American Labor Struggles : The Early African-American Struggle for Freedom


The People
Feb. 11, 1995
Vol. 104 No. 9

American Labor Struggles: The Early African-American Struggle for Freedom

By Barbara Graymont

It has long been an axiom of the working-class movement that working people will achieve their emancipation through their own efforts. The important role that both American slaves and free blacks took in their own freedom movement is often overlooked and major credit given instead to white abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln. As important as the latter were, African-Americans were not merely passive recipients of white beneficence in this long struggle.

The pre-Civil War plantation society, based on a slave economy, has often been romanticized in American literature, as in Margaret Mitchell's GONE WITH THE WIND, depicting docile slaves and a genteel master class. It is a pretty picture but not a true or complete one.

It is a fact that many slaves did accommodate themselves to their condition by cooperating with their masters, working diligently at their tasks and sometimes even accepting longer hours of work in exchange for better food or clothing. Others, however, carried on a silent, ongoing rebellion that took a variety of turns, usually directed against the master's wealth. These tactics included pilfering from the master, working slowly and ineptly, hard and destructive use of tools and equipment, abuse of or "accidental" maiming of the master's animals and hoeing out crop seedlings along with the weeds. Slaves who had chosen this route of protest would pretend incompetence and stupidity when berated by the master or overseer, giving assurance that they were trying their best, but taking silent satisfaction in thus handicapping their oppressor.

Beating or killing an abusive master was the most obvious means of protest, even though it meant death for a slave culprit who was captured. No matter how brutal a master was in southern society, a slave could not testify against a white man in court.

Running away was also an obvious and a very common method of protest.

Runaways who were captured were dealt with in the harshest means possible in order both to discourage their inclinations toward freedom and to terrorize other slaves who had like ideas. Whipping was the most common punishment, and many slaves bore the scars of the lash on their bodies. But branding was also used, as was castration, nose slitting, hanging captives up by their thumbs all night, amputating their fingers, toes or ears. This torture and abuse never stifled the ongoing desire of slaves to escape their bondage. Despite the horrors meted out to captured runaways, slaves continued to seek their freedom by flight.

Prior to the American Revolution, slavery existed in all 13 colonies and suppression of "uppity" slaves in the North was sometimes severe. In the North, where there were smaller farms and more urbanization, slavery was frequently more benign (if that term can be used for human oppression) than in the South. In the northern cities and villages, slaves were usually house servants or else worked in commercial establishments and often could read and write. They were less likely than their southern brethren to have their families broken up by sale of one or more members.

This does not mean that northern slavery was a bed of roses. The murderous suppression of the slave community in New York City in 1741 is an example of ferocity on the part of a fearful white populace. New Yorkers had been terrified by news from the South concerning an organized slave revolt, the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina. A small body of slaves seized some guns and ammunition from a store, killed the storekeepers and some nearby planters, and joined by a larger body of escaped slaves, started a march toward the Spanish colony of Florida and what they hoped would be freedom. The militia soon caught up with them, killed a number on the spot and later executed the captives. New York, which had had a slave uprising in 1712, trembled at the thought of any disturbance of such nature among them. Slaves numbered 20 percent of the New York City population. A number of fires and burglaries in New York in 1741 led the white inhabitants to suspect a slave conspiracy, because a biracial gang had been committing some of these depredations. Thirty-one blacks and four whites were executed for a nonexistent slave plot.

The best known slave rebellions were those led by Denmark Vesey in Charleston, S.C., in 1822 and Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831. Vesey's revolt was very carefully planned but betrayed at the last moment and came to nothing except for terrifying the whites. Turner, with a small number of slave followers, managed to kill about 60 whites before being captured. A mass slave uprising such as he had anticipated did not occur. Most slaves realized that they were too far outnumbered by a well-armed white population to place ultimate hope in an armed uprising, even where the immediate white population was less than the slave population.

An opportunity for armed resistance presented itself with the coming of the American Revolution. Many slaves fought on both sides in anticipation of achieving their freedom.

Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia in 1775, offered freedom to slaves who would join the Loyalist ranks and fight against the rebel slave holders. Under the banner of "Freedom for Slavers," over 1,000 slaves had joined the Ethiopian Regiment and fought on the side of the British for their freedom. At the end of the war, they left with the British.

In the North, blacks stood beside patriot whites in Massachusetts, fighting against the British army in anticipation of their freedom. Pressure of New England blacks and the example of Dunmore's success in Virginia led the Continental Congress to change its policy of not enrolling blacks in the army. Black soldiers, anticipating freedom for their service, took such names as: Ned Freedom, Tom Liberty.

A Virginia slave named James served as a spy for the American army under General Lafayette in 1781, took the name James Lafayette and was awarded with his freedom.

Both during and after the war, the northern states gradually abolished slavery. Even so, emancipation did not bring equality, for few whites were willing to accept them as equals. In the South, free blacks were often unwelcome and were restricted in their freedoms and in their associations, for they were considered a danger to the existing slave system.

A new struggle was just beginning, a struggle for full emancipation in the entire country. In this endeavor, both slaves and free blacks took a decisive role.

In 1827, the first African-American newspaper, FREEDOM'S JOURNAL, was begun in New York by John Russwurm and Samuel D. Cornish. The Boston agent for this publication was a free black, David Walker. Walker, a militant, issued in 1829 a pamphlet, APPEAL, justifying slave rebellion, and warning of violent revolt if freedom were delayed. In 1830, Walker and other African-Americans held a freedom convention in Philadelphia. Although Walker died later that year, the conventions went on annually thereafter, condemning slavery in the South and discriminatory legislation in the North.

These were the earliest of the abolitionists among the African- American communities. They were laying the foundation for later better known African-American abolitionists who would follow them, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Douglass, a runaway slave and largely self-educated, became one of the greatest orators of the abolition movement. After he broke with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, he moved to Rochester, N.Y., and edited an abolition paper, the NORTH STAR. He later played a major role in recruiting African- Americans to fight in the Civil War. Harriet Tubman, another runaway slave, returned south 19 times to conduct slaves to freedom in the North. She also served as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, blending innocently in with the southern slave population while gathering information for the army. Sojourner Truth, with her quaint diction and her great wisdom, was a popular speaker both on the abolition and the women's movement.

The achievements of numerous named and unnamed humble men and women in the African-American community who struggled for their freedom against almost insurmountable odds should provide an instruction for our own day. Theirs is a true example of the ongoing class struggle.