The Role of African Americans
From the beginning of slavery in the Americas, enslaved Africans struggled mightily to free themselves from their enslavement. These struggles took many forms, including running away, as Abdul Rahman did, refusing to work, using the legal system, engaging in violent revolt, and more.
For instance, in the 1780s in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Freeman, who was enslaved, sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts based on the state's constitution, which recognized the universality of natural rights. She won the case, gained her freedom, and participated in the process of abolishing slavery within the state. Her effort is just one illustration of the ongoing commitment enslaved Africans had to working against their enslavement.
Other enslaved persons simply refused the demands of the slaveholder, sometimes at the cost of their own life. Frederick Douglass, a noted abolitionist, describes in the narrative of his life the actions of an enslaved man named Demby who had run into a creek to avoid being whipped: "Mr. Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him. The first call was given. Demby made no response, but stood his ground. The second and third calls were given with the same result. Mr. Gore then, without consultation or deliberation with any one, not even giving Demby an additional call, raised his musket to his face, taking deadly aim at his standing victim, and in an instant poor Demby was no more."
The ongoing struggle of African Americans against their enslavement created fear among slaveholders. Over and over again, enslaved people took action to free themselves, often with the Haitian Revolution of 1792 as a model. The attempted insurrections by Gabriel in 1800 and Denmark Vesey in 1822, along with the insurrection by Nat Turner in 1831, are among the many efforts by enslaved persons. In 1812, David Holmes, the territorial governor of Mississippi, noted: "Of the slaves I entertain much stronger apprehensions. Scarcely a day passes without my receiving some information relative to the designs of those people to insurrect. . . . Certain facts, and expressions of their views have justly excited considerable alarm amongst the citizens."
In addition to individual or group efforts at insurrection, free African Americans organized themselves and were the foundation of the abolition movement that emerged in the 1830s, through such figures as David Walker, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Samuel Cornish, and many, many others. In many cases, their writing, speeches, and friendship influenced the perspective of white abolitionist leaders, including William Lloyd Garrison, who argued more and more forcefully for the immediate emancipation of enslaved persons.
Celebration of the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., April 19, 1866
© Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-33937
Wood carving of Anthony Benezet (Source: Historical poetical and pictorial American scenes / by J.W. Barber, 1850)
© Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.