By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks resisted a bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the colored section to a white patron on a Montgomery Street bus.
Ten months later, in the same city, so did Claudette Colvin; as had Irene Morgan done years earlier on a Greyhound bus in Virginia in 1944.
These individual acts coupled with resistance to economic, political, and social marginalization are common features of the 400 years of Black History in America.
Acts of “resistance” to slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and other forms of oppression are to be highlighted during the 2023 edition of African American History Month in February centered around the one word theme: “Resistance.”
The theme is devised annually by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson and headquartered in Washington, D.C.
“These efforts have been to advocate for a dignified self-determined life in a just democratic society in the United States and beyond the U.S. political jurisdiction,” a statement explaining this year’s theme said on the ASALH website.
It reads, “The 1950s and 1970s in the United States were defined by actions such as sit-ins, boycotts, walkouts, strikes by Black people, and white allies in the fight for justice against discrimination in all sectors of society from employment to education to housing.
“Black people have had to consistently push the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all,” it continued.
“Systematic oppression has sought to negate much of the dreams of our griots, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and our freedom fighters, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Septima Clark, and Fannie Lou Hamer fought to realize. Black people
have sought ways to nurture and protect Black lives, and for the autonomy of their physical and intellectual bodies through armed resistance, voluntary emigration, nonviolence, education, literature, sports, media, and legislation/politics. Black-led institutions and
affiliations have lobbied, litigated, legislated, protested, and achieved success.”
The transatlantic slave trade exported Africans from Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Windward Coast, Gold Coast, Bight of Benin, West Central Africa, and Southeastern Africa. Human cargo was shipped to Portugal, England, Spain, France, the Americas, and the Caribbean, where millions in profits were generated from the labor of enslaved Africans.
But many of the captives resisted being transported to bondage as the ships sailed to their destinations.
They jumped from the filthy and overcrowded ships along the Middle Passage to a watery death.
According to historic records, over 20 percent of slave ships failed to reach their destination due to such resistance.
The United States banned the importing of African slaves in 1808, but importation still occurred secretly.
According to the November 12, 2018 edition of the online edition of Urban Woman, the height of the shipboard resistance took place from the 1730s to 1841.
In June 1730, Captain George Scott sailed from the Guinea coast with 96 slaves aboard the ship, “Little George.” Six days into the journey, the slaves revolted and imprisoned the captain and some of the crew; after which, they steered the ship back to the coast of Africa and escaped.
One of the most intriguing revolts occurred in July 1839 aboard the Armistead. Slaves who spoke Mende revolted and piloted the ship to Long Island, New York.
There, a trial was held for them, to determine what their fate should be since the external slave trade had been brought to an end in 1808.
Former President John Quincy Adams defended them, and the Supreme Court ruled that they should be set free and allowed to return to Africa.
On land through two centuries of chattel slavery in Haiti, Mexico, and the North American continent, the myth of the contented slave was dismantled due to the ones resisting their bondage.
Before the American Civil War started in 1861, more than 250 uprisings or attempted uprisings involving 10 or more slaves were recorded.
There were debates on whether the slaves committed conspiracies, murderous insurrections, or revolts as they resisted slavery to secure their freedom.
Called a “conspiracy”, the first domestic slave revolt was conceived by Gabriel, an enslaved man in Virginia, in the summer of 1800.
On August 30 more than 1,000 armed slaves massed for action near Richmond but their plans were disrupted by a rainstorm.
The slaves were forced to disband, and 35 were hanged, including Gabriel.
The only free person to lead a rebellion was Denmark Vesey, of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822. According to some accounts, as many as 9,000 people were involved.
The revolt was betrayed in June before it got underway. As a result, some 130 Blacks were arrested; 35, including Vesey, were hanged and 32 were exiled before the end of the summer.
The most notable and deadly act of slave resistance was led by Preacher Nat Turner, in Southampton County, Virginia, in the summer of 1831.
On the evening of August 21, Turner and a small band of slaves killed 60 whites and attracted up to 75 fellow slaves over several days.
On August 24, a militia stopped the rebels near Jerusalem, killing at least 40 and probably nearer 100.
Turner escaped to the Dismal Swamp before he was captured and hanged on November 11.
Before Turner’s action, Blacks, resisting bondage escaped and secured refuge in the Dismal Swamp. They built camps as individuals and whole families, lived unmolested by white slave owners.
Turner’s rebellion caused Virginia to impose harsher restrictions on enslaved Blacks and free Blacks were ordered to leave the state.
Many Blacks escaped to live among the Native Americans and were integrated into their communities.
To deter revolts, it was illegal to teach Blacks to read. Though Turner was a preacher, the Blacks could not congregate to worship.
Also, news of the Black rebellions in Haiti, and the influx of runaways helped to arouse wider sympathy for the plight of the slave and support for the abolition movement.
Slavery was concentrated in the South as many northern states outlawed slavery after the American Revolution. This led the enslaved Blacks in the South to seek to escape northward so frequently, that in 1793, the federal Fugitive Slave Act was imposed, using slave patrols and bounty hunters to stop it.
In the decades before the American Civil War, however, increasing numbers of slaves resisted bondage and managed to escape to the North or to Canada via the Underground Railroad network of antislavery advocates.
Virginia had among the greatest number of fugitives, by sea, to North Canada.
A posting in the Norfolk Southern Argus on April 22, 1854, complained about the “outrageous thefts that are daily being committed upon us, in the running off of our slaves.” The paper assumed “that secret agencies are at work in our midst, for the purpose of offering
inducements to our slaves to make their escape to the North,” and estimated that in the last year, slaveholders there had lost $75,000 in the form of runaway slaves. “A man may be wealthy today,” the editors wrote, “but tomorrow his property may have vanished into empty space.”
Several factors made Virginia a place where the Underground Railroad flourished. It had the largest enslaved population of any state and a large free Black population. It also bordered the free states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. And from Wellsville, Ohio, it was only 90 miles to Lake Erie, across which lay Canada.
Virginia also boasted a number of sizable port cities, in Portsmouth, Newport News, and Hampton.
Slaves were hired out to work in the maritime industry as unsupervised pilots and in other jobs, supported the escapees.
Also, Black churches and free Black neighborhoods hosted escapees and helped them board ships to freedom.
The congregation of Portsmouth’s 250-year-old Emanuel AME Church was one of the sites in the city designated by the National Park Service as a stop along the Underground Railroad trail.
[Iron mask, collar, leg shackles and spurs used to restrict slaves]
Repository: Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Harriet Tubman (born Araminta Ross, c. March 1822 – March 10, 1913), also known as “Black Moses,” was a freedom fighter who resisted slavery and helped deliver a number of Blacks (some estimates as high as 300) to freedom in the North, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the movement for women’s suffrage.