robert Charles, an African American laborer, shot a white police officer and fled arrest in New Orleans. A manhunt was launched, and a white mob started rioting, attacking blacks across the city. The manhunt ended when Charles was killed and his body was brutally beaten. The white rioting continued, and a total of 28 people were killed, mostly black, and over 50 were wounded, with many hospitalized.
The Tenderloin was a red-light district in Manhattan, home to a large part of the city’s African American population. In 1900, a police officer was killed during an arrest of a Black woman, and white gangs and police attacked and burned the property of African Americans in the area. Black citizens formed the Citizens’ Protective League, but their appeals for justice were ignored.
In the early 1900s, racial violence and discrimination continued to plague America, with incidents such as the Evansville Race Riot, Brownsville affair, Atlanta massacre, Springfield race riot, Fight of the Century, Slocum Massacre, and Forsyth County attacks.
The Evansville Race Riot was sparked by the killing of a white policeman by a black man, leading to a mob trying to storm the jail to lynch the shooter and other black inmates. The mob then attacked black neighborhoods, resulting in 12 deaths and over 40 others seriously wounded. Similarly, in the Brownsville affair, white residents accused black soldiers of a murder they did not commit, leading to their dismissal from the army.
In September 1906, reports of the alleged rape of four white women by black men in Atlanta led to violent reprisals by armed white mobs against African Americans. At least 25 African Americans and two whites died, with the violence only ending after the Georgia National Guard was called in.
The Springfield race riot of 1908 began after two black men were arrested as suspects in the rape, attempted rape, and murder of two white women and the father of one of them. When the mob failed to find the men, they attacked black neighborhoods, murdering black citizens on the streets and destroying black businesses and homes. At least sixteen people died, with personal and property damages amounting to over $150,000.
The Fight of the Century, between Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries in 1910, resulted in race riots breaking out across the country after Johnson beat Jeffries. The Slocum Massacre of 1910 resulted in the deaths of at least six African Americans, with some sources estimating closer to one hundred, due to rumors of a black-led race war. In Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912, two alleged attacks on white women resulted in black men being accused and terrorized by Night Riders, causing an estimated 98% of black residents to leave the county.
African Americans faced significant legal and social discrimination, with limited access to education, housing, and job opportunities. This period of oppression was fueled by white supremacy and fear of Black economic and political power, resulting in systemic racism that continues to impact Black Americans today.
These events served as catalysts for the formation of organizations such as the NAACP, which worked towards civil rights for African Americans in the United States.
Early Community Organization
Despite these challenges, African Americans persevered and continued to fight for their rights and freedom through civil rights organizations, protest movements, and individual acts of courage and defiance. The legacy of the Jim Crow era remains a dark stain on American history. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s played a pivotal role in ending the Jim Crow era and laying the foundation for equal rights for all Americans. The struggle for racial equality and social justice continues to this day, as many Black Americans continue to face discrimination and inequality.
At the turn of the 20th century, African Americans adopted a self-help strategy at the local level, establishing schools, churches, social welfare institutions, banks, African-American newspapers, and small businesses to serve the needs of their communities. Booker T. Washington, the main organizer of national and local self-help organizations, believed that Blacks should gain economic stability before pushing for political and social rights. Washington urged African Americans to focus on vocational education and to avoid confrontations with white people to improve race relations. On the other hand, W.E.B. Du Bois, a prominent intellectual and civil rights activist, believed that African Americans should actively resist oppression and fight for immediate political and social rights. Despite their differing views, both Washington and Du Bois contributed significantly to the upliftment of African Americans.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in 1909 by W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, and Mary White Ovington after the Springfield, Illinois race riot of 1908. It is recognized as the United States’ oldest civil rights organization. The NAACP fought against lynching, segregation, and discrimination through legal action, lobbying, and protests. Its most significant legal victory was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, which ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The organization continues to fight against systemic racism and police brutality to this day.
The early 20th century also saw the rise of Black nationalist and separatist movements. In 1914, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, which aimed to unify and uplift Black people worldwide through Pan-Africanism and Black nationalism. Garvey believed that African Americans should create their own independent nation in Africa and that they should focus on building economic power to achieve their goals. In 1930, Elijah Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam, which emphasized the separation of Black and white people and the importance of Black self-reliance. The Nation of Islam gained significant popularity during the 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of Malcolm X, who advocated for Black pride and self-defense. The new generation of African-American political leaders and organizations that emerged in the 1920s, typified by Congressman William Dawson, worked to improve conditions for Black people and to push for greater civil rights and equality.
World War I
Tensions had been brewing in Europe for decades, and in 1914, the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary set off a chain of events that led to a full-scale war involving most of Europe. The Central Powers (led by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) fought the Allies (led by France, Great Britain, and Russia), with the conflict eventually spreading to the Middle East and other parts of the world.
At the outset of the war, the United States remained neutral, with President Woodrow Wilson committed to keeping the U.S. out of the fighting. Most Americans agreed with this stance, although many supported the Allies through relief efforts, volunteering as ambulance drivers or nurses, or even as pilots and soldiers.
By 1917, however, a series of events changed American attitudes. Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships in the war zone, and an intercepted German telegram revealed a plan to offer Mexico territory it had lost to the U.S. in exchange for its support. These events led the U.S. to enter the war on the side of the Allies in April 1917.
During World War I, over 350,000 African Americans served with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, despite the military remaining segregated. Most African American units were confined to support roles and did not participate in combat, but four regiments were integrated into French units. The 369th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” served on the front lines for six months, longer than any other American unit in the war, and earned the Legion of Merit for 171 of its members. Additionally, the 371st and 372nd African American regiments were integrated under the 157th Red Hand Division and fought with distinction in the decisive final offensive in the Champagne region of France. Corporal Freddie Stowers, a member of the 371st Infantry Regiment, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in France.
Many African Americans took the trains to Northern industrial centers in the Great Migration, seeking better economic opportunities and fleeing the oppressive Jim Crow laws of the South. The Black population in Pittsburgh rose dramatically from 6,000 in 1880 to 27,000 in 1910, with many securing highly paid skilled jobs in the steel mills. Pittsburgh’s Black population continued to increase, reaching 37,700 in 1920 and comprising 6.4% of the city’s total population, while the Black populations in nearby Homestead, Rankin, and Braddock also nearly doubled. Despite the challenges they faced in the North, such as housing discrimination and inadequate public services, African Americans in the new communities they established were able to build effective responses that enabled their survival.
After World War I ended and soldiers returned home, tensions were high due to serious labor union strikes and inter-racial riots in major cities. The summer of 1919, known as the Red Summer, saw outbreaks of racial violence that killed about 1,000 people across the nation, most of whom were Black. Despite the violence and tension, the newly established Black communities in the North persevered and endured. The Great Migration was a significant event that shaped the course of African American history, with millions of people migrating to the North and West, and laying the foundation for future civil rights movements.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression was a difficult time for Black Americans as they suffered from high unemployment rates and limited economic opportunities, which led to poor living conditions. The New Deal aimed to incorporate Black people into all relief programs, including the CCC, FERA, and WPA. The PWA set quotas for private firms to hire skilled and unskilled Black people in construction projects. Black leaders seized the opportunity to work within the new federal agencies as social workers and administrators. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the first federal Black judge and created an unofficial “black cabinet” led by Mary McLeod Bethune to advise him.
Despite these efforts, the Civil Works Administration faced criticism from the South for paying the same wages to Black workers as white workers. African-Americans overwhelmingly voted for Roosevelt in the 1936 election, marking the first time that a Democratic candidate for president had won the Black vote. Militants demanded a federal anti-lynching bill, but President Roosevelt knew it would never pass Congress and could potentially split his New Deal coalition. However, Roosevelt supported the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a national minimum wage of 40 cents per hour, a forty-hour workweek, and banned child labor. A. Philip Randolph called for the desegregation of the military, which led to the formation of the March on Washington Movement. Roosevelt asked for the march to be canceled in exchange for Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in factories making weapons for the military.
World War II
During World War II, Black Americans played a significant role in the U.S. military, despite facing discrimination and segregation. The Pittsburgh Courier newspaper launched the “Double Victory” campaign in 1942, encouraging Black people to fight for victory over racism and the Axis powers. Over 1.9 million African Americans served in the war, mostly in segregated units. The draft revealed the poor living conditions among Black Americans, leading to higher rates of rejection due to health and literacy issues. The Army’s 231 training camps, mostly located in the South, often led to outbreaks of racial violence between white and Black trainees.
The segregated 92nd Division was marked by tense relations between white officers and Black soldiers, while the 93rd Division was assigned to “mopping up” duties. Black sailors in the Navy were often assigned to menial work, and the Port Chicago disaster raised safety concerns and demands for integration. Despite this discrimination, segregated units such as the Tuskegee Airmen and U.S. 761st Tank Battalion proved their value in combat. The end of the war marked the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ordered the end of discrimination in the Armed Forces in 1948, leading to the integration of the Air Force and other services by the early 1950s.
The Second Great Migration
The Second Great Migration occurred during World War II, as defense employers from Northern and Western cities went to the South to convince both Blacks and Whites to leave the region for better wages and opportunities. The migration led to significant changes in the demographic makeup of several cities in the North and West, including Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Harlem. While the migrants enjoyed better living conditions than in the South, they still faced widespread discrimination due to bigotry and fear of competition for housing and jobs among white residents. Racial tensions were high in these cities, leading to several race riots in 1943.
In the post-Civil War South, the largest group of Black people worked in the cotton farms as sharecroppers or tenant farmers, and a few owned their farms. However, the agricultural economy plummeted in the early 1930s, and farmers of all kinds were badly affected, with sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and daily laborers mostly hit. The New Deal offered a solution by raising farm product prices through cutting production. To achieve this, the AAA was created, giving landowners acreage reduction contracts, which were used in the South to cut production. By law, landowners were required to pay a portion of the money to their tenant farmers and sharecroppers, but some cheated on this provision. The farm wage workers who worked directly for the landowner were the ones who mostly lost their jobs, while the AAA was a significant help for most tenants and sharecroppers, and it increased their standard of living. As a result, the high levels of turnover from year to year declined sharply, and tenants and coppers tended to stay with the same landowner. However, with the arrival of mechanization in cotton after 1945, the tenants and sharecroppers lost their jobs, forcing them to move to towns and cities.
The Second Great Migration, lasting from 1941 to 1970, saw over 5 million African Americans migrate from the South to other regions of the United States. These migrants primarily moved to urban areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, where many skilled jobs in the defense industry were available. Unlike the migrants of the first Great Migration, many African Americans during the Second Great Migration were already living in urban areas in the South and had urban job skills before they relocated. This made their transition to urban life in the North and West smoother and more successful.
In response to discrimination against Black employees, President Roosevelt strengthened the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) to fine corporations that did not treat Black employees equally, gave the committee a budget of half-million dollars, and replaced unpaid volunteers with paid staff to inspect defense industry factories for compliance. Black people left the Republican Party and joined the Democratic New Deal Coalition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the war years, resolved on a Double V campaign: Victory over German and Japanese fascism abroad and victory over discrimination at home. Black women also fought for the Double V campaign against the Axis abroad and against restrictive hiring practices at home, seeking equal employment opportunities, government entitlements, and better working conditions as appropriate for full citizens. The Second Great Migration not only changed the demographic makeup of several cities in the North and West but also helped spark the Civil Rights Movement and inspired African Americans to fight for their rights and achieve greater equality.
However, despite the availability of jobs in the defense industry, Black migrants still faced significant barriers in finding housing and accessing education and other services. The effect of spatial segregation in destination cities was the formation of racially homogeneous communities composed largely of Black immigrants, which were influenced by the Southern culture the migrants brought with them. The formation of these communities and the segregation that followed led to the continuation of the racial discrimination that the migrants had hoped to escape. By the end of the Second Great Migration, over 80% of African Americans lived in cities, with 53% remaining in the Southern United States, 40% living in the Northeast and North Central states, and 7% in the West.
The Civil Rights Era
The story of the Civil Rights Movement is one of concerted activism and slow progress, marked by both inspiring victories and tragic losses. The movement was born out of the struggle for equal access to public facilities, particularly schools, culminating in the landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. However, reforms happened slowly, and only after years of sustained activism by African Americans and their allies. Civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized across the South, using tactics such as boycotts, voter registration campaigns, and nonviolent direct action to mobilize around issues of equal access and voting rights. These efforts were met with fierce resistance by segregationists who sought to block any reforms.
In Virginia, state legislators and school board members mounted a campaign of obstructionism and outright defiance to integration, which they called “Massive Resistance.” As a last-ditch effort to avoid court-ordered desegregation, officials in one county shut down the entire public school system in 1959, and it remained closed for five years. White students were able to attend private schools established by the community for the sole purpose of circumventing integration. Despite these challenges, the civil rights movement continued to gain momentum, culminating in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought more than 250,000 people to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The movement continued to evolve, with the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 bringing thousands of idealistic youth, black and white, to the state to run “freedom schools” and voter registration drives. The season was marked by harassment, intimidation, and violence directed at civil rights workers and their host families. In 1965, the Selma Voting Rights Movement, its Selma to Montgomery marches, and the tragic murders of two activists associated with the march inspired President Lyndon B. Johnson to call for the full Voting Rights Act of 1965, which struck down barriers to black enfranchisement. As the movement progressed, more militant Black leaders, such as Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party, called for black people to defend themselves, using violence if necessary. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the Black Power movement urged African Americans to look to Africa for inspiration and emphasized Black solidarity, rather than integration.
Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs in 1984 and 1988 marked a turning point in Black politics. Jackson’s campaigns brought unprecedented support and leverage to African Americans in politics, inspiring a generation of Black voters to participate in the political process. His Rainbow Coalition strategy, which aimed to unite working-class Americans of all races, helped to establish a strong political platform for African Americans and other marginalized groups. Though Jackson was ultimately unsuccessful in his bids for the presidency, his impact on American politics was significant.
In 1989, Douglas Wilder made history by becoming the first African-American elected governor in the United States. His election was a major milestone for African Americans and served as a catalyst for increased political participation. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois made history in 1992 when she became the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Her election helped to break down barriers for women and people of color in politics.
The 21st century has seen a continuation of the progress made by African Americans in politics. In 2008, Barack Obama made history by becoming the first African American elected president of the United States. His election marked a significant political breakthrough for African Americans and inspired a new generation of Black leaders. Kamala Harris continued this progress in 2020 when she was announced as the first African-American woman to run for vice-president on a major party presidential ticket. Despite the significant gains made by African Americans in politics, the community continues to face challenges, including extremely high incarceration rates due to government neglect, unfavorable social policies, high poverty rates, changes implemented in the criminal justice system, and laws.