African American History Timeline: 1850 to 1859

Placard Cautioning Slaves to Be Careful
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The 1850s were a turbulent time in American history. For African Americans, the decade was marked by great achievements as well as setbacks. For instance, several states established personal liberty laws to counter the negative impact of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. However, to counter these personal liberty laws, southern states such as Virginia established codes that hindered the movement of enslaved African Americans in urban environments.

1850

  • The Fugitive Slave Law is established and enforced by the United States federal government. The law honors the rights of enslavers, placing fear in both freedom seekers and formerly enslaved African Americans throughout the United States. As a result, many states begin passing personal liberty laws.
  • Virginia passes a law forcing formerly enslaved people to leave the state within one year of their emancipation.
  • Shadrack Minkins and Anthony Burns, both freedom seekers, are captured through the Fugitive Slave Law. However, through the work of attorney Robert Morris Sr. and several North American 19th-century Black activist organizations, both men were freed from enslavement.

1851

Sojourner Truth delivers "Ain't I A Woman" at the Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.

1852

North American 19-century Black activist Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

1853

William Wells Brown becomes the first African American to publish a novel. The book, titled CLOTEL is published in London.

1854

The Kansas-Nebraska Act establishes the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. This act allows the status (free or enslaved) of each state to be decided by popular vote. In addition, the act ends the anti-enslavement clause found in the Missouri Compromise.

1854-1855

States such as Connecticut, Maine, and Mississippi establish personal liberty laws. States such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island renew their laws.

1855

  • States such as Georgia and Tennessee remove binding laws on the interstate trade of enslaved people.
  • John Mercer Langston becomes the first African American elected to serve in United States' government following his election in Ohio. His grandson, Langston Hughes will become one of the most celebrated writers in American history during the 1920s.

1856

  • The Republican Party is established out of the Free Soil Party. The Free Soil Party was a small yet influential political party that was in opposition to the expansion of enslavement in territories owned by the United States.
  • Groups supporting enslavement attack Kansas' free soil town, Lawrence.
  • North American 19th-century Black activist John Brown responds to the attack in an event known as "Bleeding Kansas."

1857

  • The United States Supreme Court rules in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case that African Americans are not citizens of the United States. The case also denied Congress the ability to curtail enslavement in new territories.
  • New Hampshire and Vermont mandate that no one in these states is to be denied citizenship based on their descent. Vermont also ends the law against African Americans enlisting in the state army.
  • Virginia passes a code that makes it illegal to hire enslaved people and restricts their movement in certain parts of Richmond. The law also prohibits enslaved people from smoking, carrying canes and standing on sidewalks.
  • Ohio and Wisconsin also pass personal liberty laws.

1858

  • Vermont follows suit of other states and passes a personal liberty law. The state also says that citizenship will be granted to African Americans.
  • Kansas enters the United States as a free state.

1859

  • Following in the footsteps of William Wells Brown, Harriet E. Wilson becomes the first African American novelist to publish in the United States. Wilson's novel is entitled Our Nig.
  • New Mexico establishes an enslavement code.
  • Arizona passes a law declaring that all freed African Americans will become enslaved people on the first day of the new year.
  • The last ship to transporting enslaved people arrives in Mobile Bay, Ala.
  • John Brown leads the Harper's Ferry raid in Virginia.