America’s Slave Heroes
The slaves and former slaves identified below confronted enormous difficulties, risks, and hardships in order to fight against the institution that the Duke of York (later, King James II), his brother King Charles II, and their colleagues and successors, created, promoted, and incentivized, in the American colonies (and which later expanded into the states), beginning in the 1660s. Yet, these heroic people persevered, and were instrumental in bringing an end to slavery by awakening conscientious Americans to slavery’s evils.
This is not intended to be an exclusive list. In the blog on this website, I encourage you to nominate and provide information about these people and others who deserve to be included. Certainly, there were African-Americans who were not slaves who deserve great honor, as well, such as William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad.
Harriet Tubman was an unbelievably heroic individual. Ms. Tubman was only five feet tall, but extremely strong and determined. She had been severely injured when younger, having been struck in the head by an iron weight thrown by a white at another slave. The injury caused seizure episodes throughout her life. After escaping from her slave master on Maryland’s Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, with help from William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad, Ms. Tubman courageously returned an estimated 13 times to rescue approximately 70 to 80 family members, friends, and other slaves. She provided escape directions to many others. Ms. Tubman was proud to say that as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, she never lost a passenger. During the Civil War, she served in significant roles, including as a nurse, spy, cook, and military leader. She led a Union Army force in South Carolina that freed many hundreds of slaves. After the end of slavery, Ms. Tubman assisted older African-Americans and operated a nursing home in Upper New York State. Ms. Tubman dictated several “stories” in the book.
See generally K. Larson, Bound for the Promised Land—Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (Ballantine Books, NY, 2003); S. Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869), available from the Library of Congress at www.hathitrust.org/digital_library.
Frederick Douglass was perhaps the best known abolitionist and anti-slavery speaker and an effective and forceful leader of the abolitionist movement. Like Harriet Tubman, Mr. Douglass escaped from Maryland. A fugitive slave himself, he was passionate and extremely articulate. He had experienced several different masters, with varying treatment in rural and urban settings. He also experienced northern discrimination. After the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, he went into exile in England, where he continued his speaking. After English friends purchased his freedom, Mr. Douglass returned to America, publishing prolifically, and successfully, on slavery issues. Mr. Douglas wrote several “stories” in the book.
See generally F. Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), available from the Library of Congress at www.hathitrust.org/digital_library; F. Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), available from the Library of Congress at www.hathitrust.org/digital_library.
Sojourner Truth “walked away” from her slave master’s premises in Upper New York State early one morning. Ms. Truth brought a successful suit against her master for selling her son to a Southerner, the first such case brought by a former slave. The sale had violated New York law prohibiting sales of slaves out of the State. She was successful; the defendant was compelled to achieve the return of her son. A strong religious figure, Ms. Truth became a prominent lecturer against slavery and in favor of women’s rights.
See generally Dictated by S. Truth, written and edited by O. Gilbert, Sojourner Truth’s Narrative and Book of Life (1875), available from the Library of Congress at www.hathitrust.org/digital_library.
Harriet Jacobs repeatedly declined her slave master’s persistent sexual advances, enticements, and threats. In order to avoid him, Ms. Jacobs hid by living in a tiny attic space for seven years in the home of her “free” grandmother until she could escape to the North to be with her children. Even while she was in the North, her master and his heir pursued her in attempts to recapture her. She wrote her memoirs about her ordeal and the brutality of slavery.
See generally H. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), available from the Library of Congress at www.hathitrust.org/digital_library.
Solomon Northup was a “free” African-American living with his family in Upper New York State. As a skilled fiddler, he traveled to Washington to work in a circus. In Washington, he was drugged and kidnapped, a common problem for “free” African-Americans. He was sold to slave traders in what is now Alexandria, Virginia, and shipped to the New Orleans slave auction, where he was purchased. Having been badly beaten for telling people he was “free,” Mr. Northup simply bided his time. After twelve years, he identified a white man who would mail a letter for him back to New York about his location. His family and friends then gained his freedom. Illustrating the diabolical effects of the prohibitions against testimony by even supposedly “free” African-Americans, when he sued his slave trader in Washington, DC, as an African-American he was not permitted to provide testimony, so that the operative evidence in the case was the slave trader’s denials.
See generally S. Northup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853), available from the Library of Congress at www.hathitrust.org/digital_library.
William Wells Brown was a slave in Missouri. Among other experiences, his master leased him to a slave trader who would collect gangs of slaves and ship them in chains from Missouri to the South, including Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans, by riverboat. Eventually, Mr. Brown was acquired by others who took him on a riverboat trip to Cincinnati. He then escaped in the middle of January into Ohio, a “free” state. As a fugitive slave, however, he remained at risk of capture, so he traveled at night, hiding during the day. With his eye on the North Star, he headed toward Cleveland. While exhausted, freezing cold, and ill, he encountered a Quaker couple who nursed him to health. The man was named “Wells Brown.” William had no last name (and had been whipped several times for trying to use his own name as a slave). He gladly accepted the offer of “Wells Brown” to use that name in combination with his name, “William.” While working on boats on Lake Erie after he reached Cleveland and Buffalo, Mr. Brown saved almost four dozen slaves, assisting them in reaching Canada, hidden on the boats. Mr. Brown became a prominent and effective abolitionist speaker, but as a fugitive was forced into exile in England after enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. He was joined by his two daughters, and lived in France and England, where his daughters attended schools without discrimination. He continued speaking actively in Europe about the evils of slavery. At an international exhibition in London, he and others conducted a demonstration at the American exhibit, publicizing the use of slave labor to produce goods on exhibit. Once English friends purchased his freedom, he returned to America.
See generally W. Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (Anti-Slavery Office, 2nd ed. 1848), available from the Library of Congress at www.hathitrust.org/digital_library; J. Brown, Biography of an American Bondman by His Daughter (R.F. Wallcut, 1856), available from the Library of Congress at www.hathitrust.org/digital_library.
Lieutenant Witten was a slave who escaped to Spanish Florida with his family where they were granted their freedom. Trained by a skilled guerilla warrior from the Haitian revolution, Lt. Witten was a highly-respected officer in the Spanish Florida army of black warriors. The black army, numbering into many hundreds, and perhaps 1,000, saved St. Augustine when it was under siege by slave holder forces and U.S. Army troops in the secretive Patriot War of 1812. The secret war was conducted with the knowledge of President James Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe against free black communities, and Spanish Florida as a whole, while the War of 1812 was in full sway, the British burned the White House, and Francis Scott Key wrote the Start Spangled Banner. Lt. Witten and his guerilla army ambushed and defeated the slave holders and U.S. Army troops in a decisive battle.
See generally L. Rivers, Slavery in Florida—Territorial Days to Emancipation (Univ. Press of Florida, 2000); J. Landers, Black Society in Spanish Florida (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1999).
In 1831, Nat Turner, devoutly religious, instigated the most famous of many slave revolts. In Southampton County, Virginia, Mr. Turner led a large group of slaves in violent attacks against slave holder families living on rural plantations, killing some 55 to 60 whites before the Army defeated them. They killed entire families who enslaved and abused them and their own families, including the children. The uprising fueled substantial white fears, and even panic, across the South. The slave society reacted by enacting even more repressive restrictions upon slaves.
See generally T. Gray, The Confessions of Nat Turner (T.R. Gray, 1831), available from the Library of Congress at www.hathitrust.org/digital_library.
David Walker was not a slave, but his father was. An early version of Malcolm X and Colin Kaepernick, Mr. Walker, was the author of a small, strongly outspoken book entitled “Appeal to the Colored People of the World.” The Appeal was frightening to the slave society, and led to sizable bounties offered for Mr. Walker, dead or alive. He criticized not only whites, but also slaves for their passivity, encouraging them to be ready for an uprising when the time was right. Mr. Walker, who operated clothing stores on the Boston waterfront, sewed copies of the Appeal into the lining of clothing worn by sailors going South. Seaports in the South prevented black sailors from disembarking for fear they might bring copies on shore. Those slaves and “free” African-Americans who could read would read it to uneducated slaves. PBS states that: “Copies of the Appeal were discovered in Savannah, Georgia, within weeks of its publication.”
See generally D. Walker, Appeal to the Colored People of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts (1829), Academic Affairs Library, Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, available at docsouth.unc.edu; David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World at www.davidwalkermemorial.org/appeal, accessed Sept. 20, 2020; David Walker’s Appeal at www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2931.htm.
There are many other African-Americans from the time of slavery who also deserve special honor.
America’s Slave Heroes, some of whom are virtually unknown in white America, deserve far more credit and recognition than they receive in America today. They contributed every bit as much to America as did the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln, and should be recognized in proportion to that contribution.
They deserve to be recognized with a National Slave Memorial on the National Mall in Washington and another at Stone Mountain in Georgia.
This is a cause worth advocating.