A Chronicle of Pain, Suffering, Struggle, Defiance, Resistance and Ultimate Triumph
The history of African Americans in the U.S. has always been a mixed bag. Historically, we have been forced to accept our experiences as presented through the lens those who possessed little, if any, real interest in representing the truth about the struggles of our people.
As American history tells us, it was in 1619 that a small group of about 20 Africans steppedahore off the coast of what is now called the State of Virginia. It is how the stage was set for the telling of our story and how our community came into being by white historians. While there is room for the 1619 narrative, it fails to chronicle the entirety of the events as they unfolded.
The way our introduction to this nation has been presented over the past centuries fails to provide an adequate understanding of the beginnings of the institution of slavery. Indeed, for far too long students in American schools have been fed a pack of mistruths about the timeline and the role Africans played in the early days of this country. While 1619 is the widely accepted marker for ourarival in the new world, there is strong evidence that Africans were in the North America nealry 100 years prior to 1619.
The broad assumption that these first arrivals appeared in the new world only as servants or slaves robs us of the idea that they were here seeking the same thing theEuropenas were seeking: freedom. Were they shackeled or in chains and presented for sale? Simply because they were black we have been conditioned to presume that they could be nothing more than slaves. These unquestioned assumptions have had enromous repercussions that impact our existence in this nation to this very day. It renders the idea that they could have been here on their on volition a moot point; that these black people could not have possibly been actors in their own right. By some accounts, some 500,000 Africans had already been dragged acrossed the Atlantic prior to 1619. This information renders the “we arrived in 1619’ narrative somewhat suspect.
Therefore, for educators and others to blindly accept 1619 as our first introduction to this new nation may be far more sinister than it is informative. It was not the first time that black people could be found in an Atlantic colony. Reportedly, as early as in 1526, just a few decades after Columbus, a group of enslaved African whowere a part of a Spanish expedition off the cost of what we now know as South Carolina, started a rebellion that all but destroyed the settler’s ability to sustain their colony. S not only were we present, we were resisting the conditions immposed upon us. This is counter to the narrative and images we have become familiar with through our educational experiences.
The following chronicles some of the importantoccurences that framed our expeiences over the the centuries:
This century saw the introduction of black people as indentured servants arriving through the port of Jamestown as recounted in our history texts. The first documented “slaves” were recorded around 1640 when John Punch was sentenced by the Virginia Governor’s Council to serve his master for life after an escape attempt. According to DNA records released by Ancestry.com in 2012, it is suggested that Punch was the 11th great-grandfather of President Barack Obama on his mother’s side. His family name would eventually be changed to Bunche. His descendants also included famed diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ralph Bunche.
In the 1660s, using the principle of PartusSequitir Ventrum, the Virginia colony declared that children born of a slave mother was considered a slave, regardless of their father’s race. Previously, English Common Law allowing children to take their father’s status. Therefore, if the father was a free man the children would benefit from his social status. Later, in 1676, enslaved Africans fought in Bacon’s Rebellion which historians define as the first colonial rebellion against English rule.
Contrary to popular belief, enslaved Africans didn’t simply accept the conditions imposed upon them. Many fought back—violently. Early in the 1700s the introduction of slave codes were adopted by colonies fearful of uprisings among their slaves. These codes, adopted in some measure by all 13 colonies, were designed to humiliate terrify blacks and reduce any instance of violent rebellion; saving the most horrific punishment for those who would not comply. A prime example was the New York Slave revolt in 1712 where an uprising resulted in the death of nine slave owners. Later hunted down by a militia, several slaves reportedly committed suicide rather than face a life of servitude. Defiance continued with events such as the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in the late 1730s where slaves staged an armed march for their freedom.
Around the 1760s, Benjamin Banneker, in correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, argued that blacks were the intellectual equal to whites. Banneker later would go on to work with Pierre L’Enfant, a French architect and engineer, to survey, layout and design what would become Washington DC. The work of the first black published author, Jupiter Hammon, was released.
Around themid 1760s colonies, in an effort to protest British economic dominance, adopted Importation Agreements to stop importing goods from England. This would also include the importation of slaves. Ultimately, it would lead to the banning of the slave trade in the north. Shortly thereafter, during the Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks, a black man, would become the first casualty in the lead up to the American Revolution.
The publishing of Phyllis Wheatley’s poems in the early 1770s, as the first African American female author, firmly established the intellectual heft of black people in the colonies and in Europe. It was also during this time that we began to see the first organized Baptist congregations in South Carolina and Virginia. Since that time the black church has continued to be the hub for black political and economic activity. In 1775, The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first abolitionist society was formed.
When the American Revolution erupted in 1776, more than 25,000 slaves fled their plantations and joined the British to fight against the colonies. They were promised freedom in exchange for their loyalty and were later relocated as free men to British territories like Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Jamaicaand the West Indies following the war. In 1777, Vermont officially becomes the first colony to abolish slavery—and in 1780, Pennsylvania becomes the first U.S. state to abolish the practice.
Born into slavery, Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker successfully sued the State of Massachusetts for their freedom. In 1781 the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in their favor and declared that slavery was not consistent with the state’s Constitution. In 1783, the state officially banned slavery. A few years later, in 1787 The Northwest Ordinance officially prohibited the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories east of the Mississippi River and North of the Ohio River.
As we entered the 1790s, the manumission of slaves became a reality. Many slaveholders in what was then called the Upper South, freed their slaves. The percentage of free black people increased from one percent that year to over 10 percent. Over the course of the next 20 years, that number swelled to over 75 percent of black people being free from bondage. Even in the Old Dominion of Virginia, nearly 10 percent of blacks gained their freedom during this time.
As with any progress, there are setbacks. In 1793, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Acts which essentially authorized the recapture of runaway slaves once they made itto free territories and the return to their owners. The laws also allowed for harsh penalties for anyone assisting runaways to freedom. Clearly, many free black men and women were caught up in the dragnet of this legislation and transported to the south as a slave. These laws would remain in effect until passage of the 13th amendment in the mid 1860s.
The introduction of the Cotton Gin in 1794 made cotton the nation’s number one commodity. The demand for slave labor increased dramatically. As a result, more than a million slaves were sent back to the Deep South. It was also around this time that independent black churches began to develop. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas of Philadelphia and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church would become the first black denominations in the country and would continue to play a major role in the African American community through this very day.
At the beginning of the 1800s ironically, President Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner pressed for the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves. This measure made it a federal crime to bring slaves into the U.S. from abroad. Soon, around 1816, a movement called the American Colonizing Society was created to assist free slaves in their quest to return to Africa; specifically to what we now know as the nation of Liberia.
In 1820, the Missouri Compromise paved the way for the prohibition of slaves in the north and for Missouri to enter the union as a slave state. Maine would enter the union at the same time as a free state.—hence the compromise.
The next year, in 1821, the British established the West Africa Squadron whose job it was to patrol the African coast in pursuit of slave traders. The AME Zion Church makes its introduction that same year. It was officially headquartered in New York but had been operating for years prior to 182. Today, the congregation numbers more than 1.4 million.
Denmark Vesey’s plans for a violent slave revolt in South Carolina, in 1822, were discovered and suppressed. It was during this period that many black publications began to appear decrying slavery and continuing the movement for abolition. In 1829, David Walker published Walker’s Appeal calling for black unity and self help in the fight against oppression. Josiah Henson, the inspiration for Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin continued his fight for freedom. At the same time, the publication of The Liberator decried the ownership of slaves a grave sin. These publications, many believe, led to Nat Turner’s revolt, in Southampton, Virginia in 1831. It resulted in the deaths of more than 50 slave holders and hastened abolitionist’s activities.
1833 saw increased activity surrounding the ending the institution of slavery with the creation of the American Anti-Slavery Society with Frederick Douglass as its leader. The society’s activities lead to the development of African Institute in 1837 which advocated for black higher education. Ultimately, the organization would morph into what we know today as Cheney University.
In 1839, the famed case of La Amistad was heard before the Supreme Courtresulting the freedom of the Africans onboard the illegal slave ship. The case may have set the stage for Prigg v Pennsylvania of 1842 that ruled that states were not required to assist in the hunting and recapture of slaves. It was a major blow and seriously weakened the Fugitive Slave act of 1793. The following year, a woman by the name of Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth and waged an effective campaign against slavery. Her efforts were augmented by Henry Highland Garnett in his famous address titled Call to Rebellion that year.
Frederick Douglass publishes the acclaimed North Star in 1847 and Joseph Jenkins Roberts becomes the first President of Liberia. Acouple years later in 1849, we saw efforts to integrate northern schools in the case of Roberts v Boston. That same year, Harriet Tubman would escape to Pennsylvania and develop the Underground Railroad. Of course, the country continued to fight for the institution of slavery when Congress passed yet another Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 requiring federal officials to arrest anyone “suspected” of being a runaway.
President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 which effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise allowing slavery in the new territories. The president’s action resulted in the formation of the Republican Party and its official anti-slavery platform. The sacking of Lawrence Kansas is recorded in 1856. The town was founded by anti-slavery settlers hoping to make Kansas a free state. This led to the Pottawatomie Massacre by John Brown in response to the Lawrence incident. Yet, progress continued with the establishment of Wilberforce University that same year.
The following year, 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds slavery in the famed Dredd Scott v Stanford decision. This decision, many believed, set the stage for the American Civil War. In 1861 the Civil War rages with some 180,000 black soldiers fighting in the Union Army. President Lincoln announces Emancipation Day in Washington DC, in 1862. General Sherman announces Special Field Order 15 allocating land in South Carolina and Georgia for black settlement.
In 1865, with the war ending, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits slavery throughout the nation.