Ellen Craft William Craft
“Now William,” said Ellen, “listen to me and take my advice, and we shall be free in less than a month.” “Let me hear your plans, then “said William. “Take part of your money and purchase me a good suit of gentlemen’s apparel, and when the white people give us our holiday, let us go off to the north. I am white enough to go as the master, and you can pass as my servant.” “But you are not tall enough for a man,” said the husband. “Get me a pair of high-heeled boots, and they will bring me up more than an inch, and get me a very high hat, then I’ll do,” rejoined the wife. “But then, my dear, you would make a very boyish looking man, with no whiskers or moustache,” remarked William. “I could bind up my face in a handkerchief,” said Ellen, “as if I was suffering from the toothache, and then no one would discover the want of a beard.” “What if you are called upon to write your name in the books at the hotels?” “I would also bind up my right hand and put it in a sling, and that would be an excuse for not writing.” “I fear that you could not carry out the deception for so long a time, for it must be several hundred miles to the free States,” said William. “Come, William” entreated his wife, don’t be a coward! Get me the clothes, and I promise you we shall both be free in a couple of days. You have money enough to fit me out and to pay our passage to the North.”
The masquerade succeeds. Abolitionists welcome Ellen and William Craft into Philadelphia on Christmas morning.
Dorothy Sterling, ed., We Are Your Sisters, 62-64
Day to Day Resistance
Slave resistance took a variety of forms, but for every dramatic revolt there were dozens of instances of individual acts of resistance. More common than organized, large-scale rebellion was the daily resistance of running away, slowing down work, refusing to cooperate, striking back at a master, or hiding children in the woods to save them from being sold.
Running away required ingenuity and courage! Some slave women disguised themselves as men or boys. Some lived in caves close to the plantation to keep in touch with their families. One simply walked off the plantation, her children in her arms. Another woman had herself sealed in a crate as cargo, not be opened until she arrived North.
Running away almost always meant enduring hardships. The Littles were a slave couple who walked hundreds of miles barefoot, with blisters on their feet, braving wolves, bounty hunters, and masses of mosquitoes to reach Chicago and freedom.
Those who remained behind also resisted. Milla Granson, a slave woman, ran a midnight school teaching other slaves to read and write from twelve at night until two in the morning. A number of them wrote their own passes and started for Canada. Some mothers worked extra hours doing wash and ironing and after years saved enough money to buy their children from slavery. Some of those purchases cost hundreds of dollars.
As part of resistance, slaves developed a system of reconnaissance among white folks and forms of communication among slaves that were undetected by whites.
All these forms of resistance aimed at reclaiming the power taken away from blacks by the oppressive system of slavery and racism. In a variety of ways slaves were able to take charge of their lives and continue to hold on to their human dignity.
See Dorothy Sterling, ed., We Are Your Sisters; Gerda Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America
The South, 1840s: Day-to-Day Resistance
A daughter remembers what her slave mother taught her:
The one doctrine of my mother’s teaching which was branded upon my senses was I should never let anyone abuse me. “I’ll kill you, gal, if you don’t stand up for yourself,” she would say. Fight, and if you can’t fight, kick: if you can’t kick, then bite.
Gerda Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America, 35
The South, 1840s: “Foolin’ Massa”
Without any knowledge of newspapers, or books, or telegraphy, the slaves have their own way of gathering news from the whole country. They have secret signs, an “Underground Telephone.”…Intuitively they learn all the tricks of dramatic art. Their perceptions are quickened. When seemingly absorbed in work, they see and hear all that is going on around them. They memorize with wonderful ease and correctness….
One former slave woman says, “My father and the other boys used to crawl under the house an’ lie on the ground to hear massa’ read the newspaper to missis’ when they first began to talk about the [Civil] war.”
“I couldn’t read but my uncle could,” says another. “I was a waiting-maid, an’ used to help missis’ to dress in the morning. If massa’ wanted to tell her something he didn’t want me to know, he used to spell it out. I could remember the letters, an as soon as I got away I ran to uncle an’ spelled them over to him, an’ he told me what they meant.”
I [the interviewer] was attracted by this, and asked if she could do this now.
“Try me missis, try me an’ see!” she exclaimed. So I spelled a long sentence as rapidly as possible, without stopping between the words. She immediately repeated…without missing a letter.
Gerda Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America, 29-30
Massachusetts, 1851: Shadrach
A year before the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, making it illegal to harbor or help runaway slaves, Rev. Lewis Hayden, a black preacher, and twenty of his friends swept into a Massachusetts courtroom and spirited the slave Shadrach away before he was sent back into slavery.
Several of the abductors are now being tried. Their guilt is undeniable; there were many witnesses. The jury deliberates a long time. All believe them guilty except one. Whatever they do they cannot convince this man to convict them. It is a hung jury. The conspirators go free.
The man who held out for acquittal himself drove Shadrach from Concord to Leominster during his escape.
See Alice Felt Tyler, Freedom’s Ferment
New York, 1857: Liberty Born of Struggle
Frederick Douglass, a freed slave, gives one of his greatest speeches at the West India Emancipation Celebration:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle!...If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will….
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 179
The South, 1873: Reconstruction
Thaddeus Stevens Charles Sumner
The end of the Civil War brings new political power to blacks. Three years before a former slave was elected a U.S. senator from Mississippi, and now seven blacks are in the U.S. House of Representatives. There are black postmasters, state legislators, policemen, and mayors. It seems like a new day is dawning. It is an era of firsts: the first black diplomat, the first black woman lawyer, the first black graduate of Harvard University, the first black judges…..
Political rights are possible, but economic rights are denied. Frederick Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner lead the fight for forty acres and a mule. They want the U.S. government to break up the large plantations and give the newly freed blacks forty acres so they can really start a new life. Congress fails to pass any such legislation, so the southern blacks are forced into sharecropping.
This arrangement soon becomes a new system of oppression, as the black farmers have to rely on whites for loans and for marketing their crops. They fall into debt and the whites hold them in another form of slavery—debt slavery.
See Lerone Bennett, JR., Before the Mayflower
The South, 1890s: Separate and Unequal
In the first generation after the Civil War, blacks and whites mingled in every activity. For two decades whites worked to undermine the gains of Reconstruction. In 1873 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there were two kinds of citizenship—state and federal—and that the Fourteenth Amendment that guaranteed civil rights to all people was designed to protect the rights of federal citizenship only.
In a number of civil rights cases in 1883 the high court ruled that states could not discriminate but at the same time created an opening for individuals to do so. By the 1890s many southern states had passed laws segregating railroads and other facilities. There were now two Americas, one white, the other black—separate and unequal.
Chicago, 1901: Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells
I have seen very small white children hang their black dolls. It is not the child’s fault; he is simply an apt pupil.
Gerda Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America, 147
The century has just turned. Nine out of every ten black people live in the South. The Jim Crow laws are in full effect.
Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Orphaned at an early age, she worked her way through college and became a journalist. Mobs finally drove her from the South because of her fierce editorials against lynching. Settling in Chicago, she continues to write and speak out against lynching. She reports that from 1878 to 1898, ten thousand black people have been lynched. In the South, the lynchings are justified because the blacks involved have raped a white woman. In her careful investigation into the record
…it shows that men, not a few, but hundreds have been lynched for misdemeanors, while others have suffered death for no offense known to the law, the causes assigned being “mistaken identity,” “insult,” “bad reputation,” unpopularity,” “violating contract,” “running quarantine,” “giving evidence,” “frightening children by shooting at rabbit,” etc.
And as far as the charge of rape goes, in 1900 less than fifteen per cent were so charged.
Ida B. Wells begins a national campaign to stop lynching.
Herbert Aptheker, ed., Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, 1:804
United States, 1904: Causes of Lynching
Mary Church Terrell
Black activist Mary Church Terrell, in her fight to stop lynching, speaks out:
Before 1904 was three months old, 31 Negroes had been lynched. Of this number, 15 were murdered within one week in Arkansas, and one was shot to death in Springfield, Ohio, by a mob composed of men who did not take the trouble to wear masks. Hanging, shooting, and burning black men, women, and children in the United States have become so common that such occurrences create buy little sensation and evoke but slight comment now.
…It is a great mistake to suppose that rape is the real cause of lynching in the South. Beginning with the Ku Klux Klan the Negro has been constantly subjected to some form of organized violence ever since he became free. It is easy to prove that rape is simply the pretext and not the cause of lynching. Statistics show that, out of every 100 Negroes who are lynched, from 75-85 are not even accused of this crime, and many who are accused of it are innocent….
What then is the cause of lynching? At the last analysis, it will be discovered that there are just two causes of lynching. In the first place, it is due to race hatred, the hatred of a stronger people toward a weaker who were once held as slaves. In the second place, it is due to the lawlessness so prevalent in the section where nine-tenths of the lynchings occur…..
Lynching is the aftermath of slavery. The white men who shoot Negroes to death and flay them while alive, and the white women who apply flaming torches to their oil-soaked bodies today, are the sons and daughters of women who had but little, if any, compassion on the race when it was enslaved….
Gerda Lerner, ed., Black Women in White America, 207-209
Washington D.C., 1913: Jubilee
This is the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the year of jubilee. President Woodrow Wilson orders the segregation of restaurants, offices, and facilities in the Post Office, Treasury, Interior Department, and Library of Congress. In four years he will lead the United States into World War I, in order to “make the world safe for democracy.”
Today he greets an African American delegation saying: Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.
Stereotypes, Distortions and Omissions, 28