African American History: Pre-colonial West and Central Africa through Emancipation (HIST-281)

Black Family, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1862

Five generations on Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina. Image courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Library of Congress

Instructor: Professor Morgan

"What do we mean by democracy?" W. E. B. Du Bois asked in 1924...

"Do we mean democracy of the white races and the subjection of the colored races?  Or do we mean the gradual working forward to a time when all men will have a voice in government and industry and will be intelligent enough to express that voice?

It is this latter thesis for which the American Negro stands and has stood, and more than any other element in the modern world it has slowly but continuously forced America toward that point and is still forcing. . . . The emancipation of the Negro Slave in America becomes through his own determined effort simply one step toward the emancipation of all men." - W.E.B Du Bois

Frederick Douglass observed in 1850 that

"only when we contemplate the slave as a moral and intellectual being . . . can [we] adequately comprehend the unparalleled enormity of slavery, and the intense criminality of the slaveholder."

He thereby condensed, as W. E. B. Du Bois did almost seventy-five years later, the fundamental ethical principles borne of the collective historical experience of two and a half centuries of slavery.

The pursuit of equality and freedom for all was the most enduring intellectual and ethical legacy for slaves, free blacks, and their descendants. It derived from their experiences with, and analysis of, bondage itself. 

This course covers the diverse slave experiences across two and a half centuries that led to these profoundly democratic contributions to American history.

We will examine

  • African societies most heavily affected by enslavement
  • the operations of the Atlantic slave trade
  • comparative western hemispheric slavery
  • and the development of different slave regimes primarily in North America. 

We will also learn about

  • the free black population in the North and their involvement in the abolitionist movement
  • the events that led up to the Civil War
  • how African Americans transformed a war for Union into a war for emancipation and what their vision of freedom looked like. 

An emphasis on labor, resistance, and resilience will inform our investigations throughout.