African Americans, preferred term to designate Americans of African descent, who account for about 12 percent of the U.S. population, a major minority group in society. Most African Americans live in the South and in the large cities of the North, in many of which they constitute a large portion, or even a majority, of the population.
The first African Americans were brought to North America as indentured servants, under contract to work for a particular master for a specified period, after which they were free. But from the early 1600s, the expansion of the slave trade brought larger and larger numbers of Africans who were forced to work on the expanding plantations in the South.
The institution of slavery was recognized by the U.S. Constitution, and the importance of slaves increased after 1793, when the invention of the cotton gin gave southern plantations a new financial viability. Conflict between slave society in the South and industrial development in the North led eventually to the Civil War, which ended slavery in the United States. During the period of Reconstruction (1865–77), newly freed African Americans, despite extreme poverty, played a major role in political life, 16 serving in Congress. But Reconstruction was followed by the reimposition of discriminatory legislation and practices, denying African Americans the right to vote and segregating them socially. The system of segregation, sanctioned by the Supreme Court in its Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, kept the African American population in conditions of social, economic, and political oppression. That system began to break down only after World War II. In 1954 the Supreme Court outlawed “separate but equal” facilities in its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. The struggle for equal rights and the abolition of segregation soon took a new turn.
In the 1950s and 1960s African Americans developed a broad-based civil rights movement to end discrimination in education, jobs, public facilities, and voting rights. The successes of this movement eliminated most formal barriers to the incorporation of African Americans into U.S. society, but socioeconomic discrimination remained; the gap between white and black average incomes, for example, widened during the 1980s, despite the emergence of an African American middle class. African Americans have made major contributions to U.S. society in many areas. They fought in all the nation's wars, though in integrated units only after World War II. Notable African American historical figures include Frederick Douglass and George Washington Carver, who made significant contributions to politics and science in the 19th century. In the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey were major political leaders. The towering figures of the 1950s and 1960s included Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. More recently, African Americans have made their mark in the political sphere (Mayor David Dinkins in New York City), the military (General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and as members of federal, state, and local legislatures. They have achieved nationwide recognition for outstanding contributions in literature, the arts, sports, entertainment, business, and education.