Throughout all of the slave history of South America, the Caribbean and the United States, there were uprisings and rebellions. In the United States, a few of the best-known were the Gabriel Prosser and Jack Bowler revolt of 1800 in Richmond, Virginia, the revolt led by Denmark Vesey in South Carolina in 1822, and the rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831.
Africans continued to escape individually and in groups throughout the slave era. Many went to Native American villages, others to Mexico, but most traveled “the Underground Railroad” to the northern free states hiding in “stations”, in cellars and barns of good people along the way. Heroes abound during this period, but one who stands out is Harriet Tubman. Ms. Tubman made nineteen trips leading over 300 people to freedom. For stealing the property of the slave owners, a reward of $40,000 was placed on her capture and that was when $40,000 was real money.
There were many abolitionists working against slavery, but certainly the most courageous was John Brown. So passionate was he that he led a force of nineteen men, including his five sons, and captured the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. His goal was to arm the slaves and begin a slave revolt that would spread through the south. The arsenal was quickly retaken, and John Brown was hanged for his efforts.
Civil War and Emancipation
When it comes to passion about the evils of slavery, President Abraham Lincoln was no John Brown. At the height of the Civil War and against his better judgment, President Lincoln was inexorably led to signing the Emancipation Proclamation. As W. E. B. DuBois writes in Black Reconstruction, “It made no difference how much Abraham Lincoln might protest that this was not a war against slavery, or ask General McDowell ‘if it would not be well to allow the armies to bring back those fugitive slaves which have crossed the Potomac with our troops (a communication which was marked ‘secret’).’ It was in vain that Lincoln rushed entreaties and then commands to Fremont in Missouri, not to emancipate the slaves of rebels, and then had to hasten similar orders to Hunter in South Carolina. The slave, despite every effort, was becoming the center of the war. In August, Lincoln faced the truth, front forward; and that truth was not simply that Negroes ought to be free, it was that thousands of them were already free, and that either the power which slaves put into the hands of the South was to be taken from it, or the North could not win the war. Either the Negro was to be allowed to fight, or the draft itself would not bring enough white men into the army to keep up the war.”
With thousands of Africans joining the battles, the Civil War was won by the Northern states. As Abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it at a meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston, “Gentlemen, you know very well that this nation called 4,000,000 of Negroes into citizenship to save itself. (Applause). It never called them for their own sakes. It called them to save itself” (Cries of ‘Hear, Hear.’)”
Reconstruction and Jim Crow
So now, grudgingly let free, the Africans entered a twenty-year period known as Reconstruction. This was a time when Africans, after having been freed, “turned out like cattle” is the phrase Professor Mackey uses, the Africans again displayed the same self-help ethic that had empowered those northern Africans who had formed associations, built businesses and churches. Africans began to form towns, till land and raise families for the first time. They did this while contending with things like the Black Codes which were as DuBois says, “representing the logical result of attitudes of mind existing when Lincoln still lived … In all cases, there was a plain and indisputable attempt on the part of the Southern states to make Negroes slaves in everything but name”. In addition to the laws, Africans had to contend with bands of murdering white terrorists, who killed Black people at will. By one conservative counting, there were over 6,500 racist killings of Africans here in the United States between 1865 and 1965 in that “Jim Crow” era, which is a folksy way of saying living with the constant threat of lynchings and random killings.
Civil Rights and Black Militancy
Over the decades, African-Americans lived and traded among themselves, building communities and recovering strength. Gradually, national organizations were created from the ground up. Remembered names from the ’60’s are the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality (with James Farmer) and the Mississippi delegation, to name a few. There were the Black Panthers and the US organization. There was Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. There were many more with creative energy pushing battles on many fronts. This Civil Rights era achieved integration and the right to vote. Former Professor Clarke says, “I’m one of the people who believes that our losses were greater than our gains. Before the Civil Rights Movement, we had entrepreneurship in the Black community. Right now, in Harlem, if I wanted to get a shoe repaired, I would have a hard time finding a Black shoe repairman …. We lost a sense of just basic community-ness.” But the right to vote was achieved, and there was a quickening sense of impatience at the white supremacist culture of the United States.
By David Mark Greaves