Colonization vs. Civilization: The Ultimate Destruction of Africa

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.



Image result for colonization of africa giant The massive movement of colonization onslaught in Africa was between the years 1880 and 1900, due to industrialization in Western Europe, a search for new markets, and the availability of natural resources in Africa. Bismarck, a leader of Germany during the time, invited other European powers to colonize West Africa. In 1884-1885, The European powers held a conference, which divided Africa into various territories, carving what is now known today as Africa. From the first steps the European powers took on the soil of Africa, the future for Africa changed. As a consequence of colonization Africa has undergone countless detrimental effects that play leading roles in its current situation today.  

W. E. B. Dubois in his article, “Worlds of Color,” “examinees the geopolitical shifts in Europe, its colonies, as well as in the United States after the First World War in order to assess  the interrelations of race and labor” (Billingslea 1). Dubois states that the European nations profited off of the land of others, by writing: 

“If now the world, and particularly the laboring world, should come to realize that industrial efficiency as measured by the amount of goods made and the size of the private profit derived therefrom is not the greatest thing in the world; and that by exchanging European efficiency for African leisure and Asiatic contemplation they might fain tremendously in happiness, the world might be less afraid to give up economic imperialism” (Billingslea 22) 

Dubois is arguing that if people recognize that money and amount of materialistic items are not as important as human life and happiness, then the world might be able to surrender the idea of imperialism. In King Leopold’s Ghost, the documentary explores the mass destruction of natural resources. The mining of the African soil and the killing of the wildlife, such as elephants, for profit, are examples of the European nations not caring about the people of Africa and just depleting their sources of income and resources. Since Europe has full control and ownership over Africa, tribes in Africa are suffering from more than just labor exploitation.  

Dubois further explains the role militarism has in the colonization of Africa by writing, “Militarism is costly and to increasing masses of men since the Great War….a most effective method  of military control” (Billingslea 22). What Dubois is saying is that, militarism was too costly and required too many men for the European nations, especially after the wars, so African troops were implemented. These African militias that were imposed in the various European colonies caused hostility amongst the African people. Wars broke out. Many wars since the Europeans colonized Africa have broken out amongst different African groups as a result of the forced comingling of various tribes.  In King Leopold’s Ghost, in chapters 31-36, the documentary delves into conflicts in the Congo amongst the African peoples. As a result of the European powers coming together to divide land in Africa amongst themselves, different tribes, that may have even been at war with one another, were forced to live side by side, and some tribes were divided based on the territorial lines drawn. These divisions led to the internal wars that only highlighted the difference between the colonizer and the colonized and the negative effects the colonizer had on the colonized.  

Aimé Césaire pays close attention to the negative relationship between both the colonizer and the colonized, as well as suggesting that colonization does not actually civilize the colonies, but in fact does the complete opposite, contesting the claims of positive aspects of colonialism in his article “Discourse on Colonialism”. Like Dubois, Césaire agrees that colonization dehumanizes the colonizer. This idea is known as “thingification”, which is a process of turning the colonizer into a thing by denying him his humanity. Both Dubois and Césaire recognize that the Europeans invaded Africa with a mission by writing that,  

“no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization—and therefore force—is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment” (Césaire 39). 

The European nations deliberately invaded Africa with an intention to exploit the African people and the land. In King Leopold’s Ghost, the documentary delves in depth upon the markings the Europeans made in Africa. They exploited the African people’s labor, stole the natural resources from the African land, and murdered much wildlife to sell for profit. The mission of the Europeans was to gain economic wealth and be economic, global leaders. What these Europeans were not noticing, was that the people were starving, falling ill with disease, fighting due to tribal differences, and having trouble adjusting to the ways in which the Europeans wanted them to live.  

Both Césaire and King Leopold’s Ghost explain the mass exploitation and cruelty that was imposed upon the African peoples, who were then enslaved. Césaire writes about the common cruelties that the Europeans imposed upon the people of Africa writing that,  “forced labor, intimidation, pressure, the police, taxation, theft, rape, compulsory crops, contempt, mistrust, arrogance, self-complacency, swinishness, brainless elites, degraded masses” (Césaire 42).Rape was common, and often resulted in mulato children, who too were forced into the vicious cycle of forced labor. The idea was to “civilize” the African people, but this in fact did the opposite and only made the colonizer appear more dehumanized.   

In the 1950s, Africa was finally able to gain complete independce from the overbearing powers of Europe. Due to the devastating effects that the European nations brought to Africa, the country is still struggling as a third-world nation. As a result of the mass killing of the wild life, certain wild animals, such as elephants, have become endangered. As a result of the enslavement of the African peoples, many of the once strong and independent Africans have grown scarce. As a result of the African militia taking control, numerous wars have broken out, and countless amounts of genocides have been recorded. Turmoil. The colonization of Africa by the European powers has left Africa in a state of desperate need of repair. Colonization dehumanized the colonizer and brought a new point of view and reality to the colonized. As noted by both Du Bois and Césaire, and seen in King Leopold’s Ghost, colonization did not civilize the people of Africa, if anything it brought the people further away from civilization due to internal conflicts.  
























Works Cited 


Billingslea-Brown, Alma Jean. “Worlds of Color” W. E. B. Du BoisAfrican Diaspora and the World: Readings for 112. New York, NY: American Heritage Custom Pub. Group, 1995. 1-25. Print. 

Césaire, Aimé. “Discourse on Colonialism.” Discourse on Colonialism Transl. by Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review, 1972. 31-78. Print. 

King Leopold’s Ghost. Dir. Pippa Scott and Oreet Rees. Perf. Philippe Bergeron, Don Cheadle, James Cromwell. Linden Productions, 2006. Itunes. 


African Lives of the Enslaved in Brazil 

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Image result for slavery in brazilAlthough Christopher Columbus claimed the Americas for Spain in 1492, in 1501 Pedro Cabral returned to Portugal with claims to Brazil. The Portuguese and Spanish looked at the New World as a place for mining and agricultural production (Gomez 62). Due to the vast amounts of opportunities that could prosper from the New World, the Portuguese imported African enslaved persons to Brazil. Unlike any other nation in the New World, Brazil had the most imports of enslaved African persons due to the rich land and potential for wealth, which helped foster the Brazilian culture.

Slavery had existed well before the discovery of the Americas. The Portuguese had been involved in slavery in the Eastern hemisphere. For years, they had been trying to find new routes to the Indian Ocean Commerce other than through the Red Sea and Arabian Peninsula. In 1475, the Portuguese managed to cross the equator and a decade later in 1487, the Portuguese succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope. At this point, the Portuguese were exporting about seven hundred kilograms of West African gold within a peak of a year, which averaged nearly four hundred ten kilograms of West African Gold per year. However, between 1497 and 1498, Vasco da Gama’s voyage gave Portugal access to the Indian Ocean Commerce. By 1520, the Portuguese had become an Indian Ocean power (Gomez 61). Furthermore, in excelling in trade within the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese were also expanding its terrain and profits in the newly discovered Americas.

Pedro Álvares Cabral set sail in 1501 with the intentions of reaching India; however, due to strong currents, Cabral and his crew were pushed further west. Sighting birds, which signaled land, Cabral headed in the direction of the birds, and discovered the land now called Brazil, named for its wood (BBC). Cabral returned to Portugal with new claims to land in the Americas. Taking advantage of the opportunities the New World had to offer, the Portuguese quickly settled into Brazil.

In the beginning, the Portuguese made use of the indigenous people, making them work plantations. Yet, the indigenous people were unfamiliar to the European disease environment, so they lacked immunity. They were subjected to smallpox, measles, influenza, diphtheria, whooping cough, chicken pox, typhoid, trichinosis, and enslavement, all of which impacted the indigenous people’s population signaling its drastic decrease. Africans on the other hand, had been exposed to the Europeans disease environment for years and held more immunity than the indigenous people (Gomez 62). As a result, in the early 1500s, African persons became the new labor force in Brazil, enabling Brazil to become the largest nation of slave imports; nearly half of all Africans brought to the Americas, about half made their way to the shores of Brazil (Gates).

The use of slaves was not restricted to one region, nor was the type of labor required from the slaves subjected to a specific region. All over Brazil, African enslaved persons were used for their labor from farms to mines. In the early 1520s, Sugar was Brazil’s leading export. Sugarcane was planted mostly in the northeastern region of Pernambuco (Gomez 63). Although sugarcane plantations populated the majority of the African enslaved persons labor, enslaved people also worked on mines, on agricultural farming lands, with domestic farming, cleaning waste deposits, selling goods in the cities, transporting goods or materials across lands, and female enslaved persons worked as prostitutes, cooking and supplying food for work places, and in the homes. Enslaved people whom were forced to clean waste products became known as “Tigers” from the spots that appeared on their skin due to the leakage of acids from such filth (BBC). In the early 1700s, Brazil’s mining production took over its sugarcane plantations, which populated the Brazilian economy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the eighteenth century, gold and diamond deposits were discovered; thus, turning Brazil’s sugar concentration over toward the exporting of mining production (Gates).

Enslaved persons of Brazil were not all calm and passive, many of the enslaved persons displayed signs of resistance. In the early 1550s, the enslaved persons created the Capoeira, a dance-like form of self-defense. The enslaved took pride in their thought-up dance, entertaining settlers and some using their dance to escape enslavement. But the Capoeira was not the only form of resistance the enslaved people tried. In 1708, the Church of Sal San Francisco was constructed; the majority of the work force consisted of slaves and freed blacks. To rebel against such undesirable labor, these workers sculpted figures of pregnant angels on the ceilings and walls. Other forms of resistance were striking their masters and denying their services, setting crops on fire, breaking machinery in factories, and offering ultimatums (Gates). In 1806, a group of slaves refused to work unless said demands were carried through:

“If my Lord also wants our peace, he must agree to the following: Friday and Saturday to work for ourselves; give us casting nets and canoes; more flour; reduce the daily quota of sugarcane we must cut; more men to cut the wood; someone to tend the fire at the kettles; we should be able to play, relax, and sing anytime we want. Accepting all the above, we are ready to serve you as before” (BBC).

The enslaved people of Brazil were tired of such harsh treatment. They were treated as objects less than animals. The value they had varied, but were still little. Enslaved African males were the majority of imported slaves and were responsible for the majority of the labor force. Enslaved African females were few but were responsible for mostly household affairs and pleasing the settlers in town. The majority of the settlers that came to Brazil were European, young males trying to prove themselves worthy, ambitious gamblers, or criminals or other people not wanted close to the main lands of Portugal. As a result, fornication between the settlers and the slaves was common. Enslaved African children were not valued; enslaved adults cost more than children (BBC). Due to the treatment and lack of appreciation, these enslaved persons grew tired and felt a need to fight back.  However, unlike most nations, Brazil does not use race as a cultural divide.

Brazil is different from most other nations that were involved in the slave trade because Brazil did not have ethnic exclusiveness. Brazil lacked numbers. In other words, the majority of Brazil’s population was enslaved Africans and European male settlers. A desire to raise families diminished on all sides, but children that were born were not neglected. Enslaved females attempted to abort themselves in order to protect the livelihood of their unborn child (BBC). Slave masters did not want to bear children with enslaved African women, but when a child was born, the master took them in. Generally, the masters taught the children the Portuguese language and educated them, unlike the British. For the most part, the children remained slaves, but there were instances where a child would become the next heir. Families were not the only form of integration. In 1710, the city of Diamantina was built and people both black and white lived together, integrated, day to day (Gates). A change in atmosphere was beginning to take place. Enslaved people were using revolts as a means to claim freedom and masters were finding maintaining their slaves more and more difficult.

In 1822, Brazil declares independence from Portugal and the son of the Portuguese King crowns himself as Emperor I of Brazil. A few decades later, in 1850, the slave trade in Brazil ends; however, slavery continues for a few more decades until Princess Isabel signs the “Golden Law” in 1888 abolishing slavery in Brazil. Brazil becomes the last colony in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery. During that same year, the Bronqueamento is enacted. This policy was put in place to encourage the migration of Europeans to Brazil in order to whiten the population (Gates). During this time, Brazil was heavily populated by the former enslaved Africans and people of African descent. After the abolition of slavery, people of African descent felt the need to shed light upon the roles in which their ancestors played to help establish the Brazilian culture.

During the years of slavery in Brazil, the enslaved African people continued to practice their love of music, dance, and religion, which played a huge role in the cultivation of Brazil and after the abolition of slavery, those of African descent wanted to acknowledge such influences. In 1918, Afro-Brazilian historian Manuel Querino published an essay about the influence Africans had on Brazilian culture. About a decade later, in 1933, scholar Gilberto Freyre published The Masters and the Slaves. The book detailed the roles that African slaves had in the development of the culture of Brazil. Later, in 1975, the Institute for Research of Black Culture was founded with the hopes of exterminating racism in Brazil. In 1989, Lei Cao was passed, which was an act against racism. In 2001, the descendants of slaves living in Rio da Ras were allotted a title of ownership by the Brazilian government, assuring them that they will never be forced from their land. And in 2003, the State University of Rio de Janeiro becomes the first university in Brazil to ordain affirmative action (Gates).

Brazil has come a long way since its first days of slavery, dating back to the 1500s. The culture of Brazil is largely populated by the enslaved Africans traditions taken from their homelands and incorporated with various festivities throughout Brazil. In addition, Brazil continues to be heavily populated with people of African descent; being the world’s second most black populated country at one point. Since the end of slavery, Brazil’s government has also drastically transformed. From a monarchy, Brazil became a federal republic, to a dictatorship, to finally a democracy. In 2010, Dilma Rousseff becomes Brazil’s first female president (Timeline: Brazil). Although Brazil appears to be a country of magic and wonders, the taste of slavery is still very much remembered and seen through various regions of Brazil.





A Classical Instrument Embraced by the Black Woman: Dorothy Ashby and Ann Hobson Pilot

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.



African Americans have been the topic of musical discussion for decades. Their musical talents have been mentioned and pointed out since before the days of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when musicologists and ethnographers ventured to Africa and visited various African tribes noting on their unique musical and dance performances. However, when it comes to music and musical instruments, African Americans are not widely known for their presence in the genre of classical music or using instruments that are often associated with classical music, such as the harp. While there have been African American harpists prior to Dorothy Ashby, Dorothy Ashby is more widely known for incorporating the harp into the musical genre of jazz. To look at a more contemporary musician, Ann Hobson Pilot, just recently retired from playing the harp in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

On 6 August 1932 in Detroit, Michigan, Dorothy Ashby was born as Dorothy Jeanne Thompson. Almost a decade later, Ann Hobson Pilot was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 6 November 1943. Ironically, both women lived parallel lives. As children, both women were introduced to music at a young age. Pilot’s mother, whose name is not mentioned, was a concert pianist. As a result, Pilot grew an infatuation with classical music and musical instruments, and at the age of fourteen, she began studying the harp. By her senior year of high school, she reached her concert caliber; however, being a woman of African descent became an obstacle for her journey as an African American harpist. On the other hand, Ashby was influenced by jazz artists who had regularly frequented her house. Ashby’s father is Wiley Thompson who was a guitarist. Growing up surrounded by music and musical influences, Ashby learned to play the piano, saxophone, string bass, the harp, and many more instruments. She attended Cass Technical High School, which is a high school known for having a few well-accomplished musicians and other artistic individuals. It was in high school, that Ashby first became acquainted with the harp, and it was not until later in life that she made the harp her main instrument.

dorothy ashbyCoincidentally, both Ann Hobson Pilot and Dorothy Ashby chose to attend colleges in northern-central region of the United States of America. Ashby enrolled at Wayne State University, located in Detroit, Michigan. She undertook piano and music education as her degree of concentration. Close by, Pilot attended college at the Cleveland Institute of Music and received guidance under the nurturing care of Alice Chalifoux. Chalifoux is Caucasian American and was principal harpist with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1931-1974. Just like Ashby and Pilot, Chalifoux had musical influences during the course of her upbringing and continued to embrace her musical spirit until her passing in 2008. While there had been jazz harpist prior to the emergence of Dorothy Ashby, like Adele Girard who incorporated the harp into the genre of swing, “no one else had adapted the harp to jazz so successfully nor had integrated into such a broad array of musical styles” (Jazz Harp Foundation). Her influence certainly opened up doors for other artists to come.

In order to delve deeper into the musical career lives of each musician, I will devote individual paragraphs to them. While both women are African Americans, they each incorporate the harp into their musical interests differently. Fortunately both also excel in their musical careers becoming notable African Americans in history, who, sadly, are not well recognized. Being that I am an African American and grew up right outside of Boston, Massachusetts, I am astonished and also disappointed that I had never heard of Ann Hobson Pilot. Though she recently retired in 2009 at the end of Tanglewood, it would have been nice to have at least heard her perform.

In 1969, a little after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, Ann Hobson Pilot joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Prior to joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she was the substitute second harpist with the Pittsburgh Symphony and principal harpist of the Washington National Symphony. She had also performed with many American orchestras as soloist and performed in exotic countries such as: Europe, Haiti, New Zealand, and South Africa. Being that Pilot was trying to establish a musical career in a white dominated musical setting during the era of Jim Crow and segregation, it is no surprise that her race became a hindrance during her early stages. Even with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Pilot was the only African American. It was not until 1980, when Ann Hobson Pilot was promoted to being the principal harpist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After years of diligence and dedication, in 1988, Pilot received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Bridgewater State University, located in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. After performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for about forty years, Ann Hobson Pilot retired moving down to Osprey, Florida with her husband, Prentice Pilot. She continues today, to live out her days in Florida, probably reminiscing on all of her success and great achievements.

boston harpAble to play incredible bebop on her instrument, Dorothy Ashby traveled around the world, building up “support for the harp as a jazz instrument by organizing free shows and playing at dances and weddings with her trio” (Jazz Harp Foundation). Aside from Dorothy Ashby, the trio also consisted of her husband, John Ashby, who played the drums. They recorded with notable musicians like Ed Thigpen, Richard Davis, Jimmy Cob, Frank Wess, and others in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition, they owned their own radio show, and the trio regularly toured around the country. They recorded numerous albums for a variety of different recording labels. By 1962, the annual polls had marked Dorothy Ashby as one of the best jazz performers. She had played her harp for well-renowned artists such as: Dionne Warwick; Diana Ross; Earth, Wind, & Fire; and Barry Manilow. She performed in the song Come Live With Me, which was the 1967 movie soundtrack for Valley of the Dolls. More commonly known is her harp playing in Stevie Wonder’s 1967 song, If Its Magic. Unfortunately, the soulful, upbeat music that Dorothy Ashby played would no longer be updated after 13 April 1986, when she passed away in Sana Monica, California due to cancer. When Pilot is just reaching the pique of her career, Ashby has met her end.

While neither artist continues to play the luscious sounds of the harp, their music lives on. People who are interested can now go online and find songs that feature Dorothy Ashby and her harp, or go on websites like Youtube and watch and listen to Ann Hobson Pilot and her peaceful playing of the harp. Both women took a white dominated musical instrument and claimed it as their own, adding a unique Black element to both jazz and classical music genres.

Black Liberation through the Voice of Anna Julia Cooper

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

Since the days of slavery, people of African descent had been fighting for liberation. Enslaved people rebelled through riots, by attempting to run away, and by killing themselves and their families – specifically their children. During the Civil War, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which essentially freed all enslaved people from the Confederate states, but African Americans wanted more. They wanted citizenship and equal opportunities. Even after the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the United States Constitution in 1868, which officially gave freedom and citizenship to all people in the United States including those whom were enslaved, the social system continued to withhold African Americans from being able to enjoy this governed sense of freedom. Thus, the question became: How could the black community achieve liberation and citizenship?

Many black leaders emerged over the span of years. Ideas circulated, postulating the “correct” path toward blacks gaining citizenship in the United States. Predominantly, we learn and hear about African American and Black men’s theories in relation to the methods fashioned in order to assist the black community inevitably achieve the goal of citizenship and liberation. Yet, there must be an awareness to the fact that, African American women were not silent in this plight. One woman in particular, is Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, an “educator, author, activist and…scholar”[1]. Dr. Cooper was born into slavery around the year of 1858, in Raleigh, North Carolina[2]. Having been born a slave, it can be assumed that Dr. Cooper’s model for black liberation stems for her own personal experience.

For many former slaves, education was essential in having a sense of freedom. During slavery, it was illegal for enslaved African Americans to be taught to read and write. From slave narratives, we learn about the struggles enslaved African Americans faced just to gain access to resources to help them learn how to read and write. In Frederick Douglass’s narrative we learn about the husband of Mrs. Auld and how he scolds her for attempting to teach Douglass how to read. In the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, we learn of his struggles with understanding the “talking book,” which he comes to realize is an advantage whites have with being able to read. With the notion that education seems to be a key element in the freedom for these once enslaved African Americans, Dr. Cooper’s “belief in the power of education as a vehicle to social, economic, and political freedom”[3], comes with no surprise.

As an advocator for education as a path toward freedom and liberation for black people, Dr. Cooper sought to promote higher education. In doing so, she uses her writing as a means to “incite in her readers a desire for social change and personal transformation”[4]. While analyzing the significance of her writing as a key to communicating with the black community, one cannot neglect her overall impact on the innovation she introduced into society; “she envisioned and brought into being a system we know as community college”[5]. This pioneering innovation gives blacks an opportunity to advance in the educational world. As a former slave, and then later an educator, Dr. Cooper wanted to improve the educational system and availability of opportunities for blacks. Relating back to the significance of her writing, “[Dr. Cooper] championed opportunities for black students, believing that, especially in education, they must settle for no less than higher education in the liberal arts”[6]. While she advocated higher education for both men and women, Dr. Cooper especially emphasized education for women. Through her strict detail and attention to the issues pertaining to black women’s path toward liberation and citizenship, she can be categorized as a feminist. In her own literary work, A Voice from the South, Dr. Cooper addresses both the problem America has with race and the negative perception of women.

According to Dr. Cooper, there is no denying that America has a race problem. In fact, in her book she dedicates a section to addressing and theorizing possible solutions for this problem. In an attempt to state and solve the race problem within America, Dr. Cooper writes:

We would not deprecate the fact, then, that America has a Race Problem. It is guaranty of the perpetuity and progress of her institutions, and insures the breadth of her culture and the symmetry of her development. More than all, let us not disparage the factor which the Negro is appointed to contribute to that problem. America needs the Negro for ballast if for nothing else.[7]

Essentially, Dr. Cooper is critiquing the Anglo-Saxon race. She is basically saying that blacks were a chosen target race. We can gather this from the hand-picking selection of slavery and the African continent as a source for slaves. Her last remark stands out in a sense that whites need blacks to create a balance of color, but that’s about it. Throughout this section, Dr. Cooper alludes to literary works and biblical references, alluding to the notion that acquiring some form of education is beneficial.  In terms of women, Dr. Cooper does not neglect the fact that throughout history women have played contributing roles in the making of nations and societies. In a different section than the one concerning the race problem, Dr. Cooper calls women to action. She believes that for too long have women been silenced, when for centuries they have been the back bone to the creation of the world we have currently: “in the era now about to dawn, her sentiments must strike the keynote and give the dominant tone. And this because of the nature of her contribution to the world”[8].

What does higher education have to do with the race problem in America and the advancement of women in society and why was her writing important in her activism? In addressing Dr. Cooper’s view of the importance of higher education, it is important to know that she became the “fourth African American female to receive her PhD degree”[9], but even with this, she still faced many roadblocks. With the understanding that she had obtained higher education, it can be assumed that she was well educated in the field of education; however, being that she was a black women attempting to pave a way for African Americans to be unified with American society, she struggled to fit in with her fellow African American male counterparts who were also arguing the importance of an education. As aforementioned, “African American leaders publicly expressed and implemented widely divergent views about the problems of education for former slaves”[10].  While Dr. Cooper “may have discovered the only practical solutions for the long-term needs of African Americans”[11], her three male counterparts, “beyond doubt, they ignored her views”[12]. However, while her male colleagues rejected her views, she “became a memorable representative of a distinguished group of black women writers, activists, and educators”[13].

The three African American male colleagues which whom is being discussed are Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Charles W. Chestnutt. Booker T. Washington basically believed in the improving economic positions for African Americans. Former slaves were accustomed to manual labor and were good at it. With this knowledge, he felt as though training African Americans in trade work, although it delayed many of the rights that African Americans were arguing for, benefitted African Americans in the long run in terms of achieving citizenship. On the other hand, there was W.E.B. DuBois, who shared similar values as Anna Julia Coopers. He believed in higher education and essentially the “talented tenth,” which expressed a higher learning to African Americans in a breakdown of learning. Charles W. Chestnutt, was neither for vocational education nor higher education. Instead, he believed that African Americans held the power in possessing the suffrage. In having this as a possession, he thought that doors would open, including doors to institutions and, eventually, higher education. Yet, while these African American males crafted ideas in the area of education, it is Dr. Cooper who seemed to have the only resolution for these dilemmas[14], which is why in her own writing she critiques the value black men have on women:

It seems hardly a gracious thing to say, but it strikes me as true, that while our men seem thoroughly abreast of the times on almost every other subject, when they strike the woman question they drop back into sixteenth century logic. They leave nothing to be desired generally in regard to gallantry and chivalry, but they actually do not seem sometimes to have outgrown that old contemporary of chivalry–the idea that women may stand on pedestals or live in doll houses, (if they happen to have them) but they must not furrow their brows with thought or attempt to help men tug at the great questions of the world. I fear the majority of colored men do not yet think it worth while that women aspire to higher education.[15]

The rejection from African American male leaders towards the higher learning of African American women, explains Dr. Cooper’s desire to promote higher education for women. This does not mean that Dr. Cooper excluded the advancement of higher education of African American males; in fact, she advocated for the progression of higher education of all African Americans because “opportunities for African Americans to receive a college education prior to the Civil War were virtually nonexistent”[16].  Through her own personal experiences, Dr. Cooper went on to promote her beliefs in serving as a “professor, high school teacher, school principal, community volunteer, and college president”[17].  Dr. Cooper fundamentally believed that all people deserved to have equal access to resources and opportunities in order to reach their fullest potential. In her belief, she used the “Black experience as a yardstick” and understood that unless everyone, including the black race, was given the opportunity to advance in society, America’s promise of liberation could not be fulfilled.[18]  Cooper contributes to the element of social theory through her writing.

While working as an educator, Dr. Cooper also wrote. Her novel, A Voice from the South, is compilation of essays that contribute to the awareness of injustice. The novel, is primarily a feminist text, advocating for the higher learning of women, as well as promoting the idea of leadership roles alongside men. At the same time, the text speaks to the black race and what can be done in the educational world to advance citizenship. Dr. Cooper realized, however, that the economic survival was dependent upon the labor of black women, making educational learning imperative. She emphasizes this point when she states:

Our meager and superficial results from past efforts prove their futility; and every attempt to elevate the Negro, whether undertaken by himself or through the philanthropy of others, cannot but prove abortive unless so directed as to utilize the indispensable agency of an elevated and trained womanhood.[19]

At the same time, Dr. Cooper was aware of how society operated in terms of opportunities for work. Race and gender mattered in the working world, and for blacks, knowing a trade was chiefly a necessity:

Education is the word that covers it all–the working up of this raw material and fitting it into the world’s work to supply the world’s need–the manufacture of men and women for the markets of the world. But there is no other labor which so creates value. The value of the well developed man has been enhanced far more by the labor bestowed than is the iron in the watch springs.[20]

Having experienced some of her life as a slave, and acknowledging her mother as an enslaved woman, Dr. Cooper is aware of the labor that is associated with being a person of color. Slavery meant manual labor for the black person, and coming out of that, manual labor was still a practice that white society tried to promote for the black community. Although Dr. Cooper wanted more for the black community, she was also realistic in her beliefs.

Throughout the course of her life, Dr. Cooper experienced many roadblocks in her goal toward black liberation. While she faced the adversity of being not only black, but also a woman,

Invariably, Cooper remained optimistic that Americans would recognize the contradiction in what they promote and what they actually practice. For her, struggle meant using education as a conduit for securing citizenship rights for African Americans. Thus, her social theories both inform and were informed by her role as an educator.[21]

She faced the rejection of her three male colleagues, as well as the rejection of white society. While her writings explained her social theories for African Americans and women, she also practiced her beliefs. As an educator, she tried to instill in her students a motivation for achieving a higher education”[22]. A project she got involved with that was “an adult-education university for employed colored persons” was Freylinghuysen. According to Dr. Cooper, the Freylinghuysen concept was “an innovation of American education”[23]. However, Dr. Cooper’s investment with this program truly acts as a demonstrator of evidence for her desire to advocate for both African American men and women through higher education.

Previously, Dr. Cooper’s envision of a system we know today as community college was mentioned. The Freylinghuysen University did not discriminate against sex nor race. Dr. Cooper acted as a president of this university, which was dedicated to the working class of people, playing a vital role in its advancement. For Dr. Cooper, “beyond doubt, this endeavor…presage the community college and state college systems of a later day, in which many black and white students work as they learn”[24]. Her strong mind and determination enabled a catalyst for all people who wanted to continue their education through the system of community college. She manifested a way for black men and women, and impoverished people, to have equal access to a higher education, which thus forced society to “see” them. In other words, she found a way to provide blacks and women with a way to achieve citizenship.

The life of Anna Julia Cooper was hectic. She was born a slave, but overcame slavery to earn her PhD degree. At the same time, while trying to earn her degree, she faced several roadblocks and was forced to finish overseas. Although Dr. Cooper’s experience as an enslaved woman catapulted her desire to achieve a higher education, she also grew a yearning to promote higher education as a key benefactor for African Americans becoming citizens. In terms of being a feminist, her feminist beliefs most likely stem from the hindrance she encountered from both white society and black men. Her black male counterparts, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Charles W. Chestnutt, all believed in some form of education as a crucial element in black liberation and citizenship; however they publicly rejected the beliefs and theories of Anna Julia Cooper. While it seemed as though the odds were stacked against her, Dr. Cooper prevailed. She was an educator and proved to be a vital leader in the institutions in which she worked. She used her writing to further emphasize her social theories and get her voice out to the public world about the hypocritical ways of society. Nevertheless, Anna Julia Cooper was an activist who should not be discredited for her efforts and accomplishments. She ultimately believed in higher education for African Americans to achieve citizenship, as well as for women to hold a place of leadership in society. Anna Julia Cooper was an African American trailblazer and pioneer in the world education for all people.

[1] Brian Zollinhofer. “About Anna Julia Cooper.” Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School.

[2] Vivian M. May. “Writing the Self into Being: Anna Julia Cooper’s Textual Politics.” African American Review 43, no. 1 (2009): 17-34.

[3] Karen A Johnson. 2009. “Gender and Race: Exploring Anna Julia Cooper’s Thoughts for Socially Just Educational Opportunities.” Philosophia Africana 12, no. 1: 67-82. Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost

[4] Vivian M. May. “Writing the Self into Being: Anna Julia Cooper’s Textual Politics.” African American Review 43, no. 1 (2009): 17-34.

[5] Frances Richardson Keller. “An Educational Controversy: Anna Julia Cooper’s Vision of Resolution.” NWSA Journal 11, no. 3, Appalachia and the South: Place, Gender, Pedagogy (1999): 49-67.

[6] Ibid

[7] Anna Julia Cooper. “A Voice from the South.” Documenting the American South. 1892.

[8] Ibid

[9] THANDI V SULÉ. 2013. “Intellectual Activism: The Praxis of Dr. Anna Julia Cooper as a Blueprint for Equity-Based Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 23, no. 3: 211-229. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost

[10] Frances Richardson Keller. “An Educational Controversy: Anna Julia Cooper’s Vision of Resolution.” NWSA Journal 11, no. 3, Appalachia and the South: Place, Gender, Pedagogy (1999): 49-67.

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Anna Julia Cooper. “A Voice from the South.” Documenting the American South. 1892.

[16] THANDI V SULÉ. 2013. “Intellectual Activism: The Praxis of Dr. Anna Julia Cooper as a Blueprint for Equity-Based Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 23, no. 3: 211-229. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Anna Julia Cooper. “A Voice from the South.” Documenting the American South. 1892.

[20] Ibid

[21] THANDI V SULÉ. 2013. “Intellectual Activism: The Praxis of Dr. Anna Julia Cooper as a Blueprint for Equity-Based Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 23, no. 3: 211-229. OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost

[22] Frances Richardson Keller. “An Educational Controversy: Anna Julia Cooper’s Vision of Resolution.” NWSA Journal 11, no. 3, Appalachia and the South: Place, Gender, Pedagogy (1999): 49-67.

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

Intellectual Autobiography: African Diaspora in My Professional Work

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

African American history began to permeate my mind after I embarked on a Civil Rights tour through the South, the summer going into my junior year of high school. I began researching and writing about the history of the African American people. Then, I was acquainted with my biological family, and from there my interest in African studies began to expand. I was learning more about my family history and I was growing fascinated with the stories of my ancestors that I was hearing. I even set up accounts online with various genealogical websites to partake in my own research and I took a couple DNA samples to discover where my roots may have come from.

I always wanted to minor in African American studies. When I first came to Spelman College, I was introduced to the course and term African Diaspora. From there, my career goals and my interests began to shift. I am currently interested in becoming a genealogist and writing books and articles for journals. My main focus is on the African Diaspora and educating others on the various mixed races and cultures of the African Diaspora, while helping people discover themselves.

Before diving into the correlation between my professional interest and the influence that learning about the African Diaspora has had on me, it is important to recognize my personal view. I am of African descent, and because of that, I am a part of the African Diaspora; however, my culture is consisted of mixed ethnicities and races. I am not just African American: I am also Caucasian, Asian, and Native American. My Caucasian ancestry extends over much of Western Europe. My story includes all my ancestors and is not limited to my African ancestors. I do not condone slavery and the reasons as to why I am of mixed ancestry, but nonetheless, all my ancestors impacted some aspect of my life and for that I am thankful and grateful.

Becoming a genealogists sparked my interest after learning about my own ancestral stories. I was intrigued and felt an urge to hear other people’s stories. From watching documentaries on others finding their “roots” and watching Alex Haley’s mini-series, I wanted to know more and hear more about myself and other people. Due to my curiosity I partook in a couple DNA testing kits to pinpoint my ancestral origin. Prior to engaging in genealogical research I was fully devoted to African culture. I had no interest in anyone else’s culture because to my knowledge, their cultures didn’t include me. After taking my first DNA test I discovered I couldn’t have been more wrong. The results portrayed ancestral origins all over the globe, but I was confused; my family tree only implied African and European ancestry, but within my DNA I had ancestry in various regions of Asia as well. During my first year at Spelman College, I was enrolled in a course called: African Diaspora and The World (ADW), which helped me gain that understanding of my DNA, while also deepening my interest. I had no knowledge that slavery existed across the Indian Ocean. With this newfound awareness, I began to almost build my story. My African ancestors could have been slaves in Asian territories.

According to Gwyn Campbell, the Middle East was one of the earliest and had one of the greatest demands for slave labor in Asia. This explains my large ancestral population in the Caucus region. After experiencing that year of ADW I knew I definitely wanted to be a genealogist, especially for the black population because I believe that black people forget they too have a history that extends beyond Africa. Dark skin identifies skin color, but not the ancestral story behind it, which defines one’s culture.

Scholar Paul Gilroy works best with my ideology with my ideology when he states, “‘race,’ culture, nationality, and ethnicity which have a bearing on the histories and political cultures” (Gilroy 4) of people. In other words, all of these aspects play a defining role in people’s lives. Apparently, during the nineteenth century, “race” was just as commonly used as “culture”” is used now. Since then people are now accepting that people can be of one race but accept many cultures. Gilroy also mentions the unacceptability of the derogatory terms that plague people of mixed races:

Against this choice stands another, more difficult option: the theorisation of creolisation, métissage, mestizaje, and hybridity. From the viewpoint of ethnic absolutism, this would be a litany of pollution and impurity. These terms are rather unsatisfactory ways of naming the processes of cultural mutation and restless (dis)continuity that exceed racial discourse and avoid capture by its agents (Gilroy 2).

Gilroy best defines what I am about due to his in depth take on culture based on race, ethnicity, and nationality, and the incorporation of mixed races.

My DNA tests prove that I am beyond the absolute. I am more than just African. As a result of slavery, slave and master relations, and other reasons for migration, I have ancestry all over the world, and I am proud of that. My culture is not identifiable by a single name because I am my own melting pot. I appreciate my Asian ancestry and the accomplishments my Asian ancestors made. I believe they are the true discoverers of the Americas and gave me my Native American ancestry. I am proud for their brave sacrifices and kind hearts for helping the pilgrims and attempting fight to save their people and their land. From them, I believe I have a value for making use of everything. These native people didn’t waste the animal skins, meat, or bone, and today I try to preserve everything I buy and eat because I know out there, someone is going without. From my African ancestors, I took the value of voice. I have an appreciation for art forms such as song and dance and culinary; and my ancestors’ fight for freedoms give me the inspiration to speak up when I feel as though something is wrong or unjust. Lastly, my Caucasian ancestry. I was adopted to an Italian American family and from them, I value foods and a need for control in my own life. Within myself, I hold much appreciation for my oppressed ancestors, but I accept all of my ancestors for creating me and helping to define my culture.

In my professional career as a genealogist, I want to help others find themselves. I want to help them to discover their own unique cultures beyond the cultural limitations of absolutism. I would love to work with people of the African Diaspora to open up their minds to the stories that their ancestors made that may allow them to redefine their true selves in society. ADW has inspired me to look beyond what I know and I’ve created a story of my own and found a passion that I enjoy doing.

African American Resistance: Examples of Resistance by African American Individuals During the American Civil War

This is a paper I wrote during my studies at Simmons College.

Leading up to the War, outbreaks of resistance were intensifying. Just two years prior to the onset of the Civil War, the widow of former president James K. Polk observed the armed enslaved people on her Mississippi plantation barricading themselves in act of protest. That is just one example of uprisings occurring shortly before the Civil War broke. Several uprisings were reported in the Mid-Atlantic and surrounding states within the same year: West Virginia, Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, and North Carolina. The attack on Fort Sumter in 1861, provoked a group of enslaved African Americans and white co-conspirators in Mississippi to attempt an uprising with word of the Union troops arriving. Unfortunately, this uprising was halted as word got out, leading to the execution of at least forty enslaved people. While not much is detailed about the rebellions occurring during the Civil War, throughout its rage, reports of conspiracies and unrest continued until the eventual defeat of the Confederate States of America and the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all enslaved people from the bonds of slavery.[1]

Rebellions and resistance were always very difficult forms of resistance that had rare chances of true success. However, the Civil War empowered both enslaved and free African Americans. The War enabled them to find strength in a war that they saw as a chance to gain their freedom. Many African Americans fought for the Union army, lending their services to help combat the slavery of the South. Running away, as we know, is an act of resistance. Many enslaved African Americans ran from their plantations, and sometimes the Confederate Army, and joined Union troops. Others who ran, tried to escape to the North to live a life of freedom and away from the chains that tied them down to slavery. Other forms of resistance included poisoning food served to slave owners, slowing down production by feigning illness or breaking tools, or preaching about freedom at secret religious services that were held.[2] African American women were not afraid to help in the efforts of the Civil War and resistance. Some aiding in the movement of runaway enslaved persons, and some acting as spies for the Union army.

“On the most basic human level, slave resistance is an expression of individualism and autonomy that implies a degree of freedom still exists even within the most oppressive and labor regimes.”[3] Enslaved African Americans saw that freedom was achievable. Free people of color existed and were talked about. There was a self-awareness as well, that enslaved people knew that they were in fact human beings. This preempted the instilment that they were only ever going to be, and were only capable of being, slaves. As a result, rebellions and uprisings were inevitable. In fact, “some rebellious slaves were able to achieve self-emancipation through acts of resistance.”[4] While this was not heavily common in the United Sates, this was the case for many Caribbean islands. However, this did not stop enslaved African Americans within the United States from trying. “The true impact of slave revolt, however, existed not in the short-term achievement of specific goals, but in the ultimate disassembly of slavery itself. The potential for revolt and the consequential havoc that such events might affect played heavy upon the minds of all who stood to benefit from the perpetuation and maintenance of a slave-based society.”[5] This is essentially what led to the American Civil War: being a war between slavery and freedom of African Americans. Furthermore, enslaved African Americans saw the impact that revolts had, which is why revolts did not stop occurring when the Civil War broke, but more so intensified.

The American Civil War is a war that is still surrounded by much controversy. The Civil War began in April of 1861 and lasted about four years. Archival evidences support the understanding that the War was a result of the growth of slavery; however, the emphasized notion of the war was that it began as a result of states’ rights. Many factors went into the initial start of the War, but slavery was definitely the overarching reason. While the American Civil War concluded in the emancipation of all enslaved persons, the War is often remembered by the impact that death had on the nation and the subsequent narrative after the War ended. Yet, African American resistance is sometimes lost in conversations. Resistance, in this sense, refers to African Americans trying to end and escape the chains of slavery. Prior to the Civil War, the antislavery movement is very much discussed, particularly with the Underground Railroad and Northern abolitionists. However, the antislavery movement didn’t stop when the Civil War broke out. The way African Americans and co-abolitionists resistance shifted as the focus of attention was drawn to the war. Looking at specific types of resistance will demonstrate how African Americans continued to show their determination and desire to end slavery, but also provide more insight into other ways the African American community resisted, focusing on specific examples of resistance displayed by certain African American individuals.

The scholarship of African American resistance primarily focuses around the American Civil Rights Movement or the time period prior to the American Civil War. However, some works do hit on African American resistance during the Civil War in a broader lens: looking at riots through the 1800s or looking at women’s roles and how women resisted during the Civil War. In order to add to the scholarship and discuss resistance, I looked at specific African American individuals who during the American Civil War, exemplified various types of resistance: from Civil War soldiers to Union spies, African American men and women were courageous in their display of resistance as they were determined to achieve freedom for themselves and all African Americans.

Prior to the Civil War, African Americans united together to try to resist slavery. While riots and uprisings are the most commonly known and talked about forms of resistance, African Americans did not always resort to such outwardly violent ways to resist. Resistance was also done subtly in day to day work on plantations and through escape. Enslaved persons would break tools and feign illness to slow down the work process. Additionally, enslaved persons would attempt to runaway to the North and Canada to be free or assist in the Underground Railroad. Yet, violence was one form of resistance that often captured attention. An example of an individual who ran away, but also resorted to some extreme measures of resistance is Margaret Garner. Margaret Garner attempted to escape slavery with her children; however, she was caught. Prior to being captured she attempted to kill her children and successfully killed one. The self-harm and killing of children were large scale acts of resistance out of desperation. This types of resistance has been traced all the way back to the kidnapping of Africans and boarding them on ships to be brought to the Americas. These captured people would fling themselves or their children over board to escape the tortures that would have befallen them. Garner was one of many other enslaved people who felt as though death was better than freedom and that in death freedom was granted. Whether violent or passive, even with the onset of the American Civil War, resistance didn’t stop. In fact, the Civil War, in itself, is a large scale form of resistance. African Americans wanted to put an end to slavery. While some may have been content, the majority wanted to live a life of freedom and were willing to die trying.

This paper investigates African American resistance, looking at specific individuals and how their actions of resistance played out and effected their lives and the lives of the people around them, during the American Civil War. Looking at the War, I will explore the role African Americans played and how their actions were forms of resistance that impacted the War and, or, the cause to end slavery. I will look at slave narratives, diaries, and biographies of individuals who acted in ways of resistance and contributed to the cause. Primarily, nonetheless, reviewing the Civil War and the role African Americans played will open up the narrative and pave a way for a deeper discussion and look into African American contributions and their forms of resistance that aided both the War and the antislavery movement.

Again, and to reiterate, African Americans engaged in resistance practices against enslavement in all formats – from large to small and open rebellion to subtle mundane tasks. Over the years, open rebellions grew, but subtle resistance continued to thrive. African Americans such as Robert Smalls, Mary Bowser, Harriet Tubman, and many others were influential in the resistance during the American Civil War. These African Americans were courageous, brave, and strong as they broke through barriers of society and helped to advance the progress of the anti-slavery movement, and even the War. Each of these individuals displayed, more or less, acts of passive resistance that greatly influenced the way in which American society viewed African Americans. Robert Smalls went from being an enslaved person to Civil War hero, securing his freedom for he and his family. Mary Bowser was born into slavery, but found safety in the homes of abolitionists, and went on to become a Civil War spy for the Union. Both Harriet Tubman was born into slavery and was able to escape early on before the war. She was advantageous in the efforts of the antislavery movement and the advancement of the Union Army during the Civil War with her passive forms of resistance. Harriet Tubman continued to work as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, assisting in leading people away from slavery to freedom in the North. However, she was also an advocate for the antislavery movement and women’s rights, speaking at public engagements. During the Civil War, Tubman played integral parts in providing services for the Union troops.

At the start of the American Civil War, both Union and Confederate leaders feared that having African American troops would be a hindrance. For the Union, the fear stemmed from the imagination that African Americans wouldn’t be able to take up arms against white Confederate troops, preventing them from being considered as soldiers. For the Confederate, the fear was that regiment leaders wouldn’t be able to control African American soldiers and there might inner uprisings prevented the Confederates from enlisting African Americans. The possibility that being armed or desiring freedom would result in African Americans fleeing or uprising to escape to freedom was the overall concern on both parties.

People in the North, especially people within New England, wanted to enlist African Americans from the start of the war. President Abraham Lincoln was the one who was cautious and withheld permission. On 1 January 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. In response, the Confederates disregarded any white man who was “found serving in company with armed slaves.” Rather than being regarded “as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare” these white soldiers fighting alongside African Americans would be viewed “as criminals deserving death […]” While some Northerners felt the same way in this regards, General Robert Gould Shaw saw a value in utilizing African Americans.[6]

Shaw, who became General of the Massachusetts 54th and died during battle, saw that the use of African Americans as soldiers or more would bring the Civil War to a sooner end. Harriet Tubman utilized the use of runaway enslaved persons as spies to further the advancement of the North. African Americans could blend in as enslaved persons. The South neglected to realize that some African Americans were educated and would leave papers lying around that could be read, as exemplified by Mary Bowser.

It was July 1863, when an all-white Connecticut regiment ran into trouble when facing a strong Confederate opposition. James Island, South Carolina was the destination of the Confederate regiment. This was intended to be a prelude to seizing Charleston. Egerton takes the time to describe the battle and depicts the 54th Massachusetts Regiment as heroes. This encounter was definitely a turning point in many minds of Northern citizens who doubted or had speculations about the validity of enlisting African Americans.[7]

Mohammed Ali bin Said was born around 1836 in the Kingdom of Bornou, which is now part of Nigeria. Said was captured as a teen by slavers and taken to Turkey. In Turkey, one of his owners was a Russian general of Crimean war fame. Somehow, Said crossed the waters to New England, where he not only worked on whaling vessels, but also renamed himself Ned Hallowell. Hallowell was one of many sailors who joined the Massachusetts Colored Regiments. William Carney, a runaway slave, became another African American soldier for the Massachusetts Colored Regiments. He also became the first African American to win the Medal of Honor. Carney is occasionally referenced for his bravery in one of the1864 battles where he risked his life to retrieve the American flag from a fallen flag bearer.[8] Mohammed Ali bin Said demonstrated his pride in being an American and showed the nation that he was loyal. His actions, in a sense, demanded the respect of the nation for his bravery. This resistance is one that forces the nation to re-think the perspective of African Americans. Another such hero who also forces the nation to rethink their opinions on the loyalty and skills of African Americans, is Robert Smalls.

Robert Smalls, along with his wife and two children, were enslaved on a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. After years of being oppressed, bonded, and listening to the commands of a white man, Robert Smalls was fed up. He had, had enough. He wanted more for his family, especially his young children. Though he never experienced freedom, he knew it must be better than remaining a slave. The Civil War began in 1861, and while the causes of the Civil War across all levels of society were being disputed, slavery was definitely in the backs of many people’s minds. Robert Smalls was no different. Slavery was beginning to become a more centralized focus and freedom was becoming, somewhat, promising. In May of 1862, Robert Smalls, at the age of twenty-three, seized a Confederate steamer. He hid his wife and two children on board and gathered together a small crew. Smalls and his crew delivered the war vessel and the massive weaponry it carried to nearby Union forces. It was because of Smalls’ act of courage and bravery during his escape that made him a Union hero. The supplies he brought to them were truly beneficial. Smalls continued to fight for and with the Union Army. He made many accomplishments, including becoming the first black captain of an army vessel. At the same time, he forced the country to reconsider their opinions and views of African Americans. African Americans would, essentially, do just about anything for their freedom. As a result of this new view, President Abraham Lincoln’s hands were forced, and African Americans were allowed to enlist in the war efforts of the Union. A more satisfying moment in Smalls’ life, aside from achieving freedom for himself and his family, was likely when he purchased the home in which he and his mother had once been house slaves in.[9]

Robert Smalls enlisted the help of others in his escape plans, stole a Confederate Vessel, delivered it to Union troops, and then continued to fight in the War for the Union Army. Smalls’ success and bravery was successful in his resistance attempts. It is almost surprising that Smalls made the attempt to escape, for “men with families were also less inclined to run away.”[10] Smalls’ actions were all small forms of resistance that aided the War. Planning an escape and running away are relatively small acts of resistance. Smalls was resisting the system of slavery, but then he was also going further by enlisting the help of other enslaved persons and took his family. In this sense he was assisting in the escape from slavery for others. Resisting slavery in numbers, in this case, proved to be much more successful. He was methodic in his plan and tried to account for all possible errors, “Even if Smalls had been able to stow the women and children aboard the vessel without anyone noticing, he could not risk one of them making a sound that would draw attention to the Planter.”[11] Smalls wanted to ensure everyone’s safety in the escape. Taking control of the Planter, a Confederate military vessel, was a dangerous risk that if successful would benefit everyone involved. Taking the vessel was a huge act of resistance and its successful delivery to the Union troops greatly impacted the Union efforts.

As was aforementioned, slave escapes, aiding in slave escapes, and fighting in the war are all acts of resistance. Smalls went above and beyond when he high-jacked a Confederate vessel and delivered it Union troops. This type of resistance is one that supported the War because Union gained the advantage. The Union, while not initially declared, was fighting to put an end to slavery and by acquiring the vessel, the Confederates in Charleston, South Carolina were caught off guard. Smalls and his crew were able to help the Union defeat Charleston, and would go on to help in other battles. Becoming the first black captain of an army vessel, was an accomplishment and a resistance to the stereotype that white society created about African Americans. He was intelligent and he was a fighter. These qualities shifted the perspective of the nation in the attitudes towards African Americans. Robert Smalls essentially forced President Abraham Lincoln to permit African Americans to join the Union War efforts. The ability for African Americans to join in the war efforts didn’t only apply to African American men. African American women were very vital in the war efforts as well, and African American women played integral roles in the advancement of the war, as well as the antislavery movement as a whole.

There is an evolutionary role that African American women played during the Civil War. From being nurses to spies, women were actors of resistance. At the same time, rebellions were still occurring, and some of them had help from African American woman.  While there is much scholarship on the Civil War and African American soldiers, little scholarship has been written on African American women during the Civil War and the ongoing resistance and rebellions of African Americans outside of the combat produced by the War. With more exploration, the understanding of African American resistance of men and women can be further understood and the American Civil War can be revered as more than just a war between North and South; Union and Confederacy; slavery and anti-slavery, but a fight for freedom the very virtues that the American Constitution promises to uphold.

African American women were strong in their belief that it was their own natural right to be free. Often times, their desperation for freedom led them to drastic actions of resistance. “According to Ervin L. Jordan, Jr., ‘Afro-Virginian women initiated individual acts of resistance that demonstrated their capacity for ferocity. Poisonings, assaults, stabbings, arson, vandalism, escapes, and murders terrified and astounded Confederate Virginians.’”[12] It was not only African American Virginian women who engaged in these acts of resistance; African American women throughout the South participated in such defiance. The diaries of whites during this time period attest to such resistance. A prime example of desperation for freedom is Mill, who was an enslaved woman from Memphis. She recounts her story of escaping slavery to white abolitionist, Laura Haviland. Union soldiers were beginning to approach the plantation she resided on. Her master asked whether or not she would go with the soldiers and whether or not she would take her children with her. She responded honestly, admitting that if she got the chance she would go and she would take the children she had left. Unfortunately, her honesty caused her to lose her children. She was heartbroken over the loss of her children, but that didn’t stop her determination to reach freedom.[13]

Mill’s devotion and determination proved that “one of the greatest forms of resistance to their condition during the Civil War was African American women’s mere survival. Far too often the odds, physical as well as mental, were against them.”[14] African American women were forced to be strong. Some of them displayed a strong determination to achieve freedom, as exemplified by Garner earlier, by killing their children. In this sense, they had to believe that death was far better than being enslaved. In other manners, African American women helped to disrupt the plantation systems. Women were often ones to help start work stoppages by breaking the tools or burning down buildings. Additionally, women were more used to assist in spying, just as Mary Bowser did. African American women challenged the system of enslavement wreaking havoc and chaos on the plantations, distracting the white civilians, and even the government, at times from focusing solely on the War. Aside from War, they had to worry about uprisings or work stoppages, which would impact the supply of food and other materials needed to help the soldiers continue their fight.

During the Civil War, women were revered as sacred beings of purity. Women, especially women of the South, utilized this perspective for their advantage. Elizabeth Van Lew, a white abolitionist who moved to the South from the North, enlisted the help of African Americans, especially African American women, to help spy on the Confederates. Mary Bowser, Van Lew’s family’s servant, was one of the African American women who went undercover as an enslaved person aiding in the cause. During the early portion of the Civil War, women were not well respected in terms of intelligence and maintaining an opinion in political matters. Men would discuss things like politics and slavery around women, viewing them as mute beings, forgetting, or being ignorant of, the fact that women could and did formulate opinions and spoke up on how they felt. Some, as Van Lew did, would even act on such feelings. This same view translated to enslaved people. They were seen as objects and property. Many enslaved people were uneducated, so leaving behind writings or talking about sophisticated matters seemed mundane and trivial. This outlook led to many conspiracies and internal betrayal from the enslaved African Americans to the abolitionist and anti-war women living in the South. Espionage is a form of passive resistance that aided in war efforts on both sides. Looking at Mary Bowser, provides insight into how some African Americans aided in the advancement of Union victory through spying on Confederate government officials.

Van Lew was interested in Bowser because of her intelligence. “Van Lew had sent her to Philadelphia to be educated at the Quaker School for Negroes.”[15] Knowing that Bowser could read and write was vital in her plan. She had been actively looking “for further ways to spy on the Confederate government.”[16] Her plan was to have “Mrs. Bowser to help her spy, so she persuaded a friend to take Mrs. Bowser to assist at functions at Jefferson Davis’s mansion. Elizabeth cautioned Mrs. Bowser to pretend she was illiterate, so as not to arouse suspicion.”[17] The plan worked, and Bowser was then hired by the Davis family to be a servant. Resistance was not only a fight for African Americans, whites assisted African Americans in their struggle and fight. Van Lew aided the Union with information about the Confederates. Utilizing Bowser helped in deceiving the Confederate government. Bowser aided in the resistance movement by agreeing to act as a spy. She was able to get valuable information that Van Lew then fed to the Union. Their teamwork and successful infiltration of the Confederate’s plans helped in the advancement of the Union’s victory. Their resistance to end slavery changed the way women were viewed. The Confederate South was forced to change their perceptions of women and African Americans as a whole.[18]

Going back to just before the onset of the War, one major event that occurred and supplemented the tension that was already stirring was the attack on Harper’s Ferry. The air smelled of war. People talked that a war was brewing and it was beginning to seem as though this war was inevitable. In October of 1859, John Brown unsuccessfully tried to initiate a slave rebellion by seizing of the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. His failed effort led to his capturing and execution; however, the raid of Harper’s Ferry became a monumental event. The raid only further intensified the tension that was fermenting between the North and South. Interestingly, and not very well known, is Harriet Tubman’s contribution to the raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Harriet Tubman was born in 1820 on a plantation in Maryland. On a daily basis, she was beaten by those whom she was hired out to for her services. From an early age, she assisted in escape. In her early teens, working as a field hand, she defied her overseer’s commands of restraining another enslaved person and blocked the doorway so that the man could escape. In anger, the overseer through a weight at her head, breaking her skull and leaving her with severe life-long ailments. Yet, in 1844, she married a free black man and in 1849, her and her two brothers attempted to run away, yet it was unsuccessful. However, her second attempt to flee, alone, was a success. She quickly became eager to try and get her family out of slavery. Her interest led her to the well-organized, Underground Railroad, where she would later become a “conductor.”[19] Harriet Tubman’s work as a conductor for the Underground Railroad led to several warrants being issued for her capture. She excelled in the transportation of hundreds of enslaved persons to freedom in the North and to Canada. A $40,000 reward for her capture demonstrates how desperate Southern planters were to stop her success.[20] Her passive resistance abetted the antislavery movement. Yet, leading enslaved people to freedom was not all that she did to show her resistance.

Harriet Tubman was an advocate for the abolition of slavery. She had the respect of Frederick Douglas and was an ally to John Brown, the man responsible for the raid on Harper’s Ferry. She assisted Brown in recruiting supporters, both in numbers and financially. In fact, Tubman was such a great asset to Brown that she became known to him as “General Tubman.” Additionally, when the Civil War broke in 1861, she was very much a supporter of the Union Army, but had initially condemned President Lincoln for his inaction in the illegalization slavery. When African Americans were finally permitted – recognized nationally – to fight in the War, Tubman was the first woman to plan and lead an armed assault in the Civil War. She led a regiment of about three hundred African American “soldiers in a raid at Combahee Ferry, [South Carolina] and commanded the gunboats around Confederate mines in the river.” This attack occurred in 1863, and was very successful. Tubman and her regiment of Black soldiers won the battle and liberated roughly 756 enslaved individuals. She would go on to open and help operate, African American hospitals for the black soldiers fighting in the War.[21]

Harriet Tubman’s resistance greatly penetrated the efforts to continue slavery and the negative views that society had on African Americans. Harriet Tubman, in an affidavit she submitted to Congress petitioning for additional benefits – she was already receiving a widow’s pension for the death of veteran husband who served as a private in the Eight United States Colored Infantry, she outlines all of her services and responsibilities she did during the war that helped in the Union’s victory. Aside from leading an all African American regiment to victory and being a nurse, Tubman was also a scout, a cook, and a spy.[22] Just like Mary Bowser, Tubman also partook in espionage and gathered information that helped in the defeat of several battles, including the one that she led her black regiment at Combahee Ferry.[23] Her resistance efforts during the War, forced the nation to re-evaluate her influence and success. From leading enslaved persons to freedom to aiding the Union during the War, her resistance efforts didn’t go unnoticed and left the South and North awestruck, proved by the warrants for her capture and the Union’s continued efforts to work with her.

Tubman is one of several women who made an impact on the minds of many before, during, and after the American Civil War. While maybe not so influential by action, literary works documenting the voices of the enslaved or formerly enslaved were very pertinent, especially leading up to the War. In 1861, the same year that the War began, Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography was published and printed by white female abolitionist, Lydia Maria Francis Child. Jacobs’ book, a slave narrative in its own right, addresses issues of race and gender. She explores the struggles of being an enslaved woman: dealing with sexual abuse and motherhood, and the struggle to gain freedom for her and her children.

In two different instances, Jacobs brings to focus the real fear and horrendous treatment about her experience as an enslaved young woman. “I had not lived fourteen years for nothing. I had felt, seen, and heard enough, to read the characters, and question the motives, of those around me. The war of my life had begun; and though one of God’s most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered.”[24] Jacobs, at the mere age of fourteen, already understood her role in society and was fighting her own war within the entire system of slavery. She understood the sexual violence that could bequeath her, and she made an attempt to recognize those signs to not allow such a situation to occur. The sad reality of such violence came to fruition by analyzing the law, “no matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.”[25] To abuse a white woman sexually was punishable by death, but to abuse a black woman was almost mundane. To those residing in the North slavery by the time of the Civil War, was something far-removed. There was not witnessing of such behavior. Yet these words brought real insight in emotions into rethinking the morale of enslavement. With tensions already high and war breaking, Jacobs only assisted in the abolitionist movement in trying to persuade the Union nation to fight to put an end to such bigoted violence of slavery and the system surrounding it.

Harriet Jacobs’ book had ample examples of the sexual harassment and abuse that enslaved women endured. Her book “was one of the first open discussions about” this type of abuse, which was “a topic that even made many abolitionists uncomfortable.”[26] Jacobs’ words were a passive form of resistance in that they revealed the horrors of slavery and provided insight. Abolitionists utilized slave narratives to further their movement and provide examples as to why slavery needed to be stopped. Additionally, slave narratives showed society what was actually going on and allowed people to make their own interpretations. While they may not have converted people over to being abolitionists, people talked and questioned the morale of slavery.

Robert Smalls, Mary Bowser, Harriet Tubman, and Harriet Jacobs were just a few of the many African Americans who aided in both the antislavery movement and the American Civil War in favor of the Union. These individuals displayed passive forms of resistance that forced the nation and President Abraham Lincoln to reconsider their right to freedom and aid in war efforts. In 1862-1863, President Lincoln officially enabled African Americans to enlist in the War.

There are many resources that depict African Americans during the War, from historical analysis to primary sources such as: journals, manuscripts, newspapers, and more. Yet, not many scholars have tackled looking into resistance during the Civil War. Looking into the actions of African Americans and the African American community in the short years prior to the American Civil War and during, help to provide insight on how African Americans resisted slavery and the system that embodied it until the wars end. It demonstrates that the fight to end slavery did not end once the War began, but was rather was a driving force for more forms of resistance.

Robert Smalls and Mohammed Ali bin Said are two individuals with separate histories, who both proved themselves during the American Civil War. Ali bin Said demonstrated courage by retrieving the flag from a fallen soldier. The action of retrieving the flag depicts the resistance of the stereotype that society had placed on African Americans. Ali bin Said was not a danger to his comrades, but a willing participate willing to help fight for something he believed in. Robert Smalls was no different. He resisted the bonds of slavery by escaping and helping others to escape, while also aiding in Union advancements. He was determined to provide freedom for his family, which motivated him. He continued his progression not to prove a point to the nation, but to fight to put an end to the system of slavery. Along the way, his actions were demonstrations of resistance: resistance against slavery and resistance against societal stereotypes on African Americans. He was fearless in his passion. Stealing a Confederate war vessel and delivering it into the open arms of Union Troops and proceeding to assist the Union Army in their fight, were all subtle acts of resistance that surprised many. Smalls was a fighter and was willing to do anything in order to bring freedom to his family. On top of being determined and fearless, he was resilient, strong, brave, courageous, hopeful, proud, and considerate. These characteristics are some of the many that can be used to describe the African Americans who aided in the resistance movement to end slavery and help bring the Union to victory.

African American women played integral roles in the resistance against slavery. Enslaved African American women were strong in their belief as individual entities of the right to freedom, which often led them to commit drastic actions of resistance. Many of these women even initiated acts of resistance that demonstrated their seriousness and determination to show the bigotry of slavery and bring the system of slavery to an end. From poisoning slave masters to physical acts of violence towards whites to running away to killing their own children, women were strong, courageous, brave – resilient. Mills and Margaret Garner, though Garner occurred years earlier, desperately desired freedom and to some extent, were willing to lose their children in order to get it. In death, freedom was secured. In essence, a belief in a higher being gave women the hope and security that their children, in death, were free and safe from the chains of slavery. This resistance was spiritual, but led to the help of abolitionists who used these actions to depict the negative impact that slavery had on African Americans and African American families. Looking closer at specific African American woman shows their belief and the true vitality of African American woman during the cause. In conversation, men seem to dominate the sphere of Civil War, but African American men and women were equally important in bringing the Union to victory and putting a definitive end to slavery.

Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Bowser were resilient in that they both had the same end goal: to put an end to slavery and help the Union win. Van Lew, white abolitionist, was considerate, compassionate, and sympathetic. She saw slavery and the system as an injustice towards African Americans. She was creative in her ways to try to help the Union. It was her enlisting of the help of African Americans, one of them being Mary Bowser, that made her courageous. Courageous in the sense that she could get in trouble with the Confederate government. Mary Bowser was resilient, brave, courageous, hopeful, determined, and fearless. She could have turned Van Lew in at any moment, but she pushed forward. She stood her ground and was hopeful that her efforts would be enough. Together, they aided in the antislavery movement. They were able to make an impact by feeding the Union information about the Confederates. Additionally, Van Lew and Bowser allow us to see that women were influential in the resistance move and for the advancement of the American Civil War. We know women were often recruited as spies, documents and literature support that understanding. The way in which African American women resisted and participated is not always clear in educational understandings of the Civil War. Mary Bowser and Harriet Tubman are two examples of African American women who were spies for the Union, but had very different backgrounds, yet their belief in the cause to end slavery was the same. Their passive resistance allowed each to do their due-diligence and go unscathed.

Harriet Tubman, or General Tubman as she was otherwise known, was extremely influential in the resistance against slavery. Yet, her biggest motivation stemmed from her faith in God. Known as the “Black Moses,” Tubman accumulated a large bounty for her retrieval due to the many people whom she helped lead to freedom. Her passive resistance began as a slave on a plantation and grew. In her heart, she knew slavery was wrong and needed to be stopped. She resisted slavery in the many slave escapes she helped facilitate and by assisting John Brown. She only intensified her resistance efforts when the War broke. From leading a black regiment to victory in South Carolina to her work as a Union spy, Harriet Tubman displayed true resilience, courage, bravery, compassion, and much more. Tubman’s resistance continues to be monumentally recognized and her determination helped lead to much success in providing freedom to all African Americans, especially with her efforts during the American Civil War.

Harriet Jacobs passively resisted slavery. She methodically found ways to try and refute the sexual advances of her slave master and she ran away and was able to reunite with her children later. She had intellect. She was able to understand the fears and dangers of being a black woman and that sexual abuse was very plausible. In order to combat that, she made sure she could recognize the signs and took the steps to try and prevent such abuse from occurring. When she saw her chance, she made her escape. At the same time, she ensured her children were taken care of and then once free, she sent for them. She struggled, but with determination she overcame the obstacles of achieving freedom. Her book is its own testimony to the horrors of slavery and highlights the true ill-morale of the slave system.  Her experience as an enslaved women showed her strength, but she never wavered from that longing to be free. Her resistance was subtle. Unfortunately, not all women were able to escape physical abuse, but that didn’t stop them from seeking freedom or trying to resist slavery, even on a plantation. Slave narratives, like Jacobs’, were essential to the antislavery movement because they depicted the harsh life of being an enslaved person. These subtle forms of resistance greatly impacted the antislavery movement because it recruited many abolitionists who were willing to speak up and help terminate to slavery.

Apparently, some 180,000 African Americans ended up fighting in the Union army. I would not be surprised if that number was higher and didn’t count the number of enslaved people in the South that acted as spies. Even still, the bravery that the African American community exhibited, did not bring about equal treatment for them. This included pay. There was a disparity in how white Union troops were paid compared to African American Union troops, with African Americans receiving the short end of the coin, but they continued to fight. The American Civil War can definitely be remembered as a war of bravery, courage, and strength for the African American community and how without their resilience, the Civil War may not have ended in the outcome that it did.

Although the American Civil War began in the spring of 1861, it was not until around 1862-1864 that African Americans were nationally recognized by the Union as viable soldiers. The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery, sparked “abolitionists to begin to call for the raising of black regiments”[27] Massachusetts was the first state to in the North to organize an all-African American regiment. The Massachusetts 54th regiment was the first African American regiment organized, and then Massachusetts went on to establish several more African American regiments, each witnessing their own victories and successes during the War. Many of the Union victories in South Carolina during the War seemed to have been fought by African Americans in an act of slave resistance. This was exemplified in the specific accounts of Robert Smalls and Harriet Tubman, as well as the all-black regiment of Connecticut. The fight to end slavery was a huge motive for African Americans, but their faith in God was another factor in how they chose their resistance methods. Even when they realized they were being treated unfairly, they may have boycotted their wages, but they continued to fight. The resistance to end slavery was a far greater need. Stopping the fight was absurd. Freedom was possible; it was attainable.

The contribution of African Americans during the American Civil War is a heroic display of resistance to the enslavement of their people and the system that encompassed it. From Civil War soldiers to runaways to killing their children to riots and uprisings to the subtle acts by the enslaved people, the African American community banded together to show their desperation and resisted the system of slavery. Their efforts did not go unnoticed. The Civil War was the catalyst and the consequential force driven by antislavery advocates and resistance attempts. The war had already been going on, just not at a national level. With tensions high and uprisings only getting more violent, the American Civil War was indeed inevitable. Resistance of slavery by African Americans pushed for the War and during the War, advanced Union efforts and secured a victory; paving the way for freedom from slavery and creating new reasons to resist.

[1] Staff, “Slave Rebellions,”, 2009.

[2] Smithsonian National Museum of American History, “Resistance,” National Museum of American History, May 13, 2015.

[3] Rodriguez, Junius P., Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, 2007.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Egerton, Douglas R., Thunder at the Gates, 2016.

[7] Egerton, Douglas R., Thunder at the Gates, 2016.

[8] Ibid

[9] Lineberry, Cate, Be Free or Die, 2018.

[10] Lineberry, Cate, Be Free or Die, 2018.

[11] Ibid

[12] Forbes, Ella, African American Women During the Civil War, 1998.

[13] Forbes, Ella, African American Women During the Civil War, 1998.

[14] Ibid

[15] Van Lew, Elizabeth, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew, Edited by David D. Ryan, 2001.

[16] Ibid

[17] Van Lew, Elizabeth, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew, Edited by David D. Ryan, 2001.

[18] Ibid

[19] Eolis, Sharon. “John Brown Called Her ‘General Tubman’.” Workers World. March 21, 2013.

[20] Ripley, Peter. “Harriet Tubman.” Documenting the American South. 1992.

[21] Eolis, Sharon. “John Brown Called Her ‘General Tubman’.” Workers World. March 21, 2013.

[22] “Claim of Harriet Tubman.” National Archives and Records Administration.

[23] Allen, Thomas B. Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent, 2009.

[24] Jacobs, Harriet A., Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1988.

[25] Ibid

[26] “Harriet Jacobs.” PBS.

[27] Egerton, Douglas R., Thunder at the Gates, 2016.

Black Consciousness: Understanding Not All Were Enslaved

This is a paper I wrote during my studies at Simmons College.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.[1]

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.[2]

Following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, were the 1865 thirteenth amendment and the 1868 fourteenth amendment to uphold the orders of the proclamation. Nevertheless, these laws came long after the colonization of the United States and did little to ensure security for both already free and newly free African Americans. Some people of African heritage were able to experience more than what these laws provided prior to the onset of the Civil War. In The Fire Next Time (1963), James Baldwin’s uncle advises that Baldwin “Please try to remember that what they [white Americans] believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.” Although James Baldwin and his uncle were talking about segregation and racism, racism has been the foundational element of slavery and these words are significant in trying to understand the society of free blacks before the Civil War. There were many European Americans who were not open to the idea of free African Americans and tried to discourage it in their own way; however, these free blacks were strong and stood together to hold on to their freedom. Growing up in school, we are often not taught about the history of free African Americans prior to 1865 and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Essentially, although slavery in the United States existed until 1865, not all African Americans were enslaved and some blacks were never enslaved.

Blacks were one of the three essential groups of people in the building of the Americas. According to historian Kathleen A. Deagan, the “first people of African heritage who came to the Americas were free,” and that some of these free blacks were “soldiers, conquistadors, sailors, and wives.”[3] Anthony Dixon is one of the few historians who emphasized that people of African heritage were primarily seafarers as early as the 1400s and were helpful to the Europeans in navigating Africa’s west coast, as well as the Americas. From this we are able to begin to formulate an understanding that many free blacks assisted in European life and conquests. Some of them were skilled workers and artisans, including working as shopkeepers, and these free blacks were not only hard laborers, as is portrayed when talking about slavery in the Americas. While free blacks assisted in the on-going life of, and conquests for land for, the Europeans, it is more important to note that during this time, free blacks were just like other settlers, seeking a better life for themselves and owning property. Juan Garrido, known for introducing wheat to North America and for aiding Juan Ponce de Leon with one other free person of African heritage and accompanying Hernán Cortés, and Juanillo, known for being an interpreter and assisting Pedro Menendez, are just two examples of the many free blacks who came and settled in North America. Women of African heritage were also essential, and were both free and skilled workers. In 1598, the first hospital in North America was built: the hospital of Santa Barbara in St. Augustine. What many may not be aware of is that the first nurse of the hospital was a free woman of African heritage.[4] Though we hear a lot about Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, St. Augustine, formerly part of Spanish “La Florida,” precedes both Plymouth Rock and Jamestown in the colonization of the United States. The Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine is the home to the United States’s oldest documents, which provide some insight on the United States’s first colony and its multiethnic society. Some of these documents include marriage records between Europeans and people of African heritage – interracial marriages; the documents also include baptism records for both free blacks and indigenous people. Since the early days of the colonization of the Americas (mainly North America) to the end of the Civil War, free blacks have existed and there were large populations of free African American communities.

There once existed an underground railroad that headed due south. In this Southern establishment, free people of color roamed society and were successful. Escaped enslaved people of African heritage from the British North, were able to get a sense of confidence in seeing people who looked like them being successful working as farmers, entrepreneurs, and most importantly, reaping the benefits of their own labor. Established in 1738 near St. Augustine, Florida, Fort Mosé – or Grace Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé – is considered to be the first legally authorized free black town in the United States, and was molded by former enslaved Africans from the British colonies who were able to manipulate the prolonged Anglo-Spanish battle for that particular territory and gain their freedom.[5] In Spanish Florida, society for these free blacks was wholesome. Unlike the British colonies, where their lives were constantly at risk, these free blacks could participate in society like the other Spanish settlers, and thus a unique Creole culture was born because Fort Mosé was just a town, not an isolated community, and the free blacks of Fort Mosé were welcome to go to different towns and work. The free blacks of Fort Mosé were able to establish a sense of community, culture, and identity, as well as provide their labor and military services, valuable knowledge and skills, acquired from either their life back in Africa or as enslaved people in the British, for the Spanish colony as a whole.[6] From the first group of escaped enslaved blacks in 1687 to St. Augustine to about 1738, more than one-hundred fugitive enslaved blacks had made their way to St. Augustine. As a result, governor Manuel de Montiano made the, now, free blacks a military company and stationed them at what is now known today as Fort Mosé. The incentive to escape and find freedom in Spanish Florida came from a policy granted by King Charles II of Spain. The 1693 policy granted runaways religious sanctuary. King Charles II of Spain was trying to encourage other empires to also remove the chains of freedom and grant blacks their freedom, for the Spanish were already including Africans in various levels of their society, which stemmed from the Moorish occupation that extended over seven-hundred years and resulted in a mixed nation: racially and ethnically.[7] King Charles II of Spain’s policy fundamentally acted as the first civil rights act for free blacks living in Spanish Florida. Spanish Florida provided a sense of home and was able to live as a diverse society, welcoming all. Unfortunately, British colonies disliked this growing free black community and in 1740, the British attempted to attack Fort Mosé, whose militia men were aware of their advances: siege of Fort Mosé, or Battle for bloody Mosé. This battle would historically be, for the most part, the first major battle to which the British Army would lose in the Americas.[8] The free blacks were determined to keep their freedom and the Spanish were willing to help, and thus ended this battle in victory. The victory, didn’t last much longer. Trying to keep their hold on their freedom would fear a much tougher task, as the Spanish began losing control of their Spanish Florida and by the early 1800s, Spanish Florida had lost control and the territory became that of the United States – just forty-four years short of the end of the Civil War.[9] While Fort Mosé, during its existence, was comforting and home to many free blacks, long before Fort Mosé, Spanish Florida was accepting of people of African heritage as free and many of them helped the Spaniards to pioneer in the exploration of the lands of the Americas.

Many free blacks from Seville, Spain and other places, traveled to the “New World.” Records supporting this notion can be found at the Spanish Casa de Contratación (House of Commerce). While a number of free blacks came westward, not all of them did and nor did they all stay. While discussing free blacks in America, it should be noted that some of the free blacks that at one time settled in Spanish Florida, returned to Seville in the mid- to late-1600s creating a sort of counter migration. Some of these free blacks returned home in order to maintain commercial contacts, not always, with the East Indies and also find ways to invest their newly found wealth.[10] It is also possible that the impeding British reign, as aforementioned with the attack on Fort Mosé, sent fear to some of the free blacks living in New Spain and rather than wait to see what becomes of their fate, they took it upon themselves to flee and return to a society where they knew being black and free were acceptable. However, this is all just speculation and not at all a confirmation as to why some of the free blacks of the Americas returned to Spain.

One of the free blacks who made his way to the Americas and called it home, was Juan Garrido. While it is unclear of when exactly Juan Garrido arrived in the Americas, it has been assumed that he journeyed westward in roughly 1510. Records show that in 1510, a Spaniard by the name of Pedro Garrido, came to Santo Domingo with his family and later joined Cortés in the conquest of Mexico. From our understanding of slavery, we know that slave owners often bequeathed their enslaved people with their surname. It is unclear if Juan Garrido was ever enslaved, but it is probable that he and Pedro Garrido had some type of relationship, even if that were just an apprenticeship.[11] Juan Garrido was “black in color”[12] and was of “his own free will.”[13] From current understanding, Juan Garrido crossed the Atlantic waters as a free black man and participated in the 1521 fall of Tenochitlan, as well as other conquests and explorations. He even sought to be an entrepreneur. With his enslaved natives and blacks, he went off in search of gold, and became a citizen of the Spanish fragment of Mexico City. Juan Garrido, nevertheless, was not the only black conquistador, nor free black conquistador. Spanish’s armed auxiliary of African heritage ranged in men who may have been African-born enslaved people to Iberian-born free men of mixed ancestry. Those who were enslaved, often acquired freedom soon after fighting in conjunction with the Spaniards, only if they had not already been given their freedom beforehand. From records, it appears as though very few black conquistadors maintained slave status once they participated in a conquest.[14] Looking at black conquistadors, provides insight on how free blacks were truly viewed and accepted in society. There was not only trust, but a bond, between people of African heritage and the Spaniards. Both free blacks and the Spaniards were willing to sacrifice themselves for one another. This bond was proven in the abovementioned battle at Fort Mosé. This bond allowed free blacks to hold citizenship and relationships of any kind, as seen in the records of the Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine.

My own interest in trying to understand freedom for blacks prior to the Civil War stemmed from my lack of information readily available on this topic through my educational career. When learning about the colonial period of British North America, there seemed to be an absence in the comprehension that with European settlers came freedom and servitude for blacks. Slavery was also in existence, but for the first couple years, Europeans tried to enslave the native indigenous people of the land. St. Augustine, predates Jamestown and Plymouth Rock and is rarely mentioned in talking about African American history, and more importantly, the role it played in freedom for African Americans. However, free blacks did not only exist in St. Augustine and Spanish America. The British colonies of North America was also home to free people of African heritage, who, some, engaged in the social economic practice of owning enslaved people.

The first slave owner in the colonial United States was a free black man. In early colonial period, looking specifically at the early 1600s, prior to 1655, slaves did not exist in colonial British North America, instead there were indentured servants. In 1619, Anthony Johnson was brought over as an indentured servant from modern-day Angola to a tobacco farm in Jamestown.[15] Indentured servitude usually lasted seven years, but Anthony Johnson was able to acquire his freedom within three years of landing in colonial Virginia.[16] As a released person of African heritage, Anthony Johnson was entitled to some land, about fifty acres. Indentured Europeans were later entitled to enslaved blacks and some land. Anthony Johnson would go on to marry a black female servant, Mary.[17] The marriage was legal, during this time in colonial British North America, free blacks were able to have legal marriages. He and his wife ran a successful farm of their own and by 1651, he not only was a property owner of about 250 acres, but also had five indentured servants. It would be 1655, when Anthony Johnson would become the first free black man and slave owner in colonial British North America. His indentured servant, John Casor was at the end of his servitude, but Anthony Johnson was trying to extend his time. Unwilling to stay as an indentured servant any longer than he had to, he left to work for a white man by the name of Robert Parker. Robert Parker was sued by Anthony Johnson in 1654 in a Northampton Court. The court ruled in Anthony Johnson’s favor in 1655, that John Casor would work for Anthony Johnson indefinitely. The judicial sanction in place was that free blacks could own enslaved people of their own race. It would not be until 1670, when free whites, blacks, and natives acquired the right to own enslaved people of African heritage. Yet, the fear of “Negro insurrection” prompted the Virginia Colonial Legislature to attempt to deport free blacks back to Africa. Those who chose to stay were at risk of enslavement.[18] Both Sierra Leone and Liberia are two African nations established for the repatriation of free blacks from the Americas. However, not all free blacks left or were enslaved, and many free blacks thrived in, what would become, the United States. Statistics show that by 1830 there were roughly 3,775 free black families who owned enslaved people of African heritage living in the South and by 1860, there were roughly 3,000 enslaved people of African heritage who were owned by free black families just in New Orleans alone.[19] Anthony Johnson and his family were among the many free blacks who thrived and Anthony Johnson would die a free man.

Many free people of African heritage bought relatives who were enslaved to white slave owners. In some states, free blacks could not manumit any enslaved person, as a result, some of these free people of color were slave owners of their own relatives.  While some of these free people of African heritage became slave owners as a result of trying to protect their families, this was not the case for all. The majority of free black slave owners were unaware of the dehumanization that slavery played on people of African heritage. This resulted from these free black slave owners that were born to free black parentage.[20] Nevertheless, free black communities continued to grow and prosper, and the roles of the free people of African heritage in society, as well as how they were treated, differed from state to state. While Louisiana held the largest population of free people of African heritage in the deep South, Baltimore, Maryland had a growing community of free blacks and was the largest of any city in the United States.[21][22] No matter how large or how small the free black communities were, they each seemed to have one foundational element in their strength and unity: church. In According to scholar, Christopher Phillips, the introduction of independent black churches in the city of Baltimore provided a “spiritual and psychological bedrock on which to construct the social foundation of a community.”[23] While Baltimore’s churches were creating spiritual unity, the churches of New Orleans were going against the grain and providing sanctioned marriages for their free people of African heritage: “free blacks lived as husband and wife.”[24] The churches of the free blacks paved a way for the formation of societies and organizations of free blacks. Both churches and organizations led to the people of the North, starting with the Quakers, to realize and talk about the inhumanity of slavery. Sojourner Truth preached about her time as an enslaved person and how she was treated. She wasn’t the only one, but she was an advocate. The people of the North heard these stories, abolitionists arose; whites and free blacks banded together. In Connecticut, a slave owner saw that fighting for liberty and owning slaves was, basically, hypocritical and freed his enslaved people.[25] Free black communities not only provided a sense of community, but stood as a symbol for the humanity of people of African heritage. Free black communities united in ways that would enable them to continue to live in their segregated free communities. Their devotion to maintain their free status and try to further progress the notion of freedom for people of African heritage, was greatly influenced by the 1804 takeover of Haiti, where people of African heritage revolted on the Europeans and were able to declare Haiti as a Black Republic. For both enslaved and free people of African heritage in the United States, Haiti represented a land of hope. Esteemed leader of New York City’s black community once said, “You are going to a good country…where a dark complexion will be no disadvantage; where you will enjoy true freedom…”[26] For many free African Americans, Haiti wood stand as a home that enabled liberty and justice, and most importantly, citizenship and equality. An exodus from the United States to Haiti was the mission, despite any true knowledge as to how life really was in Haiti. Regardless of the reality of how life was like in Haiti, it continued to be a powerful image for the free people of African heritage in the United States as an independent Black nation.[27] As black independence grew so did the desire to achieve freedom and rights that protected their freedoms, and so began the United States Civil War.

In Frederick Douglass’s book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), he includes a letter he received from Wendell Phillips, Esq, in which Phillips writes: “They say the fathers, in 1776, signed the Declaration of Independence with the halter about their necks. You, too, publish your declaration of freedom with danger compassing you around. In all the broad lands which the Constitution of the United States overshadows, there is no single spot, –however narrow or desolate, –where a fugitive slave can plant himself and say, ‘I am safe.’”[28] Phillips is acknowledging that even though Frederick Douglass is free, he is not safe from the bonds and chains of slavery. Although free blacks existed in the United States prior to the Civil War, not all were safe in society. Solomon Northup is one example of many who was a free black man who, unfortunately, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Fortunately for Solomon, after twelve years he was able to regain his freedom. From analyzing the life of free blacks in both Spanish Florida and the early colonial period of British North America, we can see that as slavery became the law of the land, freedom became harder to achieve and even more harder to maintain. From the first documented battle in which free people of African heritage attempted to defend their freedom to enslaved people of African heritage trying to escape to achieve the desirable autonomy that freedom provided, we see that people of African heritage were willing to do anything to maintain, or get, their status of freedom. Solomon Northrup writes “Life is dear to every living thing; the worm that crawls upon the ground will struggle for it.”[29] Some people of African heritage came to the United States willingly – free – and later, in Spanish Florida, had to make decisions that would affect the future of their status. On the other hand, some people of African heritage came as indentured servants who would sometimes find freedom, as Anthony Johnson did; however, as laws and society changed, their freedoms would become endangered. The communities of free blacks relied on one another even more to protect their independences. Prior to the onset of the Civil War, free blacks lived in society both in the South and in the North. Depending on where they lived, their roles in society varied, but their existence as free blacks were still valid. Despite the little informational resources readily available about free blacks when learning about the era of slavery and the early colonial period of the United States, – essentially, life before the Civil War –, free blacks in the United States still existed and, more importunately, played integral roles in the societies that they lived in.

[1] “United States of America 1789 (rev. 1992),” Constitute.

[2] Ibid

[3] “America’s Untold Journey” 450 Years of the African American Experience.

[4] “America’s Untold Journey” 450 Years of the African American Experience.

[5] Kathleen A. Deagan and Jane Landers. “Fort Mose: Earliest Free African-American Town in the United States,” in “I, too, am America”: Archaeological Studies of African-American life.

[6] Jane Landers. “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida,” The American Historical Review 95, no. 1 (February 1990): 9-30.

[7] Darcie MacMahon and Kathleen Deagan. “Legacy of Fort Mose,” Archaeology 49, no. 5 (Sept. & oct. 1996): 54-58.

[8] Kathleen A. Deagan and Jane Landers. “Fort Mose: Earliest Free African-American Town in the United States,” in “I, too, am America”: Archaeological Studies of African-American life.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ruth Pike. “Sevillian Society in the Sixteenth Century: Slaves and Freedmen,” in The Hispanic American Historical Review Review 47, no. 3 (August 1967): 344-59.

[11] Peter Gerhard. “A Black Conquistador in Mexico,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 58, no. 3 (August 1978): 451-59.

[12] Francisco A. de Icaza. Diccionario Autobiográfico de Conquistadores y Pobladores de Nueva Espanã.

[13] Ibid

[14] Matthew Restall. “Black Conquistadors: Armed Africans in Early Spanish America,” The Americas 57, no. 2 (October 2000): 171-205.

[15] “Blacks Were Not Only Slaves.” Journal of Civil War Medicine 17, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 71.

[16] “Anthony Johnson, Free Negro, 1622.” The Journal of Negro History 56, no. 1 (January 1971): 71-76.

[17] “Blacks Were Not Only Slaves.” Journal of Civil War Medicine 17, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 71.

[18] Ibid

[19] “Blacks Were Not Only Slaves.” Journal of Civil War Medicine 17, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 71.

[20] Larry Koger. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina 1790-1860.

[21] Laura Foner. “The Free People of Color in Louisiana and St. Domingue: A Comparative Portrait of Two Three-Caste Slave Societies,” Journal of Social History 3, no. 4 (Summer 1970): 406-30.

[22] Christopher Phillips. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860.

[23] Christopher Phillips. Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860.

[24] Kimberly Hanger. Bounded lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803.

[25] James Oliver and Louis E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860.

[26] Leslie Alexander. “”The Black Republic” The Influence of the Haitian Revolution on Northern Black Political Consciousness, 1816-1862,” in African Americans and the Haitian Revolution Selected Essays and Historical Documents.

[27] Ibid

[28] Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

[29] Solomon Northup. Twelve Years a Slave.