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African American History

Study the history of African Americans in the United States, which is the largest minority group in the country. This history began in 1619, when 20 Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia to work as indentured servants. A desire to retain the labor of Black people in the United States beyond the terms of the indentured servant contract led to the establishment of Black chattel slavery in Virginia in 1661. The establishment of slavery was rationalized by the belief that Black people were an inferior race. The institution of slavery was particularly strong in the South, where agricultural operations required significant manpower. It was never widespread in the North. Approximately 430,000 Africans were brought to the United States through the slave trade, until the trade became illegal in 1808.

Approximately 5,000 African Americans fought against the British in the American Revolution (1775–1793), after which states in the North abolished slavery. The ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, however, entrenched slavery in the South by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation. Laws known as slave codes ensured the total domination of Black slaves by their white masters. Some slaves fought back in organized revolts, as was the case with Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner; other slaves chose to flee to the North, some using a secret network known as the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman being the most famous of the Underground Railroad guides.

During the period of slavery, about one-tenth of African Americans were free Black people who were either descendants of indentured servants or former slaves who had either purchased their freedom or had been emancipated by their masters. While they faced legal and social discrimination in voting, property ownership, and freedom of movement, they organized their own churches, schools, and mutual aid societies, including the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, formed in 1816. They also established newspapers to advocate for the abolition of slavery, such as the North Star, founded by Frederick Douglass in 1847.


The slavery issue came to a head in 1861 when the Civil War broke out. During the course of the four-year war, more than 186,000 African American volunteers served in the Union Army. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, liberating slaves in the rebellious Southern states. After the war ended in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution officially abolished slavery in the United States. This amendment was followed by the Fourteenth Amendment granting African Americans citizenship (1868) and the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing their right to vote (1870).

The early period of Reconstruction (1865–1877) was a time of significant advancements for African Americans, as several Black men were elected to state and federal political positions. The Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency established by Congress in 1865, provided aid to former slaves and established hospitals and schools, including institutions of higher learning such as Fisk University and Hampton Institute. Federal soldiers stationed in the South provided a measure of protection of African Americans’ rights.

Starting in the 1870s, however, many of these gains were eroded, as the federal government began to withdraw its troops and allow the South to govern itself again. Southern states enacted black codes that were not markedly different from the slave codes, forcing African Americans into de facto slavery through sharecropping arrangements. White terrorist organizations, like the Ku Klux Klan, intimidated African American voters, and lynch mobs targeted those who attempted to assert their rights. As the nineteenth century came to a close, the economic and social outlook for most African Americans was grim.

African American leaders differed on how to address the systemic racism in American society. Some leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, believed that African Americans needed to create a society entirely separate from white society. One of the most influential leaders, Booker T. Washington, advanced an agenda of economic advancement rather than a focus on winning political and social rights. Other leaders opposed this accommodationist stance, including W. E. B. DuBois, who helped found the Niagara Movement in 1905 to advocate for full political, civil, and social rights for African Americans. Members of this group founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

In 1900, 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South, primarily in rural agricultural areas. Several years of bad crops between 1910 and 1920, however, spurred a mass move of African Americans in search of factory jobs, primarily to the industrial cities of the North, which became known as the Great Migration. Vibrant African American communities sprang up in Chicago, Detroit, and New York City, most notably New York’s Harlem neighborhood. In the 1920s, the concentration of writers, artists, and musicians in Harlem would be referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. Major figures of the Renaissance include Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Alain LeRoy Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Duke Ellington, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Langston Hughes.

African Americans fought in a segregated military during World War II, with units such as the Tuskegee Airmen winning recognition for bravery and excellence. Upon their return, these veterans began to agitate more forcefully for their rights, signaling the start of the civil rights movement. In the 1940s and 1950s, the NAACP won several key court battles, most notably in the 1954 U.S. Supreme court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) which outlawed segregation in public schools. Accompanying these legal battles were nonviolent demonstrations and boycotts organized most notably by Martin Luther King Jr., who rose to prominence after his leadership of the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956, spurred by the resistance of Rosa Parks. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

Peaceful demonstrations were frequently met with violence perpetrated by both civilians and by officers of the law. African American groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers popularized a militant response to this aggression, with the phrase “Black Power” symbolizing both a refusal to be subjugated by white society as well as black pride. This attitude had artistic expression in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, led by Amiri Baraka. Prominent militant leaders Malcolm X and Huey Newton called for African Americans to respond forcefully to white violence.

The civil rights movement saw major legislative gains by 1970, including the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As a result, voting drives saw the number of African American registered voters double between 1960 and 1969. For the first time since the Reconstruction Era, black politicians were elected to positions in city, state, and federal government, including Edward W. Brooke who served as a senator from Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979. African Americans also earned high-ranking appointments in government, including Robert C. Weaver, the first African American member of a presidential cabinet (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; 1966).

While the gains made during the civil rights movement were significant, they in no way ended racial discrimination. African Americans continued to experience inequity in housing, jobs, and education, prompting efforts to resolve inequity through affirmative action programs. This situation continued into the twenty-first century even after the landmark election of the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008. In 2013, the problem of violence against black people—police violence in particular—became so alarming that activists formed the Black Lives Matter movement.

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African American History Resources

Gale provides scholarly resources, including databasesprimary source archives, and eBooks, to advance researchers’ studies.


Gale databases offer researchers access to credible, historical articles, including full-text articles covering many history topics from newspapers, Black history journals, and more, aligned with lesson plans for teaching and guides for additional research.

Primary Source Archives

Gale Primary Sources contains full-text archives and digitized literature that provide researchers with firsthand articles from Black history journals and African American history primary sources, to dive into African American studies at your university.

Gale eBooks

Gale offers a variety of publications covering a wide range of African American studies topics, including cultures, Negro Leagues, the Black Power movement, and more. Users can add Gale eBooks to a customized collection and cross-search to pinpoint relevant articles. Workflow tools help users easily share, save, and download publications.

  • Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society, 1st Edition

    Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society, 1st Edition

    ABC-CLIO  |  2015  |  ISBN-13: 9781598846669

    This three-volume encyclopedia will provide readers with an overview of contemporary customs and life in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa through discussions of key concepts and topics that touch everyday life among the nations’ peoples. The main content is arranged alphabetically by country, then by topic, with suggestions for further reading. It includes contributions from numerous eminent scholars of African history, and provides a clear African voice via articles from scholars from the African continent. This multivolume set is perfect for both high school and public library shelves.

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  • Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People: History and Memory, 1st Edition

    Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African People: History and Memory, 1st Edition

    Palgrave Macmillan  |  2015  |  ISBN-13: 9781137080653

    This important look at the Congress of African People combines historical research and analysis with the author’s firsthand experience with the organization, providing the first historical narrative of a consequential player in the Black Power movement.

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  • Freedom's Promise: The Negro Leagues, 1st Edition

    Freedom's Promise: The Negro Leagues, 1st Edition

    Core Library  |  2020  |  ISBN-13: 9781532175695

    In the early 1900s, African Americans faced widespread discrimination. Professional baseball leagues banned Black ballplayers. So African Americans formed their own professional baseball leagues. This book explores the history of these leagues and their legacy today. Easy-to-read text, vivid images, and helpful back matter give readers a clear look at this subject. Features include a table of contents, infographics, a glossary, additional resources, and an index. This book is aligned to Common Core Standards and correlated to state standards. Core Library is an imprint of Abdo Publishing, a division of ABDO.

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  • Key Questions in American History: Did the Civil Rights Movement Achieve Civil Rights?, 1st Edition

    Key Questions in American History: Did the Civil Rights Movement Achieve Civil Rights?, 1st Edition

    Powerkids Press  |  2019  |  ISBN-13: 9781508167556

    The civil rights movement, led by such icons as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, strived to achieve civil rights for African Americans and other minority groups in the United States. Gaining national attention in the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement is characterized by different protests, both nonviolent and violent, asserting that African Americans are equal to white Americans. Such protests as the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington worked to change the way that the local, state, and federal governments perceived African Americans. How successful were their efforts? This book explores the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and addresses their effects during and after the civil rights movement.

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