African Americans


African Americans are citizens of the United States with ancestors who came from Africa. Their forefathers were brought to American colonies as slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. About 40 million African Americans, 13% of the total population, live in the USA today.

In the past African Americans have been known by many names. They were called Negroes, Blacks and Coloureds. In the last 30 years the term African Americans has officially been used.

About half of them live in the southern states of the USA, the rest in large cities of the East, Midwest and West.



Slave auction in the American colonies

Slave auction in the 18th century

European traders brought the first slaves from Africa to the new colonies in the 1600s. After arriving in the New World they were bought by white masters and had to work on large cotton and tobacco farms in the South. They didn’t get any money for their work and living conditions were very bad. The economy of the South depended on slaves.

Slave work was very difficult. Most women cooked, cleaned the house and raised the children of their white masters. Men were trained to be carpenters or masons. Most of them, however, were farm labourers. They planted and harvested crops.

Not all Blacks in America were slaves. “Free Blacks” lived and worked in big American cities but they had very few rights. Expressing political views, carrying guns and meeting with white people was forbidden.

Americans in the northern states thought that slavery shouldn’t be allowed in a free country. As time went on more and more people joined in the fight to end slavery. These abolitionists helped slaves escape to the North through secret routes. This system was called the Underground Railway.

In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. He was strongly against slavery. Many southern states withdrew from the union and formed their own country – the Confederate States of America. It was the beginning of the Civil War, which lasted until 1865.

In 1863 Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the Emancipation Proclamation. The northern states won the Civil War and American slaves were free.


Reconstruction Period

The time after the Civil War became known as the Reconstruction. The American government sent soldiers to the southern states to protect the Blacks and their newly won freedom.

Although they were officially free, most of them still lived in poverty and in very bad conditions. In the South they worked as sharecroppers, farmers who cultivated land and could keep a share of what they grew for themselves.

Ku Klux Klan

Symbol of the Ku Klux Klan


Whites continued to discriminate against African Americans. Blacks were not allowed to attend the same schools or go to the same churches as whites. Segregation meant a complete separation of life between the two groups. Blacks were also kept from voting.

During the second half of the 19th century violent groups started to terrorize the Blacks. The most famous was the Ku Klux Klan. Bands of white-hooded Klansmen rode through the countryside at night. They beat up and murdered many Blacks and white people who felt sympathy for them.



The World Wars and the Great Depression


During World War I and in the years that followed more and more Blacks started to move to the cities of the North where they expected to find a job and lead a better life. Most of them, however, were disappointed because they were not educated and didn’t have the skills that they needed. Slums and black ghettos developed in the inner cities throughout the northern United States.

The Great Depression, which began after the stock market crash of 1929, hit the Black population harder than the Whites. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Programme did a lot to help Blacks.

World War II opened up new opportunities for Black people. About a million men joined the army and served for their country – mostly in all-Black units. As time went on more and more Blacks succeeded in getting a higher position in the army. Some of them even became pilots and officers.


African-American population movement

In the past hundred years African Americans have moved from the red states to the blue ones


Civil Rights Movement

After World War II a new movement for civil rights began. African Americans started to have more confidence and believe more in themselves. They had they served for their country with honour during the war and in the North many Blacks started living in better conditions. A new group came to life – the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People). It attracted many members and received support from both Blacks and Whites.

The Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s. In 1954 the Supreme Court decided that segregation in schools was against the constitution. In 1955 a black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama because she refused to let a white passenger take her seat. Blacks in the city started boycotting buses. This boycott was led by Martin Luther King, who became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

The movement reached its climax in 1963. Over a million people, Blacks as well as Whites took part in a protest demonstration in Washington D.C.

In the following year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. This law banned discrimination in school, public places, jobs and many other fields. African Americans received the right to vote and in 1967 Thurgood Marshall became the first Black judge to serve with the Supreme Court.


Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks

Civil Rights March on Washington

The March on Washington - 1963



Black Power


While Martin Luther King and wanted to improve the situation of Blacks in a non-violent way, others were more violent and militant. In the 1960s Malcolm X preached that Blacks should use force and violence to achieve equal rights. Stokley Carmichael coined the term “Black Power”.

During this decade the country was hit by a series of riots, mostly in big cities. Blacks protested against bad schools, poor housing, high prices and unequal treatment by the police.

In the 1968 Olympic Games two American medal winners held their closed fist in the air and in protest, turned away from the American flag during the ceremony. In the same year the most respected leader of the American Blacks, Martin Luther King, was assassinated by a white man in Memphis, Tennessee.



African Americans Today

Since the violent times of the 60s African Americans have made progress and improved their situation in every part of American life.

The largest cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have had Black mayors. Colin Powel and Condoleezza Rice were two African Americans who became Secretary of State, and in 2009 Barack Obama became the first African American President of the United States.

In the film industry Halle Berry and Denzel Washington are among the most famous stars. Bill Cosby was the first African American with his own comedy show and Oprah Winfrey is the most famous and best-earning talk master on American TV.

Blacks have dominated many sports as well. Boxer Muhammad Ali was heavyweight champion of the 60s and 70s. Basketball’s Michael Jordan was probably the most successful player in NBA history.

Despite these advances, about 25% of African Americans live in poverty. Discrimination still exists in many areas and the standard of living lags behind that of the white population. Compared to other groups, average income is much lower and the rate of unemployment higher. Nevertheless, African Americans have made big gains since slavery ended 150 years ago.


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Related Topics




  • abolish = ban, forbid
  • abolitionist = someone who wants to end a system or a law
  • achieve = get
  • advance = progress
  • ancestor = a member of your family who lived a long time ago
  • army = the men and women who fight for a country
  • arrest = to take someone to a police station because they have one something wrong
  • assassinate = to kill a political figure
  • attend = go to
  • attract =to pull towards you
  • auction = a public meeting where things are sold to the person who offers the most money
  • average =normally, usually
  • ban = forbid
  • beat up = hit
  • boycott = here: if you do not travel by bus any more
  • carpenter = someone who makes and repairs objects made of wood
  • century = a hundred years
  • ceremony =an official event
  • citizen = someone who lives in a country and has rights there
  • civil rights = the rights that every person should have, like the right to vote or to be treated fairly
  • Civil Rights Act = an American law that gave all people the right to be treated equally
  • Civil War = war between two groups of the same country
  • climax =height; the best moment
  • coin = to invent a new word or phase
  • coloured = here: Black person
  • compare =to measure with ...
  • confidence = to feel good about yourself
  • constitution = a set of laws that a country has
  • cotton = a plant with soft white balls of hair on it ; used to make cloth
  • crops = a plant like wheat or corn that farmers grow and use as food
  • cultivate = to prepare and use land so that you can grow crops
  • decade = a period ten years
  • decide =here: to say officially
  • depend on=if you need something very badly
  • despite =even with
  • develop = grow
  • disappointed = sad
  • discriminate against = to treat a person or a group of people in an unfair way
  • discrimination = if you treat a person or a group of people in an unfair way
  • dominate = to control something or be number one in a field
  • economy =the financial system in a country
  • equal = the same
  • express = show
  • fist = when you close your hand very tightly
  • forbid = not to allow
  • force =physical power
  • forefather = the people, especially men, who were part of your family a long time ago
  • freedom = liberty
  • gain = get
  • gain = progress
  • ghetto = a part of a city in which poor people of a certain group or race live
  • government = the people who rule a country
  • Great Depression = the time after the Wall Street crash of 1929; the1930s
  • Great Depression = the time after the Wall Street crash of 1929; the1930s
  • harvest = bring in
  • heavyweight = a boxer who belongs to the highest weight class
  • honor =something that makes you feel very good
  • improve = to make better
  • including =together with
  • income = the money you get when you have a job
  • increase = to go up
  • join = to become a member of
  • judge = the person who is control of a court and decides how criminals should be punished
  • labourer = worker
  • law =rule passed by the government
  • lead =here: have
  • living conditions = the situation in which people live
  • mason = someone who cuts stones into pieces in order to make buildings
  • master = a man or woman who controls other people or servants
  • mayor = the person who is the leader of a town or city
  • militant = aggressive, revolutionary
  • momentum = speed
  • movement = a group of people who have the same beliefs and opinions
  • nevertheless = but, even so
  • New Deal Programme = the laws that Franklin D. Roosevelt made to help the American economy
  • non-violent = without violence, peaceful
  • officer = someone who is in a high position in the army
  • officially =in public
  • opportunity = chance
  • pass = here : to make a law
  • plant = to put seeds into the ground so that crops can grow
  • poverty = if you are poor and don’t have enough money
  • preach = to talk about religious things in a public place
  • progress =here: to move a step forward
  • protect =defend, guard
  • public =place with a lot of people
  • raise = bring up , educate
  • receive = get
  • Reconstruction = the time after the Civil War when the southern States rejoined the USA
  • refuse = to say no
  • right =something that you are allowed to do
  • riot = a situation in which people fight against others and behave in a violent way
  • secret = something that only a few people know
  • Secretary of State = person in the government who deals with other countries
  • segregation = when people of different races and religions are kept apart and not allowed to live and work in the same places
  • separation =when something is divided
  • series = a number of
  • serve = to do useful work for a country
  • share = part
  • sharecropper = a poor farmer who works on someone else’s land and gives the owner most of it in return
  • skill =something that you can do well because you have learned it
  • slave = someone who is owned by another person and works for them without getting money
  • slavery =the system of having people work for you without getting any money for it
  • standard of living = how well people in a certain area live and how much money they have
  • stock market =place where you buy and sell parts of a company
  • succeed =to do what you tried or wanted to do
  • successful =to do what you have wanted to do
  • support = help
  • Supreme Court = the highest court in a country
  • sympathy = to feel sorry for ; to understand someone
  • take part =here: to march with
  • throughout = in all of
  • trade = to buy and sell things
  • treatment =to deal with
  • unemployment = if you are out of work
  • unit = a part of something
  • view = opinion
  • violence =aggression, fighting
  • violent = brutal, aggressive
  • vote =to elect a person for a position
  • white-hooded = to have a white cover over your head
  • withdraw = leave