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Black History in the United States began when the first African indentured servants and slaves were brought west in the early seventeenth century. They were forced to do back-breaking labor on plantations and separated from their homes and families. Despite their unjust inferior status, they fought against Great Britain in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and against the Confederate South in the Civil War. During the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in Confederate states and territories. Then at the end of the war, the 13th Amendment was ratified, freeing all slaves in the United States. Though they had freedom on paper, African Americans faced significant discrimination in the workplace, the education system, and the political and social spheres. In the South, they suffered under the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that kept them segregated in all public places. In the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement began in earnest, and African Americans protested across the United States until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Though this improved their position in American society, African Americans still face prejudice and discrimination today.
Black History in the United States is filled with terrible mistreatment and beautiful triumphs. It is long, storied, and impossible to separate from the history of the United States itself.
The first Africans came to the British colonies as indentured servants and then as slaves. Wealthy Europeans had settled in the fertile South and began producing cash crops, such as tobacco or cotton. In the beginning, they used indentured servants to work the fields, but this was an expensive form of labor that needed continual renewal each time an indentured servant filled his contract. Therefore, plantation owners sought a cheaper form of labor that would give them more control over their workers. Thus, the transatlantic slave trade began. European mariners captured Africans from the Senegambia and west-central African regions and forced them onto ships headed for the New World. There, they were treated as property, bought and sold from the Portuguese colony of Brazil to the Danish West Indies in the Caribbean to Jamestown in the British colonies.
When the revolutionary war broke out in 1775, thousands of enslaved and free African Americans joined the fight and sought independence from Great Britain. Twenty years later, the young United States banned American ships from participating in the slave trade. Then in 1817, the American Colonization Society was formed to establish a colony in Africa for free people of color. Shortly after, the shipment of slaves on any transatlantic vessel was forbidden, and the United States began to seize suspicious vessels. One such vessel, the Amistad, was seized in 1839 and the claims of salvage by the ship’s owner were considered in both district and circuit courts and ultimately in the Supreme Court.
In April 1861, the Civil War began, and one year later, slaves in the District of Columbia were emancipated. Then, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in Confederate states and territories and urging them to join the Union Army. The Colored Troops fought bravely in the war, and many received pensions and awards for their service. After the war ended, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and adopted throughout the United States. Although, the 13th Amendment granted freedom to slaves; it did not change their social standing, provide them with educational or employment opportunities, or influence the prejudiced views of other Americans. It was particularly difficult in the South, where Jim Crow laws forced segregation and prevented African Americans from enjoying the same rights and privileges as other Americans.
Despite the prejudice and discrimination they faced, African Americans continued to make significant contributions in science, the arts, and politics. Many African American men also served in the military during the First and Second World Wars, as young men in the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines and as older men serving their country in other capacities. At this time, the FBI (then the Bureau of Investigation) also employed African Americans, as did the Military Intelligence Division.
In spite of their service, loyalty, and inalienable rights as citizens of the United States, African Americans still faced discrimination in social and political spheres. In the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement began with men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks leading the way. Protestors marched peacefully in cities throughout the United States; African American students took part in the desegregation of schools, and civil rights activists met with government leaders to plead their case. On July 2, 1964, their efforts paid off, and the Civil Rights Act was enacted, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
The Civil Rights Act was an important step forward in American and Black History; however, it did not eliminate the problems of prejudice and discrimination in the United States. To this day, African Americans are not always treated equally in social, political, educational, and economic spheres. The modern iteration of the civil rights movements, Black Lives Matter, began in July 2013 and has spread throughout the United States and around the globe.