Slavery underlies the history of Blacks in America. Though many people would rather forget it ever existed, slavery walked down American history as soon as the country was settled.
Slavery was abolished under the 13th Amendment, with one exception: felony conviction.
The first colony to consider slavery a legal institution was Massachusetts in 1641, according to author Raymond M. Corbin’s Facts about Blacks. Governor Theophilus Eaton of Connecticut freed his slaves, according to Corbin, an extraordinary act for 1646.
Then, in 1664, Maryland passed various laws forbidding marriage between Black men and White women, and by the 18th century Rhode Island was the leader in the slave trade.
Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery in 1777; in 1778 the Continental Congress outlawed slavery in all the northwestern territories of the country, and Boston became the only U.S. city to be without slaves in 1790. During that same year, the first census recorded that 19.3 percent of Americans were Black.
Historian and author Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States that “by 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to the Americas…”
However, from 1750 to the 1840s, countless slaves escaped and joined the Seminole Nation to fight for territorial claims against the U.S. government, according to Corbin.
During this time, other slaves began to rebel, and many outbreaks erupted throughout the colonies and continued after independence from England.
Gabriel Prosser, who orchestrated a 1,000-slave revolt in Richmond, Virginia, led one, in 1800. Fifty-nine years later John Brown led five Blacks and 17 Whites in an attack against the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to spark a general uprising, Corbin wrote.
“Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order,” Zinn notes.
Blacks and Whites have struggled with and against each other to escape the embrace of slavery’s legacy.
In April of 1887, the Ku Klux Klan met in Nashville, Tennessee, even after Congress passed a second confiscation act that sought to protect ex-slaves against the torches of the KKK.
As America grew, Black and White people showed they could work together in a positive manner by forming the NAACP in 1907. Forty-seven Whites and six Blacks founded it.
Soon afterward, the seeds of a Black history month were sewn in Chicago during the late summer of 1915.
“An alumnus of the University of Chicago with many friends in the city, Carter G. Woodson traveled from Washington, D.C., to participate in a national celebration of the 50th anniversary of emancipation sponsored by the state of Illinois,” according to the article The Black History Month by Professor Daryl Michael Scott.
Professor Scott wrote that Dr. Woodson “believed that publishing scientific history would transform race relations by dispelling the widespread falsehoods about the achievements of Africans and peoples of African descent. He hoped that others would popularize the findings that he and other black intellectuals would publish in The Journal of Negro History, which he established in 1916.”
Woodson chose February for Black History Month to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. “Since Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the black community, along with other Republicans, had been celebrating the fallen President’s birthday. And since the late 1890s, black communities across the country had been celebrating Douglass’.”
Before Black History Month was celebrated, Blacks had made significant progress in America, ranging from people like James Derham, who was the first Black physician in 1783, to Henry Blair, who became the first Black person to receive a U.S. patent in 1834.
Before the battle of Trenton in 1776, it was African-American soldier Oliver Cromwell who rowed General George Washington across the Delaware River.
Mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker published 10 almanacs between the years 1792 and 1802, while Mary Jane Patterson became the first Black woman to receive a degree from Oberlin College in 1862.
Alexandria, Virginia, became the first southern city to allow Black people to vote on March 2, 1866, and Illinois was the first state east of the Mississippi to give African American women the right to vote in 1913.
Black contractor John Muller invented the asphalt-paving machine named the Muller Paver. Jewel Prestage became the first Black woman to earn her Ph.D. in political science, and Edward A. Bouchet was the first Black man to earn his Ph.D. in physics. Mae C. Jamison was the first Black space mission specialist woman to go into space on the shuttle Endeavor in 1992.
Black people have come a long way since the dark days of slavery.
America has had its first Black President with Barack Obama, and there are currently three members of the U.S. Senate, including Kamala Harris of California, Tim Scott (R-SC) and Corey Booker (D-N.J.) and 46 members in the House of Representatives.
America must not forget that there is a lot more to be accomplished before we can truly consider ourselves in a united state.
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