The struggle of African Americans to gain the full rights of citizenship lives at the heart of the American experiment in democracy. In this course, you’ll learn about the history of slavery in America and its extreme brutality; how enslaved African Americans endured and worked tirelessly for freedom and justice; the hardships of free Black Americans; the abolition movements; the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation; and much more.
African American History: From the African Coast to the Civil War
Leslie Alexander is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She earned a PhD in History from Cornell University. She is the author of African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784–1861 as well as Fear of a Black Republic: Haiti and the Birth of Black Internationalism. She also coedited the Encyclopedia of African American History and served as president of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora.
01: The Origins of African Americans
Begin the course with an overview of the civilizations and societies of West Africa before the arrival of Europeans. Investigate the rise and fall of the great empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay, and the vast trade networks that sustained them. Then explore the rich and complex societies that thrived along the central African coastline, and how they became vulnerable to invasion.
02: Europe’s Expansion in the Atlantic World
Trace the rise of European exploration in the 15th century, and the factors that underlaid it. Observe how the Renaissance ideology of humanism drove a desire for expansion and wealth. Take account of the advances in military and seafaring technology that made exploration possible. Follow the first Portuguese incursions into West Africa, beginning a trade in humans that quickly became profitable.
03: The Transatlantic Trade in Humans
Learn how the Portuguese developed a military presence in West Africa to protect their trade in gold and humans, followed by the Dutch, French, and British. Examine the reasons why African rulers were initially willing to traffic humans—and were, ultimately, forced to do so. Track the European expansion into the Americas, which made the demand for enslaved labor insatiable.
04: Enslavement from Capture to Sale
Hear firsthand accounts of the kidnapping of Africans who were sold into bondage. Observe the ways in which Africans were captured, including the enslavement of children. Visualize the long, forced marches to the coast, the suffering and death en route, and imprisonment before sale to traders. Finally, witness the dehumanizing process of the sale of captives, and the traders’ astonishing cruelty.
05: The Middle Passage
The Middle Passage was the brutal sea journey of African captives to slavery in the Americas. Investigate the horrific conditions of life aboard slave ships, and the numerous uprisings by Africans to regain their freedom, against a background of cruel punishments, disease, suicides, and death. Learn how Africans coped, survived, and were “seasoned” to accept a new identity as slaves.
06: Slavery Takes Root
Explore how slavery developed within North America’s 13 British colonies. Trace the origins of slavery in the Caribbean, and its importation to the mainland to support plantation agriculture. Examine why slavery in America became based entirely on race. Then study the colonial laws and legal codes that defined slavery and denied Africans the most basic human rights and freedoms.
07: Slavery in Colonial America
Investigate the nature of slavery in America before the American Revolution. Observe how slavery took root in the Chesapeake region through tobacco cultivation, how it thrived in New England, in mostly urban settings, and in the Carolina colony through rice production. Note the differences in the experience of enslaved women from that of men, and the unrelenting cruelty of their treatment.
08: Black Culture and Revolt in the Colonies
Discover how enslaved Africans managed to retain their heritage, despite the horrors of enslavement. Note how they practiced African methods of agriculture, cooking and consuming food, healing, and medicine, as well as music and dance traditions and religious and celebratory rituals. Learn also how cultural practices undergirded the numerous revolts by enslaved Africans seeking freedom.
09: Black Protest in the Age of Revolution
Delve into the response by both enslaved and free Africans to the events of the American Revolution. Grasp their dilemma of whether to side with the British or with the American rebels and learn about the outpouring of African American men who served in both armies, hoping for freedom following the conflict. Assess the painful outcome for Africans, as the slave system expanded dramatically after the war.
10: Black Enlightenment Thought
Trace the lives of Phillis Wheatley and Benjamin Banneker, two African American intellectuals who achieved wide recognition in literature and science. Drawing on the principles of the American Revolution, observe how many enslaved Africans leveraged the legal system to petition for their freedom and human rights, winning lawsuits and setting legal precedents for the abolition of slavery in the North.
11: Freedom’s Failures
Here, study the process and the aftermath of legal emancipation in the North. See how slavery was legally abolished in northern states, and the economic shifts, religious movements, and currents of thought that influenced abolition. Examine Northern policies of “gradual emancipation,” and the lingering opposition to ending slavery, as well as African American poverty, that plagued northern societies.
12: How Cotton Revived Slavery
Slavery expanded dramatically in the South following the Revolution. Track the rise of cotton production, its vast need for labor, and the strategies of plantation owners to satisfy the need. Delve into enslaved life on cotton plantations; the routines of cotton cultivation; and the extreme brutality and legal strictures that sustained the slavery system, noting particularly what enslaved women endured.
13: Black Culture and Resistance in the South
Uncover the ways in which the enslaved created meaningful lives despite their bondage. See how enslaved Africans forged alternative conceptions of family, developed a Christian “liberation theology,” and expressed themselves through humor and music. Observe their many forms of daily resistance, from concealing their feelings and deceiving slaveholders to creatively protecting each other.
14: Armed Rebellion in the Antebellum Era
Take the measure of the Haitian Revolution, where Africans threw off the yoke of slavery and established an independent Black nation. Grasp how the events in Haiti inspired and influenced numerous armed uprisings in the United States, highlighting the Virginia rebellion of 1800, the Louisiana uprising of 1811, the South Carolina revolt of 1822, and the landmark Nat Turner rebellion of 1831.
15: Free Black Communities in the North
Examine the hopes of newly emancipated Africans in the North, and why they dissolved into severe hardship and suffering. Following emancipation, track the growth of African American social and political organizations, churches, and schools. Witness the violent backlash of white Northerners, in the massive anti-Black riots of the early 19th century, destroying African American communities in northern cities.
16: Black Nationalism and Emigration
Chart the rise of emigration movements, as Northern African Americans considered relocation to more welcoming countries. Follow the unfolding of Black emigration to Canada, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and Liberia, and the advent of the American Colonization Society, a white organization aiming to forcibly remove African Americans from the United States. See why emigration movements eventually fell into disrepute.
17: From Antislavery to Abolition
In the early 19th century, a full-fledged abolition movement emerged in the United States. Learn how African American activists inspired antislavery leaders to call for an immediate end to slavery, and how the work of white abolitionist William Garrison culminated in the American Anti-Slavery Society. Trace the role of women in the abolitionist cause, and the ideological rifts that caused the movement to fracture.
18: Black Political Thinkers in the North
Follow the development of African American political and intellectual thought in the antebellum North, through the lives of major activists. Begin with David Walker, author of an incendiary treatise against slavery. Continue with Maria Stewart, an impassioned writer and speaker; famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and Sojourner Truth, who championed both emancipation and women’s rights.
19: The Black Struggle for Citizenship
Take account of the deep conflicts over strategy that challenged the abolitionist movement in the 1840s, dividing advocates for moral appeals to white Americans against those favoring direct or violent action in the name of freedom. Then see how African American activists successfully fought segregation in the North and waged a concerted battle for unrestricted voting rights and full rights of citizenship.
20: Running for Freedom
This lecture follows the stories of fugitives, enslaved people who sacrificed everything to free themselves from bondage. Better understand why fugitivity was a major and ongoing irritant for Southern enslavers. Learn about the severe perils of escape and hear accounts of famous fugitives who used ingenious strategies to gain freedom. Learn about the remarkable organizations that arose to assist fugitives.
21: Slavery Splinters the Union
In the 1850s, the battles regarding slavery tore the Union apart, leading inexorably to the Civil War. Examine the economic and political debates over slavery, and the conflicts over free versus slave states that deepened the tensions between North and South. Witness the events of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, and John Brown’s Raid, as the country teetered toward war.
22: The Politics of Emancipation
Relive the opening of the Civil War and explore how African Americans responded to the conflict. See how enslaved people in the South seized the opportunity to gain their freedom and trace the conflicted impulses of Black Northerners. Grapple with the myth of Abraham Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator” and track his political quandary as he faced increasing pressure to emancipate the enslaved.
23: Battling the Curse of Slavery
With the Union’s acceptance of African American soldiers, see how African Americans faced severe discrimination in the military. Note their bravery in military actions, turning the tide of the war. Investigate lingering Northern racism, and the horrific anti-Black violence in New York City in retaliation for the draft. Learn how the exodus of the enslaved in the South precipitated the end of the Civil War.
24: The Fruits and Failures of Reconstruction
Conclude with a look at the conditions for Black Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. Learn about the policies of Reconstruction, as America adjusted to a post-slavery reality. Observe how African Americans initially made strong advances into business and politics but were impeded by anti-Black sentiment, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and a stringent re-imposition of white supremacy.