Six times a year, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. The latest Focus On looks at slave revolts.
As long as there have been slaves in North America, there has been slave resistance. Nearly all the uprisings ended in death, yet revolts continued through the last days of the "peculiar institution"—a stark testament to the despair wrought by a life sentence of forced servitude. Given the grave retribution meted out for even the most minor transgressions (for example, reading), nearly any act of self-improvement may be seen as a form of rebellion. Accordingly, untold numbers of slaves engaged in acts of resistance in attempt to improve their dismal lot. Organized, armed insurrections, however, were much rarer. So ubiquitous was the pall of the slave system—a system sanctioned and enforced by the state—that nearly every facet of daily life conspired against the would-be free man.
Notably, some of the first major slave insurrections took place in New York City, not in the South. This may have been due to the high density of blacks in the urban center; likewise, South Carolina, site of the Stono Rebellion (1739) and Denmark Vesey Conspiracy (1822), among other large-scale revolts, contained perhaps the highest percentage of blacks on the North American continent. After the Revolutionary War, however, New York began dismantling its slave economy, inching imperfectly toward the republic described in the Declaration of Independence. In contrast, the ex-colonies of the South became increasingly dependent on the benefits conferred by a slave economy and the measures that ensured its subsistence. Militias, slave-catching dogs, and legal statutes criminalizing noncompliance with human bondage made slave owners ever more powerful and their slaves ever more desperate.View photo essay
The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to learn more about African Americans abroad.
Primary Source Documents