Most Americans know Juneteenth as a day to get together and celebrate in the park with food and music. However, I sometimes wonder how many people take a moment to appreciate why this day is so special. In this short article I am going to try to explain in my own special way why this day is so special to me.
Juneteenth is a portmanteau comprising the month and day being celebrated. June 19th, 1865 is Freedom Day. This is the day that of the emancipation of the last American slaves in the state of Texas. This was several years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation under the administration of Abraham Lincoln on January 1st, 1863.
This is an important day in American history. People tend to forget that the road to freedom was made with blood and sweat beyond the oppression of slavery in and of itself. The history of slavery in the United States is full of resistance from sabotage, to full scale revolts full of pain and sacrifice for the cause of freedom. I have always been interested in the revolts and the undying warrior spirit that slavery could not kill. This is the embodiment of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty of give me death!”
This article will be a list of some of the most important slave revolts in American history.
The Haitian Revolution
I will start with the Haitian Revolution. While this revolution did not happen in the United States, this 13 year war for freedom lead to the circumstances that allowed for the United States to purchase the Louisiana territories from France. The revolution started on August 22nd, 1791, and after the death of Dutty Boukman, was led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a charismatic former slave. His leadership and eventual sacrifice led to freedom and self-government for the Haitian people.
The New York Slave Revolt of 1712
This brief insurrection took place on April 6th, 1712. It began with 23 enslaved Africans killing 9 slave owners, the motivation is believed to have been an attempt to inspire rebellion spurred on by the increase restrictions on the slaves, resulting in even further hardships. Due to the colony changing hands from the Dutch to the English at time, there were changes to the laws, which were stricter under British rule. Among them were requirements for documents that allowed slaves to leave their masters’ property on errands, the limiting of marriages, and the complete banning of slaves congregating in numbers higher than 3 at any given time. The new laws also imposed a tax granting freedom to any slave by a slave master. By the end of the uprising, 70 slaves were convicted. 6 committed suicide, 27 were put on trial, 21 were killed immediately, and another 20 were burned to death. Some of them were killed by torture through “breaking” on the wheel.
The Gullah Wars
The Gullah people at the time of the uprising were a cultural amalgamation of free Blacks and slaves. They had been brought from Africa to cultivate rice. They tended crops, despite having to contend with inadequate healthcare when struck with malaria or yellow fever. As many of them had been recently imported directly from Africa, they had not been fully “broken” by the chattel slavery system. When the slave masters left in large numbers to fight the Civil War for the Confederacy, the Union took advantage of the opportunity to secretly recruit them to the cause of the North. They eagerly volunteered to fight for their freedom. As a result of their efforts, they managed to eject their former masters and recreate as much of the African they had left behind when taken in to bondage as possible. Currently the Gullah people find themselves fighting legal battles against developers seeking to acquire their land to build resorts.
Nat Turner’s Insurrection of 1831
Nat Turner was a slave preacher who was initially used by the slave owning classes to used Christianity as a tool to pacify their slaves. As was uncommon for the time, and in some cases against the law, Nat Turner was taught to read in order to increase the effectiveness of his biblical studies. When left unsupervised, he began to use the same Bible he was given to pacify the slaves to spur them to revolt. During his short-lived uprising, he amassed a band of over 50 slaves and killed over 50 whites before eventually being stopped by the US army and executed along with his fellow freedom fighters. After their execution, nearly 200 enslaved Africans were tortured to death by white mobs in retaliation. Nat Turner’s Rebellion is still one of the most discussed slave revolts in American history.
The Amistad Mutiny
In 1839 the Amistad, a small slave ship carrying newly captured Africans from a slave port in Cuba was overrun by those same Africans, led by a man named Sengbe Pieh, when they managed to liberate themselves from their shackles and kill most of the Spanish crew. In an unsuccessful attempt to sail back to Africa, they ended up on the United States East Coast and were captured by the US Navy. What ensued was a bitter court dispute to determine the fate of the human cargo between the Amistad’s surviving crew, the US Naval officers, and abolitionists, who sought their freedom. At the time of this court case, it was illegal capture and traffic people from Africa into the United States as slaves, and proving that they were in fact captured and trafficked would mean that the captives of the Amistad would be granted their freedom and returned to West Africa. In a landmark decision, the court ruled in favour of the Amistad’s prisoners and they were returned home.
While this article is brief, hopefully it has piqued your interest in learning more about the resistance efforts against slavery by the slaves themselves. These are just a few of the revolts that helped to pave the way to freedom. There were many, and despite the fact that most of them did not end in freedom, it is a testament to the human need for freedom. I hope that this has left you wanting more.
Seek the knowledge of the ancestors, and they will smile at you.
– Henry Hill IV, HAMA Association Resource Manager