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Resistance Not Rebellion: How Blacks Survived Slavery

Resistance Not Rebellion: How Blacks Survived Slavery
AI visualization of enslaved people at a nocturnal dance.

This week's episode looks at how antebellum black Americans survived slavery in the South and segregation fueled by virulent racism in the North. It spotlights a few passages from historian Alan Taylor's book American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.

Elaborating further on how African Americans survived slavery, Taylor describes methods of resistance:

Although masters obsessed about the danger of slave revolts, such rebellions were few and local. Enslaved people balked at fighting whites, who were better armed and organized for military conflict. Collective revolt was more difficult in the American South, where half the people were white, than in the West Indies, where enslaved Blacks comprised over 90 percent of the population. To succeed, rebels had to recruit many people—but growing numbers increased the risk that someone would reveal secret plans.
Rather than rebel, enslaved people resisted through acts of deception by individuals or small groups. “Is not cunning always the natural consequence of tyranny?” asked former slave Francis Fedric. Henry Bibb added that “the only weapon of self-defence that I could use successfully was that of deception.” Enslaved people slowed their work, pretended to misunderstand orders, faked sickness, broke tools, stole food, got drunk, burned down buildings, slipped poison into white people’s food and drink, and ran away. Clever slaves exploited the masters’ stereotype of them as lazy and stupid. Josiah Henson knew Dinah to be as “clear witted, as sharp and cunning as a fox.” But she faked idiocy to evade work and punishment. When assigned a distasteful chore, “She would scream out ‘I won't; that’s a lie —catch me if you can’ and then she would take to her heels and run away.”
Night provided a cover for trickery. Henson recalled his “midnight-visits to apple orchards, broiling stray chickens, and first-rate tricks to dodge work.” Taking revenge on a stingy master named Riley, Henson remembered “driving a pig or a sheep a mile or two into the woods to slaughter for the good of those whom Riley was starving. I felt good, moral, heroic.” The clever young man who killed, hid, and shared a hog became the hero of his slave quarters. Slaves justified theft with a labor theory of value: they took a small part of what they had earned by hard labor extorted from them. A Virginian reported that they said, “Massa, as we work and raise all, we ought to consume all. .. . Massa does not work; therefore he has not [an] equal right; overseer does not work; he has no right to eat as we do.”
Enslaved people also resisted by running away. Most fugitives were unmarried boys and young men: the slaves in the greatest danger of sale and able to endure the hardships of escaping pursuers with dogs. Advertisements posted by masters dwelled on the skills and intelligence of runaways, for a disproportionate number had plied trades that revealed the roads and waterways to the wider world: boatmen, carriage drivers, house slaves, and artisans.
Fewer women fled because children slowed flight, and mothers could not bear to leave them behind. A grandmother told Linda Brent to stay put: “Stand by your own children, and suffer with them till death. Nobody respects a mother who forsakes her children; and if you leave them, you will never have a happy moment.” James Curry reported that his mother had twice tried to escape before marrying, but thereafter, “Having young children soon, it tied her to slavery.” The families that consoled and nurtured enslaved people also helped masters pin them down. Women who did run usually did so after dislocation by a recent sale; they sought to get back to family in their former neighborhood.
Some runaways fled to seek a northern state, but long-distance flight was especially risky. A refugee ran through a gauntlet of slave patrols, suspicious whites, and slave catchers with bloodhounds. Catchers could whip or kill any fugitive with impunity; and masters usually sold recaptured runaways to the dreaded Lower South. Most refugees left the Upper South, which offered a shorter run to the North. Fleeing from Georgia, Charles Ball revealed the long odds facing a fugitive from the Lower South. Four years before, he had come south in chains from Maryland, but he had memorized landmarks and roads. Ball began his flight in August, when he could count on finding ripe corn in the fields for sustenance. Avoiding roads because well patrolled, he waded through swamps and found paths in the woods, navigating by stars at night and swimming across rivers and streams. After seven months, Ball reached Maryland only to run into a slave patrol that wounded him with buckshot before beating, binding, and casting him into jail.
A northern state offered only a limited freedom, for most white people disliked Blacks and might help slave catchers. Thanks to bounty hunters and federal fugitive slave laws, runaways could find no security within the United States. “When I arrived in the city of New York,” Moses Roper recalled, “I thought I was free; but learned I was not.” Escaping from Virginia to Ohio, John Malvin noted, “I found every door closed against the colored man except the jail and penitentiaries, the doors of which were thrown wide open to receive them.” Lewis Garrard Clarke did not feel safe until he reached Canada: “There was no ‘free state’ in America, all were slave states—bound to slavery, and the slave could have no asylum in any of them.”

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