Editor’s Note: This week, The Root commemorates Black History Month with a series on little-known or forgotten rebels, celebrating black America’s legacy of defiance.
“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” —Not Harriet Tubman
A true aficionado of black history would have known the above aphorism was an example of “fake wokeness” when they first read it. But, while the quote has been erroneously attributed to Harriet Tubman, there are black female warriors whose actions contributed to the freedom of thousands, if not millions of enslaved men and women. These brave black women have been left out of the annals of history for a number of reasons—mostly because they were black women.
Here are just a few of the origin stories of some of America’s greatest supersheroes.
Historical revisionists and people who own MAGA hats often dismiss the impact of white supremacy and slavery by smugly reminding others that Africans enslaved their fellow Africans. While this is a simplistic summary of how colonialism works, the “20. and odd” enslaved Africans who arrived on the White Lion in 1619 were probably from the Ndongo Kingdom (pdf) in present-day Angola.
As The Root explained way back in 1619:
Portugal has been trying to establish a presence on the African continent since 1575 when they began colonizing the African region they call Angola. Portugal is seeking to capitalize on the lucrative slave trade by building forts and markets across Angola, which includes the people of the Ndongo nation. But the Portuguese colonialists kept running into one problem:
The Ndongo kept kicking their ass.
To be fair, the Ndongo kicked everyone’s ass, even their powerful warrior neighbors, the Imbangala. One of the Imbangala’s tribal customs is that they do not allow women to have children because they don’t want any weaknesses in their society. Thus, the only way they can replenish their ranks is by raiding nearby villages and forcing the prisoners of war to serve as soldiers for a period of time until they integrate them into their society.
So, in 1618, the Portuguese Angolan governor, Luís Mendes de Vasconcellos made an alliance with the Imbangalan warriors to help raid Ndongo. Instead of fighting the Ndongo with hatchets and war clubs, the Imbangala now had guns.
And the Portuguese got slaves by the thousands.
In three years, Vasconcellos would enslave 50,000 Africans with the help of the Imbangala, who assumed the Portuguese would treat the captured men and women in the tradition of the Imbangalan society, which did not even have a concept of perpetual, generational enslavement.
Five years later, Nzinga would stop all of that shit.
After the death of her father, King Kiluanji of Ndongo, Nzinga’s brother had her sterilized and ordered her son to be killed so she would not become queen. Nzinga fled to nearby Matamba but when her brother realized he couldn’t defeat the Portuguese, he begged Nzinga to negotiate a treaty.
When she arrived to meet the Portuguese governor, they used a common tactic to belittle Nzinga—offering her a floor mat while the European leaders looked down on her from their chairs. Unfazed, Nzinga ordered a member of her court to get on all fours and sat on his back, placing herself at their level to negotiate the treaty, which included ending the slave trade in her kingdom.
Of course, being the colonizers that they were, the Portuguese reneged on the agreement and continued to take “slaves and precious items” from the Ndongo. After her brother died, Nzinga had her brother’s son, the heir to the throne, killed. And when her rival, Hari, teamed up with the Portuguese enslavers and declared that a woman could never control the kingdom, Nzinga fled to Matamba, kidnapped their king, seized control of their entire army and returned to Ndongo to take her throne. By 1626, Nzinga was the ruler of the Ndongo and the Matamba.
She called herself the king.
Researchers say Nzinga defied gender norms by deciding to “become a man.” Not only did Nzinga dress in traditional male attire, but she also required her stable of husbands to dress as women. When the Portuguese declared war, she personally led her troops into battle and was, by all accounts, a fearless warrior and exceptional warrior tactician. Using guerrilla warfare and implementing the war strategy of every kingdom she conquered, Nzinga fought the Portuguese to a standstill for 30 years, all while expanding her empire. also declared that any African enslaved by Europeans would be free in her Kingdom.
When she defeated a neighboring army, she would integrate the conquered troops and force the leaders to teach her armies all of their tactics, essentially creating an unstoppable force. After conquering a new land, Nzinga only had one rule for her subjects:
No slave trading.
Of course, this wasn’t just an act of benevolence. As Nzinga’s empire grew, she also depleted the Portuguese supply of human chattel, which crippled their slave economy while diminishing their army.
On November 24, 1657, the Portuguese gave up.
They gave her the rights to all the land and agreed to a peace treaty. She dedicated the rest of her life to resettling slaves, establishing trade and rebuilding her kingdom. Nzinga lived until 1663, well into her 80s. But the Ndongo would resist colonialism even after she died.
There are some enslaved Africans, of whom it is said, “can’t nobody own.”
Couldn’t nobody own Bett Freeman.
Born in 1742, she was known for not giving a damn. When Hannah Ashley, Bett’s cruel slave mistress, tried to hit Bett’s little sister with a heated shovel, Bett blocked the blow with her arm, scarring her for life. But Bett refused to cover the scar and, if anyone asked about it, she would shrug, stare at Ashley and say: “Ask the Missus!”
Hannah’s husband, Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, was a Yale-educated lawyer. One day, during a meeting in the Ashley home, Bett overheard her owner reading the newly ratified Massachusetts Constitution. One line stuck out in particular:
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
Bett was like: Wait...What?
She contacted Thomas Sedgwick, an abolitionist lawyer and, according to Sedgwick’s wife, explained: “I heard that paper read yesterday, that says, all men are created equal, and that every man has a right to freedom. I’m not a dumb critter; won’t the law give me my freedom?”
Sedgwick filed a case in the Great Barrington Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Bett and another enslaved man named Brom. In August 1781, a jury emancipated Bett and Brom, awarding 30 shillings in damages and compensation for back pay.
That’s right, she got reparations.
Bett and Brom v. Ashley set the legal precedent that would emancipate every enslaved person in Massachusetts when slavery was effectively abolished in the state in 1783. Bett would change her name to Elizabeth and spend the rest of her life working for Sedgwick.
In 1838, Anna Murray met an enslaved man named Fred Bailey. Murray, who was born free, had been working in a laundry at the docks and saving her money. She would tell Fred so much about living as a free person in Maryland that he began to desire freedom for himself, so Anna decided to help him out.
Anna stole some clothes from her job, dressed Fred as a sailor and helped him escape to Philadelphia, then to New York. Anna met Fred in New York, married him and bought everything they needed to start a new life. They had kids and eventually moved to Rochester, N.Y.
While Fred traveled the country preaching, Anna opened their home as the headquarters for the Underground Railroad. She provided food, clothes, shelter and directions for fugitive slaves headed to Canada. Anna died of a stroke in 1882.
Anna’s contributions to society have largely gone unrecognized, while her husband’s work is well-known as an orator. Perhaps the greatest abolitionist of all time would have never become what he was if were not for Anna’s efforts. On their wedding day, Fred and Anna decided that they couldn’t use the name Bailey (he was a fugitive after all). Instead, they adopted a new surname:
Frederick and Anna Douglass.
Harriet Tubman personally rescued 50-70 enslaved souls, mostly family members. One might possibly reach the thousand number if you combined the fugitive slaves who used her directions, the ones she recruited into the Union Army during her work as a Civil War spy, and the 700 who were saved when she led the Combahee Ferry Raid.
If you’re counting like that, then Mary Louvestre (sometimes spelled Touvestre) should have hundreds of thousands of notches on her belt.
The first battle between two ironclad ships, the Merrimack and the Monitor, signaled a new era of naval warfare. It would not have happened if it had not been for the bravery and skill of Mary Louvestre, an enslaved woman who was also a talented artist. Not only could she draw, but she was a gifted seamstress, which is how she wound up in the home of a Confederate engineer who she overheard speaking of his plan to reinforce a Confederate ship with iron, the first of its kind.
Mary knew this could turn the war for the South, so she copied the plans and asked her masters for permission to visit her previous owners. With the pass and the help of the Underground Railroad, Mary walked the 140 miles to Fredericksburg, Vrigina, where she received a military escort (pdf) to meet with the Secretary of the Navy. When they offered her freedom, Mary decided to walk back, lest her spying be discovered.
When abolitionist John Brown was hanged for treason after attempting a violent overthrow of the institution of slavery, there was a signed note in his pocket from the person who funded his revolt. Army investigators desperately tried to find out who was responsible for aiding the armed insurrection, thinking it was a wealthy northern abolitionist. They focused on the initials signed at the note, which read:
The ax is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.—WEP
It turns out, the note was written by one of the wealthiest and smartest black women in American history.
Mary Ellen Pleasant was born in 1812 and saved up enough money to emancipate herself. She passed as white and some say she knew voodoo, which may explain how she married a wealthy white Massachusetts business owner, James Smith. As Smith got rich in the flour business, Mary somehow convinced him to use all of his money to fund her career as a “slave stealer” on the Underground Railroad. When Smith died, he left her tens of thousands of dollars to continue her “work” in New Orleans.
After whites caught onto her scheme in New Orleans, Mary moved to San Francisco just in time for the California gold rush. Again, passing as white, she opened restaurants, laundries, boarding houses and bars catering to wealthy gold miners and speculators. She used the businesses to eavesdrop on financial advice and, with the help of a partner who worked at a local bank, amassed $30 million (equivalent to $700 million in today’s dollars).
Pleasant was one of the first investors in oil and owned so much land and real estate that California’s governor took the oath of office in one of her boarding houses. She used cunning, blackmail and her looks to control the most powerful men in the city, writing that she was “a girl full of smartness,” who “let books alone and studied men and women a good deal.”
Mary would only hire black workers, preferring fugitive slaves. She spent so much money stealing enslaved black people and helping them to resettle, she was called the “Harriet Tubman of California.” Although she continued to pass for white, she didn’t hide her race from her black beneficiaries, explaining that she was the child of a Hawaiian and a “full-blooded Louisiana negress.” As soon as the Fourteenth Amendment was signed, she officially changed her race to “black” and began funding civil rights cases, including two suits that forced the city of San Francisco to agree to outlaw segregation on its trolleys.
Pleasant died in 1904 after depleting all of her resources. Her activities were never known to whites until she dictated her autobiography and revealed her secrets, including the greatest one of all:
“Before I pass away,” she confessed, “I wish to clear the identity of the party who furnished John Brown with most of his money to start the fight at Harpers Ferry and who signed the letter found on him when he was arrested.”
These are just a few of the women who played a part in black freedom. Others include the Edmonson sisters, who helped plan one of the biggest nonviolent slave revolts by stealing a ship and attempting to sail to freedom. Abolitionist Harriett Forten Purvis reportedly helped 9,000 people escape slavery. Mary Meachum operated a school for free and enslaved blacks that doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. When they tried to shut her down by outlawing slave education, she moved the school to a riverboat.
Every one of these women knew the horrors of slavery. While some were born free, the ones who managed to escape slavery would probably say that the people they helped all had one thing in common.
They knew they were slaves.