The Resistance: A Black American tradition

During the Red Summer of 1919, White children celebrate the burning of a Black building.
During the Red Summer of 1919, White supremacists terrorized Black communities throughout the United States. In this photo, White children celebrate the burning of a Black building.
(Courtesy of / Black & Magazine)

A look at resisting White supremacy throughout history - from before the Pilgrims to today


In the past several weeks the Black Lives Movement has been shot to the forefront of the American conversation, triggered by the senseless murders of innocent unarmed Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery to name a few.

The Black Lives Matter campaign may be the first large scale Black uprising in the lifetime of those born after the civil rights movement, however, the act of resisting white supremacy is older than the country that so adamantly defends it.

Before the Pilgrims… (1500s)

The very first demonstration of Black protest against European oppression dates all the way back to the 1520s, when captive Africans revolted against their captors, colonists from the San Miguel de Guadalupe settlement. These self-liberated Africans were taken in by nearby Native American communities as their kidnappers packed up and sailed back to the island of Hispaniola. That means not only were these captive slaves the first to revolt against enslavers, but also the first Africans to be successful at liberation!

The Holocaust of Slavery (1619-1865)

During the era of American slavery, Blacks used a number of methods to resist their condition.

Famous rebellions may ring bells, such as the Stono Rebellion and Nat Turner’s rebellion, however, other more cunning routes of protest were actually the mainstream. A popular approach was for field hands to collectively slow their pace, essentially sabotaging the plantation productivity and profits — sometimes playing a part in the demise of an entire plantation.

Self-liberation was a very risky form of resistance, but if successful in making the treacherous journey into free territory, the reward was freedom with a side of stripping the slave owner of expensive assets. Martyrs sometimes committed suicide by jumping off slavery ships or by other means if already on the plantation. Though this method was extreme and tragic, the act of suicide while in bondage was also a noble power move, asserting one would choose death over being another man’s property.

Enslaved women knew to ingest herbs and cottonseed as contraceptives to keep from being impregnated, taking back some sense of ownership over their own bodies and refusing to be used for “slave breeding.”

While colonists campaigned for severance from Britain, there was another unseen campaign for freedom happening on plantations. Captives who overheard rhetoric of “inalienable rights” and “all men are created equal,” quoted this very ideology in their own letters and petitions to make a formal case for their freedom. These documents were then sent to governing officials, but as we know, slavery would continue for almost 100 more years before being abolished.

Finally, the efforts of free Black activists, like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, would ultimately be the driving force behind terminating the institution of slavery in America.

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