North Africa During the Classical Period

North Africa During the Classical Period

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Phoenician traders arrived on the North African coast around 900 B.C. and established Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) around 800 B.C. By the sixth century B.C., a Phoenician presence existed at Tipasa (east of Cherchell in Algeria). From their principal center of power at Carthage, the Carthaginians expanded and established small settlements (called emporia in Greek) along the North African coast; these settlements eventually served as market towns as well as anchorages. Hippo Regius (modern Annaba) and Rusicade (modern Skikda) are among the towns of Carthaginian origin on the coast of present-day Algeria.

As Carthaginian power waned, the influence of Berber leaders in the hinterland grew. By the second century B.C., several large but loosely administered Berber kingdoms had emerged.

As Carthaginian power grew, its impact on the indigenous population increased dramatically. Berber civilization was already at a stage in which agriculture, manufacturing, trade, and political organization supported several states. Trade links between Carthage and the Berbers in the interior grew, but territorial expansion also resulted in the enslavement or military recruitment of some Berbers and in the extraction of tribute from others. By the early fourth century B.C., Berbers formed the single largest element of the Carthaginian army. In the Revolt of the Mercenaries, Berber soldiers rebelled from 241 to 238 B.C. after being unpaid following the defeat of Carthage in the First Punic War. They succeeded in obtaining control of much of Carthage's North African territory, and they minted coins bearing the name Libyan, used in Greek to describe natives of North Africa. The Carthaginian state declined because of successive defeats by the Romans in the Punic Wars; in 146 B.C. the city of Carthage was destroyed. As Carthaginian power waned, the influence of Berber leaders in the hinterland grew. By the second century B.C., several large but loosely administered Berber kingdoms had emerged. Two of them were established in Numidia, behind the coastal areas controlled by Carthage. West of Numidia lay Mauretania, which extended across the Moulouya River in Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean. The high point of Berber civilization, unequaled until the coming of the Almohads and Almoravids more than a millennium later, was reached during the reign of Masinissa in the second century B.C. After Masinissa's death in 148 B.C., the Berber kingdoms were divided and reunited several times. Masinissa's line survived until A.D. 24, when the remaining Berber territory was annexed to the Roman Empire.


Increases in urbanization and in the area under cultivation during Roman rule caused wholesale dislocations of Berber society. Nomadic tribes were forced to settle or move from traditional rangelands. Sedentary tribes lost their autonomy and connection with the land. Berber opposition to the Roman presence was nearly constant. The Roman emperor Trajan (r. A.D. 98-117) established a frontier in the south by encircling the Aurès and Nemencha mountains and building a line of forts from Vescera (modern Biskra) to Ad Majores (Hennchir Besseriani, southeast of Biskra). The defensive line extended at least as far as Castellum Dimmidi (modern Messaad, southwest of Biskra), Roman Algeria's southernmost fort. Romans settled and developed the area around Sitifis (modern Sétif) in the second century, but farther west the influence of Rome did not extend beyond the coast and principal military roads until much later.

The Roman military presence in North Africa was relatively small, consisting of about 28,000 troops and auxiliaries in Numidia and the two Mauretanian provinces. Starting in the second century A.D., these garrisons were manned mostly by local inhabitants.

Aside from Carthage, urbanization in North Africa came in part with the establishment of settlements of veterans under the Roman emperors Claudius (r. 41-54), Nerva (r. 96-98), and Trajan. In Algeria such settlements included Tipasa, Cuicul (modern Djemila, northeast of Sétif), Thamugadi (modern Timgad, southeast of Sétif), and Sitifis. The prosperity of most towns depended on agriculture. Called the "granary of the empire," North Africa, according to one estimate, produced 1 million tons of cereals each year, one-quarter of which was exported. Other crops included fruit, figs, grapes, and beans. By the second century A.D., olive oil rivaled cereals as an export item.

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The beginnings of the decline of the Roman Empire were less serious in North Africa than elsewhere. There were uprisings, however. In A.D. 238, landowners rebelled unsuccessfully against the emperor's fiscal policies. Sporadic tribal revolts in the Mauretanian mountains followed from 253 to 288. The towns also suffered economic difficulties, and building activity almost ceased.

The towns of Roman North Africa had a substantial Jewish population. Some Jews were deported from Palestine in the first and second centuries A.D. for rebelling against Roman rule; others had come earlier with Punic settlers. In addition, a number of Berber tribes had converted to Judaism.

Christianity arrived in the second century and soon gained converts in the towns and among slaves. More than eighty bishops, some from distant frontier regions of Numidia, attended the Council of Carthage in 256. By the end of the fourth century, the settled areas had become Christianized, and some Berber tribes had converted en masse.

A division in the church that came to be known as the Donatist controversy began in 313 among Christians in North Africa. The Donatists stressed the holiness of the church and refused to accept the authority to administer the sacraments of those who had surrendered the scriptures when they were forbidden under the Emperor Diocletaian (r. 284-305). The Donatists also opposed the involvement of Emperor Constantine (r. 306-37) in church affairs in contrast to the majority of Christians who welcomed official imperial recognition.

The occasionally violent controversy has been characterized as a struggle between opponents and supporters of the Roman system. The most articulate North African critic of the Donatist position, which came to be called a heresy, was Augustine, bishop of Hippo Regius. Augustine (354-430) maintained that the unworthiness of a minister did not affect the validity of the sacraments because their true minister was Christ. In his sermons and books Augustine, who is considered a leading exponent of Christian truths, evolved a theory of the right of orthodox Christian rulers to use force against schismatics and heretics. Although the dispute was resolved by a decision of an imperial commission in Carthage in 411, Donatist communities continued to exist through the sixth century.


Led by their king, Gaiseric, some 80,000 Vandals, a Germanic tribe, crossed into Africa from Spain in 429. In the following year, the invaders advanced without much opposition to Hippo Regius, which they took after a siege in which Augustine died. After further advances, the Vandals in 435 made an agreement with Rome to limit their control to Numidia and Mauretania. But in 439 Gaiseric conquered and pillaged Carthage and the rest of the province of Africa.

The resulting decline in trade weakened Roman control. Independent kingdoms emerged in mountainous and desert areas, towns were overrun, and Berbers, who had previously been pushed to the edges of the Roman Empire, returned.

Belisarius, general of the Byzantine emperor Justinian based in Constantinople, landed in North Africa in 533 with 16,000 men and within a year destroyed the Vandal kingdom. Local opposition delayed full Byzantine control of the region for twelve years, however, and imperial control, when it came, was but a shadow of the control exercised by Rome. Although an impressive series of fortifications were built, Byzantine rule was compromised by official corruption, incompetence, military weakness, and lack of concern in Constantinople for African affairs. As a result, many rural areas reverted to Berber rule.

The Colonization of Africa

Between the 1870s and 1900, Africa faced European imperialist aggression, diplomatic pressures, military invasions, and eventual conquest and colonization. At the same time, African societies put up various forms of resistance against the attempt to colonize their countries and impose foreign domination. By the early twentieth century, however, much of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, had been colonized by European powers.

The European imperialist push into Africa was motivated by three main factors, economic, political, and social. It developed in the nineteenth century following the collapse of the profitability of the slave trade, its abolition and suppression, as well as the expansion of the European capitalist Industrial Revolution. The imperatives of capitalist industrialization—including the demand for assured sources of raw materials, the search for guaranteed markets and profitable investment outlets—spurred the European scramble and the partition and eventual conquest of Africa. Thus the primary motivation for European intrusion was economic.

The Scramble for Africa

But other factors played an important role in the process. The political impetus derived from the impact of inter-European power struggles and competition for preeminence. Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Spain were competing for power within European power politics. One way to demonstrate national preeminence was through the acquisition of territories around the world, including Africa. The social factor was the third major element. As a result of industrialization, major social problems grew in Europe: unemployment, poverty, homelessness, social displacement from rural areas, and so on. These social problems developed partly because not all people could be absorbed by the new capitalist industries. One way to resolve this problem was to acquire colonies and export this "surplus population." This led to the establishment of settler-colonies in Algeria, Tunisia, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, and central African areas like Zimbabwe and Zambia. Eventually the overriding economic factors led to the colonization of other parts of Africa.

Thus it was the interplay of these economic, political, and social factors and forces that led to the scramble for Africa and the frenzied attempts by European commercial, military, and political agents to declare and establish a stake in different parts of the continent through inter-imperialist commercial competition, the declaration of exclusive claims to particular territories for trade, the imposition of tariffs against other European traders, and claims to exclusive control of waterways and commercial routes in different parts of Africa.

This scramble was so intense that there were fears that it could lead to inter-imperialist conflicts and even wars. To prevent this, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened a diplomatic summit of European powers in the late nineteenth century. This was the famous Berlin West African conference (more generally known as the Berlin Conference), held from November 1884 to February 1885. The conference produced a treaty known as the Berlin Act, with provisions to guide the conduct of the European inter-imperialist competition in Africa. Some of its major articles were as follows:

  1. The Principle of Notification (Notifying) other powers of a territorial annexation
  2. The Principle of Effective Occupation to validate the annexations
  3. Freedom of Trade in the Congo Basin
  4. Freedom of Navigation on the Niger and Congo Rivers
  5. Freedom of Trade to all nations
  6. Suppression of the Slave Trade by land and sea

This treaty, drawn up without African participation, provided the basis for the subsequent partition, invasion, and colonization of Africa by various European powers.

The African Resistance

The European imperialist designs and pressures of the late nineteenth century provoked African political and diplomatic responses and eventually military resistance. During and after the Berlin Conference various European countries sent out agents to sign so-called treaties of protection with the leaders of African societies, states, kingdoms, decentralized societies, and empires. The differential interpretation of these treaties by the contending forces often led to conflict between both parties and eventually to military encounters. For Europeans, these treaties meant that Africans had signed away their sovereignties to European powers but for Africans, the treaties were merely diplomatic and commercial friendship treaties. After discovering that they had in effect been defrauded and that the European powers now wanted to impose and exercise political authority in their lands, African rulers organized militarily to resist the seizure of their lands and the imposition of colonial domination.

This situation was compounded by commercial conflicts between Europeans and Africans. During the early phase of the rise of primary commodity commerce (erroneously referred to in the literature as "Legitimate Trade or Commerce"), Europeans got their supplies of trade goods like palm oil, cotton, palm kernel, rubber, and groundnut from African intermediaries, but as the scramble intensified, they wanted to bypass the African intermediaries and trade directly with sources of the trade goods. Naturally Africans resisted and insisted on the maintenance of a system of commercial interaction with foreigners which expressed their sovereignties as autonomous political and economic entities and actors. For their part, the European merchants and trading companies called on their home governments to intervene and impose "free trade," by force if necessary. It was these political, diplomatic, and commercial factors and contentions that led to the military conflicts and organized African resistance to European imperialism.

African military resistance took two main forms: guerrilla warfare and direct military engagement. While these were used as needed by African forces, the dominant type used depended on the political, social, and military organizations of the societies concerned. In general, small-scale societies, the decentralized societies (erroneously known as "stateless" societies), used guerrilla warfare because of their size and the absence of standing or professional armies. Instead of professional soldiers, small groups of organized fighters with a mastery of the terrain mounted resistance by using the classical guerrilla tactic of hit-and-run raids against stationary enemy forces. This was the approach used by the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria against the British. Even though the British imperialists swept through Igboland in three years, between 1900 and 1902, and despite the small scale of the societies, the Igbo put up protracted resistance. The resistance was diffuse and piecemeal, and therefore it was difficult to conquer them completely and declare absolute victory. Long after the British formally colonized Igboland, they had not fully mastered the territory.

Direct military engagement was most commonly organized by the centralized state systems, such as chiefdoms, city-states, kingdoms, and empires, which often had standing or professional armies and could therefore tackle the European forces with massed troops. This was the case with the resistance actions of the Ethiopians, the Zulu, the Mandinka leadership, and numerous other centralized states. In the case of Ethiopia, the imperialist intruder was Italy. It confronted a determined and sagacious military leader in the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II. As Italy intensified pressure in the 1890s to impose its rule over Ethiopia, the Ethiopians organized to resist. In the famous battle of Adwa in 1896, one hundred thousand Ethiopian troops confronted the Italians and inflicted a decisive defeat. Thereafter, Ethiopia was able to maintain its independence for much of the colonial period, except for a brief interlude of Italian oversight between 1936 and 1941.

Another example of resistance was the one organized by Samory Touré of the emergent Mandinka empire in West Africa. As this new empire spread and Touré attempted to forge a new political order he ran up against the French imperialists who were also trying extend their territories inland from their base in Dakar, Senegal. This brought the parties into conflict. Touré organized military and diplomatic resistance between 1882 and 1898. During this sixteen-year period, he used a variety of strategies, including guerrilla warfare, scorched-earth programs, and direct military engagement. For this last tactic he acquired arms, especially quick-firing rifles, from European merchant and traders in Sierra Leone and Senegal. He also established engineering workshops where weapons were repaired and parts were fabricated. With these resources and his well-trained forces and the motivation of national defense he provided his protracted resistance to the French. Eventually he was captured and, in 1898, exiled to Gabon, where he died in 1900.

A Period of Change

It is quite clear that most African societies fought fiercely and bravely to retain control over their countries and societies against European imperialist designs and military invasions. But the African societies eventually lost out. This was partly for political and technological reasons. The nineteenth century was a period of profound and even revolutionary changes in the political geography of Africa, characterized by the demise of old African kingdoms and empires and their reconfiguration into different political entities. Some of the old societies were reconstructed and new African societies were founded on different ideological and social premises. Consequently, African societies were in a state of flux, and many were organizationally weak and politically unstable. They were therefore unable to put up effective resistance against the European invaders.

The technological factor was expressed in the radical disparity between the technologies of warfare deployed by the contending European and African forces. African forces in general fought with bows, arrows, spears, swords, old rifles, and cavalries the European forces, beneficiaries of the technical fruits of the Industrial Revolution, fought with more deadly firearms, machines guns, new rifles, and artillery guns. Thus in direct encounters European forces often won the day. But as the length of some resistance struggles amply demonstrates, Africans put up the best resistance with the resources they had.

By 1900 much of Africa had been colonized by seven European powers—Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. After the conquest of African decentralized and centralized states, the European powers set about establishing colonial state systems. The colonial state was the machinery of administrative domination established to facilitate effective control and exploitation of the colonized societies. Partly as a result of their origins in military conquest and partly because of the racist ideology of the imperialist enterprise, the colonial states were authoritarian, bureaucratic systems. Because they were imposed and maintained by force, without the consent of the governed, the colonial states never had the effective legitimacy of normal governments. Second, they were bureaucratic because they were administered by military officers and civil servants who were appointees of the colonial power. While they were all authoritarian, bureaucratic state systems, their forms of administration varied, partly due to the different national administrative traditions and specific imperialist ideologies of the colonizers and partly because of the political conditions in the various territories that they conquered.

Colonial Domination: Indirect Rule

In Nigeria, the Gold Coast in West Africa, and Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika in East Africa, for example, Britain organized its colonies at the central, provincial, and regional or district levels. There was usually a governor or governor-general in the colonial capital who governed along with an appointed executive council and a legislative council of appointed and selected local and foreign members. The governor was responsible to the colonial office and the colonial secretary in London, from whom laws, policies, and programs were received. He made some local laws and policies, however. Colonial policies and directives were implemented through a central administrative organization or a colonial secretariat, with officers responsible for different departments such as Revenue, Agriculture, Trade, Transport, Health, Education, Police, Prison, and so on.

The British colonies were often subdivided into provinces headed by provincial commissioners or residents, and then into districts headed by district officers or district commissioners. Laws and policies on taxation, public works, forced labor, mining, agricultural production, and other matters were made in London or in the colonial capital and then passed down to the lower administrative levels for enforcement.

At the provincial and district levels the British established the system of local administration popularly known as indirect rule. This system operated in alliance with preexisting political leaderships and institutions. The theory and practice of indirect rule is commonly associated with Lord Lugard, who was first the British high commissioner for northern Nigeria and later governor-general of Nigeria. In the Hausa /Fulani emirates of northern Nigeria he found that they had an established and functional administrative system. Lugard simply and wisely adapted it to his ends. It was cheap and convenient. Despite attempts to portray the use of indirect rule as an expression of British administrative genius, it was nothing of the sort. It was a pragmatic and parsimonious choice based partly on using existing functional institutions. The choice was also partly based on Britain's unwillingness to provide the resources required to administer its vast empire. Instead, it developed the perverse view that the colonized should pay for their colonial domination. Hence, the choice of indirect rule.

The system had three major institutions: the "native authority" made up of the local ruler, the colonial official, and the administrative staff the "native treasury," which collected revenues to pay for the local administrative staff and services and the "native courts," which purportedly administered "native law and custom," the supposedly traditional legal system of the colonized that was used by the courts to adjudicate cases.

In general, indirect rule worked fairly well in areas that had long-established centralized state systems such as chiefdoms, city-states, kingdoms, and empires, with their functional administrative and judicial systems of government. But even here the fact that the ultimate authority was the British officials meant that the African leaders had been vassalized and exercised "authority" at the mercy of European colonial officials. Thus the political and social umbilical cords that tied them to their people in the old system had been broken. Some astute African leaders maneuvered and ruled as best they could, while others used the new colonial setting to become tyrants and oppressors, as they were responsible to British officials ultimately.

In the decentralized societies, the system of indirect rule worked less well, as they did not have single rulers. The British colonizers, unfamiliar with these novel and unique political systems and insisting that African "natives" must have chiefs, often appointed licensed leaders called warrant chiefs, as in Igboland, for example.

Colonial Domination: Assimilation

The French, for their part, established a highly centralized administrative system that was influenced by their ideology of colonialism and their national tradition of extreme administrative centralism. Their colonial ideology explicitly claimed that they were on a "civilizing mission" to lift the benighted "natives" out of backwardness to the new status of civilized French Africans. To achieve this, the French used the policy of assimilation, whereby through acculturation and education and the fulfillment of some formal conditions, some "natives" would become evolved and civilized French Africans. In practice, the stringent conditions set for citizenship made it virtually impossible for most colonial subjects to become French citizens. For example, potential citizens were supposed to speak French fluently, to have served the French meritoriously, to have won an award, and so on. If they achieved French citizenship, they would have French rights and could only be tried by French courts, not under indigénat, the French colonial doctrine and legal practice whereby colonial "subjects" could be tried by French administrative officials or military commanders and sentenced to two years of forced labor without due process. However, since France would not provide the educational system to train all its colonized subjects to speak French and would not establish administrative and social systems to employ all its subjects, assimilation was more an imperialist political and ideological posture than a serious political objective.

In terms of the actual administrative system in its various African colonies—Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco in North Africa, and Senegal, French Guinea, French Sudan, Upper Volta, Dahomey, and others in West Africa, and Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Ubangi-Shari in Central Africa—the French used a system of direct rule. They also created federations in West Africa and Central Africa. In the colonial capitals the governors were responsible to the minister of colonies in Paris. Most laws and policies were sent from Paris, and the governors who ruled with general councils were expected to enforce them in line with France's centralist traditions. The colonies were also subdivided into smaller administrative units as follows: cercles under commandant du Cercles, subdivisions under chef de subdivisions, and at the next level, cantons were administered by African chiefs who were in effect like the British warrant chiefs.

While France tried to maintain this highly centralized system, in some parts of its colonies where it encountered strongly established centralized state systems, the French were compelled to adopt the policy of association, a system of rule operating in alliance with preexisting African ruling institutions and leaders. Thus it was somewhat like British indirect rule, although the French still remained committed to the doctrine of assimilation. In the association system, local governments were run with African rulers whom the French organized at three levels and grades: chef de province (provincial chief) chef de canton (district chiefs), and chef de village (village chief). In practice, the French system combined elements of direct administration and indirect rule.

In general, the French administrative system was more centralized, bureaucratic, and interventionist than the British system of colonial rule. The other colonial powers— Germany, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and Italy—used varied administrative systems to facilitate control and economic exploitation. However, no matter the system, they were all alien, authoritarian, and bureaucratic, and distorted African political and social organizations and undermined their moral authority and political legitimacy as governing structures.


Ekechi, Felix. "The Consolidation of Colonial Rule, 1885–1914." In Colonial Africa, 1885–1939, vol. 3 of Africa, ed. Toyin Falola. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

Iweriebor, Ehiedu E. G. "The Psychology of Colonialism." In The End of Colonial Rule: Nationalism and Decolonization, vol. 4 of Africa, ed. Toyin Falola. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

Oyebade, Adebayo. "Colonial Political Systems." In Colonial Africa, 1885–1939, vol. 3 of Africa, ed. Toyin Falola. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

Stilwell, Sean. "The Imposition of Colonial Rule." In Colonial Africa, 1885–1939, vol. 3 of Africa, ed. Toyin Falola. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.

The Senussi or Sanussi

The Senussi/Sanussi refers to a Muslim political-religious Sufi order and tribe in Libya and the Sudan region founded in Mecca in 1837 by the Grand Senussi, Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi. The Senussi claim a direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammed. Senussi was concerned with both the decline of Islamic thought and spirituality and the weakening of Muslim political integrity. From 1902 to 1913 the Senussi fought French expansion in the Sahara, and the Italian colonisation of Libya beginning in 1911. In World War I, the Senussi fought against the British in Egypt and Sudan. During World War II the Senussi tribe provided vital support to the British 8th Army in North Africa against the German and Italian forces. The Grand Senussi's grandson became King Idris of Libya in 1951. An unknown part of the population in Libya continue to be affiliated with the Senussi movement.

The September 1969 Coup

On September 1, 1969, in a daring coup d'état, a group of about seventy young army officers and enlisted men, mostly assigned to the Signal Corps, and led by then 27-year-old army officer Muammar al-Gaddafiseized control of the government and in a stroke abolished the Libyan monarchy. The coup was launched at Benghazi, and within two hours the takeover was completed. Army units quickly rallied in support of the coup, and within a few days firmly established military control in Tripoli and elsewhere throughout the country. Popular reception of the coup, especially by younger people in the urban areas, was enthusiastic. Fears of resistance in Cyrenaica and Fezzan proved unfounded. No deaths or violent incidents related to the coup were reported. The officers abolished the monarchy, and proclaimed the new Libyan "Arab" Republic, with Gaddafi as it's leader. Muammar al Qadhafi thus became president for life.

Africa 3500 BCE

Most of Africa is home to bands of hunter-gatherers, but in the Nile valley, the civilization of Egypt is beginning to emerge.

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What is happening in Africa in 3500BCE

North Africa

The area now covered by the Sahara desert was cooler and wetter than it is now, although at this date it is getting dryer. Farming peoples are slowly spreading along the north African coast, and the fertile strip of land along the river Nile is already home to a dense population of farmers. In this area, some powerful chiefdoms are now emerging which will, over the next few centuries, come under one ruler to form the kingdom of Egypt.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Further south, in Nubia, in modern-day Sudan, wide grasslands give rise to cattle-herding cultures. Throughout the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, small groups of hunter-gatherers, mostly related to modern day San bushmen and Pygmy peoples, live in small, temporary encampments as they follow their prey and forage for nuts, berries and other nutritious plants. Beside rivers and lakes, settlements of fishermen are situated.

North Africa During the Classical Period - History

Freedom&rsquos Story is made possible by a grant from the Wachovia Foundation.

&ldquoSomewhere&rdquo in the Nadir of
African American History, 1890-1920

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History
Yale University
National Humanities Center Fellow
©Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore ©National Humanities Center

There are two places where we can count on finding African Americans in U.S. history textbooks: in discussions of Reconstruction and in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. In the ninety-odd years that elapsed between the two events, black Americans rarely appear, save perhaps in the 1920s and 1930s, with a mention of the Great Migration or the cultural history of the Harlem Renaissance. In this simplified story, the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement arose directly from the ashes of slavery to challenge the South&rsquos long-undisturbed system of racial oppression after World War II.

In reality, African Americans emerged from Reconstruction in the 1870s with the protection of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and took their places as free and increasingly successful citizens in the 1880s. Because more than 80% of the nation&rsquos African Americans lived in former slave states until well into the twentieth century, they had to exercise their new citizenship rights among ex-Confederates and their sons and daughters. During the 1880s in the South, African Americans continued to vote, serve on juries, be elected to public office, pursue education, and improve their economic status. Some white leaders accepted the outcome of losing the Civil War and the enfranchisement of the Freedpeople. One white man in Virginia commented in 1885, &ldquoNobody here objects to sitting in political conventions with Negroes. Nobody here objects to serving on juries with Negroes. No lawyer objects to practicing law in court where Negro lawyers practice. In both branches of the Virginia legislature, Negroes sit, as they have a right to sit.&rdquo 1

Although textbooks tend to portray the history of African Americans as if not much happened between 1870 and 1954, the period was actually a long war for civil rights. White southerners continually reinvented new ways to impose white supremacy on their black neighbors. Black southerners fought back against disfranchisement and unequal treatment, the imposition of segregation, and the violent white people who perpetrated racial massacres and lynching. Because the rapidly industrializing South set up a system of racialized capitalism that left black people in segregated jobs at the bottom of the ladder, they sought the self-sufficiency of land ownership and started small businesses. Despite the onslaught of white supremacy, African Americans held hope that they would win the war for civil rights.

Since we enter a story at its end, sometimes we forget that what is past to us was future to the people whose stories we tell. Too often, what we lose in the telling is what made our subjects&rsquo lives worth living: hope. African American&rsquos visions of the future included equal opportunities and full citizenship, even as white supremacists took control of southern governments in the 1890s and consolidated their power in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The period from 1890-1920, is often called the &ldquonadir&rdquo of African American history, yet African Americans kept hope alive and forged new political weapons during this time. It may be helpful to think of southerners in 1890 as the baby boomers of the nineteenth century. Two decades after the Civil War, the southerners who came into power in that decade had been young during Reconstruction and educated after Emancipation. Members of this generation had not fought in the Civil War nor had they been enslaved. When they came of political age, the white people were determined to find new solutions to &ldquothe Negro Problem,&rdquo and their black cohort was just as determined to win its fair share of opportunities and resources.

In the Deep South, Mississippi had ratified a new constitution in 1890. It meant to disfranchise black voters by a literacy test that required a voter to &ldquobe able to read any section of the Constitution, or be able to understand the same when read to him, or to give a reasonable interpretation thereof.&rdquo It was actually a comprehension test, or as some called it, &ldquoan understanding clause.&rdquo White registrars would administer the law, and they would decide whether the constitutional interpretations that black voters gave qualified as &ldquoreasonable.&rdquo The new rules also required payment of a poll tax to be eligible to vote. A court case, Williams v. Mississippi, was already pending to test the law&rsquos constitutionality. Most African Americans believed that the federal courts would never let it to stand.

In addition to wanting to see firsthand a state that would take away his right to vote, Fonvielle wanted to see something else: the new forms of segregation that were springing up across the South in transportation and public space. He had heard that in some southern states the railway stations had separate black and white waiting rooms, and that sometimes the train stopped at the state line so that the conductors could force all of the black passengers in to a separate car. They called this car the Jim Crow car, naming it for a white minstrel who performed in blackface before the Civil War. Jim Crow first become a nickname for African Americans, and then African Americans appropriated it as shorthand for white oppression, disfranchisement, and segregation. 3

The year before Fonvielle&rsquos trip, 1892, had been incredibly violent: at least 230 people had been lynched, 69 of them white and 161 black. Fonvielle knew that this was a peak in the bloody record. Almost 1,000 people had been lynched in the past decade. 4 Most of the victims were black men, but some were black women. White southerners, particularly in the Deep South, were murdering black people who asserted their rights. The Seaboard Air Line train that Fonvielle boarded in North Carolina quickly crossed the South Carolina line. He hung out the window, eager to see a white man because he had heard that South Carolina was an especially violent place. Soon, one appeared. Fonvielle described him: &ldquoHe had on but one suspender, a cotton shirt, a frying pan hat, a pair of pantaloons. . . so I sat there and wondered if this tiller of the soil, this specimen of South Carolina manhood had ever helped lynch anybody.&rdquo

In addition to education, black people came to own 25% of southern acreage by 1900, compared to the 3.8% that they owned in 1880. By 1910, African Americans owned between 16 and 19 million acres. 6 Moreover, African Americans started their own businesses and factories. At Union, South Carolina, Fonvielle visited a gigantic cotton mill owned by a black man, which employed both black and white labor. A decade later, no cotton mill in the South would employ African Americans at all.

But by the time he got to Spartanburg, South Carolina, Fonvielle&rsquos education in the new white supremacy began. &ldquoWhen I arrived at Spartanburg&mdashwhich is a pretty town&mdashI was reminded that I was in the South by the appearance of two sign boards at the station, which told me: &lsquoThis room is for colored people.&rsquo &lsquoThis room is for white people.&rsquo . . . Those signs perplexed me, for I had never seen anything like them before. Then the whole thing burst upon me at once, and I interpreted it to mean: The Negroes must stay in here and not in the other room, and the &lsquosuperior&rsquo civilization goes where it pleases.&rdquo

Sleeping all night on the train, Fonvielle woke up in Atlanta at 6:00 a.m. He reported, &ldquoUpon first glance, Atlanta reminds one of a Northern city but a five minutes stay will be sufficient to knock all such silly notions out of your head.&rdquo Although Fonvielle was hungry for breakfast, he could not eat in the station restaurant. Atlanta, he told his readers, was a &ldquomean hole . . . chained down with prejudice.&rdquo African Americans could not ride on street cars unless they took seats in the back, a policy that sparked a boycott by black riders. Numerous southern cities followed Atlanta&rsquos lead, and numerous protests followed. Nonetheless, in 1893, it was all new to Fonvielle, and he could not believe his eyes. He marveled, &ldquoThe Negroes are taxed to help keep up the city parks, the council will not permit them nor the dogs to enter.&rdquo

A decade later, by 1903, the conditions that Fonvielle had observed as curiosities would be institutionalized by law throughout the South, even in his own beloved North Carolina. When Homer Plessy, a black New Orleanian, refused to move to the back of the streetcar, he intended to spark a test case, because he was sure that he would win in court. But in 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation was legal, as long as the accommodation provided for blacks was equal to that provided for whites. That equality was a fiction in practice. The unequal Jim Crow car became the only way that African Americans could travel in the South. Five years later, in 1901, novelist Charles Chesnutt described a trip similar to Fonvielle&rsquos in &ldquoA Journey Southward.&rdquo

In 1898, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld voting restrictions in Williams v. Mississippi, but other southern states didn&rsquot wait for that endorsement to follow Mississippi&rsquos lead. They variously imposed complicated residential requirements for registering. Some put in a grandfather clause that allowed illiterate whites to vote if their grandfathers had voted. Others enacted a poll tax. Across the region, voter turnout plummeted: roughly one in five people voted, compared to four out of five in Iowa.

State Disfranchising
Constitutions or Legislation
Mississippi 1890
South Carolina 1895
Louisiana 1898
North Carolina 1900
Virginia 1902
Alabama 1902
Georgia & Texas 1908

After all of that, if black people persisted in trying to register or vote, white people met them at the polls with racial violence. For example in 1898, a leading white man in Wilmington, North Carolina, proclaimed that he would drive African Americans out of politics, even if he had to &ldquochok[e] the Cape Fear River with the bodies of [N]egroes.&rdquo 7 After his party lost the election, he made good on his promise and led a mob that shot black citizens down in the streets. Then he fired city officials and seized the mayor&rsquos office for himself. States also amended their constitutions to require segregation municipalities passed laws that dictated where people could eat, live, walk, and stand.

The imposition of white supremacy and the violence that accompanied it sparked the Great Migration of African Americans to the North after the turn of the century. It became clear to black southerners that the federal government was not going to come to their aid if they remained in the South. A black woman who witnessed the Wilmington massacre wrote to the Attorney General of the United States and begged him to send a boat for their rescue. She asked him, &ldquoIs this the land of the free and the home of the brave? How can the Negro sing my country &lsquotis of thee?&rdquo 8 William Frank Fonvielle watched in despair as his own state of North Carolina disfranchised him in a white supremacy campaign fueled the Democratic party newspaper, the Raleigh News and Observer. Fonvielle&rsquos final thoughts survive in the poem he wrote about this time:

For two million black southerners, that &ldquosomewhere&rdquo was in northern cities. Roughly 25% of the South&rsquos black population left in two decades rather than submit to Jim Crow&rsquos dangers. 9 They then participated in local and national politics a safe distance from the South in the hopes that some day they would bring national political pressure against Jim Crow back home.

Those African Americans who stayed behind found themselves virtually banished from local elections by 1905, but that didn&rsquot mean that they weren&rsquot political actors. While we tend to think of Booker T. Washington as an accommodationist because he acceded to segregation in his famous Atlanta Exposition Speech, he remained active in national Republican Party politics until his death. He fought against disfranchisement whenever he could, albeit behind the scenes. Washington relinquished the right to a classical education in that speech, but he coupled that concession with the demand that black people be hired in new southern factories. His white listeners heard and heeded only his concessions. Washington had to plot behind the scenes against the spread of white supremacy. His stealthy politics, meant to be invisible to white southerners, earned him the nickname &ldquothe Wizard of Tuskegee.&rdquo

Washington&rsquos campaign to fight white supremacy involved what he, and historians since, have called &ldquouplift.&rdquo If southern African Americans obtained practical educations, they could support themselves and lead sober lives marked by achievement. They would practice &ldquouplift&rdquo&mdashor betterment&mdashfirst for themselves, then for their less fortunate black neighbors. Surely, they hoped, white southerners would recognize their contributions and capabilities. Gradually robust white supremacy would wither. Washington founded the National Negro Business League to promote and publicize black commerce and self-help.

Northern-born black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois positioned himself as Washington&rsquos opposite. Du Bois had graduated from Fisk University in Tennessee and earned a Ph.D. at Harvard. By 1902, Du Bois believed that Washington had conceded too much. Any man should be able to have a classical education. Moreover, to accept segregation would be to give up all civil rights since accepting separation acknowledged that black people were not equal. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement in 1905, the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

While it works well in the classroom to set Washington and Du Bois against one another in a debate, it is important to understand that they were never really the polar opposites that they (and white journalists) made themselves out to be. Each man&rsquos strategy must be contextualized chronologically and by its applicability to the South or the North. Moreover, African American opinion ranged widely between the two men&rsquos positions.

The Great Migration resulted in a blossoming of black culture in northern and mid-Western cities, and African Americans began to speak of the &ldquoNew Negro.&rdquo He or she was born after slavery, well-educated, independent, and proud of his or her African background. The New Negro saw World War I as the &ldquoGreat War for civil rights.&rdquo When it ended, Du Bois announced: &ldquoWe return from fighting. We return fighting. Make Way for Democracy.&rdquo African Americans had fought &ldquothe savage Hun&rdquo now they returned to fight &ldquothe treacherous Cracker.&rdquo Across the nation, whites met those demands with violence. Twenty-six full-fledged racial massacres occurred in the summer of 1919. 10

Many white male politicians and some white southern women fought woman suffrage after World War I because they feared that it would bring African Americans back into the electoral process. One white Congressman who opposed it remarked, &ldquoMy cook would vote while my wife would not.&rdquo 11 But many southern white women supported woman suffrage a very few even supported black women&rsquos right to vote. When the Nineteenth Amendment granting woman suffrage became law in the fall of 1920, black women across the South attempted to register and vote, with varying degrees of success. They acted as a wedge to bring African Americans back into public life. 12 After 1919, black and white southerners of both sexes forged tentative coalitions to prevent a recurrence of such violence. Called Commissions on Interracial Cooperation, black and white members worked to put an end to racial massacres and lynching and toward better &ldquorace relations.&rdquo 13

In 1920, virtually all white southerners believed that segregation and white supremacy would last for another thousand years. They thought that they had found a permanent solution to the &ldquorace problem.&rdquo But their permanent solution barely lasted another decade. By 1933 black southerners began to challenge southern disfranchisement and segregation on the ground, in the courts, and, even at the ballot box in Upper South cities. The federal government finally responded in a limited way to southern poverty and racism with some aspects of the New Deal, and northern black voters began to elect representatives to Congress who spoke for southern African Americans as well. Forty years after Fonvielle tracked the spreading stain of white supremacy across the South, it began to recede ever so slightly.

Guiding Student Discussion

Whether you are incorporating African American history into a regular U.S. survey course or teaching African American history specifically, it is best to retain a tight chronological focus when discussing the issues outlined in this essay. Students often fail to comprehend that white supremacy was invented, implemented, deployed, and reshaped by white people who wanted political and economic power. Moreover, students have little firsthand information about African American protest before the 1950s. Therefore, they tend to think that racial discrimination in the United States was a natural by-product of slavery and that long-suffering black people put up with it until one day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Illuminating the fact that white supremacy was hard work for its perpetrators&mdashthat it had to be made and remade in response to unfolding black strategies&mdashmakes it seem conscious, anti-democratic, and anti-American, which, of course, it was. One of the most important lessons that can come from studying this period is to learn to relate racial oppression to specific contexts of power, economics, and politics. It&rsquos important for students to understand that racism is not some antique psychological antipathy left over from slavery, but a socially-constructed political formation that determines who is at the bottom and who is at the top of society. The larger lesson is about the nature of minority persecution and human rights&mdashanywhere, anytime.

Thus, it is important to break the period 1880-1920 into context-based periods. What was at stake for white and black southerners at each point? How did white southerners wrest political power for themselves? How did black southerners try to prevent their own oppression? For example, you might start by asking what Reconstruction settled and what it did not. Which of these issues (land ownership, the right to vote, wage labor, black participation in politics, the right to public accommodation, etc.) was determined by federal reconstruction and which was left to the states, localities, or custom? What role did economics play?

It&rsquos helpful to take the 1880s and the 1890s together as a test case for rising black expectations in the 1880s meeting rising white supremacy in the 1890s. What progress could African Americans point to by 1890? Why did white southerners choose the 1890s to implement Jim Crow? How did black success bring on white oppression? By what means white supremacy become the preeminent political issue across the South in that decade?

The tragic history of white supremacy within the United States causes students to question what they were taught in elementary school as well as the common American narrative of unrelieved liberty and expanding freedom. In this case, freedom is constricted for a very long time by white politicians who openly bragged about their methods and their goals. How did this oppression affect the rest of the nation? When southerner Woodrow Wilson was elected president, he segregated Washington, D.C. What was the relationship between the Federal Government and the South? What was the relationship between national imperialism and the white supremacy campaigns? Could the U.S. South have followed the path of Nazi Germany?

Both high school and college students enjoy imagining themselves and their family as African Americans who have to make a decision to stay in the South or to leave and become a part of the Great Migration. The greater issue is just how individuals imagine their relationship to political persecution. This exercise works well as a paper or a debate, and students should be able to support their course of action by placing themselves in a specific context (upper or lower South/urban or rural South/educated or laboring class/man or woman/teenager or grandmother, etc.). Then they should interpret the arguments for or against migrating based on the facts that pertain to their circumstances using actual facts and figures.

W. E. B. Du Bois realized that historians were misrepresenting Reconstruction as a period of lawlessness and &ldquoNegro domination,&rdquo and he wrote Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 in 1935 to counter that characterization. Black Reconstruction is a classic, recently reprinted in 2007 by Oxford University Press. 14 Kenneth M. Stampp&rsquos The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877, published in 1965, revised the existing historiography against which Du Bois fought. 15 Since then, historians have grappled with the shortcomings of Reconstruction and the Freedpeople&rsquos plight. The Freedman and Southern Society Project produced volumes of papers and four volumes for classroom use about the black experience in Reconstruction. Eric Foner&rsquos A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877 may be the most useful single book for teaching Reconstruction. 16

The major historiographical debate on the 1880s and 1890s was defined by C. Vann Woodward&rsquos 1955 The Strange Career of Jim Crow, a book that Martin Luther King called the &ldquoBible of the civil rights movement.&rdquo 17 Woodward pointed out that slavery was quite different from segregation and that segregation had been invented in the 1890s. He documented the period of African American success in the 1880s and early 1890s and the devastating white supremacy campaign at the turn of the century. The Strange Career of Jim Crow was invaluable to civil rights activists because it proved that they were not attempting to overturn the natural order of things rather, they were attacking an anti-democratic regime of white supremacy imposed upon the South sixty years earlier. Some, for example, Howard Rabinowitz, argued that Woodward overdrew the opportunities for black southerners before Jim Crow. More recent work, including my own Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920, documents the opportunities lost. 18 Leon F. Litwack&rsquos Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow is a marvelous teaching resource, filled with stories of life at the nadir that tend to emphasize the horror of white supremacy. Joel Williamson&rsquos The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation renders a chilling account of how white supremacy reinvented itself to meet its challengers. 19

When historians turned to the study of black women in the 1980s and 1990s, they discovered that their activism kept civic activities and opportunities alive in the darkest days of Jim Crow. Black women faced sexism as well as racism, but they operated behind the scenes to ameliorate white supremacy. Sometimes they worked through their churches, as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham demonstrates in Righteous Discontent: The Women&rsquos Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Sometimes they operated in the political sphere, as I argue in Gender and Jim Crow. Sometimes they banded together in community organizations as Deborah Gray White illustrates in Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994. And sometimes they simply went forth, brave and alone, as Paula Giddings demonstrates in her life of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Ida: A Sword Among Lions. 20

1 C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 19.

2 All references to Fonvielle&rsquos trip are from William Frank Fonvielle, &ldquoThe South As I Saw It,&rdquo A.M.E. Zion Church Quarterly 4 (January 1894): 149-58.

3 For the best overview of Jim Crow laws nationally, see Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

4, accessed June 23, 2008, uses the Tuskegee Institute figures. On lynching, see W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), and Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. On protest against lynching and figures, see Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women&rsquos Campaign against Lynching. Rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), and Paula J. Giddings, Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), 3.

5 Kenneth Ng, &ldquoWealth Distribution, Race, and Southern Schools, 1880-1910,&rdquo Education Policy Analysis Archives vol. 9, #16, May 13, 2001, at, accessed June 23, 2008.

6 Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York, Vintage Books, 1999), 9, 21 J. Gilbert, G. Sharp, and S. Felin, &ldquoThe Loss and Persistence of Black-Owned Farms and Farmland: A Review of the Research Literature and Its Implications,&rdquo Southern Rural Sociology 18 (2) December, 2002: 1-30.

7 Quoted in Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow, 109.

8 Quoted in Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow, 113.

9 James Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

10 Du Bois quoted in Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 18.

11 Quoted in Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow, 206.

12 Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow, chapter 8 Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, The New Woman of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) Elna Green, Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

13 Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry David Godshalk, Veiled Visions: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

14 W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Oxford University press, 2007).

15 Kenneth M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965).

16 Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1990).

17 C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).

18 Howard N. Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow.

19 Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in The American South since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

20 Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women&rsquos Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993) Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994 (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999 Giddings, Ida: A Sword Among Lions.

Between 1865 and 1925

Slavery was abolished in 1865. Then, some African Americans were allowed to go to school and be graduated. At Fisk University, one of the first universities for African American, in Nashville (Tennessee), some educators decided to raise funds for supporting their institution. So, some educators and students made tours in the New World and in Europe, and sang negro spirituals (Fisk Jubilee Singers). Other Black universities had also singers of negro spirituals: Tuskegee Institute, etc.

Just after 1865, most of African Americans did not want to remember the songs they sung in hard days of slavery. It means that even when ordinary people sang negro spirituals, they were not proud to do so.

In the 1890s, Holiness and Sanctified churches appeared, of which was the Church of God in Christ. In these churches, the influence of African traditions was in evidence. These churches were heirs to shouts, hand clapping, foot-stomping and jubilee songs, like it was in plantation “praise houses”.

At the same time, some composers arranged negro spirituals in a new way, which was similar to the European classical music. Some artists, mainly choruses, went abroad (in Europe and Africa) and sang negro spirituals. At the same time, ministers like Charles A. Tindley, in Philadelphia, and their churches sang exciting church songs that they copyrighted.

Black Composers and Musicians in Classical Music History

Utilizing the research of Professor Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, historian William J. Zick in the article below provides vignettes which comprise an overview of various composers and musicians of African ancestry who performed in Europe, North America, and Latin America from the 16th Century to the 20th Century. His listing begins with the earliest known black performer, John Blanke, a royal trumpeter in the Courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII.

English Royal records document the employment of John Blanke, listed as “the blacke trumpeter” and paid by the day by both Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII. A pictorially illuminated manuscript of the Tournament of Westminster on New Year’s Day in 1511, commissioned by Henry VIII to celebrate the birth of his son (who died as an infant) to his wife Catherine of Aragon, clearly portrays Blanke as a mounted black trumpeter.

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) was an African composer and author whose published letters tell much about his life. Raised as a house slave in Greenwich, England, he taught himself to read and educated himself very broadly from books owned by an aristocratic family with whom he obtained employment as a young man. Sixty-two of his short compositions survive in four self-published volumes.

Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), an Afro-French composer, violinist, and conductor, won his first fame not as a musician but as France’s best fencer. Born Joseph de Bologne, on December 25, 1745 on a plantation near Basse-Terre, on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, he was the son of a slave woman of African descent and a French plantation owner. Educated in France, de Bologne was only 19 when his mastery of the violin and the harpsichord earned him a dedication from Antonio Lolli in 1764. More came from François-Joseph Gossec (1766) and Carl Stamitz (1770). By 1771, Saint-Georges was first violin of a distinguished 70-member ensemble, Le Concert des amateurs. He became one of the earliest French composers of string quartets and symphonies concertantes. His first string quartets were performed in 1772 and published in 1773, the year in which he was appointed conductor. He later conducted Le Concert de la Loge Olympique, with which he premiered Haydn’s “Paris Symphonies” in 1787 and finally Le Cercle de l’Harmonie. Saint-Georges directed an important private musical theater, where some of his own songs and musicals were performed.

José Mauricio Nunes Garcia (1767-1830), an Afro-Brazilian and a Roman Catholic priest, was an organist and chapel master in the Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro. Most of his music was liturgical about 240 works survive. In 1817 Garcia wrote Brazil’s first opera, Le Due Gemelle (The Two Twins), which was later destroyed by fire.

George Bridgetower (1780-1860) was a child prodigy with an African American father and a German mother. As a child he joined the retinue of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), who arranged music studies with established musicians. In 1802 Bridgetower obtained permission to travel to the Continent to visit his mother. In the Spring of 1803 he met Beethoven, who quickly wrote his “Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 47” for him. Beethoven played the piano and Bridgetower played the violin at the highly successful premiere of the sonata in Vienna on May 24, 1803. Before the work was published, the two men had a disagreement, causing Beethoven to replace Bridgetower’s name on the manuscript with that of Rodolphe Kreutzer.

Francis “Frank” B. Johnson (1792-1844), a Philadelphia bugler and band leader, was the most popular black composer in the pre-Civil War United States. He published his first work, “A Collection of New Cotillions” in Philadelphia in 1819. Johnson’s band soon became the leading musical group for social events and marches in the region. Despite their popularity, racial violence broke out during at least one concert. The members were also arrested and fined in St. Louis for entering the State of Missouri as free blacks without official permission. In 1837, Johnson and his band members became the first African American musicians to travel to Europe to perform. Their triumphant return to the United States in 1838 generated more notoriety as they now performed outdoor “Promenade Concerts” throughout the Northeast. Johnson composed “Honor To The Brave: Gen. Lafayette’s Grand March,” which became a popular tribute to the French military leader who helped the United States win its freedom from Great Britain. The composition can be heard on the CD “The Music of Francis Johnson and His Contemporaries: Early 19th-Century Black Composers”.

The Negro Philharmonic Society was founded in New Orleans well before the Civil War. The orchestra at one point had more than 100 performers, including a few white members. Its director, Constantin Debergue, was a black violinist. Racial hostility put an end to the Society prior to the Civil War. Two of its former members, Edmond Dede (1827-1903) and Charles Lucien Lambert, Sr. (c.1828-1896) fled New Orleans in the 1850s and made successful careers in France and Brazil. Dede graduated from the Paris Conservatory and worked as a conductor in Bordeaux, France for 27 years.

Justin Holland (1819-1887), was a classical guitarist who composed and arranged hundreds of works which were widely played in the 19th Century. After two periods at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, he became Cleveland’s first black professional classical musician and music teacher.

José Silvestre White (1835-1918) was an Afro-Cuban violinist who excelled at the Paris Conservatory and later served as a professor there for many years. During the 1875-1876 season White performed twice with the New York Philharmonic under Conductor Theodore Thomas.

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908) was a blind and autistic Georgia-born slave who was a classical pianist and a composer of popular songs. Owners and managers kept control of Wiggins and his huge income all his life prompting Geneva Handy Southall, his biographer, to subtitle her account of him, “Continually Enslaved.”

Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was known as the “King of Ragtime,” but he also composed classical works. His opera “Treemonisha” has been performed by the Gunther Schuller and the Houston Grand Opera.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was an Afro-British composer who wrote Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in 1898. His composition was performed in concert over 200 times and made his name a household word on both sides of the Atlantic.

William Grant Still (1895-1978) was an oboist, arranger and composer of jazz and popular music themes. He incorporated the Blues and jazz in his “Afro-American Symphony” which premiered in 1931 and is still one of the most recognized classical works by a black composer.

Life as a Barbary Slave

The slaves captured by the Barbary pirates faced a grim future. Many died on the ships during the long voyage back to North Africa due to disease or lack of food and water. Those who survived were taken to slave markets where they would stand for hours while buyers inspected them before they were sold at auction.

After purchase, slaves would be put to work in various ways. Men were usually assigned to hard manual labor, such as working in quarries or heavy construction, while women were used for housework or in sexual servitude. At night the slaves were put into prisons called bagnios that were often hot and overcrowded.

However, by far the worst fate for a Barbary slave was being assigned to man the oars of galleys. Rowers were shackled where they sat, and never allowed to leave. Sleeping, eating, defecating and urinating took place at the seat. Overseers would crack the whip over the bare backs of any slaves considered not to be working hard enough.

North Africa During the Classical Period - History

Listen to special web programs about periods in music history.

Early Music: c. 500-1600
Early music refers to musical compositions from the medieval and Renaissance periods of music. Much of the music from earliest history was sacred music written for voice and was transmitted orally. It wasn't until the dawn of the Renaissance that we see more frequent use of instruments and developments in printing.

Baroque Period: 1600 - 1750
Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann and Handel composed during the Baroque Period. Baroque music is tuneful and very organized and melodies tend to be highly decorated and elaborate.

Classical Period: 1750 - 1827
Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven composed during the Classical Period. Music from the Classical Period is orderly, balanced and clear.

Romantic Period: 1827 - 1900
Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann composed during the Romantic Period. Music from this era sounds almost boundless and free from any limitations of form. Much of this music is programmatic—that is, it is meant to describe something, perhaps a scene in nature or a feeling.

Debussy, Ravel and others compose music of mystery, magic and wonder.

Modern Period: 1900 to the Present
Prokofiev, Stravinksy, Copland and today's composers wrote the music of the 20th century - and beyond. Modern music allows composers to emulate traditional musical ideas while implementing their own creative approach with complete freedom in all dimensions.

Women Composers
We highlight the contributions of women to the history of music.

Choral Composers
We focus on those who wrote music for the human voice throughout history.

The Music of Freedom
The songs that helped the slaves escape to the north, as well as others that celebrate freedom.

Jazz is a uniquely American form of music. Find links to kid-friendly jazz websites and terrific Classics for Kids ® programs featuring jazz.


1. I would like to thank the following people who commented on an earlier draft of this article and helped me to improve it: Michael Gomez, James Sweet, Delia Mellis, Patrick Manning, Samuel K. Roberts Jr., Risa L. Goluboff, Madeleine Lopez, Anthony Marsh, Sandra Greene, Regine I. Herberlein, and Joseph Miller.

2. For a discussion of the African origins issue, see Christopher Stringer and Robin McKie, African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996).

3. Frank M. Snowden Jr., Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 184. See also St. Clair Drake, Black Folk Here and There, 2 vols. (Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, 1990).

4. This definition owes a great deal to the efforts of my students at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, who enrolled in my spring 1997 course, "Social Movements in the African Diaspora during the Twentieth Century."

5. This question was originally raised by Samuel K. Roberts Jr., a graduate student at Princeton.

Colin A. Palmer is distinguished professor of history at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is "Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America," 2 vols. (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1998).

Watch the video: HIST 1111 - End of the Classical Era (May 2022).


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