PROJECT 2019 MENU
Return To: ISSUES LIST
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
This ominous warning issued by the Kerner Commission in 1968 was profoundly
accurate. However, it was issued three and a half centuries after the fact.
If such a warning had been issued and heeded in 1619 when the first twenty Africans
slaves were brought to the Jamestown Colony, it could have prevented American
complicity in the rape of the African continent and the deaths of millions of
innocent African men, women, and children. Heeding such a warning could have
prevented the barbaric enslavement of millions of Africans and their descendants
and, consequently, the underlying reason for the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s
history, the American Civil War. And heeding such a warning could have prevented
hundreds of years of degradation, oppression, and violence inflicted upon black
The fact is that countless warnings issued throughout this nation’s history went unheeded. America did become two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal. Thus the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the inner city riots of 1967 were simply two of the inevitable consequences of the path taken by Americans in the Jamestown Colony in 1619.
The Existence Of Ethnic Minorities
Thousands of years before Africans were brought to America, crop cultivation and other civilizing factors began to change the nomadic nature of humankind. Human societies gradually but steadily progressed from homogeneous tribal units and villages to the first large nation-states and empires. This was the beginning of ethnic minorities: groups of people who differ in race or color or in national, religious, or cultural origin from the dominant group. The fate of ethnic minorities has ranged from acceptance and assimilation to complete domination and enslavement.
Given the turbulent and aggressive history of humans and their penchant for war and conquest, nations with ethnic minorities have been the rule. A notable modern-day exception is Japan where the ethnic majority includes ninety-nine percent of the population. At the other end of the spectrum is the United States. From the homogeneity that existed at the time of the original thirteen colonies, America has become a country where nationality is now hyphenated with pride. Americans choose not to simply be Americans, instead they proclaim themselves to be Anglo-American, Italian-American, Russian-American, German-American, Polish-American, African-American, and so forth.
This is not to suggest that America’s reputation as being the great “melting pot” is not deserved. Although, historically, new immigrants often faced resentment by those who felt most threatened by their arrival, within a generation or so they found their way and found a place in America. And considering the many nationalities, cultures, and religions that comprise the American populace, America is indeed a model of success in “same-color” ethnic mixing.
The reason for the “same-color” caveat is that, historically, America never defined ethnic minorities based on the broader application of “race or color or national, religious, or cultural origin.” In America, the majority and minorities have always been distinguished and defined, first and foremost, based on skin color. Therefore, Americans are white, black, yellow, brown, or red, regardless of their actual race – Caucasoid, Negroid, or Mongoloid. Of course, race was the deciding factor when a person’s racial heritage was known. That is, some mixed-race, light-skinned Americans could “pass for white” as long as they could conceal their Negroid ancestry.
In any case, it was only after the color or race distinction had been made that “national, religious, or cultural origin” was used to define ethnicity in America. This is the reason why white South Africans who immigrate to America are not identified as African-Americans. And it is the reason why blacks in England who immigrate to America are not identified as Anglo-Americans.
1619: The “White Lion” – The Beginning Of Slavery
Because slavery was already firmly established in the New World, it was predictable that the black race would be a distinct and separate people in the part of the Americas that would become the United States. The watershed moment that changed this likelihood into a certainty occurred in the year 1619.
As a historical reference point, it was a year later, in 1620, that the Mayflower brought the Pilgrims to the modern-day state of Massachusetts where they established the Plymouth Colony. And, of course, as every American child is taught, it was the trials, tribulations, and the triumphs of the Plymouth colonists that led to America’s Thanksgiving holiday. The Plymouth colony was the second permanent English colony in North America.
The first permanent English colony, Jamestown, had been established a little more than a decade earlier in 1607 in the modern-day state of Virginia. And although there were already blacks living in Jamestown prior to 1619, the arrival of approximately twenty Africans in August of 1619 marks the official beginning of the institution of chattel slavery in America.
In April of 1619, the governor of the Jamestown colony, Sir George Yeardley, sent a British ship named the Treasurer on a supposed "routine trading voyage." The Treasurer was accompanied by a Dutch war ship. The name of this second ship was the White Lion and the name of its captain was Jope. In fact, the Treasurer's true purpose was to act as a privateer and raid Spanish shipping and the White Lion was to cover its activities. Both ships were owned by the Englishman, Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick.
While on their joint voyage, the two heavily armed vessels captured a Portuguese merchant-slaver ship named the San Juan Bautista that was bound for Veracruz on the eastern coast of modern-day Mexico. Included in the plunder taken from the Portuguese ship was as many as 100 of the approximately 350 Africans who originally had been taken from Angola, in Southwest Africa.
At the end of August of 1619, the White Lion reached Old Point Comfort, near Jamestown, with at least twenty of the Africans. Smaller vessels then smuggled the stolen Africans from Old Point Comfort to Jamestown. Most of the Africans were sold to the governor, Sir George Yeardley, and the colony's wealthiest resident, a merchant named Abraham Peirsey.
Shortly after the arrival of the White Lion, the Treasurer reached Jamestown. After trading some of the captured Africans for provisions, the Treasurer set sail for Bermuda where more of the Africans were sold. The Treasurer then returned to Jamestown to sell the few remaining Africans. One of the Africans who arrived on the Treasurer was listed in a 1624 Jamestown census as a servant named Angela. Angela, who worked in the home of William Pierce and his wife, June, is the first African-American whose name is known.
The Portuguese, who had originally captured the Africans, regarded them as slaves. However, when the Africans were brought to Jamestown, they were legally classified as "indentured servants" because slavery had been eliminated as a classification in English law. In fact, based on a census taken in March of 1619, there were already thirty-two blacks "in the service" of Jamestown planters prior to the arrival of the White Lion in August of 1619.
While there are no historical records that document the fate of these earliest black Americans, there are indications that, after years of servitude, a few regained their freedom. However, unlike most white indentured servants who voluntarily contracted their services for a specific period of time, these captured Africans had no contracts or agreements with anyone and most of them undoubtedly remained in servitude for the rest of their lives. Indeed, by 1625, the Jamestown census officially listed a total of ten "slaves."
In any case, based on various rationales, including racial, financial, religious, and even John Locke’s “Fundamental Constitutions,” within the next few decades, the institution of chattel slavery was firmly established in America. And by the end of the century, tens of thousands of Africans were brought to America annually and sold into slavery.
The Creation Of “Black America”
Black America’s history began in 1619, more than a century and a half before the founding of the United States as a nation. However, “black America” was implicitly created on June 21, 1788. On that day, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the United States Constitution, making the Constitution the supreme law of the land. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution detailed the manner in which House of Representative members would be elected based on state population. It is here that the Constitution declares that each slave was to be counted as “three-fifths” of a whole person. If there was any doubt that “black America” was and would continue to be a separate and distinct entity within America, this constitutional distinction erased that doubt.
Black America’s history consists of three major eras.
Slavery Era : 1619 - 1865
The Slavery era spanned 246 years. It began with the arrival of the first black slaves in America in 1619. It ended with the post-Civil War ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which officially abolished slavery. During the Slavery era, millions of Africans were brought to America where they lived as slaves and died as slaves. Also, during the Slavery era, many millions of descendants of these Africans were born into slavery, lived as slaves, and died as slaves.
For the thousands of free black Americans who lived during this era, their lives were infinitely better than the lives of slaves. Even so, the lives of most free black Americans were austere, constrained, and precarious. Living in a country that was racist at its core, they were denied the right to vote by most states and, in general, they had the protection of law only in the most obvious and extreme cases of injustice. Opportunities for most free black Americans were usually limited to menial jobs or manual labor. All lived their lives hearing tales of free black Americans being kidnapped and sold or re-sold into slavery.
Jim Crow Era : 1866 - 1968
The Jim Crow era of black America’s history started after the Civil War and lasted for 103 years. This era began with the so-called Reconstruction Amendments to the United States Constitution that were intended to ensure constitutional rights and protections to all Americans, including former slaves and their descendants. The Jim Crow era ended with the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s that finally gave black Americans equal access, equal rights, and equal protection under the law. In addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1968, 1968 was also the year Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was his death and the events that followed that finally delivered black America to the gates of the Promised Land.
During the Jim Crow era, black America was as much a distinct and separate entity within America as it had been during the Slavery era. In the South, segregation and exclusion were legislated or accomplished by intimidation and violence. In the North, segregation and exclusion typically were not legislated. However, institutionalized racism severely limited the civil rights of black Americans and greatly reduced their opportunities for success. In many ways, the lives of black Americans were no better than they had been for free blacks during the Slavery era.
Equal Opportunity Era : 1969 - Present
The Equal Opportunity era began in 1969. It is the result of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the final major piece of civil rights legislation that, along with a series of court cases, established and guaranteed equal access, equal rights, and equal protection under the law for black Americans.
In the Equal Opportunity era, racism continues to be a factor in America. However, civil rights laws are now almost universally enforced and black Americans can remedy illegal racial discrimination when it is encountered. And although black Americans are starting from a distinct disadvantage, they now have the best opportunity in their history to be successful in America.
The Continuing Existence Of “Black America”
The Reconstruction Amendments to the United States Constitution, proposed and ratified between 1865 and 1870, eliminated the constitutional distinctions that separated black America from the rest of America. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment made former slaves citizens of the United States and required states to provide due process and equal protection to all citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment granted voting rights to all citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” And the legal distinction of Jim Crow era laws that separated black America from the rest of America ended with the BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF TOPEKA, KANSAS Supreme Court decision of 1954. However, black America as a separate and distinct entity within America still exists and, for a number of reasons, will continue to exist.
First and foremost, at this point in its history, black America must deal with the residual effects of the Slavery era and the Jim Crow era. After all, these two eras, to date, comprise ninety percent of black America’s history. And it is not a simple matter to reverse the catastrophic effects of three and a half centuries of slavery and oppression.
To do so, black America must have a profound sense of unity, purpose, and determination. And one of the major prerequisites for getting to this point is that black Americans must have or develop a sense of self-respect and pride, not only in what they have accomplished, but more importantly, in who they are. Black Americans must understand, accept, and take pride in the fact that they are Americans. Indeed, based on their generational presence, they are “more American” than the vast majority of past and current American citizens who have claimed America as their own.
The Proud History Of Black America
Clearly, America is the great nation it is today because of the unprecedented and unparalleled contributions made by black Americans. The forced labor of millions of slaves for 246 years is in itself enough to make this case. Inventions by black Americans and their wide-ranging contributions in the sciences and arts make the case even stronger. Additionally, it can be argued that an even more profound measurement of service is the number of black American lives that have been sacrificed to make America what it is today. And this sacrifice of lives goes beyond the millions of black Americans who, as slaves, were literally worked to death. It also includes hundreds of thousands of black Americans who, in spite of their status as, at best, second-class citizens, voluntarily risked and sacrificed their lives to create and safeguard America.
In 1770, Crispus Attucks, a black American, was the first American to be killed in a series of events that would lead to the American Revolution. Attucks was the leader of a group of Americans protesting the presence of British troops in the incident that would become known as the Boston Massacre. The Boston Massacre quickly became a rallying point for those who desired independence for America. Thousands of black Americans later fought in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812.
More than 200,000 black Americans fought in more than two hundred battles in the Civil War and more than 68,000 died from their wounds and from diseases. In spite of their high casualty rate, lower pay, other forms of racial discrimination, and the fact that black Americans were executed instead of being taken as prisoners by Confederate troops, desertion among black Americans was fifty percent lower than it was for the rest of the Union army. Later, in spite of continued racism and discrimination both in civilian life and in the military, tens of thousands of black Americans fought honorably and died bravely in the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II.
The “Real Americans”
The fact is that America is not a nation of white people, created by white people, for white people. America was a country of red people, remade in large measure by black people, for the benefit of white people. Would America have become the great nation that it is today or become a great nation as quickly without black Americans? It most assuredly would not. One reason is that black Americans have contributed to the building of America over a longer period of time than any other ethnic group.
Native Americans are the only living people indigenous to America. After Native Americans, black Americans, as a people, are the next most indigenous ethnic group in America. A decade after the first permanent English settlement was established, blacks began arriving in America. An estimated ten to fourteen million more blacks reached America before January, 1808 when the United States prohibited further importation of slaves. The slave trade did not end immediately and hundreds of thousands more Africans were illegally brought to America prior to the Civil War. Even so, from 1808 to the present, a period of two hundred years, less than three million blacks were illegally brought to or legally immigrated to America.
The so-called American “melting pot” occurred for blacks Americans more than a century before it occurred for most white Americans. Most of the race mixing between blacks and whites of European descent took place prior to the Civil War and most of these white Americans could trace their ancestry to pre-Revolution days. The other contribution to the black American racial mixture came from Native Americans. For these reasons, even in the twenty-first century, the ancestry of more than ninety percent of all black Americans, on both sides of their family, dates back to 1808 or earlier. It would be remarkable if more than one or two percent of white Americans can make this same claim.
The reason why this is the case is that, as the number of blacks arriving in America slowed to a trickle, the great waves of white immigrants coming to America was just beginning. From 1815 to 1914, approximately thirty-five million white immigrants arrived in America, with twenty-five of the thirty-five million arriving after the Civil War. And it is important to note that in 1860, just before the start of the Civil War, the total population of the country was just over thirty million.
As a people, African-American roots are deeper in the United States than the roots of Anglo-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, German-Americans, Russian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans and every other ethnic group except Native Americans. The fact that most white Americans are able to easily identify their ethnic heritage clearly speaks to this point. It is not because they have researched their ethnic origins. It is because they have first-hand knowledge of their grandparents or great-grandparents who immigrated to America.
Indeed, even in the twenty-first century, half of all white Americans have ancestors who were processed through the Ellis Island immigration center. Ellis Island was the largest but only one of many immigration centers and it only operated from the 1890’s until 1954. The fact is that black Americans, as a people, have been in America from the beginning and almost everyone else has just gotten off the boat.
The Future Of Black America
White Americans created “black America” almost four centuries ago. They did so in order to isolate and exclude black Americans from their fair share of the country they were helping to build. While white America’s strategy has worked for much of black America’s painful but proud history, it is this same isolation and exclusion that has always provided black America with the unity, the strength, and the determination to persevere. Black America must now maintain this union of spirit, resolve, and history for as long as it takes for black Americans to become full and equal participants in the America they worked so long, so hard, and so bravely to create.
Return To: ISSUES LIST
PROJECT 2019 MENU