In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement reverberated through the world and drew attention to the continuing struggle for social justice and equality for people of African ancestry in the United States of America.
In support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and in celebration of Black History Month/African Heritage Month, this five-part series explores the history of Africans in the United States through photographs from public archives. We use pictures to look at the centuries-old violence wrought against people of African heritage, and their struggle for self-determination, equal treatment, and respect as human beings, up to today.
The purpose of this series is to introduce high-quality resources where you can find free and publicly accessible historical photos. When it comes to collections, many of these websites have only the tip of the photographic iceberg online, so we hope you find something that sparks your curiosity and you dig deeper. We've included a listing of links to our sources at the end of each article.
Before we begin, let's look at what Black History Month is, why it was created, and what it hopes to achieve.
What Is Black History Month?
Though slavery had been long abolished by 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson launched ‘Negro History Week’, the idea of black inferiority was a well established 'truth' in the American mind. In fact, not only were peoples of African ancestry excluded from scholarship and intellectual discourse that dealt with human civilization, but they were so completely dehumanized in people's imaginations that peonage, segregation, and lynching were considered justifiable conditions of life for them. Black History Month was created to counteract that dehumanizing narrative and treatment by educating people about the role that people of African ancestry have played in American life, world history and humanity.
With the rise of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, interest in the week grew, and in 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the first Negro History Week, the shift was officially made to the month-long celebration now known as Black History Month. It's also called African-American History Month or African Heritage Month depending on where you are.
That the Black Lives Matter movement struck a chord with people all across the globe speaks to the true depth and impact of widespread, systemic failures in our societies. Our structures of power—racism and white-supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy—have let a few people enrich themselves beyond reason or morality, and at great cost. This unequal situation has brought about such grief, inequity, hunger, war, social disarray, global heating, pollution, habitat destruction, atmosphere loss and ocean degradation that we face not just an existential threat to humanity but to all life on earth.
Why Black History Month Was Created
Unfortunately, Black History Month has too often been reduced to a who’s who of black achievement. Though this form or remembering in itself is a worthy endeavour that goes a long way to highlighting the successes of African peoples against tremendous odds in the Americas, to appreciate the full role Africans have played in Western and world history we need to add a little more context. To really appreciate the importance of Black History Month you need to know a bit about the conditions that led to its creation.
Colonialism and The Birth of Race Theory
When European nations began invading different parts of the globe, brutally subjugating or killing the native peoples and sending settlers to occupy their lands, they also used a powerful theory to support their inhumane actions.
This theory became known as Racism. With no base in science, racists assert that humans are divided into separate biological entities called ‘races’ and that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits like skin colour, hair texture, the shape of one's eyes, the shape of the nose, etc., with intelligence, personality traits, morality and so on. These links, it continues, make some races innately superior to others.
The theory of racism goes hand in hand with racist agendas like White Supremacy, which asserts that there is a natural superiority of lighter-skinned, or ‘white’ races over other racial groups.
These twin theories about the supremacy of Europeans and the racial inferiority of all other peoples have been used to justify centuries of ongoing genocide, murder, crime and theft by Europeans, settlers, and their governments against native peoples and the earth, from Australia to the Arctic. As we will see, since it's inception photography has played an important role in the codification and dissemination of ideas about race that have profoundly shaped mass culture and human life around the globe.
All Men Are Created Equal—Unless They're African
Slavery was well established and legal throughout the Americans, including what became Canada, the Caribbean, South America, and the Thirteen Colonies that eventually became the United States.
In the U.S., about half the states abolished slavery during the Revolutionary War or in the first decades of the new country. But how does one create a new country based on the idea that all men are created equal when some component parts of one's new country held humans in bondage?
Racism provided the answer: In America, all men were created equal except for peoples of African ancestry, who Americans contended were an inferior, backwards and barbaric race who, according to Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, count only as 3/5 of a human being.
The Photographic Contexts for This Time
It's important to remember, as we look at these photographs, that this was an era when people of African ancestry generally had no control over their own depictions.
Photography only existed for the last few decades of the era of American slavery, and even then, it was not accessible to the vast majority of African Americans of the day. In addition, though there were a few photographers of African ancestry living as free blacks in the North of the USA, precious little of their work exists in the public domain.
Photographic records of American slavery are sparse and one-sided. These are for the most part photographs of black people taken by white people for specific purposes.
Depictions of everyday life, like the photograph of people picking cotton under the overseer's watch, below, are rare. Most of the surviving photographs are of people who became famous, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, also pictured here. Others, like the photograph of Peter's horrifically scarred back, were used to raise support for the abolitionist movement.
In the later parts of this series, we'll see more examples of black people being authors as well as subjects of their photographs but, in this era, we can only see them through the eyes of white people.
'Where Was the Lord?': American Slavery (1619–1865)
To understand the wealth and dominance of the United States of America today, one needs to understand the role that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and enslaved Africans played in the building of the country.
"Where was the Lord in them days? What was he doing?" Former Enslaved American, George Young (1936)
Although, as the map below shows, captive Africans were trafficked from their homelands to various parts of the world along many other routes like trans-Saharan, Red Sea and Persian Gulf routes, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration of people in human history. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between 1526 and 1866, approximately 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped and transported from Africa to the Americas.
American colonies needed a large and inexpensive supply or workers to fully exploit the land. When neither European nor indigenous peoples proved suitable, Africans became the preferred source of labor.
The Portuguese started the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1526, and the British, Spanish, French, Dutch, and Danish, attracted by huge profits, soon followed. Shipowners regarded the slaves as cargo to be transported to the Americas as quickly and cheaply as possible, so they packed them into ships with little regard for their well-being. Captives lived for months below the ship's decks in conditions of squalor and indescribable horror. Starvation and outbreaks of various diseases resulted in a high mortality rate among the captives.
Of the approximately 12.5 million African captives packed into ships, around 2 million died en route. The 10.5 million who survived were sold to European owned plantations and companies in North America, the Caribbean, and South America.
Colonial Slave Labor
From the 16th century, most European colonial economies in the Americas became dependent on exports, and therefore on the work of enslaved Africans, for their survival. Enslaved women, men and children of African ancestry, like those in this photo below, worked on export-based cash crops like cannabis, coffee, tobacco, cocoa, sugar, rice and cotton plantations. The also worked in gold and silver mines, in construction, shipbuilding, as skilled labour, and as domestic servants, for ten or more hours a day, six days a week, with sometimes only Sunday off.
As property, they were considered merchandise or units of labour, and were sold at market with other goods and services according to the needs of their owners. Enslaved families like this one photographed in front of their cabin on the Gains Plantation were often split up by the sale of one or more members, and usually never saw or heard of each other again.
"I was just a little thing; tooked away from my mammy and pappy, just when I needed them most. The only caring that I had or ever knowed anything about was given to me by a friend of my pappy. My pappy told him to take care of me for him. My pappy and mammy was sold from each other too, the same time as I was sold."
Former Enslaved American, Mingo White, Alabama
Enslaved Africans were stripped of their language and culture, had no rights, were prohibited from reading and gathering and were brutally whipped and punished for the smallest of infractions.
This enslaved man's owner went so far as to carve his initial into his forehead. He's photographed wearing a punishment collar and posing with other equipment used to punish slaves.
The following photo tells the story of the brutality experienced by enslaved Africans better than words can. These horrific scars on the back of man called Peter are the result of a vicious whipping by a former overseer.
Peter ran away from a Louisiana plantation in 1863 and, after a harrowing journey, found safety among Union soldiers encamped at Baton Rouge. Before enlisting in a black regiment, he was examined by military doctors, who discovered the horrific scarring on his back.
Rampant Assault of Black Women
Though white men feared black men, there is little evidence that black slaves or free black men assaulted white women. However, there is an abundance of evidence that white men routinely sexually assaulted black women and girls with impunity.
"I could tell you things about slavery times that would make your blood boil, but dey’s too terrible. I just tries to forget.” Former Enslaved African American, Amy Chapman, 1937
Despite her appearance, Fannie, depicted below, was considered black. Unlike most white fathers, who not only didn't acknowledge the children they fathered with enslaved women, but also allowed them to languish in slavery and sometimes sold them when the need for capital arose, Fannie's father freed Fannie and her mother Mary upon his death. Unfortunately, because of laws at the time, that also meant they had to leave the state of Virginia, which would have meant Mary leaving behind her husband and the children they had together, who were not free. She chose to remain enslaved in order to stay with them.
At some point, the entire family escaped to the North, and Fannie drew attention from Northern whites because of her status as a former slave and her white appearance. She was adopted by a white woman, and several photos of her were created and used as anti-slavery propaganda. The idea was that white people might be more apt to support the abolitionist cause if they could imagine the sweet-faced white-looking child as one of their own.
Resistance to Enslavement
Participation in America's War of Independence
A stevedore of African and Native American descent, Crispus Attucks has the dubious honour of being the first person killed in the Boston Massacre and thus the first American killed in the American Revolution. Attucks later became an icon of the anti-slavery movement in the mid-19th century and supporters of the abolition movement lauded him for playing a heroic role in the history of the United States. Though its most famous hero of African descent, he was not the only one who fought during America's War of Independence. An estimated 20,000 people of African ancestry joined the British cause, which promised freedom to enslaved people, as Black Loyalists, while around 9,000 African Americans became Black Patriots.
Throughout slavery, the enslaved resisted their plight in various ways. The Stono Rebellion of 1739 was the largest in the thirteen colonies, but others were to follow. Some of the most famous were the Gabriel’s Conspiracy of 1800, German Coast Uprising of 1811, and probably the most famous of all, Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831. Outnumbered and outgunned, all these rebellions were doomed to failure, but they heavily contradicted the white propaganda of the time that slaves were happy, docile, and child-like.
Africans rebelled outside the United States, too, with impacts for the country. On the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue, free Africans and slaves won independence from France. They organized, defeated the colonial armies, and repelled sustained attacks by French and English navies. By 1803, France's ongoing losses in the revolution led Napoleon to the sell the Louisiana territory (that is, the "right" to colonize the large area West of the Mississipi River, which was in reality already inhabited by indigenous peoples) to the United States. In 1804 the rebels created Haiti, and constitutionally abolished slavery.
African Americans in the United States also attempted to use the law. The most famous of these cases is the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott was an enslaved African in the United States who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom and that of his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott, and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857.
In a landmark case, the United States Supreme Court decided 7–2 against Scott, finding that neither he nor any other person of African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States, and therefore Scott could not bring suit in federal court under diversity of citizenship rules. Millions of people of African ancestry born into slavery in the United States were not American citizens and had no right or protection under US law.
With the law and the state against them, the most effective method for enslaved Africans to escape slavery was to run away to the Northern States or Canada. This method, however, had a high risk of failure as the movement of the enslaved was heavily curtailed.
Though only a small percentage succeeded, runaways threatened to undermine the very system the southern states depended on. If caught, they were subject to brutal punishment, ranging from severe lashing to having a body part cut off or being torn apart by dogs.
In spite of this, run away they did, and escapees eventually developed an organized scheme to help pave the way for others trying to escape. This was the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States which helped slaves who wanted to escape get to free states in the north or to Canada. The Underground Railroad was supported by white abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. At its peak, nearly 1,000 enslaved people per year escaped from slave-holding states using the network.
One famous escapee was Harriet Tubman, who not only escaped from Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849, but also went back to Maryland over and over again to rescue family members and dozens of other enslaved people.
Though only a small fraction of those who lived in slavery ever escaped, their escape was enough to vex Southern whites greatly. They activated for the Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed in 1850 and forced officials and citizens of free states to cooperate in returning escaped slaves to their masters. This led to escapees moving farther north into British North America (Canada), where slavery had been abolished since 1833.
At least 30,000 enslaved people, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. There they formed thriving communities or joined existing communities like the Black Nova Scotians, where there grew to be over 150 communities of Black Loyalists and freed slaves in places like Birchtown, Sydney, Preston, Truro, Weymouth Falls, and Africville (in Halifax).
Another escapee who rose to prominence was Frederick Douglass. Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland and became an abolitionist, speaker, writer, and statesman. Douglas was often described as a living counter-argument to slaveholders' assertions that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens, and many northern whites who encountered him found it hard to believe that he had once been a slave.
Slavery in the United States was finally ended after a bloody civil war, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, and the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Will pick up from there in the next article, and in the rest of this series we look at photographs from the following periods:
- From Slavery to Segregation
- The Great Migration and the Flourishing of African American Culture
- The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements
- Black Lives Matter Movement
Must-See Photography Collections
If this article has whetted your appetite and you want to learn more about black history through photography, check out the next article in this series, and explore some of these wonderful public picture archives:
Explore over 300,000 images in this section of the New York Public Library system that's dedicated to black history.
Learn more about the lives of black people in Canada by exploring the national archives. It has a section about Black History in Canada.
Read more about the experience of slavery from the formerly enslaved in Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938. The collection contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.
The Library of Congress holds millions of photographs, books, newspapers and other documents that can help you explore any area of black history that interests you.
The museum itself is well worth a visit when Covid-19 allows, but in the meantime, you can explore the museum's digital archives on its website.
The National Archives and Records Administration holds an extensive library of images, documents, and other records, and has a section dedicated to African American history.
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