African Americans: How and Why They Came
The term African American can be a misnomer for many individuals. African Americans (also referred to as Black Americans) are a race-ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the Black racial groups of Africa. The term African American generally denotes descendants of enslaved Black people who are from the United States, while some recent Black immigrants or their children may also come to identify as African-American or may identify differently.
African Americans are the largest race-ethnic group behind Euro Americans (whites) and Latinx. 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 U.S. 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. This section will focus on the experience of Africans who were captured, enslaved and transported from Africa to the United States, and their offspring.
If Native Americans are the only minoritized group whose subordinate status occurred by conquest, African Americans are the exemplar minority group in the United States whose ancestors did not come here by choice. A Dutch sea captain brought the first Africans to the Virginia colony of Jamestown in 1619 and sold them as indentured servants. This was not an uncommon practice for either Blacks or whites, and indentured servants were in high demand. For the next century, Black and white indentured servants worked side by side. But the growing agricultural economy demanded greater and cheaper labor, and by 1705, Virginia passed the slave codes declaring that any foreign-born non-Christian could be a slave, and that slaves were considered property.
The next 150 years saw the rise of U.S. slavery, with Black Africans being kidnapped from their own lands and shipped to the New World on the trans-Atlantic journey known as the Middle Passage. Once in the Americas, the Black population grew until U.S.-born Blacks outnumbered those born in Africa. But colonial (and later, U.S.) slave codes declared that the child of a slave was a slave, so the slave class was created.
Justification for African Slavery
Skin color was an instrument of justifying slavery in the Americas. The Portuguese and the Spanish were among the first to bring African slaves to the Americas. In 1542, the enslaving of Indigenous peoples in its New World territories was made illegal by the government of Spain, an action that greatly expanded and facilitated the primary use of Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in North America. As David Brion Davis (2008) stated, “It was not until the seventeenth century that...New World slavery began to be overwhelmingly associated with people of Black African descent.” According to Nathan Rutstein (1997), “In all of the original 13 colonies, there was the prevailing belief among whites that the Caucasian race was not only superior to the African races, but that Africans were part of a lower species, something between the ape and the human.”
It is perhaps difficult to comprehend how the United States, founded on the principles of liberty, democracy and Christian values, could establish a system as inhumane as slavery. It becomes more understandable with the historical context that Black skin and slavery were considered to be a curse from God. Although slavery was driven by economic need, race and theology were used to justify it. According to Goldenberg (2017), the Bible was used as justification for slavery: “...the Bible...consigned Blacks to everlasting servitude...[and] provided biblical validation for sustaining the slave system.” David Brion Davis (2008)has written extensively about the impact of the Curse of Ham on slavery and attitudes toward African Americans in the antebellum era. He stated that “the ‘Curse of Ham’ was repeatedly used as the most authoritative justification for ‘Negro slavery’ by nineteenth-century Southern Christians, by many Northern Christians, and even by a few Jews” (Davis, 2008).
This section licensed CC BY-NC. Attribution: Slavery to Liberation: The African American Experience (Encompass) (CC BY-NC 4.0)
The Curse of Ham
Perhaps the most significant influence on universal attitudes and negative perceptions of people of color is the biblical story of the “Curse of Ham” found in the King James Version (1611) of the Bible in Genesis 9:18-27. The event occurs after Noah and his three sons and their families have left the ark after the Great Flood. Noah’s three sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. One day, Noah became drunk from wine made from grapes grown in his vineyard. He fell asleep nude on the floor in his tent. Ham’s two brothers, Shem and Japheth, turned away and did not view their father’s naked body. Ham refused to turn away and saw Noah drunk and naked. Shem and Japheth took a garment, put it on their shoulders, and backed into the tent. They covered Noah with the garment without looking at their father’s nude body. After Noah later awoke and became aware of what Ham had done, he pronounced the biblical curse, "Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers."
Historically called “The Curse of Ham,” Noah’s curse was actually directed at Canaan, who was the son of Ham. Noah then blessed Ham’s two brothers, Shem and Japheth. It was after this event that the three sons of Noah went with their families to populate the entire earth. Canaan and his family traveled to settle in the area of the world that is now the continent of Africa. One of Ham’s brothers (Japheth) went to settle in the area that is now Europe, and the other brother (Shem) went to settle with his family in the area known as Asia.
Noah’s statement that Canaan would be the “lowest of slaves” to his two brothers became universally interpreted as an eternal affliction of servitude by God. The Curse of Ham was widespread throughout Europe and eventually spread to America. The Christian Bible does not mention skin color in the story of Noah’s curse, but the conflating of Black skin color with the punishment of eternal servitude later became combined with the original biblical interpretation of the Curse of Ham. The text of the biblical story was translated over centuries by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian writers.
Findings from Pew Research Center surveys conducted in recent years show that most Black adults feel that they are part of a broader Black community in the United States and see their race as important to how they think of themselves. As conveyed in Figure 7.1.2, about three-quarters of Black adults say that being Black is extremely (52%) or very (22%) important to how they think about themselves, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.
In addition, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2016 reveals that most Black adults (81%) said they felt at least somewhat connected to a broader Black community in the U.S., including 36% who said they felt very connected to a Black community, as shown in Figure 7.1.3
As presented in Figure 7.1.4, Black adults who said they feel strongly connected to a broader Black community are more likely (than those who don’t have such connections) to have engaged with organizations such as the NAACP, Urban League, Black Lives Matter and Black Greek Fraternities/Sororities dedicated to improving the lives of Black Americans by donating money, attending events or volunteering their time.
Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Great Depression, nearly two million African Americans fled the rural South to seek new opportunities elsewhere. While some moved west, the vast majority of this Great Migration, as the large exodus of African Americans leaving the South in the early twentieth century was called, traveled to the Northeast and Upper Midwest. The following cities were the primary destinations for these African Americans: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. These eight cities accounted for over two-thirds of the total population of the African American migration.
A combination of both “push” and “pull” factors played a role in this movement. Despite the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (ensuring freedom, the right to vote regardless of race, and equal protection under the law, respectively), African Americans were still subjected to intense racial hatred. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War led to increased death threats, violence, and a wave of lynchings. Even after the formal dismantling of the Klan in the late 1870s, racially motivated violence continued. According to researchers at the Tuskegee Institute, there were thirty-five hundred racially motivated lynchings and other murders committed in the South between 1865 and 1900. For African Americans fleeing this culture of violence, northern and midwestern cities offered an opportunity to escape the dangers of the South.
In addition to this “push” out of the South, African Americans were also “pulled” to the cities by factors that attracted them, including job opportunities, where they could earn a wage rather than be tied to a landlord, and the chance to vote (for men, at least), supposedly free from the threat of violence. Although many lacked the funds to move themselves north, factory owners and other businesses that sought cheap labor assisted the migration. Often, the men moved first then sent for their families once they were ensconced in their new city life. Racism and a lack of formal education relegated these African American workers to many of the lower-paying unskilled or semi-skilled occupations. More than 80 percent of African American men worked menial jobs in steel mills, mines, construction, and meat packing. In the railroad industry, they were often employed as porters or servants (Figure 7.1.5). In other businesses, they worked as janitors, waiters, or cooks. African American women, who faced discrimination due to both their race and gender, found a few job opportunities in the garment industry or laundries, but were more often employed as maids and domestic servants. Regardless of the status of their jobs, however, African Americans earned higher wages in the North than they did for the same occupations in the South, and typically found housing to be more available.
However, such economic gains were offset by the higher cost of living in the North, especially in terms of rent, food costs, and other essentials. As a result, African Americans often found themselves living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, much like the tenement slums in which European immigrants lived in the cities. For newly arrived African Americans, even those who sought out the cities for the opportunities they provided, life in these urban centers was exceedingly difficult. They quickly learned that racial discrimination did not end at the Mason-Dixon Line, but continued to flourish in the North as well as the South. European immigrants, also seeking a better life in the cities of the United States, resented the arrival of the African Americans, whom they feared would compete for the same jobs or offer to work at lower wages. Landlords frequently discriminated against them; their rapid influx into the cities created severe housing shortages and even more overcrowded tenements. Homeowners in traditionally white neighborhoods later entered into covenants in which they agreed not to sell to African American buyers; they also often fled neighborhoods into which African Americans had gained successful entry. In addition, some bankers practiced mortgage discrimination, later known as “redlining,” in order to deny home loans to qualified buyers. Such pervasive discrimination led to a concentration of African Americans in some of the worst slum areas of most major metropolitan cities, a problem that remained ongoing throughout most of the twentieth century.
So why move to the North, given that the economic challenges they faced were similar to those that African Americans encountered in the South? The answer lies in noneconomic gains. Greater educational opportunities and more expansive personal freedoms mattered greatly to the African Americans who made the trek northward during the Great Migration. State legislatures and local school districts allocated more funds for the education of both Blacks and whites in the North, and also enforced compulsory school attendance laws more rigorously. Similarly, unlike the South where a simple gesture (or lack of a deferential one) could result in physical harm to the African American who committed it, life in larger, crowded northern urban centers permitted a degree of anonymity—and with it, personal freedom—that enabled African Americans to move, work, and speak without deferring to every white person with whom they crossed paths. Psychologically, these gains more than offset the continued economic challenges that Black migrants faced.
The Migrating U.S. Black Population
Although, the Black share of the total U.S. population has not changed substantially over the last two decades, the number of majority Black counties in the U.S. grew from 65 to 72 between 2000 and 2018. One contributing factor may be migration of Black Americans from the North to the South and from cities into suburbs. According to Pew Research, there are now 15 majority Black counties that were not majority Black in 2000. Among them, Rockdale County, Georgia, located about half an hour outside Atlanta, had the largest percentage point increase in the share of Black residents (from 18% in 2000 to 55% in 2018). With about 930,000 residents, Shelby County, Tennessee, which contains Memphis, was the county with the largest population to become majority Black.
Meanwhile, eight counties that were majority Black in 2000 are no longer. Three of these are large U.S. cities that the Census Bureau includes in its county estimates: Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; and St. Louis, Missouri. Washington (home to roughly 702,000 residents in 2018) saw a 19% increase in total population during that period, while its Black population decreased by 9%. The city’s share of Black residents declined by 15 percentage points, from 60% to 45%.
Black immigrant population has increased fivefold since 1980. Immigrants are making up a growing number of the overall U.S. population – but the Black immigrant population is growing twice as fast. As prestented in Figure 7.1.7, there were 4.2 million Black immigrants living in the U.S. in 2016, up from 816,000 in 1980, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data. Since 2000 alone, the number of Black immigrants in the U.S. has risen 71%.
According to the Pew Research Center, much of the recent growth in the Black immigrant population has been fueled by African migration. Africans made up 39% of the overall Black immigrant population in 2016, up from 24% in 2000. Still, about half of all foreign-born Blacks (49%) living in the U.S. in 2016 were from the Caribbean.
Did You Know?
- 47.8 million The Black population, either alone or in combination with one or more races, in the United States in 2018.
- 87.9% The percentage of African-Americans age 25 and older with a high school diploma or higher in 2018.
- 29.9% The percentage of the employed Black population age 16 and older working in management, business, science and arts occupations in 2018.
- 121,466 The number of Black-owned employer businesses in the United States in 2016.
- 2.2 million The number of Black military veterans in the United States nationwide in 2018.
Source: United States Census Bureau, 2019.
Contributors and Attributions
Content on this page has multiple licenses. Everything is CC BY-SA other than Justification for African Slavery which is CC BY-NC.
- Johnson, Shaheen. (Long Beach City College)
- Hund, Janét. (Long Beach City College)
- Slavery to Liberation: The African American Experience (Encompass) (CC BY-NC 4.0) (Contributed to Justification for African Slavery)
- The African American “Great Migration” and New European Immigration (OER Commons) (CC BY-SA 4.0)
- Introduction to Sociology 2e (OpenStax) (CC BY 4.0)
- African Americans (Wikipedia) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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