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Brief Black History Guide: Before The Civil War

Updated on February 22, 2017

Major Events

January 1st, 1808

The African slave trade is abolished and considered illegal. The U.S did not really take many measures to make sure it was actually enforced upon it's citizens. Africans were still being kidnapped across the world and sold into slavery.

Nat Turner Rebellion - August 22, 1831

The rebellion was lead by Nathaniel "Nat" Turner and was a bloody one. The rebellion grew in size and had to be stopped by the militia because of this. This rebellion lasted for two days. After this event many states passed laws to prohibit slaves from learning how to read and write because Nat Turner was an educated slave.

The Amistad Slave Revolt - January 1839

35 Eastern Africans are stolen and brought to Havana, Cuba. There two Spaniards purchase them as slaves. The Spaniards then plan on moving them to another part of Cuba on a ship. They are put on the Amistad and start their journey.

After 3 days on the ship one of the Africans escapes his shackles. He is Sengbe Pien. He freed other slaves and they staged a revolt. They killed most of the crew and then forced the Spaniards that purchased them to return to Africa.

The owners of the slaves conspired to give false directions and tried to return to Cuba. After 63 Days it docked in Montauk, Long Island, New York. The U.S seized the ship and the Africans on board were charged with piracy and murder.

The district court judge ruled the slaves were free men, ordered their release, and for them to be transported back to Africa. The U.S Attorney appealed the court's decision to the circuit court. The circuit court confirmed the district court's decision. They then appealed to the supreme court who also supported previous rulings. The Africans sailed back to Africa on the ship The Gentlemen.

The Underground Railroad

This was a network of secret routes and houses that led slaves to freedom. The underground railroad formed in the early 1800s and reached it's peak from 1850 to 1860. It originally thrived under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Officials from free states were required to help slave owners capture runaway slaves but it was largely ignored. About 1,000 slaves per year traveled to free states.

Things changed with the compromise of 1850. This gave officials immunity to operate in free states. This meant that even if a slave escaped to a free state they could be captured and brought back to their master. Officials and slave catchers caught free black people and sold them into slavery, even if they were born free. The path was then routed to Canada instead, where a person was free and not affected by U.S law.

Nat Turner
Nat Turner
Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth
Harret Tubman
Harret Tubman
Mum Bett / Elizabeth Freemen
Mum Bett / Elizabeth Freemen

Some Important People

  • Nat Turner (1800-1831)

Turner was an educated minister and slave. He claimed to be divinely chosen by God to lead his fellow slaves in the revolt. After his defiant event he hid in the woods near his master's house until he was found and hung for his crimes. (Learn More)

  • Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Born into slavery in New York. Her birth name was Isabella Baumfree. She escaped with her youngest daughter, Sophia, in 1826. After escaping she found out her son, Peter, had been illegally sold. She then went to court and won Peter's return from the south. She changed her name in 1846 and devoted her life to Methodism and the abolition of slavery. She gave many speeches and met many other abolitionists at the time. Her most famous speech given was "Ain't I A woman?". Which is actually questionable whether she used that phrase or not in her speech. (Learn More)

  • Harriet Tubman (1820 - 1913)

Harriet was born into slavery and suffered injuries that caused damage for the rest of her life. Tubman recieved a head injury in her youth that made her suffer from seizures, severe headaches, and narcoleptic episodes. She was known as the "Moses of her people". The well known "conductor" helped free many slaves using the underground railroad. She also helped newly freed slaves find work in Canada and worked for the Union Army. Harriet died of pneumonia in 1913. (Learn More)

  • Mum Bett / Elizabeth Freemen (1742-1829)

Mum Bett was born into slavery and when she was a young adult was attacked by her masters wife. She went to a local abolitionist, Theodore Sedgwick who appealed her case to the court. In 1781 she was granted her freedom and became a paid servant for the Sedgwick family. Her case Brom and Betts v. Ashley became one of the cases to help end slavery in the state of Massachusetts. She later changed her name to Elizabeth Freemen and worked the rest of her life as a servant for Sedgwick. (Learn More)


There are many more people involved in this history and they are all important and made changes. Here are some resources to learn more about this time period and the people involved.

Books & Charts

Black History Pre-Civil War Bar Chart

Slavery: A World History


Inventors of the 19th Century

Abolitionist Movement

Top Ten Abolitionists

Black Music from the 19th Century to Present

There's a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet. . . there's a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it's a coming as sure as the Lord is just.

— Solomon Northup


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