African Americans have at various times in United States history been referred to as African, colored, Negro, Afro-American, and black, as well as African American. Exactly what portion of the African American population is of solely African ancestry is not known. Over the past 300 and more years in the United States, considerable racial mixture has taken place between persons of African descent and those with other racial backgrounds, mainly of white European or American Indian ancestry. Historically, the predominant attitude toward racial group membership in the United States has been that persons having any black African ancestry are considered to be African American. In some parts of the United States, especially in the antebellum South, laws were written to define racial group membership in this way, generally to the detriment of those who were not Caucasian. It is important to note, however, that ancestry and physical characteristics are only part of what has set black Americans apart as a distinct group.
African Americans Under Slavery: 1600-1865
The first Africans in the New World arrived with Spanish and Portuguese explorers and settlers. By 1600 an estimated 275, 000 Africans, both free and slave, were in Central and South America and the Caribbean area. Africans first arrived in the area that became the United States in 1619, when a handful of captives were sold by the captain of a Dutch man-of-war to settlers at Jamestown. Others were brought in increasing numbers to fill the desire for labor in a country where land was plentiful and labor scarce. By the end of the 17th century, approximately 1, 300, 000 Africans had landed in the New World. From 1701 to 1810 the number reached 6, 000, 000, with another 1, 800, 000 arriving after 1810. Some Africans were brought directly to the English colonies in North America. Others landed as slaves in the West Indies and were later resold and shipped to the mainland.
Slavery in America. The earliest African arrivals were viewed in the same way as indentured servants from Europe. This similarity did not long continue. By the latter half of the 17th century, clear differences existed in the treatment of black and white servants. A 1662 Virginia law assumed Africans would remain servants for life, and a 1667 act declared that "Baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome." By 1740 the slavery system in colonial America was fully developed. A Virginia law in that year declared slaves to be "chattel personal in the hands of their owners and possessors for all intents, construction, and purpose whatsoever."