African-American History Notes
by Connor

My interest in African-American History grew after talking to my dad about his life in the south during the desegregation years.

I definitely can't sum it all up here, so I�ll just tell you about some of my favorite people to research and link you to helpful websites.  Maybe this will help you complete a report or convince your teacher to make Black History Month last all year.

Connor Anderson

General African-American History Resources
African-American History: People and Events

Esteban: the first black to explore North America.  He was very good at language, picking up the language of natives he met while exploring.  Esteban was well-received by the natives: he was large and they saw him as a friendly giant.  Esteban is famous for searching for the legendary Seven Cities of C�bola.  He thought he had found the cities, but instead stumbled across the Zuni tribe.  They thought he had bad intentions and attacked his group as they fled.  Click here to learn more about Esteban.

Revolutionary War: During the Revolutionary War, about 5000 black soldiers fought for the Americans.  After the Revolution, many former soldiers were freed.  The Northern states abolished slavery�but with the Constitution, slavery became a firm fixture in the South.  The Constitution said a slave was 3/5 of a person for taxation and representation purposes, and provided for the return of runaway slaves to their owners.  Click to learn more about Black History and the Revolution.

Slave Revolts: The harsh conditions of slavery made people want to revolt, but the tight control over the slaves meant that revolts were generally unsuccessful.  Denmark Vesey plotted the largest slave revolt in American history, but it never happened because the people planning it were caught and executed.  Nat Turner led the most effective slave revolt -- effective in showing that slaves would revolt, they weren't just too happy or too scared to rebel, as many people thought.  The revolt was ineffective in that most of the slaves were killed or captured.  After the revolt, laws prohibited the education, movement and assembly of slaves.  Learn more at PBS Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery.

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad: The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and hiding places to help slaves escape to freedom.  Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave, helped so many slaves escape to freedom that she became known as the "Moses of her people." Harriet Tubman served the Union Army as a nurse, cook, scout and spy during the Civil War.  More is available at the Library of Congress site on Harriet Tubman.

Benjamin Banneker: a mathematician, astronomer, and inventor.  He had an amazing memory: charged by President George Washington to work on the District of Columbia commission, Benjamin and others planned the new capital of Washington DC.  After one coworker, Pierre L'Enfant, was dismissed from the project and took his maps with him, Benjamin Banneker re-created them from memory.  Benjamin taught himself astronomy and accurately predicted a solar eclipse.  He published an almanac and sent the first copy to Thomas Jefferson.  Africans in America: Benjamin Banneker.

Frederick Douglass: an escaped slave, he was a leading abolitionist and civil rights leader.  Douglass's powerful speeches, newspaper articles and books showed the evils of slavery to whites and inspired blacks as they struggled for equality and freedom.  Visit the Library of Congress site on Frederick Douglass.

Booker T.  Washington: Hoping to help blacks promote their constitutional rights by impressing Southern whites with their economic progress, Booker T.  Washington  built the Tuskegee Institute into a major industrial training center for blacks.  He organized the National Negro Business League to help the growth of black business.  Booker T.  Washington won white support and was the most powerful black man in American history.  But changing business practices and the continued discrimination against black people meant that many of the Tuskegee graduates could not use their skills.  The age of Booker T.  Washington ended up being an age of setbacks for black Americans.  More blacks lost the right to vote, segregation became more entrenched, and violence against blacks increased.  Read about Booker T.  Washington and W.  E.  B.  Du Bois

W.  E.  B.  Du Bois: For more than 50 years, this black editor, historian and sociologist was a leader of the civil rights movement.  W.  E.  B.  Du Bois was the first black to receive a doctorate from Harvard University.  He helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  His disagreement with Booker T.  Washington reflected a deep division of opinion between black leaders.  While Booker T.  Washington urged integration into white society, W.  E.  B.  Du Bois urged global African unity and separatism.  In 1961 he moved to Ghana and became a citizen.  Read about Booker T.  Washington and W.  E.  B.  Du Bois

Tuskegee Airmen: The first Africa-American unit of combat pilots, trained in Tuskegee, Alabama.  The military chose the Tuskegee Institute to train pilots because of its commitment to aeronautical training.  The Tuskegee Airmen flew 1,500 missions in Europe, and their success helped lead to Harry Truman's decision to end racial discrimination in the military.  The Tuskegee Airmen never lost a pilot they were assigned to escort.  Learn more at the American Visionaries Tuskegee Airmen site by the National Parks Services.  Another website about Tuskegee Airmen is written by an airman's daughter.

Brown vs.  Board of Education: On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Segregated schools across the country were now in violation of the Constitution's 14th Amendment.  It was a long road to true desegregation, and Brown versus Board of Education started at all.  Who was the Brown in this case? It was Linda Brown, who was denied admission to her Topeka, Kansas elementary school because she was black.  Website links include Smithsonian Institute Brown versus Board of Education and
History Channel Brown versus Board of Education.

Dr. Martin Luther KingDr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: You can't say too much about this man! Believing that love and peaceful protest could lead to the end of injustice, Martin Luther King, Jr.  became the most influential black leader in the United States.  He inspired whites and blacks to protest racial discrimination, poverty and war.  Martin Luther King, Jr.  was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1964.  Visit the official website of the Martin Luther King, Jr.  Memorial.  Another excellent site is on PBS American Experience: Citizen King.  Learn more at a  personal website on the Montgomery bus boycott.  The BBC site on Martin Luther King Jr. is full of interesting facts.

African-American People in the Arts

Harlem Renaissance: In the 1920s, a talented group of black writers, artists, and musicians made Harlem, a black area of New York City, the home of an African-American cultural movement.  They believed that art could be an agent of change, making society more equal.  The PBS Kids website has a Big Apple History section with information about the Harlem Renaissance.

Jazz: Jazz is called the "only American art form." Jazz is definitely quite an art! Jazz players improvise: they create and play music simultaneously.  Jazz has unique sound and rhythm.  The instruments are chosen for their ability to help the artists convey strong emotion.  Trumpet, piano, drums and saxophone are favored, while the flute does not work so well in jazz.  Famous early jazz musicians include clarinetist-soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, pianist Jelly Roll Morton, and cornetist King Oliver.  Famous later jazz musicians include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie HolidayClick here to learn more about Jazz. Visit the Smithsonian Institute jazz site.

Writers: Many African-American writers have achieved literary greatness.

  • Zora Neale Hurston: wrote four novels and two books of black mythology, legends and folklore.
  • Maya Angelou: African-American poet, playwright, performer, composer and author of autobiographical works.  She composed and delivered a poem at President Bill Clinton's inauguration.
  • Toni Morrison: won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved.
  • Gwendolyn Brooks: the first African-American winner of a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. 
  • Lorraine Hansberry: wrote A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway.
  • Langston Hughes: during his lifetime he was known as the "poet laureate of Harlem." Langston Hughes' poems have been translated into many languages.  He also worked as a children's author, playwright and journalist.

TV and movies: Creative and talented African-Americans blazed paths in the entertainment industry. 

  • Nat King Cole: the first black entertainer with a network television series (1956�57).  Nat King Cole was a great singer and entertainer, but his variety show did not attract sponsors, so it only stayed on the air for a season.
  • Sidney Poitier: the first black American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, Sidney Poitier had a long and distinguished acting career.
  • Bill Cosby: comedian, television star, and writer, Bill Cosby made a lasting contribution to television.  Bill Cosby was the first black TV star, in I Spy.  One of his most lasting series was Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, a Saturday morning cartoon.  My favorite Bill Cosby show is The Cosby Show, in which he played the dad, Dr. Huxtable, of a large and funny family.  The series ran from 1984 to 1992.
  • Other famous black actors: Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Danny Glover, Denzel Washington, and Gregory Hines, who was famous as a tap dancer, too. 
  • Lena Horne: singer and actress who achieved true stardom on the silver screen and became a catalyst for change in opportunities for African-Americans Hollywood.
  • Halle Berry: first African-American woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, for her role in Monster's Ball (2001). 
  • Hattie McDaniel: first African-American ever to win an Academy Award, for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
  • Spike Lee: film director, writer, producer, and actor.
  • Oprah Winfrey: actress, talk show host, has her own production company and TV network.
African-American Leaders in Sports


Baseball: Baseball used to be a segregated sport: whites played in Major League Baseball and blacks played in the Negro Leagues.  Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier and was a civil rights activist.  Other famous black baseball players: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson, and many, many more.

Basketball: Famous black basketball record holders include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan.  And of course, there's the famous Harlem Globetrotters team.

Football: Famous black football record holders include Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Eric Dickerson and Jim Marshall.  Read more about African-Americans in pro football.

Boxing: Since Joe Louis became heavyweight boxing champion in the 1930s, black Americans have been among the world's top fighters.  One very famous black boxer was Muhammed Ali.

Tennis: Venus Williams and Serena Williams are sisters who have compiled many records in tennis.  Other black tennis stars include Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson.
Learn more at the United States Tennis Association website saluting Black History month.

Track and field: Since Jesse Owens won four Olympic gold medals in 1936, African-Americans have set countless records in track and field events.  Famous women track stars include Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Marion Jones.  Famous men track stars include Carl Lewis, Butch Reynolds, Roger Kingdom, Edwin Moses, Bob Beamon and Willie Banks.

Kwanzaa -- the African-American holiday

Now celebrated around the world by millions of people, Kwanzaa was developed by American scholar and activist Maulana Karenga in 1966.  The holiday is based on African harvest celebrations, and the name is Swahili for "the first fruits of harvest."

Kwanza is the African holiday; Kwanzaa is the African-American version.  Kwanzaa takes place from December 26 to January 1 -- a time called "the time when the edges of the year meet" by some African cultures. 

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. 

There are seven symbols of the holiday: fruits, vegetables, and nuts; straw place mats; a candleholder; ears of corn (maize); gifts; a communal cup signifying unity; and seven candles in the African colors of red, green and black. 

On each day of Kwanzaa, the family lights one of the candles in the kinara (candleholder) and discusses the principle for the day.  A community feast called the karamu ends the celebration.

Double Switched by Corey Green, author of the Buckley School Books
Copyright © 2000-2016, Corey Green and licensors. All rights reserved.