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The first Africans in America arrived as Indentured Servants via Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. From 1619 to about 1640, Africans could earn their freedom working as laborers and artisans for the European settlers. Africans could become free people and enjoy some of the liberties like other new settlers. By 1640, Maryland became the first colony to institutionalize slavery. In 1641, Massachusetts, in its written legislative Body of Liberties. stated that "bondage was legal" servitude, at that moment changing the conditions of the African workers - they became chattel slaves who could be bought and solely owned by their masters.

The rising demand for sugar, coffee, cotton, and tobacco created a greater demand for slaves by other slave trading countries. Spain, France, the Dutch, and English were in competition for the cheap labor needed to work their colonial plantation system producing those lucrative goods. The slave trade was so profitable that, by 1672, the Royal African Company chartered by Charles II of England superseded the other traders and became the richest shipper of human slaves to the mainland of the Americas. The slaves were so valuable to the open market - they were eventually called "Black Gold."

Many Europeans came to America to exercise their God fearing beliefs and to practice religious freedom. Slavery, on the other hand, was a form of persecution which, in the eyes of colonial America, had to be justified. Therefore, the black slave became an easily identifiable group targeted as being inferior, subhuman, and destined for servitude. The early Christian churches did not take up the cause of eliminating slavery until much later in the century. The famous Boston theologian, Cotton Mather,  in 1693 included in his Rules for the Society of the Negroes the explanation that "Negroes were enslaved because they had sinned against God." He later included a heavenly plan that "God would prepare a mansion in Heaven," but little or no way for the end of forced slavery on earth was undertaken by most religious groups.



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The Middle Passage has been defined in several ways. Some authors refer to these routes as the "triangle trade" or "circuit trade," "three cornered," "round about," and "transatlantic trade" routes. The typical voyage for slaves taken by the British went south down the coast of Africa into the area adjacent to the Gulf of Guinea. These English slavers brought cargoes of rum, brandy, glass, cloths, beads, guns, and other appealing goods from Europe. They bargained with African traders for their tribal captives. Some slavers entered the shores and kidnapped the unsuspecting natives and took them aboard their slave ships or kept them in waiting areas near the shore called "barracoons" or slave barracks.

When the desired number of African slaves was met for shipping, the voyage of middle passage continued from Africa on the slave ships going across the Atlantic Ocean with a destination in one of several ports in the West Indies and Caribbean (including: Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, and Barbados). In the West Indies and Caribbean, some slaves were off-loaded and sold to work at the sugar plantations, also called the "Sugar Islands." The raw molasses was taken aboard the ships; then they sailed up the coast northbound for Newport or Bristol, Rhode Island's distilleries, to make rum from the molasses. Other stops along the Atlantic coast where slaves were exchanged for goods or cash were Charleston, South Carolina and Boston, Massachusetts. The goods produced by cheap slave labor were loaded aboard the now empty slave ships along with sugar, tobacco, or cotton for the trip back to England. The rum from the rum distillers went directly back to Africa for more slaves, bartering on this, the Triangular Trade Routes.

By 1768, the English slave trade had a figure of 53,000 slaves a year being shipped to the North American continent. Other slave traders included the French at 23,000, the Dutch at 11,000, and the Portuguese at 8,700 slaves being transported yearly from Africa. Estimates of up to 10 million slaves took the Middle Passage Voyage to reach the Americas.


Many Europeans came to America to exercise their God fearing beliefs and to practice religious freedom. Slavery, on the other hand, was a form of persecution which, in the eyes of colonial America, had to be justified. Therefore, the black slave became an easily identifiable group targeted as being inferior, subhuman, and destined for servitude. The early Christian churches did not take up the cause of eliminating slavery until much later in the century. The famous Boston theologian, Cotton Mather in 1693 included in his Rules for the Society of the Negroes the explanation that "Negroes were enslaved because they had sinned against God." He later included a heavenly plan that "God would prepare a mansion in Heaven," but little or no way for the end of forced slavery on earth was undertaken by most religious groups.


The slave codes robbed the Africans of their freedom and will power. Slaves did resist this treatment, therefore strict and cruel punishment was on hand for disobeying their masters. Slaves were forbidden from carrying guns, taking food, striking their masters, and running away. All slaves could be flogged or killed for resisting or breaking the slave codes. Some slave states required both slaves and free blacks to wear metal badges. Those badges were embossed with an ID number and occupation.

Freedom was always on the minds of the enslaved Africans. How to gain that freedom was the big question. American historical records have identified some of those attempts and some of the people involved in the African's quest for freedom on American soil.

Refusing to obey their masters' demands created a duel crisis on the part of the resisting slaves and their demanding owners. The most common form of resistance used by the slaves was to run away. To live as a runaway required perfect escape routes and exact timing. Where to hide, finding food, leaving the family and children behind became primary issues for the escaping slaves. Later, the severe punishment had to be faced whenever a hunted slave was caught and returned to bondage.

Many slaves ran off and lived in the woods or vast wilderness in the undeveloped American countryside. This group of slaves were called "maroons," for they found remote areas in the thick forest and mainly lived off wild fruits and animals as food. Some of these maroons ran off, lived, and even married into segments of the Native American populations. They were later called Black Indians.


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  • 1800. Gabriel Prosser attempts a slave rebellion in Virginia.


  • By 1807, the British Parliament had put a stop to shipping and trading African slaves.


  • By 1808, the Congress of the United States made it illegal to bring more slaves into the country. Still, the smuggling of Africans as slaves into the United States continued well into the mid 1800's. Remember, the Amistad slave incident happened in 1839. Slave trading within the states continued up until the day of Emancipation in 1863.


  • By 1812, the British, as a payback to the American colonists, offered the Africans a chance to own land and be free - if they fought on their side during the War of 1812.


  • By 1819, the Canadian government refused to cooperate with the American government by not allowing them free access to pursue escaped slaves living in Canada.


  • By 1820, the Missouri Compromise was adopted, allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slaveholding state and Maine as a freebearing state. The Missouri Compromise kept the number of free states and slave states balanced.


  • 1822. Denmark Vesey arrested for planning a slave rebellion in South Carolina.


  • 1831. Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia.


  • By 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society was established in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The British Parliament abolished slavery in the entire British Empire during this year.


  • 1839. The Amistad Insurrection


  • By 1850, the Compromise of 1850 again brought up the issue of slavery. California entered the union as a free state, but the territories of New Mexico, Utah, and Texas were allowed to decide, as individual states, the choice of being a slave state or a free state. 1850 also saw the passage of another much stricter Fugitive Slave Law being put into effect.


  • By 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which became the best selling book and a major influence for the Anti-Slavery Movement.


  • 1854. The Dred Scott Case.


  • The year of 1857 saw slavery and freedom hanging in the balance.


  • 1859. John Brown broke into the Federal Armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia.


  • 1860. Abraham Lincoln elected president. South Carolina secedes.


  • 1861. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia secede. Formation of the Confederate States of America. Attack on Fort Sumter.


  • 1861-1865. The Civil War.


  • 1865. Freedom on the Horizon. February 1, 1865, Abraham Lincoln ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery throughout the whole United States. Lincoln was assassinated two months later by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865.



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Gabriel Prosser, in August of 1800, set out to free himself along with about 1,000 other slaves. His plot was to kill most of the white residents and take the town of Richmond, Virginia. It is said that a sudden bad thunderstorm caused the slave revolters to disband. Three other slaves also revealed the plot, and Gabriel Prosser and thirty-six of the slaves were identified, tried, and executed.

Denmark Vesey had obtained his freedom by the year of 1800. He was so disturbed by the whole system of slavery that he wanted to destroy all vestiges of its doing. He wanted a full-fledged war using armed slaves to kill white slave owners in the city of Charleston, South Carolina. By 1822, and after several years of planning, Vesey's idea to attack and "liberate" the city was revealed. One participant's forced confession led to Vesey's and several of his co-conspirators' arrest. All of them were tried and hung. South Carolina then passed laws to bar free Blacks from entering the state due to Denmark Vesey's alleged plot.

Nat Turner had a religious zeal and a belief that he was the "chosen one" to free himself and his slave brethren. This 31 year old preacher to the slaves devised a plan of "terror and devastation." His organized revolt became America's most famous and violent act involving slave resistance. On August 21, 1831, Nat Turner and six other slaves killed Turner's plantation master and his family in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner increased his supporting band of slaves as they went about killing a total of 60 white slave owners, including their wives and children. Federal and Virginia state troopers encountered the roving band of slaves and killed most of those in rebellion. Other slaves not connected to the rebellion were also killed. An estimate of over 100 slaves were killed, but Nat Turner escaped. He was hunted down as he hid out in the swamps for almost three months. He was finally captured and executed on October 30, 1831.

Other slaves had often heard about the freedom in the north and Canada. Many of the northern states were developing strong coalitions of free Black and White groups in an organization called the American Anti-Slavery Society, established by 1833. Prominent black leaders began to join this organization. Among them: Frederick Douglass, Highland Garnet, David Walker, James Forten, Sarah Parker Remond, Charles Lenox Remond, Sojourner Truth, William Whipper, Harriet Tubman, David Ruggles, William C. Nell, Robert Purvis, and Martin R. Delany. Among those whites who joined in the cause of the abolitionist movement were: Theodore D. Weld, Lewis Tappan and Arthur Tappan, William Lloyd Garrison, Levi Coffin, Charles G. Finney, Wendell Phillips, Lucretia Mott, James Birney, and James Miller McKim. The stated goal of the American Anti-Slavery Society was to see the complete abolition of slavery everywhere in the United States. They used every conceivable method, including politics and moral persuasion to achieve their goal.


The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses which African slaves in the 19th century United States used to escape to free states, or as far north as Canada, with the aid of abolitionists. Other routes led to Mexico or overseas. At its height between 1810 and 1850, an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 people escaped enslavement via the Underground Railroad, though census figures only account for 6,000. The Underground Railroad has captured public imagination as a symbol of freedom, and it figures prominently in African-American history.

Many of the abolitionists endorsed a clandestine movement to help the African slave achieve freedom. Some significant clues of the Underground Railroad included well defined hidden routes and following the bright north star during the night, as well as certain "stations" - where a light in the window would be an indicator of a safe home used as a slave hideaway. Some slaves were hidden in barns or behind secret wall passages in these homes. The leader who knew the way was called the "conductor." The "station masters" were in most cases free people of color or wealthy white benefactors who provided food, shelter, or money along the way for the escaping runaways. The most profoundly skilled and successful "conductor" of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. She was credited with leading over 300 runaways to freedom with a total of 19 trips through the south. It was later stated that she never lost a "passenger" on these risky escape routes. The Underground Railroad, from 1800 up until the end of 1865, assisted more than 40,000 slaves to freedom up north and into Canada. Raymond Bial's book, The Underground Railroad, published in 1995, depicted the essence both in text and with superb pictures of those mystical hidden passageways which made up the Underground Railroad.

William Still, often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad," helped hundreds of slaves to escape (as many as 60 slaves a month), sometimes hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He kept careful records, including short biographies of the people, that contained frequent railway metaphors. He maintained correspondence with many of them, often acting as a middleman in communications between escaped slaves and those left behind. He then published these accounts in the book The Underground Railroad in 1872 .

According to Still, messages were often encoded so that only those active in the railroad would fully understand their meanings. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large and two small hams," indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. However, the addition of the word via indicated that they were not sent on the regular train, but rather via Reading. In this case, the authorities went to the regular train station in an attempt to intercept the runaways, while Still was able to meet them at the correct station and guide them to safety, where they eventually escaped to Canada.



This true to life mutiny took place in the year of 1839. The La Amistad, a slave bearing Spanish vessel, was carrying 53 captives (49 men, 1 young girl, and 3 children), all previously taken from the African country of Sierra Leone when the insurrection occurred. They belonged to the Mende village in West Africa. The insurrection started when the ship, La Amistad, was taking the slave captives from Cuba to a slave market in South America. La Amistad was sailing in the Caribbean when Singbe, a 25 year old African, later given the Spanish name Joseph Cinque, was able to free himself and the other captives from their chains. During the dark night, they went on deck and killed the captain and his cook. Two other crew members were saved and directed by Cinque to turn the ship back toward their homeland of Africa. Instead of going toward Africa, the ship was steered to the shores off Montauk, Long Island. Here the ship docked for food and water, but it was noticed by the American navel ship, U.S.S. Washington. The captain, named Richard Meade, ordered the ship to dock over at New London, Connecticut on August 27, 1839. New York was bypassed as a docking area due to slavery being illegal in the state. Connecticut still had not abolished slavery at that time period.

The importance of the Amistad Insurrection brought the focus of slavery to the attention of many more free Americans. The abolitionists were looking for evidence of cruelty and the evil profiteering involved in slavery. The abolitionists wanted slavery abolished in America. An 18 month legal battle ensued, and the black Africans did not seem to have a chance of gaining their release from prison as the ones accused of murder and mutiny aboard the ship, La Amistad. They were going to be tried by a court of Law and sent back to slavery in Havana, Cuba. The Cubans and the Spanish government were diplomatically trying to force President Martin Van Buren to side step any conflicts between America and Spain, and send the "murderous Africans" back to the slave port in Cuba. The technicality was that Spanish law "had by 1817 prohibited the importation of slaves into any of its territory, including the colony of Cuba." This true to life drama escalated into one of America's most fascinating court cases. Attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin of New Haven, Connecticut was able to secure a translator of the Mende language to help with the actual documentation of Cinque's journey and the others being kidnapped in Africa where they were put into the hold of the Portuguese Slave ship, the Tecora, and sent via the middle passage to Cuba. The highest point of the Amistad incident came when the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and the former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, at 73 and nearly blind, was cajoled into fighting the case. His 8 1/2 hours of astute testimony won the acquittal verdict! "They were illegally enslaved, their papers were forged and they were never Spanish speaking Cuban slaves." The verdict favored Cinque and the 35 surviving Mende Africans. Before leaving Connecticut, Cinque, with an interpreter, spoke at several abolitionists' town meetings. Money was raised, and the town's Congregational Church at Farmington Connecticut helped the Africans on their voyage back to Sierra Leone in the month of November 1841.


Professor Melvin Sylvester
Black History Month, February 1998
B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library
C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

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Antislavery advocates and the abolitionists were disturbed by this act. The South wanted their runaway slaves back. This was their property. They wanted a warrant issued by the courts for the arrest of known fugitive slave runaways. If they, the marshals, or anyone did not cooperate, they could be fined $1,000. Slave masters could also seize their runaway slaves and even collect the value of accumulated moneys or services for labor done by the slave outside of his master's domain. In a trial, no slave could testify on his own behalf. Force could also be used to capture runaway slaves. Both slaves and free blacks were at risk of being put back into bondage and servitude.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act & Bleeding Kansas

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Should there be slavery in Kansas? This was the crucial question in this new developing territory in the West. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois, a Northern Democrat, opened the repeal of the old Missouri Compromise of 1820. Thus, in the Kansas and Nebraska territories, it would be up to the new settlers' vote to be a Free State or Slave State according to the "Popular Sovereignty." This became the issue from Kansas and Nebraska in 1854. The anti-slavery people did not like this and felt betrayed. There were many debates concerning the issue of expanding slavery in the new territories - which eventually caused a final split in the Union and which led up to the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Settlers from both the North and the South streamed into Kansas. They fought openly, expressing their anger and differences. Violence broke out, and the town of Lawrence, Kansas, a free town, was burned to the ground on May 21, 1856. In the U.S. Senate, violence broke out over the Kansas issue, and Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina exhibited his anger by terribly beating Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts unconscious with his cane as he sat at his desk. John Brown, the zealous abolitionist, and his three sons also took to violence. Pottawatomie Creek became the scene for the "Pottawatomie Massacre."

Five pro-slavery men were killed in retaliation for the violence at Lawrence, Kansas. John Brown later was involved in the Raid on the Federal Armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Kansas eventually became a Free State on January 29, 1861. Three months later on April 12, 1861 The North and South entered the American Civil War(1861-1865).

William Still

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William Still

(November 1819 or October 7, 1821 – July 14, 1902) was an African-American abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad writer, historian and civil rights activist.

Often called "The Father of the Underground Railroad," Still helped as many as 60 slaves a month escape to freedom, interviewing each person and keeping careful records, including a brief biography and the destination of each person, along with any alias that they adopted, though he kept his records carefully hidden. During one interview of an escapee, it was discovered that the man, Peter Still, was his own brother. They had been separated since childhood, and his brother knew little about the rest of his family. Still later published The Underground Rail Road Records, which chronicles the stories and methods of some 649 slaves who escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Peter Still later collaborated on a book detailing his experiences.

The three prominent Still brothers—William, James, and Peter—settled in Lawnside, New Jersey. To this day, their descendants have an annual family reunion every August. Notable members of the Still family include the composer William Grant Still.

In 1844, William moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where, he began working as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. When Philadelphia abolitionists organized a committee to aid runaway slaves reaching Philadelphia, Still became its chairman. By the 1850s, Still was a leader of Philadelphia's African-American community. In 1859 he attempted to desegregate the city's public transit system. He opened a stove store during the American Civil War, and later started a coal delivery business.

In 1847 he married Letitia George and had four children who survived infancy.



Gabriel Prosser

Gabriel Prosser (ca. 1775-1800) was the African American slave leader of an unsuccessful revolt in Richmond, Va., during the summer of 1800.

Gabriel Prosser, the slave of Thomas H. Prosser, was about 25 years old when he came to the attention of Virginia authorities late in August 1800. Little is known of his childhood or family background. He had two brothers and a wife, Nanny, all slaves of Prosser. Gabriel Prosser learned to read and was a serious student of the Bible, where he found inspiration in the accounts of Israel's delivery from slavery. Prosser possessed shrewd judgment, and his master gave him much latitude. He was acknowledged as a leader by many slaves around Richmond.

With the help of other slaves, especially Jack Bowler and George Smith, Prosser designed a scheme for a slave revolt. They planned to seize control of Richmond by slaying all whites (except for Methodists, Quakers, and Frenchmen) and then to establish a kingdom of Virginia with Prosser as king. The recent, successful American Revolution and the revolutions in France and Haiti--with their rhetoric of freedom, equality, and brotherhood--supplied examples and inspiration for Prosser's rebellion. In the months preceding the attack Prosser skillfully recruited supporters and organized them into military units. Authorities never discovered how many slaves were involved, but there were undoubtedly several thousand, many armed with swords and pikes made from farm tools by slave blacksmiths.

The plan was to strike on the night of Aug. 30, 1800. Men inside Richmond were to set fire to certain buildings to distract whites, and Prosser's force from the country was to seize the armory and government buildings across town. With the firearms thus gained, the rebels would supposedly easily overcome the surprised whites.

On the day of the attack the plot was disclosed by two slaves who did not want their masters slain; then Virginia governor James Monroe alerted the militia. That night, as the rebels began congregating outside Richmond, the worst rainstorm in memory flooded roads, washed out bridges, and prevented Prosser's army from assembling. Prosser decided to postpone the attack until the next day, but by then the city was too well defended. The rebels, including Prosser, dispersed.

Some slaves, in order to save their own lives, testified against the ringleaders, about 35 of whom were executed. Prosser himself managed to escape by hiding aboard a riverboat on its way to Norfolk. In Norfolk, however, he was betrayed by other slaves, who claimed the large reward for his capture on September 25. Returned to Richmond, Prosser, like most of the other leaders, refused to confess to the plot or give evidence against other slaves. He was tried and found guilty on Oct. 6, 1800, and executed the next day.

Denmark Vesey

In 1771, fourteen-year-old Denmark Vesey was transported from St. Thomas to Cape Francais by slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey. Upon a return trip to Cape Francais, Captain Vesey was forced to reclaim Denmark, who his master said was suffering from epileptic fits. Denmark accompanied Captain Vesey on his trading voyages until the Captain retired to Charleston, never again showing signs of epilepsy.

In 1799, Vesey won the lottery and bought his freedom for $600. He could not purchase the freedom of his wife and children, however, and some claimed that this fact motivated his crusade to destroy the institution of slavery.

Vesey joined the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. He became a "class leader," preaching to a small group in his home during the week. White Charlestonians constantly monitored the African church, disrupting services and arresting members. An angry Vesey began preaching from the Old Testament, particularly Exodus, and taught followers that they were the New Israelites, the chosen people whose enslavement God would punish with death.

In 1822, Vesey and other leaders from the African Church began plotting a rebellion. His chief lieutenant was an East African priest named Gullah Jack, who led conspirators in prayer and rituals and gave them amulets to protect them in battle. Vesey's theology of liberation, combined with Gullah Jack's African mysticism, inspired potential participants, and word of the rebellion grew. Vesey set the date for revolt on July 14, and men from Charleston and surrounding plantations planned to seize Charleston's arsenals and guard houses, kill the Governor, set fire to the city, and kill every white man they saw. But in June, several nervous slaves leaked the plot to their masters, and Charleston authorities began arresting leaders. Vesey was captured on June 22, and he and the conspirators were brought to trial. Despite torture and the threat of execution, the men refused to give up their followers. On July 2nd, Denmark Vesey and five other men were hanged. Gullah Jack was executed several days later, with the total number of executions reaching 35 by August 9th.

In the aftermath of the Vesey rebellion, the African Church was burned down and authorities passed a series of laws further restricting the rights of Charleston slaves. Vesey became a martyr for African-Americans and a symbol for the abolitionist movement, while the increasingly militant politics of white America dragged the country toward Civil War.


In 1815, whites in Charleston discovered that black Methodists had been secretly pooling money to buy freedom for enslaved congregants. Whites moved to restrict black autonomy. They planned to construct a hearse house on top of a black burial ground, a move Charleston blacks saw as a final insult. Over 4,000 black members left white churches in protest, and formed an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Denmark Vesey followed them, leaving the segregated Second Presbyterian Church, where slaves were taught the words of St. Paul: "Servants, obey your masters." In the AME Church, Vesey found the freedom to preach his beliefs.


At weekly AME "class meetings" held in his home, Vesey taught a radical new liberation theology. He spoke only from the Old Testament, particularly Exodus, casting his followers as the new Israelites, whom God would lead to freedom. In 1818, white authorities disrupted an AME service attended by free black ministers from Philadelphia and arrested 140 people. Vesey considered leaving Charleston for Africa, but he decided to stay and "see what he could do for his fellow creatures." With a new urgency, he preached that freedom for slaves would be realized, and he began plotting a rebellion.


Following the 1818 raid on the African Church, Vesey enlisted Gullah Jack, a Church member and an Angolan priest and healer, to recruit native Africans to join his rebellion. As a conjurer who could control the supernatural world, Jack was respected among the slaves working on Charleston's plantations. At secret nighttime meetings, Jack led men in prayer, singing and ritual meals that transformed them from powerless slaves to rebels with a common purpose. He prescribed a special diet and gave them crab claws as amulets to protect them in battle. Through Jack, Vesey was able to reach many more recruits.


Like Denmark Vesey, George Wilson was a class leader in the AME Church, but he followed the Christian doctrine of loving one's neighbor, and was devoted to his master. When fellow slave Rolla Bennett told him of the rebellion, Wilson pleaded with him "to let it alone." Five sleepless nights later, on June 14, Wilson told his master of the plot, confirming the confession of another man and leading to the arrest and execution of Rolla Bennett and his conspirators. Although he was granted his freedom as a reward, Wilson eventually lost his sanity and committed suicide.


After the executions of Denmark Vesey and 34 others, Charleston authorities exiled the African Church leaders and razed the building. Although devastated by the destruction of their church, black Charlestonians continued to honor Vesey's revolutionary Old Testament theology in secret. For abolitionists such as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Vesey became a symbol of resistance and an inspiration in their writings. White Charleston responded by increasing efforts to convert slaves to New Testament Christianity, and by passing legislation to further restrict the rights of slaves. This increasingly militant path eventually led to the Civil War.


Nat Turner

Nat Turner was born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, the week before Gabriel was hanged. While still a young child, Nat was overheard describing events that had happened before he was born. This, along with his keen intelligence, and other signs marked him in the eyes of his people as a prophet "intended for some great purpose." A deeply religious man, he "therefore studiously avoided mixing in society, and wrapped [him]self in mystery, devoting [his] time to fasting and praying."

In 1821, Turner ran away from his overseer, returning after thirty days because of a vision in which the Spirit had told him to "return to the service of my earthly master." The next year, following the death of his master, Samuel Turner, Nat was sold to Thomas Moore. Three years later, Nat Turner had another vision. He saw lights in the sky and prayed to find out what they meant. Then "... while laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both white and black, in the neighborhood; and then I found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens."

On May 12, 1828, Turner had his third vision: "I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first... And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work, and until the first sign appeared I should conceal it from the knowledge of men; and on the appearance of the sign... I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons."

At the beginning of the year 1830, Turner was moved to the home of Joseph Travis, the new husband of Thomas Moore's widow. His official owner was Putnum Moore, still a young child. Turner described Travis as a kind master, against whom he had no complaints.

Then, in February, 1831, there was an eclipse of the sun. Turner took this to be the sign he had been promised and confided his plan to the four men he trusted the most, Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam. They decided to hold the insurrection on the 4th of July and began planning a strategy. However, they had to postpone action because Turner became ill.

On August 13, there was an atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish-green. This was the final sign, and a week later, on August 21, Turner and six of his men met in the woods to eat a dinner and make their plans. At 2:00 that morning, they set out to the Travis household, where they killed the entire family as they lay sleeping. They continued on, from house to house, killing all of the white people they encountered. Turner's force eventually consisted of more than 40 slaves, most on horseback.

By about mid-day on August 22, Turner decided to march toward Jerusalem, the closest town. By then word of the rebellion had gotten out to the whites; confronted by a group of militia, the rebels scattered, and Turner's force became disorganized. After spending the night near some slave cabins, Turner and his men attempted to attack another house, but were repulsed. Several of the rebels were captured. The remaining force then met the state and federal troops in final skirmish, in which one slave was killed and many escaped, including Turner. In the end, the rebels had stabbed, shot and clubbed at least 55 white people to death.

Nat Turner hid in several different places near the Travis farm, but on October 30 was discovered and captured. His "Confession," dictated to physician Thomas R. Gray, was taken while he was imprisoned in the County Jail. On November 5, Nat Turner was tried in the Southampton County Court and sentenced to execution. He was hanged, and then skinned, on November 11.

In total, the state executed 55 people, banished many more, and acquitted a few. The state reimbursed the slaveholders for their slaves. But in the hysterical climate that followed the rebellion, close to 200 black people, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were murdered by white mobs. In addition, slaves as far away as North Carolina were accused of having a connection with the insurrection, and were subsequently tried and executed.

The state legislature of Virginia considered abolishing slavery, but in a close vote decided to retain slavery and to support a repressive policy against black people, slave and free.

Contributor: bgill
Created: June 12, 2007 · Modified: June 12, 2007

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