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Black History For Beginners

Black History For Beginners

by Denise Dennis, Susan Willmarth

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Here is a reprint of one of the most popular Beginners books. Covering a rich history often ignored, Denise Dennis chronicles the struggle from capture and enslavement in Africa right up through Civil Rights and the different kind of struggle Blacks face today. 


Here is a reprint of one of the most popular Beginners books. Covering a rich history often ignored, Denise Dennis chronicles the struggle from capture and enslavement in Africa right up through Civil Rights and the different kind of struggle Blacks face today. 

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For Beginners
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For Beginners LLC

Copyright © 1985 Denise Dennis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-934389-98-0



Blacks were in the New World before Columbus arrived. They participated in the first explorations.

Blacks were in Corte's crew in Mexico, with Pizarro in Peru and Alvarado in Quito.

When Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, 30 blacks were with him, including Nufo de Olano.

When Alarcon and Coronado conquered New Mexico, blacks were with them, too.

The best-known of the black conquistadors was ESTIVANICO — he initiated the opening of New Mexico and Arizona a for Spain.

If there are misunderstandings between black and white people today, it's because misconceptions about blacks have been allowed to thrive.

The only way to help abolish stereotypes is to present a more complete picture of black people in history.

Native Americans in the Chicago area claimed that "The first white man to settle at Chickagoa was a negro."

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a black man who came to the Mississippi Valley with French explorers, founded the city of Chicago by constructing the first building on the site that developed into the Windy City.

It's inspiring to know that blacks made a triumphant entrance into the Western World, but considering the circumstances of millions of blacks today, something went wrong ...


The Afro-European slave trade began in 1441 when a Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator, sought wealth from Africa and Asia. Henry sent a mariner, Antonio Gonsalves, to the west coast of Africa near Cape Bojodor to investigate.

Gonsalves brought gold dust and ten Africans back to Lisbon for the Prince, as a display of Africa's wealth.

The Prince gave the Africans to the Pope.

The Pope, in turn, granted Henry title to lands discovered east of cape Blanco.

Portugal dominated this area, near Senegal and with it the African trade market for nearly a century.

Apapal Bull prevented Spain from going into Africa, but did give her the bulk of the New World. Spain contracted other nations to procure slaves for her. The contract was called an asiento and was Symbol of power.

By 1460, approximately 600 slaves were entering Portugal annually. In Lisbon, blacks outnumbered whites.

The Portuguese didn't invent slavery. For example, the ancient Greeks Kept slaves and Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt.

On the west coast of the dark continent, a slave system was initiated and perpetuated for economic purposes. The commercial Revolution offered Carte Blanche to those who sought to exploit in order to rise on the Social and economic ladder.

There were three distinct stages on the journey from Africa to the New World:

European traders rationalized that slavery was a "holy cause" because in introduced heathens to Christianity.

The roots of the slave trade: The captured were members of various tribes. They were kidnapped or captured in tribal wars and sold. European traders established posts along the west African coastline where and ivory were bartered for bodies.

Men and women could be purchased from independent African slatees, too. Chiefs often appointed a Caboceer, an African who gathered those who were to be sold.

After the long march the captured chained two by two, were taken to negro "houses," or prison. The strongest were branded with the stamp of the trading company.

The slatees and the Caboceer led the capture in the long march to the coastline. Those who were best fit physically were sought—the strong, brave and healthy.

Incarceration in the "Negroe House" was followed by the chained march to the ship for the transatlantic voyage.

The journey lasted from eight to ten weeks. Many of the captured attempted to escape by jumping overboard. Others refused to eat. A slaveship's crew member often broke the teeth of the hunger strikers and force fed them. Loss of a black life meant loss of revenue.

The captured shared no common language. Some went mad in the claustrophobic quarters, others murdered those next to them in order to gain space.

Ship captains estimated that they would lose a percentage of African cargo in death via escape, suffocation, or illness. There was even insurrection insurance.

The "seasoning" period lasted from three to four years. Backs and spirits were broken in order to transform the Africans into American slaves.

They were trained by other slaves or by whites who had experience in "breaking in" even the most rebellious arrivals. Each slave was given a work assignment, repeating a task for twelve hours each day.

Any inclination toward suicide was beaten out of them. The death rate was high during the seasoning period because of the inability of slaves to adjust to the food or climate.

Absentee landlordism was responsible for the excess of brutality towards the slaves. Plantation owners entrusted their lands to overseers who saw slaves as beasts of burden.

In the 16th century 887,500 slaves were imported; in the 17th 2,750,000; in the 18th 7,000,000, and in the 19th, 3,250,000.

Slaves worked the sugar crop, Which was shipped to New England, processed into rum, and then used to purchase more slaves in Africa.

Europeans turned the Caribbean into a slave-making factory.

By 1724, there were 32,000 blacks to 14,000 whites in Jamaica.

The high percentage of blacks gave rise to the strict black codes. The white populace feared insurrection knowing that in numbers, they were at a disadvantage. The sooner a slave accepted his or her helplessness, the better for those who Sought to exploit.

In 1667, British Parliament adopted an "Act to regulate the Negroes on the British Plantations."

The plantation owners and overseers had reason to fear the slaves rising against them, because slaves fought back whenever possible.

In 1522, there was a rebellion on the island of Santo Domingo and in 1526, the slaves in a settlement which was to become South Carolina revolted from the 500 Spaniards who held them.

Some of the blacks escaped to Haiti; others took refuge with Native Americans. Uprisings continued sporadically until the slaves were freed in the nineteenth century.

Two outstanding resisters of the black codes were Cudgo, a runaway slave in 18thcentury Jamaica, and Macandal in Haiti. Both men led a group of runaways on their respective islands known as the Maroons. The Maroons lived in the island mountains and ignited revolts among the slaves. They gnawed at the planters' repressive system and intensified their fears.

Now back to England in 1655 ...

Portugal was unable to maintain control of the slave trade. By 1655 England had won Jamaica from Spain and by the 18th century, held the asiento.

England dominated the industry. She supplied her colonies with slaves and indentured servants. The latter worked from four to seven years, at which time they were free to work for themselves.

Some were white ex-convicts from English prisons.

Slave trade centers shifted to places like Liverpool, England and Newport, Rhode Island.

The West Indies were depleted by constant sugar production. The soil was used up, and consequently the continents of North and South America became the primary production centers. In North America tobacco was the attractive item, as it had been in the Caribbean.

England, France, Holland and colonial America received double stimulation from the slave trade, making profits both on the goods produced by slave labor and on the manufacture of instruments used to coerce and control them.

By the late 1700's many slave ships were sailing directly to America from Africa ...

Major markets were set up in: Newport, R.I. Charleston, S.C. Richmond, Va.

Philadelphia, Pa.

In the beginning, slavery wasn't confined to the Southern colonies. New Netherlands was founded by the Dutch West India Company, whose traffic was slaves. New York recognized slavery as legal in 1684. New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania sanctioned the business, too. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island condoned slavery.

In the North, slaves worked as house servants, unskilled laborers, and skilled painters, carpenters, smiths and potters. Although the Northern geography was not appropriate for the agricultural production that characterized the Southern plantation, there were farms in the North that utilized slave labor.

In the New England Colonies, blacks were not more than 3% of the population, with the exception of Rhode Island, where they accounted for 10%. The slave codes in each of the colonies north and south were either severe or "lenient" depending on the percentage of blacks in the colony.

New England was the best place to be if you were a black slave.

Unlike the Southern slave owners, New England colonists placed no legal restrictions on educating slaves.

Slaves were guaranteed a fair trial, were allowed to testify against whites, and could sue.


In 1619, two black men, Antony and Pedro, a black woman, Isabella, and 17 additional blacks arrived at Jamestown, Virginia. They'd been "stolen" twice. Once from Africa, then from a Spanish cargo vessel en route to the Caribbean. A Dutch man-of-war took them from the Spanish and delivered them to Jamestown.

In 1624, a couple from that group were married Their son, William Tucker, was the 1st black child born in the British colonies.

Taking their cue from the West Indies, Virginia planters began to appreciate the advantages in holding blacks to a lifetime of slavery. Black babies, unlike Wiliam Tucker, would be born with no opportunity for freedom.

In 1662, a Virginia law stated that a newborn was or was not free depending on the status of his mother.

Virginia subtly established statutes undermining the Negro population. For example, black servants were required to remain in service after their "indentured" time was over.

Baptism failed to alter or alleviate the slaves' condition.

According to the Virginia legislature, "conferring of baptisms doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom." New York, New Jersey, Maryland and the Carolinas adopted a similar policy by the early 1700's.

Spiritually, however, Christianity did offer them hope if not consolation. Black slaves absorbed the positive essence of Christianity. Faith and belief in an eventual promised land on earth fed their imaginations and enabled them to persevere.

The mournfully deep spirituals express both personal emotions and understanding of the scriptures. Biblical allusions are consistent throughout the melodies.

Spirituals like "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "Deep River" betray overwhelming sorrow, such that death and the afterlife are perceived as joyous release.

The African musical heritage served more than a religious purpose. African influence are united in the conga, rhumba and mambo. The tango is based on African rhythmic patterns, and its name is a derivative of an African word — "tangana." Brazil's samba is a descendant of the quizomba, the wedding dance of Angola.

Meanwhile, up North, Christian righteousness prevailed. Puritansim (which was originally synonymous with radicalism) and the Quaker Faith were the liberal left of the Colonies.


George Keith of Philadelphia and his "friends" in the Society published the first antislavery document in the British colonies (1693). Even before this, in 1688, the Germantown protest took place, during which Quakers formally spoke against slavery.

Among the Quakers who were decidedly against slavery were the Society's founder, George Fox, Pennsylvania's founder, William penn and John Woolman and Anthony Benezet who wrote, printed and distributed antislavery literature.

Benezet taught white people about the religious/moral ills of slavery. He taught blacks reading and writing in his Philadelphia school.

There were Quakers in the South (North Carolina) as well. By 1770, they were urging slave holders to put end to the "iniquitous practice."

Acurious situation developed in New York City.

In 1741, word-of-mouth spread a "report" that blacks and poor whites were uniting to overtake the city.

Earlier, in 1712, 23 armed slaves had set fire to a slaveowner's house in N.Y. City. A fullscale insurrection followed, in which 10 whited were killed or injured and 21 blacks were tried, convicted, and executed. Fear of the new alliance was so great that the city offered rewards for names. Subsequently 200 blacks and whites were arrested.

Eighteen blacks were hanged; thirteen were burned alive. Four whites, two of them women, were hanged.

Efforts to divide these two groups and set them in competition for jobs, training and educational opportunities have persisted throughout American history.


On the eve of the American Revolution, there were slaves in all 13 colonies. Pennsylvania, with its strong Quaker influence, was regarded as the most humane and decent colony in respect to blacks. In 1780, it became the first state to abolish slavery.

Crispus Attucks of Massachusetts was one of the first to fall, and much has been made of that fact, but "blacks-and-the-American-Revolution" was more complex than a matter of one black man being shot at the beginning.

From New England, Abigail Adams pointed out to her Revolutionary husband:

Some blacks, like Gershom Prince of Pennsylvania, hand already fought for the Colonies in the French and Indian War of 1763.

Blacks were for America; they sided with the Patriots against the Loyalists. They were involved in the Stamp Act riots; when British troops were sent to Boston to intimidate the citizenry, blacks were among those who drove them out.

Many blacks fought at Bunker Hill, among them prince Hall, P. Salem and Salem poor.

Of Poor, the following commendation was made by his officers: "an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier ... in the person of this said Negro centres a brave and gallant solider."

A number of colonial legislatures passed their own anti-slave trade measures: Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1774. (Any slave entering Rhode Island was automatically free.) In 1773 Pennsylvania chose to put a £20 duty on each imported slave, which strongly discouraged trade. In the South, where fears were greatest, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia passed laws which restricted the trade. These measures were a reaction to the vast number of physically fit blacks whose power could be overwhelming.

In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson spoke against slavery in his indictment of George III:

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offend him ..."

If there was any doubt about the route slavery would take if the Revolution succeeded, that doubt was erased by the Continental Congress's reaction to the antislavery clause.

The Southern delegates, whose livelihood depended on slaves as both investments and laborers, perked up their ears when the clause was read. They refused to sign a declaration that made black slaves free and equal. The Continental Congress needed to present a united front. Without the Southern delegates it would have been weakened. The anti-slavery clause was not sufficient reason to lose them—in order to pacify the Southern delegates and sustain the union, the clause was excised.

The fear of possible uprisings proved to be an obstacle when it came to enlisting blacks for the American struggle.

In spite of the role of blacks in the French and Indian war and early battles with British troops, General George Washington issued an order that:

The British were more shrewd : In November 1775 Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, issued another order freeing "all indentured servants ... who would join his Majesty's service."

By January 1776, Washington issued another statement:

In Virginia alone, 31,000 or more slaves ran away. "Masters" did all they could to block them. After the war, the British evacuated more than 10,000 Negroes who set sail for England — despite Washington's objections.

By the end of the war 5000 blacks had served on the American side. Because free blacks were preferable to armed slaves, the majority of those who served were from the North.

Founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush spoke against slavery after the war, as did many others.


Excerpted from BLACK HISTORY FOR BEGINNERS by DENISE DENNIS, SUSAN WILLMARTH. Copyright © 1985 Denise Dennis. Excerpted by permission of For Beginners LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Susan Willmarth was born in New Mexico and moved in the early '70's to New York City. Since graduating from Parsons School of Design, she has worked as a free-lance editorial illustrator for Push Pin Press Books, Edward Booth-Clibborn editions, New York Magazine, The Open Society, Writers and Readers Publishing, and now For Beginners LLC. Past work includes Black History For Beginners andMcLuhan For Beginners. She lives in Manhattan with her bicycle. 

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