Slave Resistance in the Last Great Hope
Slave life in America was a combination of the worst physical and psychological conditions imaginable. Not only did all slaves grow up knowing freedom was nothing more than some foreign idea the white folks liked to pride themselves on, but the day to day existence of each slave was plagued by constant fear of violence, ridicule and torment. Whether they were beaten for stealing a single piece of candy – to the point of lifelong disfigurement – or working too slowly in the field, slaves were under no illusions about the power structure. However, the slave culture fostered a quiet resentment of their putrid conditions. The obvious unfairness of the exploitation was never lost on most slaves, and many took great risks by fighting back against the status quo. Though there are hundreds of accounts of major slave uprisings, like Nat Turner’s 1831 effort in Virginia, most slaves were under the grips of the seemingly unbreakable hold of their masters.
Despite what could only be described as an inescapably daunting and hopeless experience, there is evidence that many slaves did all they could to resist their masters. Risking physical beatings, separation from family members and general degradation, slaves were able to gain some degree of dignity by winning small victories against their white masters. Either by maintaining a positive attitude in the face of perpetual anguish or by proactively breaking rules as a means of pushing back, slaves had very modest goals in these endeavors. Escape could be even more dangerous and costly than staying a slave, but less drastic measures proved no less significant in accomplishing small triumphs. Though not always successful, slave resistance and adaptation was prevalent in many Southern plantations as a means to remain sane and honorable while enduring humanity’s most evil institution.
Aunt Aggy was a “comely mulatto woman, far advanced in years” who served as the loyal and genial housekeeper on a particular plantation. (Livermore 259) Not only was she the nurse and foster-parent to many children, she was also “entirely trusted, and was always respectful and obedient.” This description comes from a white visitor named Mary Livermoore who goes on to recount how Aunt Aggy’s outward demeanor to her masters was simply a façade designed to help her bide her time until the day came when “White folks’ blood is a-runnin’ on de ground like a riber and de dead’s heaped up dat high!” (261)
Aunt Aggy was having a vision; she knew that one day their troubles would be gone and the day of reckoning would eventually come to pass for the white oppressors who were so violent and immoral. Seemingly predicting the Civil War, Aunt Aggy’s only defense against the injustices she was forced to witness so frequently was the undying hope and belief that God himself would live up to the Christian message of justice and therefore punish the evil that was so prevalent among slave-owners.
Aunt Aggy had to watch in stunned silence when her master beat her own daughter senseless with a chair. The offense that her daughter had apparently committed was allowing the master’s hand to spill his own hot coffee off the tray she was presenting to him, scalding him. Since intervening or objecting would have meant the same fate for her, Aunt Aggy had to remain hidden in the next room despite her offspring’s suffering. And after the war, Aunt Aggy stated, “I allers ‘spected to see white folks heaped up dead. An’ de Lor’, He’s keept His promise, an’ ‘venged His people, jes’ as I knowed He would.” (261) Expressing an astonishing faith and patience, Aunt Aggy was proven right when the Civil War ravaged the nation, decimating entire white families and communities. She maintained her resolve and faith even during the darkest days of her enslavement.
Even though a key component of the institution of slavery was the psychological domination of the enslaved, Aunt Aggy found a way to escape this ubiquitous phenomenon by focusing on a just future. This mild form of rebellion ensured that Aunt Aggy was never dominated by her masters, even if they controlled all her activities. She was strong enough to wait out her slavery, and her vision did, indeed, come true since “de Lor’ He do jes’ right, if you only gib Him time enough to turn Hisself.” (263)
Other slaves made more direct recriminations against their masters. Dolly was a slave on a plantation which had just received a brand new state-of-the-art washing machine. (Brown 47) This machine was supposed to reduce the laundress force needed from six slaves to just two. Furthermore, the mistress of the plantation informed Dolly and her companions that they would have to be up at four o’clock in the morning and finished all the washing by nine o’clock. However, the new machine confused the slaves – or at least they decided to take the opportunity to resist their overbearing mistress. “Well, you see, missis, dat machine won’t work no way. I tried it one way, den I tried it an udder way, an’ still it would not work,” Dolly reported to her mistress when the work was not completed as expected at 9:30. Dolly then explained how she had actually taken a screwdriver to the new machine, totally dismantling it to the point where it was useless. Perhaps knowing that her wrath was better saved for other infractions, the mistress simply retreated to her parlor and wept over her belief that “negroes could not be made white folks, no matter what you should do with them.” (49) Surely this belief was not the positive outcome Dolly might have expected, yet the fact that her mistress’ new endeavor failed (partially as a result of her own ignorance or sabotage) must have also provided some degree of contentment.
Yet other slaves were even more daring in their resistance. On the same plantation as Dolly, “Poplar Farm,” the slaves “were always glad to shirk labor, and thought that to deceive the whites was a religious duty.” (52) A manifestation of this deceit occurred when the masters purchased a brand new cheese press from St. Louis, knowing that one of their slaves, Nancy, knew how to operate such a device. Thought the mistress of the farm was excited for her fresh homemade cheese, Nancy made every effort to exploit this opportunity to beleaguer her white masters. After all, a “prouder person than the old negress could scarcely have been found.” (49)
First, Nancy told her mistress that in addition to the new cheese press, she would need a “runnet” which she said came from a sheep. So, after having the apparently required sheep slaughtered, the mistress was distressed to learn than under the then-present circumstances, the “runnet” from a calf was needed, not the sheep. Of course, the other slaves joked and laughed at Nancy’s “mistake,” not thinking the whole scenario through as she had. In response to her compatriot’s taunts, Nancy replied stoically, “You niggers think you knows a heap, but you don’t know as much as you think. When de sheep is killed, I knows dat you niggers would git to de meat to eat. I knows dat.” Thus silencing the crowd, Nancy continued that once again, because of her smart thinking, they would all get to eat calf’s meat for dinner; “den what will you have to say ‘bout old Nancy?” (51)
And finally, as the coup de grace, Nancy produced a cheese that was barely edible. “Appearing anything like cheese,” the product produced “the great amusement of the blacks, and the disappointment of the whites.” (52) A greater victory would rarely be found in Nancy’s world; she won a decisive round against her oppression, and both the whites and the other slaves knew it.
Still other slaves concluded that whites’ patience had run out. Newspaper reports from Raleigh, NC in 1822 describe the attempted murder of a white General’s family by their slaves. Allegedly unwilling to move to Texas with the family, the slaves devised a scheme to poison the entire family with hemlock. (Baton Rouge Republic) Despite the lack of reliable sources in the story and the obvious bias of the reporter, such accounts are no doubt grounded in some degree of fact. Obtaining their information from the rumors of perpetual sickness among the family’s daughters, the paper asserts that the slaves successfully poisoned these daughters and only failed to get the General because the plot was discovered. This type of proactive resistance was as daring as it was risky. Of course, the article concludes by noting that five “negroes…are at present confined in Iredell jail.” (Baton Rough Republic)
The conditions of the American slave were so decrepit that it would nearly be understandable to see large numbers of accounts of violent encounters. Being beaten down every single day forced many slaves into quiet acceptance, laboring endlessly simply to avoid reprimand. And while some like Nancy found the courage to devise a plan that both frustrated the masters and lightened the burden of life from her fellow slaves, others made more drastic actions like arson, assault and murder.
The Federal Union in Milledgeville, GA reported in 1857 that the overseer of a large plantation was systematically murdered by an angry group of slaves. (Federal Union) The paper’s obtrusive bias shows in their description of the “diabolical deed” and other casual attacks on the slaves. Reacting to an impending punishment, a slave ran away, causing the overseer to give chase along with a couple other slaves. Ultimately, the others took advantage of the opportunity of being far from the main plantation area by turning on the overseer and burying him with his gun in a swamp. The gory scene that is described in the Federal Union makes it very clear that the slaves should be considered savages and punished brutally.
The direct accomplishments of any of these forms of resistance are hard to measure. Few rebellions were successful, and ultimately, it took the bloodiest armed conflict in history to that point to eradicate the cancer of slavery. Certainly, slaves did all they could to maintain some sense of modest dignity and psychological peace. This manifested in many forms, some subtle and personal, and others violent and outward. Accommodation for or adaptation to the master’s rules and style were absolutely necessary if a slave expected to avoid violent punishment and humiliation. This toll of oppression pushed many to forge their own unique culture, identity and resilience.
With the possibility of leaving forever – and never seeing one’s children or family again – always present, slaves like Nancy and Dolly made subtle efforts to win very humble victories in their mind. Whether their intent was to demonize their masters or more simply to enjoy a simple laugh, these actions no doubt accumulated over time, ensuring that eventually, the courage needed to finally stand up to the menace of slavery would materialize. As word spread through newspapers and among scared communities of white masters and emboldened slaves, more were able to find their own way to join a resistance. Though not organized and often minute in direct significance, these forms of rebelliousness are noble reminders of the critical importance of standing up in the face of evil, even if the nation was not prepared to live up to its fundamental creed, that truly, “all men are created equal.”
Note: this essay on by Cliff Satell on slave resistance was originally written for “The New Nation” a Duke History course taught by Prof. Huston in Fall 2010. It has been updated slightly.
Brown, William Wells. My Southern Home. Boston: A.G. Brown &, 1880. Print.
Livermore, Mary Ashton Rice. My Story of the War. Hartford: A.D. Worthington and, 1888. Print.
“Murder by Negroes.” Federal Union [Milledgeville, GA] 26 May 1857. Print.
Olmsted, Frederick Law. A Journey in the Back Country. New York: Mason Bros., 1860. Print.
“Plantation Fires.” Federal Union [Milledgeville, GA] 20 Mar. 1855. Print.
“Shocking Occurrence.” Republic [Baton Rouge] 23 July 1822. Print.