Being a Black Man
Interactive Feature: Series explores the lives of black men through their shared experiences and existence.
Updated January 7 View feature »
African American Men: Moments in History from Colonial Times to the Present

Colonial Times, 1492-1776

1492: Among the crew on the Santa Maria during Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas is Pedro Alonzo Niño, a black man. Africans also accompany Ponce de Leon, Hernando Cortes, Francisco Pizarro, Hernando de Soto, and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in the early 16th century.

1623: William Tucker, the son of indentured servants living in Jamestown, is the first recorded black birth in America.

1625: A census of Virginia counts 11 black men among a population of 1,227.

1641: Mathias De Sousa, a free black man, is elected to the Maryland General Assembly. He had come to the colony as an indentured servant.

1644: Lucas Santomee, a black physician and one of the major landowners in what is to become New York, is granted a tract by the Dutch that stretched from modern-day Greenwich Village to Brooklyn.

1700: About 60 percent of all African Americans in the colonies (16,390) live in Virginia.

1712: Though other colonies had passed laws regulating the behavior of slaves, South Carolina passes a slave code that becomes the standard for slave-owning states. It proscribes escalating punishments for rebellious acts including death for escaping, authorizes whites to punish any slave found violating the law, and prohibits slaves from growing their own crops, working for money or learning to read and write.

1729: In an early precursor to lynchings, Maryland passes a law that mandates savage punishment for slaves accused of violent crimes: decapitation, hanging, or having a body's remains publicly displayed after being drawn and quartered.

1731: Benjamin Banneker is born to free parents on Nov. 9 in Ellicott Mills, Md.

1760: A poem by Jupiter Hammon, a slave on Long Island, is the first ever published by a black person born in America. His first poem has a Christian theme; a later poem exhorts slaves in New York to serve their masters faithfully.

1770: Crispus Attucks, a slave who had escaped to Boston, is killed during the Boston Massacre. He is considered to be the first casualty of the American Revolution.

1776: Five thousand black men serve in the Army and Navy during the American Revolution. But 20,000 fight for the British, who promise freedom to any slave who joined them. At the end of the war, 12,000 African Americans leave with the British. While some are freed in Europe and Africa, thousands more are sold back into slavery in the West Indies.

Slavery at Full Strength, 1780-1860

1783: The black population reaches 1 million; two-thirds of which was in Maryland and Virginia.

1786: A slave trader hunting for victims in Philadelphia attempts to kidnap the Rev. Richard Allen. The slave trader is jailed for perjury. He insists that Allen is an escaped slave. Allen founds the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. Also this year, a group of runaway slaves who fought for the British and called themselves the "King of England's soldiers" terrorize Savannah to try to foment a slave rebellion.

1790: The first official United States census counts 697,624 slaves and 59,557 free blacks. More than half of all slaves live in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia.

1793: Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin, revitalizing agriculture in the South and creating an even greater need for slaves to harvest the cotton.

1800: Inspired by a slave revolt in Haiti that overthrows the government, Virginia slave Gabriel Prosser leads 1,100 set to lay siege to Richmond. Prosser is betrayed before the attack. He and his family are hanged with 10 other conspirators.

1804: Ohio enacts the first Black Laws, requiring free blacks to register with the state and preventing them from testifying against whites or gaining employment without proof of their freedom. Kentucky and Virginia slave owners had lobbied for the law because Ohio had been a popular destination for escaped slaves.

1805: Virginia passes a law to expel all free blacks. Despite this, the population of free blacks grows to 36,000 in 1820, second to Maryland's 39,700.

1810: D.C. native Tom Molineaux, a former slave who moved to London after he bought his freedom through boxing matches, challenges the British heavyweight boxing champion to a match in what is considered to be the first international title bout. Though Molineaux knocks out champion Tom Cribb before 10,000 spectators, the fight is allowed to continue and Cribb beats Molineaux in the 43rd round.

1822: Denmark Vesey, an abolition activist and former slave who had acquired wealth as a property owner in South Carolina, designs the largest slave revolt to date. He raises money and secures weapons for an uprising of 9,000 black people around Charleston, intending to strike when many plantations would be idle during the summer. The plan was exposed by a house slave before Vesey could strike and he and 35 co-conspirators are executed. South Carolina imposes even more laws restricting the activities of free blacks, and white religious leaders begin framing the revolt's failure as divine intervention in support of slavery.

1823: Alexander Lucius Twilight is the first black person to graduate from college, earning an associate's degree from Middlebury College in Vermont. The next year, two more men graduate with bachelor's degrees from Amherst College in Massachusetts and Bowdoin College in Maine.

1828: White actor Thomas "Daddy" Rice performs in blackface for the first time in New York, immortalizing "Jim Crow" with a minstrel song about a ludicrously ignorant slave. Also this year, Postmaster General John McLean announces that black employees are alllowed to deliver mail only if they are supervised by a white man.

1831: Nat Turner leads one of the deadliest slave revolts in history, orchestrating the killing of his master and 60 other white people between Aug. 21 and 23 in Southampton, Va. Though dozens of other slaves are lynched or executed after the rampage, Turner remains at large until Oct. 30. He is hanged 12 days after his capture. The following year, many slave states prohibit slaves from preaching (as Turner did before his revolt) and expand crimes for which slaves can be executed. Virginia banned free blacks from purchasing freedom for any slave who is not an immediate family member.

1835: Two years after its founding as the first co-educational college in the country, Oberlin College becomes the first in the nation to admit students regardless of race.

1837: The first medical degree awarded to an African American goes to James McCune Smith, who graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland and later returns to his native New York City to practice medicine.

1838: Frederick Douglass, 20, escapes from slavery in Baltimore and settles in New Bedford, Mass. In 1841 he is recruited as an abolitionist speaker for the Massachusetts chapter of the Anti-Slavery Society and often collaborates with the chapter's white founder, William Lloyd Garrison. In one of his earliest speeches, Douglass speaks of the hypocrisy of whites who supported abolition but cannot bear to share the sacrament–or even the pew–with blacks at church. Though Garrison opposes slavery, he was an architect of the movement to send free blacks to Liberia to relieve them of the discrimination they faced and placate whites who feared them. But Douglass vehemently opposes the colonization movement, writing in an 1849 editorial: "We live here–have lived here–have a right to live here, and mean to live here." Richard Purvis, the American Anti-Slavery Society's co-founder, is dubbed "president of the Underground Railroad" for hosting many slaves who passed through Philadelphia on their journey North. Like Douglass and other progressive activists, Purvis was a strong opponent of the colonization plan and an early advocate for integration when blacks often gravitated toward racial-segregated schools and abolitionist societies and whites championed Liberia as a solution to racial discord. While abolitionists universally opposed slavery, they differed in their ideas of freedom.

1839: Joseph Cinque and 52 other slaves bound for Cuba mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad, killing most of the whites on board and forcing the two surviving crew members to take them back to Sierra Leone. The crew instead sails to New York where the slaves are arrested. Former President John Quincy Adams defends them before the Supreme Court in 1841. The court rules they are free men who had been seized illegally, and eventually the 35 slaves who survived the voyage and their years in the United States raises enough money to go home.

1845: Frederick Douglass publishes his memoir, "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," for which he risks arrest by revealing that he is an escaped slave and naming his former owner. He seeks refuge in England while supporters raise money to purchase his freedom.

1852: Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a novel about the horrors of slavery. It sold 300,000 copies in its first year, and ignited northern support of abolition.

1857: Slave Dred Scott appeals to the Supreme Court for his freedom after his master moved him to the free states of Illinois and Minnesota. The Supreme Court rejects his petition and rules that no one of African heritage–slave or free–is a U.S. citizen and the federal government does not have the power to ban slavery in northern states.

Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1900

1863: Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves in Confederate states free. Runaway slaves flowed north in se arch of freedom, and Union forces began recruiting them to fight against the South. More than 186,000 answer the call, including the soldiers of the historic, all-black 54th Regiment, commanded by Robert Gould Shaw.

1865: The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery is ratified, and Congress establishes the Freedmen's Bureau to help former slaves make the transition to freedom. President Andrew Johnson overrode congressional plans to break up plantations and give every man 40 acres and supplies to farm with, prompting black leaders to famously demand the "40 acres and a mule" they were promised. Former Confederate soldiers in Tennessee organized the Ku Klux Klan in response to northern interference in the South after the war.

1868: Reconstruction era reforms produce the South's first elected black men: South Carolina Secretary of State Francis L. Cardozo; Louisiana Lt. Gov. Oscar J. Dunn; and Rep. John W. Menard of Louisiana. Although Congress refuses to recognize Menard, he becomes the first African American to speak on the House floor when he defended his right to be admitted. The Georgia Legislature refused to seat Henry Turner and 26 other newly elected African Americans.

1869: The first law degree awarded to an African American is granted by Harvard University to George L. Ruffin.

1870: Hiram Revels is elected the first black senator from Mississippi. Jasper J. Wright is elected to Supreme Court of South Carolina. Wyatt Outlaw, a black political appointee in North Carolina, is lynched by the White Brotherhood, a racist group.

1874: Coal mines use black men as strikebreakers in Ohio, prompting other mines in the coal, steel and iron industries to use them as well. But according to the census, the most popular occupations for black men were coachman, footman, valet, chef and waiter.

1881: Booker T. Washington becomes the first president of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Ala. Though considered to be the next great social activist after Frederick Douglass, Washington differs from Douglass's vision of equality and encouraged post-slavery blacks to focus on increasing their wealth and education now rather than wait for the nation's social climate to improve. Within 20 years, Du Bois would emerge as a radical advocating for the equality and social change that would create more opportunities for blacks.

1895: Booker T. Washington delivers his "Atlanta Compromise" speech, calling on black people to focus on hard work and education, instead of immediate equality and integration. Of whites, he calls for tolerance. His speech establishes him as the most influential black leader of his time. He is hailed as a successor to Frederick Douglass, who died this year.

1896: The Supreme Court rules in Plessy vs. Ferguson that states can segregate public facilities by race, as long as the accommodations are "equal." Homer Plessy had brought the case against Louisiana for refusing to seat him in a whites-only train car.

Great Migrations, 1900-1950

1900: Sgt. William H. Carney of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment is the first black man to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. He is cited for bravery during the assault on Fort Wagner, S.C., during the Civil War.

1903: W.E.B. Du Bois publishes "The Souls of Black Folk."

1905: Robert Abbott launches the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper that he uses to encourage African Americans to move north.

1909: Du Bois helps found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

1914: America's entry into World War I generates huge demand in the north for factory labor. Pushed out of the South by racism, violence and brutal farming conditions, African Americans begin the Great Migration to northern cities. They find unskilled jobs in foundries and meatpacking plants or work as railroad porters or janitors.

1915: Booker T. Washington dies in Tuskegee, Ala., at the age of 59.

1917: America joins World War I. More than 370,000 African Americans enlist. Half are sent to combat in France.

1921: "Shuffle Along," a variety show featuring black writers and an all-black cast, opens on Broadway and launches the careers of many black performers, including Paul Robeson.

1925: Poet Countee Cullen graduates from Harvard and publishes "Color," his first book of poetry.

1927: The Harlem Renaissance is in full swing: Duke Ellington debuts at the Cotton Club; Paul Robeson stars in "Show Boat" on Broadway; poet Langston Hughes publishes "The Weary Blues" and poet Countee Cullen publishes "Copper Sun."

1929: Black historian Walter White publishes "Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch." Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Wallace Thurman also publish.

1935: To help struggling artists during the Great Depression, the government launches the federal arts program. Writers Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and photographer Gordon Parks make notable contributions.

1936: Sprinter Jesse Owens sets three Olympic records and takes home four gold medals at the Olympics in Nazi-controlled Berlin.

1941: The Tuskegee Institute and the United States Tuskegee Army Air Field begin training black men to serve as combat pilots. By the end of the World War II, 992 men complete training and 450 are sent into combat. Ship's Cook, 3rd Class Doris "Dorie" Miller is awarded the Navy Cross for heroism aboard the USS West Virginia during the attack on Pearl Harbor. After his battleship is struck by the Japanese, Miller carries his fellow sailors to safety and then fires on the attacking planes with an anti-aircraft machine gun until the order is given to abandon ship. Two years later, Miller dies in a torpedo attack during a battle off the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific. Forty years after his death, the USS Miller is commissioned in his honor.

1942: The United States enters World War II. Three million African American men register with the Selective Service. About 800,000 African Americans enlist in the Armed Forces.

1944: Adam Clayton Powell Jr., is elected to the House of Representatives and serves 26 years.

1947: Jackie Robinson becomes the first black player in Major League Baseball when he signs with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is voted Rookie of the Year.

1949: Dunbar High School alumni Wesley A. Brown becomes the first African American to graduate from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, 1950-1970

1950: The United States enters the Korean War. The military abandons racial quotas and segregation, gradually phasing black personnel into previously all-white units, though many remain segregated during the conflict. By the end of the war, 3,075 African Americans die and another 7,000 are wounded in combat. Among the men who distinguish themselves are the nation's first black naval aviator Jesse L. Brown, who died during a combat flight, and Pfc. William Thompson, the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor since the Spanish-American War.

1952: Ralph Ellison publishes his existential novel, “Invisible Man," which wins the National Book Award the following year.

1953: Novelist James Baldwin publishes "Go Tell It On The Mountain."

1954: The Supreme Court rules in Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Thurgood Marshall argues the case and 31 others that challenge racist state policies.

1955: Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, is kidnapped and lynched while visiting relatives in Money, Miss. Northern support of the civil rights movement intensifies when Till's mother defiantly shows his battered body in an open casket during his funeral, and photographs of his corpse run in papers around the country. He is remembered as a martyr of the Civil Rights Era.

1956: The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy coordinate the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. The next year, in the face of bombings targeting King and Abernathy, they establish the Southern Christian Leadership Council to coordinate religious opposition to segregation.

1962: James Meredith becomes the first black man to attend the University of Mississippi after the governor, the Ku Klux Klan and a racist mob attempt to block his way. Federal troops occupy the campus to suppress violence until he graduates. Four years later, he is shot and seriously wounded by a sniper as he led a march to the state Capitol in support of voting rights.

1963: Martin Luther King leads 100,000 in the March on Washington and delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

1964: Martin Luther King Jr., receives the Nobel Peace Prize. Between 1882 and this year, the Tuskegee Institute records 4,742 lynchings. Sidney Poitier becomes the first black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his starring role in Lilies of the Field.

1965: Malcolm X is assassinated in New York City. King marches from Selma to Montgomery to expose Gov. George Wallace's brutal suppression of civil rights workers. In Los Angeles, thousands riot in Watts.

1966: Huey Newton and Bobby Seale established the Black Panther Party, and Stokley Carmichael, who coined the term "black power," takes over the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

1967: Thurgood Marshall is appointed the first black Supreme Court justice by President Lyndon Johnson. Marshall serves on the court for 24 years. Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali is stripped of his title for refusing to serve in Vietnam after he was drafted. His conviction and five-year prison sentence for violating the draft is eventually overturned.

1968: Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis. Riots erupt in more than 125 cities. Ralph Abernathy becomes the new head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and continues King's campaign against poverty with a poor people's march in Washington, D.C. Congress repeals a provision in the Social Security Act that limits welfare to homes where a parent is absent or disabled. Many believed the provision contributed to the declining marriage rates among low-income African Americans.

Changing the Mainstream, 1970-2006

1971: Richard Roundtree stars as a black detective in "Shaft," which becomes one of the top 20 highest grossing movies of the year. Isaac Hayes's theme song wins an Oscar the following year. The movie proves there is a demand for films targeted to black audiences, and prompts investment in African American-oriented scripts. Independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles breaks Hollywood conventions with “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” His coldblooded hero sets the mold for the generations of romanticized black rebels that follow in his swaggering wake, in music, movies, video games and more. Made for $500,000, it grossed $10 million.

1972: The Tuskegee Study is exposed as one of the worst breaches of medical ethics in U.S. history–for 40 years, government-funded researchers studied syphilis in more than 400 black men without ever telling them they had the disease. At least 28 die as a result of the negligence.

1973: U.S. troops leave Vietnam. During the war, 275,000 black men serve and 7,241 are killed. Also this year, black mayors are elected in Detroit, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

1974: Hank Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth's record by hitting his 715th career home run.

1975: Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr., becomes the first African American to be achieve four-star rank.

1977: Alex Haley is given a special award from the Pulitzer Prize board for his 1976 book, "Roots." Two years later, the miniseries based on his book is watched by 130 million people and earns nine Emmys.

1979: The Sugar Hill Gang becomes the first group to achieve commercial success with a rap song as "Rappers Delight" goes gold.

1981: Coretta Scott King opens the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and Archives in Atlanta.

1982: An Atlanta jury convicts Wayne B. Williams of murdering two men. Authorities believed he was the infamous serial killer who had murdered 25 poor, black boys in the city between 1979 and 1981, though he was never tried for those crimes.

1983: Congress establishes a federal holiday the third Monday in January in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Also this year, Michael Jackson's 1982 album "Thriller" wins eight Grammys and becomes the biggest selling record in U.S. history.

1984: Presidential candidate Jesse L. Jackson successfully negotiates with Syrian President Hafez Assad for the release of Navy pilot Robert O. Goodman Jr. Jackson wins more than 3.2 million votes in the presidential primaries and inspires millions of African Americans to register to vote.

1985: Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson write "We Are The World" and donate $50 million generated by the No. 1 song and album to famine relief in Africa.

1986: After only a few years on the streets, "crack" cocaine has already caused increases in emergency-room visits, drug arrests and infant mortality.

1988: Jesse Jackson runs for president a second time, getting 6.6 million votes in the primaries.

1989: A government study estimated that 2.4 million Americans had tried crack cocaine.

1990: Virginia elects L. Douglas Wilder as its first African American governor.

1991: The Senate confirms Clarence Thomas to be the 106th justice of the Supreme Court after a polarizing confirmation hearing in which he is accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. Thomas characterized the nationally televised hearing as "a high-tech lynching" and denies Hill's charges. Also this year, director John Singleton, 24, became youngest person and the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award in directing for his 1990 film "Boyz 'n the ''Hood." The film about life in violence-plagued south-central Los Angeles grosses more than $100 million.

1992: The deadliest U.S. riot in 70 years erupts in Los Angeles after a jury acquits three officers and failed to reach a decision on charges against a fourth for the 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney G. King. After three days, more than 50 people were dead and south central had suffered $1 billion in damage.

1996: Rapper Tupac Shakur, 25, dies six days after being wounded in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting. The prime suspect is killed in Compton in 1998; the case remains unsolved.

1997: The Bureau of Justice Statistics releases a study estimating that 28 percent of black men are likely to go to prison in their lifetimes. When the figures were updated in 2003, that estimate increases to 32.2 percent. Tiger Woods, 21, becomes the youngest player and first person of color to win the Masters tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. He wins by 12 strokes, which was also the largest margin of victory in Masters history.

1998: James Byrd Jr., a black man in Jasper, Tex., is murdered by white supremacists who drag him to death behind their pickup truck after offering him a ride home. Two of the killers are sentenced to death and a third to life in prison for the murder. The murder leads to passage of a hate crimes law in the state in 2001.

2002: For the first time, two black actors, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, win the top acting awards at the Oscars in the same year.

2004: During a celebration in Washington of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, comedian Bill Cosby delivers a blistering speech criticizing the black community for not taking responsibility for the social ills that he said are harming young people. His remarks touch off a national debate among African Americans about their role in combating cultural influences that disparage education and glorify violence. Also that summer, Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama delivers the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. In the November general election, Obama defeats Republican Alan Keyes in the Illinois with more than 70 percent of the vote. Obama becomes the third African American senator since Reconstruction. It is the first time in an American Senate race that both major party candidates are black. In the national election, Rev. Al Sharpton contended with eight other candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, getting 385,547 votes in the primaries. In his speech at the convention endorsing John F. Kerry, Sharpton said: "As I ran for president, I hoped that one child would come out of the ghetto like I did, could look at me walk across the stage with governors and senators and know they … could stand up from a broken home, on welfare, and they could run for president of the United States."

2006: Gordon Parks, the famed photographer and film director who directed the movie "Shaft" and took the iconic "American Gothic" photograph of cleaning woman Ella Watson during World War II, dies in New York City at the age of 93.

- Meg Smith, Washington Post

© 2005 The Washington Post Company