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Introduction



The Africans in America Web site is a companion to Africans in America, a six-hour public television series. The Web site chronicles the history of racial slavery in the United States -- from the start of the Atlantic slave trade in the 16th century to the end of the American Civil War in 1865 -- and explores the central paradox that is at the heart of the American story: a democracy that declared all men equal but enslaved and oppressed one people to provide independence and prosperity to another. Africans in America examines the economic and intellectual foundations of slavery in America and the global economy that prospered from it. And it reveals how the presence of African people and their struggle for freedom transformed America.

The Web site is based upon years of extensive research undertaken by the television series team, a process which has uncovered and collected diverse and seldom-seen historical documents as well as fascinating and little-told stories. The Web site developers have endeavored to provide this material to our audience in an accessible, structured, and understandable fashion.

The site is structured into four parts, corresponding to the periods covered by the episodes of the companion television series. For each part, there is a Narrative, which relates the history of the period and provides links to specific entries in the Resource Bank. The Resource Bank is a compilation of over 400 items, comprised of People and Events entries (in-depth biographies and historical notes), Historical Documents (annotated visual materials and texts), and Modern Voices (commentaries excerpted from the original interviews with experts who appear on-camera in the television series). The Teacher's Guide provides a context for teachers and students to use the Web and the television series in and out of the classroom. There are two lessons included in each part, providing a suggested structure for using several of the primary source materials in the Resource Bank.

The Terrible Transformation (1450-1750) tells of the largest forced migration in recorded history and how this mass movement of people was instrumental in the creation of the British North American colonies. After establishing settlements in North America, England joins Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands in the international trade in human beings. Millions of Africans are abducted from the homelands to labor in the North American colonies. So horrific is their "middle passage" across the Atlantic that almost a quarter of them die during the crossing. In the American colonies, Europeans rely on Africans' skills and labor to transform vast lands into agricultural profits. But European masters fear this growing population of Africans upon whom they now depend. Slavery's inhumane codes and punishments spur African resistance and escape, bringing more brutality from the slaveholders. In the colonists' worst nightmare, Africans shouting, "Liberty, liberty, liberty!" rise up in Stono, South Carolina and kill twenty-five whites. More than fifty slaves suspected of leading the rebellion are executed, their heads placed on posts as a warning. The nightmare has begun in the colonies. Colonists have found profits and permanence in their New World, but at what cost?

Revolution (1750-1805) is the story of the American Revolution. While the American colonies challenge Britain for independence, American slavery is challenged from within, as men and women fight to define what the country will be. In the upheaval of war, up to 100,000 black people escape their bondage and threaten the institution of slavery as never before. Initially, Colonial Commander George Washington refuses to allow black volunteers into his army. But when Lord Dunmore, the British Governor of Virginia, promises freedom to slaves and indentured servants who will fight against their colonial masters for England, the American high command is forced to reconsider. Black people, both slave and free, seize on the language of natural rights and equality that is rising throughout the land. But after the War of Independence is won, the nation's Constitution codifies slavery and oppression as a way of life. As the 18th century comes to a close, it is clear that America hopes to walk a dangerous tightrope between property rights and human rights, between slavery and freedom.

Brotherly Love (1791-1831) examines the first forty years of the new nation, primarily through the fortunes of Philadelphia's unique free black community. As free black people and fugitive slaves seek full participation in American democracy, a new leadership emerges, centered in the black church in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston -- abolitionist and entrepreneur James Forten, preacher Jarena Lee, and Bishop Richard Allen, a former slave and founder of the first black Christian denomination. Black churches indeed become the fulcrum of the community, providing schools, aiding their poor and agitating for the repeal of slave laws. Meanwhile, the invention of the cotton gin propels slavery into the western frontier, while the success of a slave rebellion in Haiti provides a counterpoint to the efforts of free blacks to establish their own autonomous communities. Haiti inspires slave rebellions in the South as well. These threats, and the surplus of slaves in the east, lead to the rise of a colonization movement. This movement is fostered by leading white intellectuals, who hope to send free black people, the main voices agitating for the abolition of slavery, to Africa, and it creates a volatile debate within the black community. But despite intensified brutality in the South and a new popular culture based on blackface minstrelsy in the North, African Americans resoundingly vote against colonization -- to stay and fight for freedom.

Judgment Day (1831-1865) tells of the years that lead up to the Civil War, as America is challenged as never before to end slavery. As the nation expands west, so does slavery. Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth agitate against southern slavery and northern racism. Seeing their way of life continually under attack, southern states angrily threaten to leave the union. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a last attempt at political compromise, trades away black rights to keep the nation united. Even so, fighting breaks out in Kansas, and in 1857, the Supreme Court formally obliterates black rights with the Dred Scott decision. Slaveholders call for reopening the Atlantic slave trade and abolitionists mount new tactics against slavecatchers as the country moves toward civil war. John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry seems the final blow, and before long, the Union is dissolved. In the turmoil of the Civil War, slavery in the United States is finally abolished.



Please note that text transcripts of some historical documents may include archaic or incorrect spellings, which we have not attempted to change or correct.





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