Africans in America
PBS has produced a stunning, four-part series on Africans in America. A great deal of the underlying material for this ambitious series is available online. We provide the links to the PBS Africans in America website there.
The years 1450-1750 brought enormous changes to the North American continent. The native Americans, or Indians, as the Europeans came to call them, first encountered European explorers, and before long, saw their world transformed and largely destroyed by European settlers. And European explorers not only ventured to the lands and natural wealth of the Americas; they also traveled to Africa, where they began a trans-Atlantic slave trade that would bring millions of Africans to the Americas as well. This slave trade would over time lead to a new social and economic system: one where the color of one’s skin could determine whether he or she might live as a free citizen or be enslaved for life.
The story of the American Revolution as traditionally recounted is the saga of the thirteen colonies fighting their colonial ruler, Britain, for independence. But an equally compelling part of the story is the personal, religious, and legal challenges of African Americans of this period and their allies to slavery. The spirit of liberty and the disruptions of the Revolutionary era encouraged African American men and women to choose sides — both Patriot and Loyalist — and fight to define what this nation would become.
During its first 50 years, the United States transformed itself from a small republic into an expansive democracy for white Americans. The nation tripled its population, doubled in size, and extended slavery to parts of the Western frontier. For black Americans, this same period was a contradictory mix of community-building for free backs and entrenched enslavement for those not yet emancipated. Slavery grew stronger, as the invention of the cotton gin and a booming Southern economy fueled the push westward. In cities like Philadelphia, free backs sought equal participation in American socirty by building churches and schools, forming beneficial societies, and petitioning their state legislature. In the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), several slave uprisings, including Gabriel’s Rebellion (1800), Denmark Vesey’s Plot (1822), and Nat Turner’s Revolt (1831), were poignant reminders of the human desire for freedom — regardless of the bloody consequences.
As westward expansion took hold, the question of whether the United States would be a proslavery or antislavery nation took on new importance. In the North, antislavery forces included abolitionists, who wanted a future without slavery so that black people could be free, and Free Soil advocates, who resented having to compete with owners of slave-tended plantations for use of new lands. White Southern planters wanted a future for themselves and their prosperous way of life, which depended on the institution of slavery.
As the New York Tribune announced, “We are two peoples. We are a people for Freedom and a people for slavery. Between the two, conflict is inevitable.” Rising conflict led to Civil War in 1861, and the country was torn asunder. After four years and the loss of 617,000 American lives, the Union was saved, African Americans were promised the rights of citizens, and slavery was abolished.