African American Heritage and History


The notorious trans-Atlantic slave trade, which reached its peak during the 18th and early 19th centuries, dispersed millions of Africans throughout the Western Hemisphere. The first Africans arrived in colonial North America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 and scholars contend that British colonists initially recognized them as indentured servants. Their status, however, changed in 1641 when the Massachusetts colony sanctioned the enslavement of African laborers. Similarly, Maryland and Virginia authorized legal servitude in 1660, and by 1755 all 13 colonies had legally recognized chattel slavery (NPS 1995a).

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    Due to diverse climates and geographic conditions, legal bondage varied in colonial North America. In the North, most Africans labored on small farms. Those who lived in cities worked as personal servants or were hired out as domestics and skilled workers. Although northern colonists had little use for slave labor, they accumulated substantial profits from the lucrative slave trading industry. Conversely, southern colonies grew quite dependent on human bondage. Southern landowners often purchased African laborers for their tobacco, sugar, cotton, rice, and indigo plantations. By the late 18th century, slave labor became increasingly vital to the southern economy and the demand for African workers contributed greatly to the steady increase of their population. This growth in population and the threat of insurrections induced colonial legislatures to pass legal codes that restricted the movement of enslaved Africans. While white colonists petitioned for independence from Great Britain, antislavery advocates also demanded human rights and liberty for all people, including slaves (NPS 1995a).

    Shortly after the War of Independence, calls to abolish slavery and the slave trade generated increasingly widespread support. Led by Quakers and liberated African-Americans, the antislavery movement swayed some northern state legislatures to grant immediate manumissions to soldier-slaves and gradual emancipation to other enslaved Africans. Northern slaveholders allowed some bondsmen to purchase their freedom, while others petitioned for liberation through the courts. Slavery remained a vital element of southern society, however, and any opportunity to eliminate the institution nationwide ended in 1787 when the United States Constitution permitted the slave trade to continue until 1808 and protected involuntary servitude where it then existed (NPS 1995a).

    Cotton Gin Barn at Magnolia Plantation at Cane River Creole National Historic Site
    Cotton Gin Barn at Magnolia Plantation at Cane River Creole National Historic Site

    The emergence of the cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized the production of cotton, further solidifying the institution of slavery in the South. "King Cotton" came to dominate the southern economy, as cotton production rose from approximately 13,000 bales in 1792 to more than 5 million bales by 1860. Increased cotton production necessitated an increase in slaves to work the fields, where men and women often toiled side-by-side, and the African-American population in the South also rose from approximately 700,000 in 1790 to nearly 4 million by 1860. By the mid-19th century, the majority of the nation’s cotton was raised in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, and nowhere in the antebellum South was the cotton economy more dominant than Natchez, Mississippi, which was "…the wealthiest town per capita in the United States…" on the eve of the Civil War (NPS 1995a and Hilliard 1994).

    Slaves who were part of the urban black community in the South frequently worked as domestics or in business establishments and the South’s small segment of free blacks were comprised predominantly tradesmen and craftsmen, including carpenters, barbers, blacksmiths, dressmakers, and seamstresses, though free blacks also earned livings by peddling, fishing, farming, and chopping wood. One of the most notable members of the South’s free black community was William Johnson, a former slave who became a prosperous barber renowned for his business acumen and wealth. Emancipated in 1820 at the age of 11, Johnson was apprenticed to a free black barber. Johnson went into business on his own in 1828, and was successful enough by the mid-1830s to take advantage of varied business opportunities. He operated three barbershops in Natchez, where he employed free blacks and slaves, and he owned farmland cultivated by slaves and white overseers (NPS 1993).

    Although masters closely oversaw every aspect of their slaves’ lives, slaves retained some autonomy in their private family lives, in their relations with each other, and in their religious practices. Slaves endured the worst aspects of slavery through the strength of their social and cultural ties. A distinctive black culture arose, which provided meaning to life and transmitted values, attitudes, and beliefs throughout the slave community. Yet, the yearning for freedom was ever strong, as James L. Bradley succinctly stated in 1835 in his autobiography:

    "From the time I was fourteen years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom. It was my heart’s desire; I could not keep it out of my mind. Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears, because I was a slave. My heart ached to feel within me the life of liberty" (NPS 1995a).

    An escaped slave, Gordon, demonstrating a mass of scars on his back.
    An escaped slave, Gordon, demonstrating a mass of scars on his back in 1863 near Baton Rouge. Soon afterwards, Gordon joined the US Colored Troops and served with distinction.

    The brutality of slavery and the desire for personal freedom inspired many slaves to rebel against their conditions. Slave rebellions in the South, the most dramatic form of resistance, were few and unsuccessful, due to the control slave owners exerted over their slaves. The most prominent slave rebellion in the lower Delta region occurred near Baton Rouge in 1811. Four to five hundred slaves, led by the free mulatto Charles Dislondes, sent whites fleeing to New Orleans from the parishes of St. Charles and St. John until the slaves were routed by a contingent of U.S. Army regulars and militiamen. Over 60 slaves were killed during the rebellion, and those captured were beheaded, with their heads placed atop pikes on the road to New Orleans as a warning to other would-be rebels (Stewart 1996).

    Slaves more commonly used flight as a form of resistance. Some slaves escaped and took refuge with Indians, who often welcomed the runaways as members of their communities. Others fled into unclaimed or secluded territories, e.g., the bayous of Louisiana, and formed maroon or free societies there. Still others fled northward or to Mexico and the Caribbean, often receiving food, shelter, and money along the way from a movement known collectively as the "Underground Railroad." Operating without formal organization, "conductors" of Underground Railroad stops, such as the Epps (Edwin) house in Bunkie, Louisiana, and the Jacob Burkle and Hunt-Phelan homes in Memphis, Tennessee, included both white and black abolitionists, of which one of the most renowned was Harriet Tubman, enslaved African-Americans, Indians, and members of such religious groups as the Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists (NPS 1995a).

    At mid-century, the United States Congress attempted to reconcile sectional differences by passing the Compromise of 1850, which included a Fugitive Slave Law. In addition to legislating the return of runaway slaves, the act proclaimed that federal and state officials as well as private citizens must assist in their capture. As a result, northern states were no longer considered safe havens for runaways and the law even jeopardized the status of freedmen. By the end of the decade, slavery had polarized the nation even further, as events such as the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), the Dred Scott Case (1857), and the failed Harper’s Ferry insurrection led by John Brown in 1859 eventually precipitated the nation’s Civil War. While the Civil War captured the attention of the country, thousands of once enslaved African-Americans deserted southern plantations and cities and took refuge behind Union lines. With the assistance of more than 180,000 African-American soldiers and spies, the Union secured victory over the Confederacy in 1865. In the aftermath of the war, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution liberated more than 4 million African-Americans (NPS 1995a).

    Carpenter shop built of hand-hewn cypress
    Carpenter shop at Cane River Creole National Historic Park

    Following the abolition of slavery, many of the South’s newly freed African-Americans sought work in textile and tobacco factories, iron mills, and other industrial enterprises, where they were often prohibited from working as artisans, mechanics, and in other capacities where they competed with white labor. Others undertook sharecropping, striving to own the land they farmed. Sharecropping gradually stabilized labor relations in the cash poor South after the Civil War; however, sharecropping also preserved a semblance of the plantation system and its associated patterns of antebellum agriculture. Under sharecropping, land was divided into many small holdings, giving the illusion of small independent farms. But many small holdings together actually comprised single plantations, which, through foreclosures, gradually fell into the hands of creditors, who were white. Over the succeeding half-century, the old planter caste was simply replaced by a new class of large landowners (NPS 1993 and Kulikoff 1991).

    What limited political and social gains African-Americans experienced during Reconstruction (1865-1877) were quickly overturned during the succeeding decades. Every Supreme Court decision affecting African-Americans before the turn-of-the century furthered white supremacy. The Civil Rights Cases (1883), for example, nullified the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the court’s later separate but equal verdict, rendered in Piessy v. Ferguson (1896), legitimized the "Jim Crow" era of segregation in the South. The Plessv decision upheld the constitutionality of a Louisiana statute requiring AfricanAmericans and whites to ride in separate railroad cars, but was soon zealously applied to public facilities of all kinds and entire city blocks of housing, though the equality of separate African-American facilities was, more often than not, questionable (Stewart 1996, Garraty 1991, and Levinson 1991).

    One response to such political, economic, and social oppression was emigration. Though some African-Americans were drawn to the African recolonization movement, far more opted for the western and northern regions of the United States. In 1879 over 20,000 African-Americans migrated from southern states to Kansas and other plains states. These "Exodusters" farmed homestead lands and founded a number of small communities. Decades later, thousands of the regions’ African-American males served in the nation’s armed forces during World War I, prompting a second great migration after the war, as African-Americans moved northward seeking opportunity in the large commercial and industrial centers of Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. A similar migration occurred after World War 11 (Foner and Garraty 1991).

    In the 1930s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began focusing the nation’s attention upon the status of African-Americans under law, addressing the inherent inequality of separate facilities and attacking the very idea of segregation itself. In addition, during 1934 a group of white and African-American sharecroppers organized the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) in Marked Tree, Arkansas (Stewart 1996; Carson 1991; Foner and Garraty 1991 a and b). The landowners responded with terrorism and union members were flogged, jailed, shot, and some were killed. The wife of a sharecropper from Marked Tree wrote:

    "We Garded our House and been on the scout untill we are Ware out, and Havenent any law to looks to, thay and the Land Lords hast all turned to nite Riding…thay shat up some House and have Threten our Union and Wont let us Meet at the Hall at all" (Leuchtenburg 1963).

    The STFU persevered, however, moving their union headquarters to Memphis. With a peak membership of 30,000, the STFU was the nation’s first and largest interracial trade union. In additional to staging a successful cotton strike in 1936, the STFU maintained refuges for tenant farmers who were evicted for striking. The union also organized a farming cooperative, the Providence Farm, in Homes County, Mississippi, and later opened a second cooperative, the Hillhouse Farm, in nearby Cahoma County, where the first use of a mechanical cotton picker occurred. Later, some of the STFU’s organizing skills benefited the civil rights movement.

    Members of the Little Rock Nine walking down the steps of Little Rock Central High School, escorted by soldiers,

    The 1955 lynching of a 14-year-old African-American youth, Emmett Till, in Money, Mississippi, focused national attention upon the virulent racism of the South. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s momentous decision ordering the end of public school segregation, Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), President Dwight G. Eisenhower — who had initially urged caution in implementing the Brown decision because he did not believe the hearts of men could be changed by law — sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in the fall of 1957 to ensure the safety of nine African-American children enrolled at Central High School. In 1957 and 1960, Congress passed the first federal civil rights acts in nearly a century, rekindling a federal commitment to the African-American’s right to vote, and a few years later Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the president and cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, observed that "…the law may not change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless" (Stewart 1996; Carson 1991)."

    The life’s work of King in Birmingham, Alabama, Atlanta, Georgia, and other racial hotspots during the 1950s and 1960s provided inspiration for African-Americans throughout the nation, as civil rights dominated the nation’s domestic agenda during the early 1960s. President John F. Kennedy sent troops to the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962 to protect an African-American student, James Meredith, who had been enrolled by order of a Federal court. The August 28, 1963, march on Washington D.C., brought approximately 250,000 demonstrators to the nation’s capital, many of them delta citizens, again focusing the nation’s attention on the issue of racial inequality in America (Stewart 1996; Carson 1991).

    The increasing tempo of far-reaching change continued during the presidential administration of Lyndon B. Johnson. In June 1964 the Supreme Court, in a decision many believed to be of equal importance with the school desegregation ruling 10 years earlier, declared that both houses of state legislatures must be apportioned on a population basis to ensure that citizens are accorded the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law, ending the rural domination of many state Senates. Less than a month later, on July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the most comprehensive civil rights act in the nation’s history. The new act enlarged federal power to protect voting rights, to provide open access for all to public facilities, to sue to end lagging school desegregation, and to ensure equal job opportunities in businesses and unions with more than 25 persons. In promoting the Civil Rights Act in his first state of the Union message earlier in the year, President Johnson said, "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope, some because of their poverty and some because of their color, and all to many because of both." To lift the hopes of such people, President Johnson proposed declaring a "…war on poverty in America." Congress endorsed the war in August 1964 by appropriating nearly $1 billion for 10 antipoverty programs, such as a Job Corps to train underprivileged youths, a work training program to employ them, an adult education program, and a domestic peace corps, all to be administered by the newly created Office of Economic Opportunity (Stewart 1996; Carson 1991; Brinkley 1991).

    Resistance to the gains in civil rights for Africa-Americans was formidable. Force and intimidation dating from the previous century, in defiance of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, sustained the system of racial segregation until the civil rights acts of the 1960s. In 1866 race riots erupted in Memphis and Vicksburg, and on July 30 of the same year over 40 African-American delegates were killed in New Orleans during a meeting at the Mechanic Institute Building to reconvene the state’s constitutional convention. In 1873 over 300 African-Americans were killed by white supremists in Grant Parish, Louisiana, the result of a disputed election, in what has been called "…the worst incident of mass racial violence in the Reconstruction period (Stewart 1996; Galmon 1997).

    The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which was founded by former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866, and other similar groups, such as the Knights of the White Camelia and the Boys of 76, roamed the countryside, hooded or otherwise, terrorizing African-Americans and their supporters in the name of white supremacy. Over succeeding decades, the KKK underwent sporadic surges of popularity, as during the 1920s when the organization added anti-immigrant and anti-Semitism to its litany of hate. In 1954, the KKK re-emerged more determined than ever to stop integration, following the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown decision, which also spurred the formation of White Citizen Councils throughout the South. The first meeting of a White Citizens Council, whose members considered themselves to be more respectable than those of the KKK but who were just as adamantly opposed to integration, occurred in Indianola, Mississippi in July. 1954. Byron De La Beckwith, who assassinated civil rights leader Medger Evers in Jackson, Mississippi in June, 1963 was a member of both the KKK and a White Citizens Council (Stewart 1996; Carson; 1991; Trelease 1991).

    The murders of three civil rights volunteers workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi in June, 1964 increased public support for the growing racial equality movement (Stewart 1996; Carson 1991; Trelease 1991). Such tragedies also strengthened the resolve of AfricanAmericans in their quest for racial equality, as civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael noted:

    "They killed them, but they can’t kill the summer, and what we’re doing to do this summer. They can’t kill our spirit, only our bodies. They’ll find out what they did when they murdered our people, our brothers. They’ll find that they made us strong, that we’ll beat them sooner, because of what they’ve done. The whole nation will rally round — but even more important, we’ll rally round" (Coles 1972).

    Other examples further set the tone of those tumultuous 1960s civil tights struggles. In 1964 Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi drew national attention for her work as a civil rights organizer and her futile attempts to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates at the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination convention in Atlantic City. Throughout the summer of the same year, Freedom Schools staffed by northerners enrolled thousands of young African-Americans and voter registration drives during the summer, which was known as Freedom Summer, brought many disfranchised African-Americans to the ballot box for the first time (Stewart 1996; Carson 1991; Foner and Garraty 1991). A Mississippi sheriff objected to the presence of civilrights workers from the North, however, whom he looked upon as busybodies and interlopers, declaring: "Ninety-five per cent of our blacks are happy." In response some 20 rural African-Americans in his county wrote or dictated letters indicating grievances. One wrote:

    In our schools we don’t have the books the whites have. We can’t get to learn anything. The colored people is afraid to tell you all we is not happy because we’re scared of losing the jobs we have. When we go to the gas stations we don’t have any bathrooms. We’re glad that the white people are coming down from the North and that they are thinking of our welfare. We work 12 hours a day and only get $3 pay. Sure, we’re inferior. The white folks over us every way (Current 1967).

    The failure of many Southern states to enforce the voting registration provisions of the Civil Rights Act resulted in an upsweep of civil rights demonstrations, of which one of the most notable occurred in Alabama. In February 1965 King and over 700 other African-Americans were arrested in Selma, and a month later Alabama state troopers frustrated an attempted civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. On March 20 President Johnson ordered the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers, after Governor George Wallace earlier refused to protect them, and a procession of approximately 25,000 African-Americans and whites from all over the country began (Stewart 1996).

    In response, Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, signed by President Johnson on August 6, 1965, which suspended all voter registration literacy tests. In addition, the act empowered federal examiners to register all who qualified age, residence, and objective educational requirements. The act also authorized the Attorney General to file suits testing the constitutionality of poll taxes in states where it survived. In April, 1966 the last poll tax, in Mississippi, was overturned (Stewart 1996; Carson 1991).

    The civil rights movement thus came to full bloom in the I 960s, though AfricanAmericans as recently as 1973 worked and marched to bring racially based injustices to an end in Cairo, Illinois, chronicled by Preston Ewing, Jr., in his recently published Let My People Go (1996), and continue to strive for racial equality today. The valiant civil rights struggles are memorialized in communities throughout the delta region, such as in the county administration building of Port Gibson, Mississippi. Museum and cultural centers in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and Helena, Arkansas, also showcase the achievements of the region’s African-American citizens. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on April 4, 1968, is a poignant memorial to Dr. King as well as to others involved in the 1950s-1960s civil rights movement.

    Few groups of people have had more impact on the cultural heritage of the lower Mississippi River delta than its African-American citizens. From Missouri to Louisiana the legacy of black contributions to delta history and culture can he found in the character and lay of the land, the communities and heritage. Particularly in the South, extant evidence of African-American labor, both enslaved and free, can be seen everywhere, from the construction of early levees, to the endless fields of cotton and sugar cane, to the antebellum mansions of Louisiana and Mississippi.