African American Responses to Slavery and Race

views updated

African American Responses to Slavery and Race

In the seven decades before 1830, African American life underwent significant changes. In particular, African Americans developed and explored new methods to challenge the slavery and racial inequality that characterized late colonial America and the new nation that emerged from the American Revolution (1775–1783).

an era of revolutionary change

The coming of the Revolution prompted many colonists—black and white—to openly question the morality of slavery for the first time. African Americans imbibed the rhetoric of natural rights that sounded from the lips of white American patriots. They responded to the Revolution in a variety of ways. There were a few attempts at slave rebellion. Following Lord Dunmore's Proclamation of 1775 promising freedom to slaves who flocked to the British banner, about 100,000 slaves made personal declarations of independence by running away from their masters in the South. About a fifth of these eventually shouldered arms for the king in Virginia and the Carolinas. Many who did left with other Loyalists at the end of the Revolution for British colonies in Canada, Florida, and the West Indies. Another five thousand enlisted on the American side, fighting valiantly in battles from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown. Nearly all were motivated by the hope of liberty.

In the North, dozens of slaves brought freedom suits to local courts or petitioned colonial assemblies or new state legislatures for personal or universal emancipation. This was particularly the case in Massachusetts, where blacks petitioned the legislature for a general emancipation five times between 1773 and 1777. At the start of the 1780s, two Massachusetts slaves—Mumbet (later known as Elizabeth Freeman) and Quock Walker—initiated freedom suits in the courts of Massachusetts. The suits were based on the language of natural rights embedded in the state constitution of 1780, which was in turn based on the Declaration of Independence. In 1783 their suits ended in victory when Massachusetts's chief justice outlawed slavery in the state. Others, most notably the poet Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784), raised the call for freedom in the colonial press.

The post-Revolutionary decades brought dramatic changes in the context of American slavery. Between 1780 and 1804, northern states gradually ended their involvement in the institution through explicit bans on slavery in state constitutions, court action, and the passage of gradual emancipation acts by state legislatures. In the Upper South, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia eased their laws concerning private manumission. As a result, free blacks increased to about one-tenth of the African American population during this era, concentrated in the North and Upper South—particularly in Atlantic seaports such as Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where sizeable black communities formed. Faced with discrimination in the larger society, these communities soon developed their own institutions, often in specific acts of protest. Prince Hall (c. 1735–1807) founded an African Lodge in Boston in the 1770s, leading to the formation of similar fraternal organizations in other cities. These often became centers for African American politics and protest. Independent black churches performed a similar role. Richard Allen (1760–1831) and Absalom Jones (1746–1818) founded Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church after leaving a white church in 1792 because of segregated seating and other racial mistreatment. Other withdrawals led to the formation of black congregations in Baltimore, New York, and many other cities. By the early nineteenth century, independent black Baptist, Methodist, and other congregations existed in most black communities in the North and Upper South. In 1816 Allen created the first all-black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Often such churches provided the impetus for the creation of black schools.

After a period of relative calm in the 1780s, those remaining in slavery increasingly found ways to register their discontent with the institution. Some slaves attempted to rise up against their masters. News of the Haitian Revolution filtered through slave communities in the South beginning in 1791 and inspired a wave of conspiracies and revolts over the next four decades, including those instigated by Quillo in North Carolina (1794), Gabriel in Virginia (1800), Charles Deslondes in Louisiana (1811), and Denmark Vesey in South Carolina (1822). Other slaves sought to run away to freedom. In the Lower South, many ran to Spanish Florida or to Maroon communities along the frontier or in nearby swamps. Those in the Upper South, however, increasingly looked to the North. With the ending of slavery there, that region became a haven for runaway slaves. Perhaps as many as a thousand fugitives reached the free states each year. A few even continued on to Canada.

the power of the word

African Americans also pressed for emancipation and equality through the political structure of the new nation. With voting and other means of political influence usually closed to them, they exercised their First Amendment right to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Throughout the nation, free blacks and slaves petitioned state legislatures for a variety of purposes: personal freedom; a general emancipation; protection against the reenslavement of manumitted blacks; compensation for work done in slavery; the right to vote; an end to the poll tax; wages for military service and compensation for injuries sustained in the Continental Army; land in the West; funds for transport to Africa; and a host of other goals. Again, Massachusetts blacks were especially strident. In 1780 Paul and John Cuffe petitioned the state legislature for exemption from the poll tax because they were not permitted to vote, labeling the practice "taxation without representation." Three years later, Belinda, a former slave, asked for and received compensation from her former master's estate. Prince Hall regularly petitioned the Massachusetts legislature on topics ranging from black access to public schools to protection against kidnapping into slavery. Some went further. Philadelphia blacks twice petitioned the U.S. Congress for protection against reenslavement for four manumitted North Carolinians in 1797 and three years later when they called for a ban on the slave trade and legislation for the gradual abolition of slavery.

African Americans in the new nation also found a host of ways to fight for their rights and freedom through the printed word. Like petitions, these methods represented a shift toward literary forms of protest on the part of African Americans in the new nation. A few published public letters to prominent whites. A letter of the black mathematician and scientist Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806) to Thomas Jefferson in 1791 openly challenged the racism of the founding father in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Dozens of speeches, sermons, and other orations by African Americans, often commemorating antislavery events such as the abolition of American involvement in the Atlantic slave trade in 1808, found their way into print. These were circulated to a broader audience as African Americans relied increasingly on pamphlet literature. Letters from a Man of Colour (1813), written by the black Philadelphia businessman James Forten (1766–1842) to protest a bill to prevent further black settlement in Pennsylvania, proved to be a particularly influential pamphlet. A few blacks published book-length narratives of their experiences in slavery, often with the aid of white amanuenses. The earliest of these, by Briton Hammon, appeared in 1760. But several more, those of Venture Smith, George White, John Jea, Solomon Bayley, and William Grimes were published in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, helping to inform and move white Americans on the subject of slavery. Several blacks were able to publish anti-slavery essays in local newspapers or in friendly periodicals such as Matthew Carey's magazine, American Museum (1787–1792). Following in the footsteps of Wheatley, a few published poems on racial themes. Richard Allen even offered a few antislavery hymns that he had authored in his hymnbooks for the young AME denomination.

A particular concern of African Americans after the War of 1812 (1812–1815) was the increasing prominence of the issue of their repatriation to the African continent. As early as 1787, Hall had petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for funds to establish a colony for black Bostonians in Africa. Paul Cuffe raised similar concerns in the early nineteenth century. But the issue took on a greater immediacy after the formation of the American Colonization Society in 1816 and its colony in Liberia a few years later. Only a minority of blacks supported the repatriation effort. Blacks in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and elsewhere organized against the colonization movement, reminding white Americans that the new nation was their home. Even so, a few hundred blacks had emigrated to Liberia by 1830; a few hundred more accepted the invitation of the Haitian government to resettle in the island nation. Most African Americans, however, chose to stay and fight for emancipation and equality.

African American responses to American slavery and racial inequality took on a new militancy in the late 1820s. In many ways, these years served as a prelude to the more strident black abolitionism of the antebellum decades. The first black antislavery society, the Massachusetts General Colored Association, was organized in 1826 in Boston. Freedom's Journal (1827–1829), the first African American newspaper, was published in New York by Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm. The year 1829 witnessed the publication of three particularly strident works—George Horton's The Hope of Liberty, Robert Alexander Young's The Ethiopian Manifesto, and David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Horton's collection of verse included poems such as "The Slave's Complaint" and "On Liberty and Slavery," which characterized liberty as the "golden prize" sought by all blacks. Young's pamphlet sought to "call together the black people as a nation in themselves" and predicted the rise of a leader to vindicate black rights. Walker's controversial and widely circulated pamphlet challenged America's mistreatment of its black citizens and prophesied a violent response. It reminded white Americans of the promise of equality and natural rights in the nation's founding document—the Declaration of Independence—and demonstrated how far the country fell short of that promise in its treatment of African Americans. In many ways Horton, Young, and Walker represented hundreds of other African Americans who exposed the new nation's failures to live up to its creed.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; Abolition Societies; Newspapers; Press, The; Slavery: Slave Insurrections; Slavery: Slavery and the Founding Generation .


Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. The Origins of African American Literature, 1680–1865. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Dain, Bruce. A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Hinks, Peter P., ed. David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Kaplan, Sidney, and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Rev. ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

Newman, Richard S. The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Porter, Dorothy, ed. Early Negro Writing, 1760–1837. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Rael, Patrick. Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Sweet, John Wood. Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730–1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Roy E. Finkenbine

About this article

African American Responses to Slavery and Race

Updated About content Print Article


African American Responses to Slavery and Race