African American history is U.S. history. Explore stories of struggle and achievement in the African American experience through these powerful artifacts.
Slavers also established control through brutal punishments, often carried out in public as a deterrent to others considering resistance or escape. Iron collars were one humiliating form of discipline. The spiked arms caught on branches and brush, making escape difficult, and also made lying down to rest nearly impossible.
Despite efforts to suppress revolt, thousands of at-sea uprisings were recorded during the legal lifetime of the slave trade, as well as reports of newly arrived Africans fleeing once they reached American soil.
Many skills were needed to keep plantations running and profitable. In addition to field laborers, farms depended on trained carpenters, blacksmiths, gardeners, and grooms. Domestic work in a plantation owner's home required proficient seamstresses, cooks, valets, caretakers, and repairmen.
Born into slavery, Melvina Young likely learned to sew and quilt while working in her master’s Tennessee home. She created this quilt cover as a free person after the Civil War.
Learning trades often afforded slaves some degree of freedom, as many owners hired out surplus laborers. This practice sent slaves as close as the nearest plantation or far beyond state borders. The enslaved could also hire themselves out, an arrangement that gave some the means to buy their own freedom.
Charleston was unique among Southern cities for its formal badge system. Hired-out men and women wore tags like this one as identification. Servants and porters were two of the most common categories of slaves for hire.
The Thirteenth Amendment legally abolished slavery in 1865, ushering in a twelve-year “Reconstruction Era” during which African Americans gained voting rights and equal protection under the law.
However, limited options and resources meant that many stayed on the same plantations where they had been enslaved. They farmed plots of land and paid landowners with a share of their crops. After a bad harvest, sharecroppers could fall deeply in debt to landowners, who extended credit to them at inflated interest rates.
Sharecropping continued well into the 1900s.
Informal and illegal methods of oppression also existed in the South, aided by the removal of federal protection for freedmen in 1877. Racial violence was pervasive, especially in rural areas. Any accusation against an African American could incite a deadly lynch mob or race riot. According to the Tuskegee Institute, between 1882 and 1968 nearly 3,500 lynchings occurred in the U.S.
This print by Hale Woodruff suggestively juxtaposes a church, the pillar of both Black and white Southern respectability, with the horrific violence implied by the body laid on its steps.
Cities such as New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles received huge numbers of migrants. Though their arrival was often met with hostility, discrimination, and even violence, it also gave rise a rich Black cultural movement. Its New York epicenter – later called the Harlem Renaissance – brought together some of the most talented writers and artists of the interwar period and left an enduring mark on younger generations of Black artists, including Jacob Lawrence.
Empowered by an ever-strengthening sense of community, African Americans also organized politically to confront the injustices that deprived them of their civil liberties.
The Pullman Company employed thousands of African American men as porters for its railroad cars. Such work offered a path to the middle class and was less dirty, dangerous, and punishing than other jobs available to Black laborers at that time. Yet the Pullman Porters’ impeccable dress and manner belied humiliating treatment from employers and customers. They often worked long hours for low wages, with little recourse for seeking better conditions.
In 1925, the Porters formed a union. After years of negotiations, the Pullman Company finally recognized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1937. This hard-won success had a lasting impact on the struggle for labor and civil rights.
Activists and educators wrote, spoke, and organized in response to racial injustice and brutality. However, not all agreed on strategy. Booker T. Washington (depicted here with George Washington Carver) argued for accepting segregation as a necessary evil, prioritizing hard work and self-determination. Younger leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois rejected this approach, insisting on full political, economic, and social equality.
Despite the divide, Black activists formed several key organizations during this period, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), still active today.
Born into slavery in 1862, Ida B. Wells-Barnett became a key crusader for justice under Jim Crow. At 22, she sued the Memphis and Charleston Railway for ejecting her from a segregated train car. In 1892, she left Memphis under threat of violence for denouncing lynchings in the Free Speech, a Black newspaper she co-owned and edited. Settling in Chicago, Wells wrote and lectured about racial violence, women’s rights, and other issues until her death in 1931. Perhaps her most groundbreaking work was The Red Record (1895), an analysis of recorded lynchings and their alleged causes.
This writing desk is from Wells-Barnett’s South Side home.
Workers in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation strike carried and wore signs like this one to protest discrimination and abhorrent working conditions. Although the workers’ demands were eventually met, it was while visiting Memphis for this strike that Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
Even before King’s death, a more radical arm of the Civil Rights Movement had begun to criticize his approach as too passive. Malcolm X (himself assassinated in 1965) and others spoke in favor of Black nationalism, resistance, and self-determination, paving the way for a new phase in the Movement.
In only three years, dozens of chapters of the Black Panther Party cropped up across the U.S. The group’s rapid growth, however, was hindered by the relentless efforts of the FBI. Its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) sought to destroy the Party through infiltration, media smear campaigns, and harassment. Key leaders were investigated, imprisoned, and assassinated. In Chicago, FBI and local police conducted a series of raids, including one in October 1969 that riddled the door to Panther headquarters with bullets.
By the early 1980s, leadership disputes and government aggression had led to the Party’s demise.
Joining the Black Panther Party at the age of 20, Fred Hampton quickly gained fame as a passionate orator and charismatic leader. Showing a talent for community organizing, he negotiated an alliance between several powerful Chicago gangs and activist groups across racial lines.
As chairman of the Panthers’ Illinois chapter, Hampton organized rallies, taught political education classes, and led several community programs. However, his success made him a prime government target. He was fatally shot in his sleep on December 4, 1969, when Chicago police and federal agents raided his apartment.
Harold Washington’s election as Chicago’s first Black mayor marked a turning point. Widespread frustration with machine politics, a successful voter registration drive, and a multiracial alliance propelled Washington into office. His progressive agenda and coalition-building skills endeared him to many, even as antagonism from the City Council impeded his work.
By the mayor’s untimely death in 1987, several other Black politicians had risen to key posts in the city and state, positioning Chicago as an important center for African American politics – and paving the way for a future president's career.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president gave many people hope for a new chapter in race relations. The rising star got his start in Chicago politics. Inspired by Harold Washington, Obama moved to Chicago after college to work as a community organizer. He returned to Chicago in 1992 to direct the “Project VOTE!” campaign that registered 150,000 new Black voters. After a successful run for U.S. Senator in 2004, Obama entered the presidential race in 2007. His coalition-building abilities, like those of Washington before him, helped him win the election.
Some believed – or hoped – that Obama’s election signaled the dawn of a post-racial society in which skin color was no longer a determining factor in American life. Yet troubling events continue to challenge this idea. Longstanding systemic issues such as racial profiling, police brutality, media bias, and a deeply flawed justice system remain as present as ever.
These inequities, however, have sparked a new generation of activism. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter and We Charge Genocide have mobilized to address the continued national legacy of racism. They carry on an equally potent legacy of standing up for justice.
Photography by Brenda Liboy, Olu Akintorin Jr., and Corporate Art Source.