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African-Americans - an End to Segregation and Discrimination

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African-Americans - An End to Segregation and Discrimination

The Fight for Civil Rights

From the time that they arrived to the New World, African Americans have gone through a series of adversities. They've worked very hard to end slavery, segregation isolation and discrimination for good. Segregation is the practice of keeping ethnic, racial, religious, or gender groups separate, especially by enforcing the use of separate schools, transportation, housing, and other facilities, and usually discriminating against a minority group. Isolation is the process of separating somebody or something from others, or the fact of being alone and separated from others. With the help of prominent leaders, African Americans joined as one in their struggle for freedom, equal rights, segregation and discrimination by forming their own institutions for education, churches and fraternal orders, and finally the Civil Rights Movement.

The establishment and growth of the colonies in the new world saw an increase in production of the tobacco, also known as the "cash crop." Landowners growing tobacco in the American colonies had originally met their need for forced labor by enslaving a limited number of Natives, and "hiring" many European indentured servants. In exchange for their transportation to cross the Atlantic, the servants committed to work for the landowner for 4 to 7 years, after which they became free. In 1619, the first black indentured servants arrived in Jamestown in the colony of Virginia. They had been captured in Africa and were sold at auction into a period of servitude. Although the first blacks in Virginia were considered and listed as servants, like the white indentured servants brought from Europe, they were viewed as being different from white servants, they were treated differently, and in fact were basically slaves (Zinn, 2005).

With the spread of tobacco farming in the 1670's, and the diminishing number of people willing to sign-on as indentured servants in the 1680's, increasing numbers of slaves were brought in from Africa. They replaced Native American slaves, who were found to be susceptible to European diseases (Becker, 1999). Slavery was now a more profitable proposition to early colonial landowners. In 1638, "the price tag for an African male was around $27.00 while the salary of a European laborer was about 70 cents per day" (Becker, 1999).

During the mid-1600's, the colonies passed laws called slave codes in order to control the slaves. The codes varied from colony to colony but they basically prohibited slaves from owning weapons, receiving an education, meeting one another or in groups, moving about without the permission of their masters, and testifying against white people in court (Zinn, 2005).

The passing of the slave codes soon gave way to protests by religious groups, particularly the Quakers, to the wrongs of slavery and their treatment. Slaves also began to protest their conditions by non-violent means such as working slower, breaking essential tools, purposely damaging harvested crops, etc. They eventually turned to violent means of protest by burning tobacco barns, poisoning their owners using arsenic or poisonous spiders or gathering a mob and participating in rebellions. The rebellions that took place were just enough to create a fear among white landowners to the point that slaves were separated on the plantation and new slave codes were established.

By 1770, about 400,000 slaves lived in the colonies with the majority living in the South, primarily due to the development of plantations that grew rice, tobacco, sugar cane and cotton. In contrast, there were about 40,000 free blacks in the American Colonies which included runaway slaves, descendants of early indentured servants, and black immigrants from the West Indies (Zinn, 2005).

The Revolutionary War led to new attitudes about slavery, especially among whites in the North. The war inspired a spirit of liberty and an appreciation for the service of the black soldiers, which numbered about 5,000. For this reason, some Northern legislatures adopted laws during the late 1700's that provided for the immediate or gradual end of slavery. After the Revolutionary War, numerous free blacks found jobs in tobacco plants, textile mills, shipyards and other manual labor positions.

As the American colonies began to form the Union, several questions were raised regarding the relationship of the new Constitution of the United States and the institution of slavery. A close look at the Constitution reveals the vague language pertaining to the holding of slaves, since the words "slave" and "slavery" were never used in the document. The Framers debated over the extent to which slavery would be included, permitted, or prohibited. In the end, they created a document of compromise that represented the interests of the nation as they knew it and predicted it to be in the future. The two compromise clauses in the United States Constitution that dealt with the issue of slavery are Article I, Section 9 which basically states that the importation of "such Persons" (slaves) will cease in 1808 and Article IV, Section 2 which states that an escaped slave must be returned to his rightful owner, even if discovered in a free state.

By the early 1800's, Northern states had taken steps to end slavery while it began to develop deeper roots in the South due to the invention of the cotton gin. The gin removed the seeds from cotton as fast as 50 people working by hand and contributed more to the growth of slavery. The gin enabled farmers to meet the rising demand for cotton. As a result, the Southern cotton industry expanded, and cotton became the chief crop in the region. The planters needed more and more workers to pick and bale the cotton, which led to large increases in the slave population (Becker, 1999).

Throughout the 19th century, slaves protested against their harsh conditions and cruel treatment using rebellion tactics such as destroying property, running away, pretending illness, and disobeying orders. Major slave protests included armed revolts and mutinies with the most famous being led by Nat Turner, a slave and preacher. The revolt broke out in 1831 in Southampton County in Virginia and resulted in 60 white deaths and at least 100 black deaths, including Nat Turner himself.

On the other side of the spectrum, free blacks were subjected to being treated as inferior by most whites. Many hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other public places barred them. Few states gave free blacks the right to vote. The children of most free blacks had to attend separate schools while some colleges and universities, such as Bowdoin (Maine) and Oberlin (Ohio), admitted black students.

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