The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500–1865 | National Humanities Center

Primary Source Guides

The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500–1865

Made possible by a grant from the Wachovia Foundation.

Black and white photograph of an African American enslaved family in front of a home on a plantation
“Five generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina,” 1862, photograph by Timothy H. O’Sullivan

The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500–1865” is an open educational resource that explores the complex themes and historical developments related to the African American experience from the early 16th century to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. This volume is the first part of a larger series. This primary source guide is organized into five sub-topics and each section contains a vast collection of primary source materials including historical documents, literary texts, and works of art which have been contextualized with annotations and notes, and feature a set of discussion questions for classroom use.


  • Investigates how Africans lived in freedom before the onset of enslavement.
  • Explores the perceptions of African cultures by both Europeans and African Americans.
  • Examines the harrowing experiences of capture and enslavement for those who would become African Americans.


  • Examines the profound impact of enslavement in America on Africans and their descendants.
  • Explores how enslaved individuals maintained their sense of selfhood within the slave-master relationship.
  • Considers the aspects of slavery that freed men and women emphasized when recounting their experiences.
  • Investigates the multifaceted responses of enslaved individuals to their status as the property of others.
  • Reflects on the broader societal impact of slavery on white people.


  • Explores how enslaved African Americans gradually constructed communities over time and identifies the principal characteristics of these communities.
  • Examines the obstacles that enslaved individuals faced in forming and maintaining communities.
  • Considers the responses of white Americans to the collective actions and behaviors of African American communities.
  • Examines how autonomy was exercised through community building by antebellum African Americans.


  • Investigates how African Americans constructed their identities in antebellum America.
  • Compares and contrasts the exercise of power and self-determination by enslaved and free African Americans.
  • Explores how African Americans defined themselves as members of various identity groups.


  • Explores the aspirations and strategies of enslaved African Americans in envisioning and pursuing freedom.
  • Examines the roles played by free African Americans in anti-slavery campaigns and in the efforts of individual slaves to achieve freedom.
  • Considers how these efforts set the stage for African Americans as a free people following the Civil War.

This educational resource provides a comprehensive examination of the African American experience during the early centuries of America, encompassing the complex and evolving themes of freedom, enslavement, community, identity, and emancipation. It offers valuable insights into the historical and social dynamics that shaped African American identity and resilience during this period.

Institute Scholars
  • Colin A. Palmer (Trustee; NHC Fellow, 1989–90)
  • William L. Andrews (E. Maynard Adams Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  • John Michael Vlach (Professor, American Studies and Anthropology, George Washington University)
Read More

History / African American History / American Civil War / Antebellum Era / United States of America /


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, PDFs, downloads, and other media are provided under the NHC Principles on Copyright, Fair Use, and Open Licensing. Visit the Principles webpage for more information on how you can use this resource.