The United States of America has always been a country where racism towards black people is very prominent. Black people in America, while still being discriminated today, have come a long way from what it was like in the 15th century. The work of activists and brave individuals who decided to stand up in what they believe in, along with civil rights movements, have shaped the nation to be more racially accepting. There have been many positive changes, including more education and work opportunities, and the gaining of basic civil rights. This evolution of discrimination and inequality can be shown through four different time periods. 1450-1650 was the time where slavery was introduced to North America. 1650-1789 introduced the rise of the cotton industry. 1789-1900 was the period where there were slavery revolts and the Civil War subsequently occured. Finally, 1900-present demonstrates more recent events that lead up to present day. While we are still far away from achieving true equally among all races, America has taken big steps to end discrimination against black people.
The first time period that will be discussed is from 1450 to 1650. The history of racism towards black people begins with slavery when white European settlers first brought Africans to North America to serve as slaves. The transatlantic slave trade, which started in the 15th century, was the biggest deportation in history; millions of Africans were taken from their homes and deported to America and sold as slaves to help accomplish the labor needs of the expanding North American colonies. It is estimated that 25 to 30 million men, women, and children, were sold as slaves in the different slave trading systems.
The ships left Western Europe for Africa loaded with weapons, gun powder, textiles, pearls, and other manufactured goods which were to be exchanged for slaves. The second step was the crossing of the Atlantic; Africans were transported to America to be sold throughout the continent to serve as slaves. The third step was the trading between North America and Europe; the slave traders brought back agricultural products such as sugar, cotton, coffee, tobacco, and rice. Throughout the 17th century, European settlers in North America preferred to use African slaves because they were cheaper and more available compared to servants, who were mostly poor Europeans. In the 17th and 18th centuries, black slaves worked mainly on tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations along the southern coast. The treatment the slaves were experiencing was inhumane and appalling.
Typically, slaves were chained together at the ankle in pairs, and columns of slaves were tied together by ropes around their necks. The transatlantic slave trade is well known for its brutality towards the slaves and for the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions of the ships. Hundreds of Africans were packed tightly below the decks for thousands of miles. Other examples of the harsh conditions include the fact that the ceilings were far too low that they could not even stand up straight, the unbearable heat, and the diseases and infections that spread to the slaves and the crew members. This caused 15 to 25 percent of the slaves to die during the commute.
The second time period that will be discussed is from 1650 to 1789. Slavery in America continues but near the end of this era marks the first step for the abolition of slavery. In 1662, Virginia law, using the principle of “partus sequitur ventrem”, stated that children in the colony were born into their mother’s social status. Therefore, children born to enslaved mothers were considered slaves, regardless of their father’s race or status. This law is opposite to English common law for English subjects, which stated that children took their father’s social status. The New York Slave Revolt of 1712 was an uprising in New York City that was possible because enslaved Africans in the city lived close to each other, so communication was easy.
They revolted because there was a decrease in freedom and status when the English took over the colony in 1664. They killed nine white people and injured six before they were stopped. Around 70 black slaves were arrested and jailed. Of these 70 slaves, 27 of them were put on trial, and 21 were convicted and executed. The American Revolution occurred between 1776 to 1783 where thousands of enslaved African Americans in the South escaped to British lines, because they were promised freedom if they fought alongside the British. After the war, many were evacuated with the British for England; an estimated 10,000 slaves were evacuated from the colonies in these years as free people. Near the end of this time period, Pennsylvania became the first US state to abolish slavery in 1780. Overall, there were more slave revolts during this time period against the lack of freedom and the inhumane ways they were treated.
The third time period that will be discussed is from 1789 to 1900. In August 1831, Nat Turner lead the only effective slave rebellion in US history. He was born into slavery in Southampton County, Virgina, and inherited a passionate hatred of slavery from his African-born mother. He believed it was his God’s given duty to lead his people out of bondage. He and a group of slaves he recruited murdered around 60 whites in the span of just two days. This revolt made a lasting impact as the increased repression of southern blacks would strengthen the antislavery feeling in the north through the 1860s and intensify the tensions that will eventually lead up to the civil war. The early abolition movement in North America was inspired both by the desire of slaves for freedom and by groups of white settlers, called Quakers, who opposed slavery on a religious and moral standpoint.
One of the largest events against slavery was the Civil War that started in 1861. The conflicts between the North and South due to their opposing views on slavery intensified over the course of four decades, with 11 southern states coming together to form the Confederate States of America. In January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, who had well established anti slavery views, made it official that slaves within any state “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln justified his decision as a wartime measure. Although the 13th amendment officially abolished slavery, there were still a lot of unanswered questions towards the freed blacks’ status in society. White southerners enacted a series of laws known as the black codes, which were designed to restrict freed blacks’ activity and ensure their availability as a labor force. The 14th amendment broadened the definition of citizenship, granting equal protection of the Constitution to freed slaves. The 15th amendment stated that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.
During the Reconstruction era, blacks won election to southern state governments and to the US congress, much to many white southerners’ dismay. Because of this, white protective societies such as the Ku Klux Klan sought to disenfranchise blacks by using voter fraud, intimidation, and extreme violence. As the Reconstruction era came to an end, Southern state legislatures began implementing the first segregation laws, known as the “Jim Crow” laws. These laws included separate schools, railroad cars, depots, hotels, theaters, restaurants, and barber shops. This led to the “separate but equal” doctrine. This era made long strides from the first time period discussed; comparing to the transatlantic slave trade to the abolishment of slavery and gaining freedom, racism in America has come a long way. However, there is still a long way to come as black people were still segregated from the whites.
The fourth and final time period that will be discussed covers 1900 to present day. As America’s urban population faced shortages of employment and housing, and violent hostility, groups sparked a new political protest movement demanding civil rights for black people. Supporters of the many riots that occurred joined together to form a permanent civil rights organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Its goals included the abolition of all forced segregation, the enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments, and equal education for blacks and whites. NAACP was first established in Chicago, but by 1921, it grew to have more than 400 locations across America.
The efforts made by this organization significantly reduced the number of lynchings and other lawless acts carried out in the US. Its official magazine, The Crisis, published African American literature and politics which helped spread the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance was the migration of blacks from rural South to the urban North in the 1920s. It was considered a cultural renaissance because it marked the first time that big-name publishers and critics turned their attention to African American literature, music, art, and politics. Although this movement came to an end with the onset of the Great Depression, its influence and impact has gone unforgotten as it spread around the world, giving recognition to black artists and writers. This time period also tackled the issue with segregation of races in schools. In 1954, the US Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v Board of Education case that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th amendment. This verdict reversed the “separate but equal” doctrine. The ruling provoked resistance and was also very difficult to implement. Another major turning point and one of the most famous is Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that occurred in 1955. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white person, she was immediately arrested. Only a few days after her arrest, Martin Luther King Jr lead a boycott of the city buses. Since the majority of riders were African Americans, the Montgomery Bus Boycott had tremendous impact and eventually caused the US Supreme Court to declare the bus company’s segregation seating policy unconstitutional. Because of this, Rosa Parks is now known as the “mother of the civil rights movement”.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government more power to protect citizens against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or national origin. It mandated the desegregation of most public accommodations and also ensured equal treatment of minorities in the workplace. The act also guaranteed equal voting rights and provided aid to assist with school desegregation. The Civil Rights is considered one of the biggest achievements of the civil rights movement because it gave rights to black people that they spent decades fighting for. Jumping more than 40 years later, Barack Obama becomes the 44th US president in 2008. This was a historic moment in US history as he is the first African American to hold the office. His message of hope and change in his slogan “Yes We Can” inspired thousands of new voters, many young and black, to cast their vote for the first time.
Although the treatment towards black people has come a long way from slavery, there is still a lot we can do as a society to improve it. In present day, there are still tons of evidence of police brutality towards minorities compared to white people. The Black Lives Matter activist movement originated in the African American community and it campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people. This organization regularly holds protests speaking out against issues such as police killings of black people, racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the US criminal justice system.
Furthermore, black people are still fighting for equality in America and are still aiming to achieve the same level of respect and outlook as white people. There has been a mentality that black people are lesser than white people and this can be shown throughout history. From the 17th to 19th century, black people were still slaves to white people and barely had any rights and freedoms. It was only until 1863, after multiple revolts, that President Abraham Lincoln officially abolished slavery. After gaining more rights and freedoms from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the treatment towards black people has made long strides. However, the problems today are still substantial concerning police brutality and Black Lives Matter. There is still a lot we can do as society and we need to change our outlook on race and realize we are all human in the end.