Throughout most of America’s history, Americans of African descent were its largest minority group. In July 2001, they were overtaken by Hispanics (see Hispanic and related terms) but still made up 12.7 percent of the U.S. population (36.1 million/284.8 million). Most African Americans are descended from slaves forcibly brought by Europeans to the United States and the Caribbean during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The continent of Africa was the native home to darkskinned peoples who came to be called Negroes (blacks) by Europeans. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, about 11 million Africans were forced into slavery and brought to the Americas. Some 600,000 of these were brought to lands now comprising the United States and Canada. Their most frequent destinations included Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas, where by the 1770s, blacks constituted more than 40 percent of the population.
Most black Africans lived south of the vast Sahara desert, which minimized contact between them and Europeans until the 15th century, when Italian and Portuguese merchants began to cross the Sahara, and Portuguese mariners, to sail down the western coast. In 1497, Bartolomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa, and in the following year Vasco da Gama reached the east coast port of Malindi on his voyage to India. The Portuguese expanded their coastal holdings, particularly in the areas of modern Angola and Mozambique, where they established plantations and began to force native peoples into slavery. When the Portuguese arrived in Africa, there were few large political states. Constant warring among hundreds of native ethnic groups provided a steady supply of war captives for purchase. With the decimation of Native American populations in Spanish territories and the advent of British, French, and Dutch colonialism, demand for slaves increased dramatically during the 17th and 18th centuries. Sometimes they were captured by European slavers, but most often African middlemen secured captives to be sold on the coast to wealthy European slave merchants.
Although the earliest slaves were taken from the coastal regions of Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, Angola, and Mozambique, by the 17th century most were being brought from interior regions, further diversifying the ethnic background of Africans brought to the Americas. Once at the coast, captives usually would be held in European forts or slaving depots until their sale could be arranged with merchants bringing a variety of manufactured items from Europe or America, including textiles, metalware, alcohol, firearms and gunpowder, and tobacco. Africa thus became part of the infamous triangular trade: New England merchants would exchange simple manufactured goods on the western coast of Africa for slaves, who would in turn be shipped to the West Indies where they were traded for rum and molasses.
Once a merchant had secured a full cargo, Africans were inhumanely packed into European ships for the Middle Passage, a voyage of anywhere from five to 12 weeks from West Africa to the Americas. Some slavers were loose packers, which reduced disease, while others were tight packers who expected a certain percentage of deaths and tried to maximize profits by shipping as many slaves as space would allow. It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent died en route during the 16th and 17th centuries, and 5 to 10 percent during the 18th and 19th centuries. African men, who were most highly valued, were usually separated from women and children during the passage. The holds of the ships rarely allowed Africans to stand, and they were often unable to clean themselves throughout the voyage. Upon arrival in the Americas, slavers would advertise the auction of their cargo, often describing particular skills and allowing Africans to be inspected before sale. It was common for slaves to be sold more than once, and many came to North America after initial sales in the West Indies.
The first Africans were brought to British North America in 1619 to Jamestown, VIRGINIA, probably as servants. Their numbers remained small throughout the 17th century, and slavery was not officially sanctioned until the 1660s, when slave codes began to be enacted. This enabled a small number of African Americans to maintain their freedom and even to become landholders, though this practice was not common. By that time, passage of the navigation acts, lower tobacco prices, and the difficulty in obtaining indentured servants had led to a dramatic rise in the demand for slaves. Although only 600,000 slaves were brought into the region, as a result of the natural increase that prevailed after 1700, the number of African Americans in the United States rose to 4 million by 1860.
The first Africans to arrive in New France were brought in 1628. Although the lack of an extensive plantation economy kept their numbers small, they were readily available from Caribbean plantations and French Louisiana. Slaves were never widely used in northern colonies in either British or French territories, where most were employed as domestic servants. Around 1760, the slave population in Canada was about 1,200, and in New England around 2,000.
The massive forced migration of Africans to North America created a unique African-American culture based on a common African heritage, the experience of slavery, and the teachings of Christianity. As a result of the patterns of the slave trade, it was impossible for most slaves to identify the exact tribe or ethnic group from which they came. African music and folktales continued to be told and were adapted to changing circumstances. Although African religious practices were occasionally maintained, most often the slaves’ belief in spirits was combined with Christian teaching and the slave experience to produce a faith emphasizing the Old Testament themes of salvation from bondage and God’s protection of a chosen people. The majority of slaves labored on plantations in a community of 20 or more slaves, subject to beatings, rape, and even death, without the protection of the law and usually denied any access to education. Despite the fact that slaves were not allowed to marry, the family was the principal bulwark against life’s harshness, and marriage and family bonds usually remained strong. Strong ties of kinship extended across several generations and even to the plantation community at large.
The 500,000 free African Americans in 1860 were so generally discriminated against that they have been referred to as “slaves without masters,” but their liberty and greater access to learning enabled them to openly join the abolitionist movement, which expanded rapidly after 1830, and to bring greater knowledge of world events and technological developments to the African-American community after the Civil War. Some, like the former slave Frederick Douglass, inspired reformers and other members of the white middle class to abandon racial prejudice, though this was uncommon even among abolitionists.
The first large-scale migration of free African Americans included some 3,000 black Loyalists who fled New York for Nova Scotia at the end of the American Revolution in 1783, most settling in Birchtown and Shelburne (see American Revolution and immigration). Toward the end of the war, slaves were promised freedom in return for claiming protection behind British lines. Facing racism and difficult farming conditions, in 1792 nearly 1,200 returned to Sierra Leone in Africa.
African-American farmworkers in the 1930s board a truck near Homestead, Florida.The enslavement of millions of Africans between the 1660s and the 1860s led to the creation of a highly segregated society in the United States, still persistent at the start of the 21st century. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
In response to the Enlightenment ideals of natural rights and political liberty and the evangelical concern for humanitarianism and Christian justice, between 1777 and 1804 the northern states gradually abolished slavery. The slave trade was banned by Britain in 1807, and slavery abolished throughout the empire in 1833. The slave trade was prohibited in the United States in 1808, but the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the rise of the short-staple cotton industry reinvigorated Southern reliance on slave labor at the same time that the antislavery movement was growing in strength. It is estimated that after the abolition of the slave trade, more than 500,000 slaves were sold from farms and plantations in Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and other states to the cotton plantations of the Deep South, with little regard for the preservation of slave families. As a result, when President Abraham Lincoln freed slaves under Southern control in 1863 and slavery was abolished in 1865, many African Americans not only came from a legacy of forced enslavement but had also been uprooted themselves.
See also racial and ethnic categories; RACISM.