When were African Americans granted citizenship?

Citizenship was unequivocally granted to African Americans in 1868 with ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, but it would be almost another 100 years before African Americans were accorded full protection under the law and discrimination outlawed.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization (and citizenship) to "free white persons," ruling out slaves and free blacks, as well. However, free blacks were accorded a quasi-citizenship in some northern states, being allowed to vote and hold property, but this gradually diminished after 1800. And contrary to what some might believe, free blacks endured significant racial discrimination in the North.

If there was ever any doubt as to whether or not African Americans were entitled to citizenship, the Dred Scott decision of 1857 specifically set forth that African slaves (and their descendants) could never be citizens and had no citizenship rights. That decision, however, only fueled the fire.

While the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln did free the slaves in Southern states and many fought in the Union Army, it was the Thirteenth Amendment passed in 1864 that outlawed slavery throughout the United States; it did not, however, confer rights of citizenship.

Following the Civil War, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, did grant citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, but it did not end racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was intended to end segregation but was rarely enforced; and in 1883 the Act was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that state governments had no power to prohibit discrimination by private individuals and organizations, paving the way for Jim Crow laws and confining African Americans to the status of second-class citizens. Many of the provisions set forth in the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were later restored in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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