An Overview of Black History

Compiled & Edited by Phillip True, Jr.

21. Early Years in the United States

by John Henrik Clarke

In the United States, the African pursuit of liberty differed in various parts of the country. Freedom for Africans depended on the conditions at the plantations, the impact of the weather, contacts with Africans from the Caribbean, and relationships with other ethnic groups.

The African slaves, who arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, were not chattel slaves. They were indentured servants. Lerone Bennett has explained very graphically in the early chapters of his book, The Shaping of Black America, the conditions under which these early arrivals lived. He explains that most of the first indentured servants and those that arrived for the next 100 years were White. He also explains that the Africans could have inherited their chains from Indians or poor Whites, both of whom were indentured servants in large numbers before the arrival of Africans.

The years between 1619 and 1776 sometimes have been referred to as the lost or neglected years in the history of slavery in the United States. During this period, many Whites worked their way out of indenture, some joined the slave system and still others opposed it. The idea of prejudice based solely on color had not crystallized in the minds of poor Whites, who had no vested interest in the slave system. White indentured servants generally had no derogatory attitude towards the Africans. Some of them worked side-by-side on the same farms. There are also many recorded incidents where indentured Whites joined Africans in revolt against the conditions of slavery and in their mutual pursuit of liberty. Lerone Bennett further tells us that Africans in pursuit of liberty often escaped and lived among the indigenous Americans, known as Indians. The best known incident of this nature occurred in the Everglades of Florida.

At one period in history, over half the army of the Seminole Indians consisted of escaped African slaves. There were so many Africans in the ranks of the Indian army that one military officer fighting the Indians, observing that most of the Indian army were escaped slaves, remarked that this was no longer an "Indian" war. This condition continued to exist throughout the Seminole Wars. The heroic stands that Indians and slaves made together, as allies during the formative years of the United States and in what is referred to as the Seminole Wars, is still another chapter in the pursuit of liberty by Africans in America.

The pursuit of liberty by Africans in the United States took several different forms. It began with questions they asked about contradictions inherent in proclaiming a revolution, announcing liberty and justice for all, but not including Black Americans.

The radical Black ministry that began to emerge during the first half of the 19th century, filled with ideas about the American Revolution, saw these contradictions and set in motion several massive slave revolts. There was the Gabriel Prosser revolt in 1800, the Denmark Vessey revolt in 1822, and the best known of all, the Nat Turner revolt in Virginia that occurred in 1831.

During the first half of the 19th century, literature of protest and revolt emerged in such Black edited publications as Freedom's Journal; and a newspaper operated by Frederick Douglass call The North Star. Douglass, a great leader, was also the most eloquent voice of the African people's pursuit of liberty. In 1829, David Walker issued his famous Appeal to the Colored People of the World, summoning them to revolt against their condition.

The continuous attacks by Black Abolitionist on the eve of the Civil War focused on slavery and the conditions of slavery, creating a great deal of anti-slavery sentiments. During the Civil War, Black Americans fought in large numbers on the side of the North, especially the famous black regiment which consisted mainly of New England Blacks. After the Civil War, however, Africans had to pursue liberty in a different manner.


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