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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Enslavement

Slide Show, former slaves interviewed in the Federal Writers' Project
- Slaves' resistance, selections from WPA narratives, 1930s (PDF)
- Nelly's "noble resistance," in Frederick Douglass narrative, 1855 (PDF)
- Free blacks on slave rebellion, four documents, 1843-1858 (PDF)

Slaveholders demanded total obedience and self-degradation from their human property. Yet, as we are reminded by historian Colin A. Palmer, "unconditional submission was, understandably, not easily achieved. In fact, it was an ideal that most slaveowners never attained, because their often defiant chattel refused to grant it."1 How did enslaved people refuse to submit unconditionally? By refusing to cry out or plead for mercy when whipped (risking more punishment by publicly defying the master). By fighting back to thwart a beating or killing oneself to end all beatings. By working slowly, disobeying an order, killing the master's pet, rowing fugitives across the Ohio River to freedom.

Resistance was often indirect—praying in secret for freedom or Union victory, learning to read and write, communicating through code words and songs, telling the slaveholder what he wanted to hear and informing other slaves of one's deception. Some acts that we call "resistance" were necessities in the slaves' perspective, such as stealing food when given inadequate rations or bringing food to a relative hiding in the woods. Running away was one form of resistance, of course, which we consider in the next section (#8: Runaways).

Although acts of resistance might enhance an enslaved person's sense of autonomy, the consequences were dire. Facing a life of servitude, one had to decide the extent of resistance one would risk. For many, such as Delia Garlic, resistance meant simple endurance: "Us jest prayed fer strength to endure it to de end. We didn't 'spect nothin' but to stay in bondage till we died."

  1. Slaves' resistance. The first text is a collection of thirty-four brief excerpts from the narratives of former slaves compiled during the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They present the range of resistance from practical jokes and coded warnings to murder and suicide. Note each narrator's tone while recounting these events of decades earlier.

  2. Nelly's "noble resistance." In this selection from his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass recounts the "noble resistance" of an enslaved woman named Nelly who, while being whipped for "impudence," never ceases to struggle and curse her tormenter. "He had bruised her flesh," Douglass says, "but had left her invincible spirit undaunted."

  3. Free blacks on slave rebellion. A final and often desperate form of resistance was the organized slave conspiracy. Over two hundred slave uprisings were planned in colonial America and the United States (many discovered before their implementation), as estimated by historian Herbert Aptheker,2 including the well-known conspiracies led by Gabriel Prosser (Virginia, 1800), Denmark Vesey (South Carolina, 1822), and Nat Turner (Virginia, 1831). (See Supplemental Sites below for primary documents related to these and other slave uprisings.)

    Here we consider the issue of violent rebellion as debated by free African Americans in the North. Should they encourage the enslaved to take up arms against their owners? If fighting for freedom was the slave's only hope, was it then reasonable—or ethical—to urge group violence and insurrection? And, in any case, how could they communicate their decisions to the enslaved? The four texts are (1) Henry Highland Garnet's "Call to Rebellion" address of 1843, (2) Willis Hodges's 1849 editorial "Slaves of the South, Now is Your Time!," (3) the 1850 "Letter to the American Slaves" of the Cazenovia [New York] Fugitive Slave Act Convention, probably written by Frederick Douglass, and (4) the debate in the 1858 State Convention of Massachusetts Negroes on a proposal to urge southern slaves to "create an insurrection." Notice the growth in support, albeit reluctant, for violent resistance, especially after 1850. "The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850," writes historian Paul Finkelman, "changed the minds of many of those committed to nonviolence and moved most African Americans toward the position proclaimed by Garnet in the early 1840s."3

Consider these readings with those in Master/Slave (#6) and in the Fugitives section of Theme III: COMMUNITY. (14 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. In what ways did slaves resist the authority of their owners?
  2. How did some resist the self-definition of "slave"?
  3. What acts and attitudes of invisible subversiveness did slaves pursue? How did they create a separate world on the plantation?
  4. When did slaves consider their acts of resistance as successes or failures? What criteria did they use to decide?
  5. How do you evaluate these acts of resistance, and what criteria do you apply? Situational context? Ethical considerations? Final outcome?
  6. Was the lack of direct resistance a personal failure of a slave?
  7. What does Douglass mean, in his account of Nelly's "noble resistance," that a slave can become "in the end a freeman, even though he sustain the formal relation [status] of a slave"?
  8. What forms of nonviolent slave resistance were recommended by northern free African Americans?
  9. In what situations did they argue that slaves were justified in stealing from their owners? killing their owners?
  10. What arguments did they present to support or oppose slaves' use of violence? of armed rebellion?
  11. How did they refer to the American Revolution to justify slave rebellion?
  12. How would the former slaves, interviewed in the 1930s, respond to Garnet's criticism of slaves who "tamely submit"? to Remond's charge that unrebellious slaves were "half-way fellows"?
  13. How would they respond to Willis Hodges's assertion that slaves "have nothing to lose, and everything to gain" by striking (refusing to work)?
  14. For what audience did northern free blacks intend their calls for rebellion, since they knew few slaves would learn of their speeches and debates about slave rebellion?
  15. What impact did they intend for their audience? How might the reactions have varied? (The 1850 "Letter to the American Slaves" was published and also read in Congress.)
  16. Why did the proposals to encourage insurrection fail in the 1843 National Convention of Negro Men and the 1858 State Convention of Massachusetts Negroes?
  17. What disagreements about slave rebellion are apparent in the Letter to the American Slaves published by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Convention?
  18. Compare the free blacks' debate about slave rebellion with the debate among twentieth-century black activists about effective protest in The Making of African American Identity, Vol. III, Theme III: PROTEST.
  19. List these actions recommended by northern free blacks in an order you choose (most to least effective, justifiable, etc.). State your criteria in advance.
  20. What acts and attitudes of resistance are represented in the runaway ads in #8: Runaways? in the former slave narratives in #6: Master/Slave?

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslavement in America affect Africans and their descendants?
  •  How did enslaved peoples maintain selfhood in the slave-master relationship?
  •  What aspects of slavery did freed men and women emphasize when relating their experiences?
  •  How did a person respond to being the slave of another?
  •  What impact did slavery have on white people?

Slaves' resistance:  8   (WPA narratives)
Nelly's "noble resistance":  2   (Frederick Douglass narrative)
Free blacks on slave rebellion:  4   (Four documents)
TOTAL 14 pages
Supplemental Sites
Responses to Enslavement, in Slavery and the Making of America (WNET/PBS)

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855, full text in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library)

Henry Highland Garnet, "Call to Rebellion" address, 1843, full text in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS)

Letter to the American Slaves, Cazenovia [New York] Fugitive Slave Act Convention, probably written by Frederick Douglass, 1850, excerpts in this Toolbox, in Theme III: COMMUNITY

WPA Slave narratives, 1930s, full text in digital images, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman A. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

On slave uprisings, documents and scholars' commentary in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS) On slave uprisings, documents in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York) General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

1 Colin A. Palmer, Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America, Vol. I: 1619-1863 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2002), p. 62.

2 Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943).

3 James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, "A Federal Assault: African-Americans and the Impact of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850," in Paul Finkelman, ed., Slavery and the Law (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), p. 154.

Images: Cato Carter, William Colbert, Delia Garlic, and Carter J. Jackson, former slaves interviewed in the Federal Writers' Project, WPA, 1936-1938. Photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

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1. An Enslaved Person's Life   2. Sale   3. Plantation   4. Driver
  5. Labor   6. Master/Slave   7. Resistance   8. Runaways

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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