Module 4. Our Story: African Americans


Most historians begin the discussion of Black history in 1619 when the first slaves were sold in Virginia. However, it is more effective to begin this history with the moment when free people of African descent arrived in the Americas. Spanish colonizers arrived with the first free Africans in 1492. Free Blacks existed in the Americas before enslaved ones did.

In North America, the first recorded peoples of African descent arrived in Jamestown in 1619.  These men and women were sold by Dutch traders as slave laborers to English settlers.  Slavery, the practice of forced labor without pay, was not a practice exclusive to the New World, or even to Europeans. Slave labor had been utilized in many civilizations over the course of human history. However, the system of colonization and the trans-Atlantic trade changed the practice of slave labor for the next few centuries.

Colonial Virginia was in its early stages of development in 1619. When Virginia was settled, the colony struggled with acclimation, starvation, and population growth. But things started to take a turn for the better when John Rolfe brought tobacco planting to the colony. This crop was the colony’s saving grace, for it became the cash crop upon which to build a powerful nation. Tobacco was a difficult crop to harvest. Typically, the arduous labor required for this crop was carried out by indentured servants – poor White contract laborers who obtained their ticket to the new world by signing away 7-10 years of their life to investors in the colonies. But over time, circumstances changed, and the White laborers proved to be problematic, provoking a shift to African slave labor. The change in circumstances including general human progress towards individual freedoms and the need to fulfill goals of opportunity and land ownership that were typical of voluntary transatlantic migrants. In these early colonial times, there were no clear rules as to how to regard Black slaves, nor was the concept of race clearly defined. Generally, there was little regard for people of African descent, and Black slaves were treated as less than human.

In the early 15th century, Portuguese explorers established “slave factories”, or trading centers on the western coasts of Africa, and began exchanging goods with African leaders for slave laborers. Approximately four million Africans were transported and sold from the western coast across the Atlantic for labor, forming the transatlantic slave trade. Slave traders justified their practice of human trafficking by treating these men, women, and children not as human beings, but as chattel, mere commodities to be sold for a profit.  Slave ships were outfitted to maximize profits, by chaining up the slaves laying down, side-by-side with little room to move or even breathe. When Olaudah Equiano recalled the Middle Passage, the name for the journey across the Atlantic, he recounted feeling “suffocated,” laying in “filth” and “horror” (Equiano, 1789). Many of the enslaved peoples perished during the long and arduous journey from disease, starvation, or even suicide.  Tightly packed in the bowels of ships, Africans were dehumanized, fed only enough to stay alive on the journey across the Atlantic, which could take anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks (Foner, 2020). Many of these individuals were sold into the Caribbean and South America, and only a small percentage would be sold into North America.

As Virginia continued to develop into a successful and lucrative colony due to tobacco, English settlers started to get restless. They wanted to continue to expand westward, but English authorities had signed treaties with nearby Native American tribes preventing them from infringing on their territory. A new settler, Nathaniel Bacon, harnessed the discontent of the White settlers to wage a rebellion against the local leadership spearheaded by William Berkeley.  Bacon’s rebellion uncovered many class issues of the colony, including the discontent of poor Whites and former indentured servants. After months of protest and armed conflict, Bacon was dead, his supporters hanged, and Jamestown was burned to the ground. The groups that were the most disadvantaged after the conflict were the Native Americans, whose lands were continually taken away from them, and Black slaves, who would be utilized for labor more heavily than White European settlers, regardless of class.

While Bacon’s rebellion helped define colonial settlers need for manual labor, early slave codes were responsible for definition of people of African descent in the colonies. The earliest colonial years would experience some ambiguity between poor Whites and Black colonists – some colonists even married and had biracial children. But as concepts of race were being further defined by scholars and society in general, Virginia again was at the forefront of creating legal parameters of race relations. Virginia established the first Slave Codes, a list of laws and regulations to define punishments, legal status, and property rights regarding Black slaves.  These codes were most likely created because of problems that arose due to the lack of precedence for racialized slave labor in European colonies. Most of these codes were written to regulate crime and punishments, but one very pivotal code created the basis for the institution of slavery in America for the next few hundred years.

That 1662 code stated “that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” This legal definition created the rule that made the condition of slavery one that was acquired at birth. Over the course of human history, in many of the civilizations that practiced slavery, the condition of slavery was not genetic, nor acquired at birth. Slaves were typically prisoners of war or working off debt. At this point in colonial Virginia, English colonists created a new precedent for slave laborers that would be explicitly tied to Black slave laborers. Individuals were born into slavery, and it was rare to escape slavery.

The enslaved experience also varied depending on region, period, and owner; but typically, slaves’ lives were harsh with meager living provisions and physical punishments if a slave disobeyed orders. Slaves were considered the property of slave owners, property that could be bought, sold, punished, or even killed. Colonies each had different codes and laws to dictate slaves’ lives, but there were few, if any limits to regulate the physical abuse or even murder of slaves.

The narrative of the enslaved peoples has gotten very much distorted over the course of American history. Some students wonder why they were complacent to forced labor, and for much of this nation’s history, many people believed the Blacks were simply incapable of resisting. This is simply not true.

Slave resistance sometimes occurred even aboard the dreaded slave ships. Many slaves were shipped off to the Americas because they were prisoners of tribal war conflicts in Africa. Resistance on slave trade ships proved futile, but it still occurred. Upon arrival in the Americas, many different modes of resistance were common. Some were subtle, like working slow or feigning sickness. Others were more overt like running away from their captors. See the advertisement below meant to help the slave owner “find” their runaway slave.

1769 Virginia Gazette Advertisement

1769 Virginia Gazette Advertisement
“1769 Virginia Gazette Advertisement” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

Ad placed in the Virginia Gazette in 1769.

RUN away from the subscriber in Albemarle, a Mulatto slave called Sandy, about 35 years of age, his stature is rather low, inclining to corpulence, and his complexion light; he is a shoemaker by trade, in which he uses his left hand principally, can do coarse carpenters work, and is something of a horse jockey; he is greatly addicted to drink, and when drunk is insolent and disorderly, in his conversation he swears much, and in his behaviour is artful and knavish. He took with him a white horse, much scarred with traces, of which it is expected he will endeavour to dispose; he also carried his shoemakers tools, and will probably endeavour to get employment that way. Whoever conveys the said slave to me, in Albemarle, shall have 40 s. reward, if taken up within the county, 4 l. if elsewhere within the colony, and 10 l. if in any other colony, from THOMAS JEFFERSON.

Running away was the most common form of resistance to slave owners, and one that they vehemently tried to fight against, whether by physically punishing slaves or creating laws to sanction that violence. The other form of resistance that was much feared by slave owners was armed rebellion. While this was not very common, when it occurred, armed rebellion was met with harsh punishments and severe consequences.

The earliest organized rebellion to take place in North America was the Stono Rebellion.  During this rebellion, slaves that had military experience were able to coordinate this rebellion through their training and shared language. They killed several White colonists in the process and conspired to make their way to Spanish controlled Florida, where there were Indians who harbored escaped slaves. One important detail is that as the slave rebels were briefly free, they moved about the town by shouting, “Liberty!” Up to this point, English authorities characterized enslaved Blacks as if they were incapable of understanding concepts of freedom and liberty like those that were so popular in the age of revolution. This incident in South Carolina proved contrary to their beliefs, reinforcing fears of slave rebellion on the scale of that that had just occurred in the nearby nation of Saint Domingue, now a free Black nation known as Haiti. From that point on, slave rebellion would be the most feared circumstances that slave owners could imagine, and they would do anything in their power to stop one from occurring.

As a reaction to this rebellion, harsher codes were established, ones that would prevent a future rebellion. New slave codes were introduced such as preventing slaves from leaving the property, congregating in groups, or even learning how to read and write. All of these were established, reinforced, and adopted in similar slave-based economies in southern colonies in order to control slave populations.




To understand the perspective of an intelligent, free Black man of the early republic.


Read Black scientist Benjamin Banneker demonstrates Black intelligence to Thomas Jefferson, 1791. Answer the following questions:

  1. Why is Banneker eager to prove his intelligence to Thomas Jefferson?
  2. How does Banneker use language to convey his intelligence to Jefferson?
  3. Was Banneker successful in asserting his intelligence?


For most of the colonial period, contributions of those of African descent to the historical narrative was mostly tied to slave labor. There were few outliers to the story of hardships, racial violence, and victimization. However, men like Benjamin Banneker should be highlighted. He was born free and self-educated and managed to catch the attention of Thomas Jefferson in an exchange of letters. There is also the early case of Elizabeth Key, who was born of an interracial union and sued for her freedom and inheritance from her White kin. Hers was one outlying story of success where others were not as fortunate.

Also notable are the individuals who fought in the American Revolution. After the British openly recruited Black slaves to fight for the Crown to gain their freedom, General Washington was urged to open enlistment for Black soldiers in the Continental Army. This is one instance of early American history wherein Blacks and Whites fought in integrated regiments against a common enemy. America would not see this level of integration until the Vietnam War, nearly 200 years later. These are the real stories of Americans, who impacted American history small and big ways, notable against much adversity.

After the American revolution, as the early republic of America ratified the constitution and created its foundational laws, southern lawmakers saw fit to include provisions to ensure their interests would be protected. In doing so, these lawmakers also redefined the legal parameters of Blacks in America. As a compromise to include Black slave populations in the count to determine representation in Congress, the founding fathers included the Three-Fifths Clause in the Constitution. This law determined that for every five White men, three Black men would be counted in the state’s population. Southern lawmakers advocated for this clause to ensure maximum political representation on a federal level, while still diminishing Black slaves as property, not free citizens of the country. At this point in the nation’s history, citizenship was defined as your ability to vote, which was exclusively granted in most states to only White, property-owning men.

As North America continued to be organized into states, a delicate balance was established.  Agriculturally based economies of the south allowed the practice of slavery in their states, which garnered the label “slave state.” In the north, where states later focused on industrial development, mostly outlawed slavery. These states were called “free states.” The U.S. government made the choice to keep a balance of both free and slave states as they continued to expand westward, to keep a balance of different political ideologies and economic interests were represented in government.

The African American experience from colonial times to the 1850s varied depending on region, time period, and of course slave or free status. Different factors over time, including ambiguity in colonial laws and manumission – the practice of voluntarily releasing one’s slaves from ownership, led to a significant number of free slaves in America by the mid-19th century. The majority of these former enslaved resided in northern states, but there were some in the south as well. Virtually all African Americans, whether enslaved or not, suffered racial discrimination.  Years and years of Eurocentrism and White supremacy created an environment of racial oppression regardless of being “free.” Despite these hardships, being a free Black person in America was certainly preferable to being enslaved.

Despite the transatlantic slave trade being closed to the U.S. in 1808, slave populations continued to grow exponentially in the south. This was largely due to the precedent of the slave code of passing the condition of slavery through the matrilineal line. As Americans continue to expand into the west, slave population did as well, continuing to labor away on plantations across the south. Initially, colonial Americans held slaves in bondage as a necessity, a labor force that aided in building wealth and stability in the country. By the 1830s, use of Black slave labor was an integral part of the economy in the U.S. Between slave traders, auctioneers, investment bankers, and the planters themselves, most parts of the U.S. economy relied on the continued use of Black slave labor.

By the early 19th century there were a variety of ways slave owners justified continuing the practice. First, slave owners used the concept of paternalism to keep the practice. This concept argued that Black slaves were simply mentally incapable of taking care of their own well-being, therefore must remain in the care of their owners, who gave themselves the role of parent or guardian to a Black slave. George Fitzhugh, a pro-slavery advocate, claimed that “slaves are all well fed, well clad, have plenty of fuel, and are happy” (Fitzhugh, 1854). He asserted that without the efforts of slaver owners, “crime and pauperism” would increase; therefore, slave owners were also doing a service to the nation. Paternalism not only reinforced ideas of White superiority but masked the institution with the idea that slave owners were carrying out a noble service to the country.


Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi 1884
“Cotton Plantation on the Mississippi_ 1884” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

Other justifications of continuing the use of Black slave labor included references to Biblical passages that referred to social hierarchy and obedience as well as references to ancient societies. For instance, because ancient peoples like the Romans practiced slavery, Americans remarked that they built that empire and their advancements in arts and sciences because they were not occupied with difficult labor that the slaves were doing for them.




To explore the ways in which pro-slavery advocates justified the continued use of slave labor.


Read Slavery a Positive Good by John C. Calhoun. Answer the following questions:

  1. List the reasons that Calhoun provides to assert that slavery is a “positive good.”
  2. Why would Calhoun write this statement to defend his position?


Although there were many Americans that advocated for the continued use of slave labor, some decided that the enslaved should be set free. Abolitionists were people that believed that slavery should be legally abolished and rose out of an era of reform movements of the early 1800s. Abolitionists gained much support from the most pious individuals; many of which believed that the progression of America was inextricably tied to social reforms. Most abolitionists believed in ending the practice of slave labor altogether. However, there were some that believed in the concept of colonization. Colonization was the idea that Black slaves would be freed, but they could not remain in the U.S. In 1816, the American Colonization Society was formed to carry out this plan. A track of land called Liberia was purchased in Africa.  This region would be the place that the freed slaves would be transferred to, instead of living free in America. This concept reflected the inherent racism that ran deep within American society, since even though they rejected the practice of forced labor, they still denied African Americans a place in society. Certainly, equality for Black men and women that were born in the country and participated and contributed to the nation was not an option for many Americans at this time. Although support for colonization was not widespread, there were still a few thousand Blacks that were freed and moved to Liberia under this plan.

Famous abolitionists during this period ranged from men and women, both White and Black.  One of the most notable White abolitionists was William Lloyd Garrison, who published an abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, which communicated the ideals of emancipation and freedom to the public. Similarly, a woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe published a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a narrative based loosely on a slave’s life. Both individuals used their voices to carry a message to the American public about the moral wrongs of slavery and its continued use in the U.S.

Even more significant were the Black abolitionists voices of the time. Fredrick Douglass was perhaps one of the most notable of the time, for he was a self-educated runaway slave. A skilled orator, Douglass spoke passionately about many issues plaguing the U.S. of the time, chief of which was slavery. Most Americans would also recognize the name Harriet Tubman, for she was known not only as a runaway slave, but a woman who helped many others runaway from enslavement and hide in the North. To her own risk, Tubman made several trips back and forth over the Underground Railroad, a nickname for a series of trails and safehouses that led slaves to safety in the North. While Tubman successfully traveled from Maryland into Pennsylvania, the Underground Railroad network had routes into other areas in the North and also Canada and even Mexico.

By the 1850s, the political debate regarding the institution of slavery had affected lawmakers in significant ways. First, after the Mexican American War, the U.S. acquired a wide swath of land – land that would eventually be organized into states. The potential for additional states in the Union meant the disruption of the delicate balance of free and slave states. The debates that raged amongst lawmakers was how to determine the status of these states. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 stated that any territory above the 36 30 parallel could not be designated slave states. However, some politicians argued that new territories petitioning for annexation as a state should utilize popular sovereignty for determining status. Popular sovereignty meant that the residents of a state should vote on whether the state enters the Union as ‘free’ or ‘slave.’ Again, this meant the potential disruption of balance between free and slave states, also tipping the balance of power in Congress.

Additionally, a pivotal case was tried in the courts in 1857. Dred Scott v. Sanford regarded a slave who was petitioning for his freedom. Dred Scott was a slave that was relocated with his owner to the state of Illinois, a free state. Scott believed that since he was living for several years in a free state that must mean he was no longer a slave. However, the U.S. Supreme court ruled against Scott. In his statement after the ruling, Chief Justice Taney declared that Scott was not a U.S. citizen; he was property, “not entitled as such to sue in its courts,” and that his lawsuit was invalid.  Additionally, Chief Justice Taney made statements regarding the inferiority of Black slaves, and that the “negro…be reduced to slavery for his benefit….” The decision of the court determined the legality of ‘free’ and ‘slave’ state distinctions. Effectively, Taney’s statement made it unconstitutional to ban slavery in any state, inflaming the slavery debate across the country, and deepening the sectional divide of the time (Taney, 1857).


Dred Scott Oil Canvas by Louis Schultze
“Dred Scott Oil Canvas by Louis Schultze” by Wikimedia is in the Public Domain, CC0

To further deepen divisions in the U.S., a presidential election was at hand in 1860. South Carolina leaders went public with statements threatening to secede from the Union if candidate Abraham Lincoln was to become president. Southern political leaders feared that if the Republican party lead by Lincoln was to gain more power, the party would threaten states’ rights to uphold the institution of slavery. Once Lincoln was elected, southern states one by one voted to secede from the Union. Only after civil war would the country become whole once again.

The American Civil War continued to stretch the limitations of race relations in America. As the Confederacy pitted itself against the Union, thousands of Americans were killed. Initially, African Americans from all over the nation were eager to join the fight. White Union soldiers joined the fight for many reasons – abolition, draft, patriotic duty and more. For Blacks, joining in the war effort meant that they were fighting for their freedom. However, for the initial years of the war, Blacks were prevented from enlistment. Only after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued were Blacks allowed to fight. Even when enlisted, these men were segregated from White soldiers, trained and led by White men, and paid less than their White counterparts at the same ranks. Contrary to popular belief, the proclamation did not free all the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved who resided in states that had seceded from the Union.  There were still some slave states where slavery remained untouched. Slavery would not be officially abolished in America until the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865.

As President Lincoln promised, a “new birth of freedom” (Lincoln, 1863) was made possible after the dust settled from the Civil War. The Reconstruction era promised much hope for newly emancipated slaves.  Although slavery was officially abolished in January of 1865 and war ended in April of the same year, Juneteenth – June 19, 1865, is traditionally the day that was declared Freedom Day for African Americans in the U.S. For the formally enslaved, freedom did not just mean the end of slavery, but it meant the opportunities that most did not have access to before 1865. First and foremost, Black communities wanted access to land and voting rights.  Since the revolution, these have been the hallmarks of American freedom. Other freedoms came with being newly freed in the U.S. like being reunited with lost loved ones after being sold away, access to education and medical care, the ability to buy a weapon, and for some, even running for political office.

Only these freedoms were not guaranteed in the era of Reconstruction. Although the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments protected the rights of most African Americans, this legislation was not easily accepted by southerners who sought to maintain White supremacy. Very quickly, vigilante groups were formed to prevent Blacks from Constitutional freedoms, especially those that attempted to run for office, buy land, and even cast their votes. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan formed to enact violence and intimidation in communities that attempted to exercise their rights. Eventually, Congress issued measures to allow military occupation of former confederate states to protect Black communities. Additionally, legislation was enacted to root out and suppress KKK and other vigilante groups from operating.

Eventually, political pressures led to a compromise that ended military occupation in the south as well as drawing back on pressures to maintain peace. During the election of 1876, Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes’s victory was at question due to a very narrow margin of victory. In order to secure enough support to maintain a Republican in the White House, political leaders made a compromise to secure Hayes’s victory but vowed to withdraw federal troops from southern territories. Effectively, Northerners waning interest in supporting measures of racial equality in the U.S., coupled with a danger of political power, equaled the end of Reconstruction.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book