Black History and Social Justice

Black History and Social Justice

Black history and social justice movements are inseparable, and Black resistance has inspired and galvanized social justice movement throughout United States history. As we celebrate Black History Month, February 20th is also the United Nations’ World Day of Social Justice. To mark this occasion, learn more about historic social justice movements led by Black Americans with text and images provided by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (unless otherwise cited).

Photo via Brad McClenny, Gainesville Sun


The Underground Railroad: Early to Mid-19th Century

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century, and used by African-American slaves to escape into free states, Canada and Nova Scotia with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses.

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Harriet Tubman pictured on the far left


Black Abolitionists in the Nineteenth Century

In the midst of the growing Abolition Movement in the United States, “black abolitionists were the one set of voices that could bring credibility to the debate.

When formerly enslaved people told their stories at lectures and in print, it disabused listeners and readers of the notion that slaves were contented or well-treated.

And with African-Americans joining the outcry, the American Abolitionist Movement took on a stronger and louder voice. Its speakers were more urgent, more militant and more radical. This major change came from its African-American members.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, circa 1850-1860


Reconstruction: 1863-1877

One of the most important aspects of Reconstruction was the active participation of African Americans in the political, economic and social life of the South. The era was to a great extent defined by their quest for autonomy and equal rights under the law, both as individuals and for the black community as a whole. During Reconstruction, some 2,000 African Americans held public office, from the local level all the way up to the U.S. Senate. These African American activists bitterly opposed the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson, which excluded blacks from southern politics and allowed state legislatures to pass restrictive “black codes” regulating the lives of the freed men and women.