Rumors and Communication Networks

views updated

Rumors and Communication Networks

Denying enslaved populations access to the conventional modes of social and political engagement was an important tool in slaveholders' efforts to exert absolute control over slave life and labor. Slave codes passed across the U.S. South prohibited literacy among people of African descent and sought to regulate their social interactions through a system of intense surveillance and policing. For example, laws passed in Alabama in the aftermath of Nat Turner's 1831 insurrection prohibited male slaves from assembling in groups of five or more and required that all slaves obtain written permission before meeting with free blacks. Such restrictions demonstrated slaveholders' common association of slave communication with resistance and potential rebellion.

Despite these restrictive measures, people of African descent continued to develop their own communication networks through which valuable information could be circulated orally. These networks relied upon the clandestine activities of large numbers of both enslaved and free black people. Slaves working in domestic capacities within plantation households secretly listened to the conversations of white family members. Anna Baker, an African American woman who spent her childhood as a slave in Monroe County, Mississippi, testified to her role in such activities: "Master would tell me, 'Loosanna, if you keep your ears open and tell me what the darkies talk about, there'll be something good in it for you…. But all the time I must have had a right smart mind, cause I'd play around the white folks and hear what they'd say and then go tell the [black folks]" (Library of Congress, vol. 9, p. 11).

Important localized knowledge could be disseminated beyond the immediate parameters of the plantation in a variety of ways. Slaves with specific craft skills were often hired or borrowed out, affording them a degree of mobility unavailable to most. Some grew produce in their own gardens for sale at nearby marketplaces. Others drove their owner's wagons, making regular trips to the market and courthouse. Moreover, enslaved people from different plantations and farms occasionally met together for religious ceremonies, rites of passage, and patriotic celebrations. In all of these ways, individual slaves were provided with opportunities to transmit local knowledge to the broader slave community.

Historian Julius Sherrard Scott III (1986) has made claims for an even wider slave communication network that disseminated information not only from plantation to plantation but throughout the Atlantic world. Existing trade routes between Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States facilitated the transportation of both goods and information to planters and enslaved populations alike. Deep-sea sailors and travelers arrived at local harbors carrying information and rumors that had the potential to radically alter local conditions. Stories of slave insurrections, imperial conflicts, and shifts in colonial policy were quickly disseminated among the population, inspiring people of African descent to challenge the status quo and strike fear into the hearts of slaveholders.


Despite their best efforts, southern slaveholders could not prevent the dissemination of abolitionist literature and sentiments among enslaved populations. As the following extract from William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator demonstrates, enslaved populations had extensive communication networks that facilitated the circulation of both oral and print sources pertaining to the most important issues of the day. In this particular article, a commentator called V. describes his encounter with a group of free and enslaved African Americans reading what appears to be Freedom's Journal, a black-owned and operated newspaper established in New York in 1827:

A few years since, being in a slave state, I chanced one morning, very early, to look through the curtains of my chamber window, which opened upon a back yard. I saw a mulatto with a newspaper in his hand, surrounded by a score of colored men, who were listening, open mouthed, to a very inflammatory article the yellow man was reading. Sometimes the reader dwelt emphatically on particular passages, and I could see his auditors stamp and clench their hands. I afterwards learned that the paper was published in New-York, and addressed to the blacks. It is but reasonable to suppose that such scenes are of common occurrence in the slave states, and it does not require the wisdom of Solomon to discern their tendency. (The Liberator, May 14, 1831)

SOURCE: V. "Walker's Appeal, No. 2." The Liberator, Saturday, May 14, 1831, issue 20, column A.

Slaveholders were acutely aware of the power of these communication networks and sought to restrict the flow of information and rumors that might jeopardize their own interests. The coming of the American Revolution (1776–1783) produced particular concern, as free blacks and slaves transmitted knowledge about the great war coming soon that might help the poor blacks. At the Continental Congress in 1775, two Georgia delegates shared their fear with John Adams (1735–1826) that a British promise of emancipation would mobilize 20,000 slaves almost immediately, because of the powerful communication networks local blacks had developed. "The negroes have a wonderful art of communicating intelligence among themselves," Adams noted in his diary, which was first published in 1850. "It will run several hundreds of miles in a week or fortnight" (p. 428).

The inability of slaveholders to exert complete control over these communication networks is demonstrative of the little power slaves did possess. In this highly repressive environment, people of African descent challenged slaveholder's claims to absolute power through the circulation of rumors that politicized listeners and provoked them to action. In turn, whites struggled to counteract rumors that could disrupt the status quo.

This dynamic was no more apparent than in the runup to the Civil War (1861–1865), when rumors of emancipation circulated widely. Kate Stone, the daughter of a plantation owner in Madison County, Louisiana, wrote in her diary that the "general impression has been that the Negroes looked for a great upheaval of some kind" on the Fourth of July. "In some way," Stone explained, "they have gotten a confused idea of Lincoln's Congress meeting and of the war; they think it is all to help them, and they expected for 'something to turn up'" (1955, p. 37). The extent of slave's knowledge about the war disturbed white Southerners, leading many to believe that Northern abolitionists had developed an elaborate system through which antislavery propaganda was disseminated throughout the South. Such fears were largely unfounded. However, existing slave communication networks did facilitate the flow of information about the war and emancipation. The anxieties of Southern whites only provoked greater interest among enslaved people. Former slave Rebecca Hooks recalled secretly reading her owner's newspaper, learning about the war long before it ended. Sensing the significance of the current state of affairs, Hooks confided this information to other literate slaves. Horace Muse, a former slave from Virginia, recalled that "de news spread like a whirlwin. We heard it whispered 'roun' dat a war come fer to set de niggers free" (Perdue et al 1976, p. 216). Talk of emancipation was so prevalent that South Carolina planter Mary Chesnut (1823–1886) stopped speaking of the war entirely to her own slaves. Likewise, her good friend William Henry Trescott resorted to speaking in French around his black servants in order to keep them in the dark.

Such concerns were not entirely misplaced. Historian Steven Hahn (1997) contends that, as early as the fall of 1860, slaves began to act upon the rumors they received and would engage in activities that their masters considered rebellious. In Spartanburg County, South Carolina, two slaves were accused of talking about being set free and preparing to fight if necessary. In northern Alabama, reports surfaced that slaves were making preparations to support Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) when he arrived. According to Hahn, more serious plots may well have been hatched in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas in anticipation of the arrival of Northern troops.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, rumors shifted from emancipation to land redistribution. During the Christmas insurrection scare of 1865, rumors spread among African Americans that something significant was going to take place during the holiday season. In turn, whites feared that a race war was imminent and that former slaves were conspiring to murder their old masters. However, the most widely circulated rumor was that the government was going to seize land and property from the planter class and redistribute it among the African American population. Many whites believed that if this did not materialize, African Americans would seize the property by force. On one level, these rumors were an expression of the aspirations of newly free blacks and the anxieties of Southern whites. However, Hahn (1997) contends that rumors of land redistribution also played a powerful role in reconfiguring the political landscape of the South in the postbellum era. Such rumors empowered African Americans to challenge the authority of Southern whites and make claims to the land they had labored on. Though expectations of land were often disappointed, former slaveholders were no longer free to remake the world to serve their own interests.


Adams, John. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States. Boston: Little and Brown, 1850.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936–1938. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Washington, D.C.: 2001. Available online from

Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller. A Diary from Dixie, as Written by Mary Boykin Chesnut, Wife of James Chesnut, Jr., United States Senator from South Carolina, 1859–1861, and Afterward an Aide to Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army. New York: Appleton, 1905.

Hahn, Steven. "'Extravagant Expectations' of Freedom: Rumour, Political Struggle, and the Christmas Insurrection Scare of 1865 in the American South." Past and Present 157 (November 1997): 122-158.

Hahn, Steven. A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Perdue, Charles L., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976.

Rawick, George P., ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Westport CT: Greenwood, 1972.

Scott, Julius, III. "The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Age of the Haitian Revolution." Ph.D. thesis, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1986.

Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861–1868. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955.

                                   Kerry L. Pimblott