Black Americans

Alternative names: African Americans
Location: throughout USA
Population: approximately 27 million
% of population: 11.3%
Religion: various
Language: English

There are approximately 27 million Black Americans living in the United States. They make up the largest non-white minority group. The majority are descended from the large slave populations who were imported into North America between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. They therefore share a common experience of discrimination, which despite the removal of legal barriers to full equality, continues in part today. Although Black Americans were formerly concentrated in the southern states, today they can be found throughout the USA, especially in the large cities of the eastern seaboard, mid-west and south.


Black people have a history in America that goes back to the time of the founding of the original 13 colonies. When the British landed at Jamestown in Virginia in 1619 there were an estimated 23 black men and women among their passengers. There is evidence that at the beginning of the seventeenth century black people enjoyed a position of equal status with whites and were not slaves but indentured servants. A 1651 report gives evidence of an Anthony Johnson, a free black, living in Virginia who received a grant of 250 acres of land and imported five servants.

In documents from the period, blacks who arrived in the colonies were listed as Negroes and described as servants, not slaves. It is unclear as to the exact time that slavery became instituted but by 1641 Massachusetts gave statutory recognition to slavery and other states followed suit. Whether for economic reasons, or because black people were not under the protection of any recognized government or because blacks like other servants could not escape and blend readily into the predominantly white society, slavery in the USA became associated with the black race. In Virginia in the 1660s statutes were passed that made black people slaves for life and forbade intermarriage between whites and blacks, which in itself suggests that it was practised. Similar statutes were adopted by all of the 13 colonies.

Even at this stage blacks as well as whites protested against the institution of slavery but nonetheless it lasted for more than two more centuries in the USA. One of the earliest groups to protest were the Quakers in Germantown Pennsylvania who made a formal protest denouncing slavery as early as 1688. The period of the early 1700s is also filled with reports of slave revolts from New York to South Carolina and there are records in Massachusetts of slaves petitioning the legislature for their freedom. Eight such petitions were filed during the Revolutionary War.

Despite this fact, however, many blacks, slave and free alike, fought in the Revolutionary War for the colonies while others fought for the British. Crispus Attucks, an ex-slave, was the first to die for the cause of American independence in 1770 at the Boston Massacre which is regarded as the beginning of the war for independence. However in 1787 when the US Constitution was approved in Philadelphia it contained three clauses protecting the institution of slavery: blacks were given the status of property and considered to be three-fifths of a person.

Vermont abolished slavery in 1777 and by 1804 all the northern colonies had passed similar legislation. However in the south where slave labour was needed on the enormous plantations the system continued well into the mid-nineteenth century. In the states where slavery was practised blacks could be sold away from family members. Although many converted to Christianity, in these states slave marriages were not encouraged or sanctioned by any church though procreation was encouraged to ensure an additional supply of labour, and laws were passed prohibiting the education of slaves: some states going so far as to prohibit the education of free blacks as well.

During this period many blacks escaped to safety in the north and Canada via the underground railroad, a network of houses and churches staffed by individuals who offered shelter and safety to the slaves. Such acts prompted the passage in 1793 by the US Congress of the Fugitive Slave Law which made it a criminal offence to harbour runaway slaves. By the beginning of the nineteenth century most northern states passed similar laws. In 1807 Congress banned the importation of slaves but not slavery itself. The riots and protests against slavery continued and in 1854, 2,000 troops were needed to escort Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave, through the streets of Boston to return him to the south.

In 1863 as the Civil War between the northern (Union) and southern (Confederate) states escalated, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln and the slaves in the confederate states, except for certain areas in Louisiana and West Virginia, were freed. The proclamation also did not apply to the slaves in the border states. Again when asked to fight for their country blacks responded, as they had during the Revolutionary War and the war of 1812. As many as 185,000 black soldiers fought in the Union Army during the Civil War and as many as 29,000 in the Union Navy.


The period following the Civil War was known as Reconstruction. During this period black people finally received the protection of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution that guaranteed them the right of freedom, the right of full citizenship and the right to vote. They made use of their new-found political power to elect government officials and political leaders. Black Americans were elected to congressional posts and attended schools, and intermarriage between the races increased. The first Civil Rights Act was passed in 1875. It provided for access to public facilities and accommodation without regard to race, colour or previous condition of servitude. The Act gave federal authorities the right to protect the constitutional rights of blacks when states failed to do so. That same year there were eight blacks in Congress; one senator and seven Congressmen.

However, there were white Americans who did not want equality for blacks and had already slowly started to take away the rights that blacks thought had been guaranteed. States began to put conditions on a person’s right to vote. There were poll taxes that blacks could not afford; literacy tests that blacks who were not educated could not read; “grandfather clauses” which restricted the right to vote to those whose grandfathers had been free persons. These laws restricted but did not stop black voters so fear and intimidation were also used. This was also the beginnings of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan who used terror and intimidation to stop blacks from participating in the political process and to keep them in a subordinate condition. In 1883 there were 53 reported lynchings of black men; in 1886, 74; and in 1897, 123. From 1883 to 1952 there were reported lynchings every year.

“Jim Crow” also emerged during this period. Essentially based on racist ideology the Jim Crow system and laws came to represent a doctrine described as “separate but equal”. In 1883 when the Civil Rights Act was deemed unconstitutional and in 1896 when the Supreme Court upheld the separate but equal doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson the Jim Crow system was firmly in place and would remain secure well into the middle of the twentieth century. Those blacks who immigrated to the north found that they faced the same discrimination and where the discrimination was not legal in the form of ordinances defacto segregation had virtually the same effect.

Black organizations

The period between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s seem deceptively calm. Blacks seemed to have become complacent and to accept the inequality in the USA despite the fact that these rights were guaranteed in the Constitution. It was during this period, however, that the legal, political, economical and educational foundations were being laid and organizations being formed that would later be used in the 1960s to attain civil rights for blacks. During this time when blacks found that they were not welcome at white institutions black colleges and universities became very popular. Black fraternities and sororities emerged and the United Negro College Fund was incorporated in 1944.

The legal foundations were also being laid as the Supreme Court slowly eroded the oppressive laws and practices of the southern as well as the northern states. One such example came as early as 1915 when the Supreme Court in the case of Guinn v. United States held that grandfather clauses in the Oklahoma and Maryland constitutions violated the 15th Amendment. This was also followed by similar decisions such as the decisions in Buchanan v. Warley in which the Court struck down a Kentucky ordinance requiring separate black and white residential areas. The NAACP Legal Defence and Educational Fund was incorporated in 1939 with Thurgood Marshall as director. He would later become the first black US Supreme Court Justice. In 1946 the US Supreme Court banned segregation in interstate bus travel.

The beginnings of the civil disobedience movement was also present during this period and political organizations that would be influential during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s were formed. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was formed in 1901. This was followed by the formation of the National Urban League in 1911. In 1942 blacks and whites organized the Congress of Race Equality in Chicago and some of its members staged a sit-in. This organization would later play a major role during the 1960s Civil Rights movement. A march on Washington was planned to protest discrimination in the armed forces but was called off after President Roosevelt met with black leaders and issued Executive Order 8802, forbidding racial and religious discrimination in war industries and government training programmes. The first black congressman was elected from the east coast, Adam Clayton Powell, in 1944. In 1947 the NAACP drew up a petition on racism and presented it to the United Nations.

Blacks were also emerging in other areas. The early part of the century saw blacks involved in the arts, entertainment and sports and gaining wide acclaim and acceptance by whites. In 1938 when a black artist Marian Anderson could not perform in Constitutional Hall an estimated 75,000 black and white supporters attended an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Monument in Washington D.C. This was the time of the Harlem renaissance. Jesse Owens, a black athlete, won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. The armed forces were desegregated in 1948. In 1950 Gwendolyn Brooks, a black poet, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and in 1952 the Tuskegee Institute reported that there were no lynchings that year for the first time in 71 years.

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement which had begun unofficially years earlier finally resulted in major gains for blacks educationally, socially, politically, legally and economically during the 1960s. Modelled after the teachings of Gandhi, Black Americans and white supporters led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr were able to gain legal and political advances in their struggle for equality through nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. Dr King was first recognized when he organized the year-long Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott during 1955. The blacks in the city boycotted the buses to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks, a black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the rear of the bus.

The Civil Rights Movement was composed of various different groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) founded in 1960 and other already established groups like the NAACP and CORE. It was characterized by sit-ins which blacks and white supporters sat-in at white-only establishments and refused to move. Civil Rights activists also participated in “Freedom Rides” to reinforce desegregation, and instituted voter registration drives all over the south to ensure that black voters would be represented.

However, the 1960s also saw strong opposition from whites who did not want desegregation and did not believe in equal rights for blacks. Lynchings began again as white opposition increased, riots and protests became more frequent, symbolized most vividly in Alabama in 1963 as nonviolent marchers were attacked by police with fire hoses and dogs. In the south there were numerous bombings and killings and some civil rights activists and supporters lost their lives.

Opposition to civil rights implementation was not confined to the south though this was the area in which the most violent protests occurred. Civil Rights leaders, activists and students were also fighting to end defacto segregation in the north as well. At schools and universities throughout the north students staged walkouts and protests to draw attention to such segregation. In 1963 in one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in history more than 250,000 Americans participated in the March on Washington. Among the supporters were people from every walk of life including religious leaders from the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths.

Other organizations and movements grew out of the Civil Rights Movement. A strong sense of nationalism was beginning and it manifested itself in the Nation of Islam whose members established temples throughout the north and recruited many followers. Among their most influential and prominent leaders was Malcolm X. Other organizations

1 Dr King was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his non-violent efforts against racist practices. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. In 1986 a public holiday was instituted to commemorate his work — the first time a Black American has been so remembered.

also emerged as more and more blacks became frustrated by the seemingly long road to equality. The Black Power movement was formed in 1966 by Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and Floyd McKissick of CORE. Their strategy was based on black control of institutions, organizations, resources and the formation of black political parties. The Black Panther party was formed in 1966. These years saw black anger and frustration in the ghettos of the big northern and western cities finally boil over into massive riots in which lives were lost and property destroyed.

By the end of the 1960s blacks had attained very significant advances. The Supreme Court which had for a long time appeared to be working alone in safeguarding the rights guaranteed to blacks in the US Constitution was now being supported by both the legislative and judicial branches of government. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed which outlawed discrimination in public facilities and was followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act which enabled blacks to participate fully in state and federal elections. For the first time since Reconstruction there was once again a black senator in Congress, Edward Brooks of Massachusetts. In 1965 President Johnson also issued an Executive Order requiring all federal contractors to have affirmative action programmes and implemented compliance by loss of contracts and other penalties. In addition an anti-poverty campaign was launched and equal employment opportunity laws were also passed.

Political developments

The effect of the 1960s is that blacks have managed to do relatively well in local and regional politics. While in the past many Black Americans gave their allegiance to the Republican Party because of its association with Lincoln, today they are overwhelmingly Democrat Party voters. There are approximately 6,000 black elected officials. In more and more cities blacks are competing for mayoral positions as is currently happening in Chicago and New York, while in Atlanta, Georgia there has been a black mayor for more than 16 years. However, blacks do not seem to fare as well on the national level (at the present there are no black senators) but recent events seem to suggest that this may be changing. In the 1988 presidential elections Jesse Jackson, a black candidate, placed a healthy second in the Democrat leadership race, and Ron Brown the lawyer who chaired Jackson’s campaign later became chairman of the Democratic Party, the highest position ever gained by a black person in one of the main parties in the American political system.

Recent Supreme Court decisions however threaten to undo the 25 years of Civil Rights advances made by black Americans. The court by its recent decisions has been chipping away at the affirmative action programmes which require that blacks be given equal opportunities in employment. In June of 1989 the Court in a five-to-four decision said that white employees had the right to challenge affirmative action programmes for minorities. This case was brought by white firemen of Birmingham, Alabama, who challenged the fire department’s new affirmative action programme. Before the affirmative action programme was introduced there were 42 black firemen out of 453 in Birmingham and none of them were ranked lieutenant, captain or battalion chief. The action was brought by firemen when the city promoted its first black lieutenant.

This was the third such decision made by the Supreme Court in 1989 which could have detrimental effects on Black Americans. The first of these decisions came in January 1989 when the court held unconstitutional a Virginia scheme which set aside 30% of public works contracts for minority-owned companies and contractors. The second decision came in June 1989 when the Supreme Court reversed an 18-year precedent regarding employment discrimination. The new decision said that in employment discrimination cases the burden of proof is now on the plaintiff. In previous cases when statistical evidence could be produced to suggest discrimination it was up to the company to disprove that this was not its policy.


Most of the predominantly black colleges were established after the Civil War in the south. There were six such institutions in Atlanta alone, among them Spellman and Morehouse colleges and Howard University was also established in Washington D.C. At first, black colleges remained popular, because access to white institutions of higher education was limited since desegregation was practised institutionally or socially, but even today black institutions remain a viable source of black education in America.

In 1954 in the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education the Supreme Court held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, and separate facilities were inherently unequal. This reversed the earlier separate but equal Supreme Court decision handed down in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. One of the most poignant examples of the struggle of blacks’ fight for higher education and of the opposition of white Americans was the scene outside Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, as nine black children tried to gain entrance and were stopped by the National Guard who were sent there by the Governor to block their entry. Later President Kennedy sent in paratroopers to ensure the safety of black children attempting to enter schools in the south where the separate but equal doctrine, though declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, was still being followed.

In order to desegregate schools “bussing” was used in both the north and the south. White and black children were sent to schools outside their immediate neighbourhoods. White children left the public schools to attend private schools. Bussing led to riots and protests and was later abandoned but the damage was already done. In some urban-areas today public schools remain almost entirely black or white. With the declining prestige of the public school educational system and the financial inability of the majority of black families to send their children to private schools, black children once again face the prospect of inadequate education.

During the 1960s blacks not only fought for and won equal opportunities in education but also sought and attained curriculum provisions. They wanted courses that provided information on black American history as well as contributions made by black Americans. The effects of this aspect of the black American struggle can be seen most influen-tially at the university and college level where black studies classes are usually offered.

However, recent developments in the trends of the number of black students attending educational institutions are disturbing. During the 1980s the number of black males attending institutions of higher education has decreased significantly. 1988 statistics showed that one out of every three black children entering high school will drop out. Some leaders blame this trend on the Reagan administration which increasingly replaced college grants with loans and the apparent attitude of colleges which seem aggressively to recruit only those black students with athletic ability. Still others blame the problem on the drug-dominated societies of the urban areas in which most black Americans live.

Economic and social developments

The events of the 1960s, including affirmative action programmes, have helped a number of blacks economically. The federal government through equal opportunity laws and a commitment by businesses to recruit and retain minorities has given Black Americans a chance to improve their economic position. The number of middle-class blacks has risen significantly. This is in keeping with the overall prosperity of the past two decades. The overall poverty rate has fallen and during the Reagan administration the unemployment rate declined by almost 3%.

However the number of poor black families has increased and continues to do so, even in cities like Atlanta whose overall economic success has allowed a strong black middle class to emerge. Approximately one third of the Black American population live at or below the poverty level, and even where employment rates are relatively high the problem still exists. According to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, even though blacks have an employment rate of 66% in 11 southern states, they hold jobs in the lowest-paying category. Real income for blacks has decreased by 20% over the past 10 years and in 1988 the average income for black families was 60% of that for whites. In 1980,13% of America’s black male population was classified as “inactive”, i.e. not employed and not at school. Of black American children, 45.8% grow up in poverty. With the recent Supreme Court decisions and recent educational policies regarding college grants and loans many black leaders are beginning to fear that the traditional route to the middle class for the next generation of blacks has been greatly narrowed.

The life expectancy rate for blacks is lower than that for whites. In 1985 according to a report issued by the National Center for Health Statistics the life expectancy for blacks, which was 69.5 years, fell to 69.4, while that for whites increased to 75.4 years. Infant mortality is more than double that of whites and accounts for a large part of the difference in the expectancy figures.

In urban centres where blacks are concentrated schools are short of money, housing is bad and social services are poor. In these surroundings drug dealing and violence are common events. A system of poverty seems to have emerged that is passed down from generation to generation. During the 1980s the big cities have seen an increase in the number of gangs and gang-related deaths. The members of these gangs and the victims of their crimes are usually black teenage males. The problem has been linked to the illegal selling of drugs. Drugs remain a problem especially for young urban blacks who can earn hundreds of dollars daily when involved in the trafficking of illegal substances such as crack, a cheap cocaine mixture. Crack wars are now a major cause of death for America’s young black male population. In Washington D.C., a city of barely 750,000, there were an estimated 308 murders in 1988. Most of the victims were black males 15 years or under.

Another troubling development is the increase in the number of black-on-black crimes and which are now higher than the overall American crime rate which itself is very high. The Bureau of Justice estimates that every one in 133 Americans will be the victim of homicide, but the figures for black males is one in 21. In addition there is a one in 10 chance that a black urban male will be the victim or perpetrator of a homicide, which is the leading cause of death for black males aged 15–34. While 83% of all Americans will be the victim of an attempted or completed crime, the rate for black males is 92%. In 1985 blacks accounted for 47% of those arrested for violent crimes and 62% of those arrested for robbery. Of the black victims of robbery 90% were robbed by other blacks. In Washington D.C. the murder rate has risen by 40% since 1987 and most victims and perpetrators are young black men. Black males now make up more than 40% of America’s prison population and in some cities they account for more than 60% of the prison population, an alarming statistic given the fact that blacks make up less than 12% of the population. Recent surveys have shown that discrimination also exists within the judicial system, with, for example, blacks more likely to be given the death penalty in states where it exists than are whites convicted of the same crimes.

Current issues

Some black organizations supported by a growing number of black leaders argue that blacks should be paid reparation as compensation for slavery just as the Japanese-Americans were paid for the period during World War II when they were interned in government camps. They argue that this money can be given to black organizations to enable them to develop institutions and services that could aid the descendants of slaves in America on economic, educational and political levels. So far the question, although an important one, has not been addressed in the political arena in a substantive way.

Another recent development concerns a name change for Black Americans. Some prominent Black Americans, Jesse Jackson among them, have been arguing that Black Americans should cease to be called black and should be referred to as African-Americans. This may seem like a minute point but socially and culturally this has a great deal of significance. What blacks call themselves has been of great importance to them ever since emancipation. A name change has accompanied every change in self-awareness and political activity. During the days of slavery blacks were given their name and identity by their masters who could change their name at any time. When blacks were emancipated they rejected the name negro and began to use the term coloured. During the 1960s when it became beautiful to be black the term was once again changed to reflect the changing black perception of themselves. At a time when poverty is high, drug abuse is increasing, family disruption is prevalent in most black urban communities and the number of racially motivated attacks on minorities has increased, the time may be right for a name change and a new sense of pride and reaffirmation of goals and ideals for Black/African-Americans.