South Carolina, 1526: First Slave Revolt The first settlement within the present borders of the United States sees the first slave revolt. About five hundred Spaniards bring with them one hundred African slaves. The slaves’ revolt and the Spaniards are so discouraged and beaten that they return to Haiti, leaving the Africans living with the indigenous populations, … Continued
The first settlement within the present borders of the United States sees the first slave revolt. About five hundred Spaniards bring with them one hundred African slaves. The slaves’ revolt and the Spaniards are so discouraged and beaten that they return to Haiti, leaving the Africans living with the indigenous populations, the first of several black and native acts of solidarity.
Things are getting bad from the viewpoint of the white planters. The white women are out of control. They refuse to accept white supremacy. They are not only associating with but they are marrying black men! Racism as a system does not yet exist, so the powerful rely on the only other thing besides weapons available to them—the law.
And as much as divers freeborn English women, forgetful of their free condition, and to the disgrace of our nation, do intermarry with Negro slaves….or deterring such free-born women from such shameful matches, be it enacted: That whatsoever free-born woman shall intermarry with any slave, from and after the last day of the present assembly, shall serve the master of that slave during the life of her husband; and that all the issue of such free-born women, so married, shall be slaves as their fathers were.
It does not work. White women defy the law, brave lifetime servitude for themselves and slavery for their children in order to marry the men they love. The mingling of the races continue in Maryland and other colonies where similar laws are established.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 301
In addition to the direct evidence for a large number of slave revolts in the United States is the indirect evidence found in the white man’s laws that legalized branding, flogging, burning, the amputation of limbs, hamstringing, other gruesome tortures, and death to punish resistance.
Massive successful revolts did not happen in the United States the way they did in Latin America and the Caribbean, Jamaica, Surinam, and Brazil, especially in the area of Bahia, had constant rebellion.
Historian Eugene Genovese has enumerated some of the reasons for the differences. It was not that slavery was somehow more humane in the United States, or that the slaves liked their oppression there. The difference lies rather in the conditions surrounding the plantations—the terrain, the ration of whites to slaves, etc.
Genovese’s analysis suggests that if certain conditions were present there was a higher probability of a slave revolt:
absenteeism and depersonalization in the master-slave relationship;
In a small town twenty miles from Charleston, a group of enslaved Africans meet together and plot their freedom. With their leader, Jemmy, they break into a weapons storehouse and finally gather about seventy to eighty others. Their aim is to march to the Spanish colony of Florida. They march in the open with two drums beating and shouts of “Liberty” piercing the air. For that moment they are no longer slaves, no longer objects of servitude but men—soldiers of liberty. Their step, their voices, their courage all show it. Vincent Harding,
Quaco and Cuffee, two slaves, are tied to the stake, the dry kindling reaching up to their knees. The white mob yells and presses close to them. The two confess to being part of a conspiracy to set fire to the white man’s fort.
The whites are hysterical. Deep down they know that the oppression of the slave only makes the fever for freedom grow hotter. The conspirators decided on their strategy a little over a month ago, on a Sunday afternoon, over a bowl of punch. Forty or fifty of them were involved with plans to include other country people and blacks.
The mob presses closer, screaming, the authorities take their last opportunity to get them to name the other conspirators. They dangle life before the slaves like a carrot. Quaco and Cuffee refuse to name the others. They are burned alive.
Thirteen other African Americans are executed on the gallows; one is starved to death in chains, another broken on the wheel. Four whites were also involved. They, too, are executed. Two are women.
The whites carry out the torturous deaths to bring terror to the black and white community. Many slaves are still not cowed.
Years later, a young black boy enters a Louisiana town. On the post by the road are nailed two black hands. They are the hands of a rebel, recently hung on the gibbet. Some pass by in terror. They cower and step back from the line, obedient and silent. For them those black hands mean “stop.” Others pass by and remember the rebellion, its cause and courage. For them the hands beckon them forward. They step over the line and join the struggle. The whites intended those h ands to intimidate and silence, but in the memory of the defiant and those who want to be, those two black hands become dangerous.
Gary Nash, Red, White and Black, 124; Herbert Aptheker, ed., Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, 4-5, 31, 36
Ann Greene is an English servant woman, indentured to a Maryland man. Besides running away, the main thing wrong with her is that she doesn’t know she’s white. She has just run away with a mulatto servant named Isaac Cromwell.
Like so many thousands of other black slaves and white servants, the color of their skin is not important. What is important to them is their common oppression and common dreams of freedom. Whites and blacks, like Ann and Isaac, are constantly making common cause against the wealthy in the early days of the colonies. They are also marrying each other.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 304
Philadelphia, 1805: Mixed Marriages
Thomas Branagan is visiting Boston after travelling through the West Indies and the South. Shocked, he writes:
There are many, very many blacks who…begin to feel themselves consequential [and] will not be satisfied unless they get white women for wives, and are exceedingly impertinent to white people in low circumstances….I solemnly swear, I have seen more white women married to, and deluded through the arts of seduction by Negroes in one year in Philadelphia, than the eight years I was visiting [West Indies and the Southern states]….There are perhaps hundreds of white women thus fascinated by black men in this city, and there are thousands of black children by them at present.
Quoted in Lerone Bennett Jr., Before the Mayflower, 304
Blacks and Whites Together
In the historical record of the first Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, they refer to themselves as “Christians,” “Puritans,” and “English.” They do not call themselves “white.” The concept of “white” was of no interest in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.
The first settlers in the United States knew nothing of skin color as a distinguishing mark. Racism came later as a system to keep blacks from allying with whites and to keep African Americans first in slavery and later in a state of constant oppression.
Prejudice according to skin color, therefore, is not “natural.” It is learned and it has historical roots. Those roots reach into the needs of the aristocratic elite, who wanted to hold on to their power. Divide and conquer tactics, pitting white servants against black slaves, systematically created the institution of racism, which could be called on in times of crises of power.
These crises occurred when the oppressed, no matter what the color, rebelled against injustice. It was then that the whites in power relied on the carefully cultivated system of racism.
See Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 297-316
On the Seas, 1839: The Amistad
On July 2, 1839, on the Spanish slave ship “Amistad,” fifty-four African slaves, led by Cinque, mutinied, and killing the captain and three of the crew. For nearly two months the Africans tried to force the remaining crew to sail them back to Africa. When they went on shore at Long Island, New York for provisions they were illegally captured by the U.S. Navy, Cinque and the other Africans were imprisoned and tried for murder.
Abolitionists including Lewis Tappan formed a defense committee while the U.S. government argued in court that the Africans were slaves and therefore property and they had committed murder. The Circuit Court of Hartford ruled that the ship had been taken on the high seas and that the Africans could not be charged with murder.
The Africans were set free. The next year they returned to their homeland, Sierra Leone.
Born free, David Walker is one of those abolitionists who calls for universal emancipation of all blacks in Africa, the West Indies and the United States. His appeal is one of the most militant calls for the end of slavery.
Remember, Americans that we must and shall be free and as enlightened as you are. Will you wait until we shall under God obtain our liberty by the crushing arm of power? Will it not be dreadful for you? I speak, Americans, for your own good. We must and shall be free, I say, in spite of you. You may do your best to keep us in wretchedness and misery to enrich you and your children, but God will deliver us from under you. And we, wo will be to you if we have to obtain our freedom by fighting. Throw away your fears and prejudices, then, and enlighten us and treat us like men, and we will like you more than we do now hate you; and tell us now no more colonization, for America is as much our country as it is yours.
William F. Cheek, Black Resistance before the Civil War, 143
Much of the history of abolitionism has been written about whites struggling to eradicate slavery. Yet black people instigated much of the effort to abolish slavery. They freed themselves in a myriad of ways by running away, operating the Underground Railroad, speaking, and agitating for abolition. Blacks bankrolled and subscribed to William Lloyd Garrison’s famous paper, The Liberator. In the 1830s the pioneer black abolitionists like David Walker paved the way for the giants of the 1840s.
Charles Lenox Remond was the first black preacher to become a professional antislavery lecturer. Samuel Ringgold Ward and Henry Highland Garnet were black pastors and activists. Martin R. Delaney was the first major Black Nationalist. Delaney wanted people to gain respect and be proud of being black. In the 1850s he advocated for a black state in Central America, the Western United States or Africa. The most famous of the black abolitionists of this period were Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. By far the most radical voices calling for an immediate end to slavery were black.
See Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 140-160
Buffalo, New York, 1843: Four Million
A new level of anger is rising in the black community. Impatience coupled with biblical sense of redemption becomes a volatile mixture, especially in the words of Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. Garnet is a young abolitionist minister from Troy, New York. The grandson of a Mandingo chieftain, he was born on a plantation in Maryland. His father escaped, taking the family to freedom when Henry was ten years old. As this twenty-seven-year-old black man steps to the podium at the black anti-slavery convention, a rush of anticipation sweeps the crowd.
Think how many tears you have poured out upon the soil which you have cultivated with unrequited toil and enriched with your blood; and then go to your lordly enslavers and tell them plainly that you are determined to be free. Appeal to their sense of justice, and tell them that they have no more right to oppress you than you have to enslave them.
Tell them in language which they cannot misunderstand of the exceeding sinfulness of slavery, and of the future judgment, and of the righteous retributions of an indignant God, Inform them that all you desire is freedom, and that nothing else will suffice….You had better all die immediately—than live slaves and entail your wretchedness upon their posterity.
He then invokes the names of black heroes like Nathaniel Turner and Denmark Vesey who led slave revolts in the South; Joseph Cinque, the leader of the slave revolt on board the slave ship “Amistad”; Madison Washington, who successfully led the slave revolt on board the slave ship “Creole.” The Amistad slaves gained their freedom and sailed back to Sierra Leone. The Creole rebels went to Nassau and freedom.
And then in the style of the great black preachers he ends:
Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties! Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been—you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Remember that you are four millions!
Let your motto be resistance! Resistance! Resistance! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance. What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you and according to the suggestions of expediency. Brethren, adieu! Trust in the living God. Labor for the peace of the human race, and remember that you are four millions!
Quoted in William F. Cheek, Black Resistance before the Civil War, 143-146, See also Vincent Harding, The Other American Revolution, 49
“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.
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
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.
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 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.
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
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
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
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.
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