Resistance

“We have as much right to fight for our liberty as any men.”

Testimony of Sam
Richmond, Virginia, October 29, 1800

 

Let Your Motto Be Resistance

Emancipation was not the product of one act, but many Americans, enslaved and free, chipped away at slavery through daily acts of resistance, organized rebellions, and political pressure.  Some were small steps, others were organized actions taking advantage of national debates to fracture and destroy the peculiar institution. 

 

Acts of Defiance

Enslaved black southerners fought slavery in ways large and small—from open rebellion to subtle acts of resistance. Some ran away, poisoned food, or preached freedom at religious services held in secret. Yet for many people survival itself was a form of resistance. While their lives were curtailed by the institution of slavery, freedom was never far from their thoughts.

Harriet Tubman escaped the bonds of slavery as a young woman in the early 1800s. She returned to the South many times as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad to lead other African Americans to freedom. During the Civil War, Tubman served as a spy, nurse, and cook for Union forces. In 1863, she helped free more than 700 African Americans during a raid in South Carolina—a feat that earned her the nickname “General Tubman.” 

Runaway Notice

Runaway Notice

Against great odds, enslaved African Americans ran away. They ran to family, to friends, or north to freedom. A runaway risked brutal punishment and retribution against loved ones left behind.
National Museum of African American History and Culture

Slave Rebellions

Slave rebellions carried bloody consequences. Rebels were executed. Family, friends, and neighbors might be beaten and killed. In some cases, slaveholders placed the bloodied and dismembered bodies in public view to remind passersby of slavery’s awful power. Nevertheless, against terrible odds, enslaved people rebelled.

The largest slave rebellions included Stono (South Carolina, 1739), New York City (1741), Gabriel’s Rebellion (Richmond, Virginia, 1800), St John’s Parish (Louisiana, 1811), Fort Blount (Florida, 1816), Vesey’s Rebellion (Charleston, South Carolina, 1822), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (Southampton County, Virginia, 1831), Amistad Mutiny (slave ship, 1839), and the Creole Revolt (slave ship, 1841).

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In the North, many runaways published life stories to focus national attention on the horrors of slavery. These autobiographies became known as “slave narratives.” Perhaps the most well known was written by Frederick Douglass. He used his life story as a political tool directed at the conscience of white America. Emphasizing classic American values such as individualism, freedom, and the self-made man, Douglass held a mirror to America and asked the public to speak out against slavery.
National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Elizabeth Cassell

Nat Turner’s Rebellion

Enslaved people rose up against slaveholders in Southampton County, Virginia, on August 21, 1831. Led by Nat Turner, rebels moved from plantation to plantation, murdering roughly 55 whites and rallying enslaved people to their cause. They planned to move on to Jerusalem, Virginia, seize supplies, and then make a permanent home in the Great Dismal Swamp. By August 23, the rebels had been defeated. More than 200 black men and women, both enslaved and free, were executed. Nat Turner’s Rebellion alarmed Americans and inflamed the debate over the future of slavery.

Nat Turner's Bible

Nat Turner's Bible

It is thought that Nat Turner was holding this Bible when he was captured two months after the rebellion. Turner worked both as an enslaved field hand and as a minister. A man of remarkable intellect, he was widely respected by black and white people in Southampton County, Virginia. He used his talents as a speaker and his mobility as a preacher to organize the slave revolt. This Bible was donated to the museum by descendants of Lavinia Francis, a slaveholder who survived the rebellion.
National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Maurice A. Person and Noah and Brooke Porter

Abolitionist Allies

In the North, abolitionists used many strategies to attack slavery. Like William Lloyd Garrison, some advocated the gradual emancipation of enslaved people. Others took direct action, such as Harriet Tubman who led enslaved people to freedom. John Brown attacked slavery with guns, swords, and pikes. Some tried politics, writing so many letters to Congress that work in the Capitol ground to a halt. Black or white, radical or conservative, abolitionists formed a small but potent force that shifted the political rhetoric in the United States and helped end slavery.

John Brown Pike Head

John Brown Pike Head

John Brown attempted to ignite a slave insurrection in Virginia. He and a small band of men raided the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859 to seize weapons for the uprising. He brought 1,000 pikes with him to help arm the people he freed. Brown was captured and executed, but his raid stoked the fears of white southerners. With one third of the southern population held in bondage, whites lived in fear of an armed insurrection.
National Museum of American History, gift of Luther M. Divine

Gag Rule Cane

Gag Rule Cane

In 1836, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “gag rule” prohibiting any debate about slavery or the acceptance of anti-slavery petitions. Congressman John Quincy Adams opposed the rule for many years until it was rescinded in 1844. In gratitude, Julius Pratt and Company presented this ivory cane to the former president.
National Museum of American History