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African Americans in the U.S.: History, Heritage & Cultural Issues

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  • 0:09 Ethnic Minority
  • 0:55 History in America
  • 2:15 Slavery to Freedom
  • 3:48 Civil Rights Movement
  • 5:00 Cultural Topics Today
  • 6:25 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Juli Yelnick

Juli has traveled the world engaging in cultural immersion experiences that bring her Master of Liberal Studies findings to light.

There are several ethnic minority groups in the United States. This lesson explores the African American experience, from the trans-Atlantic slave trade through the Civil Rights Movement, even delving into some of today's most significant cultural issues.

What Is an Ethnic Minority?

In the United States, the majority of residents (63%) self-identify as white Americans on their U.S. Census Bureau household survey. Five other ethnicities are offered as options: African American, Native American, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, and individuals can also select two or more combined ethnicities to best describe their ancestry. Because the majority of Americans identify as white, then the other five ethnicities are considered minorities in the United States. On the 2012 U.S. household census, only 13% of residents self-identified as African American, making them a minority in the United States today.

History of Africans in America

During the period of colonization focused in the 17th and 18th centuries, an estimated 10 million Africans were bought and transported across the Atlantic Ocean by European slave traders. Although around 90% of them arrived in the Caribbean and South America, approximately 400,000 African individuals found themselves in what is today the United States of America.

The first generations of African Americans faced many obstacles - some obvious and some that have been forgotten by many. When they arrived in the New World, they were expected to work tirelessly in the tobacco fields - later, in the cotton fields - and be submissive to the New World masters. However, because they were deliberately thrown together on isolated plantations with individuals from other African tribes - sometimes enemy groups - it was difficult even to communicate.

As a result of being stripped of all outward signs of culture - dress, hairstyle, ornamentation, etc. - and even their native languages, early African Americans faced the difficult challenge of creating a pidgin, a new, simplified language to communicate both with each other and with English-speaking masters. Similarly, remnants of native religious beliefs were combined with the traditional rituals of the American South, as many slaves were converted to Christianity.

From Slavery to Freedom

The United States Constitution recognized slavery as an institution, stipulating that each slave counted as 3/5ths of one person for purposes of taxation and representation. This doesn't mean that all Americans agreed with the practice of slavery though, and in fact, most slaves were held on farms and plantations in the South - not in the North. This difference of opinion became glaringly obvious as the Civil War raged from 1861-1865. Most Northern states had already abolished slavery by 1804, but the Southern states' economies relied too heavily on slave labor to give it up without a fierce fight.

In 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation promised freedom to all slaves, North and South, African Americans should have been immediately considered full American citizens. Unfortunately, a series of state and local segregation laws, known as the Jim Crow laws, continued and spread throughout the American South, limiting the rights, privileges and protections available to African Americans. A series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution attempted to end the second-class citizen status imposed on the minority group in the South, but even these amendments were not able to fix the inequalities.

  • The 13th Amendment: Officially banned slavery in the United States
  • The 14th Amendment: Offered equal protection for African Americans
  • The 15th Amendment: Granted African American men the right to vote

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