Black History Month 2003
Timeline of Key Dates in African-American History

The following information was compiled using various online resources, including the Encyclopedia Britannica and the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Pre-1800s | 1800-1849 | 1850-1899 | 1900-1949 | 1950-

Early 1500s
Black plantation slavery begins in the New World when Spaniards begin importing slaves from Africa to replace Indians who died from harsh working conditions and exposure to disease.

On Aug. 20, a Dutch ship with 20 African slaves aboard arrives in the English colony of Jamestown, Va.

The first black legal protest in America occurs when 11 blacks successfully petition the government of New Amsterdam for their freedom.

On Sept. 9, the Stono Rebellion (one of the earliest slave insurrections) leads to the deaths of at least 20 whites and more than 40 blacks west of Charleston, S.C. As a consequence of the uprising, white lawmakers impose a moratorium on slave imports and enact a harsher slave code.

Phillis Wheatley becomes the first notable black poet in America when Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is published in England. Wheatley gains acclaim for her writings in both Europe and America.

Vermont becomes the first state to abolish slavery.

President George Washington appoints Benjamin Banneker, a free black who owns a farm near Baltimore, Md., to the District of Columbia Commission. A mathematician and compiler of almanacs, Banneker works on the survey of Washington, D.C. He becomes one of the first important African-American intellectuals.

Congress passes the first Fugitive Slave Act, making it a crime to harbor an escaped slave or to interfere with his or her arrest.

Gabriel Prosser

Artist rendering of Gabriel Prosser. Photo: Henrico County, Va., Division of Recreation and Parks

On Aug. 30, Gabriel Prosser plans the first major slave rebellion in U.S. history. Massing more than 1,000 armed slaves near Richmond, Va., Gabriel plans to revolt and create an independent black state. Following the failed insurrection, Gabriel and more than 30 of his companions are arrested, tried and hanged.

The American Colonization Society is established to transport freeborn blacks and emancipated slaves to Africa, leading to foundation of a colony that becomes the Republic of Liberia in 1847. Supported by local branches, churches, and the legislatures of border states, the society's program focuses on purchasing and freeing slaves, paying their passage to the west coast of Africa, and assisting them after their arrival there.

The Missouri Compromise provides for Missouri to be admitted to the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state and western territories north of Missouri's southern border to be free soil. This measure passed by U.S. Congress marks the beginning of the prolonged sectional conflict over the extension of slavery that eventually leads to the American Civil War.

On March 16, Freedom's Journal becomes the first black-owned and operated newspaper in the United States. Established the same year that slavery was abolished in New York State, the paper is a four-page, four-column standard-sized weekly begun by a group of free black men in New York City. The paper serves to counter racist commentary published in the mainstream press of the time.

Abolitionist David Walker publishes a pamphlet entitled " the Colored Citizens of the World..." It calls for a slave revolt. Radical for the time, it is accepted by a small minority of abolitionists, but most antislavery leaders and free blacks rejected his call for violence at the time. Born of a slave father and a free mother, Walker grew up free, obtained an education, and traveled throughout the country. Settling in Boston, he became involved in the abolitionist movement and was a frequent contributor to Freedom's Journal.

Nat Turner leads the only effective, sustained slave rebellion in U.S. history, attracting up to 75 fellow slaves and killing 60 whites. After the defeat of the insurrection, Turner is hanged on Nov. 11. Nat Turner's rebellion put an end to the white Southern myth that slaves were either contented with their lot or too servile to mount an armed revolt.

Alexander Lucius Twilight becomes the first black elected to public office; he serves in the Vermont legislature. Also the first African-American college graduate, Twilight had received his degree from Middlebury College in 1823.

Slaves revolt on the Spanish slave ship Amistad in the Caribbean. After their arrest in Long Island Sound, former U.S. president John Quincy Adams successfully defends the rebels before the Supreme Court.

Frederick Douglass begins publication of the North Star, an antislavery newspaper. Douglass was one of the most eminent human-rights leaders of the 19th century. His oratorical and literary brilliance thrust him into the forefront of the U.S. abolition movement, and he became the first black citizen to hold high rank in the U.S. government.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman
Photo: H.B. Lindsley, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-7816.

Harriet Tubman returns to Maryland to guide members of her family to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Later helping more than 300 slaves to escape, she comes to be known as the "Moses of her people." The Underground Railroad was a system existing in the Northern states before the Civil War by which escaped slaves from the South were secretly helped by sympathetic Northerners, in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Acts, to reach places of safety in the North or in Canada. Though neither underground nor a railroad, it was thus named because its activities had to be carried out in secret, using darkness or disguise, and because railway terms were used in reference to the conduct of the system.

William Wells Brown, a former slave, abolitionist, historian, and physician, publishes the first novel by a black American. Clotel tells the story of the daughters and granddaughters of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Currer.

In its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes slavery in all the territories, exacerbating the sectional controversy and pushing the nation toward civil war. The decision -- only the second time in the nation's history that the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional -- was a clear victory for the slaveholding South. Dred Scott was a slave whose master in 1834 had taken him from Missouri (a slave state) to Illinois (a free state), then into the Wisconsin Territory (a free territory under the provisions of the Missouri Compromise), and finally back to Missouri. In 1846, with the help of anti-slavery lawyers, Scott sued for his freedom in the Missouri state courts on the grounds that his residence in a free state and a free territory had made him a free man. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned an initial ruling by a lower court that had declared Scott free. The case then began a long sojourn to the U.S. Supreme Court. President James Buchanan, the South, and the majority of the Supreme Court hoped that the Dred Scott decision would mark the end of anti-slavery agitation. Instead, the decision increased anti-slavery sentiment in the North and fed the sectional antagonism that burst into war in 1861.

The Civil War begins in Charleston, S.C., as the Confederates open fire on Fort Sumter, and lasts until April 1865. Also called the "war between the states," the conflict pits the federal government of the United States and 11 Southern states that assert their right to secede from the Union. The eventual victory of the North results in the preservation of the Union, the abolition of slavery, and the granting of citizenship to the freed slaves. The war also marks the new economic and political ascendancy of the rapidly industrializing, increasingly urbanized states of the North.

Mary Jane Patterson becomes the first black woman to graduate from an American college. Upon receiving her degree from Oberlin College in Ohio, Patterson heads to Philadelphia where she teaches in the "Institute for Colored Youths."

President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1 and thus frees the slaves of the Confederate states in rebellion against the Union. In addition to lifting the Civil War to the level of a crusade for human freedom, this edict brought substantial practical results because it allowed the Union to recruit black soldiers. African Americans responded in considerable numbers to this invitation to join the U.S. Army, with nearly 180,000 of them enlisting during the remainder of the war.

The Civil War ends on April 26, after the surrender of the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and J.E. Johnston. Congress establishes the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to aid four million black Americans in transition from slavery to freedom. Despite handicaps of inadequate funds and poorly trained personnel, the bureau builds hospitals for, and gives direct medical assistance to, more than 1 million freedmen. Its greatest accomplishments are in education: more than 1,000 black schools are built and over $400,000 spent to establish teacher-training institutions. All major black colleges are either founded by, or receive aid from, the bureau.

In January, Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi becomes the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate when he is chosen to complete the term vacated by the former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Later the same year, Joseph Hayne Rainey is the first black elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Reelected four times, Congressman Rainey enjoys the longest tenure of any black during Reconstruction.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams establishes what will become the oldest freestanding black-owned hospital in the United States -- Provident Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago. Two years later, Dr. Williams performs the first successful open-heart surgery.

At the Atlanta Exposition, educator Booker T. Washington delivers his "Atlanta Compromise" speech, stressing the importance of vocational education for blacks over social equality or political office. In a time of serious racial tensions, Washington asserted that vocational education, which gave blacks an opportunity for economic security, was more valuable to them than social advantages or political office. White leaders in both the North and South greeted Washington's speech with enthusiasm, but it disturbed black intellectuals who feared that Washington's philosophy would doom blacks to indefinite subservience to whites. That fear led to the Niagara Movement and later to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mary Church Terrell becomes the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, working for educational and social reform and to end racial discrimination.

Composer and pianist Scott Joplin publishes "The Maple Leaf Rag," one of the most important and popular compositions during the era of ragtime, precursor to jazz.

W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. Du Bois. Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

W.E.B. DuBois publishes The Souls of Black Folk, which declares "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line," and discusses the dual identity of black Americans.

The Niagara Movement, an organization of black intellectuals led by W.E.B. DuBois, is founded. The group calls for full political, civil and social rights for African Americans and is the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Matthew Henson is among the first people to reach the North Pole. Mainstream American history tended over the years to overlook Henson's role in the success of the expedition led by Robert Peary that, after several failed attempts, reached the North Pole on April 6.

The National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (National Urban League) is formed in New York City with the mission to help migrating blacks find jobs and housing and adjust to urban life.

Sam Lucas becomes the first black actor to star in a full-length Hollywood film. Lucas played Tom in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Fritz Pollard is the first black football player to be named "All-American" as well as the first black player to appear in a Rose Bowl. He goes on to become the first African-American head coach in the NFL when he heads the Akron Pros in 1921 and is later inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1954.

Aviator Bessie Coleman, who later refuses to perform before segregated audiences in the South, stages the first public flight by an African-American woman.

Pianist and orchestrator Fletcher Henderson becomes a bandleader. His prestigious band advances the careers of such black musicians as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge. This same year, Bessie Smith, discovered by pianist-composer Clarence Williams, makes her first recording. She will eventually become known as "Empress of the Blues."

William DeHart Hubbard becomes the first black athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event at the Summer Games in Paris.

A. Philip Randolph, trade unionist and civil-rights leader, founds the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which becomes the first successful black trade union.

c. 1926
Pianist, composer, and self-proclaimed inventor of jazz Jelly Roll Morton records several of his masterpieces, including "Black Bottom Stomp" and "Dead Man Blues."

Poet and novelist Claude McKay publishes Home to Harlem, the first fictional work by an African-American to reach the best-seller lists.

Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr. becomes the first black colonel in the U.S. Army. He later oversees race relations and the morale of black soldiers in World War II and becomes the first black general in 1940.

Track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens wins four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. His victories derail Adolf Hitler's intended use of the games as a show of Aryan supremacy.

c. 1938
Assisted by saxophonist Lester Young, her romantic companion during these years, jazz vocalist Billie Holiday makes several of her finest recordings.

Singer Marian Anderson performs at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall.

Hattie McDaniel becomes the first black to receive an Oscar for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind.

c. 1942
Bebop is born out of the musical experiments of jazz musicians in Harlem, including saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Monk.

Ebony magazine is founded by John H. Johnson of Chicago. Modeled after Life but intended for an emerging black middle class, the magazine is an instant success. This same year, Nat King Cole becomes the first black with his own network radio show. Cole is also the first black with his own network TV show, The Nat King Cole Show (1956).

Jackie Robinson plays baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black in the major leagues in the modern era. In 1962 he was the first black inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Alice Coachman takes gold in the high jump at the Olympic Games in London. She is the first black woman to win Olympic gold and the only American woman that year to win.

Ralph Bunche

Ralph J. Bunche
Photo: U.S. Department of State, Ralph J. Bunche Library.

Ralph J. Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, is the first black to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He receives the honor for his work as the United Nations mediator in the Arab-Israeli dispute in Palestine. That same year, Gwendolyn Brooks is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Annie Allen, becoming the first African-American writer to win the award.

Amos 'n' Andy move from radio to television and become the first TV show to have an all-black cast.

On May 17 the U.S. Supreme Court rules unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools violates the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., chapter of the NAACP, refuses to surrender her seat when ordered by a local bus driver, leading to the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56.

Opera diva Leontyne Price is triumphant in the title role of the National Broadcasting Company's Tosca, making her the first black to sing opera on television. That same year, singer and guitarist Chuck Berry travels from St. Louis to Chicago, recording "Maybellene," an immediate sensation among teenagers. The hit helps shape the evolution of rock and roll.

Arthur Mitchell, future director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, becomes the only black dancer in the New York City Ballet. George Balanchine creates several roles especially for him.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is established by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, to coordinate and assist local organizations working for the full equality of African Americans.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is formed. Composed primarily of African Americans, the dance company tours extensively both in the United States and abroad.

Singer Ray Charles records "What'd I Say," which becomes his first million-seller, and exemplifies the emergence of soul music, combining rhythm and blues with gospel. Trumpeter Miles Davis records Kind of Blue, often considered his masterwork, with composer-arranger-pianist Bill Evans and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, becomes the first drama by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. And Motown Records is founded in Detroit, Michigan, by Berry Gordy, Jr. The "Motown sound" dominates black popular music through the 1960s and attracts a significant white audience as well.

The sit-in movement is launched at Greensboro, N.C., when black college students insist on service at a local segregated lunch counter.

Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, is shot and killed in an ambush in front of his home, following a historic broadcast on the subject of civil rights by President John F. Kennedy. In Birmingham, Ala., Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor uses water hoses and dogs against civil-rights protesters, many of whom are children, increasing pressure on President John F. Kennedy to act. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. writes "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" to eight clergymen who attacked his role in Birmingham. Widely reprinted, it soon becomes a classic of protest literature. The Civil Rights movement reaches its climax with a massive march on Washington, D.C. Among the themes of the march "for jobs and freedom" was a demand for passage of the Civil Rights Act. Sidney Poitier wins the Academy Award as best actor for his performance in Lilies of the Field in 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. is the youngest person awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is 35.

Thurgood Marshall is the first African American to be appointed to the Supreme Court.

On April 4, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. The assassination is followed by a week of rioting in at least 125 cities across the nation, including Washington, D.C.

Lee Elder is the first black to play in the Masters Tournament at Augusta, Ga. Tennis player Arthur Ashe wins the singles title at Wimbledon, becoming the first black to win a major men's singles championship.

Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) is adapted for television, becoming one of the most popular shows in the history of American television.

Singer Michael Jackson creates a sensation with the album Thriller, which becomes one of the most popular albums of all time, selling more than 40 million copies.

Guion Steward Bluford Jr. is the first African American in space and Vanessa Williams, Miss New York, is crowned Miss America.

President George Bush nominates Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the first black officer to hold the highest military post in the United States. Oprah Winfrey becomes the first African-American to own her own television and film production company, Harpo Studios, Inc.

Mae Jemison becomes the first African-American woman astronaut, spending more than a week orbiting Earth in the space shuttle Endeavour. Carol Moseley-Braun becomes the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, representing the state of Illinois.

Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, rises to the height of his influence as the most prominent organizer of the "Million Man March" of African-American men in Washington, D.C.

At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga., sprinter Michael Johnson becomes the first man of any race to win gold medals in the 200 meters and the 400 meters, setting a 200-meter world record of 19.32 seconds.

Halle Berry becomes the first African-American woman to be awarded an Oscar for best actress in a leading role. She wins for her role in Monster's Ball. Denzel Washington wins the Academy Award for best actor in a leading role for his part in Training Day. Tavis Smiley is the first African American to host his own signature program on NPR, and Michele Norris becomes the first black woman to regularly host an NPR newsmagazine.