Black History Milestones: Timeline

October 2021

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(NOTE: This is an archived press release.)

This Timeline of Black History Milestones was collated by WUC's Students' Union's Vice President, Engagement, International & BAME Officer, Darlington, and friends. Please visit the end of the article for references. 

In August of 1619, a journal entry recorded that '20 and odd' Angolans, kidnapped by the Portuguese, arrived in the British colony of Virginia and were then were bought by English colonists.

The date and the story of the enslaved Africans have become symbolic of slavery's roots, despite captive and free Africans likely being present in the Americas in the 1400s and as early as 1526 in the region that would become the United States.

The fate of enslaved people in the United States would divide the nation during the Civil War. And after the war, the racist legacy of slavery would persist, spurring movements of resistance, including the Underground Railroad, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma to Montgomery March, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Through it all, Black leaders, artists and writers have emerged to shape the character and identity of a nation.

Slavery Comes to North America, 1619

To satisfy the labour needs of the rapidly growing North American colonies, white European settlers turned in the early 17th century from indentured servants (mostly poorer Europeans) to a cheaper, more plentiful labour source: enslaved Africans.

After 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 Africans ashore at the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia, slavery spread quickly through the American colonies. Though it is impossible to give accurate figures, some historians have estimated that 6 to 7 million enslaved people were imported to the New World during the 18th century alone, depriving the African continent of its most valuable resource - its healthiest and ablest men and women.

After the American Revolution, many colonists (particularly in the North, where slavery was relatively unimportant to the economy) began to link the oppression of enslaved Africans to their own oppression by the British.

Though leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson - both slaveholders from Virginia - took cautious steps towards limiting slavery in the newly independent nation, the Constitution tacitly acknowledged the institution, guaranteeing the right to repossess any 'person held to service or labour' (an obvious euphemism for slavery). 

Many northern states had abolished slavery by the end of the 18th century, but the institution was absolutely vital to the South, where Black people constituted a large minority of the population and the economy relied on the production of crops like tobacco and cotton.

Congress outlawed the import of new enslaved people in 1808, but the enslaved population in the U.S. nearly tripled over the next 50 years, and by 1860 it had reached nearly 4 million, with more than half living in the cotton-producing states of the South.

Brown v. Board of Education, 1954

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its verdict in Brown v. Board of Education, ruling unanimously that racial segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment's mandate of equal protection of the laws of the U.S. Constitution to any person within its jurisdiction.

Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in the case, was one of almost 200 people from five different states who had joined related NAACP cases brought before the Supreme Court since 1938.

The landmark verdict reversed the 'separate but equal' doctrine the Court had established with Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which it determined that equal protection was not violated as long as reasonably equal conditions were provided to both groups.

In the Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren famously declared that 'separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.' 

Though the Court's ruling applied specifically to public schools, it implied that other segregated facilities were also unconstitutional, thus striking a heavy blow to the Jim Crow South.

As such, the ruling provoked serious resistance, including a 'Southern manifesto' issued by southern congressmen denouncing it.

The decision was also difficult to enforce, a fact that became increasingly clear in May 1955 when the Court remanded the case to the courts of origin due to 'their proximity to local conditions' and urged 'a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance.' 

Though some southern schools moved towards integration relatively without incident, in other cases - notably in Arkansas and Alabama - enforcing Brown would require federal intervention.

The Little Rock Nine, 1957

But the gears of change grind slowly. It wasn't until September 1957 when nine teens would become symbols, much like the landmark decision we know as Brown v. The Board of Education, of all that was in store for our nation in the years to come.

The 'Little Rock Nine,' as the nine teens came to be known, were to be the first African American students to enter Little Rock's Central High School.

Three years earlier, following the Supreme Court ruling, the Little Rock school board pledged to voluntarily desegregate its schools. This idea was explosive for the community and, like much of the South, it was fraught with anger and bitterness.

On September 2, 1957 the night prior to what was to be the teens' first day in Central High classrooms, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the state's National Guard to block their entrance. Faubus said it was for the safety of the nine students.

On September 4, just 24 hours after a federal judge ordered the Little Rock Nine to begin attending Central High immediately, a belligerent mob, along with the National Guard, again prevented the teens from entering the school.

Sixteen days later a federal judge ordered the National Guard removed. Once again on September 23, the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter the school.

Though escorted by Little Rock police into a side door, another angry crowd gathered and tried to rush into Central High. Fearing for the lives of the nine students, school officials sent the teens home. They did, however, manage to attend classes for about three hours.

Finally, 52 years ago today, on September 25, 1957, following a plea from Little Rock's mayor, Woodrow Mann, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and sent U.S. Army troops to the scene. Personally guarded by soldiers from the National Guard soldiers and the Army's 101st Airborne, the Little Rock Nine began regular class attendance at Central High.

However, their ordeal was far from over. Each day the nine teens were harassed, jeered, and threatened by many of the white students as they took small steps into deeper, more turbulent waters. That spring, on May 27, 1958, Ernest Green became the first African American graduated from Central High.

Try to imagine the torrent of emotions that ran through those young men and women. Imagine the courage they had to muster each day. Try to picture the white students who jeered and harassed them. Imagine also what it would have been like to be a white student or teacher who supported the Little Rock Nine.

The task of a great museum is to not merely revisit historic events, but rather to help stir our minds and souls. African American history is vital to understanding America's history.

African Americans in WWII, 1941

During World War II, many African Americans were ready to fight for what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the 'Four Freedoms' - freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear - even while they themselves lacked those freedoms at home.

More than 3 million Black Americans would register for service during the war, with some 500,000 seeing action overseas. According to War Department policy, enlisted Black and white people were organized into separate units.

Frustrated Black servicemen were forced to combat racism even as they sought to further U.S. war aims; this became known as the 'Double V' strategy, for the two victories they sought to win.

The war's first African American hero emerged from the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Dorie Miller, a young Navy steward on the U.S.S. West Virginia, carried wounded crew members to safety and manned a machine gun post, shooting down several Japanese planes.

In the spring of 1943, graduates of the first all-Black military aviation program, created at the Tuskegee Institute in 1941, headed to North Africa as the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Their commander, Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., later became the first African American general.

The Tuskegee Airmen saw combat against German and Italian troops, flew more than 3,000 missions, and served as a great source of pride for many Black Americans.

Rise of Black Power

After the heady rush of the civil rights movement's first years, anger and frustration was increasing among many African Americans, who saw clearly that true equality - social, economic and political - still eluded them.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, this frustration fueled the rise of the Black Power movement. According to then-SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael, who first popularized the term 'Black power' in 1966, the traditional civil rights movement and its emphasis on nonviolence, did not go far enough, and the federal legislation it had achieved failed to address the economic and social disadvantages facing Black Americans.

Black Power was a form of both self-definition and self-defense for African Americans; it called on them to stop looking to the institutions of white America - which were believed to be inherently racist - and act for themselves, by themselves, to seize the gains they desired, including better jobs, housing and education.

Also in 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, college students in Oakland, California, founded the Black Panther Party.

While its original mission was to protect Black people from white brutality by sending patrol groups into Black neighborhoods, the Panthers soon developed into a Marxist group that promoted Black Power by urging African Americans to arm themselves and demand full employment, decent housing and control over their own communities.

Clashes ensued between the Panthers and police in California, New York and Chicago, and in 1967 Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after killing a police officer. His trial brought national attention to the organization, which at its peak in the late 1960s boasted some 2,000 members.

The History of Black People in Britain

The September 1981 edition of History Today was a special issue about the history of black people in Britain.

In 1764 The Gentleman's Magazine reported that there was 'supposed to be near 20,000... Negroe servants' in London: the magazine went on to say that 'the main objections to their importation is, that they cease to consider themselves as slaves in this free country, nor will they put up with an inequality of treatment, nor more willingly perform the laborious offices of servitude than our own people'.

The writer of this report touched on an important reason why black people in Britain were thought of and treated in a different way from those of the New World. In this issue of History Today we examine this and other aspects of the history of black people in Britain.

Black Personalities in Georgian England

The Eighteenth Century

Olaudah Equiano and Igantius Sancho

Hogarth - The Savage and the Civilised

Mary Seacole

The 1930s

Response and Reaction, 1945-62

Whereas the vast majority of black people in Britain in the eighteenth century were employed as servants (and consequentially we know very little about their lives) there were notable individuals - people such as Francis Barber, Dr Johnson's servant and friend, Olaudah Equiano, and Ignatius Sancho - who rose from inauspicious beginnings to comparative fame, and about whom we know considerably more.

The articles in this issue are, in the main, concerned with the reaction of British people to black settlers during the centuries before the onset of mass immigration, following the Second World War.

On this page Paul Edwards traces our knowledge of black people in Britain before the eighteenth century. A general context for the subject is then set in the following discussion by Ian Duffield of recent studies of the history of black people in Britain.

The series of articles continues with a closer examination of the eighteenth century, both in general terms by James Walvin and from the point of view of certain individuals by Paul Edwards.

Mary Seacole who was celebrated in her day as a nurse at the Crimea and who is the subject of an article here. (We have not dealt directly with the nineteenth-century abolition of slavery, but those interested in this subject should consult the article and notes for further reading by Stephen Usherwood in the March 1981 issue of History Today .)

The next article by Barbara Bush looks at the attitudes of the 1930s, and David Dabydeen's article - taking a different approach to the subject - discusses Hogarth's depiction and use of black people in his paintings.

Black people have been living in Britain since at least Roman times. We know of one individual African legionary, 'famous among buffoons and always a great joker', who went down in history for making fun of the Emperor Septimius Severus outside Carlisle around the year 210 AD.

Significantly, the Emperor was 'troubled by the man's colour' and ordered purifying sacrifices to be offered, which turned out also to be black.

Africans continue to appear unexpectedly in British history. In 862 AD the Annals of Ireland record the landing of black slaves ('blue men' they are called in both Irish and Norse) by Vikings returning from raids on Spain and North Africa.

A skull confidently identified as that of a young black girl has been found in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon burial at North Elmham in Norfolk.

Something like a black community appears in the account books of the Scottish court at Holyrood shortly after 1500.

Reference is made to two women, Ellen or Helenor More and Margery Lindsay, and to a number of men - Peter, Nageir and Taubronar, the last being a married man with a child at Court. Some of them probably came from Portugal, where trading in Africans had been going on throughout the previous century.

In 1505 a payment is recorded in the accounts to William Wood, one of the Scottish king's principal ship's-captains, ''or the fraucht of the Portugall quhit hors, the must cat and the jennet and the Moris', and there are numerous items such as payment for the transport of ''he More lassis' from Dunfermline to Edinburgh in 1504, for a dance-entertainment organised by Taubronar 'be the Kingis command', and expensive gowns, slippers and gloves, not only for the black ladies but for their personal maidservants too: and the King's New Year gift is recorded in 1513, 'to the twa blak ladeis, X Franche crounis'.

One of the poems of William Dunbar, 'Of ane blak moir', is about the part played by Helenor in a parody tournament of around 1506-7 called 'the turnament of the black knicht and the black lady'.

Africans also turn up during the period as the familiars of witches, for instance in the trial of Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny in 1423, in which she was accused of having intercourse with an 'Ethiop' who could also turn into a black cat or black shaggy dog. Thus there are hints even as early as this of a dual social role for Africans – people to be laughed at and people to be feared.

In 1596 Queen Elizabeth wrote to the mayors of various cities that 'these kind of people should be sent forth from the land'. The Queen issued licences to deport Africans mainly on two grounds: because of economic pressures 'in these hard times of dearth', and because 'most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel'.

Under the influence of European fashion and, later in the seventeenth century, the expansion of Oriental and African trade, more and more black servants began to appear in English households.

But not until after the Restoration, however, is it noticeable that black servants are spoken of increasingly as chattels, arising from a legal ambiguity over the application of Haebeus Corpus on the one hand and the Navigation Act on the other.

Racism and Resistance

Imperial European powers found ways to justify the barbaric slave system and the invasion, colonisation and expropriation of foreign lands for the expansion of their wealth.

Britain amongst them created a hierarchy with white Europeans at the top and Africans and Asians at the bottom. Racism became embedded into the nation's structures of power, culture, education and identity.

People from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia were encouraged by government to come to England. But on arrival here they often faced racism and discrimination, which was not illegal in Britain until 1965.

Racist attacks

In 1919, there were large-scale racist attacks on 'coloured' communities in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull, South Shields as well as parts of Scotland and Wales. There were other large-scale attacks in Liverpool in 1948, in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958 and at other times and places throughout the century since 1918.

One of the most well-known racist murders is that of teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. There have been many murders in the past, including, Akhtar Ali Baig in East Ham in 1980. Kelso Cochrane was also murdered in Notting Hill in 1959 and Charles Wootton, in Liverpool in 1919.

Racist practices, policies and politics

Although migrant workers have been vital for the growth of Britain's economy and public services, racism has sometimes been widespread.

There was the 'colour bar' that prevented 'coloured' people obtaining jobs and accommodation, fighting for British boxing titles or even joining the armed services or serving as officers in them. Some laws were openly racist too, such as the 1925 Coloured Alien Seamen's Order or the 1981 British Nationality Act.

There have been openly racist speeches by leading politicians too. Seeking to create divisions and stir up racism Enoch Powell's infamous 'Rivers of Blood' tirade in 1968 is a well-known example. And then there are the activities of politically racist organisations such as the National Front.

Resistance, protest and defence

In response those of African, Caribbean and Asian descent have been forced to find various forms of resistance alongside allies.

They organised political actions or demonstrations such as the Grumwick Strike in 1976 and the Black People's Day of Action in 1981 in London. There were various protests against police and racist violence in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sometimes it meant forming defence organisations such as the League of Coloured Peoples and the first Indian Workers' Association established in the 1930s, or the Black People's Alliance in the 1970s.

At other times, communities responded by establishing places of refuge and sanctuary. There was the widespread supplementary school movement often favoured in Caribbean communities. There were also centres such as Africa House in Camden in the 1930s, or cultural centres, such as the Drum in Birmingham in the 1990s.

Knowing the Past Opens the Door to the Future: The Continuing Importance of Black History Month

No one has played a greater role in helping all Americans know the black past than Carter G. Woodson, the individual who created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in February 1926.

Woodson was the second black American to receive a PhD in history from Harvard - following W.E.B. Du Bois by a few years. To Woodson, the black experience was too important simply to be left to a small group of academics. Woodson believed that his role was to use black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift.

By 1916, Woodson had moved to DC and established the 'Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture,' an organization whose goal was to make black history accessible to a wider audience. Woodson was a strange and driven man whose only passion was history, and he expected everyone to share his passion.

This impatience led Woodson to create Negro History Week in 1926, to ensure that school children be exposed to black history. Woodson chose the second week of February in order to celebrate the birthday of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

It is important to realize that Negro History Week was not born in a vacuum.

The 1920s saw the rise in interest in African American culture that was represented by the Harlem Renaissance where writers like Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Claude McKay -  wrote about the joys and sorrows of blackness, and musicians like Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford captured the new rhythms of the cities created in part by the thousands of southern blacks who migrated to urban centers like Chicago. And artists like Aaron Douglass, Richard Barthe, and Lois Jones created images that celebrated blackness and provided more positive images of the African American experience.

Woodson hoped to build upon this creativity and further stimulate interest through Negro History Week.

Woodson had two goals. One was to use history to prove to white America that Black people had played important roles in the creation of America and thereby deserve to be treated equally as citizens. In essence, Woodson - by celebrating heroic Black figures - be they inventors, entertainers, or soldiers - hoped to prove our worth, and by proving our worth - he believed that equality would soon follow.

His other goal was to increase the visibility of black life and history, at a time when few newspapers, books, and universities took notice of the black community, except to dwell upon the negative.

Ultimately Woodson believed Negro History Week - which became Black History Month in 1976 - would be a vehicle for racial transformation forever.

The question that faces us today is whether or not Black History Month is still relevant? Is it still a vehicle for change? Or has it simply become one more school assignment that has limited meaning for children.

Has Black History Month become a time when television and the media stack their black material? Or is it a useful concept whose goals have been achieved? After all, few - except the most ardent rednecks - could deny the presence and importance of African Americans to American society or as my then-14 year old daughter Sarah put it, "I see Colin Powell everyday on TV, all my friends - black and white - are immersed in black culture through music and television. And America has changed dramatically since 1926 - Is not it time to retire Black History Month as we have eliminated white and colored signs on drinking fountains?" I will spare you the three hour lesson I gave her.

I would like to suggest that despite the profound change in race relations that has occurred in our lives, Carter G. Woodson's vision for black history as a means of transformation and change is still quite relevant and quite useful.

African American history month, with a bit of tweaking, is still a beacon of change and hope that is still surely needed in this world. The chains of slavery are gone - but we are all not yet free. The great diversity within the black community needs the glue of the African American past to remind us of not just how far we have traveled but lo, how far there is to go.

While there are many reasons and examples that I could point towards, let me raise five concerns or challenges that African Americans - in fact - all Americans - face that black history can help address:

The Challenge of Forgetting

You can tell a great deal about a country and a people by what they deem important enough to remember, to create moments for - what they put in their museum and what they celebrate.

In Scandinavia - there are monuments to the Vikings as a symbol of freedom and the spirit of exploration. In Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis celebrated their supposed Aryan supremacy through monument and song. While America traditionally revels in either Civil War battles or founding fathers.

Yet I would suggest that we learn even more about a country by what it chooses to forget - its mistakes, its disappointments, and its embarrassments. In some ways, African American History month is a clarion call to remember. Yet it is a call that is often unheeded.

Let's take the example of one of the great unmentionable in American history - slavery. For nearly 250 years slavery not only existed but it was one of the dominant forces in American life. Political clout and economic fortune depended on the labor of slaves.

And the presence of this peculiar institution generated an array of books, publications, and stories that demonstrate how deeply it touched America. And while we can discuss basic information such as the fact that in 1860 - 4 million Black people were enslaved, and that a prime field hand cost $1,000, while a female, with her childbearing capability, brought $1,500, we find few moments to discuss the impact, legacy, and contemporary meaning of slavery.

In 1988, the Smithsonian Institution, about to open an exhibition that included slavery, decided to survey 10,000 Americans. The results were fascinating - 92% of white respondents felt slavery had little meaning to them - these respondents often said "my family did not arrive until after the end of slavery."

Even more disturbing was the fact that 79% of African Americans expressed no interest or some embarrassment about slavery. It is my hope that with greater focus and collaboration Black History Month can stimulate discussion about a subject that both divides and embarrasses.

As a historian, I have always felt that slavery is an African American success story because we found ways to survive, to preserve our culture and our families. Slavery is also ripe with heroes, such as slaves who ran away or rebelled, like Harriet Tubman or Denmark Vessey, but equally important are the forgotten slave fathers and mothers who raised families and kept a people alive.

I am not embarrassed by my slave ancestors; I am in awe of their strength and their humanity. I would love to see the African American community rethink its connection to our slave past. I also think of something told to me by a Mr. Johnson, who was a former sharecropper I interviewed in Georgetown, SC:

Though the slaves were bought, they were also brave. Though they were sold, they were also strong.


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