Over Time- The Historical Progression of African Americans.

Running Head: Over Time- The Historical Progression of African Americans.


The life of African Americans has undergone tremendous changes over time. The different historical periods have affected their lives in all manners possible. Political issues and decisions that were made in the different periods created different views that affected their lives. The major characteristic of the African American lives in the historical period was their struggle to be regarded equally and their fight for their rights. Economic and social issues have also been a major discussion in this history. This paper focuses on the progression of African Americans in different issues since 1865 to date. There have been major landmarks that mark the differences between these periods and they are discussed in this paper. There were times that African American lives were characterized by violence and other times that change occurred. African Americans express themselves in different ways, some of them being art and music. In study of the history of these people, we see how different times have brought changes to the lives of African Americans.

The Historical Progression of African Americans

In unit one which is the period between 1865 and 1876, the lives of African Americans was that of great turmoil and changes in their social lives. In this period, their constant quest for liberation was of great magnitude. Their lives first changed after the civil war whereby all African Americans were released. This was seen as a major step in making their lives better. Some major political issues affected their lives in this period. First, there was the 13th amendment of the US constitution that was ratified in 1865 (Foner, 1988). This amendment illegalized slavery or forced labor. This was a positive sign for the African Americans who had been slaves earlier in their lives. Slavery had been a major issue that had affected the African Americans throughout their history. Changes in the political laws that governed slavery were long overdue and African Americans wanted to see change leading to their recognition as part of the American nation. There was also the Freedmen’s bureau of 1965 that helped the freedmen to rebuild their lives. In 1968, the 14th amendment was ratified. It granted African Americans full citizenship. It also created a law that Southern states would be punished in the event that they denied African Americans their rights. Moreover the 15th amendment that was ratified in 1870 and allowed male African American citizens to vote without considering their past slavery records.

These were considered political milestones that would help African Americans achieve a better life in all aspects. These changes did not bring the results that were expected. The written laws were expected to translate into better conditions immediately but this did not happen. African Americans continued to be oppressed and their human rights infringed. Their rights to participate in elections were limited for example, women were not allowed to vote. Discrimination rocked their lives and this was not what they had expected. Their influence on the political decisions that were made was insignificant and they continued to feel isolated. There was the establishment of ‘black codes’ that were supposed to guarantee stable labor supply for all (Foner, 1988). This resulted in many African Americans becoming sharecroppers. This made their existence more difficult as making a living was harder. A merchant would loan an African American farmer the tools and seeds needed in order to plant his crop. He would also give him a supply of food and clothing in exchange for the harvest. Since African Americans did not own land, they also had to rent land in exchange for part of the harvest. This was difficult because at the end of the season the farmer was left empty-handed as all the harvest went to repayment of debts.

In response to these issues the African Americans decided to re-group and approach the problems they had as a group. With the oppression not going away, they had to act in a way that would not break their unity. The result was that they built churches that were specifically for them and that would be their meeting place. In addition, they also vied for political seats and wanted to represent their people in the senate. As an African American, holding a public office position was a great expression of democracy. Mississippi was one of the states where African Americans were allowed to vote freely and hold public positions (Dorsey, 2007). There were even two African American senators in this period. These were Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce. All these were efforts by African Americans in this period to get their lives back on track. Their efforts did not go unnoticed because some form of recognition was accorded to them. There was the establishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited discrimination in the jury selection. This Act also made it a crime to deny any person the access and use of public places due to their color. The outcome of these efforts was clear since the African Americans had some form of democratic power. Although it was restricted to males only, it was better than nothing.

In unit two, the years between 1877 and 1920, the lives of African Americans were characterized by violence and racial discrimination. Most of the milestones that had been achieved in the earlier unit were lost. The social issue that faced them was the constant discrimination and racism (Arnesen, 1988). In addition, there was also the massacre of African Americans. There were raised concerns about the safety of their lives since there was heightened insecurity for them. There was the formation of organizations whose prime objective was to kill African Americans. An example of this was the Ku Klux Klan who had no other goal but to eliminate African Americans. This raised the alertness and was a cause for alarm for African Americans. Earlier in 1873 and 1874, there had been the Colfax and Coushatta massacres in Louisiana. The freedom that had been seen in earlier years could not be felt at all. Many people joined anti-African American movements, which led to worse cases of racism. These movements terrorized African Americans as well as whites who supported them. This period was difficult for the African Americans since the attack was not only on their rights but also on their lives.

The outcome of these issues was increased African American deaths especially in the Southern states. The increased animosity against African Americans was getting worse by the day and a lasting solution needed to be found. Besides, African Americans no longer felt safe to vote or vie for public positions, which resulted in less or no democratic representation in public offices. This also meant that African American issues could not be addressed politically hence no hope for recovery. Their response to these issues was to move out of their land and go to other states where they felt safer and threats were less. This was mostly to the northern states. The migration began in 1879 and continued to the later years (Dorsey, 2007). This resulted in low education levels for the African Americans resulting in lesser employment opportunities for them. This made their life difficult because they could not easily find employment. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court made the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments obsolete hence, the laws that guarded African Americans were no longer there. This happened in 1896 resulting in racial discrimination that was unguarded. In the 20th century, whites were regarded as the superior people in America. To respond to this, African Americans formed a civil rights movement but they did this in secret. Besides, there was the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which was an advocate for the African American human rights and equal recognition (Arnesen, 1988).

1921 to 1945 forms the next unit and life for African Americans started to show improvement. This period is referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. The civil movement formed by African Americans was growing stronger and could fight for their rights more easily. In the Northern states where African Americans had increased, their culture could be felt and they had an influence on the people living there. In the Northern states, discrimination and racism was not as severe as it was in the South. This is why the people had moved there. Safety had improved and they could express themselves in a much freer way. The social cultural issue that was affecting them in this era was the expression of ideas using art and literary works. This period was characterized by blossoming technology that created new opportunities for employment. Industrialism was on the rise and the people were moving to cities where they could be employed. As a way of expressing their views, art and literary works were developed. African Americans could not approach political issues directly hence this resulted in the use of literary creations to address social and political issues (Franklin, 2001).

In response to the issues that they were facing, African Americans created music, visual and written works to express their views. Dance, literature, poetry, theatrical works and other cultural mediums were used to express the opinion of the African Americans. During this period, this was called the “New Negro Movement” but was later renamed to Harlem Renaissance (Dorsey, 2007). The outcome of this was the development of music especially jazz, paintings and plays that were used to depict the African American culture that had been suppressed for many years. In addition to this, African Americans became more vocal and the quality of their life improved. Through the empowerment brought by literary creation, they could approach issues with a more open-mind and opportunities began to present themselves especially in the employment sector. The man credited to have started the Harlem Renaissance is Alain Leroy Locke. Other notable figures in this period were William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou and Sargent Claude Johnson. Aaron Douglas was also a major artist who represented art of the people. In 1917, stage plays were produced that attracted a huge following and addressed issues like racism and the difficulties faced by the African Americans.

The most notable outcome of the Harlem Renaissance was the adoption of the African American culture nationwide. The artwork that blossomed from Harlem became an appreciation of many people without the consideration of race (Franklin, 2001). Although this culture was met with criticism at first, the way that people came to appreciate it was awesome. The jazz music was played in popular nightclubs and was accepted as a major form of entertainment in different areas. Musicians would perform in these clubs and this would attract the attention of music lovers. This explosion of culture had a large impact in the liberation of African Americans. It created a strong bond among them that allowed the expression of opinions without fear.

This period changed the way that the people viewed African Americans. Suddenly, they were accepted as a part of the society and were recognized as key players in the entertainment industry. In addition, their culture took a positive turn and was recognized by the other Americans. Although they could not express their political views freely, art became a way for them to give the government the problems facing them. The people, who just a few years earlier were highly oppressed, found a way to voice their issues through cultural means. African Americans in other parts of the country formed the same kind of movements to express their views through art. This meant that the whole African American community was becoming more conscious of their culture and finding a way to express themselves. It is worth noting that African American contributed to the success of the US and its allies in the Second World War. Through the newly found unity, African Americans were able to form stronger civil rights movements that would aid them perfectly in their quest for equality. They also found employment in the automobile and other industries that were coming up.

The life of African Americans significantly changed in 1946 to 1976, which is the fourth unit. The political issue that affected them was the civil rights movement (Dorsey, 2007). African Americans were becoming more aware of the issues that were faced them and were determined to find lasting solutions. They were tired of segregation in public places and change was what they wanted. They had lived an oppressed life for too long and they were ready to fight for their rights. In response to these issues, there was the second Great Migration, which had started earlier but continued up to 1970. African Americans migrated from the South and moved to cities in other parts of the country. This time it was not the North only, they also moved to the Mid-west and West parts. The southern states were still harboring strict laws that were against the African American culture.

In response to the issues facing them, they also started using different tactics to ensure that their complaints were heard. They boycotted public areas that advocated for segregation for example segregated public transport. They also organized protests and marches to demand for better treatment. Their leaders also conducted training sessions to empower people to register as voters in order to exercise their democratic rights (Dorsey, 2007). This resulted in less African American killings as compared to other periods. Protests were met by the authorities with a lot of force and were not allowed. In spite of this predicament, they still went on with the demonstrations. The leaders of the civil movement included Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. They had managed to rally their people together in such a way that they acted in unity in whatever actions they took. The whites tried to intimidate them but they had grown stronger and were able to force them to provide better and equal opportunities for African Americans. The outcome of these actions was the formal illegalization of discrimination. Segregation in public schools was also banned and this created better opportunities for African American children to acquire education. This period brought the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that gave the African Americans freedom in terms of voting and vying for public positions (Franklin, 2001). They could also be employed more easily as they had acquired the necessary skills. They were employed by the government in the military and other sectors of the economy. All these changes came about because of the steps taken by the Civil Rights Movement. Their tolerance and patience led to the freedom that was needed in all aspects of the African American people.

The lives of African Americans have greatly improved since 1976 to the present years. From the age of oppression and discrimination, African Americans have recovered a lot and have become part of mainstream America.  There have been significant steps in every sector to create equal opportunities for all Americans. The most significant political issue that has been seen in this period is the need for more political representation for this group of people. By being elected into legislative or administrative power, it means discrimination no longer exists and that democracy has been served (Franklin, 2001). African Americans have been fighting to get this opportunity for many years as seen in other units. In response to this issue, African Americans have been more aggressive in getting the required skills to be elected into office. They have gone to great levels to achieve the academic qualifications required. They have also presented themselves for nomination to public office and are not afraid to approach places that were earlier considered as belonging to the whites. They participate in the rigorous campaigns that take place in order to be successful in political activities.

The outcome of this has been the election of various African Americans into political office. First, in 1989, Douglas Wilder became the first African American person to be an elected governor in the country. This has been followed by other numerous elections of African Americans as governors. Secondly, the democratic rights of women have been realized. As seen in earlier periods, women were not allowed to vote leave alone holding public office. This was seen as gender discrimination of the highest order because no relevant reason justified this action. Following this, Carl Moseley Brown became the first African American woman to be elected to the US senate in 1992 (Franklin, 2001). This was a huge achievement not only for her but also for all African American women. Other African Americans have been elected into high-ranking positions in the government and other sectors. Those who top this list include: General Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Ron Brown, Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. The last two are Supreme Court justices showing that African Americans have been able to penetrate most of the sectors in the US. The biggest accomplishment so far, was the election of Barrack Obama as the President of the United States. As an African American, it took a lot of hard work and overcoming obstacles to get there. This also means that the rights that the civil rights movement was fighting for many years back have been achieved.


This paper has looked into the progression of African Americans in different historical periods. Each period is characterized by a major issue that affected the people. The issues can be political, social cultural, literal or even economic. The significant thing that can be seen here is that there is progress and continuity from one period to another. The African Americans have come from being a group of oppressed people to people who can fight for their rights. In terms of political achievements, they have gotten to the highest position in power showing their relentless fight for their rights. In conclusion, it has been an interesting historical study and the information learnt is important. The different timelines, show how different issues affected people from specific areas. This paper gathers information from historical events that helped to shape the lives of African Americans. In the modern world, they are treated just like any other Americans but the study of their history helps us understand their past. With the help of scholarly materials, one is able to gather and combine information that is constructive.


Arnesen, E. (1988). Up From Exclusion: Black and White Workers, Race, and the State of Labor History. Reviews in American History, 26, pp. 146–174

Dorsey, A. (2007). Black History Is American History: Teaching African American History in the Twenty-first Century. Journal of American History, 93(4): 1171-1177

Foner, E. (1988). Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers.

Franklin, J.H. (2001). From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. Chicago: McGraw-Hill Education.



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