Read an Excerpt
Now Is Your Time!
The African-American Struggle for Freedom
To understand the story of the African-American experience, we have to begin with the land. North America, incredibly rich and beautiful, stretching forever westward from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, was irresistible. There were mountain ranges through which rivers coursed, bringing minerals to the lush valleys and plains below. That the climate was right for agriculture was evident from the crops of the brown- and copperskinned people we call Native Americans today.
For Europe it was the age of exploration. Kings and queens, wealthy merchants, sometimes even private individuals, hired ships to travel the world. They were chiefly looking for faster trade routes to the Far East and new sources of gold, silver, and spices. What they found in their travels westward was the land that would one day become the United States.
Living on this land were many different groups of peoples: The Navaho were largely nomadic, constantly on the move, while the Seneca had lived in a relatively small area of the northeast for hundreds of years. Toward the middle of the continent the Erie Indians lived in the area of the Great Lakes. The Seminole were largely in the southeast, while in the southwest the Hopi built three- and four-story structures, sometimes with hundreds of rooms.
These peoples had lived on this land with their villages, their governments, their beliefs, and their customs, for thousands of years.
The Europeans called the land North America, after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Earlier Christopher Columbus, an explorersailing under the flag of Spain, had reached the island of San Salvador, south of Florida, and had called the people he found there "Indians." Soon the Europeans were calling all the peoples of North America Indians.
While some explorers were crossing the Atlantic Ocean, others, such as Diogo Cao and Bartholomeu Dias of Portugal, were making important discoveries along the west coast of Africa.
Griots--African storytellers--speak of African kingdoms that stretch back hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. By the ninth century the religion of Islam had spread its influence among the early inhabitants of ancient Ghana. The kingdom of Ghana gave way to that of Mali, with its center of learning at Timbuktu and the beginnings of the gold trade across the Sahara Desert, and by the end of the fifteenth century, Sunni Ali Ber and Askia Muhammad I, the great leaders of the powerful Songhai Empire, were legendary figures.
In the 1400's, long caravans of traders made their way from the forests of the Yoruba across the continent to Egypt in east Africa. Merchants from France, England, India, and Holland traded for African gold and ivory in crowded north-African markets. But sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Europe by the desert.
In the early sixteenth century, when Europeans began to explore the world by ship, the riches of the west African coast were discovered. Soon Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English companies began to build trading posts along the coast. They also sought colonies in what they called the "New World."
In 1584 the Englishman Walter Raleigh started such a colony on the eastern coast of North America in a place he called Virginia. The early colonists found no cities in North America to rival those in Great Britain and Europe. What they did find was a land of richness and beauty and the possibility of enormous wealth that free land promised.
English, Dutch, and Spanish settlements sprang up along the east coast of North America, while smaller Spanish and French settlements appeared in the west. English settlements were named Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland. New Amsterdam was Dutch, and Florida was claimed by the Spanish.
The largest tracts of land were settled by the British, who sent hundreds of settlers to the southern part of the continent with offers of free land for people who would promise to develop it. The idea, of course, was that the people developing the land would be British, and so the British Empire, already the largest in the world, would continue to grow.
In a world in which most people survived by farming, the land grants were extremely attractive. America was described by many as the best poor man's country in the world. The cost of buying land in America was less than the annual taxes would have been on the same land if it had been in England.
Typical in many ways of the early American colonists were two English brothers, William and John Dandridge. William, a handsome, self-assured man with a great sense of presence, was an officer in the Royal Navy. Young John, only fourteen years old but bright and ambitious like his brother, was still looking for a profession. They left behind another brother, Bartholomew Dandridge, who became a noted portrait painter. His paintings are on display in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
The opportunities for the Dandridges, had they remained in England, were only fair; in America, with hard work and inexpensive land, they might make their fortunes. Around the year 1711, uncertain of what life would be like in the largely unpopulated land, they decided to try their luck. William Dandridge settled in Virginia, near the Pamunkey River; John would later build a house nearby on the other side of the same river.
The Dandridges, like many colonists who came to North America, were to become closely entangled with the lives of the Africans who were brought there. Through the course of this book we will follow their story over the years.
The land was plentiful and rich, but who would work it? It didn't make sense for a colonist to work for somebody else when land down the road could be had for practically nothing. It became clear that what was needed in the new colonies was a new supply of laborers whose ambitions could be limited. Now Is Your Time!
The African-American Struggle for Freedom. Copyright © by Walter Myers. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.