In America, the concept of race wasn’t always a thing. The first time the word “white” applied to a group of people appeared in print was in 1671. Oh, there were definitely classes of people. Black and white indentured servants worked alongside each other, doing their owner’s bidding. Discrimination was prominent even then. For the same offenses, black indentured servants were treated much more harshly. The common length of indentured servitude was seven years. It wasn’t unusual for the length of a Black servant to have their term extended to the length of their natural life. Many of the Black indentured servants couldn’t read and, in fact, were forbidden to learn how. Not being able to read their contracts put them at a perpetual disadvantage when trying to get their release after their term expired.
Most modern Americans don’t appreciate the scale of indentured servitude. Between the 1630s and the American Revolution, more than 50% of white arrivals in the colonies were under some form of servitude. There were great labor demands in the colonies and a labor surplus in Europe. The expense of transatlantic transportation was unaffordable to many European workers, so they literally sold themselves for a period of time in repayment for their passage.
Black people didn’t sign up in that manner, yet the first Africans to arrive were generally indentured servants and not slaves. At the end of their service, most indentured servants were often rewarded with land, corn, and a cow. A precursor to the 40 acres and a mule, freed slaves were promised after the Civil War but either never received or were granted land, which was ultimately taken back.
There was a time where land was plentiful and servants relatively few. Granting land was easy, as long as you could take it from the Native Americans that lived there. Over the years, the land was less plentiful, and over 75% of the population of some colonies were indentured servants; something had to give.
In 1676, a thing happened that changed indentured service forever, a man named Nathan Bacon was upset with the Virginia Governor who wasn’t doing enough in his mind to rid the area of the several tribes of Native Americans. Governor Berkeley’s view was that force might unite the tribes and bring about an unwanted war. Bacon gathered up his white and Black indentured servants and his Black slaves, which had become an economical alternative to indentured servants and not only attacked the various tribes and confiscated land, Bacon burned down Jamestown, which was then the capital of Virginia. The fear that indentured servants (that outnumbered free white landowners throughout the Southern colonies) could revolt caused plantation owners to reject indentured servants and replace the labor almost in full with African slaves. By 1776, the percentage of indentured servants in the nation had dropped to 2%.
The fear of an uprising among indentured servants became the fear of a slave revolt. Those fears became more real when Toussaint L’Overture led a successful slave revolt in Saint Dominique (Haiti) between 1791 and 1804 when they won their freedom from France. L’Overture didn’t live to see his country’s freedom, but the general proved that Black people given a proper incentive (freedom) could be a formidable military force. European countries and the United States refused to recognize the newly named Haiti nor trade with them. They were ultimately recognized once they paid France a huge settlement for the revolution, which crippled the nation financially. Still, the revolt had reverberations throughout America, who feared Haiti’s example might inspire slave revolts here. The fear of real or imagined Black revolution worried America even before it was a nation.
In 1741, the largest slave population outside the port of Charleston was in Manhattan. A series of arsons fueled rumors that Blacks intended to burn down the entire city. A total of 13 fires were set, including at Fort George, where the Governor lived. A 16-year-old white girl, Mary Burton, an indentured servant, identified dozens of Black slaves and indentured servants she said was part of the plot against New York. Sarah Hughson corroborated her story (after she was threatened with death) and a prostitute, Peggy Kerry, who initially denied knowing anything but soon saw a way to earn her freedom by creating stories. Before it was over, over half the Black male population of Manhattan had been hanged or arrested. The jails were full, and the evidence weak or non-existent. To their credit, New York conducted trials for the accused, and there was no summary justice. Unfortunately, there was no defense counsel for any of the accused, hearsay testimony was presented, and even eyewitness testimony from reliable white people didn’t stop the convictions. The Negro Revolt of 1741 is mostly compared to the Salem Witch Trials. Mary Burton received 100 pounds for her testimony, with which she bought her freedom with money to spare. According to records, 34 Black men were hanged, but estimates range into the hundreds.
In 1800, Gabriel Prosser, a literate slave in Richmond, VA, planned a large slave rebellion. Prosser intended to capture Governor James Monroe and force him to implement changes to improve conditions and promote equality. Two slaves leaked the plan, and Prosser, along with 25 followers, were hanged. The Virginia legislature passed laws curtailing free Black people’s activities and prohibited the education and hiring out of slaves.
In 1811, slaves revolted in the Territory of Orleans in what is called the German Coast uprising. It is considered the largest slave insurgency in US history. An estimated 100 Black slaves left their sugar plantations near what is now LaPlace, LA. Others joined them along the way, eventually totaling around 500 slaves, burning plantation houses, sugarcane mills, and crops along their way. The slaves were armed mostly with hand tools. White militias armed themselves with guns and, in a January 10th battle, killed 40–45 slaves while suffering no losses of their own. They tracked down 44 other slaves, executing them without trial, decapitating them, and placing their heads on spikes to warn against future revolts.
No story of slave revolts would be complete without the story of Nat Turner. In comparison, the German Coast uprising may have been the largest revolution in terms of participants. Nat Turner’s Rebellion lasted the longest, striking fear in plantation owners throughout the South. Imagine being greatly outnumbered by slaves desiring freedom, fearing they would join Turner and kill you? Turner was born on a Virginia plantation and was sold three times. He was a preacher and a fiery orator. He believed God had chosen him to free his people from bondage.
Turner was hired out to work on the John Travis plantation. On August 21, 1831, he and six other men he’d recruited from the area killed the entire Travis family. They secured arms and horses and recruited about 75 others to begin a rampage, attacking other plantations and killing up to 60 white people along the way. Nat Turner was on the loose for six weeks with every plantation owner in Virginia and surrounding states wondering where he might strike next or if it would inspire other revolts. After his capture and before his execution, Turner explained his motivation and his belief he was not intended to be a slave.
The attorney he confessed to, Thomas Gray, thought Nat Turner to be “a complete fanatic.” He couldn’t conceive a man would prefer death to bondage and be willing to kill for his freedom. The response to Nat Turner’s Rebellion was predictable. Restrictions on slaves were tightened further, gathering in groups was forbidden, church services were restricted, and punishments more severe. There were also more calls for abolition. Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, told the Virginia legislature:
I think of Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s words in light of the current unrest in cities all over America. Black people have never experienced true freedom and equality in America, and it seems the time has come. Freedom from slavery came after the Civil War, but that begat the Black Codes, which attempted to replicate slavery as best could be. The Reconstruction Period lasted only as long as Federal troops in the South allowed it, and after their removal in 1877, Jim Crow became the law of the land (not just in the South). When many of the provisions of Jim Crow were outlawed in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, people just found other ways to suppress equality and impose tyranny.
Oppressive policing of black communities has never stopped, just given other names; stop & frisk, broken windows policing, infiltration of black organizations, and a secret Justice Department report on “Black Identity Extremists,” which seemingly targets the Black Lives Matter movement.
There is no such concern regarding white supremacy organizations; the Justice Department suppressed a report documenting “every race-based domestic terror attack in 2018” was conducted by white supremacist groups.
The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement provisions in 2013. Several states blatantly went about curtailing black and brown voters’ voting strength that very day in Texas and within weeks in Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Mississippi. Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, removed over 600,000 voters from their rolls, mostly Black. His penalty was to be elected Governor in a highly contested election. In 2019, Georgia removed another 300,000 voters, need I say it, mostly black.
Black men are continuing to be shot or choked by police. “I can’t breathe,” surprisingly didn’t register to the Minneapolis officer with his knee on George Floyd’s throat after the nation was aware of Eric Garner’s last words as a New York policeman used an illegal choke-hold to kill him. Before George Floyd’s protests died down, Rayshard Brooks was killed by an Atlanta policeman who shot him twice in the back. He had fallen asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-thru lane. That Wendy’s was later burned down.
After George Floyd’s death, protests, mostly peaceful but some of them turned violent with possible outside agitation sprung up in over 70 cities across the country. Unlike many of the other eras’ protests, many if not most of the protesters were white (along with many of the suspected agitators). As the Rayshard Brooks case proved, George Floyd wasn’t the last, and neither will be Rayshard Brooks. The officer in Minneapolis that murdered George Floyd has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder; he’s also still eligible for up to a $1 million pension from the Minneapolis Police Dept even though fired. The normal procedure is to place officers on paid administrative leave during their investigation, which sounds exactly like a paid vacation. Most investigations are not conducted independently but by the organizations that have the most to lose by revealing a bad shooting or choking suspects to death.
The Justice Department used to play a role in monitoring local and state police departments that receive federal funds. There were dozens of consent decrees issued where local departments agreed to make changes and were monitored by the Justice Department. The current President ended those consent decrees he could and has gotten out of the monitoring business, leaving locals to do as they see fit.
American philosopher George Santayana is credited with the saying:
It would be an excellent time for America to remember its history, one in which boiling points are reached and violent response results. Martin Luther King, Jr once said:
It’s time for elected officials, in particular, to listen up, or in the words of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, “worse will follow.”
This post was previously published on Black History Month 365.
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