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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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Activities: Context Activities

Resistance, Rebellion, and Running Away: Acts of Defiance in Slave Culture

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[5537] William Russell, Runaway Slave Advertisement (1847), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection.
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Many white slaveholders liked to think of their slaves as "happy" or "contented," imagining that the slaves viewed the plantation as a family and the master as a benevolent father. But most slaves' lives were far from comfortable: even owners who had a reputation for kindness used the whip; southern slave codes enabled masters to work slaves up to sixteen hours a day; and families were routinely separated when individual slaves were sold. Whatever image they chose to present to their white masters, enslaved African Americans had many strategies for registering their discontent, protesting their situation, and resisting the discipline of slave life.

Resistance could take subtle forms, such as performing assigned tasks slowly or poorly, breaking tools, or even singing songs that covertly mocked or criticized whites. Slaves could sabotage the efficiency of a plantation by stealing food that they would consume themselves, as well as commodities they could trade for money or other goods off the plantation. Resistance could take more violent forms, too. Some slaves set fire to houses, farm buildings, factories, and stores. Slaves who were pushed to their limits occasionally murdered their masters or overseers.

When a slave killed a white person, the incident tapped into slaveholders' biggest fear: that the slaves would rise up and violently overthrow the system that oppressed them. Whites lived in terror that they would experience something like the violent slave revolt that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century in Haiti, which resulted in the overthrow of white rule and the establishment of an independent black republic there. Such large-scale revolts never took place in the American South, probably because the white population was large and had an entrenched system of domination, controlling all the resources and weapons. Still, some courageous and daring slaves did try to organize rebellions, though they rarely saw their plans to fruition. In 1800, Gabriel Prosser, a slave on a plantation near Richmond, Virginia, enlisted as many as a thousand other slaves in a plot to seize key points in the city and execute white slave owners. The conspirators were betrayed before their insurrection got underway, resulting in the execution of twenty-five slaves and the deportation of ten others to the West Indies. Similarly, Denmark Vesey's plan to attack the white population of Charleston, seize ships in the harbor, and sail for Haiti was discovered before his operation could begin. Some historians believe that the uncovering of the Vesey plot, based primarily on rumors and the testimony of bullied and frightened slaves, really had more to do with white hysteria than with the existence of an actual conspiracy. Nonetheless, white authorities in Charleston executed thirty-five slaves as conspirators and deported thirty-four others.

At least two slave insurrections made it beyond the planning stage in the antebellum South. In 1811, a group of between three and five hundred slaves armed with farm implements marched on the city of New Orleans. They were quickly gunned down by militia and regular troops. The insurrection that attracted the most attention--and most frightened whites--was unquestionably Nat Turner's revolt in 1831 in rural Virginia. Turner, a slave foreman and religious exhorter, believed he had a messianic calling from God to unite slaves in a rebellion against white authority. His revolt began when he and a small group of others killed the white people in his plantation household, then continued on to neighboring farmhouses where they recruited other slaves to join in. These slave rebels killed at least fifty-five whites before the militia put down the rebellion. Understandably, this insurrection left a lasting impression on white communities throughout the South, who feared uprisings among their own slaves. Although largely unsuccessful in achieving their goals of revolution and emancipation, slave revolts and conspiracies had profound effects on southern culture. They forced whites to acknowledge that their slaves were neither "happy" nor "contented," but in fact had cause to rebel. And, as scholar Eugene Genovese comments, "they combated, in the most decisive way among both whites and blacks, the racist myth of black docility."

If full-scale revolts were infrequent occurrences, a far more common act of defiance among slaves was the decision to run away. Some individuals and small groups slipped into the woods for short periods to protest plantation conditions, while others fled long distances to effect a permanent escape within the free states. Both kinds of fugitivism worked to undermine the slave system and assert African American bravery and independence. Running away became an increasingly difficult proposition over the course of the nineteenth century, since, in response to abolitionist activity, the slave states developed rigid laws and institutions to catch, punish, and return fugitives. Advertisements publicized detailed descriptions of runaways and offered rewards for their apprehension. Ferocious dogs and professional slave catchers tracked and captured runaways, often inflicting brutal (and sometimes fatal) injuries in the process. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made even the free territory of the northern states unsafe for escaped slaves; legally, they could be captured and returned to the South at any time without benefit of trial.

While many runaways braved these daunting impediments to successfully escape on their own, abolitionists and slaves also developed elaborate strategies like the famous Underground Railroad to aid fugitives. A system of concealed trails, hiding places, safe houses, and friendly supporters, the Underground Railroad helped spirit many escaped slaves to freedom, often in Canada. "Station masters" took enormous personal risks since providing aid to fugitive slaves was illegal. A few brave ex-slaves like Harriet Tubman even ventured back into slave states to assist runaways. Tubman made at least nineteen trips to the South to help organize escapes, reportedly using coded slave songs to transmit messages to slaves planning on running. Once they reached safety, many fugitives worked tirelessly to free their family members still held in slavery. Escaped slaves like William and Ellen Craft, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs wrote narratives about their experiences to raise awareness and inspire others.

Native Americans held in slavery in the missions and ranches of California adopted similar techniques of resistance to those used by enslaved African Americans in the South. Some of their strategies included sabotaging ranch and farm work, raiding livestock, resisting conversion to Christianity, and refusing to give up their native language. Many Native Americans fled the missions and ranches, escaping to communities of Indians living autonomously in inland California. And, as Lorenzo Asisara's narrative attests, Native Americans also engaged in riots and revolts, sometimes killing priests and other Spanish and American authorities when they felt they had no other recourse. The stories of these enslaved people reveal the inaccuracy of racist myths about the passivity or apathy of slaves, while also exposing the limits of white hegemony. Their resistance bears witness to their extraordinary personal courage, determination, and commitment to liberty.

  1. Comprehension: What was the Underground Railroad? How did it work?

  2. Comprehension: What kinds of strategies does Frederick Douglass use to resist the degradations of slavery? How do his strategies of resistance eventually enable his escape? What kinds of strategies does Harriet Jacobs use to resist her master's unwanted advances? How are her strategies of resistance different from Douglass's?

  3. Comprehension: Examine the advertisements for runaways featured in the archive. What do they reveal about how slaves were treated? What do they reveal about white attitudes toward runaways and toward African Americans generally?

  4. Context: How were Sorrow Songs encoded to enable slaves to pass covert messages and aid fugitives trying to escape? How do the lyrics subtly reveal subversive intentions?

  5. Context: What kinds of strategies of resistance (if any) does Harriet Beecher Stowe advocate for abused slaves in Uncle Tom's Cabin? What are the implications of her idealization of nonviolence and an ethic of sacrifice? How do you think Frederick Douglass would have felt about the description of Tom's capitulation to Simon Legree?

  6. Context: How does Lorenzo Asisara describe the riot he was involved in at the Franciscan mission? How does his attitude toward his own act of resistance compare to Frederick Douglass's? How might the presence of a white editor have influenced the way Asisara chose to narrate his story?

  7. Exploration: How do you think the tradition of African American resistance that developed during slavery might have influenced civil rights activism in the 1960s (for example, Martin Luther King's strategy of nonviolence and civil disobedience, or the more militant strategies adopted by the Black Panthers and other groups)?

  8. Exploration: Why has the exploitation and enslavement of Native Americans in California in the nineteenth century received so little attention?

[1650] T. C. Noble, John Brown Lithograph (c. 1850s),
courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
This lithograph likely illustrates the moments before the hanging of John Brown after he was found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry armory in Virginia. Brown was part of a small group of radical northern abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, who by the 1850s felt that such violent insurrections were the only way to end slavery.

[2732] Anonymous, Anti-Slavery Meeting on the [Boston] Common, from Gleason's "Pictorial" (May 3, 1851),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
This illustration depicts militant abolitionist Wendell Phillips declaiming against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

[3570] Anonymous, Mrs. Auld Teaching Him to Read (1892),
courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries.
This illustration from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass depicts the northern wife of Douglass's owner introducing Douglass to reading.

[5537] William Russell, Runaway Slave Advertisement (1847),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Printed Ephemera Collection.
A slave owner advertises a reward for the return of five escaped slaves.

[6574] Bow Wow-Wow (pseud.) [Napoleon Sarony?], The Secretary of War presenting a stand of colours to the 1st Regiment of Republican bloodhounds (1840),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-91404].
This cartoon attacks the use of bloodhounds to force the Seminole Indians of Florida to move to Oklahoma. Abolitionists believed another aim of using the hounds was to capture escaped slaves who had joined the Seminoles.

[6585] Anonymous, The Underground Railroad, Charles T. Weber Painting (1893),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-28860].
After 1877, African Americans faced increasing disenfranchisement, the spread of lynching, debt peonage, and scientific racism. But as this painting reflects, pro-abolitionist sentiment and a heroic view of slave resistance persisted.

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