Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality

African American history is U.S. history. Explore stories of struggle and achievement in the African American experience through these powerful artifacts.

By DuSable Museum of African American History

DuSable Museum of African American History

Leg ShacklesDuSable Museum of African American History

Resistance at Sea

Between 1526 and the mid-1800s, approximately 12 million Africans were kidnapped and transported to the New World through the transatlantic slave trade.Those captured were taken from numerous ethnic groups across the West African coastline, packed onto European slave ships, and redistributed throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. Unaware of what awaited them and constrained under deplorable conditions below deck, many Africans resisted their situation. To discourage uprisings at sea and on land, “slavers” imposed various physical restraints upon individuals, including shackles like these.

Slave CollarDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Plantation Journal (Excerpt) (1836) by William S. HaleDuSable Museum of African American History

Freedom Deferred

In early America, slavery existed throughout the thirteen colonies and beyond. Although the colonies declared independence from Britain in 1776, this had little impact on the lives of those enslaved. For them, national liberty meant neither citizenship nor personal freedom. Slavery remained widespread across the young and growing nation, spilling into new territories as they developed and became states. However, the Southern states held the highest concentration of slave labor. Within these planter communities cotton was the ultimate cash crop, along with rice, tobacco, and indigo.

Quilt Cover by Melvina YoungDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Slave Tag (1858)DuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Sharecropper (1952) by Elizabeth CatlettDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

"Mississippi Delta Diner" SignDuSable Museum of African American History

The Jim Crow South

The “Jim Crow” laws that appeared after Reconstruction took their name from a derisive term for African Americans, shorthand for a host of racial stereotypes. These laws, enacted throughout the South at the state and local level, codified white supremacy by eroding Black voting rights and enforcing segregation of businesses and public services. The 1896 ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson gave legal backing to states that provided “separate but equal” public facilities, such as schools and train cars. In practice, Black facilities were rarely equal to those provided to their white counterparts.

By Parties Unknown (1935/1981) by Hale WoodruffDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Robert S. Abbott Founds the Chicago Defender by William McBrideDuSable Museum of African American History

The Great Migration

By the 1910s, Southern violence and inequity had spurred a "Great Migration" of African American workers and families leaving the South in pursuit of a better life. The Chicago Defender, an influential Black newspaper, urged its readers to head North. It also facilitated their journey by publishing train schedules, job listings, and other resources. By 1950, 2.7 million had relocated to cities in the North and West. Among them was young William McBride, whose family came to Chicago from New Orleans in the 1920s. McBride became an artist and later depicted the Chicago Defender's founder, Robert S. Abbott, in the painting seen here.

Untitled (Street Scene) (1948) by Jacob LawrenceDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Pullman Porter HatDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington in Carver's Laboratory by William Edouard ScottDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Writing deskDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Flyer, Illinois Rally for Civil Rights (1964-06-21)DuSable Museum of African American History

The Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century built on the work of earlier activists to gain critical momentum. Accounts of racial violence and injustice – such as the 1955 murder of Emmett Till – galvanized students, politicians, and organizers to push for radical change. Tactics included boycotts, sit-ins, marches, rallies, and strikes. One of the Movement’s greatest leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated a strategy of nonviolent resistance, shown through actions such as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Montgomery Bus Boycotts, and Selma to Montgomery Marches. The work of King and others spurred the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"I AM A MAN" Sign (1968)DuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Black Panther Party "Free Breakfast" SignDuSable Museum of African American History

The Black Panthers 

Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in October of 1966. The Panthers rejected the strategy of nonviolent protest and advocated taking up arms to protect their people. While their militancy was highly visible, it was also distorted and vilified by the government and media, often portrayed as a threat to white society. In reality, the organization spent much of its energy on grassroots efforts, seeking to improve quality of life for all African Americans. Panther community programs included free breakfast for children, free medical clinics, and testing for sickle cell anemia.

Door, Black Panther Party Chicago HeadquartersDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Fred Hampton memorial posterDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Jewel Lafontant campaign posterDuSable Museum of African American History

Black Politics in Chicago 

As activist efforts met with a hostile government response, many advocated for change from within through fuller political participation. Civil rights groups and the Black Panthers had trained a generation of future politicians in community organizing. In Chicago, this movement met resistance from the  “machine,” an entrenched system of patronage and favors. Black politicians had traditionally gained limited power under white leadership by supporting the city's Democratic machine. However, Black voters grew increasingly disenchanted with Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration after several incidents of police violence.

Harold Washington campaign poster (1982/1983)DuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Obama (2008) by Jesse KalisherDuSable Museum of African American History

"...Barack Obama is a part of what we dreamed and struggled and died for."

– Former Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale, 2008

Obama Presidential Campaign Announcement Ticket (2007)DuSable Museum of African American History

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.

We Charge Genocide: Year 1 (2015) by Monica TrinidadDuSable Museum of African American History

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.

Credits: Story

Photography by Brenda Liboy, Olu Akintorin Jr., and Corporate Art Source.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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