In his 1944 study, An American Dilemma, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal posed a question for Americans: How could they reconcile their nation’s ideals of equality, justice, and liberty when they lived in a society that enforced racial inequality?
The struggle for full equality in the United States does not merely cover the span of decades. It is a project generations and centuries in the making.
This “dilemma”—the uneasy coexistence of America’s democratic ideals with domestic policies that systematically marginalized African Americans and other peoples of color—has fundamentally shaped the cultural and political landscape of the United States. In order to understand our nation’s history, it is vital to understand how this has shaped the African American experience. Find these stories—from escaped slaves and abolitionists, to soldiers, intellectuals, and business entrepreneurs—preserved in our national parks and historic places.
The first Africans to arrive in North America were captured and sold as chattel in the transatlantic slave trade. Between the 1600s and 1800s, over twelve million enslaved Africans were shipped to the New World. Although most commonly associated with the plantations of the southern colonies, slavery fueled commerce in the northern colonies and the Early Republic. As we remember these stories at sites like Hampton National Historic Site in Maryland, Magnolia Plantation in Louisiana, and Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island in Florida, it becomes clear that slavery was far more than an economic institution. It stripped individuals of their most basic human rights and embedded racial inequality into American society and law. The enslaved and their descendants have spent the subsequent centuries fighting against injustice and for the freedom and human rights the United States’ society had so long denied them.
On the eve of the Civil War, over four million African Americans were held in bondage. They resisted slavery in various ways—by sabotaging work for their masters, learning to read and write in secret, orchestrating slave revolts, and escaping to freedom. Both free and enslaved African Americans—along with European American sympathizers—operated a network to freedom to help guide escaped slaves to freedom called the Underground Railroad.
By the 1850s, escaped slaves’ accounts of their experiences and abolitionists’ writings widely exposed the horrors of slavery. As the nation spiraled towards civil war in 1861, enslaved people seized opportunities to claim their freedom. Before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, thousands of slaves had freed themselves—by fleeing across Union lines, enlisting in the Union army, and rebuilding their lives. Hundreds found their way to Fort Monroe, where the term “contraband” marked their status of being neither free nor enslaved.
During Reconstruction (1865-1877), Americans faced the daunting task of restoring order in the South, reunifying a war-torn nation, and extending equality to African Americans. The federal government passed a series of constitutional amendments aimed to extend rights and citizenship to emancipated slaves—the 13th Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the 14th Amendment (1868) extended citizenship to all persons born in the United States and reaffirmed equal protection of the laws to all citizens, and the 15th Amendment (1870) protected the suffrage of citizens regardless of race.
Although African Americans and their allies had made great strides in the years during which federal armies occupied the South, many of these accomplishments were reversed during the years after Reconstruction. The fate of African Americans was gradually turned over to individual states, many of which adopted restrictive laws that enforced segregation based on race and imposed measures aimed at keeping African Americans from voting booths. White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan—who often had the cooperation of the courts and the police— used violence and terror to strip African Americans of their rights and dignity. By the turn of the twentieth century, racial segregation had become so deeply entrenched that sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois declared that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”
African Americans responded to this period of retrenchment with various strategies. Thousands of southern blacks migrated to northern cities to find economic opportunity and escape racialized violence. Many former slaves who resettled in Chicago found employment as porters on George Pullman’s luxurious railroad cars—although they were barred from employee housing in Pullman’s planned industrial town, now the Pullman National Monument. Pullman soon became one of the country’s largest employers of African Americans. In 1925, A. Phillip Randolph established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters for African American workers and negotiated a landmark labor agreement with Pullman and was celebrated as a monumental achievement in African American labor history .
Barred from full civic participation, a number of African Americans believed that economic self-sufficiency and gradual social acculturation would uplift their communities. At the Tuskegee Institute in Macon County, Alabama, former slave and educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) advocated that freed blacks focus on industrial schooling. Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) built one of the most successful black business empires in the United States with her line of hair and beauty products. At the Madam C.J. Walker Building in Indianapolis, Indiana, the entrepreneur also developed a comprehensive training and scholarship program for her employees. As “Walker Agents,” working black women developed advanced skills to help them gain financial independence. Other reformers, like Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) and members of the Niagara Movement, rejected more accommodationist policies and called for a full restoration of political equality or racial separatism entirely.
These strategies were all important precursors to the modern Civil Rights Movement (1954-1965). Following World War II, African Americans called for the same democracy at home that Allied powers had fought for so fiercely abroad. Grass-roots coalitions of students, workers, pastors, and lawyers organized, led, and participated in peaceful marches, demonstrations, and voter registration drives. Their heroism—and sacrifices—transcended the leadership of a few charismatic men, and are preserved in many NPS sites. The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site interprets the dedicated efforts of grassroot activists and national organizations that culminated in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision leading to the desegregation of public schools in 21 states. At the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, visitors can learn about the televised attacks on peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, that took place a few short months before President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
These stories highlight some of the most tragic and triumphant moments in America’s past. The struggle for full equality in the United States does not merely cover the span of decades. It is a project generations and centuries in the making. Today, citizens build upon the legacies of these individuals and communities as they continue to challenge injustice.
The experiences of African Americans preserved and interpreted in our nation’s parks and historic places honors inspiring perseverance in the face of injustice and demonstrates the complex and uneven path our nation has traveled to ensure liberty and justice for all.
Visit the National Park Service Telling All Americans' Stories portal to learn more about American heritage themes and histories.
Last updated: February 9, 2017