african americans



Virtually no African-Americans in the United States were able to enjoy the freedoms supposedly guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. Nevertheless, African-Americans in different parts of the country experienced different living conditions. Clearly, those living in slavery had the fewest freedoms. However, many African-Americans across the country were not slaves, even though their rights were often restricted by law. Despite the challenges they faced, a number of Black Americans made important contributions to their communities and to the nation.


The issue of slavery was like an ominous shadow on the stage of American independence. Foreigners and Americans alike pointed out the hypocrisy of slavery in a nation that claimed to abide by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." People living in slavery were considered the legal property of their owners. Thus, they had no rights and could not be considered equal to their owners, by any stretch of the imagination.

In order to compensate for the rights and privileges denied them, African-Americans living in slavery created their own cultural rituals and practices. Since marriages of people living in slavery were not considered legal unions, the slaves made such relationships "official" through ceremonies, such as the "jumping over the broom" of the newlyweds. This practice seems to be borrowed from a traditional ceremony practiced in some areas of West Africa. While African-Americans could not have their dead buried in white cemeteries or through services in white churches, they developed their own burial ceremony. The custom was to bury the dead at night, to the accompaniment of hymns and illumination of torches. On the way back from the burial, the mourners would sing more cheerful music, in celebration of life. African-Americans also developed a way to communicate by singing songs, which we now call spirituals. The words of the songs expressed the difficulties of living in slavery, and often contained coded messages that could only be understood by other African-Americans.

Slavery and Politics

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were very conscious of the bitter irony of slavery in the "land of the free." Nevertheless, the economic interests of slaveowners and others who supported slavery would not accept the abolition of slavery. At the same time, pro-slave Southerners wanted the slaves to be counted as people, in order to increase representation in the US House of Representatives. Non-slave states also wanted slaves to be counted as people, so that slave states would have to pay taxes accordingly. A compromise was reached, in which each slave counted as three-fifths of a person. In addition, delegates agreed to forbid Congress to restrict or end the slave trade for at least 20 years. The delegates seemed to be aware of the moral ambiguity of the Constitution's original stance on slavery, since they chose not to use the word "slavery" anywhere in the text of the document.

As permitted by the Constitution, Congress banned the African slave trade in 1808. Since the ban was poorly enforced, however, the slave trade continued for several decades. Slavery was been clearly established as an issue of political power and regional dispute, rather than an issue of human rights. This was most clearly evident in the Crisis of 1820, in which Missouri's statehood was being debated. Missouri wished to be admitted to the Union as a slave state, but such admittance would have caused an imbalance in Congress between slave and free states.

Thus, the Missouri Compromise was reached/ It stated that slavery was prohibited north and west of the 36-30 parallel line within the Louisiana Territory. As a result, Missouri joined the Union as a slave state, and Maine joined the Union as a free state. Most legislation related to slavery was within the jurisdiction of the individual states. Thus, many states in the North gradually began to outlaw slavery. The Ordinance of 1787, also called the Northwest Ordinance, had already declared that slavery would be banned in the Northwest Territory. Nevertheless, some Southern states, especially in the Deep South, passed laws to support and reinforce slavery. Congress, for its part, passed the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, which declared it a crime to harbor an escaped slave or interfere with his or her arrest.

Attempts at Abolition

Benjamin Franklin stated that, "a disposition to abolish slavery prevails in North America." In 1775, he helped found the American Abolition Society. Nevertheless, the invention of the cotton gin, the social acceptance of slavery, and the shortage of non-slave labor combined to expand the "peculiar institution" through much of the South. Eli Whitney's invention made cotton farming newly profitable, since one person could produce a hundred times more cotton with the machine than without it. The cotton gin was easy to copy, so it spread across the agricultural south, especially when combined with the use of slave labor. Those more interested in becoming rich than respecting other human beings' right to freedom were eager to acquire more slaves to pick cotton and "gin" it. Others, who might have been inclined to hire workers to work the cotton fields, found that the shortage of willing wage labor and the social acceptance of oppression for money made it difficult to overcome their moral inertia and take action against slavery.

Because slavery was much less important to the Northern economy than to the Southern economy, moral arguments against slavery resulted in more action in the North than the South. Vermont was the first state to forbid slavery, in its 1777 constitution. Through the 1780s, court cases brought by slaves and sympathizers in Massachusetts, called "freedom cases," wore down the institution of slavery, until it was gradually abolished by the courts. In New Hampshire, slavery gradually disappeared as the eighteenth century came to a close and the nineteenth century began. By 1800, the New Hampshire census showed only eight slaves and, by 1810, there were none. Gradual abolition statutes were passed in the state legislatures of Pennsylvania (1780), Rhode Island (1784), Connecticut (1784), New York (1799), and New Jersey (1804). The process of abolition was slow, however, and people were still living in slavery in New Jersey as late as 1840. Nevertheless, slavery gradually disappeared in the North.

Some Southerners resisted the social acceptance of slavery and took action against it. In the upper South (Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, North Carolina), laws were passed to make the freeing of slaves easier. There were a number of slaveowners who freed their slaves on account of their service during the Revolutionary War. Some, such as Robert Carter III, found slavery so repugnant that they freed their slaves during their lifetimes. Other slaveowners, like George Washington, made provisions to free their slaves after their death. Still others freed their slaves; moved with them out West and gave land to each newly-freed family. Wherever laws permitted, Quakers in the South freed their slaves. Nevertheless, these individuals were exceptions, especially in the states of the Deep South. There was no antislavery effort of any significance in South Carolina and Georgia. Slaveowners often defended their avarice and wanton disregard of humanity by portraying African-Americans as subhuman elements deserving of bondage. Many went so far as to say that, by owning other human beings, they were curbing their destructive inclinations, thus performing a socially beneficial function. In 1797, African-Americans in North Carolina presented a petition to Congress to protest a state law requiring slaves who were freed by their Quaker masters to be returned to the state as slaves. This, the first recorded anti-slavery petition by African-Americans, was rejected by Congress. Frustrated by their powerlessness to obtain freedom, some slaves chose to engineer revolts. Gabriel Prosser and Jack Bowler's planned slave uprising in Virginia, which might have been one of the largest slave uprisings in US history. The two men were organizing slaves for an uprising to take place in 1800, in which they would seize the arsenal at Richmond, attack whites in the area, and free the slaves. Two slaves betrayed the plot in 1797, however, and Governor James Monroe of Virginia declared martial law in Richmond. John Randolph of Virginia declared that "the accused have exhibited a spirit, which if it becomes general, must deluge the southern country in blood. They manifested a sense of their rights, and a contempt of danger." In 1811, US troops suppressed slave uprisings in two Louisiana parishes near New Orleans. The increasing violence produced little significant progress, and may have made matters worse by resulting in greater restrictions on African-Americans.

Free Blacks

Unfortunately, the end of slavery in the North did not lead to the end of racist attitudes toward African-Americans. The presence of a growing population of free blacks in northern cities and towns became a source of racially-based social friction. In the colonial period, Northern blacks had been severely restricted by curfews at night; and had been banned from certain types of property ownership and from visiting other towns without permission. While these restrictions relaxed somewhat after the Revolutionary War, they returned after the turn of the century. In 1804, the Ohio legislature passed "Black Laws," which restricted the rights and movements of free blacks. Several other Northern and Northwestern states began prohibiting black immigration and restricting or disenfranchising black voters. In Northern cities and towns, close-knit black communities developed, especially in neighborhoods with large black populations. These communities established institutions, such as churches, schools, social clubs, charitable societies, and other organizations. Philadelphia's Free African Society, founded in 1787, was the first of such organizations. Newport Gardner, one of the first black music teachers in the United States, opened a music school in Newport, Massachusetts in 1791. In 1794, Richard Allen founded the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. Built in Philadelphia, it was called the Bethel A.M.E. Church. The A.M.E. denomination was formally organized in 1816, with Allen as bishop. The social, financial, spiritual and emotional support provided by these communities and institutions helped ease the adjustment from slavery to freedom. African-Americans in New Orleans, unlike most Blacks in the South, enjoyed a relatively high degree of financial success. In fact, there were proportionately more skilled Black works than skilled Irish workers. Nevertheless, the lack of economic power in the community of free African-Americans was a tremendous stumbling block to progress.

Free African-Americans were also involved in protesting unfair actions against their community. In 1791, a group in Charleston, South Carolina presented the state legislature with a petition to protest laws which restricted their freedoms. One example was the Act of 1740, part of which prohibited slave or free blacks from testifying under oath in court and denied them the right to trial by jury. Also in 1791, prominent astronomer and surveyor Benjamin Banneker wrote to Thomas Jefferson; urging him to consider a more liberal attitude toward blacks. Free African-Americans rallied together to oppose the efforts of the American Colonization Society. The American Colonization Society was founded in 1816, in Washington, D.C., to help ease racial tensions by transporting free Blacks to Africa. John C. Calhoun of S.C. and Henry Clay of KY were among the society's sponsors. Francis Scott Key was also a supporter. Some proponents saw the deportation of blacks as a way to end slavery, on the grounds that slaveowners would be more likely to free slaves if those slaves would leave the country. Other people supported the movement just to get rid of the free Black community. The Free African Society met at the Bethel A.M.E. Church, in Philadelphia, to protest the American Colonization Society's activities. Many had been born in America, and considered the US their home, despite its shortcomings. Although the Colonization Society eventually succeeded in establishing an African-American colony, Liberia (1821), only a few thousand African-Americans emigrated.

Contributions of African-Americans

From the birth of the new nation, African-Americans made important contributions. In addition to serving in the Revolutionary War, a number of African-Americans fought in the War of 1812. Some served on privateers. A few others served in the Navy, although , regulations against enlisting Blacks prevented many others from joining. African-Americans served with Commodore Perry's squadron on Lake Erie, with Commodore Chauncey's squadron on Lake Ontario and with Commodore Thomas McDonough's squadron on Lake Champlain. Many free Blacks responded to Andrew Jackson's call for volunteers in the Southwest. Two battalions of free Blacks fought in the Battle of New Orleans. In 1820, however, the US Army adjutant general's office announced: "No Negro or Mulatto will be received as a recruit in the Army."

On the home front, many African-Americans took active roles in shaping American culture. Soon after the Revolutionary War, the Maryland Gazette published a regular column written by a black man, entitled "Vox Africanorum" (the voice of the Africans). In 1792, the respected scientist and surveyor, Benjamin Banneker, began publishing an annual almanac, which appeared for ten years.

In 1790, Banneker and Andrew Ellicott were chosen to survey the boundaries of the District of Columbia. When the engineer who had created the plans for the construction of Washington, D.C. left the project and took his plans with him; construction work could nevertheless continue, because Banneker had already memorized the plans. In addition to his work in astronomy, surveying and engineering; Banneker published a monograph on bees and calculated the cycle of the 17-year locust.

Philadelphia's community of African-Americans was instrumental in helping the city survive the yellow fever plague of 1793. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the leaders of the medical relief effort, developed the theory that "there is something very singular in the constitution f the Negro which renders them not liable to this fever." Thus, he appealed to the Free African Society to provide people to work as nurses and other medical help; rather than flee the city, as most of its residents were attempting. Although Rush's medical theories seemed dubious, and were indeed proved wrong by the deaths of many African-Americans from the fever, many members of the society assented to his request. Many chose to remain in Philadelphia to help Rush out of gratitude to him for his efforts on behalf of African-Americans. Some worked for pay, while others volunteered their time and skills. Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, himself recruited a graveyard crew to bury the thousands of dead bodies. African-Americans in New Orleans made significant contributions to the development of the city's economic and cultural life. A relatively large proportion were skilled workers. Many were professionals. African-American musicians and composers established performing organizations to cater to New Orleans' sophisticated audiences.

Across the country, the music created and performed by African-Americans became an integral part of the American musical idiom. African-Americans living in slavery created the genre of spirituals; with roots in both African and European music, yet American in essence. In fact, some of the music created by African-Americans was the first truly indigenous American music. Most other music of the period involved American lyrics set to European music. .