African-American history is the part of American history that looks at the African-American or Black American ethnic groups in the United States. Most African Americans are the descendants of Africans forcibly brought to and held captive in the United States from 1555 to 1865. Blacks from the Caribbean whose ancestors immigrated, or who immigrated to the U.S., have also traditionally been considered African-American, as they share a common history of predominantly West African or Central African roots, the Middle Passage and slavery.

African Americans have been known by various names throughout American history, including colored and Negro, which are no longer accepted in English. Instead the most usual and accepted terms nowadays are African American and Black, which however may have different connotations (see African American § Terminology). The term person of color usually refers not only to African Americans, but also to other non-white ethnic groups. Others who sometimes are referred to as African Americans, and who may identify themselves as such in US government censuses, include relatively recent Black immigrants from Africa, South America and elsewhere.

African-American history is celebrated and highlighted annually in the United States during February, designated as Black History Month. Although previously marginalized, African-American history has gained ground in school and university curricula and gained wider scholarly attention since the late 20th century.


Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Rossc. 1822[1] – March 10, 1913) was an American abolitionisthumanitarian, and an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved people, family and friends,[2] using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. She later helped abolitionist John Brown recruit men for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and in the post-war era was an active participant in the struggle for women's suffrage.

Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was beaten and whipped by her various masters as a child. Early in life, she suffered a traumatic head wound when an irate slave owner threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another slave and hit her instead. The injury caused dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia, which occurred throughout her life. She was a devout Christian and experienced strange visions and vivid dreams, which she ascribed to premonitions from God.

In 1849, Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, then immediately returned to Maryland to rescue her family. Slowly, one group at a time, she brought relatives with her out of the state, and eventually guided dozens of other slaves to freedom. Traveling by night and in extreme secrecy, Tubman (or "Moses", as she was called) "never lost a passenger". After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, she helped guide fugitives farther north into British North America, and helped newly freed slaves find work.

When the Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the raid at Combahee Ferry, which liberated more than 700 slaves. After the war, she retired to the family home on property she had purchased in 1859 in Auburn, New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She was active in the women's suffragemovement until illness overtook her and she had to be admitted to a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped to establish years earlier. After she died in 1913, she became an icon of American courage and freedom.


Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey


Frederick Douglass (born Frederick Augustus Washington Baileyc. February 1818[4] – February 20, 1895[5]) was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slaveryin Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his dazzling oratory[6] and incisive antislavery writings. In his time, he was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.[7][8] Northerners at the time found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave.[9]

Douglass wrote several autobiographies. He described his experiences as a slave in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became a bestseller, and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition, as was his second book, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). After the Civil War, Douglass remained an active campaigner against slavery and wrote his last autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. First published in 1881 and revised in 1892, three years before his death, it covered events during and after the Civil War. Douglass also actively supported women's suffrage, and held several public offices. Without his approval, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States as the running mate and Vice Presidential nominee of Victoria Woodhull, on the Equal Rights Partyticket.[10]

Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all peoples, whether blackfemaleNative American, or recent immigrant. He was also a believer in dialogue and in making alliances across racial and ideological divides, and in the liberal values of the U.S. Constitution. When radical abolitionists, under the motto "No Union With Slaveholders", criticized Douglass' willingness to dialogue with slave owners, he famously replied: "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong."[11]

Roy Finkenbine argues:

The most influential African American of the nineteenth century, Douglass made a career of agitating the American conscience. He spoke and wrote on behalf of a variety of reform causes: women's rights, temperance, peace, land reform, free public education, and the abolition of capital punishment. But he devoted the bulk of his time, immense talent, and boundless energy to ending slavery and gaining equal rights for African Americans. These were the central concerns of his long reform career. Douglass understood that the struggle for emancipation and equality demanded forceful, persistent, and unyielding agitation. And he recognized that African Americans must play a conspicuous role in that struggle. Less than a month before his death, when a young black man solicited his advice to an African American just starting out in the world, Douglass replied without hesitation: "Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!"[12]

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (/sˈɜːrnər ˈtrθ/; born Isabella (BelleBaumfreec. 1797 – November 26, 1883) was an African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in SwartekillUlster County, New York, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son, in 1828 she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.

She gave herself the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 after she became convinced that God had called her to leave the city and go into the countryside "testifying the hope that was in her".[1] Her best-known speech was delivered extemporaneously, in 1851, at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. The speech became widely known during the Civil War by the title "Ain't I a Woman?," a variation of the original speech re-written by someone else using a stereotypical Southern dialect; whereas Sojourner Truth was from New York and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army; after the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves.

In 2014, Truth was included in Smithsonian magazine's list of the "100 Most Significant Americans of All Time".[2]

Nat Turner
Nat Turner

Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an enslaved African American who led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia on August 21, 1831. The rebels went from plantation to plantation, gathering horses and guns, freeing other slaves along the way, and recruiting other blacks who wanted to join their revolt. During the rebellion, Virginia legislators targeted free blacks with a colonization bill, which allocated new funding to remove them, and a police bill that denied free blacks trials by jury and made any free blacks convicted of a crime subject to sale and relocation.[1] The slaves killed approximately sixty white men, women and children. Whites organized militias and called out regular troops to suppress the uprising. In addition, white militias and mobs attacked blacks in the area, killing an estimated 120,[2][3] many of whom were not involved in the revolt.[4]

In the aftermath, the state tried those accused of being part of Turner's slave rebellion, 18 were executed, 14 were transported out of state and 32 were acquitted.[5] Turner hid successfully for two months. When found, he was tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and hanged. Across Virginia and other southern states, state legislators passed new laws to control slaves and free blacks. They prohibited education of slaves and free blacks, restricted rights of assembly for free blacks, withdrew their right to bear arms (in some states), and to vote (in North Carolina, for instance), and required white ministers to be present at all black worship services.

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (born Mary Jane McLeod; July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955) was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian and civil rights activist best known for starting a private school for African-American students in Daytona Beach, Florida. She attracted donations of time and money, and developed the academic school as a college. It later continued to develop as Bethune-Cookman University. She also was appointed as a national adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of what was known as his Black Cabinet. She was known as "The First Lady of The Struggle" because of her commitment to gain better lives for African Americans.[1]

Born in Mayesville, South Carolina, to parents who had been slaves, she started working in fields with her family at age five. She took an early interest in becoming educated; with the help of benefactors, Bethune attended college hoping to become a missionary in Africa. She started a school for African-American girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. It later merged with a private institute for African-American boys, and was known as the Bethune-Cookman School. Bethune maintained high standards and promoted the school with tourists and donors, to demonstrate what educated African Americans could do. She was president of the college from 1923 to 1942, and 1946 to 1947. She was one of the few women in the world to serve as a college president at that time.

Bethune was also active in women's clubs, which were strong civic organizations supporting welfare and other needs, and became a national leader. After working on the presidential campaign for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, she was invited as a member of his Black Cabinet. She advised him on concerns of black people and helped share Roosevelt's message and achievements with blacks, who had historically been Republican voters since the Civil War. At the time, blacks had been largely disenfranchised in the South since the turn of the century, so she was speaking to black voters across the North. Upon her death, columnist Louis E. Martin said, "She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor."[2]

Honors include designation of her home in Daytona Beach as a National Historic Landmark,[3] her house in Washington, D.C. as a National Historic Site,[4] and the installation of a memorial sculpture of her in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.[5]


Booker Taliaferro Washington
Booker Taliaferro Washington

Booker Taliaferro Washington (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) was an American educator, author, orator, and advisor to presidents of the United States. Between 1890 and 1915, Washington was the dominant leader in the African-American community.

Washington was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery and became the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants. They were newly oppressed in the South by disenfranchisementand the Jim Crow discriminatory laws enacted in the post-Reconstruction Southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Washington was a key proponent of African-American businesses and one of the founders of the National Negro Business League. His base was the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama. As lynchings in the South reached a peak in 1895, Washington gave a speech, known as the "Atlanta compromise", which brought him national fame. He called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship, rather than trying to challenge directly the Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. Washington mobilized a nationwide coalition of middle-class blacks, church leaders, and white philanthropists and politicians, with a long-term goal of building the community's economic strength and pride by a focus on self-help and schooling. But, secretly, he also supported court challenges to segregation and restrictions on voter registration, passing on funds to the NAACP for this purpose.[1] Black militants in the North, led by W. E. B. Du Bois, at first supported the Atlanta compromise but after 1909, they set up the NAACP to work for political change. They tried with limited success to challenge Washington's political machine for leadership in the black community but also built wider networks among white allies in the North.[2] Decades after Washington's death in 1915, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s took a more active and militant approach, which was also based on new grassroots organizations based in the South, such as CORESNCC and SCLC.

Booker T. Washington mastered the nuances of the political arena in the late 19th century, which enabled him to manipulate the media, raise money, develop strategy, network, push, reward friends, and distribute funds, while punishing those who opposed his plans for uplifting blacks. His long-term goal was to end the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of African Americans, who then still lived in the South.[3]

John Brown
John Brown

John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist who believed in and advocated armed insurrection as the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. Brown first gained attention when he led small groups of volunteers during the Bleeding Kansas crisis of 1856. Dissatisfied with the pacifism of the organized abolitionist movement, he said, "These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!" In May 1856, Brown and his supporters killed five supporters of slavery in the Pottawatomie massacre, which responded to the sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. Brown then commanded anti-slavery forces at the Battle of Black Jack (June 2) and the Battle of Osawatomie (August 30).

In 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry to start a liberation movement among the slaves there. During the raid, he seized the armory; seven people were killed, and ten or more were injured. He intended to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but the attack failed. Within 36 hours, Brown's men had fled or been killed or captured by local pro-slavery farmers, militiamen, and U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee. Tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men, and inciting a slave insurrection, Brown was found guilty on all counts and was hanged.

Historians agree that the Harpers Ferry raid escalated tensions that, a year later, led to the South's secession and Civil War. Brown's raid captured the nation's attention, as Southerners feared it was just the first of many Northern plots to cause a slave rebellion that might endanger their lives, while Republicans dismissed the notion and claimed they would not interfere with slavery in the South. "John Brown's Body" was a popular Unionmarching song during the Civil War and portrayed Brown as a martyr.

Brown's actions as an abolitionist, and the tactics he chose, still make him a controversial figure today. He is sometimes memorialized as a heroic martyr and a visionary, and sometimes vilified as a madman and a terrorist.[1]Historian James Loewen surveyed American History textbooks and noted that until about 1890, historians considered Brown perfectly sane, but from about 1890 until 1970, he was generally portrayed as insane.[2]



Dred Scott
Dred Scott

Dred Scott (c. 1799 – September 17, 1858) was an enslaved African American man in the United States who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857, popularly known as the "Dred Scott Decision". Scott claimed that he and his wife should be granted their freedom because they had lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory for four years, where slavery was illegal. The United States Supreme Court decided 7–2 against Scott, finding that neither he nor any other person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States, and therefore Scott could not bring suit in federal court under diversity of citizenship rules. Moreover, Scott's temporary residence outside Missouri did not bring about his emancipation under the Missouri Compromise, which the court ruled unconstitutional as it would "improperly deprive Scott's owner of his legal property".

While Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had hoped to settle issues related to slavery and Congressional authority by this decision, it aroused public outrage, deepened sectional tensions between the northern and southern U.S. states, and hastened the eventual explosion of their differences into the American Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the post-Civil War Reconstruction Amendments—the ThirteenthFourteenth and Fifteenth amendments—nullified the decision.

Circa 1799, Dred Scott was born into slavery in Southampton County, Virginia. It is not clear whether Dred was his given name or a shortened form of Etheldred.[2] In 1818, Peter Blow and his family took their six slaves to Alabama, where the family ran an unsuccessful farm in a location near Huntsville that is now occupied by Oakwood University.[3][4][5] The Blows gave up farming in 1830 and moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where they ran a boarding house.[6] Dred Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon serving in the United States Army. After Scott learned he would be sold to Dr. Emerson and relocated to Rock Island, Illinois, he attempted to run away. His decision to do so was spurred by a distaste he had previously developed for Dr. Emerson. Scott was temporarily successful in his escape as he, much like many other runaway slaves during this time period, "never tried to distance his pursuers, but dodged around among his fellow slaves as long as possible." Eventually, he was captured in the "Lucas Swamps" of Missouri and taken back.[7] Blow died in 1832, and historians debate whether Scott was sold to Emerson before or after Blow's death. Some believe that Scott was sold in 1831, while others point to a number of slaves in Blow's estate who were sold to Emerson after Blow's death, including one with a name given as Sam, who may be the same person as Scott.[1]

As an army officer, Dr. Emerson moved frequently, taking Scott with him to each new army posting. In 1836, Emerson and Scott went to Fort Armstrong, in the free state of Illinois. In 1837, Emerson took Scott to Fort Snelling, in what is now the state of Minnesota and was then in the free territory of Wisconsin. There, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, a slave owned by Lawrence Taliaferro. The marriage was formalized in a civil ceremony presided over by Taliaferro, who was a justice of the peace. Since slave marriages had no legal sanction, supporters of Scott would later point to this ceremony as evidence that Scott was being treated as a free man. Nevertheless, Taliaferro transferred Harriet to Emerson, who treated the Scotts as his slaves.[6]

Emerson moved to Jefferson Barracks in 1837, leaving the Scott family behind and leasing them out to other officers. In February 1838, Emerson met and married Eliza Irene Sanford at Fort Jesup in Louisiana, whereupon he sent for the Scotts to join him. While on a steamboat on the Mississippi River, between the free state of Illinois and the Iowa district of Wisconsin Territory, Harriet Scott gave birth to their first child, whom they named Eliza after their mistress. They later had a daughter, Lizzie. Eventually, they would also have two sons, but neither survived past infancy.[6][8][self-published source]

The Emersons and Scotts returned to Missouri in 1840. In 1842, Emerson left the Army. After he died in the Iowa Territory in 1843, his widow Irene inherited his estate, including the Scotts. For three years after Emerson's death, she continued to lease out the Scotts as hired slaves. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase his and his family's freedom, offering $300, about $8,000 in current value.[9] However, Irene Emerson refused, prompting Scott to resort to legal recourse.[10]