The large-scale presence of African Americans in the United States owes its origins to a Dutch ship that sailed into Chesapeake Bay in 1619. In exchange for supplies, the captain and crew sold more than 20 blacks to the local Virginia authorities. Most African Americans today descend from Africans or those from the Caribbean who were brought to North America and sold as slaves.
The blacks who had been purchased in 1619 by the Virginia authorities were treated as indentured servants and eventually released. However, by the 1640s, blacks began to be treated as slaves, with Massachusetts the first colony to legalize slavery in 1641. During the slavery era, the type of work slaves were compelled to do, especially in the South, included serving as farmhands, particularly on cotton plantations, as well as working in mines, as textile laborers, as domestic servants and in various other trades. The average workday for slaves was 14 hours in the summer and 10 hours in winter, and during harvest time, they often worked 18-hour days. The work was usually carefully organized by the owners to maximize efficiency and prevent escapes. By 1700, the American colonies contained some 25,000 slaves, representing approximately 10 percent of the population.
In the latter half of the 18th century, the Northern states passed emancipation legislation, and in the South, an increasing number of blacks were freed following the American Revolution. In 1807, the government forbade the further importation of Africans for the slave trade. By this time, more than 400,000 people had been brought to North America from Africa or the Caribbean to serve as slaves.
During the years of slavery, even the rights of free blacks were curtailed, with many being restricted from the vote, excluded from entry to schools, mistreated when seeking to patronize white-owned businesses and discriminated against in the workplace and at all levels of society. As a result, African Americans often created their own communities in cities and towns across the country, providing black-to-black services for social, educational or commercial endeavors. They also created the Black Church, which has, since the late 1700s, played an important role among African Americans as a focal point for black identity and expression.
The American Civil War saw slavery outlawed. It was followed by a period of reconstruction between 1865 and 1877 that included greater numbers of black men in the South participating in the vote, and a growth in the number of black-run businesses, farms, schools and churches. However, this period also heralded the beginning of segregation between blacks and whites in the South, such as on public transport and in schools and restaurants. There was also an increase in extrajudicial violence against blacks, such as lynchings.
The first few decades of the 20th century saw heavy migration by blacks to the North as a result of segregation and discrimination in the South. African Americans served in World War I and II, but they were segregated from white soldiers. The economic situation of African Americans improved greatly during World War II, largely as a result of labor shortages, leading the government to utilize all available manpower, regardless of color. Many blacks from the South migrated to the North, Midwest and West to seek work in industry, as it offered better pay than the farming and domestic service positions open to blacks in the South. Altogether, some 700,000 blacks moved during the war, with 400,000 leaving the South. However, the migratory shift also led to a rise in racial tensions, particularly in overcrowded cities, with race riots in Detroit and Harlem in 1943.
The civil rights movement in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, led to an assertion of the rights of African Americans, with peaceful and violent tactics employed by activists in the North and South. Following advances made during those years, African Americans have played greater roles in all strata of American society, culminating in the election of an African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2008.
The study of African-American history has become increasingly popular in the 21st century, with Black History Month taking place every February.