The United States is home to people of almost every race, religion, and
nationality. The Indians and Eskimos have been here for thousands of years.
Other groups arrived later and came in hope of finding riches, adventure,
and a new life. And some, fleeing war, famine, and persecution, sought only
safety and a chance to survive. Black people alone were brought here unwillingly,
stolen from their homes and forced to live as slaves. In spite of this cruel
beginning, black Americans have played a major role in defining and shaping
American beliefs, customs and traditions. From the beginning they have helped
insure the nation's security and economic well-being. Black Americans are
among our earliest explorers and have been among the first people to expand
and settle the frontier. Of the black Americans profiled on United States
postage stamps, they were selected because of the contributions they made
to our life and culture. They were also chosen because of the part they
played at critical points in our history. U.S. postage stamps show black
Americans as explorers, settlers, slaves and as patriots in vigorous pursuit
of freedom, liberty, and equality. This Black History Tour via postage stamps
is an attempt to tell the story of a way of life developed by black people
in a white society.
Social and economic institutions often develop out of necessity, and
it is not until later that rules and justifications develop. When society
looks at labor that must be done, most often they turn those unpopular jobs
over to those who have no choice except to do them - slavery. Black American
history probably got its beginnings when a group of black slaves were forcibly
shipped from their homes in Africa to America where they were compelled
to work. They came in chains, brought to the New World as slaves. They did
not immigrate, seeking greater opportunity, like others who came to America.
They were seized from their villages and homes and not allowed to take any
possessions with them.
The ancestors of most black Americans came
from the African continent. Most of the Africans imported to the Americas
came from Gambia, the Gold Coast, Guinea or Senegal. The natives of Senegal,
who were often skilled artisans, brought the highest prices. On the other
hand, the Eboes from Calabar were rated as undesirable merchandise, as they
frequently preferred suicide to bondage. Those from the Gaboons were considered
The moving of African slaves to other countries began as
early as the fifteenth century, but the first slaves to land in British
America were brought to the state of Virginia by the Dutch in 1619. Over
the next 250 years, approximately one million slaves were imported in North
America. The aim of slave-trade was to make money for the ship-owners who,
having bought slaves very cheaply in Africa, sold them again in the Americas
at a large profit to slaveowners, who would use them to do all the hard
labor on farms and cotton plantations. Since making money was the only objective,
no consideration was given to the Africans as human beings. Once in America,
many slave-owners treated slaves just like common animals, often whipping
them and even tying them up.
The slaves who arrived at the African
slave markets came from tribes all over Africa, and they were thrown together
in the slave ships without regard for tribe or language. In fact, slave-ship
captains made a point of not putting slaves from the same tribes together,
for if the slaves had been able to talk with one another, they also might
have been able to plan revolts. The same was true of slave owners in the
New World. It was in their best interests that slaves not be able to communicate
with one another. The slave-ship captains and slave owners did not understand
that the slaves were able to communicate with one another quite well through
their music. Through their songs, the slaves shared the rhythms of sorrow
and their fear and their hopelessness. Through the rhythms of their make-shift
drums, they communicated their calls to rebellion.
For some time,
slave masters did not realize that the drums the slaves made from hollowed-out
logs or nail kegs, with animal skins tightly stretched over on end, were
being used for communication. They thought the slaves were just making their
African music. They knew these drum sounds carried far, even to the next
plantation, but it didn't occur to them that the drumbeats were a sort of
"Morse code" the slaves used to make plans for revolts or escapes.
When it finally became clear to the slave masters that the drums were being
used as a form of communication, drums were outlawed. But that didn't stop
the slaves from keeping the drumbeat alive. Instead, they used their feet.
America's colonial period starts with the establishment of the first
English settlements in the New World. Introduced to North America in 1619,
black slavery would darken the fabric of American life like a spreading
bloodstain. The nation had been founded by people who loved liberty, but
it became a place where human beings could be bought and sold. The African
slave trade began not with the English colonist but centuries earlier, when
Arabs and various African and European peoples forced blacks into servitude.
Eventually, European sugar planters in the Caribbean and South America began
to import large numbers of black slaves, men and women who were deprived
of their human rights, forced to live in deplorable conditions, and made
to work until they dropped.
The English colonists of North America
knew they needed helpers to build their homes, plow and harvest land, and
work in their homes. The colonists used a variety of sources for this labor.
Indentured servants were used by the colonists. They gave up four to seven
years of labor just to pay for transportation to America. The colonists
also used apprentices as a source of labor. Apprentices were orphans, or
children of poor parents, who were given to a farmer or trades-man to be
trained. These apprentices would be freed when they reached a specified
age. And then there was slavery.
The English colonist in the New World
imported white indentured workers at first, but found there weren't enough
of them. The Indians in the Americas refused to work or proved to be poorly
fitted for long hours of hard labor. The Europeans found it easier and cheaper
to import Africans as slaves. By the seventeenth century, the African slave
trade was booming in the Americas. The slave dealers made so much money
from their human cargoes that soon Africans came to be known as "black
gold." Slaves could be secured in Africa for about $25 a head, or the
equivalent in merchandise, and sold in the Americas for about $150. Later
when the slave trade was declared illegal, Africans brought much higher
prices. Many slave-ship captains could not resist cramming their black cargo
into every foot of space, even though they might lose from 15 to 20 per
cent of the lot on the way across the ocean. It is estimated that 7,000,000
Africans were abducted during the eighteenth century alone, when the slave
trade became one of the world's great businesses.
Since England had
no laws that defined the status of a slave, the colonies made up their own.
These "slave codes" protected the property rights of the master.
The codes also made sure the white society was guarded against what was
considered a strange and savage race of people. Slaves had almost no rights
of their own. Some masters tried to treat slaves well. George Washington
freed his slaves in his will. Thomas Jefferson's slaves lived in brick cottages.
Jefferson Davis's slaves governed themselves with slave-run-trial courts.
Harsh slaveowners also existed. They half-starved their slaves, worked them
hard, whipped them often, treated them worse than cattle, and enjoyed making
life miserable for them. When a master was cruel, the slaves had no legal
protection from his brutal treatment.
Enforcement of the slave codes
varied from one area to another, and even from one plantation to another.
Slaves who lived in cities and towns were less restricted than slaves who
lived in the country. Slaves on small farms enjoyed more freedom than those
on huge plantations. Plantation slaves often had little contact with their
masters. Their supervisors were drivers and overseers. Drivers were slaves
who were made into bosses by their master, so they were in a bad situation.
Go easy on the workers, and when the work was not done, the driver would
be flogged. Go too hard on the workers and the driver made enemies among
his fellow slaves. Overseers were whites who took orders from the master.
A few were soon managers but most were not. Even in the best of circumstances,
slaves were property and could be bought, sold, lent, or rented out. Their
opportunities to learn and achieve were very limited. The slaves had little
personal incentive to work hard. Slavery offered little room for promotions.
In the South, most slaves helped plant and harvest crops. The typical
slave worked on a small farm with one or two other blacks alongside the
master and his family. Other slaves worked in and around the master's house
instead of out in the fields. In Southern towns and cities, blacks served
as messengers, house servants, and craftsmen. In the North, farming was
not as important to the economy as it was in the South. Black slaves therefore
worked in a wider variety of jobs. They provided skilled and unskilled labor
in homes, ships, factories and shipyards.
How did slaves survive the uncerainty and the danger of harsh treatment?
How did they make the best of a bad situation? Music was a relief for them.
The slaves had their songs, and they would re-create their instruments and
their music to keep their hearts and souls alive through nearly two hundred
fifty years of slavery in the New World. They liked to dance, sing, and
play the banjo, drums or fiddle.
Despite their poor treatment, the
land and the culture had become part of them. And in spite of the fact that
most white Americans at the time did not consider blacks to be their equals,
whites had taken into their own hearts certain elements of black culture.
By the time the slaves were emancipated, they had given to America not just
the sweat of their brows and the strength of their backs, but the seeds
of the first truly American cultural gift to the world - American music.
Blues, jazz, rock'n' roll originated with blacks. And white performers and
groups from Benny Goodman to Frank Sinatra to the Beatles to Rod Stewart
to Boy George have said that they owe their biggest debt to black music.
By the time slavery was abolished, most ex-slaves would not go back to Africa,
for Africa was no longer their home. America was.
Despite the risks, some blacks constantly tried to undermine the slavery
system. Some slaves chose to destroy property or fake illness to avoid having
to work. Others took bolder steps to overthrow their masters by joining
slave revolts. Still others managed to escape. But many - perhaps most -
slaves chose not to resists in the face of almost certain failure and death.
were suspicious of whites who told them about the "Underground Railroad"
that would take them to freedom. The Underground Railroad was composed of
volunteers who would hide slaves traveling north to Canada. Slaves were
hidden during daylight hours at stops along the route and, using the North
Star, they moved in the dark to the next location 10 or 15 miles north.
Until they reached Canada, they were never completely safe. If they were
caught by a slave catcher or United States marshal, they would be returned
to their master, who would probably make a great display of flogging them.
It was risky for whites to be involved, but it was even more dangerous for
blacks who helped slaves to escape. Facing a death sentence if they were
captured, it took great courage for them to help slaves escape.
the abolitionist movement to help free slaves was Harriet
Tubman, an Underground Railroad Conductor. Almost every year after
1830, the Underground Railroad assisted hundreds of slaves escape to places
in the North. Abolitionists and Quakers established hundreds of stations
on the Underground Railroad in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. In Illinois,
the routes converged in Chicago, where slaves would leave by ship for Canada.
Ohio, with the largest number of stations, was the center of the Underground
The following black writers and orators were
also involved in the abolitionist movement by expressing themselves on such
matters as colonization of Negroes, the institution of slavery, and the
progress of the Negro as a group. Included in this group were such people
as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner
In 1936 Ralph Bunche
published "A World View of Race," in which he stated that racial
prejudice exists because of economic needs. He wrote, "The Negro was
enslaved not because of his race but because there were very definite economic
considerations which his enslavement served. The New World demanded his
labor power... but his race was soon used [as the reason for] the inhuman
institution of slavery."
Dr. Allison Davis
challenged the cultural bias of standardized intelligence test and fought
for the understanding of the human potential beyond racial class and caste.
His work helped end legalized racial segregation and contributed to contemporary
thought on valuing the capabilities of youth from diverse backgrounds.
When the revolution started, some blacks were caught up in revolutionary
fervor. At Bunker Hill, slaves and free blacks participated, and Salem
Poor was praised by his superiors as "an excellent soldier."
When Washington took command, he told recruiters not to enlist blacks, but
some were already in the army. In October 1775, it was decided to bar blacks
from the Continental Army.
A month later, Governor Dunmore of Virginia
declared that any black or indentured servant who joined the British army
would be free. Slaves began deserting the plantations and enlisting in the
Royal Army. Wherever the British army went, slaves flocked in. The seriousness
of his mistake was made apparent to Washington when many of his own slaves
Wisely reversing policy, in December 1775 Washington order
that free blacks might be enlisted in the Continental Army. Most states
permitted both slave and free black enlistment in their militia. Black soldiers
participated in every major battle from Bunker Hill to Yorktown. They also
served in the United States Navy.
After the war for Independence ended,
black Americans began taking part in the general development of the country.
When any black stepped out from the crowd and showed that he or she could
grasp a complex idea and express himself or herself well in writing or speech,
that action weakened the premise that Africans were by nature inferior.
Stereotypes may not be destroyed but they can be weakened. Records indicate
that in 1772, on the north bank of what is now the Chicago River, Jean
Baptiste Pointe Du Sable erected a large cabin and continued to
build other structures such as barns and storehouses etc. This made him
the area's first permanent settler and the founder of the city of Chicago.
Du Sable also established a fur trading post there. It soon became a very
busy trading center, and eventually the settlement of Chicago sprang up
around the post.
is well known as a surveyor who helped to lay out the streets of the nation's
capital. He also made the first clock constructed in this country. Banneker's
work in astronomy attracted the attention of learned men on both sides of
the Atlantic. Through the use of mathematics, he was able to plot the cycles
of the 17 year locust and thus help farmers to anticipate them.
April 6, 1909, history was made when two men, one Black and one White, planted
the American Flag at the North Pole. Thus, Matthew
A. Henson, a black man, became one of the first Americans to reach
the top of the world. Yet, undoubtedly due to his race, he was for years
denied recognition of his role in this discovery.
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, following an attack by southern
troops on Fort Sumner, South Carolina. The disagreements between the North
and the South dated back many years. They grew out of a variety of economic
and political rivalries and issues, including whether a state had the right
to sucede from the Union. Slavery was also a source of conflict, but the
Civil War was not a war against slavery.
From the beginning of the
Civil War, black Americans in the North and South offered to volunteer for
military service. The South was nervous about how slaves would react to
the war. During the first year of the Civil War, participation by blacks
was limited almost entirely to non-military service. Some blacks went to
war as body servants to their masters, and others worked faithfully on plantations
and farms. The government feared that the border states might join the rebels
if blacks were enlisted and also that white troops might refuse to fight
alongside black troops. Black Americans were limited to labor behind the
lines as teamsters, camp attendants, waiters and cooks. Most slaves saw
the war as their chance at freedom. Rather than risk getting caught by patrollers,
they stayed on the farm and did as little work as possible, waiting for
blue uniforms to appear on the horizon. When the right moment can, they
joined a long procession of contrabands.
The Civil War finally came to an end on April 9, 1865 when Confederate
General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant near
the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. President Abraham Lincoln and most
other white northerners were eager to put the country back together again
as soon as possible. Their plans were to reorganize and rebuild the defeated
South. This program was known as Reconstruction. But less than a week after
the war ended, Lincoln was assassinated. His successor, Andrew Johnson,
was a southerner who promised to continue Lincoln's policies. Even though
President Johnson supported outlawing slavery, he made little effort to
grant black civil rights protection or give them the right to vote. He tolerated
anti-black violence in the South and did nothing to stop white governments
in southern states from passing laws similar to the old slave codes.
leaders in Congress were afraid that President Johnson was just making it
easier for white Democrats to gain control once again throughout the South.
So they came up with a much harsher Reconstruction program. Under their
plan, southern states would not be allowed to rejoin the Union until the
Republicans had become stronger and until blacks were given the vote and
guaranteed civil rights. Thus, during the Reconstruction period, Union policy
evolved to embrace the total abolititon of slavery as provided in the 13th
Amendment to the Constitution and passed in 1865. Government policy also
moved toward equality of rights for blacks as reflected in the 14th Amendment,
passed in 1868, and the 15th Amendment passed in 1870. There was oppositon
to equal right for blacks. It was almost universal in the South and nearly
so in the North. Passage of the 14th and 15th amendments had been primarily
motivated by the desire of the Republican party to maintain political control
in the former Confederacy.
Blacks took an active part in all aspects
of public life during Reconstruction. They voted in large numbers and were
very active in the conventions that formulated new state constitutions in
the South. Many blacks held political office at the local and state levels.
Fourteen blacks were elected to the United States House of Representatives
and two were elected to the United States Sentate. Blacks also pressed for
and helped to establish public education systems where none had previously
Rising racial tension and hard times in the postwar period caused some
blacks to go West. In the West, black faces had always been rare, but explorers
like fur traders Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable and James P. Beckwourth had
been there before the war.
America's westward expansion has traditionally
excluded black pioneers and adventurers. Historians are now admitting that
thousands of black men and women played various roles in the exploration
and settlement of lands west of the Mississippi. There were more than 5,000
blacks among the cowboys who rode the ranges from Texas to Montana. The
work was hard, and the men were very dependent on each other. Race was not
a big issue in the bunkhouse or on the trail. One black cowboy, Bill
Pickett, added his bit to western legend when he invented bulldogging-taking
a steer by the neck and throwing him down. Most were ropers like Bill
Pickett, the "Dusky Demon from Texas," while others were
horsebreakers, wranglers, cooks and trail bosses. Some became law enforcers
and others famous mountain men like James P. Beckwourth.
the last quarter of the 19th century, the scientific interest of blacks
seem to have been directed toward applied science or invention. The following
black Americans have made significant contributions to science despite the
general absence of at least two basic conditions for scientific work: freedom
from full-time pressures for personal survival, and a stimulating cultural
environment. Slavery, segregation and cultural isolation have been the lot
of most blacks in the United States. Nevertherless, scattered throughout
history are the following individuals who have made contributions of a scientific
nature for the benefit of all:
In the progress down the winding road from slavery toward freedom, black
Americans have relied on civil rights leaders and spokespersons to carry
the beacon of hope. Black leaders have been the means of communicating to
the nation the wishes of the inarticulate masses. Their tactics have ranged
from the petitions of free blacks during the infancy of the Republic to
the moral echortation of Frederick Douglass;
from the example and opportunism of Booker T.
Washington to the rage and daring of Marcus A. Garvery; from the
blunt anger of W.E.B. Dubois to the cool
calculation of Charles H. Houston; and from the blazing zeal of Mary
McLeod Bethune to the consuming pacificism of Martin
Luther King, Jr.
Although many great black scholars had written
about black history, no one had as yet treated the subject so systematically
as Carter G. Woodson also known as the
"father of black history." Paul Laurence
Dunbar is best known for his poems in black dialect, which portray
the lives of black people in the rural South.
Following the Civil
War, a new group of black leaders came to the fore. By 1895 Booker
T. Washington was the most famous black American; however, with
Ida B. Wells writing and lecturing against
the evils of lynching, and W.E.B. DuBois
protesting the philosophy of accommodation to the staus quo, the ground
was being prepared for the birth of the following organizations directly
devoted to the cause of racial advancement. Whitney
Moore Young is commonly credited with revitalizing the Urban League,
organized in 1910 to assist blacks moving into northern cities to find jobs
and housing. For almost forty years, A. Philip
Randolph fought to improve working conditions and higher wages for
all laborers. He was particularly vigours in his vocal oppositon to racial
discrimination within the labor movement. He is best known for for organizing
the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. Congress of Racial Equality
(CORE) was founded in 1942, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
(SCLC) was organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
in 1957 and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which
dates from 1960 was also founded. These groups and their leaders have different
emphases and tactics but their objectives are in the historic tradition
of black leadership: the achievement of a condition of freedom which would
render the question of color irrelevant in American life.
Removed from Africa and shackled as a slave to a plow and hoe in America,
the African was forever divorced from his native artistry and culture. The
creative African sculture, metalwork, weaving and pottery were no longer
his to pursue in the new land. Thus black Americans as a group was denied
creative expression for more than a century, and it was not until the planters
and merchants of the South grew rich and began to ornament their mansions
and buildings that their artistic talents were employed. When given the
opportunity, black Americans probed to be fine carpenters, cabinet makers,
wood carvers, blacksmiths, harness makers and artists. There is little doubt
that the handicraft was a carryover from his ancestral Africa. Skill in
slaves was sought and encouraged among the prosperous slave holders, who
recognized that a skilled slave was worth more as a worker or when sold.
the pioneer days and up to the industrial revolution in America the nation
afforded little encouragement to the artists in the plastic and graphic
arts. Individuals who amassed fortunes and began to acquire art, patronized
the European artists. It was not until about 1870 that the American artists
began to gain recognition. Henry O. Tanner,
at the turn of the century, was the first black American artist to win international
recognition. Tanner was known for his genre paintings (studies of people's
daily life), landscapes and religious studies.
After the Civil War, military band instruments were in plentiful supply
and could be bought for the price of a little labor or cash. There were
also make-shift instruments and musicians strummed on homemade guitars and
banjos, played old pianos, blew horns, and beat on drums. The music came
not from a book, but from the heart. The main motive was pleasure rather
than financial reward or fame, but some managed to find all three.
became popular around 1900. It was highly syncopated music, usually played
on the piano, the left hand played the rhythm and the right hand played
a bright and cheerful melody. The best know ragtime writer was Scott
Joplin, whose fame came from such songs as "The Entertainer"
and "Maple Leaf Rag." Eubie Blake,
another famous ragtime musician, composed his famous "Charleston Rag"
Jazz grew out of ragtime and the blues. It is said that the blues grew
out of the songs of the slaves and has a sorrowful sound and message. W.C.
Handy wore the title "Father of the Blues," and two of
the most famous blues song were written by him: "Memphis Blues"
and "St. Louis Blues." The message of the blues is in both the
words and the melody. Handy saw jazz as a third step on the continuum of
black music: spirituals, ragtime, and the blues, and jazz.
born in New Orleans with both African and European music as its parents.
Although the precise date of origin is unknown, it is clear that by the
start of the 20th century, jazz was emerging in New Orleans as a musical
form. Some historians believe it originated in Congo Square, where black
slaves had performed music and chants from their African roots. Others claim
the music originated in Storyville, a prostitution area, where black musicians
entertain their white clients. Jazz is thought to borrow from a number of
sources: the blues, religious hymns and spirituals, and parts of old French
and Spanish music heard in Louisiana. The first jazz band director was Joe
"King" Oliver, who took a basic melody and improvised from it.
Duke Ellington's and Count Basie's reputations
have long since surpassed Oliver's. Their bands drew international attention.
the time that the predominantly male jazz instrumentalists were creating
new jazz sounds, dozens of black female singers were creating new blues
sounds. The reason black women blues singers were more acceptable to the
larger public than black men blues singers is probably the same reason black
women performers were more acceptable in the nineteenth century - they were
less threatening to whites, and perhaps also to blacks. The blues is a form
of music very often about love, and whites were not ready to accept a black
man singing about love. Also in the black community, it might have been
viewed as unseemly for a black man to sing about love on a record because
there was a strong tradition of manliness, which included keeping one's
tender feeling to oneself. At any rate, women singers such as Bessie
Smith and Ma Rainey became very
popular in the 1920s. Ma Rainey also became
known as the "Mother of the Blues."
Johnson's original blues compositions proved to be his most popular
and enduring recordings. He was a blues singer and songwriter in the 1930s.
Coleman Hawkins was one of the first grat
jazz soloists of the 1930s. He was a jazz composer and saxophonist. Early
in 1940 he put together a big band. His band was one of the first to record
bebop. Jimmy Rushing, a jazz and blues
singer is best known as a vocalist with the Count Basie orchestra from 1935
In 1917 the United States entered World War I under the slogan "Make
the World Safe for Democracy." Within a week after the United States
entered the war, the War Department stopped accepting black volunteers because
colored army quotas were filled. No black men were allowed in the Marines,
Coast Guard or Air Force. They were allowed in the Navy only as messmen.
When drafting began, of the more than 2,000,000 blacks registered 31 percent
were accepted to 26 percent of the white men. Blacks then comprising 10
percent of the population, furnished 13 percent of the inductees.
War I was a turning point in black American history. The small number of
blacks moving out of the South after 1877 increased enormously as war industries
and the decline of European immigration combined to produce demands for
labor in Northern cities. The coming together of a large number of blacks
in urban cities, the exposure of some blacks to European whites who did
not hold the same racial attitude as American whites, and the war propaganda
to make the world safe for democracy all combined to raise the hopes, dreams,
and aspiration of blacks in America.
In the decade following World War I, an artistic explosion occured within
the Black community that produced a wealth of music, literature, poetry,
dance, and visual art. The Harlem Resaissance was a period of creativity
among Black artists, writers, musicians, orators, dramatists, and entertainers
and was centered in Harlem in New York. The term renaissance was used because
the movement built on the heritage of black Americans. More books were published
by black authors during the 1920s than in any previous decade in American
history. At the end of World War I, Harlem also contained the largest black
urban population in the world and quickly became the black cultural center,
attracting immigrants from Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, the British West Indies,
and elsewhere, bringing with them their languages, religions, foods, music
and literature. Music during the Harlem Renaissance ranged from jazz to
rhumbas, hymns to parlor ragtime, and from spirituals to chamber quartets.
In the field of popular music, the pianist Jelly
Roll Morton and W.C. Handy, called
the "Father of the Blues" all added to America's rich music. Duke
Ellington brought his first orchestra, the Washingtonians, to Harlem
and Broadway, and from that time on jazz has been on the upswing. Charlie
Parker and others brought the bop influence to bear on what became
President Roosevelt's various recovery and reform programs - such as
the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the National Youth Administration
(NYA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) - helped blacks as well
as whites. Blacks welcomed the New Deal as a sign of hope and progress.
were other reasons for optimism too. Although President Roosevelt relied
on white advisors, he also turned to a group that came to be known as his
"Black Cabinet." Among its members were prominent blacks in a
variety of fields, including educator Mary McLeod
Bethune and political scientist Ralph Bunche.
They kept the president informed about issues of interest to black Americans.
When Joe Louis won the heavyweight boxing
championship in 1937, Jesse Owens won in
the 1936 Olympics, and Jackie Robinson
and Roberto Clemente were selected as
the National League MVP in 1949 and 1966 respectively, the African American
role in sports began to be important if not dominant. The names and faces
of athletes change quickly, but it would require great imagination to think
of professioanl football, basketball, baseball, boxing or track and field
events without black athletes in key roles.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States navel base at Pearl
Harbor, Hawaii and the United States entered World War II, a war that had
already been raging in Europe. Life in the United States was immediately
changed in a drastic way for nearly everyone because the energies and the
resources of the country were fully committed to the war effort. Men went
to war and women went into the factories. Food items and gasoline were rationed,
and raw materials were directed from other industries to the war industries.
the United States entered the war in 1941, hundreds of thousands of black
Americans served in the armed forces. Their distinguished role in the victory,
along with the growing black population in American cities, a rise in the
literacy rate among blacks, and increasing economic opportunities, inspired
new efforts to end racial discrimination. Leading the way was the NAACP.
lawyers began challenging segregation and discrimination in the courts.
They took many of their cases all the way to the United States Supreme Court,
winning several important decisions before the war. But the big push came
after the war, when the NAACP slowly but surely demolished legalized segregation
and discrimination in all areas of American life - voting, housing, transportation,
education, and recreation etc. The Supreme Court's decision on school segregation,
including the landmark Brown vs Board of Education in 1954, were especially
important. They brought about changes that launched a whole new era in black
American history, the era of civil rights.
The music business was affected in a variety of ways. Many musicians
were either enlisted or drafted into the armed services. Shortages of building
materials caused new entertainment and club construction to come to a halt.
Shortages of shellac drastically reduced the production of new records and
even big companies such as Victor had to buy up old records and recycle
them. Entertainers were asked to do their part for the the war effort by
performing at war bond sales and for those men at various military bases
around the country and abroad.
The heyday of big-band music came to
an end. In jazz history, the 1940s are regarded as the beginning of "modern
jazz." as distinct from the "classical jazz" that had gone
before. Modern jazz grew out of the swing era, and its major practitioners
had played in the big swing bands of the 1930s. The first modern jazz style
was call bop. Louis Armstrong first made famous - "do wop do bop,"
for example. Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker
and pianist Thelonious Monk were also originators
of bop. Charlie Parker is considered by
most as the greatest contributor to the development of bop.
who were knowledgeable about jazz recognized that Nat
King Cole was very important in the transition from swing jazz to
modern jazz. He was one of the first pianists to introduce a lighter, more
streamlined style of playing. Cole also perfected a style of accompanying
in which chords are played in brief, syncopated bursts, a style that eventually
became known as comping. For black music, the 1940s were years of transition.
They saw the development of modern jazz from swing. They saw the popularization
of singers, due to the public interest in ballards. They saw the first successful
crossovers into the white music world by a few blacks like Nat King Cole.
In the next decade, these developments would continue, and flower.
the 1940s Erroll Garner a keyboard artist
played and composed by ear in the tradition of the founding fathers of jazz.
Strong and bouncy left-hand rhythms and beautiful melodies are the trademarks
of his extremely enjoyable music. John Coltrane,
a musician and composer of the 1960s, was the most influential innovator
in the development of modern jazz. He was always searching and seeking to
take his music further in what he quite consciously viewed as a spiritual
Dinah Washington, an important blues
singer of this period, earned the title "Queen of the Blues."
Black Americans had plenty to be blue about in the years after World War
II. Though blacks had fought in large numbers and had distinguished themselves
in the "war to make the world safe for democracy," they found
that at home they did not enjoy the freedoms that they had fought to ensure
for people abroad. They were still second-class citizens in the North and
little more than slaves in the South. They were angry, but felt powerless
to do anything about their situation. So many black singers expressed their
feelings in their music.
By 1955, postwar prosperity had found its
way to the recording business. The 45-rpm disk was taking over from the
old 78-rpm record, and since it was lighter, more durable, and easy to make
and distribute, it gave a real boost to record companies. More and more
people were buying records and record players. Every club worthy of the
name had a jukebox. There were more record companies that, along with the
already established ones, were signing up new talent. There was a greater
interest on the part of whites in black music. For example, in Chicago,
the Chess Record Company already had contracts with bluesmen Muddy
Waters and Howlin' Wolf and was actively
seeking more. Clyde McPhatter was also
a great rhythm and blues and pop tune singer in the 1950s and 1960s, and
a huge influence in the evolution of music during that time.
As the courts destroyed what remained of legalized segregation, other
branches of government took action too. Congress passed laws to make sure
white southerners could not cheat blacks out of their right to vote. President
Harry S. Truman banned segregation in the armed forces. Later President
Dwight D. Eisenhower ended discrimination in federal assistance programs.
In addition, civil rights committees assembled to investigate and report
Even though segregation and discrimination were against
the law, they did not just disappear. Blacks turned their attention to fighting
the kind of bias that was common in restaurants and hotels, on buses, and
in other public places. Boycotts and sit-in became popular and effective
ways to protest. Blacks achieved so much in the area of civil rights from
1954 until 1964 that some people started to think of the decade as "The
Second Reconstruction." To them, the work of the first Reconstruction
after the Civil War had been left unfinished, and now was the time for it
Soul came out of rhythm and blues and also out of gospel. In fact, it
was closer to gospel because it was a hopeful music, a music that celebrated
blackness in a way that black music had never done before. Otis
Redding was one of the most powerful and original rhythm and blues
singer-songwriters of the 1960s. It is no accident that soul music arose
in the 1960s, a period of unprecedented gains for black people and a great
surge in black pride. Beginning with the boycott of segregated buses in
the late 1950s, and continuing with sit-ins at segregated lunch counters
by black students in Nashville, Tennessee, and Greenville, North Carolina
in 1960, the civil rights movement spread like wildfire across the South
and also led to the passage of a series of federal civil rights laws that
struck down at least the legal underpinning of discrimination and segregation
in America. The black Americans who marched, sat-in and boycotted in order
to win equal rights followed the principles of nonviolence. Their leaders
were predominatly ministers, such as the Reverend
Martin Luther King, Jr. They were proud to have won their legal
victories by moral means. The music that came to be called soul also preached
a message of love.
Violence against black and white civil rights activists was commonplace.
Three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in Philadelphia and Mississippi
in 1964. Four black children were murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street
Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 and dozens of black churches throughout
the South were burned or bombed. Two whites and one black were murdered
during the 1965 demonstrations in Selma, Alabama in 1968. Martin
Luther King, Jr., the recognized leader of the civil rights movement
was also assassinated in 1968.
The federal response to the violent
reaction of segregationists was the passage of several new laws. The Civil
Rights Act (1964) undermined the remaining structure of Jim Crow laws and
provided federal protection in the exercise of civil rights. This landmark
Civil Rights Law of 1964 had barely gone into effect when a serious race
riot erupted in Harlem. Racial disturbances occured that summer in several
other northern ghettos. A year later, the black ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles,
California, exploded in violence. For the next two summers, dozens of other
riots broke out across the country. Many were sparked by fights between
blacks and white police officers.
A special presidential commission
looked into the reasons behind the riots. They found that despite all of
the court decisions, sit-ins, marches, and boycotts, the average black American
was still living with the crippling effects of segregation, discrimination,
and, above all, racism. The 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin
Luther King, Jr. - a champion of nonviolence - added to the sense
of despair most blacks felt.
When Martin Luther
King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, a new wave of riots spread across
the country. A report by the National Advisiory Commission on Civil Disorders,
appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, identified more than 150 riots between
1965 and 1968. In 1967 alone, 83 people were killed (most of them black),
1,800 were injured, and property valued at more than $100 million was destroyed.
For the most part, the 1970s and 1980s casted a shadow over the dreams
of black Americans for racial justice and equality. With the exception of
Jimmy Carter's presidency from 1976 to 1980, it was a time when blacks first
felt neglected, then threatened. There was little attempt to enforce existing
civil rights laws. Very few blacks were named to top positions in the federal
government. Schools and businesses felt less pressure to recruit minorities
to make up for the unfair practices of the past, especially after white
men began to complain about "reverse discrimination."
Carter's election to the presidency in 1976 held out the promise of a new
way of thinking. He did name several blacks to high-level positions but
President Carter did come under fire for not doing enough to help the vast
majority of black Americans. A shaky economy marked by high inflation and
gas shortages hit blacks especially hard during his administration. The
Iran hostage crisis of 1979 added to the nation's depressed mood and paved
the way for a return to Republican control of the White House in 1980.
When President Ronald Reagan took office, blacks once again found themselves
shut out of the highest levels of government. Although he insisted that
his moves to strengthen the economy helped all Americans, blacks as well
as whites, President Reagan opposed or ignored many issues of interest to
black Americans. He also appointed conservative judges to various federal
courts who struck down many programs that had been designed to make up for
past discrimination against minorities.
The increase in racially motivated
violence against blacks during the 1980s supported the belief that racism
was alive and well in America. Many blacks seemed resigned to the fact that
America was still a nation of two societies - one black, one white - separate
Discouraged by these setbacks, some blacks decided that
the only way to make progress on issues of importance to black Americans
was to reject traditional politics. A few looked into alternative movements,
including the Nation of Islam and Afrocentrism, which stressed the value
of black culture and the black experience (especially its African roots).
The chief characteristic of the black experience in the 1970s and the early
1980s was the development of black consciousness and black pride. These
values found renewed vigor as increasing numbers of blacks came to believe
that the key to dealing with problems of race in the United States was the
way they felt about themselves as individuals and as a group.
late 1980s, there were black mayors in many of our country's larger cities
and some of its smaller ones too. Black representaion in state legislatures,
school boards, and state courts was also increasing, especially in the South.
George Bush took office as president in January, 1989, some blacks thought
he would reverse the trends of the Reagon years and revive the "Second
Reconstruction." The early signs were really hopeful. President Bush
named General Colin Powell head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and made Dr.
Louis Sullivan secretary of Health and Human Services. He repeatedly expressed
his admiration for the ideals of Martin Luther King,
Jr. and observed the national holiday honoring the slain civil rights
activists. President Bush also welcomed African National Congress leader
Nelson Mandela to the White House in 1990.
By mid-1990, many blacks began to question Preident Bush's sincerity
on issues of importance to black Americans. They thought he was too eager
to support the white minority government in South Africa. Blacks were outraged
when he vetoed the 1991 Civil Rights Bill because it contained what he felt
were unconstitutional employment quotas. In addition, many blacks did not
support America's involvemnt in the Persian Gulf War or the nomination of
Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court.
Years of anger
and frustration came to a head in April, 1992, after four white Los Angeles
policemen were found not guilty in the 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney
King. Los Angeles experienced the worst riots in American history. Disturbances
broke out in several other cities too. Not since the civil rights era of
the 1950s and 1960s had there been so much protest.
By the time of
the election of President Bill Clinton as President in 1992, the ongoing
economic recession, not the Los Angeles riot, was the topic on everyone's
mind. That November, a large number of white voters joined with an overwhelming
majority of black voters to demand a change. Republican George Bush was
turned out of office after only one term and elected Democrat Bill Clinton
instead. As a result of the elections, the Congressional Black Caucus grew
from twenty-five members to thirty-nine.
Although President Clinton
chose several blacks and other minorities for positions in his cabinet,
many black Americans adopted a "wait and see" attitude toward
this new administration. Some blacks questioned the sincerity of Clinton's
commitment to a "Black Agenda." They pointed out that he campaigned
heavily among middle-class whites, avoided Jesse Jackson and other more
outspoken black leaders. Clinton never presented any concrete plans for
dealing with problems unique to the black community. Many blacks also felt
that Clinton stumbled badly on a number of issues of importance to black
Americans. Many blacks were upset with Clinton on his decision to return
Haitian refugees to their country, a policy he had condemned during his
campaign. Others were disappointed by the defeat of his job creation bill,
which they blamed on an ineffective White House strategy. Perhaps the biggest
blow came when President Clinton withdrew Lani Guinier's nomination to head
the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
are increasingly recognizing what they have contributed to the national
culture and the global community and the extent of what more they have to
offer. One of the symbolic victories that has contributed to this new sense
of self-determination and self-recognition among black Americans was the
establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr.
national holiday in 1983. This is our nations's tenth federal holiday, to
be commemorated each third Monday in January.
Blacks in the United
States today are mainly an urban people. They have migrated from the rural
South to cities of the North and West during the 20th century. Their migration
constitutes one of the major migrations of people in United States history.
The black community has developed a number of distinctive cultural features
that black Americans look upon with pride. Many of these features reflect
the influence of cultural traditions that originated in Africa. Other features
reflect the uniqueness of the black American in the United Stated such as
their speech, extended family arrangements, dress and music etc.
black American music has never gone away in terms of its worldwide popularity,
it is still present in America today. It is back with a vengeance via the
phenomenon of rap, which is now performed by natives of China, Japan, India,
Russia, England, France, Mexico, and in many parts of Africa - in varous
native tongues. Like jazz before it, rap has conquered the world.
The century is coming to an end. What does the future hold for black
Americans? Blacks are torn between being optimistic and being pessimistic
about the future. Is the future to be feared or welcomed? On the one hand,
blacks are still scaling the heights of achievement. Recently, Dr. Bernard
Harris became the first black astronaut to walk in space and Isabel Wilkerson
won a Pulitzer prize for news features. Carlton Gutrie has become a successfull
auto-parts manufacturer and Michael Johnson, often compared to Jesse Owens,
set a Olympic record when he won both the 200 and 400 meter races at the
1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. On the other hand, every day brings news
of difficulties blacks face. Unemployment still remains high for too many
blacks. Added to unemployment, the twin epidemics of AIDS and crack cocaine
(drugs) have taken a disproportionate toll on black communities. Another
factor is the instability of black families.
Unfortunately, we do
not live in a perfect world. There are still wars, sickness, poverty, and
injustice. And yes, even today, racism and prejudice, based on skin color
still exist. The black American featured on United States postage stamps
had to fight an uphill battle to obtain their basic human rights.
brave men and women honored on U.S. stamp issues came from different backgrounds.
Some were poor and lacked formal education. Some fought on different battlefronts
to bring an end to the injustices suffered by blacks in this country but
each and every one of them believed in the principle that all men and women
are created equal. And under the guidelines of the U.S. Constitution, these
brave men and women struggled and fought for the rights of blacks. They
fought for equal education and job opportunities, equal justice under the
law, the right to vote, and open housing. They fought to make America a
better world and a better place to live.
It is common knowledge that
ignorance is the cause of much of the racism and prejudice that exists today.
However, as the world gets smaller and smaller, we must learn to live with
and respect the lives, customs, and races of other people. Black Americans
and all Americans owe a lot to the brave men and women who fought to end
injustices and also for their contributions to America's history.
Asante, Molefi K. and Mattson, Mark T. Historical and Cultural Atlas
Americans. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
Charles M. Black Saga. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
PhD and Maguire, Jack. Timelines of African-American History- 500 Years
Black Achievement. New York: A Roundtable Press/Perigee Book, 1994.
Sharon. The Timetables of African-American History - A Chronology of
Most Important People and Events in African-American History. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Hughes, Langston, Meltzer, Milton, Lincoln,
C. Eric, and Spencer, Jon Michael. A
Pictorial History of African Americans- From 1619 to the Present. New York:
Crown Publishers, Inc., 1995.