Resistance

"...but at this moment--from whence came the spirit I don't know--I resolved to fight...My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact."--Frederick Douglass, from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Efforts of resistance was varied among enslaved blacks--covert methods of sabotaging or breaking machines and collectively working at a slower pace were employed, as well as more overt methods such as open defiance that sometimes escalated into slave revolts and rebellions. Some slaves decided that the only recourse for their involuntary servitude was through violence, where the ends ultimately justified the means.  At its most basic level, the very act of resistance aimed to restore a sense of dignity lost to slaves by the institution's tyranny.  

Revolts and Rebellions

"I see sir, you doubt my word; but can you not think the same ideas, and strange appearances about this time in the heaven's might prompt others, as well as myself, to this undertaking."--Nat Turner, in his "Confession of Nat Turner," after leading a slave revolt in Virginia in 1831 that killed dozens of slave-owning whites.

 

 

 

Illustration of Amistad mutiny, 1839

Black Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L'Ouverture, 1794

Illustration of Nat Turner's Rebellion, 1831

It is estimated that over two hundred separate slave revolts and conspiracies took place from the 1600's to the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, although it is impossible to know just how many passive or "invisible" acts of resistance took place among the slaves. 

 "Let every slave throughout the land do this (revolt) and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been -- you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die freemen than live to be slaves."--Henry H. Garnet, from "An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America," 1843.  Garnet's call to revolt was immediately disavowed by black abolitionists attending the National Negro Convention that hosted Garnet.

Fugitive Slaves

The number of successful runaway slaves prompted Congress to pass the infamous Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 in an attempt to recapture slaves who escaped to the North, as well as to deter slaves considering running away. 

 

As a result, both enslaved and free blacks were arrested, since the only proof needed for capture was the slave owners' sworn testimony.  Additionally, blacks could not defend themselves in a court of law to prove their freedom.

 

  Thus, unscrupulous marshals kidnapped blacks solely for the reward money, even if they owned documents attesting their freedom. After the Fugitive Slave Law's passage, the safety of free blacks became even more tenuous. 


The Underground Railroad

The injustices of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 led many abolitionists to assist fugitive slaves via the Underground Railroad.  The Underground Railroad was a cooperative system among anti-slavery supporters to help Southern slaves escape.  Begun in the late 1700s, the Underground Railroad involved a series of safe places (or "stations") for slaves to use on their escape route, and they were provided with food, shelter, and money for their continuing journey.  

Each station was about twenty miles apart, and slaves usually traveled at night.  By the 1850s,  approximately 50,000 slaves successfully escaped using this system.

Levi Coffin (1789-1877), Quaker, Abolitionist, and Underground Railroad operator (left), and his home in Fountain City, Indiana (right).


The Fugitive Slave Act did not decrease the number of runaway slaves, but in fact only increased the determined efforts of abolitionists to eradicate slavery in America.

Harriet Tubman (c. 1820-1913), former slave and Underground Railroad conductor.  It is estimated that she personally escorted over 300 slaves from the South in the course of 19 daring trips into slave territory.


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