African Americans

African Americans

Total population

45,789,188
14.1% of the total U.S. population (2017)

Regions with significant populations

Across the United States, especially in the South and urban areas

Languages

  • English
  • Louisiana Creole French
  • Gullah

Religion

Predominantly Protestant (78%)

Minorities: Catholic (5%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (1%), Muslim (1%); 
Irreligious (12%)

Related ethnic groups

Black Hispanic and Latino Americans
Other African diasporas in the Americas
  • Afro-Caribbean
  • Black Canadians
  • Sierra Leone Creole people
  • Americo-Liberians
  • Afro-Latin Americans

African Americans (also referred to as Black Americans or Afro-Americans) are an ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the black racial groups of Africa. The term typically refers to descendants of enslaved black people who are from the United States. As a compound adjective, the term is usually hyphenated as African-American.

Black and African Americans constitute the third largest racial and ethnic group in the United States (after White Americans and Hispanic and Latino Americans). Most African Americans are descendants of enslaved peoples within the boundaries of the present United States. On average, African Americans are of West/Central African and European descent, and some also have Native American ancestry. According to US Census Bureau data, African immigrants generally do not self-identify as African American. The overwhelming majority of African immigrants identify instead with their own respective ethnicities (~95%). Immigrants from some Caribbean, Central American and South American nations and their descendants may or may not also self-identify with the term.

African-American history starts in the 16th century, with peoples from West Africa forcibly taken as slaves to Spanish America, and in the 17th century with West African slaves taken to English colonies in North America. After the founding of the United States, black people continued to be enslaved, and the last four million black slaves were only liberated after the Civil War in 1865. Due to notions of white supremacy, they were treated as second-class citizens. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to whites only and only white men of property could vote. These circumstances were changed by Reconstruction, development of the black community, participation in the great military conflicts of the United States, the elimination of racial segregation, and the civil rights movement which sought political and social freedom. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President of the United States.

History

Colonial-era

The first African slaves arrived via Santo Domingo to the San Miguel de Gualdape colony (most likely located in the Winyah Bay area of present-day South Carolina), founded by Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in 1526.

The marriage between Luisa de Abrego, a free black domestic servant from Seville and Miguel Rodríguez, a white Segovian conquistador in 1565 in St. Augustine (Spanish Florida), is the first known and recorded Christian marriage anywhere in what is now the continental United States.

The ill-fated colony was almost immediately disrupted by a fight over leadership, during which the slaves revolted and fled the colony to seek refuge among local Native Americans. De Ayllón and many of the colonists died shortly afterwards of an epidemic and the colony was abandoned. The settlers and the slaves who had not escaped returned to Haiti, whence they had come.

The first recorded Africans in British North America (including most of the future United States) were “20 and odd negroes” who came to Jamestown, Virginia via Cape Comfort in August 1619 as indentured servants. As English settlers died from harsh conditions, more and more Africans were brought to work as labourers.

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Slavery in America
Slaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia, illustration from 1670

An indentured servant (who could be white or black) would work for several years (usually four to seven) without wages. The status of indentured servants in early Virginia and Maryland was similar to slavery. Servants could be bought, sold, or leased and they could be physically beaten for disobedience or running away. Unlike slaves, they were freed after their term of service expired or was bought out, their children did not inherit their status, and on their release from contract they received “a year’s provision of corn, double apparel, tools necessary”, and a small cash payment called “freedom dues”.

Africans could legally raise crops and cattle to purchase their freedom. They raised families, married other Africans and sometimes intermarried with Native Americans or English settlers.

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The Slave Trade
The first slave auction at New Amsterdam in 1655, illustration from 1895 by Howard Pyle

By the 1640s and 1650s, several African families owned farms around Jamestown and some became wealthy by colonial standards and purchased indentured servants of their own. In 1640, the Virginia General Court recorded the earliest documentation of lifetime slavery when they sentenced John Punch, a Negro, to lifetime servitude under his master Hugh Gwyn for running away.

In Spanish Florida, Some Spanish married or had unions with Pensacola, Creek or African women, both slave and free, and their descendants created a mixed-race population of mestizos and mulattos. The Spanish encouraged slaves from the southern British colonies to come to Florida as a refuge, promising freedom in exchange for conversion to Catholicism. King Charles II of Spain issued a royal proclamation freeing all slaves who fled to Spanish Florida and accepted conversion and baptism. Most went to the area around St. Augustine but escaped slaves also reached Pensacola. St. Augustine had mustered an all-black militia unit defending Spain as early as 1683.

One of the Dutch African arrivals, Anthony Johnson, would later own one of the first black “slaves”, John Casor, resulting from the court ruling of a civil case.

The popular conception of a race-based slave system did not fully develop until the 18th century. The Dutch West India Company introduced slavery in 1625 with the importation of eleven black slaves into New Amsterdam (present-day New York City). All the colony’s slaves, however, were freed upon its surrender to the British.

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Slave Trade
Reproduction of a handbill advertising a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769.

Massachusetts was the first British colony to legally recognize slavery in 1641. In 1662, Virginia passed a law that children of enslaved women (who were of African descent and thus foreigners) took the status of the mother, rather than that of the father, as under English common law. This principle was called partus sequitur ventrum.

By an act of 1699, the colony ordered all free blacks deported, virtually defining as slaves all people of African descent who remained in the colony. In 1670, the colonial assembly passed a law prohibiting free and baptized negroes (and Indians) from purchasing Christians (in this act meaning English or European whites) but allowing them to buy people “of their owne nation”.

In Spanish Louisiana, although there was no movement toward abolition of the African slave trade, Spanish rule introduced a new law called coartación, which allowed slaves to buy their freedom and that of others. Although some did not have the money to buy their freedom that government measures on slavery allowed a high number of free blacks. That brought problems to the Spaniards with the French Creoles who also populated Spanish Louisiana, French creoles cited that measure as one of the system’s worst elements. In spite of that, there was a greater number of slaves as the years passed, as also the entire Spanish Louisiana population increased.

The earliest African-American congregations and churches were organized before 1800 in both northern and southern cities following the Great Awakening. By 1775, Africans made up 20% of the population in the American colonies, which made them the second largest ethnic group after the English.

From the American Revolution to the Civil War

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The first "martyr"
Crispus Attucks, the first "martyr" of the American Revolution. He was of Native American and African-American descent.

During the 1770s, Africans, both enslaved and free, helped rebellious English colonists secure American independence by defeating the British in the American Revolution. Africans and Englishmen fought side by side and were fully integrated. Blacks played a role on both sides in the American Revolution. Activists in the Patriot cause included James Armistead, Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell.

In Spanish Louisiana, Governor Bernardo de Gálvezorganized Spanish free black men into two militia companies to defend New Orleans during the American Revolution. They fought in the 1779 battle in which Spain took Baton Rouge from the British. Gálvez also commanded them in campaigns against the British outposts in Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida, he recruited slaves for the militia by pledging to free anyone who was seriously wounded and promised to secure a low price for coartación (buy their freedom and that of others) for those who received lesser wounds. During the 1790s, Governor Francisco Luis Héctor, baron of Carondelet reinforced local fortifications and recruit even freer black men for the militia. Carondelet doubled the number of free black men who served, creating two more militia companies—one made up of black members and the other of pardo (mixed race). Serving in the militia brought free black men one step closer to equality with whites, allowing them, for example, the right to carry arms and boosting their earning power. However, these privileges distanced free black men from enslaved blacks and encouraged them to identify with whites.

Slavery had been tacitly enshrined in the U.S. Constitution through provisions such as Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, commonly known as the 3/5 compromise. Slavery, which by then meant almost exclusively African Americans, was the most important political issue in the antebellum United States, leading to one crisis after another. Among these were the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Dred Scott decision.

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Black History Icon
Frederick Douglass, ca 1850

Before the Civil War, eight serving presidents owned slaves, a practice protected by the U.S. Constitution. By 1860, there were 3.5 to 4.4 million enslaved blacks in the U.S. due to the Atlantic slave trade, and another 488,000–500,000 African Americans lived free (with legislated limits) across the country. With legislated limits imposed upon them in addition to “unconquerable prejudice” from whites according to Henry Clay, some blacks who weren’t enslaved left the U.S. for Liberia in Africa. Liberia began as a settlement of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1821, with the abolitionist members of the ACS believing blacks would face better chances for freedom and equality in Africa.

The slaves not only constituted a large investment, but they also produced America’s most valuable product and export: cotton. They not only helped build the U.S. Capitol, but they also built the White House and other District of Columbia buildings. (Washington was a slave-trading centre.) Similar building projects existed in slaveholding states.

In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared that all slaves in Confederate-held territory were free. Advancing Union troops enforced the proclamation with Texas being the last state to be emancipated, in 1865.

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Harriet Tubman, around 1869
Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved people

Slavery in Union-held Confederate territory continued, at least on paper, until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.[50] Prior to the Civil War, only white men of property could vote, and the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited U.S. citizenship to whites only. The 14th Amendment (1868) gave African-Americans citizenship, and the 15th Amendment (1870) gave African-American males the right to vote (only males could vote in the U.S. at the time).

Reconstruction Era and Jim Crow

African Americans quickly set up congregations for themselves, as well as schools and community/civic associations, to have space away from white control or oversight. While the post-war Reconstruction era was initially a time of progress for African Americans, that period ended in 1876. By the late 1890s, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation and disenfranchisement. Segregation, which began with slavery, continued with Jim Crow laws, with signs used to show blacks where they could legally walk, talk, drink, rest, or eat. For those places that were racially mixed, non-whites had to wait until all white customers were dealt with. Most African Americans obeyed the Jim Crow laws, in order to avoid racially motivated violence. To maintain self-esteem and dignity, African Americans such as Anthony Overton and Mary McLeod Bethune continued to build their own schools, churches, banks, social clubs, and other businesses.

In the last decade of the 19th century, racially discriminatory laws and racial violence aimed at African Americans began to mushroom in the United States, a period often referred to as the “nadir of American race relations”. These discriminatory acts included racial segregation—upheld by the United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896—which was legally mandated by southern states and nationwide at the local level of government, voter suppression or disenfranchisement in the southern states, denial of economic opportunity or resources nationwide, and private acts of violence and mass racial violence aimed at African Americans unhindered or encouraged by government authorities.

Great Migration and the civil rights movement

Main articles: Great Migration and the civil rights movement

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A group of white men pose for a 1919 photograph as they stand over the black victim Will Brown who had been lynched and had his body mutilated and burned

The desperate conditions of African Americans in the South sparked the Great Migration of the early 20th century which led to a growing African-American community in the Northern United States. The rapid influx of blacks disturbed the racial balance within Northern cities, exacerbating hostility between both black and white Northerners. Urban riots—whites attacking blacks—became a northern problem. The Red Summer of 1919 was marked by hundreds of deaths and higher casualties across the U.S. as a result of race riots that occurred in more than three dozen cities, such as the Chicago race riot of 1919 and the Omaha race riot of 1919. Overall, blacks in Northern cities experienced systemic discrimination in a plethora of aspects of life. Within employment, economic opportunities for blacks were routed to the lowest-status and restrictive in potential mobility. Within the housing market, stronger discriminatory measures were used in correlation to the influx, resulting in a mix of “targeted violence, restrictive covenants, redlining and racial steering”. While many whites defended their space with violence, intimidation, or legal tactics toward African Americans, many other whites migrated to more racially homogeneous suburban or exurban regions, a process known as white flight.

By the 1950s, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. A 1955 lynching that sparked public outrage about injustice was that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago. Spending the summer with relatives in Money, Mississippi, Till was killed for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman. Till had been badly beaten, one of his eyes was gouged out, and he was shot in the head. The visceral response to his mother’s decision to have an open-casket funeral mobilized the black community throughout the U.S. Vann R. Newkirk| wrote: “the trial of his killers became a pageant illuminating the tyranny of white supremacy”. The state of Mississippi tried two defendants, but they were speedily acquitted by an all-white jury. One hundred days after Emmett Till’s murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Alabama—indeed, Parks told Emmett’s mother Mamie Till that “the photograph of Emmett’s disfigured face in the casket was set in her mind when she refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus.”
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Civil Rights Movement
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963, shows civil rights leaders and union leaders.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the conditions which brought it into being are credited with putting pressure on Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson put his support behind passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labour unions, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which expanded federal authority over states to ensure black political participation through the protection of voter registration and elections. By 1966, the emergence of the Black Power movement, which lasted from 1966 to 1975, expanded upon the aims of the civil rights movement to include economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from white authority.

During the postwar period, many African Americans continued to be economically disadvantaged relative to other Americans. Average black income stood at 54 percent of that of white workers in 1947, and 55 percent in 1962. In 1959, the median family income for whites was $5,600, compared with $2,900 for nonwhite families. In 1965, 43 percent of all black families fell into the poverty bracket, earning under $3,000 a year. The Sixties saw improvements in the social and economic conditions of many black Americans.

From 1965 to 1969, black family income rose from 54 to 60 percent of white family income. In 1968, 23 percent of black families earned under $3,000 a year, compared with 41 percent in 1960. In 1965, 19 percent of black Americans had incomes equal to the national median, a proportion that rose to 27 percent by 1967. In 1960, the median level of education for blacks had been 10.8 years, and by the late Sixties, the figure rose to 12.2 years, half a year behind the median for whites.

Post–civil rights era

Politically and economically, African Americans have made substantial strides during the post-civil rights era. In 1989, Douglas Wilder became the first African American elected governor in U.S. history. Clarence Thomas became the second African-American Supreme Court Justice. In 1992, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. There were 8,936 black officeholders in the United States in 2000, showing a net increase of 7,467 since 1970. In 2001, there were 484 black mayors.

In 2005, the number of Africans immigrating to the United States, in a single year, surpassed the peak number who were involuntarily brought to the United States during the Atlantic Slave Trade. On November 4, 2008, Democratic Senator Barack Obama defeated Republican Senator John McCain to become the first African American to be elected president. At least 95 percent of African-American voters voted for Obama. He also received overwhelming support from young and educated whites, a majority of Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans picking up a number of new states in the Democratic electoral column. Obama lost the overall white vote, although he won a larger proportion of white votes than any previous nonincumbent Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter. Obama was re-elected for a second and final term, by a similar margin on November 6, 2012.

Demographics

In 1790, when the first U.S. Census was taken, Africans (including slaves and free people) numbered about 760,000—about 19.3% of the population. In 1860, at the start of the Civil War, the African-American population had increased to 4.4 million, but the percentage rate dropped to 14% of the overall population of the country. The vast majority were slaves, with only 488,000 counted as “freemen”. By 1900, the black population had doubled and reached 8.8 million.

In 1910, about 90% of African Americans lived in the South. Large numbers began migrating north looking for better job opportunities and living conditions, and to escape Jim Crow laws and racial violence. The Great Migration, as it was called, spanned the 1890s to the 1970s. From 1916 through the 1960s, more than 6 million black people moved north. But in the 1970s and 1980s, that trend reversed, with more African Americans moving south to the Sun Belt than leaving it.

The following table of the African-American population in the United States over time shows that the African-American population, as a percentage of the total population, declined until 1930 and has been rising since then.

By 1990, the African-American population reached about 30 million and represented 12% of the U.S. population, roughly the same proportion as in 1900.

At the time of the 2000 Census, 54.8% of African Americans lived in the South. In that year, 17.6% of African Americans lived in the Northeast and 18.7% in the Midwest, while only 8.9% lived in the western states. The west does have a sizable black population in certain areas, however. California, the nation’s most populous state, has the fifth largest African-American population, only behind New York, Texas, Georgia, and Florida. According to the 2000 Census, approximately 2.05% of African Americans identified as Hispanic or Latino in origin, many of whom may be of Brazilian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Haitian, or other Latin American descent. The only self-reported ancestral groups larger than African Americans are the Irish and Germans.

According to the 2010 US Census, nearly 3% of people who self-identified as black had recent ancestors who immigrated from another country. Self-reported non-Hispanic black immigrants from the Caribbean, mostly from Jamaica and Haiti, represented 0.9% of the US population, at 2.6 million. Self-reported black immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa also represented 0.9%, at about 2.8 million. Additionally, self-identified Black Hispanics represented 0.4% of the United States population, at about 1.2 million people, largely found within the Puerto Rican and Dominican communities. Self-reported black immigrants hailing from other countries in the Americas, such as Brazil and Canada, as well as several European countries, represented less than 0.1% of the population. Mixed-Race Hispanic and non-Hispanic Americans who identified as being part black, represented 0.9% of the population. Of the 12.6% of United States residents who identified as black, around 10.3% were “native black American” or ethnic African Americans, who are direct descendants of West/Central Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves. These individuals make up well over 80% of all blacks in the country. When including people of mixed-race origin, about 13.5% of the US population self-identified as black or “mixed with black”. However, according to the U.S. census bureau, evidence from the 2000 Census indicates that many African and Caribbean immigrant ethnic groups do not identify as “Black, African Am., or Negro”. Instead, they wrote in their own respective ethnic groups in the “Some Other Race” write-in entry. As a result, the census bureau devised a new, separate “African American” ethnic group category in 2010 for ethnic African Americans.

Education

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Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium.

By 2012, African Americans had advanced greatly in education attainment. They still lagged overall compared to white or Asian Americans but surpassed other ethnic minorities, with 19 percent earning bachelor’s degrees and 6 percent earning advanced degrees. Between 1995 and 2009, freshmen college enrollment for African Americans increased by 73 percent and only 15 percent for whites. Black women are enrolled in college more than any other race and gender group, leading all with 9.7% enrolled according to the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau. Predominantly black schools for kindergarten through twelfth-grade students were common throughout the U.S. before the 1970s. By 1972, however, desegregation efforts meant that only 25% of Black students were in schools with more than 90% non-white students. However, since then, a trend towards re-segregation affected communities across the country: by 2011, 2.9 million African-American students were in such overwhelming minority schools, including 53% of Black students in school districts that were formerly under desegregation orders.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which were originally set up when segregated colleges did not admit African Americans, continue to thrive and educate students of all races today. The majority of HBCUs were established in the southeastern United States, Alabama has the most HBCUs of any state.

As late as 1947, about one-third of African Americans over 65 were considered to lack the literacy to read and write their own names. By 1969, illiteracy as it had been traditionally defined, had been largely eradicated among younger African Americans.

US Census surveys showed that by 1998, 89 percent of African Americans aged 25 to 29 had completed a high-school education, less than whites or Asians, but more than Hispanics. On many college entrances, standardized tests and grades, African Americans have historically lagged behind whites, but some studies suggest that the achievement gap has been closing. Many policymakers have proposed that this gap can and will be eliminated through policies such as affirmative action, desegregation, and multiculturalism.

The average high school graduation rate of blacks in the United States has steadily increased to 71% in 2013. Separating this statistic into component parts shows it varies greatly depending upon the state and the school district examined. 38% of black males graduated in the state of New York but in Maine, 97% graduated and exceeded the white male graduation rate by 11 percentage points. In much of the southeastern United States and some parts of the southwestern United States, the graduation rate of white males was in fact below 70% such as in Florida where a 62% of white males graduated high school. Examining specific school districts paints an even more complex picture. In the Detroit school district, the graduation rate of black males was 20% but 7% for white males. In the New York City school district, 28% of black males graduate high school compared to 57% of white males. In Newark County 76% of black males graduated compared to 67% for white males. Further academic improvement has occurred in 2015. Roughly 23% of all blacks have bachelor’s degrees. In 1988, 21% of whites had obtained a bachelor’s degree versus 11% of blacks. In 2015, 23% of blacks had obtained a bachelor’s degree versus 36% of whites. Foreign-born blacks, 9% of the black population, made even greater strides. They exceed native-born blacks by 10 percentage points.

In Chicago, Marva Collins, an African-American educator, created a low-cost private school specifically for the purpose of teaching low-income African-American children whom the public school system had labelled as being “learning disabled”. One article about Marva Collins’ school stated,

Working with students having the worst of backgrounds, those who were working far below grade level, and even those who had been labeled as ‘unteachable,’ Marva was able to overcome the obstacles. News of third grade students reading at ninth grade level, four-year-olds learning to read in only a few months, outstanding test scores, disappearance of behavioral problems, second-graders studying Shakespeare, and other incredible reports, astounded the public.

During the 2006–2007 school year, Collins’ school charged $5,500 for tuition, and parents said that the school did a much better job than the Chicago public school system. Meanwhile, during the 2007–2008 year, Chicago public school officials claimed that their budget of $11,300 per student was not enough.

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