Critical Essays Slave Rebellions and Runaway Slaves



Many U.S. history books still contend that enslaved Africans were generally resigned to their fate and that slave revolts were rare and unusual occurrences. This attitude, which was common among slaveholders and those tasked with recording our nation's history, perpetuated the belief that slaves were generally passive and complacent and had no real reason or desire to rebel or to run away, a concept that more recent research has proven to be blatantly false.

Slave Rebellions

Historians estimate that more than 250 organized slave revolts and conspiracies took place in what is now U.S. territory, and thousands more occurred in the Caribbean and in Central and South America. The leaders of slave revolts were often seen as murderers and lunatics by whites. Among blacks, however, they were usually viewed as heroes and martyrs, although some slaves saw them as dangerous to their own survival. The most infamous slave revolts were those led by Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner. Although all three men were ultimately apprehended and executed, their courage and daring inspired other blacks to fight for their freedom and to cling to the hope that they, too, would someday be free.

In 1800, Gabriel Prosser, a slave living on a plantation in southern Virginia, vowed to escape the brutal treatment of his master, Thomas Prosser. He organized a plot in which approximately 1,100 slaves were to take Richmond. Prosser envisioned that his "army" would eventually be joined by as many as 50,000 more. As the time for the revolt drew near, two of the slaves warned authorities of the plot. As a result, Prosser and 35 other slaves were executed, and the Prosser conspiracy gained national attention. Governor James Monroe described it as "unquestionably the most serious and formidable conspiracy we have ever known."

Several years later in South Carolina, Denmark Vesey, a slave who had purchased his freedom in 1800 with money from a winning lottery ticket, led another uprising. Vesey, who was a native of St. Thomas in the West Indies, worked as a carpenter in Charleston, South Carolina. Over a period of seven months, he planned an uprising to "liberate" the city, encouraging slaves to seize weapons, commandeer ships, and sail for the West Indies. Vesey's plot attracted more than 9,000 slaves and free blacks, but several slaves betrayed him, leading to the arrest of 131 blacks and four whites. In the end, at least 35 men, including Vesey, were executed.

By far the most notorious and successful slave rebellion was led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Turner was born in Southampton County on October 2, 1800, the same year Prosser led his rebellion and Vesey was freed. Turner was raised by his mother and paternal grandmother after his father ran away, and he was 31 years old when he led his infamous rebellion, often called his insurrection.

Turner, who was the slave of Joseph Travis, was a preacher who saw visions and felt divinely inspired to lead his people to freedom. He plotted his revolt for six months, sharing his plan with only four others. On the day the revolt was to take place, he and his men gathered in the woods and then began their raid by attacking the Travis plantation and killing the entire family. By the following morning, Turner's group, which had grown to 60, had traveled through the county, killing at least 57 whites. As the revolt progressed, Turner's "army" continued to grow. They were finally stopped on their way to Jerusalem, the county seat, where they had hoped to gain additional support and replenish their ammunition. Thirteen slaves and three free blacks were hanged, but Turner was not captured until two months later, less than five miles from where the raid had begun.

Thomas R. Gray, a lawyer and plantation owner assigned as Turner's defense counsel, interviewed Turner during his trial and later published The Confessions of Nat Turner, a pamphlet containing the story of Turner's rebellion from his own point of view. (William Styron later wrote an award-winning novel by the same title, which drew much controversy from blacks who claimed it presented a totally distorted view of Turner.) Gray made no attempt to defend Turner and called no witnesses to testify on his behalf. As a result, Turner was hanged on November 11, 1831. His corpse was skinned and his flesh was used for grease.

Turner's revolt led to harsh laws throughout the South, further restricting the limited freedom of blacks. It also spurred blacks and abolitionists into action and increased tensions between the North and South.

Runaway Slaves

Instead of engaging in organized revolt, many slaves ran away in order to escape the bondage of slavery.

In their book Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger explore this form of rebellion. Franklin and Schweninger describe three categories of runaways: absentees (slaves who left the plantation for a few days or weeks); outlyers (slaves who hid in the woods for months or even years); and maroons (slaves who established camps in remote swamps and bayous). The authors also discuss the role of "term slaves" (slaves who were to be set free at some future date) and free blacks, who sometimes helped others escape. According to the authors, the "typical" runaway was a young male plantation hand between the ages of 13 and 29.

One of the primary methods of escape for runaways was the infamous Underground Railroad, a secret network of blacks and whites that illegally helped fugitive slaves reach safety in the North or Canada. The network, also referred to as the "Liberty Line," used railroad terms to describe its operations. For example, guides were referred to as "conductors," hiding places were "stations," and groups of slaves were "trains." The "Liberty Line" generally ran from Virginia and Kentucky across Ohio, or from Maryland across Pennsylvania to New York, New England, and Canada.

From 1830 to 1860, it is estimated that nearly 9,000 fugitives passed through Philadelphia and nearly 40,000 through Ohio.

The most famous black conductor was Harriet Tubman, who was often compared to the biblical character of Moses because she made at least ten trips North over a period of ten years, leading more than 200 slaves to freedom.

In addition to running away, slaves also used more subversive tactics to escape slavery, such as self-mutilation and arson. And mothers sometimes killed themselves and their children to save them from slavery, as Jacobs alludes in her novel.