What Were the Earliest Rebellions by African Americans?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Despite reports to the contrary, African-American slaves had a history of revolt.

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Discovery of Nat Turner: wood engraving illustrating Benjamin Phipps’ capture of Nat Turner 

William Henry Shelton

Editor’s note: This column was originally published April 22, 2013. For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proofto whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 28: What were the largest slave rebellions in America?

One of the most pernicious allegations made against the African-American people was that our slave ancestors were either exceptionally "docile" or "content and loyal," thus explaining their purported failure to rebel extensively. Some even compare enslaved Americans to their brothers and sisters in Brazil, Cuba, Suriname and Haiti, the last of whom defeated the most powerful army in the world, Napoleon's army, becoming the first slaves in history to successfully strike a blow for their own freedom.

As the historian Herbert Aptheker informs us in American Negro Slave Revolts, no one put this dishonest, nakedly pro-slavery argument more baldly than the Harvard historian James Schouler in 1882, who attributed this spurious conclusion to " 'the innate patience, docility, and child-like simplicity of the negro' " who, he felt, was an " 'imitator and non-moralist,' " learning " 'deceit and libertinism with facility,' " being " 'easily intimidated, incapable of deep plots' "; in short, Negroes were " 'a black servile race, sensuous, stupid, brutish, obedient to the whip, children in imagination.' ''

Consider how bizarre this was: It wasn't enough that slaves had been subjugated under a harsh and brutal regime for two and a half centuries; following the collapse of Reconstruction, this school of historians—unapologetically supportive of slavery—kicked the slaves again for not rising up more frequently to kill their oppressive masters. And lest we think that this phenomenon was relegated to 19th- and early-20th-century scholars, as late as 1959, Stanley Elkins drew a picture of the slaves as infantilized "Sambos" in his book Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, reduced to the status of the passive, "perpetual child" by the severely oppressive form of American slavery, and thus unable to rebel. Rarely can I think of a colder, nastier set of claims than these about the lack of courage or "manhood" of the African-American slaves.

So, did African-American slaves rebel? Of course they did. As early as 1934, our old friend Joel A. Rogers identified 33 slave revolts, including Nat Turner's, in his 100 Amazing Facts. And nine years later, the historian Herbert Aptheker published his pioneering study, American Negro Slave Revolts, to set the record straight. Aptheker defined a slave revolt as an action involving 10 or more slaves, with "freedom as the apparent aim [and] contemporary references labeling the event as an uprising, plot, insurrection, or the equivalent of these." In all, Aptheker says, he "has found records of approximately two hundred and fifty revolts and conspiracies in the history of American Negro slavery." Other scholars have found as many as 313.

Let's consider the five greatest slave rebellions in the United States, about which Donald Yacovone and I write in the forthcoming companion book to my PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.  

1. Stono Rebellion, 1739. The Stono Rebellion was the largest slave revolt ever staged in the 13 colonies. On Sunday, Sept. 9, 1739, a day free of labor, about 20 slaves under the leadership of a man named Jemmy provided whites with a painful lesson on the African desire for liberty. Many members of the group were seasoned soldiers, either from the Yamasee War or from their experience in their homes in Angola, where they were captured and sold, and had been trained in the use of weapons.

They gathered at the Stono River and raided a warehouselike store, Hutchenson's, executing the white owners and placing their victims' heads on the store's front steps for all to see. They moved on to other houses in the area, killing the occupants and burning the structures, marching through the colony toward St. Augustine, Fla., where under Spanish law, they would be free.

As the march proceeded, not all slaves joined the insurrection; in fact, some hung back and actually helped hide their masters. But many were drawn to it, and the insurrectionists soon numbered about 100. They paraded down King's Highway, according to sources, carrying banners and shouting, "Liberty!"—lukango in their native Kikongo, a word that would have expressed the English ideals embodied in liberty and, perhaps, salvation.