Students will understand that enslaved people resisted slavery in ways that ranged from violence to smaller, everyday means of asserting their humanity and opposing the wishes and interests of their enslavers. Maps to Key Concepts 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 & 10
What else should my students know?
13.A Violent rebellions by enslaved people were rare in continental North America. Unlike in the British Caribbean, where violent uprisings were more common, enslaved people in British North America and the United States were outnumbered by white people. Moreover, substantial militias in the United States were ready to put down armed rebellions.
13.B Despite the rarity of violent rebellion, evidence suggests that enslavers were often anxious that enslaved people would find ways to harm them. Enslaved women, for example, who were frequently the cooks in their enslavers' households, were often feared to use poison.
13.C Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, was the deadliest rebellion by enslaved people in the United States.
13.D After Nat Turner’s Rebellion, enslaved and free black people were prohibited from holding or attending religious assemblies without white supervision. Many southern states also tightened laws against teaching enslaved people to read and write and further restricted the movements and liberties of free African Americans.
13.E Learning how to read and write were acts of rebellion and resistance.
13.F Everyday acts of resistance—such as working slowly, breaking tools, feigning illness, feigning ignorance to avoid work and running away for short periods—were common.
13.G Religion—which stressed the self-esteem, dignity and humanity of enslaved people—proved a means of resistance. Prioritizing family—which meant viewing members as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters rather than as commodities or workers—was another “everyday” form of resistance.
13.H Enslaved people who successfully escaped were known as “fugitive slaves.” Escape was common enough that: 1. there was an elaborate system of patrols to catch people escaping from slavery; 2. enslavers depended on newspapers to advertise their "fugitive slaves"; 3. some white men made a living catching fugitives; and 4. because fugitives could cross state lines, the debate over fugitive slave laws began before the founding of the United States and continued until the Civil War ended.
How can I teach this?
- William Henry Singleton’s Recollections of My Slavery Days provides many examples of everyday resistance. The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Edsitement website includes a useful lesson: Recollections of My Slavery Days With Emphasis on Resistance.
- Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave has many examples of resistance, from prayer to violence.
- In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs details her harrowing efforts to avoid being sexually harassed and assaulted by her enslaver, including explicitly resisting his advances, escaping and spending years in hiding.
- "Runaway slave" or "fugitive slave" advertisements are incredibly rich sources for showing everyday and extraordinary acts of resistance.
- The "WPA Slave Narratives" (which should be introduced carefully and contextualized for students) offer many rich examples of everyday resistance.
- The poetry of George Moses Horton is a window into one enslaved man’s struggle with the ways slavery chained his creativity and genius. Many of Horton’s poems, particularly “George Moses Horton, Myself” illustrate the ways Horton refused to see himself as his enslaver saw him.