Slavery and the Making of AmericaPhoto of a group slaves on a Beaufort, South Carolina plantation
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Responses to Enslavement
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight Slave Decisions Personal Narratives Original Docs
Historical Overview Responses to Enslavement
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Records show that more slaves successfully escaped from states that directly bordered free territory, such as Maryland and Virginia, than from the Deep South. Exact numbers of how many escaped to the North go as high as 100,000. Many of these were aided by the Underground Railroad, a vast network of people and paths leading to freedom by way of Canada in the north and Mexico in the South. The system was organized in the early 1800s by free blacks, ex-slaves, black and white abolitionists, and Native Americans, who helped fleeing slaves navigate their way to freedom.

Photograph of Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock River in Virginia
Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock River, Virginia. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the number of escaping slaves skyrocketed, with fleeing men, women and children seeking refuge behind Union Army lines. It was not the first time that war presented slaves with opportunities for attaining free status. Thousands of slaves achieved freedom during the Revolutionary war by exchanging their service in British and Colonial forces for manumission. Unlike slaves escaping to the north during the Civil War, slaves of the revolutionary period had no sanctuary in America, where slavery was still legal in every state. Colonization was, therefore, a particularly appealing possibility at that time. Newly freed people settled in Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Sierra Leone.
Portrait of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, first president of Liberia
Joseph Jenkins Roberts, first president of Liberia. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Daguerreotypes Collection.
In the years between this first wave of freedom and the Emancipation Proclamation, colonization became a controversial issue, dividing both the white and black communities. Many white Southerners who were uneasy with the growing black majority were advocates of establishing black colonies in distant locations. Insurrection among slaves only heightened their support of colonization movements.

Throughout the age of slavery in America, enslaved people seized opportunities for rebellion. Organized revolt, because of its visibility and frequently violent nature, was not only a preoccupation of many slaveholders, but was also an especially risky activity for the slaves involved. If successful, an armed uprising promised great and immediate rewards.
Picture of a slave being burned at the stake in 1741 Illustration of slave burned at the stake, 1741
Slave being burned at the stake in 1741. The New York Public Library, Picture Collection.
The group of more than 100 African-born slaves participating in the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina knew that they had strength in their numbers and that freedom was as close as Florida. Of course, when such a rebellion failed, it usually meant certain death for those involved. All major slave rebellions in American history were thwarted, their leaders and participants murdered.

The number of slaves that rebelled on such a grand-scale was, of course, small in proportion to the size of the country's overall slave population. The majority of slaves responded to the conditions of enslavement as individuals rather than as groups, and in subtle rather than extreme ways. Building community with other slaves, keeping the cultural and spiritual traditions of Africa alive, working to maintain contact with kin, learning to read under the cover of darkness -- these sorts of behaviors were each, in their own way, acts of rebellion against enslavement. Not every response was about gaining freedom, but all responses, whether or not they involved active resistance, were about the struggle to survive and the freedom to choose the course of one's own life.

Nicholas Boston is a writer and assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Lehman College of the City University of New York.
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