What was it like to be a slave in America? That’s a provocative question. And one that most of us have no idea how to answer.
Hollywood films like Gone With The Wind give a false picture of slavery. The slaves in that movie were mostly gentle, happy and child-like. In the 1915 film Birth of a Nation the slave was portrayed as a savage animal that was only good for working the fields. In Mandingo the slave was a willing sexual object to be toyed with at will. Even modern films like Django Unchained don’t show the real horrors of slavery.
American school children aren’t taught the truth about slavery either. Textbooks present a sanitized version of the institution. Some of the more recent ones refer to slaves as “servants” or “African immigrants.”
We have slave narratives, the words of people who were actually held in bondage. But these are few and far between. Some black families have a few slavery stories passed down through the generations. But these don’t tell the entire history.
The subject of slavery makes some people feel shame, while others feel guilt. African Americans are proud of overcoming slavery while at the same time acknowledge its lasting effects. But hearing all about the gruesome details is something most blacks just can’t deal with.
The white community fairs no better. It’s mostly in denial about slavery. Few can admit to benefiting from its legacy, even in the South. The pre – Civil War economy in the South largely depended upon slavery. If you said slavery was the foundation of Southern wealth you would not be wrong.
The African Slave Trade has been defended in various ways. Some point to the greed of African slave traders. Some remind us that America did not invent the institution and that slavery already existed in Africa. Others point to the lack of major slave revolts as proof most slaves were happy with their condition.
This is a dangerous false narrative. Slaves resisted in various ways. Some refused to work. Some ran away. While others took up arms against their masters.
For the slave, resistance of any kind carried severe consequences. Captured runaways were often maimed, sold or wound up being worked to death.
Of course any African caught making plans for an uprising was immediately dealt with. No question. Laws were passed to make organized resistance harder to pull off. In many states it was illegal to teach a slave how to read or write. Any slave caught with these precious life skills was severely punished.
In spite of the risks, there were more than 250 documented slave rebellions. From the arrival of the first slave ship American blacks did rise up against their oppressors. We’ll discuss a few of them below.
This was the largest slave revolt of America’s colonial period. It all started on Sunday, September 9, 1739 in South Carolina when a group of about 20 slaves went on a killing spree. These were no ordinary slaves. Many had military experience, either in the Yamasee Indian War or in their native Angola. Some of them were former prisoners of war who had been sold into slavery. These men knew how to fight and handle weapons.
The rebellious slaves gathered at the Stono River. They proceeded to kill the owners of a store called Hutchenson’s. Their victims’ heads wound up being placed on steps in front of the store. The rebels continued killing whites and burning homes as they headed further south. Their goal was to reach the Spanish colony at St. Augustine, Florida...Why? Because the Spanish had promised freedom and land to any slave who could make it there.
The ranks of the rebellious slaves grew as they continued their march to freedom. But not every slave joined in the fight. Some loyal slaves actually hid their masters, saving their lives.
By the time they reached King’s Highway there were around 100 rebels. They continued marching, carrying banners and shouting “Lukango” or “Liberty!” in their native language. (Kikongo). But these men would find liberty only in death.
The rebels managed to fight off the colonists for more than a week before being overrun. Although most of the rebels were killed, it is thought that some of them did reach Fort Mose. Aftershocks of the Stono Rebellion were felt into the next year. In 1740 South Carolina executed at least 50 additional rebel slaves.
Slave Insurrection of 1741, (New York City)In early 1741 New York’s Fort George burned to the ground. Around this same time the city suffered other disastrous fires. Including four in one day. The other blazes happened in New Jersey and Long Island. Before April of that year, 13 fires had burned Lower Manhattan.
At the time New York had a sizable black population. With African Americans accounting for 1700 people out of a total population of 7,000. The only city with more blacks was Charleston, South Carolina.
After the fires burned out several whites came forward accusing Africans of setting them. People claimed to have heard slaves bragging about the fires and threatening to do it again. The assumption was that blacks were planning a major rebellion. They thought the plot probably originated with secret black societies and the within the Catholic Church.
The city’s African American population of the 1740’s still had close ties with their ethnic roots. There were distinct groups of blacks descended from specific African peoples. Some were Igbo, who originated around the Niger River. The Papa came from the area of Benin. There were the Malagasy, from Madagascar.
There were other black ethnic groups too. The “Cuba People” were folks who had been captured in Cuba in the spring of 1740. This group was probably brought to NYC from Havana. They were once free black and brown people residing in that island nation. They were strongly suspected because of their history of living as free men and women.
There was soon an investigation of this rumored plot by the city’s slaves. The story of a plot was backed up by a 16 year-old Irish indentured servant named Mary Burton. She claimed to have first hand knowledge of a plan to kill white men, capture white women and set the whole city on fire.
The investigation had a terrible outcome. Thirty black men, two white men and two white women were executed. Seventy blacks were deported. They were sent to far-away places like Newfoundland, Madeira, Colonial Haiti and Curaçao. By the end of the summer 17 more blacks had been hanged. And 13 more sent to the stake.
Gabriel was a tall, well dressed slave living on the Prosser plantation in Virginia. Around 1800 he hatched a well-publicized conspiracy. He and 53 other blacks planned to take over the state armory and hold Gov. James Monroe hostage.
Gabriel was a literate slave. This was very unusual. Only 5% of Southern slaves could read or write. More than just literate, Gabriel showed superior intellect, he was a student of complex social and political theory.
Being an educated black man, other slaves looked up to Gabriel. But that wasn’t the only reason he was admired. He was also a highly skilled blacksmith, this made him a valuable slave. Away from the job Gabriel is said to have carried himself with dignity and grace.
Politically and socially Gabriel was ahead of his time. His rebellion was inspired by both the French and Haitian revolutions. Ironically Gabriel was also a fan of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about liberty. Jefferson was our third president, an innovative thinker, and a major slave owner.
After meeting two French soldiers in a local tavern, Gabriel hatched his plan. He recruited his brother Solomon and another servant to help. Gabriel’s plan was soon broadcast to nearby towns and plantations. Black men and women both slave and free spread the word all the way to Norfolk.
The broadcasting of his plans was highly risky, but necessary. It was the only way to attract new recruits. But of course, this heightened the chances of getting caught.
The revolt was planned for August 30, 1800. Gabriel hoped to rally at least 1,000 slaves from the surrounding area. His motto was “Death or Liberty.” This was mocking the famous battle cry of the slave-holding revolutionary Patrick Henry.
But the huge slave rebellion was not to be. On that day, Virginia was pummeled by a massive thunderstorm. Roads were washed out. Travel was all but impossible. Still Gabriel pressed on with a small band of followers. Ultimately Gabriel was betrayed by a fearful slave named Pharoah.
The small band of rebellious slaves was soon captured. Twenty-five African Americans were hanged together. Their leader Gabriel was executed alone.
German Coast Uprising,1811
Enslaved Africans didn’t live in isolation from the world. Information found its way down the grapevine in various ways. Black servants were often treated like children. It was clear, slave owners had no respect for the the sophistication nor the intelligence of black people. They never would have guessed their slaves were well informed on world affairs.
The Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804) was lead by former slave Touissant Louverture. Under his leadership blacks were able to win their independence from the France and found the new world’s first black nation. As you could imagine, these developments struck fear deep into the hearts of Southern whites. The revolution in Haiti also struck a direct chord with African Americans.
On January 8, 1811 mulatto slave driver Charles Deslondes gathered up a force of about 25 blacks. They then robbed Andry Plantation. The plantation stores contained a cache of weapons used by the local militia.
After killing the son of the plantation’s owner, the men took various items. Uniforms. Rifles. Ammo. The men proceeded to march towards New Orleans. They intended to capture the city. Along the way dozens more men and women joined the group.
They went along singing Creole protest songs while ransacking plantations and killing whites. Some estimates place the size of Deslondes’ army at about three hundred. Others dispute this, saying the number was never more than one hundred twenty four.
To put down the rebellion they brought in South Carolina congressman Wade Hampton. This man was also a slave master and noted Indian fighter. Hampton’s force was made up U.S. Army regulars and local militia numbering at thirty. The fight lasted for two days. The blacks had only a limited supply of ammo and no reinforcements. They got to within 20 miles of New Orleans.
What happened next was basically a massacre. The slaves had no military training or experience. There were no white casualties. But there 20 dead blacks. About 50 became prisoners and the rest ran into the swamps.
In a few weeks time, 50 more rebels were rounded up. About 100 people were executed. Their heads were cut off and placed along the New Orleans highway.
The Rising (Denmark Vesey’s Plot), 1822
Denmark Vesey (Telemaque) was literate free black man living in Charleston, South Carolina. He was a skilled carpenter and a leader among his people. Vesey had been born a slave on the island of St. Thomas. At the age of 32 Vesey won a lottery and purchased his freedom for $600. He couldn’t purchase his own wife and children, so they remained slaves. This may have been why Vesey was so determined to destroy the institution of slavery.
Vesey joined the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. He soon became a “class leader,” preaching to a small group in his home during the week. Whites constantly monitored the church. They would sometimes disrupt services and arrest members. In response, Vesey began preaching from the Old Testament, particularly Exodus. He taught followers that they were the New Israelites. A chosen people whose enslavement God would punish with death.
In 1822, Vesey and other leaders from the African Church began plotting a rebellion. His right hand man was an East African priest named Gullah Jack. He led conspirators in prayer and rituals and gave them amulets to protect them in battle.
Vesey’s liberation theology, combined with Gullah Jack’s African mysticism, inspired many. And word of the rebellion spread. Vesey set July 14 (Bastille Day) as the date for revolt. Men from Charleston and surrounding area planned to seize the city’s arsenals and guard houses. They would also kill the Governor. Set fire to the city. And kill every white man they saw.
But in June, several nervous blacks told their masters about the plans. Charleston authorities soon began arresting leaders. Vesey was captured on June 22, and he and the others were brought to trial. Resisting torture and the threat of execution, the men refused to give up their followers. On July 2nd, Denmark Vesey and five other men were hanged. Gullah Jack was executed several days later, with the total number of executions reaching 35 by August 9th.
Nat Turner’s Rebellion, 1831Nat Turner led the most famous slave uprising in American history. Turner was born on Oct. 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Va. Nat man seemed to have a sense of destiny or purpose from an early age.
Turner was driven by prophetic visions, which he shared with other blacks, both slave and free. He was able to inspire about 70 people to follow him on a bloody rampage through the Virginia countryside. They stated no clear goals, but on August 22, 1831, Turner and his followers set out to kill whites.
In the wee hours of the morning, they murdered Turner’s master and his master’s wife and children with axes. In just two days the rebels attacked about 15 homes. They killed about 60 whites as they moved toward Jerusalem, Va.
After a white militia began to attack the rebels other slaves who had intended to the join the revolt backed down. They must have seen the handwriting on the wall. Most of Turner’s men were quickly captured. Turner himself was on the lamb for over a month.
On Sunday, Oct. 30, Turner was captured. A special court tried him on Nov. 5 and sentenced him to be hanged six days later. But Turner’s death wasn’t enough for outraged whites.
They took his body and skinned it. Some of his parts were kept as souvenirs. They made a purse from his skin. Some of his remains were rendered into axle grease. His head was cut off. It wound up being given to the biology department of Wooster College in Ohio. Some say Turner’s skull is still there, hidden in storage.
Twenty one of Nat Turner’s rebels were executed by hanging. Another 16 were sold to slave owners in other regions. The state of Virginia reacted by passing harsher laws to control black folks. That’s why many of the state’s free blacks fled Virginia, never to return.
Black Seminole Slave Rebellion (1835-1842)
Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad are well known parts of American history. But few know of the Black Seminoles. These are descendants of free blacks and escaped slaves who joined the Seminole Nation in Florida. From 1835-1838 in Florida, the Black Seminoles led the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history.
The year 1836 marked the peak of the rebellion. Hundreds of slaves fled their plantations to join the rebel forces in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). At least 385 slaves fought alongside free blacks and their Seminole allies. Together they destroyed more than twenty-one sugar plantations in central Florida.
Before the war some Black Seminoles were captured by whites and claimed as runaways. Those who survived the Second Seminole War feared re-enslavement and did not want to move West. The U.S. Army promised freedom to those who would surrender and many did. In the end many Black Seminoles died on the same forced march taken by other Eastern tribes, the Trail of Tears.
Never let it be said that African Americans peacefully accepted life in bondage. The story of these slave uprisings tell a unique tale of heroism against impossible odds. Almost every one of these major slave revolts were doomed to fail. Most of the rebels lacked the military training, access to weaponry and tactical know how to control even a small piece of land for very long.
The heroism and sacrifices of these would – be revolutionaries are an important part of our nation’s history. In an era where bravery was considered a part of manhood, slave revolts proved black men were ready, willing and able to fight for the cause of freedom. After some initial hesitation, America sent 200,000 black men to fight in the Civil War. The conflict that finally put an end to the evil institution of slavery.