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African American History: Primary Documents

Primary Documents:

Listed below are major documents that help explain the history of African America.

Louisiana's Code Noir (1724) These laws were among the earliest and most detailed regulations on the North American continent designed to govern both slaves and free blacks.

The Deleted Passage of the Declaration of Independence (1776) This controversial passage of the Declaration authored by Thomas Jefferson condemning slavery was removed by the Continental Congress delegates gathered at Philadelphia.

Benjamin Banneker's Letter to Thomas Jefferson (1791) Banneker responds to Thomas Jefferson’s recently articulated views about the inferiority of the black race.

The Fugitive Slave Act (1793) This measure passed by Congress was one of the first examples of federal legislation regarding the institution of slavery.

Constitution of the African Civilization Society (1796) The African Civilization Society was one of the earliest organizations created by
African Americans.  As its constitution shows, the Society was dedicated to the spread of Christianity across Africa and among people of African descent, and the abolition of the slave trade.

The Ohio Black Codes (1804) Ohio becomes the first non-slaveholding state to establish black codes to govern persons of African ancestry living within its boaders. 

The Slave Importation Ban (1808) The U.S. Congress ends the legal importation of enslaved persons of African ancestry into the United States.

Constitution of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston (1832).  Here is the founding constitution of one of the first black women's organizations in the United States.

Constitution of the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem (1832).  In 1832 African American women in Salem, Massachusetts organized the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, the first abolitionist society sponsored exclusively by black women.  Here is their founding constitution.

The Gag Rule (1836). This act prohibits Congress from receiving petitions related to slavery.

United States v. The Amistad (1841). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that Africans on board the ship The Amistad are free individuals; kidnapped and transported illegally; they had never been slaves. Former President John Quincy Adams argued successfully to the court the Africans’ right to fight to regain their freedom when they rebelled against their captors.

Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that state officials are not required to capture fugitive slaves.

Roberts v. Boston (1849) The Massachusetts State Judicial Supreme Court dismisses the suit filed by Boston parent Benjamin Roberts challenging his daughter's assignment to a racially segregated school.

The Fugitive Slave Act (1850). This measure, part of the Compromise of 1850, gave far more power to slave catchers and Northern law enforcement officials in capturing fugitive slaves.

The Utah Slave Code: An Act in Relation to Service (1852). Utah’s Slave Code governing the relations between the enslaved in the territory and their owners, was enacted in February 1862.

Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that enslaved people are property protected by law in every state, that the enslaved are not entitled to use the courts, and that enslaved people and their descendants can never be citizens.

The District of Columbia Emancipation Act (1862). This Congresstional measure freed all enslaved people in the District of Columbia.

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863). This proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, freed all enslaved people in the Confederate States or portions of those states that were not then controlled by Union forces.  From that point forward the Union Army would free slaves.

General William T. Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15 (1865). This measure gave more than 400,000 acres of coastal land in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to formerly enslaved people.

The Reconstruction Amendments (1865-1870). The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolish slavery, declare former enslaved people citizens of the nation and give former enslaved males the right to vote.

Tennessee Segregation (Jim Crow) Laws, 1866-1955.  This document lists all of the racially restricted legislation passed by the State of Tennessee during the 89 year Jim Crow era in that state.

The Civil Rights Act (1866). This act of Congress was the first attempt to protect the civil rights of the newly freed African Americans.

The Mississippi Black Codes (1866).These are among the first post-Civil War statutes designed to establish the rights and regulate the behavior of ex-slaves at the state level.

The Reconstruction Acts (1867-1868). These four measures enacted on March 2,  March, 23, and July 19, 1867, and March 11, 1868, established the basic provisions for Congressional Reconstruction in the ex-Confederate states including allowing suffrage for African American men.

The Slaughter House Cases (1873). The U.S. Supreme Court distinguishes between “state citizenship” and “federal citizenship” and narrows the scope of the 14th Amendment in regard to state actions.

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 (1875). Congress attempts to provide a number of rights to African American during the Reconstruction era.

Hall v. DeCuir (1878). U.S. Supreme Court holds that states cannot require carriers engaged in interstate commerce to provide integrated facilities even for trips within state borders.

Stauder v. West Virginia (1880). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that excluding African Americans from juries is unconstitutional.

The Civil Rights Cases (1883). The U.S. Supreme Court rules Congress does not have the authority to restrict segregation in public accommodations and public conveyances. The decision curtails the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

Ferguson v. Giles (1890).  The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that William Ferguson's civil rights were violated when he was expelled from a Detroit restaurant for refusing to dine in its "colored" section.

Second Morrill Act (1890) As with the first Morrill Act (1862), this measure allocated money from the sale of public lands to support state colleges.  This act, however, specifically provided funds to support black colleges and universities.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The U.S. Supreme court upholds the validity of a Louisiana statute requiring separation of white and black races in railway coaches.

Constitution of the American Negro Academy (1897)  The American Negro Academy was an organization of black intellectuals devoted to the advancement of African Americans.  Here is their founding constitution.

Williams v. Mississippi (1898). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that poll taxes and literacy tests do not violate the Constitution.

The Louisiana Grandfather Clause (1898). This amendment to Louisiana's Constitution effectively prohibited most African American males from voting in that state's elections. 

William Hannibal Thomas on the American Negro (1901).  In this document, Conservative William Hannibal Thomas stakes out the problems and challenges facing African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century.

stakes out on the problems and challenges facing African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century - See more at:

William Hooper Councill's Letter to the White People of Alabama (1901).  Councill, founder and first President of what is now Alabama A&M University, responds to the recently enacted Alabama Constitution that disfranchises its black citizens. 

Guinn v. United States (1915). This U.S. Supreme Court Decision strikes down the Grandfather Clause.

Buchanan v. Warley (1917). The U.S. Supreme Court in a Louisville case rules that states and municipalities cannot mandate residential segregation.

Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Constitution (1918).  The Universal Negro Improvement Association, with an estimated two million members, was the largest black-controlled organization in the world in the early 1920s.  Here is its Constitution.

“If We Must Die” (1919). “If We Must Die,” written in 1919 by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay, became for many African Americans an anthem for resistance against the anti-black violence then sweeping the nation.

Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World (1920). This document is the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s “Bill of Rights” for people of African ancestry around the world.

Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill (1922). This bill, introduced by Missouri Congressman Leonidas Dyer, proposes to make lynching a federal felony in the United States punishable by a maximum of 5 years in prison, a $5,000, or both.

The Negro Art Hokum (1926).  George S. Schulyer gives a scathing critique, rejecting the idea that the race of black artists had any influence over their work.

Gong Lum v. Rice (1927). The U.S. Supreme Court affirms the Mississippi Supreme Court holding that requiring a child of Chinese descent to attend schools for “coloreds” does not conflict with the 14th Amendment.

Powell v. Alabama (1932). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Scottsboro defendants must be retried because Alabama officials violated the 14th Amendment by denying them adequate legal counsel.

Norris v. Alabama (1935). The Supreme Court again overturns the conviction of a Scottsboro defendant.

Pearson v. Murray (1935). This is a Maryland State Supreme Court decision handed down on Nov. 5, 1935 which rules against segregation at the University of Maryland law school. Thurgood Marshall argues for the appellant Murray, an early civil rights victory for the future Supreme Court Justice.

Missouri Ex Rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that states must provide equal, even if separate, educational facilities for African Americans.

Executive Order 8802 (1941). This order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt bans racial, ethnic and religious discrimination in hiring in all industrial facilities receiving federal contracts.

Executive Order 9346 (1943). This order reaffirms and broadens the Fair Employment Practices Committee which was established with Executive Order 8802.  It also specifically prohibits all federal government agencies from practicing racial discrimination in hiring. 

Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946). As a consequence of a lawsuit initiated by Virginia resident Irene Morgan, The U.S. Supreme Court rules that segregation on interstate buses is unconstitutional.

To Secure These Rights (1947). This is the report of President Harry S. Truman's Committe on Civil Rights. The original document is at the Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri.

Executive Order 9981 (1948). This order by President Harry S. Truman desegregates the U.S. Armed Forces.

Shelley v. Kraemer (1948). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that racially restrictive housing covenants are unenforceable.

Sipuel v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents (1948). The U.S. Supreme Court decides in an Oklahoma case that states must admit qualified African Americans to previously all-white graduate schools when no comparable black institutions are available.

The Negro Motorist Green Book (1949). This is the complete 1949 edition of the book used by African American motorists to find accommodations across the nation which accepted black travelers during the era of racial segregation.

Sweatt v. Painter (1950). The U.S. Supreme Court rules in a Texas case that states must make equal educational facilities available to African American graduate and professional students.

McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950). The U.S. Supreme Court rules against classroom and social segregation on the basis of race.

Henderson v. United States Et. Al. (1950). The U.S. Supreme Court rules railroad dining car segregation is unequal treatment and thus violates the Interstate Commerce Act.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954). This unanimous Supreme Court decision declared unconstitutional all school segregation mandated by state law.

Brown v. Board of Education, II (1955). This ruling is a reiteration of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education although in this instance mandating that school desegregation proceed "with all deliberate speed."

Zora Neale Hurston Criticizes Brownv. Board of Education (1955). Zora Neale Hurston is best known as a major literary figure in the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression years.  During her later years she became supporter of conservative causes.  In this letter to the Orlando Sentinel on August 11, 1955, she criticizes the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ordered the desegregation of public schools.

Gayle v. Browder (1956). The U.S. Supreme Court upholds a lower court ruling banning segregation on Montgomery, Alabama buses.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957. This measure, the first civil rights legislation enacted since Reconstruction, provides guarantees for African American voting rights in the South. The Act also creates the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to investigate issues regarding race relations and racial discrimination.

N.A.A.C.P. v. Alabama Ex Rel Patterson (1958). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the NAACP is not required by the State of Alabama to turn over its membership list to agents of the state.

The Civil Rights Act of 1960. This legislation established federal inspection of local voter registration rolls and introduced penalties for anyone who attempted to block a citizen's attempt to register to vote or to actually vote.

Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960). In this case the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Alabama Legislature violated the 15th Amendment when it enacted Act 140 in 1957 which redrew district lines in and around Tuskegee, Alabama, to dilute the voting strength of black voters.

Executive Order 10925 (1961).  This order issued by President John F. Kennedy on March 6, 1961 created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and required that projects financed with federal funds “take affirmative action” to ensure that hiring and employment practices would be free of racial bias.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).  This is the famous letter that Dr. Martin Luther King wrote while in custody in Birmingham following his arrest for leading civil disobedience demonstrations.   While in solitary confinement for eight days King wrote the letter in response to some of the local clergy who urged him to end the protests.

NAACP v. Button (1963).  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that minority group organizations may provide legal services to its members for the purpose of helping them in asserting their legal rights.  The Court concluded that the activities of the NAACP in Alabama were legal.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964. This measure bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act applies a nationwide ban against the denial or abridgement of the right to vote and implements special enforcement provisions in areas of the nation with a history of discrimination against prospective voters.

The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, The Moynihan Report, (1965). This is the famous Moynihan Report which describes the rise of female-headed households among African Americans and its implication for the nation.

Executive Order 11246 (1965). This Presidential Order names and introduces a new strategy for achieving equal employment opportunity, affirmative action.

The Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program (1966). This document establishes the direction and goals of the Black Panther Party.

Loving v. Virginia (1967).The U.S. Supreme Court outlaws all state laws banning interracial marriage.

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, The Kerner Report (1967).National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1967). This is the Kerner Report which analyzes the racially-inspired urban riots of the period.

Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968).  The U.S. Supreme Court rules that Congress can regulate the sale and rental of all public and private property to prevent racial discrimination

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 (1968).  This measure, also known as the Fair Housing Act, outlawed racial discrimination in the sale,  rental, leasing, or subleasing of housing throughout the United States.

Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that Duke Power's standardized aptitude testing of its employees for promotion were part of the Company's longstanding policy of using such requirements to give job preferences to its white employees.

Gary Declaration, The National Black Political Convention (1972). This statement is issued at the conclusion of the first national black political convention attended by 3,000 delegates and 5,000 observers in Gary, Indiana in March 1972.

Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado (1973). The U.S.Supreme Court, in one of the first cases dealing with school segregation
outside of the South, rules that the entire school district rather than asingle neighborhood should be included in school desegregation efforts
and that the school district involved assumes the burden of proving thatit operated its schools without segregative intent.

DeFunis v. Odegaard (1974). A white student previously denied admission to the University of Washington took the university to court, claiming that his scores were higher than some minorities admitted. DeFunis was admitted, but in his final year the school reversed their decision. The Supreme Court ruled that he would be allowed to complete his studies.

Morgan v. Hennigan, The Boston Bussing Case, (1974). This case, decided by U.S. Federal Judge Arthur Garrity, initiates the busing of thousands of students to desegregate Boston public schools.

University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978). University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978). The U.S. Supreme Court rules against quotas for minority medical school applicants but upholds the use of race in hiring decisions.

United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO v. Weber (1979) The U.S. Supreme Court rules that training schemes specifically crafted for minority employees are legitimate because such programs are consistent with the 1964 Civil Rights Act which seeks to eliminate patterns of racial segregation.

Fullilove v. Klutznick (1980). The U.S. Supreme Court holds that the creation of minority set-aside programs are a legitimate exercise of congressional power.

Bob Jones University v. United States (1983).  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the internal Revenue Service could, without the approval of Congress, revoke the tax exempt status of organizations or institutions that violate established public policy.  Bob Jones University denied admission to interracially married couples and to those known to advocate interracial marriage or dating.  

Wygant Et. Al. v. Jackson Board of Education Et. Al. (1985). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that a collective bargaining agreement between the Jackson Board of Education and a teacher's union which permitted nonminority tachers to be laid off before minority teachers with less experience was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

United States v. Paradise (1987).  In a case involving the State of Alabama Department of Public Safety, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that the department had systematically discriminated against African Americans in its thirty-seven year history and upheld a lower federal court’s mandate that quotas be used to correct the situation.  The court determined that the use of strict quotas in this case was one of the only means of combatting the department’s overt and defiant racism.

The City of Richmond v. Croson (1989).  The Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action must be subject to strict scrutiny and is unconstitutional unless racial discrimination can be proven to be widespread throughout a particular industry.

Shaw v. Reno (1993). The U.S. Supreme Court rules against a North Carolina redistricting plan that created majority black congressional districts.

The Republican Party's Contract with America (1994). The contract, a document released by the Republican Party and endorsed by all incumbent House Republicans and GOP candidates for office, pledges to reduce government, lower taxes, reduce crime reduction and reform the welfare system.

Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena (1995).  The Supreme Court again called for strict scrutiny in affirmative action cases saying that such program must fulfil a compelling government interest and must be narrowly tailored to fit the particular situation.

Hopwood v. State of Texas (U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals) (1996). Four white students who had been denied admission to the University of Texas claimed that they had been unfairly rejected because minority candidates had taken their places. It is ruled that the University of Texas can not use race as a means of determining who to admit to their school.

California Proposition 209 (1996). This voter-approved statewide initiative amended the state constitution to effectively end affirmative action programs in the State of California. 

Washington Initiative 200 (1998). This voter-approved statewide initiative made affirmative action programs illegal in the State of Washington. 

Bush v. Gore (2000). The landmark United States Supreme Court decision that effectively resolved the 2000 presidential election in favor of George W. Bush.  

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report on Voting Irregularities in the 2000 Election in Florida. U.S. Civil Rights Commission Report on Voting Irregularities in the 2000 Election in Florida. This report examines allegations of voter fraud and intimidation in the closely contested Presidential race between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George. W. Bush.

Easley v. Cromartie (2001). The U.S. Supreme Court rules that race can be considered in redistricting plans as long as it is not the “dominant and controlling” consideration.

Gratz v. Bollinger (2003). The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the University of Michigan’s use of race as a factor in undergraduate admissions when based upon a formula of awarding of points for racial or ethnic background.

Gruttner v. Bollinger (2003). On the same day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the University of Michigan’s policy of rewarding points for racial background in its undergraduate admissions policy, the Court upheld the University of Michigan’s Law School admission policy that said race can be one of many factors considered by colleges and universities when selecting students because it furthers a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.

Lawrence v. Texas (2003). The U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a Texas law that prohibited sexual acts between same sex couples.  The decision, which simultaneously struck down similar laws in thirteen other states, was a major victory for advocates of gay and lesbian rights.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (2006).  This is the ban on affirmative action in Michigan passed by the voters in the November 2006 state election.  It became law on December 22, 2006.

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) The U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling involving Seattle Public Schools, prohibited the use of race as the sole factor in pupil assignments and said racial balance is not a compelling state interest.

Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative 424 (2008).  Nebraska becomes the fourth state to invalidate affirmative action programs.    

Ricci v. Stefano (2009) This U.S. Supreme Court decision held that the City of New Haven, Connecticut violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it set aside the results of a city firefighter promotion exam because of racial disparity in the test results.


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