Photo Essay - Africans in America

EstebanEsteban. Chakwaina, Esteban's mythical counterpart, late 1800s. (University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology.)

The first African to reach what is now the American Southwest, the slave Esteban (d. 1539) was born in Morocco, and was purchased as a servant by the Spaniard Andrés Dorantes. His story is extraordinary because it is both an epic adventure and an example of how complex race relations could be in the 16th century. Dorantes was a member of an ill-fated expedition that sailed from Cuba to what is now Florida in 1528. A series of attacks decimated the explorers, forcing them into a hasty escape into the Gulf of Mexico that eventually stranded them in what is now Galveston, Texas. Esteban and several others managed to survive the winter, but their efforts to explore the mainland resulted in a hostile encounter with Karankawa Indians, who enslaved the Spaniards for a period of five years. During this time, however, the slave Esteban showed his extraordinary talents as a diplomat and linguist. When he and the three surviving explorers escaped from the Karankawa in 1834, their travels through Mexico earned them a reputation as faith healers, religious figures, and interpreters. After eight years of wandering, Esteban and the explorers arrived in Mexico City. Though they claimed that the rumors of gold and other riches in the wilderness were false, the excitement generated by their exploration caught the attention of the Viceroy, who subsequently purchased Esteban from Dorantes. Esteban was then sent in search of the fabled Cities of Cíbola, and used his reputation among the locals to gain safe passage through their territory. However, Esteban ran afoul of the Zunis when he ignored their warning to stay away from the village of Hawikuh. Though the circumstances of the dispute are not entirely clear, it appears that the Zunis believed that killing Esteban would protect the village from future incursions by European explorers. In fact, the Moroccan left such an impression that the Zunis used him as the model for Chakwaina, a black spirit representing the foreign conquest of their lands (see the image above). After Esteban's death, word reached the Viceroy that Hawikuh was in fact one of the cities of Cíbola, prompting yet another expedition that failed to produce the mythical riches of the New World.

OnesimusMortality from smallpox and variolation, 1759. The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Franklin B, Heberden W. Some Account of the Success of Inoculation for the Small-Pox in England and America: Together with Plain Instructions By which any Person may be enabled to perform the Operation and conduct the Patient through the Distemper. London: W. Strahan, 1759.

Onesimus (d. 1717) was probably born in Africa in the late seventeenth century, though nothing specific about the circumstances of his birth is known. He was purchased as a slave in 1706 by the congregants of Boston's Old North Church and given to the church's minister, the Reverend Cotton Mather. Little of Onesimus's personal life is known outside of the occasional mention of his activities in Cotton Mather's personal diary. Onesimus purchased his freedom from Mather in 1716, but this manumission depended on Onesimus continuing to carry out chores for the Mather family whenever needed.

Despite the general lack of information surrounding Onesimus's life as a slave and free man in 18th century America, Onesimus's story survives thanks to his contribution to the realm of public health. In 1716, Onesimus shared with Mather the common African practice of variolation, that is, purposely infecting a person with smallpox so that they become immune to later reinfection. This precursor to vaccination was met by harsh public resistance prior to the 1721 Boston smallpox outbreak but, at the outbreak's conclusion, the 600 Bostonians who underwent the procedure were seven times more likely to have survived than those who contracted the disease and had not been inoculated. Variolation, as described by Onesimus, went on to become the standard method for the prevention of smallpox until nearly the beginning of the 19th century.

Phillis WheatleyTitle page. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. (Library of Congress.)

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1754–1784) was most likely born in Senegambia, a region comprised of modern-day Senegal and the Gambia. She arrived in America in 1761 at the age of seven, traveling on a slave ship known as the Phillis, from which she took her name. Within a few years, the young Wheatley—who had spoken a language called Wolof—mastered English and began writing poetry. Among her influences, she later said, were Alexander Pope and John Milton. With the help of her wealthy masters, her work appeared in local literary periodicals, and in 1773, she produced her first collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. It was the first book published by an African American, and its appearance was met with skepticism and derision, but also with genuine fascination and admiration. Boston publishers wanted nothing to do with the work, and the Wheatleys had to produce the book in London. Even then, Wheatley had to endure an interrogation by a panel of Boston intellectuals, who quizzed her on her knowledge of literature, and eventually vouched for her competence. Around this time, she was emancipated, and continued to write poetry. During the American Revolution, Wheatley went against the political views of her former masters and wrote poetry that praised the ideals of independence. This decision cut her off from her British benefactors and advocates, and effectively silenced her career. She died in poverty in 1784.

It can be difficult for a modern audience to evaluate Wheatley's brief career, as her poetry embraced a European influence so strongly. This is in marked contrast to many African and African American writers today, whose work is often framed—at least in part—as being in opposition to what they see as a hegemonic white tradition. Indeed, Wheatley's career depended greatly on white evangelical benefactors, who saw in her a justification of their interpretation of Christianity. Still, her work contributed to the debate over the alleged inferiority of black people, a fact the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. credits when he declares her Poems on Various Subjects to be "the birth of the African American literary tradition" (Short Fiction by Black Women 1900–1920; OUP, 1991).

BelindaPetition of Belinda. Medford Historical Society, Royall House Association.

Very little is known of Belinda's (b. 1712?) early life in a small village in what is now Ghana. As an adolescent, Belinda was captured and sold to slave traders who brought her to North America. She began working for Isaac Royall, Jr. around 1732 and lived on his estate in Medford, Massachusetts. Royall, the largest slaveholder in the colony, would be Belinda's master for nearly fifty years, until he escaped to England at the start of the American Revolution. Having no master, Belinda became the property of Massachusetts and was manumitted in 1778. The province outlawed slavery in 1783.

In February of that same year, Belinda submitted a petition to the Massachusetts legislature in which she asked to be provided a portion of the profits of Isaac Royall's estate in the form of a pension. Likely with the help of abolitionist Prince Hall, she claimed that she had not been allowed to take part in the prosperity of the Royall estate in her fifty years of servitude and that, in her old age, she deserved a portion of the estate's wealth. The legislature heard her plea and established for her a £15 annual pension. In later years, the Royall estate twice stopped paying the pension, but Belinda petitioned the legislature on both occasions and saw her pension restored.

This early act of civil rights activism became more widely known once Belinda's first petition was published in the New Jersey Gazette in June 1783. Interpretation of the significance of Belinda's petition has varied over time, but many now consider it to be one of the first cases made for the payment of reparations for slavery.

JemmyMarker commemorating Stono Rebellion, South Carolina.

Jemmy (fl. 1730) was the name given to a slave who was probably born in the Kingdom of Kongo (now Angola) in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century and brought to the colony of South Carolina in the 1730s. Jemmy may have been exposed to Roman Catholicism and the Portuguese language, as well as contemporary military tactics, before being captured and brought to North America.

Next to nothing is known of Jemmy and his life in America before the morning of Sunday, September 9, 1739, when he led a group of slaves in a bloody revolt that has come to be called the Stono Rebellion. The incident saw Jemmy and his band of thirty to one hundred slaves cross the Stono River bridge and progress approximately ten miles south through the South Carolina countryside to the Edisto River. On their way, they stole firearms and killed a number of whites, though they spared the lives of some who were known to be kind to their slaves. Word of the rebellion spread quickly among local slaveholders, who formed a militia that met the slaves at their camp on the Edisto River on the night of September 9. The Stono Rebellion was put down in a matter of hours, but not before a number of rebel slaves escaped, possibly to freedom in Spanish Florida.

It is unknown whether Jemmy survived the skirmish. His actions did, however, provoke the authorities in South Carolina to enact a strict code policing the activity and oversight of slaves that would remain in effect until the end of the Civil War.

Abdul RahamanAbdul Rahaman, engraving of a crayon drawing by Henry Inman, 1828. New York Public Library; Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

Abd Al-Rahman (1760?-1829) was born into an aristocratic family in Timbuktu in the middle of the eighteenth century. His family moved to the stronghold of Futa Jallon, where he was taught to read and write Arabic in Muslim schools. In 1788, Abd Al-Rahman, a family man and cavalry officer, was captured while on a mission to the Atlantic coast and sold into slavery. After months of travel he came to be purchased by Thomas Foster, a plantation owner in Natchez, Mississippi. Abd Al-Rahman escaped the plantation after a few weeks, but soon returned when he found no support available to him elsewhere. He is known to have maintained a noble, serious bearing at all times, and he remained a devout Muslim while enslaved. He became a foreman on Foster's plantation and, incredibly, was recognized as a member of the aristocracy by an Irish doctor who was visiting the plantation and who had spent time at Abd Al-Rahman's family's compound in Futa Jallon many years prior.

This recognition sparked a chain of events that eventually saw Abd Al-Rahman and his wife Isabella freed in early 1828. They were supposed to return to Africa but, at Foster's insistence, they first began a tour of the American Northeast that was designed to provide them with stories of America's wealth and productivity that they might take back with them to Africa. Abd Al-Rahman was not impressed by the cities he visited, however, and instead met with people who might be able to donate funds that would allow him to purchase his children back from Foster so that they might join him in Africa. Moving from city to city, Abd Al-Rahman met with varying levels of success. His meetings became fodder for the newspapers, however, and he became a polarizing figure in the nascent antislavery debate of the period.

Abd Al-Rahman eventually raised enough money to return to Africa in 1829, though not in the presence of his children. He died a few months later. His fundraising efforts had not been in vain, however: in another year, his eight children and grandchildren were able to cross the Atlantic and join Isabella in Africa.

Lamine KebeInformation About Going to Liberia: Things Which Every Emigrant Ought to Know. . ., title page Washington: American Colonization Society, 1848. (Library of Congress.)

Lamine Kebe (1785?-1835?) was born in the late eighteenth century to a prominent family in what is now considered Mali. Kebe was a teacher in Africa and had a family of his own, but was captured while traveling to buy paper and subsequently sold into slavery. Little is known of the time he spent as a slave in the United States during the early part of the nineteenth century, but by 1834 he had been freed and had made his way to New York City. There, he associated himself with the American Colonization Society, a controversial group whose mission it was to send emancipated blacks back to Africa, far from their still-enslaved relatives. Though a devout Muslim, Kebe claimed that he desired to become a Christian missionary in Africa and was able to garner the support necessary to give him passage back to Africa, specifically Liberia.

BilaliArabic text written by Bilali (

It is not known specifically when and where in Africa Bilali (1760?-1855) was born, but the available evidence shows that he was sold into slavery in the latter half of the eighteenth century and brought to Georgia in 1802. Bilali was a devout, literate Muslim and was resolute in maintaining his religious practice while enslaved. He is also said to have been buried with prayer beads, a prayer rug, and a copy of the Qur'an, all items that he would have somehow had to have brought with him from Africa on the treacherous Middle Passage.

Bilali worked for the prosperous plantation owner Thomas Spaulding while in Georgia and eventually became the sole manager of Spaulding's 500-slave operation on Sapelo Island. Bilali is not mentioned by name in contemporary accounts of the plantation, but he earned a reputation for running the planation efficiently, even in Spaulding's absence.

Bilali was also the leader of Sapelo Island's Muslim community, and he is best known today for having written a 13-page manuscript in which he set down descriptions of Islamic rituals, rules for prayer, and general spiritual encouragement. This extraordinary manuscript, known alternately as the Bilali Document and the Ben Ali diary, is written in Arabic script but contains many oddities, perhaps because it is in fact an Arabic transliteration of Bilali's native African language. As such, it has not been translated in its entirety and remains a fascinating object of study for scholars of both Islam and American history.

Cudjo LewisCudjo Lewis. Alabama Humanities Foundation.

Cudjo Lewis (1841-1935), whose African name was Kossola Oluale, grew up in what is now Benin and was sold into slavery in 1860 when he was 19 years old. Lewis was a member of the last known group of slaves to have been brought to the United States from Africa, more than fifty years after the North Atlantic slave trade had been abolished. Following his emancipation at the end of the Civil War, Lewis worked for the shipbuilder Timothy Meaher, the man who had smuggled him into the United States in the first place. In 1868, on land rented from Meaher, Lewis and a number of other former slaves built a self-governing community in Mobile, Alabama that they called African Town. Lewis was one of the leaders of African Town and grew to become one of its respected elders. He was esteemed for his integrity and was known for telling stories of his life in Africa and folktales that reinforced the values in which he believed so strongly.

Lewis belonged to a very small set of people who were brought to America as slaves and lived through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Despite incredible misfortune, Lewis was able to establish himself in a new country and construct a community whose ethos matched his own. His legacy survives in the continued recognition of African Town, now called Africatown, as an important source of African cultural history in the United States.

Amadou M'barick FallAmadou M'barick Fall. Fall with his manager and other boxers. Left to right, Robert Diamant, a boxer; Louis Defremont, a fight promoter and Siki's French manager; Fall (Siki); and Gaston-Charles (Charley) Raymond, a French-born boxer who fought mostly in the United States in the 1930s and after his own career ended managed other boxers. (George Grantham Bain Collection/Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.)

The first African to win the world light heavyweight title in 1922, Amadou M'barick Fall (1897–1925) was nicknamed "Battling Siki". But before that, Fall lived an extraordinary life that saw him travel to Europe as a boy under unknown circumstances—Siki himself is said to have claimed that a German dancer had taken him to France at the age of eight. He was later apparently abandoned, and had to fend for himself while working odd jobs. By 1912, he had become a well-trained boxer, but shortly thereafter enlisted in the French army and was awarded the Croix de Guerre (the equivalent of a Medal of Honor). After the Great War, Siki won a number of fights before challenging Georges Carpentier for the light heavyweight crown in Paris. Siki's victory was so stunning that he soon found himself an international celebrity, at one point even starring as the lead role in a film called Dunkle Gassen (Dark Alleys). At the same time, he had to battle some of the ugliest stereotypes of black people that were common in the early 20th century. Despite being self-educated, a war hero, and a polyglot, Siki was often characterized as a savage, and was banned from fighting in numerous venues simply on this unfounded claim. He went on to a lackluster career in the United States, never getting the chance to regain the title. And then, to add to the tragedy, Siki was shot and killed in New York—a murder that remains unsolved. Though his career was on the decline by then, thousands attended his funeral, and Adam C. Powell delivered the eulogy. It would take another seventy years for Siki to be recognized again by the international community; in 1993, the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid honored Siki's quiet, determined efforts to rebut the racist stereotypes of his era.

Dick Dick "Tiger" Ihetu (

Though little is known about his youth, records show that the Nigerian boxer Richard Ihetu began fighting in 1952 after training with British soldiers stationed in his country. Over the next four years, Ihetu compiled an impressive 16–1 record and renamed himself "Dick Tiger". Ihetu later took his skills to the UK where, after starting out at a mediocre 5–4, he went on to win the British Commonwealth middleweight title. From there, Ihetu made his American debut in 1959. Three years later, he defeated American Gene Fullmer in a brutal 15-round decision to win the World Boxing Association title. He defended the title against Fullmer twice more, winning bouts in Las Vegas and Ibadan, Nigeria. Another American, Joey Giardello, defeated Ihetu in 1963, and for the next few years, Ihetu earned the belt back and lost it again. At one point, Ihetu even won a match against Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, which earned him a victorious rematch with Giardello. In 1966, Ihetu lost the belt yet again, and announced he would fight as a light heavyweight. Well into his late thirties by then, Ihetu decisioned champion Jose Torre and went on to defend his crown three more times before a series of losses ended his career in 1970. It was around this time that Ihetu became involved in some of the political developments of his native Nigeria, which had gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960. Ihetu supported the independence movement of the Republic of Biafra, and protested the UK's opposition to it by returning his Order of the British Empire medal. At the same time, Ihetu's health rapidly deteriorated due to serious liver problems. Ihetu returned to his native Nigeria, where he died in 1971. Twenty years later, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Max TheilerMax Theiler, 1951. (AP Images.)

After graduating from the premedical program at the University of Cape Town in 1918, Max Theiler (1899–1972) continued his training at Saint Thomas' Hospital, University of London, specializing in tropical medicine. In 1922, he moved on to Harvard University, where he began his groundbreaking research on yellow fever in mice. He later took his work to the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City, where he developed a vaccine for yellow fever that virtually eliminated the disease as a public health issue within a decade. His colleague Albert Sabin—known for developing an oral vaccine for polio—nominated Theiler for the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, which Theiler eventually received in 1951. Theiler taught at Yale for the remainder of his career, and died in New Haven in 1972.

Tom MboyaTom Mboya, 1960. (AP Images.)

In his autobiography, Freedom and After—written at the age of thirty-three—Tom Mboya (1930–1969) described his experiences as a student attending schools in different parts of his native Kenya, which allowed him to learn the languages of multiple ethnic groups spread across his rapidly changing country. This, he claimed, compelled him to transcend tribal loyalties and to have a more global outlook, which served him well as he rose in prominence as a labor organizer and politician. Kenya, at the time, was still a colonial territory of the British Empire, and Mboya had to learn to work with both local unions and imperial authorities in order to negotiate labor agreements and fight for better working conditions. In 1955, the British government offered Mboya the opportunity to study at Oxford for a year. Though the British were hoping to sway Mboya toward supporting the colonial status quo, Mboya instead used his time in the UK to establish new ties with the United States. In the year that followed, he embarked on a speaking tour in the US, where he set up relationships with American businesspeople and labor leaders. The most famous initiative to arise out of these meetings was Mboya's "airlift" program, by which hundreds of Kenyans traveled to America to receive a higher education. The scheme was funded in part by then-Senator John F. Kennedy, and its graduates included Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wangari Maathai and Barack Obama, Sr. Mboya, meanwhile, continued his rise as a national political figure, only to have that career cut short when he was assassinated in 1969.

Wangari MaathaiWangari Muta Maathai, 2004. (AP Images/Tor Richardsen, Scanpix.)

The environmental activist Wangari Maathai (b. 1940) grew up in a farming community in Kenya. Recognizing Maathai's potential, her teachers at the Loreto Limuru Girls School helped her to get a scholarship to Mount Scholastica College (now known as Benedictine College), a Catholic women's school in Atchison, Kansas. Maathai's attendance was part of Tom Mboya's "airlift" program, whereby hundreds of talented Kenyans traveled to the US for a higher education. Maathai earned a B.S. in biology in 1964, and later studied at the University of Pittsburgh. After returning to Kenya, she earned a PhD at the University of Nairobi, becoming one of the first women in sub-Saharan Africa to do so. By the late 1980s, Maathai had become one of her country's leading environmental advocates, calling on the government to reverse the trend of deforestation and irresponsible development. Her efforts also sought to address the condition of women; indeed, one of her best known initiatives was to recruit and pay women to plant and care for trees, a project that oversaw hundreds of nurseries throughout Kenya and the surrounding region. For this, she received multiple awards, including the Goldman Prize (for environmental activists), the Africa Prize for Leadership, the Better World Award, and in 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African American woman, and the first environmentalist, to receive the honor.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe MutomboHakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo (

The expanding influence and popularity of the National Basketball Association made it inevitable that players from Africa would contribute to the league's success. Two of the most popular African players—whose careers peaked at the height of the NBA's popularity—were Hakeem Olajuwon (b. 1963) and Dikembe Mutombo (b. 1966). Olajuwon was perhaps the best all-around athlete to play the center position, as demonstrated by his signature scoring move known as the "Dream Shake." Even though he did not take up basketball until the age of 15, Olajuwon enjoyed a successful career at the University of Houston before being picked first in the 1984 draft by the hometown Rockets. Over the next decade and a half, Olajuwon won numerous awards, including Most Valuable Player, Finals MVP (twice), and Defensive Player of the Year. He was also named as one of the 50 greatest players of all time. Mutombo was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, after having played for Georgetown on a USAID scholarship. Mutombo was known for his defense, winning Defensive Player of the Year four times and holding the record for blocked shots—previously held by Olajuwon.

Besides being among the best to play at their position, the two men also represent the diversity of the continent of their birth. Olajuwon is a devout Muslim from Lagos, Nigeria, whose observance of the month-long Ramadan fast while still playing remains one of the most difficult feats of endurance in the history of professional sports. Mutombo, meanwhile, was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is a member of the Luba ethnic group. A speaker of eight languages, Mutombo has been recognized for his humanitarian work, which is focused mainly on infrastructure improvements in his native country. In 2007, President George W. Bush invited Mutombo to the State of the Union speech, where the President praised him for his ongoing efforts.

Wole SoyinkaWole Soyinka, 2007. (AP Images/Georgios Kefalas.)

The playwright and poet Wole Soyinka (b. 1934) came of age at a time when his native Nigeria was undergoing a massive social and political transformation. After completing his college education in Leeds, England, Soyinka was involved the independence movement, and later drew the ire of Nigerian military dictators. At one point, Soyinka was even placed in solitary confinement for nearly two years following an act of political protest. These experiences, along with the intersection of Yoruba religion and the Western literary canon, have shaped Soyinka's outlook. Some of his most passionate and poignant works have been his satirical plays, such as The Trials of Brother Jero (1963), Opera Wonyosi (1981), Kongi's Harvest (1965), and A Play of Giants: A Fantasia on the Aminian Theme (1984), which criticize the African strongmen who, in the name of nationalism, replaced colonial rule with military dictatorships. Soyinka earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986 and, in keeping with his commitment to human rights, dedicated his lecture to Nelson Mandela, then still serving time in a South African prison. In the 1990s, violence in Nigeria under the Sani Abacha regime prompted Soyinka to escape to the United States, where he served as a faculty member at several institutions, including the Emory University, Cornell University, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles). From the US, Soyinka's advocacy for humanitarian struggles—and his criticism of corruption and human rights violations—has continued in the form of essays, plays, and speeches.

Ahmed ZewaliAhmed Zewail. (Nobel Foundation.)

The 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Egyptian-born Ahmed Zewail (b. 1946), who had earned his PhD in the field from the University of Pennsylvania in 1974. From there, he moved on to the University of California, Berkeley, where he began work that eventually led to the founding of what is called femtochemistry. In short, this is the science of observing the movement of atomic particles within an infinitesimal period of time—literally a millionth of a billionth of a second, or a femtosecond. Such minute observations required Zewail and his colleagues to develop 4-D microscopes capable of tracking the atomic motions, a technology that Zewail used to write a groundbreaking 1987 article that fundamentally changed the way scientists observed chemical reactions. In addition to winning a Nobel Prize twelve years later, Zewail also received the Wolf Foundation Prize in Chemistry (1993), the Priestley Medal of the American Chemical Society (2011), and a Presidential appointment to the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2009). Zewail's contributions have not been limited to the laboratory, however. He has been a strong advocate of scientific endeavors as means of greater international cooperation. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him as the first United States science envoy to the Middle East. In 2011, Zewail was a vocal supporter of the democratic reform movements in his native Egypt, calling for the peaceful removal of the Mubarak regime and a transition to a full democracy.