1859: John Brown organizes slaves in an unsuccessful attempt to take over the Armory at Harper’s Ferry in October, a first step in ending southern slavery by armed intervention. Earlier, he was active in the Underground Railroad and was involved in the massacre of proslavery activists in Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, which set up a brutal guerrilla war in the state.
1859: Bishop Jermain Wesley Loguen publishes his book, As A Slave and as A Freeman. A Narrative of Real Life, in Syracuse, New York.
1859: A conductor on the Underground Railroad, businessman, writer, historian and civil rights activist William Still challenges the segregation of Philadelphia’s public transit system, which had separate seating for whites and Blacks. He keeps lobbying and, in 1865, the Pennsylvania legislature passes a law to integrate streetcars across the state. Before the War, he was chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society and was friends with John Brown, sheltering several of his associates after the raid on Harper’s Ferry. In 1872, Still, known as the “Father of the Underground,” publishes, The Underground Railroad Records, based on the carefully recorded secret notes he kept in diaries during those years. It is one of the most comprehensive documents ever recorded on this period.
1861: Harriet Jacobs, an African American writer, was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina and was sexually harassed by her master and ran away to New York. She publishes her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, to expose how awful life as a slave is for women specifically.
1861: William Cooper Nell is an abolitionist, journalist, publisher and author who works for integration of schools and public facilities in Massachusetts. He is also the first African American to hold a federal civilian position when he becomes a post office clerk in Boston.
1863: President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, which states that all slaves in Rebel territory are free on January 1. However, the proclamation does not free slaves in the states that never left the Union. Freed African Americans find themselves with very limited occupational opportunities and many are forced to continue to work for their former owners. In cities, they face increased job competition and exclusion. Because of the war effort, rapid migration from south to north occurs. This migration, coupled with the generally lower wages of the unstable Civil War economy, leads European American workers to fear that African Americans will replace them in the labor force and take all available new jobs. The result is a series of race riots, the most serious of which takes place in New York City. Many African Americans, however, enlist and fight in the Civil War.
1861-1865: The U.S. Civil War claims the life of approximately 620,000 lives. The total number of African Americans serving in the military during this War is estimated at 200,000. This is approximately 10 percent of the Union fighting force; 38,000 die during the War. Twenty-one African Americans receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, five for their service to the Navy and sixteen for valor in the Army. Of the Army awards, 11 are issued to soldiers exhibiting bravery and courage at the Battle of Chafin’s Farm.
1861–1863: In the early years of the Civil War, President Lincoln and Union military officers refuse offers of help from African Americans who want to fight against slavery. However, African Americans are pressed into service in the southern states, forming several Confederate regiments.
1863: Authorization is finally given for the muster of Union regiments of African American soldiers. In May, the War Department organizes African American troops into the United States Colored Troops (USCT). By July, 30 African Americans regiments are under USCT Command, and serve with distinction during the War.
1863: Sergeant William Harvey Carney, of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, is born as a slave but reaches freedom through the Underground Railroad. He is the first Black soldier awarded the Medal of Honor, earned for gallantry in saving the regimental colors during the Union’s unsuccessful Battle of Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.
1863: At the Battle of Port Hudson in Louisiana, Captain James Lewis, who began his participation in the War as a Confederate officer, leads his troops in battle. After the war, he returns to Louisiana and is active in the Republican party.
1863: Martin R. Delany, the first African American field officer, serves as major of the 104th Regiment of Colored Troops. He is an abolitionist, journalist, physician, soldier and writer, and arguably the first proponent of Black nationalism. Delany is credited with the Pan-African slogan of "Africa for Africans."
1863: Robert Smalls and a number of the crew fear for the safety of their families. Smalls, a sailor on the Confederate ship, Planter, commandeers the vessel by impersonating the Captain, who has gone ashore, leaving the vessel in the hands of the Black crew. Knowing all the important passwords, Smalls avoids detection and sails the vessel out of Charleston harbor and through the Confederate-controlled seas. He then returns to a different wharf in the harbor and picks up his and many the other crew's families. He then sails the vessel out again and turns it over to the Union. Awarded the rank of captain, he serves the Union with distinction during the conflict.
African American women also participate, with many serving in hospitals and military camps.
Lucy Carter serves courageously as a spy for the 16th New York Cavalry stationed at Vienna, Virginia. She carried a pass issued by Lt. Colonel George S. Hollister entitling her to pass through the lines of the 16th New York "at pleasure."
Harriet “Minty” Tubman, is a fugitive slave whose work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad made her a legend, and earned her the nickname “Moses.” Worried that she would be sold and separated from her family, Minty fled bondage in 1849, following the North Star on a 100-mile trek into Pennsylvania. A master of ingenious tricks, such as leaving on Saturdays, two days before slave owners could post runaway notices in the newspapers, she boasts of having never lost a single passenger. During the War, she works as a nurse and a spy for the Union Army in South Carolina. On June 1, 1863 she joins Colonel James Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina Infantry, composed of emancipated slaves, in an assault on several plantations along the Combahee River, South Carolina. She is the first woman to lead a combat assault.
Susie King Taylor, the first Black Army nurse, is the wife of a noncommissioned officer in Company E of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. She is employed as a laundress for the company, but serves as both teacher and nurse to the troops. Susie had learned to read and write during her years in slavery, and she taught these basic skills to many soldiers in the company. When the hospital needed additional competent women to nurse the growing number of wounded Union troops, she quickly volunteers her services. At Beaufort in 1863, she meets Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, and records that Miss Barton was solicitous of the many Black soldiers hospitalized there.
Sojourner Truth confined most of her activity to the Northern states during the War, serving as a spy for many Union regiments. Origionlly called Isabella, she