A  Dismal History of US treatment of Black Americans

A Look at African-American History, Through the Numbers

In recognition of Black History Month, here are a few facts and figures about the African-American experience in the U.S.

By Jo Craven McGinty

The Wall Street Journal Feb. 16-17, 2019

Four hundred years ago, the first Africans arrived in what is now the U.S.

In recognition of that anniversary and of Black History Month, here are a few numbers that help describe their experience and that of their descendants.

More than 10 million Africans were forcibly transported to the New World in 36,000 voyages between the 16th and 19th centuries, but only around 400,000 ended up in what became the U.S., according to slavevoyages.org.

“A vast majority of slaves didn’t come to the U.S.,” said Paul Finkelman, editor of the Encyclopedia of African American History and president of Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa.

“They went to Brazil and the Caribbean. That’s something people don’t expect.”

Almost all of the Africans who were enslaved in the U.S. arrived before the American Revolution, Dr. Finkelman said, and thousands fought in the War for Independence.

Scholars’ estimates vary dramatically, but the National Museum of African American History and Culture uses these figures: Around 20,000 free or enslaved black colonials sided with the British, while more than 5,000 fought with the colonial revolutionaries.

  • “Blacks were leaving the plantation to join the British because the British promised freedom,” said Malik Russell, communications director of the NAACP.

In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Act authorizing a memorial to be built in Washington, D.C., in their honor. The National Liberty Memorial, as it is known, has yet to be built.

When the Revolutionary War began, slavery was legal in every one of the 13 colonies, Dr. Finkelman said, and remained legal in all 13 states as the new country was born.

However, the percentage of African-Americans living in each one differed. In places like New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the population was 1% or 2% black. In states like Virginia and South Carolina, the population ranged from 40% to more than 50%.

For about 20 years following the American Revolution, virtually no Africans came to the U.S. But starting in 1803, over a five-year period South Carolina and Georgia brought in about 60,000 new slaves from Africa, Dr. Finkelman said, anticipating that Congress would soon end the slave trade—and it did.

The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves went into effect on Jan. 1, 1808, the earliest date permitted by the Constitution—although some slaves continued to be smuggled in.

Between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, about 4 million slaves were freed.

“This was the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the U.S.,” Dr. Finkelman said. “This is $2 billion in 1860 dollars in terms of property.”

In comparison, the value of slave labor, by one scholar’s estimate, would have exceeded $87 billion at that time. Thomas Craemer, a professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, estimated the value using free labor market wages of the day, with 3% interest, assuming 12 hours of daily labor on the part of the slaves from 1776 through 1860.

More than 200,000 African-Americans had fought in the Civil War, according to the Museum of African American History and Culture. Ironically, when it ended, the power of the defeated states increased.

Closing the Gap: Black representation in Congress is coming closer to mirroring U.S. demographics.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, CongressionalBiographical Directory, U.S. House History

Because of the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, only three of every five slaves had been counted for apportionment of representatives to the U.S. House, but after they were freed, all were counted.

“Former Confederate states had more representatives in Congress than they had before the Civil War,” Dr. Finkelman said, “but they didn’t let blacks vote, so southern whites had even more political power, not less.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 altered the political landscape, but change occurred slowly. In 132 years, from 1881 until 2013, previous slaveholding states elected no blacks to the U.S. Senate, and in 68 years, from 1901 until 1969, they elected no blacks to the U.S. House of Representatives.

During the Great Migration, millions of African-Americans left the South in search of work and to escape segregation and violence. Between 1880 and 1922, an African-American was lynched more than once a week, according to Dr. Finkelman, and by 1968, there had been about 4,800 lynchings, mostly of African-Americans.

The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018—the latest of more than 200 anti-lynching bills introduced in Congress—was passed by the Senate in December, but it isn’t yet law!

“It didn’t make its way through the House,” Mr. Russell said, noting that eradicating lynchings was a primary goal of the NAACP when it formed 110 years ago.

The largest number of African-Americans still live in former slave states, where allegations of voter suppression persist.

“People of African ancestry have been here since 1619,” Dr. Finkelman said. “They have had a tremendous impact on the country in a wide variety of ways, and despite their numbers and their many contributions, they have been denied political power, political access and economic access.”

In many ways, he said, it has been a dismal history.

Write to Jo Craven McGinty at Jo.McGinty@wsj.com

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