Students will recognize that enslaved people resisted slavery in ways that ranged from violence to smaller, everyday means of asserting their humanity and opposing their enslavers. Maps to Key Concepts 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 & 10
What else should my students know?
11.A Violent rebellions by enslaved people were rare in continental North America. Unlike in the British Caribbean, where violent uprisings were more common, enslaved people in British North America and the United States were outnumbered by white people. Moreover, substantial militias in the United States were ready to put down armed rebellions.
11.B Despite the rarity of violent rebellion, evidence suggests that enslavers were often anxious that enslaved people would find ways to harm them. Enslaved women, for example, who were frequently the cooks in their enslavers’ households, were often feared to use poison.
11.C Anger at slavery contributed to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. In a coordinated uprising, the Pueblo people liberated themselves from Spanish oppression by killing hundreds of colonists and successfully driving the Spanish from New Mexico for more than a decade.
11.D In 1739, a group of enslaved people in South Carolina participated in the Stono Rebellion, the largest rebellion against slavery in the British mainland colonies.
11.E In 1831, Nat Turner, an enslaved man from Southampton County, Virginia, orchestrated a rebellion. Seeking freedom, enslaved people killed at least 50 white people. Many died in the attempt. Afterward, enslaved and free black people in the East were prohibited from holding or attending religious assemblies without white supervision. Many Southern states also tightened laws against teaching enslaved people to read and write and further restricted the movements and liberties of free African Americans.
11.F Sometimes Indigenous people and African Americans joined together. During the 1700s and early 1800s, many people of African descent (later called Black Seminoles) came to Seminole territory in what is now Florida. Some were forced there as captives, and others joined voluntarily, having escaped slavery elsewhere in the South. Black Seminoles became tributaries of Seminole chiefs; they lived in independent villages and enjoyed a great deal of liberty, but owed Seminoles a percentage of their crops as well as military allegiance. During the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), Seminoles and Black Seminoles joined together to protect themselves against Indian Removal and the spread of slavery.
11.G Everyday acts of resistance were common. These included working slowly, breaking tools, feigning illness, feigning ignorance to avoid work and running away for short periods. Religion—which stressed the self-esteem, dignity and humanity of enslaved people—also proved a means of resistance. Working to build and maintaining kinship networks was another “everyday” form of resistance. Many enslaved people resisted by learning to read and write European languages.
11.H Enslaved people who successfully escaped were known as “fugitive slaves.” Escape was common enough that:
- There was an elaborate system of patrols to catch people escaping from slavery.
- Enslavers depended on newspapers to advertise their “fugitive slaves.”
- Some white men made a living catching fugitives.
- Residents of free states and of many Native nations were bound by fugitive slave laws and treaty provisions, respectively, to return escapees.
How can I teach this?
- Scholars are still debating the extent to which enslavement influenced the Pueblo Revolt. Spanish imposition of Christianity was also a major cause. The Wisconsin Historical Society provides several primary sources that give different perspectives on the Pueblo Revolt.
- The 19 Pueblo sovereign nations collectively maintain the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, providing resources that include a Pueblo-based curriculum.
- William Henry Singleton’s Recollections of My Slavery Days provides many examples of everyday resistance. The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Edsitement website includes a useful lesson: “Recollections of My Slavery Days with Emphasis on Resistance.”
- Episode six of Learning for Justice’s Teaching Hard History: American Slavery podcast explores the many ways beyond rebellion that enslaved people employed to resist bondage.
- In a short video from Learning for Justice, Dr. Tera Hunter shows how enslaved people attempted to have control over their own lives.
- The National Humanities Center has compiled a useful overview of the Stono Rebellion. The site also includes two accounts of the rebellion—one provided at the time by a white official and another recorded in 1937 by a descendant of the rebellion’s enslaved leader.
- Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave has many examples of resistance, from prayer to violence.
- In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs details her harrowing efforts to avoid being sexually harassed and assaulted by her enslaver, including explicitly resisting his advances, escaping and spending years in hiding.
- “Slave for sale” and “Runaway slave” advertisements are widely available and illustrate both the types of work that enslaved people often performed and their continued, sometimes violent, resistance to enslavement. The website Freedom on the Move collects ads that show the efforts of self-liberating people.
- The City College of New York has an online collection of short texts about the Black Seminoles.
- The “WPA Slave Narratives” (which should be introduced carefully and contextualized for students) offer many rich examples of everyday resistance.
- The poetry of George Moses Horton is a window into one enslaved man’s struggle with the ways slavery chained his creativity and genius. Many of Horton’s poems, particularly “George Moses Horton, Myself” illustrate the ways Horton refused to see himself as his enslaver saw him.
- Students should examine treaties between Native nations and the United States that include provisions related to enslavement. For example, the Treaty of Hopewell in 1785 was the first treaty signed between the United States and the Cherokee Nation. Article 1, which demanded that the Cherokee Nation return all African Americans who had escaped or were taken captive, was a standard feature of treaties during this time. Note also Article 2, wherein Cherokees demanded the release of all Indigenous captives taken by white people during and after the Revolutionary War.