Historians continue to debate the official moment Africans set foot on American soil with some like Ivan van Sertima (“They Came Before Columbus”) and Clyde A. Winters (“African Empires in Ancient America”), logging dates into early antiquity. Others, including most U.S. history teachers, offer 1619, when a ship with 20 African captives landed at Point Comfort, Virginia, as the open of American slavery and the African presence in America. Using the 1619 timeline, here are some pivotal points of the 400-year journey:
As John Rolfe noted in a letter in 1619, “20 and odd negroes” were brought by a Dutch ship to the nascent British colonies, arriving at what is now Fort Hampton, then Point Comfort, in Virginia. Though enslaved Africans had been part of Portuguese, Spanish, French and British history across the Americas since the 16th century, the captives who landed in Virginia were probably the first slaves to arrive into what would become the United States 150 years later.
The first anti-miscegenation statute — prohibiting marriage between races — was written into law in Maryland in 1661, shortly after enslaved people were brought to the colonies. This law would not be set aside until 1967 when the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia successfully challenged laws against miscegenation.
The Declaration of Independence, which embraced in its first lines “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”, did not extend that right to slaves, Africans or African Americans, with the final version scrapping a reference to the denunciation of slavery.
The British-operated slave trade across the Atlantic was one of the biggest businesses of the 18th century. Approximately 600,000 of 10 million African slaves made their way into the American colonies before the slave trade — not slavery — was banned by Congress in 1808.
In the Dred Scott ruling, (Dred Scott v. Sandford), the Supreme Court announced that the letter of the Constitution was not meant to include Africans or their descendants in America as they were never intended as “citizens.” The Court concluded that “We think … that [black people] were at that time [of America’s founding] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them. — Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 404—05.
Slavery abolished in the U.S. Following its ratification by the requisite three-quarters of the states earlier in the month, the 13th Amendment is formally adopted into the U.S. Constitution, ensuring that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal. It created a doctrine that came to be known as Jim Crow or “separate but equal.”
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court ruled that American state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional, even if the segregated schools are otherwise equal in quality.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting and placing restrictions on a number of Southern states if they attempted to usurp voting rights laws. Those restrictions were recently overturned in a 2013 supreme court ruling.
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was established in 1971 by 13 founding members. The founding members include: Rep. Shirley A. Chisholm (D-N.Y.), Rep. William L. Clay Sr. (D-Mo.), Rep. George W. Collins (D-Ill.), Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr. (D-Mich.), Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.), Rep. Ralph H. Metcalfe (D-Ill.), Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), Rep. Robert N.C. Nix Sr. (D-Pa.), Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) and Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.)
Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president of the United States, sparking many celebrations in the United States and around the world. He gained almost 53% of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes.