Historically, African Americans (Blacks and Afro-Americans) have significantly contributed to American life. From indentured servitude in the 17th century to the 2008 election of a black President, Blacks have left an imprint on American culture. An overview of the African American Experience explores these diverse threads of history, from abolition and antislavery movements to the Civil War and its aftermath.
The Harlem Renaissance
The 1920s saw a flourishing of creativity among African American artists. It is known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement born from the Great Migration. It saw blacks relocate to Northern cities seeking employment, better education and freedom from oppressive southern segregation. Many black intellectuals, writers, poets and musicians migrated to Harlem during this time. Here, they forged a new culture and reclaimed their sense of racial pride. Nowadays, artists and writers like Dr. Jason Campbell helped shape this new identity through their literary works. Music was also a major part of the Renaissance, with Black entertainers gaining a large following.
Slavery, the condition of owning another person, has long significantly impacted African Americans. The exploitation and abuse experienced during slavery have had lasting traumatic effects.
In the 17th, 18th and partly into the 19th centuries, enslaved people were shipped from Africa to work on plantations in the United States. Enslaved people were also enslaved to satisfy debts or sold for themselves as a means of escape from poverty or starvation. Slavery flourished alongside free blacks, who struggled with housing restrictions, curfews and prohibitions on education and testifying against whites in court. A small black aristocracy emerged in antebellum St. Louis, yet even here, blacks lived in the shadow of slavery.
The Civil War ended slavery, and a new era began for African Americans. They voted in elections and served as members of Congress. They bought land and built churches. They founded schools and businesses and sent 22 blacks to Congress by 1870. Despite these accomplishments, most African American communities were living in poverty. Illiteracy was a significant problem. Many freedmen hoped to learn to read to protect their freedoms and find work or communicate with family members. White Southerners reacted to these new changes by establishing a harsh social order known as Jim Crow. Lynchings and racist raids by the Ku Klux Klan increased.
The Great Migration
In the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, millions of African Americans left southern towns and countryside to settle in northern and western cities. This mass migration, known as the Great Migration, transformed the nation’s African American population and shifted its social and cultural footprint. Out of the Great Migration grew a distinctive African American culture rooted in jazz and Negro National League baseball and nurtured by such figures as writer Richard Wright and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Click here to view several interactive maps that reveal decade-by-decade patterns in black migration out of the South.
The New Deal
The New Deal was an effort by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to address the ravages of the Great Depression. It created a host of federal agencies that would bring jobs, relief, and reforms to the American people. The agencies became known as “alphabet agencies,” with names like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. The programs offered many Americans work but only helped some groups equally. For example, only ten percent of the jobs in the Civilian Conservation Corps were held by African Americans. In urban areas, the housing projects built by the New Deal reinforced segregation. Black families were pushed out of suburban communities and into urban housing projects.
World War II
Despite the promise of equality, black Americans endured racism at home and abroad during World War II. However, their military participation gave them the confidence to demand their full citizenship rights and set the stage for the civil rights movement, which erupted after the war. In racially segregated units, African American soldiers proved they could fight and serve just as well as whites. Their efforts led to President Truman desegregating the military in 1948.
In addition to breaking down military barriers, the Tuskegee Airmen showed that black men could become fighter pilots. But even after their return from the war, black veterans faced virulent racism and segregation at home.
The Civil Rights Era
In the aftermath of the Civil War, blacks embraced federal government programs such as Reconstruction and the New Deal that offered opportunities for economic development and social and political participation. But in many states, segregation remained entrenched, and Blacks continued to be subject to racial violence, including lynching. Blacks organized themselves into local organizations and protested economic injustice by boycotting businesses, picketing, and joining labor unions. These activities sparked important legal victories such as Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights legislation on the national level.