Slavery in the United States



Slavery was a hard time, not a happy time

The slave trade was people living, lying, stealing, murdering and dying.

The slave trade was a Black man who stepped out of his hut for a breath of fresh air and ended up, ten months later, in Georgia with bruises on his back and a brand on his chest.

The slave trade was a Black mother suffocating her newborn baby because she didn't want him to grow up a slave.

The slave trade was a kind captain forcing his suicide-minded passengers to eat by breaking their teeth.

The slave trade was a bishop sitting on an ivory chair on a wharf in the Congo and extending his fat hand in wholesale baptism of slaves who were rowed beneath him, going in chains to the slave ships.

The slave trade was a greedy king raiding his own villages to get slaves to buy brandy.

The slave trade was a pious captain holding prayer services twice a day on his slave ship and writing later the famous hymn, 'How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.'

The slave trade was deserted villages, bleached bones on slave trails and people with no last names.

The slave trade was Caesar Negro, Angelo Negro and Negro Mary.

- Lerone Bennett
Before the Mayflower

Africa to America
Most of the Negro slaves came from an area bordering a 3,000-mile stretch on the west coast of Africa. They came, chained two by two, left leg to right leg, from a thousand villages and towns. They came from many racial stocks and many tribes, from the spirited Hausas, the gentle Mandingos, the creative Yorubas, from the Ibos, Efiks and Krus, from the proud Fantins, the warlike Ashantis, the shrewd Dahomeans, the Binis and Sengalese.

Slaves were purchased from brokers at the forts and factories or in open markets. One famous trader has described an open market on the Slave Coast.

"As the slaves come down to Fida from the inland country, they are put into a booth, or prison, built for that purpose, near the beach, all of them together; and when the Europeans are to receive them, they are brought out into a large plain, where the surgeons examine every part of every one of them, to the smallest member, men and women being all stark naked. Such as are allowed good and sound are set on one side and the others by themselves. 'Slaves so rejected are there called Mackrons: being above 35 years of age, or defective in their limbs, eyes or teeth, or grown grey, or have the venereal disease, or any other imperfection. These being so set aside, each of the others, which have passed as good, is marked on the breast, with a red- hot iron, imprinting the mark of the French, English or Dutch companies....In this particular, care is taken that the women, as tenderest, be not burnt too hard.'

The newly-purchased slaves, properly branded and chained, were rowed out to the slave ships for the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic. They were packed like books on shelves into holds which in some instances were no higher than eighteen inches..."

The plantations

For most slaves life was a nightmare of drudgery. An ex-slave said it seemed the fields stretched 'from one end of the earth to the other.'

Men, women and children worked. Women cut down trees, dug ditches and plowed. The old and the ailing worked; old men and women fed poultry, cleaned the yard, mended clothes and cared for the young and the sick. Male and female, the quick and the halt worked the traditional hours of slavery--from can (see) to can't (see).

On most plantations, a horn ('dat ole fo' day horn') or bell sounded about four in the morning. Thirty minutes later, the field hands were expected to be out of their cabins and on their way to the fields. Stragglers and late-sleepers were lashed with the whip. An ex-slave in Virginia recalled seeing women scurrying to the fields 'with their shoes and stockings in their hands, and a petticoat wrapped over their shoulders, to dress in the fields the best way they could.'

Overseers and drivers, armed with whips, drove the work force, which was divided into hoe gangs and plow gangs. The overseer might also carry a bowie knife and a pistol. He often rode a horse, accompanied by a vicious dog.

There were no docile slaves

Fear, toil and the lash, hard words and a little ash cake and bacon, and fields stretching around the world--this was life for most slaves, day in and day out, season after season, with a half-day off on Saturday perhaps and a whole day on Sunday," writes Lerone Bennett Jr., in Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America 1619-1964. Why did they do it? he asks rhetorically. And why didn't they revolt? Why didn't they run away? Commit suicide? Or stand like a man and be cut down?

"Slaves did all of these," Bennett says, "and more."

They did them so often that it is nothing short of amazing, he says, that the myth of the docile Negro persists.

There were repeated insurrections and there is solid evidence that the South lived in constant fear of the 'docile' slaves. Bondsmen ran away in droves. They fled to Canada and Mexica and to Florida and Louisiana before these territories became a part of the United States of America; they fled to the Indians and joined them in their wars against the White man.

Young and old ran, Mulattoes and pure Blacks, Uncle Toms (in the modern sense) and radicals ran. Following the North Star, some made their way to the North and on to Canada.

Some succumbed to slavery's endless assault but some refused to be broken.

Many were sent to 'professional Negro breakers' and were broken. Many persisted hardened in their resistance.

"They poisoned masters and mistresses with arsenic," Bennett reports, "ground glass and 'spiders beaten up in buttermilk.' They chopped them [slaveholders] to pieces with axes and burned their houses, gins and barns to the ground."

"The court records of the slavery period, Bennett says, yield ample evidence that a large number of slaves refused to play the game of slavery: they would neither smile nor bow. Some bowed but would not smile. Many, perhaps the majority, went through the ritual of obeisance. And these, according to some historians, carried on a passive resistance: "They worked no harder than they had to, put on deliberate slowdowns, staged sitdown strikes and fled to the swamps en masse at cotton picking time. They broke implements, trampled the crops and 'took' silver, wine, money, corn, cotton and machines."

Women resisted

Dorothy Sterling records slave women's resistance in We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century:


'Fight, and if you can't fight, kick; if you can't kick, then bite,' one slave advised her daughter. A sizable minority of 'fighting, mule-headed' women refused to 'take foolishness' from anybody.'

Woman in hiding

"I had to pick one hundred and fifty pounds of cotton every day or get a whipping. One night I got up just before day and run away.

"I stayed in the woods. Sometimes I'd go so far off from the plantation I could not hear the cows low or the roosters crow. I slept on logs. I had moss for a pillow; and I tell you, child, I wasn't scare of nothing. I could hear bears, wild-cats, panthers, and every thing. I would come across all kinds of snakes--moccasin, blue runner, and rattlesnakes--and got used to them.

"One night a mighty storm came up; and the winds blowed, the rain poured down, the hail fell, the trees was torn up by the roots and broken limbs fell in every direction; but not a hair on my head was injured, but I got as wet as a drowned rat. Next day was a beautiful Sunday, and I dried myself like a buzzard.

"Many times I'd find out where the hands on the place were working, and if the overseer was away I'd get something from them. I had a flint-rock and piece of steel, and I could begin a fire any time I wanted. Sometimes I'd get a chicken and would broil it on the coals and would bake ash-cake.

"The weather was beginning to turn cold, and I made me a moss bed just like a hog, and I kept warm at night. But many times I used to sleep in the chimney-corners on the plantation next to my marster's."

Major revolts and escapes

1663 First serious slave conspiracy in Colonial America, Sept. 13. Servant betrayed plot of White servants and Negro slaves in Gloucester County, Va.


1712 Slave revolt, New York, April 7. Nine Whites killed. Twenty-one slaves executed.


1730 Slave conspiracy discovered in Norfolk and Princess Anne counties, Va.


1739 Slave revolt, Stono, S.C., Sept 9. Twenty-five Whites killed before insurrection was put down.


1741 Series of suspicious fires and reports of slave conspiracy led to general hysteria in New York City, March and April. Thirty-one slaves, five Whites executed.


1773 Massachusetts slaves petitioned legislature for freedom, Jan. 6. There is a record of 8 petitions during Revolutionary War period.


1791 Haitian Revolution began with revolt of slaves in northern province, Aug 22.


1800 Gabriel Prosser plotted and was betrayed. Storm forced suspension of attack on Richmond, Va., by Prosser and some 1,000 slaves, Aug. 30. Conspiracy was betrayed by two slaves. Prosser and fifteen of his followers were hanged on Oct 7.


1811 Louisiana slaves revolted in two parishes about 35 miles from New Orleans, Jan. 8-10. Revolt suppressed by U.S. troops. The largest slave revolt in the United States.


1816 Three hundred fugitive slaves and about 20 Indian allies held Fort Blount on Apalachicola Bay, Fla., for several days before it was attacked by U.S. Troops.


1822 Denmark Vesey plotted and was betrayed. 'House slave' betrayed Denmark Vesey conspiracy, May 30. Vesey conspiracy, one of the most elaborate slave plots on record, involved thousands of Negroes in Charleston, S.C., and vicinity. Authorities arrested 131 Negroes and four whites. Thirty-seven were hanged. Vesey and five of his aides hanged at Blake's Landing, Charleston, S.C., July 2.


1829 Race riot, Cincinnati, Ohio, August 10. More than 1,000 Negroes left the city for Canada.


1831 Nat Turner revolt, Southampton County, Va., August 21-22. Some 60 Whites were killed. Nat Turner was not captured until October 30. Nat Turner was hanged, Jerusalem, Va., Nov. 11.


1838 Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Sept. 3.


1839 Amistad mutiny led by Joseph Cinquez, captured. After trial in Conn., returned to Africa.


1841 Slave revolt on slave trader 'Creole' which was en route from Hampton, Va., to New Orleans, La., Nov 7. Slaves overpowered crew and sailed vessel to Bahamas where they were granted asylum and freedom.


1848 Ellen Craft impersonated a slave holder, William Craft acted as her servant in one of the most dramatic slave escapes--this one from slavery in Georgia, Dec 26.


1849 Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland, summer. She returned to South 19 times and brought out more than 300 slaves.


1851 Negro abolitionist crashed into courtroom in Boston and rescued a fugitive slave, Feb 15.

Negroes dispersed group of slave catchers Sept 11 in Christiana, Pa., conflict. One White man was killed, another wounded.

Negro and White abolitionists smashed into courtroom in Syracuse, N.Y., and rescued a fugitive slave Oct 1.


1859 Five Negroes with 13 Whites with John Brown attacked Harpers Ferry, Va., Oct 16-17. Two Negroes killed, 2 captured, one escaped. John Copeland and Shields Green hanged at Charlestown, Va., Dec 16.


From Before the Mayflower, by Lerone Bennett



Sometime in 1850 Robert Newsom, a slaveholder, purchased Celia, who was at the time approximately fourteen years of age.

Shortly after purchase, he raped Celia and from the beginning, Newsom regarded her as both his property and his concubine.

For five years, he made repeated sexual assaults on her. She gave birth to two children, one, probably both, fathered by him.

When a slave called George became her lover, she tried to effort to stop Newsom's sexual advances by first asking daughters of the slaveholder for help, to no avail.

She then asked Newsom himself to stop and warned that she'd hurt him if he continued. Celia directly confronted him sometime on or immediately before June 23, 1855. Newsom brushed aside her request and, as if to emphasize his right to sex with her, informed Celia that 'he was coming to her cabin that night.'

Celia threatened to hurt him if he made further sexual demands of her. After her confrontation with him she obtained a large stick, which she placed in the corner of her cabin.

At approximately ten o'clock later that night,...Newsom ...walked the sixty or so paces to Celia's cabin. He entered the cabin. There was a confrontation.

As Newsom approached her, Celia retreated before him into a corner of the house. With one hand she raised the stick and brought it down against his head... Afraid that an angered Newsom would harm her, she raised the club with both hands and once again brought it crashing down on Newsom's skull, thus killing him.

To dispose of the body she burned it in the fireplace in her cabin.


Amistad Mutiny

Led by Congolese chief Joseph Cinquez, 1839.

Africans mutinied on the Spanish slaver Amistad bound for Cuba. They killed captain and crew, leaving some members to direct them back to Africa. The crew tricked them and instead sailed to the U.S. mainland where they were placed on trial. The English, as did John Quincy Adams, argued against the enslavement and for the mutineers. In the end they won the trial and returned to Africa.

Anna Baker's mother

...'run off an lef' us.' She did not remember much about her mother from that time, but after the war her mother returned to get them and explained why she had had to go. 'It was 'count o'de Nigger overseers....Dey kep' a-tryin' to mess 'roun' wid her an' she wouldn' have nothin' to do wid 'em.' Once, when one of the overseers asked her to go to the woods with him, she said she would go ahead to find a nice place, and she 'jus kep' a'goin. She swum do river an' run away.' She hired herself out to some 'folks dat wasnt rich 'nough to have no slaves o' dey own' and who were good to her, and once or twice she slipped back at night to see her children.

Her resistance to the sexual abuse she could not safely refuse forced her to desert her children, although she could count on their being fed by the master and reared by the other women of the slave community.


"[My mother's] boss went off deer hunting. While he was gone, the overseer tried to whip her. She knocked him down and tore his face up so that the doctor had to 'tend to him.' When [the master] came back the overseer told him that he went down to the field to whip the hands and that he just thought he would hit Lucy a few licks, but she jumped on him and like to tore him up. [The master] said to him, 'Well, if that is the best you could do with her, damned if you won't just have to take it.' She could do more work than any two men. There wasn't no use for no one man to try to do nothing with her. No overseer never downed her."

Stono Rebellion

The Stono Rebellion happened southwest of Charleston in Stono, South Carolina. It was the most serious revolt in the Colonial period. Sixty-five Black and White people died.

Stono started with 20 Black men marching southwest toward St. Augustine with 'colors flying and two drums beating.'

Mary Armstrong

"Mary Armstrong never forgave her mistress, Polly, for beating her sister to death and eventually 'got some even.' One day when Polly tried to give her 'a lick our in the yard,' she picked up a rock 'bout as big as half your fist and hits her right in the eye and busted the eyeball, and tells her 'that's for whippin' my baby sister to death.' You could hear her holler for five miles."


Slave women's lives in the big house constituted a dense pattern of day-to-day resistance.

Clara used her position in the big house to search for bullets for her son, who intended to murder his master. He succeeded, and she was convicted with him.

Among slave women, poison was a much more common weapon than bullets.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was a field hand on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

She was whipped frequently and when her master died she heard that along with her brothers she was to be sold to the Deep South. She tried to persuade her brothers and her husband, a free man of five years, to accompany her in her escape to the North.

She set out alone when they refused. The year was 1849.

Walking at night, hiding by day, she reached Pennsylvania.

"I had crossed de line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but dere was no one to welcome me to de land of freedom, I was a stranger in a strange land, and my home after all was down in de old cabin quarter, wid de ole folks and my brudders and sisters.

"But to dis solemn resolution I came; I was free, and dey should be free also; I would make a home for dem in de North, and de Lord helping me, I would bring dem all dere."

In Philadelphia and in Cape May, New Jersey, Harriet Tubman worked as cook, laundress, and scrubwoman, saving her money in order to return to the South. In 1850 she went to Baltimore to rescue a sister and her children who were about to be sold. A few months later, she brought away a brother and two other men. In 1851 she returned for John Tubman [her husband], only to find that he had taken another wife and refused to see her. Reluctant to discuss this painful episode, Harriet mentioned it only briefly during an interview in 1865...

In the course of nineteen trips into slave territory, Harriet Tubman led six of her brothers, their wives and fiances, nieces, nephews, and, in 1857, her elderly parents to freedom.

Nat Turner

Nat Turner's rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in the summer of 1831, threw the slaveholding South into a panic, and into a determined effort to bolster the security of the slave system. Turner, claiming religious visions, gathered about seventy slaves who went on a rampage from plantation to plantation, murdering at least fifty-five men, women, and children. They gathered supporters but were captured as their ammunition ran out. Turner and perhaps eighteen others were hanged.

Denmark Vesey

Vesey won a lottery and purchased his freedom in the year of Gabriel Prosser's defeat (Aug. 30, 1800). From that date he worked as a carpenter in Charleston, S.C.

He accumulated money and property and was respected by Negroes and whites.

He was, by his own admission, satisfied with his own condition yet he risked everything in a bold effort to free other men.

There burned in Vesey's breast a deep and unquenchable hatred of slavery and slaveholders. A brilliant, hot-tempered man, he was for some twenty years the slave of a slave trader. He traveled widely and learned several languages; he learned also that slavery was evil and that man was not meant to slave for man.

The conspiracy this firebrand conceived is one of the most elaborate on record.

"Men," he said, "must not only be dissatisfied; they must be so dissatisfied they will act." Denmark Vesey was interested in action. He told slaves their lives were so miserable that even death would be an improvement.

Gabriel Prosser

He stood six feet-two and he wore his hair long in imitation of his Biblical idol Samson.

Like most leaders of American Negro slave revolts, Prosser was a deeply religious man. He meditated upon the Bible and dreamed dreams of a Negro state-not in the Caribbean but in Virginia, the land of Jefferson and Washington. He laid plans for his uprising in the spring and summer of 1800. He plotted and was betrayed.

Copyright 2001-, Terry Muse
Revised: December 29, 2001
Contact: Terry Muse