The framing of slavery in American history textbooks long conveyed enslaved people as individuals in passive acquiescence of their stations in life, or worse: claiming enslaved people were sad when slavery in the U.S. ended. Even today, central aspects of American slavery are not being taught in middle and high school, according to a 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, with many of these dated, offensive stereotypes still perpetuated. In fact, enslaved people planned and carried out hundreds of uprisings while slavery was legal—not to mention performing countless everyday acts of resistance and rebellion.
To get a more accurate picture of the resistance and uprisings of enslaved people in United States history, Stacker pored over primary documents, stories passed along through generations, and government records. The forthcoming list of five significant uprisings by enslaved individuals represents a tiny fraction of rebellious actions taken to fight an unjust, inhumane, and violent precedent that at the time was commonplace and perfectly legal.
The stereotypes perpetuated about Africans brought to the colonies against their will helped enslavers justify their cruelty and racism. George Washington, who enslaved hundreds of people, said during the revolutionary conflict that, should British tyranny not be fought, Americans risked turning “as tame and abject slaves as the Blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” We’ve witnessed the same racist tropes countless times in the centuries since, whether in the pervasive hypersexualization of Black men or the widespread insistence among many household names—from Walt Whitman to Teddy Roosevelt—that white people are inherently genetically superior and have no choice but to meet the burden of “civilizing” the rest of the world’s population.
The true history of slavery in the United States is story after story of perseverance. People held in bondage bravely fought with the British during the Revolutionary War. Characterized as lazy and unrefined by their white enslavers, enslaved people in American colonies established from the outset artistic and musical traditions that still stand as a throughline of American culture today.
Rather than accept their fate, people held in bondage from the 1600s through the late 19th century performed regular acts of rebellion. From breaking tools or slowing down work to setting buildings ablaze or running away, enslaved people frequently figured out ways to sabotage the work they were being forced to do and attempted new ways to claim their freedom. At George Washington’s Mount Vernon, a full 7% of the enslaved population tried to escape at some point while being held there against their will.
Uprisings among enslaved people represent the most extreme means of protesting slavery. Rebellions were difficult to plan and even more difficult to pull off for obvious reasons, ranging from few resources (including weapons) to sheer numbers. The fact that rebellions were still attempted speaks to the fortitude of enslaved people to pursue their freedom no matter the cost.
Throughout history, instances of rebellion occur most frequently during times of political and economic upheaval, and times when enslaved people had a rare numbers advantage. Virtually all conspiracies and insurrections ended with mass killings of Black men and women, often by gruesome and grotesque means.
Keep reading to learn more about five of the most significant uprisings by enslaved people in U.S. history.
[Pictured: On Nov. 9, 2019, in New Orleans, reenactors under the direction of artist Dread Scott retrace the route of the 1811 uprising, one of the largest rebellions of enslaved people in U.S. history.]
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