Early African-American History
The first Africans were brought to America in 1619 as indentured servants, which meant they served an amount of time as slaves to pay off their crossing and were released after settling their debt. Unlike indentured servants from Europe, they didn’t enter into this agreement willingly. However, in 1641, the American colonies began to legalize slavery, beginning in Massachusetts, and a racially-based system of slavery was instituted. This was based on the system already in place in the West Indies.
The crossing from Africa to the Americas was the Atlantic Slave Trade, also called the Middle Passage. Africans were often prisoners of war sold off to Europeans by their enemies. 15% of Africans died during this voyage due to the horrific conditions of this crossing. Ten million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the West.
During the Revolutionary War, both freed and enslaved blacks participated on both sides. As an incentive to join the British, they offered emancipation for the enslaved people who served the Crown. Anti-slavery sentiments began to rise after the Revolutionary War. Importation of slaves from other countries was banned in 1808, but illegal importation continued until 1859. Abolitionists became more vocal beginning in the 1840s. The desire to keep slaves was a primary factor in the secession of the Southern slave-holding states, which started the Civil War.
After the Civil War
During and after the Civil War, several laws, amendments, and proclamations were issued to free slaves and to give rights to African-Americans. However, Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws segregated and restricted the rights of black citizens. Jim Crow Laws was the informal name for various segregation laws. The name was a mockery of people of color, referring to a song and dance done by a white character in blackface called “Jump Jim Crow.”
After black men were given the right to vote, there was immediate backlash in the South. A number of laws were enacted and would last until 1965 and the Civil Rights Movement. These laws were called Jim Crow Laws. The key idea was “separate, but equal.” But this was not the case. Facilities for black people were significantly inferior to those provided for whites, if there were facilities offered at all. Tennessee’s first segregation law was instituted in 1866, mandating separate schools for black and white children. Tennessee would pass 20 laws aimed at perpetuating “separate, but equal,” including separate schools, train cars, mental hospitals, and the right for owners to enforce segregation on their property. Interracial marriage was declared a felony. Multiple lynchings occurred in our region, including the lynching of Alfred Blount in 1893. He was beaten, stabbed, and hung off the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga. In 1906, Ed Johnson was also hung from the Walnut Street Bridge after being accused of sexual assault of a white woman, then shot. His last words were: “God bless you all. I am a [sic] innocent man.”
The Negro LeaguE
Baseball teams, as well, were segregated, reguiring people of color to play in the Negro League. Cleveland’s Negro League was called the Cleveland Indians, later the Cleveland Hurricanes, and also called the Cleveland All-Stars. Chattanooga had the Chattanooga Choo-Choos, a team on which famed baseball player Willie Mays played.
Civil Rights Movement
Crowds gathered around peaceful protests at sit-ins in downtown Chattanooga. 1960. Chattanooga History Center.
By the 1950s, people of color began to resist these racist policies. In 1955, Chattanooga started the Interracial Advisory Committee to begin a slow integration of schools. However, a tear gas bomb was dropped at the first meeting and desegregation was postponed. In the same year, The Cleveland Journal was started by Reverend William Cox and Robert Ramsey to serve Cleveland’s black community.
In 1960, James R. Mapp filed a suit against the Chattanooga School Board to move his children to an all-white school, spurring talk of desegregation once again. Also in 1960, Howard High School students organize peaceful sit-ins at stores in downtown Chattanooga. They were following the example of protests begun in Greensboro and Nashville against segregated lunch counters. Black individuals would sit at “whites only” lunch counters, a form of peaceful protest. In Chattanooga, the high school students were refused service, but they read textbooks and bibles and ate snacks from home. They had a few rules, including:“please be on best behavior,” “no loud talking,” “no profanity,” and “try to make small purchase.” The Chattanooga police and fire department used fire hoses to disperse the crowds that had gathered. This was the first time this method was used and would be used later by police departments to break up other peaceful protests.
Some of you may be aware of COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program. This was a program by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation intended to discredit and disrupt groups and people in opposition to the current political agenda. Sometimes these projects were illegal and included actions such as harassment, wrongful imprisonment, violence, and assassination. This was done in the name of “protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order.” Targets included the Communist Party, anti-war protestors, members of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party, feminist organizations, American Indian Movements, and other “leftist” movements. They did also target the Ku Klux Klan, but their methods apparently proved ineffective.
This program was active between 1956-1971, under the control of J. Edgar Hoover. The program carried out wrongful imprisonments against many members of the Black Panther Party and did their best to discredit them and draw them as a dangerous, terrorist group. Martin Luther King, Jr. was sent a letter from the FBI urging him to commit suicide (when he was supposed to receive the Nobel Peace Prize).
Charleston, TN was the setting for two historic firsts for Tennessee. C.T. Parker was the first black police chief in Tennessee and Hoyt N. Berry of Charleston was the first black mayor in Tennessee.
In 1997, the Tennessee General Assembly ratified the 15th Amendment, which granted African-American men the right to vote and was later revised to say that citizens cannot be denied the right to vote based on race, making the state the last in the nation to do so.