Africans in America: 1600–1900

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Africans in America: 1600–1900

Debra Newman Ham

The Peculiar Institution—Slavery in America, 1619–1865

British America

Resistance to Slavery

Fugitive Slaves

Free Blacks

American Colonization Society


Civil War

Reconstruction and Its Aftermath

Figures of the Past


Some scholars, like Ivan Van Sertima in his book They Came Before Columbus (1976), claim that Africans had traveled to the New World long before the Europeans discovered its existence. Historical accounts affirm that Africans sailed with the Europeans as they explored and began to conquer the peoples of the Americans in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Perhaps the most famous of the African explorers was Stephen Dorantz or “Estevanico,” who pioneered an expedition in 1539 from Mexico into what is now Arizona and New Mexico. Estevanico, a Muslim from Morocco, had also traveled with “Cabeza de Vaca” to Florida in 1528. Settlements utilizing the enslaved African laborers in the Caribbean and Latin America predated North American communities by almost a century.

The resiliency of the people kidnapped from the African continent by European slave traders is obvious even from the earliest historical documents. Ship logs and slave trading records from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries show people of color not only as victims of a cruel system of slavery and oppression, but also as actors who found effective ways to cope with the confines of enslavement. Even on board the vessels of their captivity, some of the millions of captured Africans mutinied against the European crews and took command of the ships that held them. Others unsuccessfully tried to regain their freedom by jumping ship or fighting their captors. Unfortunately, the superior technology of the European slavers, both in weaponry and transportation, subdued the African captives as effectively as it did the Native Americans in the New World. An eyewitness and victim of the trade, Olaudah Equiano, wrote in his 1789 autobiography that, when he was captured and sold at 11 years of age, some African men actually jumped off the ship on which they were captives to try to swim to shore, but crew members on the slave ship jumped overboard to recapture and secured the slaves for fear that their valuable cargo tried to flee again. The efforts of Africans to rebel or jump ship were so frequent that, during the centuries of the slave trade, many captains would not allow the Africans on deck even for exercise. The slave trading vessels had low decks, which allowed the chained captives to sit up but not stand. Some large slave ships carried between 500 and 900 Africans of all ages and both sexes. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln hanged a notorious slave trader, Nathan Gordon, who was caught near the Congo River with a vessel holding 897 Africans. Due to the cramped conditions, human disease, and filth,

many Africans lost their lives as they crossed the Atlantic. Many of the European crewmen also succumbed to diseases.

The Atlantic Ocean route between Africa and the Americas was often referred to as the Middle Passage, and slavery in American was called the Peculiar Institution. Scholars estimate that the number of Africans victimized by the slave trade range from 9 to 25 million. The Atlantic slave trade continued for centuries because the African laborers who survived were usually strong and familiar with all aspects of tropical agriculture. They proved to be invaluable workers, and for some reason, Africans did not succumb to European diseases at the same rate as Native Americans. The trade in humans and the labor of those African captives in the New World netted untold riches to their European and American captors for many generations.


The first 20 Africans in British America were sold by a Dutch captain as indentured servants—people who served the one who purchased their passage for an agreed term, usually four to seven years—in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. The settlement, founded in 1607, was only a few years old when the Africans came. Within a few decades, though, most of the Atlantic seaboard colonies were importing Africans, not as workers but as slaves. As the Atlantic coastal settlements increased in number and population in North America in the seventeenth century, European ships with Africans for sale appeared regularly. Planters who were looking for a cheap labor force proved ready customers. Africans were in great demand by the colonists, and British merchants continued to bring them in large numbers. Between 1675 and 1695, about 3,000 Africans entered the Chesapeake region alone to be put to work mostly on the tobacco plantations of Maryland and Virginia. In the seventeenth century, soon after each colony was settled, ships carrying Africans for slaves began to appear. Planters used Africans as forced laborers on their tobacco, rice, sugar, indigo, and wheat plantations. Africans also constructed buildings, roads, and forts, and also performed many household tasks. Africans were used in so many capacities in turning the American terrain into cities and plantations that the European settlers who could afford to do so continued to purchase the slaves in large numbers.

Most colonial historians acknowledge the vital role played by African slaves in the planting of settlements in British America.

Geographically, the Africans came to the British colonies principally from various West African territories and ethnic groups stretching from the region of the Gambia River and reaching around the coast to present day Nigeria. Men and women, with complexions that ranged from brown to black, brought with them to America numerous languages and customs, including their own African religious beliefs. Occasionally, Muslims were among them and sometimes Africans came from regions as far away as Madagascar. Slave owners often commented on the scarification—slave owners called them “country markings”—the Africans had on their bodies. These markings were on their faces, arms, or torso and had a variety of distinctive designs, sometimes for ethnic identity but also for body ornamentation. African music, drums, and singing frightened whites, who soon outlawed many African practices—especially drumming. Africans wore little clothing when they came from the ships, sometimes only strings of beads. Many had filed teeth. Some had hair plaited in elaborate styles, while others had shaven heads. After a time, Africanized English became the language that the Africans and their owners all understood. The Africans received new names, and learned their work and the stringent boundaries within which slave life was confined. Owners worked hard to break the Africans’ rebellious spirits and restrict their movement.

By the eighteenth century, the American colonies were beginning to see a new generation of Africans, born in America, that did not know their parents’ African homelands first hand. Beginning in the 1700s, the enslaved population began to grow naturally and was consequently composed of both Africans and African Americans. In a few generations, Africa became simply a distant and often misunderstood land to most African Americans. The Constitution of the United States outlawed the African slave trade on January 1, 1808, but the law was largely ignored. Even with African captives still coming to America in smaller numbers until the Civil War, it was the American-born population that dominated the cultural life of the enslaved.

With the invention of the cotton gin at the turn of the nineteenth century, cotton production began to climb and the value of enslaved people of color multiplied exponentially. Cotton production intersected with the growing textile industry in Great Britain and the New England states and led to revolutionary production rates. By the Civil War, most slaveholders in the South had only a few slaves, but on the large plantations, hundreds of enslaved Africans were producing more cotton than anywhere else in the world. As slave property became increasingly valuable, slaveholders were more strongly determined to protect their right to hold human property. In 1790, African Americans made up about one fifth of the nation’s population and by 1860, there were four and a half million people of color—enslaved and free—in the United States. Although the new government of the United States was ambivalent about the rights of free people of color and unanimous in the denial of rights to slaves, the Constitution of 1787 allowed southern states to count three-fifths of the enslaved population to determine the number of members from their states in the House of Representatives.

Early accounts of American history provide glimpses of the lives of a few of the Africans. Ayubva Suleiman Dially was a well-educated Muslim merchant who was born about 1700 in an area located in what is now in Mali. He was captured after he himself had traded two other Africans to a British merchant. He was taken to Annapolis, Maryland, where he was sold. He worked on a tobacco plantation for two years before he was rescued, taken to England, and then finally allowed to return to his home.

Charles Ball, a slave sold into the cotton kingdom from the state of Maryland, said in his autobiography (1859) that after the sale of his mother, his master also decided to sell his father to a southern slave dealer. Ball said that his grandfather, an African who originally came to Charles County in 1730, secretly went to his son’s cabin, gave him some cider and parched corn, prayed “to the god of his native country” to protect his son, and told him to run away. Ball never saw his father again.

In Tobacco and Slaves (1998), Allan Kulikoff uses records of several Chesapeake region plantations to show the gradual changes in the growth of the enslaved population. On the Edmond Jennings plantation in Virginia in 1712, almost all the workers were Africans. By 1730, nine out of 10 black men, and almost all of the black women, working on the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter were born in Africa. However, thereafter, the enslaved population began to grow naturally and was composed of both Africans and African Americans. In a few generations, Africa was a land most people of color in America had never seen. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson often instructed the overseers of their plantations not to drive the enslaved women so hard that they would miscarry or be unable to bear children. Every African American meant more wealth and an increased workforce for their owners.

Work of enslaved Africans varied by region. In the North, slaves generally worked as household servants, or as workers on small farms, in mines, or as crafts persons of various sorts such as seamstresses, caulkers, coopers, smiths, and cooks. In the South, owners used slaves in a wide variety of duties for the maintenance of small farms and large plantations. Many of the records of the founding fathers of the United States clearly show their involvement with slavery and the slave trade, particularly their dependence on slave labor to make large land holdings maximally

productive. Edwin Morris Betts, editor of President Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book (1953), stated that Jefferson was never able to eliminate slaves from his economy, “because to have done so would have destroyed the chief support of all of the activities of his plantation.” The papers of both Jefferson—who was brilliant, but not frugal—and President James Monroe demonstrate that they often needed to sell or hire out slaves to meet their financial obligations. Whether one looks at Virginia plantations such as West-over, Mount Vernon, or Monticello, or large estates in any other state in the South, it was largely African Americans who were responsible for the construction of those lovely plantation houses with their sturdy outbuildings, well-manicured gardens, and productive fields. In many areas of the North and South, people of color aided in the defense of their communities in Indian wars unless they had escaped to Indian tribes, in which case they fought against the settlers. The Papers of the Continental Congress included numerous letters about the Seminoles in Georgia and Florida who aided and abetted African runaways.

Although the vast majority of African Americans—male and female—did labor in the fields, W. E. B. DuBois wrote in The Negro Artisan (1902) that a small percentage of both slaves and free blacks in the South also worked as artisans who toiled in tobacco factories, made barrels, ran steamboats, labored as masons, and specialized in many other areas. Colonial newspapers included many listings for the sale of bondspersons in which the skills of the enslaved persons are described. Although slaves who were trained as artisans usually utilized their skills on their owners’ plantations, it was not uncommon for enslaved artisans to be hired out to other plantations. Men performed various services such as blacksmithing, carpentry, hostelry, and coopering. Women were sometimes hired out as maids, cooks, hairdressers, milliners, and seams-tresses. Those who hired the bondsmen gave their owners payment for the slaves’ service, but the artisan usually also received a small sum. Many industrious slaves would scrupulously save the small amount they received until they had earned enough to purchase their freedom at an amount stipulated by their owners. With any additional funds, they subsequently purchased their spouses and children. Sometimes, because the children followed the legal status of the mother, men would purchase their wives first, and then themselves and their enslaved children. Slaves had no rights, a truth U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice

Roger B. Taney—himself a Maryland slaveholder—reinforced when he stated in the 1857 Dred Scot decision that blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect. Therefore, an owner did not have to agree to sell or give the slave a percentage of their hired wages, although many did. Some owners bought enslaved laborers for the purpose of hiring them out. Bondspersons could not vote, testify against whites, bear arms, or claim any of the benefits of a U.S. citizen. However, some states, like Louisiana and South Carolina, afforded some privileges to mulattoes—those of mixed African and European ancestry—that were not allowed to enslaved blacks.

The ex-slave narratives, gathered in the 1930s by the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration, document the slaves’ longing for freedom and illustrate the coping methods they used while they were treated as chattel, or property, by the perpetuators of the “peculiar institution,” as the American slave system was called. These records document how eagerly these people of color embraced first the hope and then the reality of freedom.

By the end of the Revolutionary War, most northern states had provided for the emancipation of slaves in their boundaries. The few northern states that did not accomplish this by the end of the Revolution did so within a few decades afterward. So, as the number of slaves was diminishing in the North, by the time of the Civil War, more than half of the population of Virginia

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was made up of African Americans, the vast majority of whom were slaves. In South Carolina, the slave population was more than 400,000 and the white population was fewer than 300,000. The 1860 census indicates that the total number of African Americans in the United States was 4,441,830—of whom 3,953,760 were slaves and 488,979 were free—and there were 26,922,537 whites.


Famous slave mutinies and revolts dispel the view that African slaves were docile or content with their fate. Fear of slave revolts was quite common in the British American colonies from the earliest days of settlement. A perusal of any colonial newspaper indicates that runaways, acts of slave resistance, and fear of slave rebellions were widespread. Especially after the successful rebellion of Afro-Haitians over the French colonials at the turn of the nineteenth century, white slave owners experienced a

widespread dread of slave reprisals. A collection of reports about slave revolts dating to the early eighteenth century, entitled An Account of Some of the Principal Slave Insurrections by Joshua Coffin of the American Anti-Slavery Society, was published in 1860. For example, in the spring of 1741, a series of fires broke out in Manhattan. Many believed that these fires were the work of rebellious slaves. Hysteria in the city led to the arrest of numerous enslaved persons. Between May 11 and August 29 of 1741, 30 black men and four whites were executed. About 100 more black men were arrested and 72 were banished from the colony.

As cultivated land increased in acreage, the size of the slave population sometimes grew to equal or exceed the number of whites in some southern states. Slave-holders realized that a unified revolt by those held in bondage could signal doom for their owners. Fears increased in 1829 when a free black man in Boston named David Walker wrote a pamphlet entitled (in part) Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble to the Coloured Citizens of the World. The pamphlet called for blacks to rise up and overthrow their oppressors.

Walker argued, “Look upon your mother, wife, children, and answer God Almighty; and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.” The pamphlet caused much alarm in the South and was outlawed in various states. In 1830, the American Colonization Society’s publication, The African Repository, reported that four free black men in New Orleans were arrested for circulating “the diabolical Boston pamphlet.” The governor of Virginia, John Floyd, cited Walker’s pamphlet as one of the causes of a major slave revolt in 1831.

Small-scale slave revolts and plots were relatively common. Occasionally, however, revolts reached alarming proportions. This was particularly true with the Nat Turner insurrection in Southampton, Virginia, in 1831. Turner, who felt that God revealed to him the method of liberating the slaves, told only a few trusted companions about his plan because he understood that rebellions often failed because someone informed the authorities. Turner’s strategy was to go to one household at a time, kill all the whites, free the slaves, and thereby add to the number of those who were in his rebel brigade. Before the whites stopped Turner and his followers, about 60 whites had lost their lives. Subsequently, the terrified state of Virginia government hanged Turner, but not before he dictated his confessions, which were subsequently published.

Many analyzed the reasons for the uprising and the methods that should be used to prevent similar bloody occurrences. Every state in the South that had not already done so passed laws forbidding anyone to teach African Americans to read and write. A free black North Carolinian who later became a U.S. senator after the Civil War, Hiram Revels, wrote in a biographical sketch that, before the Turner insurrection, free people of color in North Carolina were allowed to vote, discuss political questions, have religious meetings, and pursue their education, but that after the revolt, the North Carolina legislature passed laws depriving free blacks of all political, religious, and educational rights and privileges.

Slaves’ freedom of movement was further curtailed all over the South after the Turner revolt. They had to carry passes and could be interrogated by any white person. The manumission (emancipation) of slaves became illegal in many states, and blacks who were already free found it even more difficult to live in peace in the United States. It was from this period that all southern states, which had not done so previously, forbade teaching enslaved persons to read and write.

Probably the most famous mutiny of captured Africans was on board the Spanish vessel, Amistad. After the sale of Africans in the Caribbean in 1839, Africans were loaded on board the Amistad. The Africans succeeded in murdering the white crewmembers except a few, who were ordered to steer the ship back to Africa. About 50 Africans led by a Mende warrior named Cinque forced the crew to comply during the day, but at night the crew sailed the ship to the northwest, eventually landing off the coast of New York, where local authorities captured the Africans. The case caused great controversy, and several important and volatile issues presented themselves. Should the U.S. government collaborate in the slave trade by returning the Africans to the owners of the vessel? Should the government hold slaves and

thereby become a slave owner? Should it sell the Africans as slaves and consequently become a slave merchant? Or, the most controversial alternative of all, should the United States free the slaves and thereby become an emancipator?

Southerners and northerners had debated the issue of slavery at great length during the Constitution Convention in 1787. The case remained an explosive issue during ensuing years in Congress as the controversy over human property led to passionate arguments on both sides of the issue. As new states joined the union, proand anti-slavery advocates worked hard to keep the number of slave states and free states equal. The Amistad case added more fuel to the controversy. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. John Quincy Adams served as the sixth president of the United States and as a member of the House of Representatives where he tirelessly affirmed the right of abolitionists to air their cause. Because of this, he was asked to defend the Amistad Africans. The former president presented a series of arguments so compelling that the Court freed the Africans and missionaries, and well wishers helped the Africans who had survived the litigation process to return to West Africa.


Although enslaved African Americans resisted slavery in many ways, the most common method was to run away. Sometimes fugitives fled into areas unsettled by Europeans, other times they were able to ally with Indians. Occasionally, blacks were able to form communities for runaways, called “maroons,” in swamps or backwoods areas. Many blacks ran away during the Revolutionary War. Some simply sought freedom elsewhere. Others fled to the British troops—both during the Revolution and the War of 1812—who hid them from their owners and took many blacks with them as they moved to their next battle or troop evacuation.

Pennsylvania began to abolish slavery through its Gradual Abolition Act in 1780. That meant that many enslaved people in the upper South lived very close to Pennsylvania communities where there was a free black population where they could hide. White and black abolitionists helped many enslaved people through the Underground Railroad, which was, in truth, neither underground nor a railroad. It was a series of secret travel routes and hiding places established for the purpose of guiding runaways from the slaveholding states to the northern states or to Canada. Hundreds of runaways smuggled to the North attempted to blend into the large free black communities in New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and cities in other states.

Owners invested a great deal of their resources to buy enslaved people and to see to their basic needs. They depended on slaves’ forced labor for their livelihood. For this reason, owners were very concerned when their human “property” ran away. There is little specific information about the number of runaways during the two and a half centuries of slavery. One census statistic shows that the number of runaways in Maryland for the year from June 1849 to June 1850 was 279. Barbara Fields in her book Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground (1985) states that this was probably a low figure because fugitives would, of course, be unwilling to admit their status to a census taker. Even using a low estimate of 300 runaways a year for 250 years means that possibly 75,000 slaves escaped from Maryland. Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman claimed to have led over 300 slaves out of Maryland. There were thousands of runaways in northern cities and Canada.

Pre-Civil War newspapers list hundreds of advertisements, which usually give detailed descriptions of the runaways, including clothing and physical markings or defects such as scars. In case the runaways tried to pass as a free person and seek work, the owners’ listed the fugitives’ skills such as fiddling, cooking, sewing, or blacksmithing. Most of the runaways were males who traveled alone, but there were also females and family groups who fled to freedom. Many of the runaways, like

Frederick Douglass, moved further north than Pennsylvania. In 1850 when the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law making the penalties more severe for those who aided runaways, many fugitives living in northern cities moved into Canada. In Black Abolitionists (1970), Benjamin Quarles states that over ten thousand fugitives fled into Canada in 1850 because of the law. Yet, the exodus of runaways from the South did not cease. The number of fugitives in Maryland caused many white planters to abandon the use of slave labor in the years before the Civil War.

As northern abolitionist sentiment began to grow, accounts of daring slave escapes were extremely popular. One of the most popular related to the escape of an enslaved tobacco factory worker named Henry Brown.

Henry Brown got his nickname “Box” when he mailed himself from Richmond, Virginia, to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Antislavery office in 1849 to escape from slavery. He had a friend build the crate, nail him inside with only some water to drink, and ship him by rail and boat to Philadelphia. His method of escape was so unique that his story was told over and over again. Brown, who was unlettered, got an abolitionist named Charles Stearns to write down his autobiography for him. It was first published just several months after his escape and revised and republished in England in 1851. A husband and wife team, William and Ellen Craft, also gained great celebrity for their Christmas escape in 1848. Ellen, who was very light skinned, dressed as a man, and her husband, William, who had a brown complexion, pretended to be her slave. They took public conveyances to Philadelphia and appeared at the Underground Railroad office of William Still, safe and sound.

Not all runaway accounts were successful or thrilling, but all were daring. Frederick Douglass’ fiancée made him a sailor uniform; he borrowed a black sailor’s identification papers and took the train to Philadelphia.


From the seventeenth century on, there was a growing free black population in the British colonies. This population grew quickly in the antebellum years. African Americans were usually emancipated for diligent work, good conduct, familial connections, or commendable service. The methods for manumission included court actions, instructions in owners’ wills, self purchase, purchase of one’s own family members’ freedom with money earned when hired out, governmental decrees, or rewards for military service. Several thousand gained their freedom serving alongside their owners during the colonial wars. Thousands more fled to freedom behind the British lines during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Continental Army Commander, and later the first president, George Washington, who was himself a prosperous slave owner, mulled over the possibility of allowing blacks to serve as members of the regular troops in the Continental Army. As he vacillated, the British invited enslaved blacks to join with his majesty’s troops so that they could gain their freedom. Ultimately, free blacks and slaves fought on the side of the American patriots, but thousands more fled to and aided the British. Those servicemen who were formerly enslaved gained their freedom as a result of their military service in the Continental Army. In addition to their freedom as a repayment for services rendered, the British took former slaves with them to Canada, Jamaica, and England. In 1787, concerned British citizens repatriated hundreds of Africans from each of these regions to West Africa where they established the colony named Sierra Leone.

Free blacks were rarely accorded the same privileges as white citizens. States changed their laws relating to free blacks depending on the political climate and, more importantly, the size of the African American population. For a brief period, some free blacks had the right to vote, but the law was later rescinded. Pennsylvania, for example, allowed free black males to vote until 1837 and did not allow them to vote again until after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1866. Free blacks usually could not carry firearms or testify against whites in court. Free blacks, especially children, lived under the threat of being beaten or kidnapped by whites who would sell them into slavery. One of the reasons that whites formed the abolition societies was to try to protect free blacks from kidnappers. States passed and repealed laws prohibiting blacks from assembling as groups in public places without whites being present. Governments often vacillated about the right of free blacks to hold and bequeath property. Whites often sought to restrict the type of work blacks could do because they did not want to compete with them. In Pennsylvania, black men were barred from certain crafts. At various times, state legislatures tried to pass laws prohibiting blacks from reading abolitionist literature, operating boats, obtaining licenses for peddling, participating in certain trades, or having or driving vehicles such as hacks, carts, or drays. There was also an effort keep free blacks from owning dogs. Slaveholders’ motives for many of the laws, particularly prohibiting free blacks from owning conveyances, was to prevent free blacks from aiding runaway slaves. There were also stringent laws about intermarrying with whites.

In spite of numerous restrictions, free blacks formed their own churches, schools, benevolent societies, and businesses. Many churches were a part of larger denominations, which met periodically in various states to discuss both religious and political matters. Census records indicate that increasing numbers of free blacks could read and/or write. Free persons of color worked as domestics, small farmers, innkeepers, street vendors, ship caulkers, stevedores, sailors and boatmen, draymen, barbers, team-sters, blacksmiths, and liverymen. Blacks who had purchased their freedom were usually able to do so because they had earned money with their skilled labor. Some free blacks, like astronomer Benjamin Banneker and preacher Daniel Coker, were able to record their own experiences for posterity. Banneker was able to publish an almanac in the 1790s and aid in the planning of the District of Columbia, and Coker became one of the first emigrants to go back to Africa with the American Colonization Society.

Blacks within and without the shackles of bondage were successful at a variety of business ventures and credited with numerous inventions. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the 1851–1853 bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even argued that it was not Eli Whitney but an enslaved black man who developed the cotton gin to separate the seed from the cotton; that process revolutionized cotton production in the United States. In addition to this disputed claim, there is documented evidence of a number of scientific inventions patented by blacks after emancipation. James Forten of Philadelphia, a Revolutionary War veteran, invented a sail hoist, a device that made it easier to maneuver the huge sails on ships. He ran his own sail loft, became quite wealthy, and eventually was a large supporter of the emancipation newspaper The Liberator, edited by militant abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.


Free people of color in their quest for full political rights were extremely articulate in their protests against the Peculiar Institution, but they also began to explore alternative solutions to racial problems. One example was Paul Cuffee, a Massachusetts free man of African and Native American ancestry, who learned to articulate the doctrines of freedom for oppressed African Americans. He eventually became an active exponent of African colonization in general and of the British Sierra Leonean scheme in particular. Born in Massachusetts before the Revolutionary War, Cuffee was of mixed Native American and African parentage and was the seventh of 11 children. As a youth, he was able to get some education and then found work as a sailor, as a laborer in shipyards, and as a shipbuilder. He saw opportunities in this line of work and seized them. By 1780, he had built a ship of his own and by 1806 he owned one large ship, two brigs, and some smaller vessels and was able to engage very profitably in trade.

In spite of his accomplishments, Cuffee still regularly confronted racial prejudice. Although his wealth continued to grow, as did his contributions to the Massachusetts government through taxes, he could not vote and his children could not attend public schools. Cuffee knew that the colonies had protested against Great Britain for taxation without representation during the Revolutionary War, and it seemed to him that the colonies were guilty of the same injustices by taxing free blacks without letting them reap all of the benefits that tax dollars earned for other citizens. In defiance, Cuffee and his brother refused to pay their taxes. Subsequently, Cuffee financed a Quaker school, which he opened not only to black children but also to all children in his community.

Even when the Massachusetts courts abolished slavery in 1783, the social, economic, and political problems that blacks encountered remained complex. Cuffee reasoned that the best avenue was for blacks to reestablish contact with West Africans for the purpose of colonization and trade. He reasoned that blacks would be able to make great commercial gains if they could work together to establish a shipping network of their own. Additionally, if there were blacks who felt that the stigma attached to them was too severe, they could move to Sierra Leone. He thought that blacks could contribute both civilization and Christianity to their ancestral homeland. During Cuffee’s 1811–1812 visit to Sierra Leone, he formed the Friendly Society with an African American emigrant named John Kizzell for the purpose of encouraging African American emigration and trade.

Cuffee was unable to interest anyone in financing his Sierra Leone colonization scheme. Consequently, he determined that he would finance it himself, but encountered one major problem. During the time he was formulating his plans, the United States and Great Britain were involved in the War of 1812, and Americans were not permitted to trade with England or her colonies. In 1814, Cuffee petitioned the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo against trade with Sierra Leone so that he could begin his venture. His petition passed the Senate, but was struck down by the House. Finally, after the cessation of hostilities in 1815, and at a personal expenditure of $4,000, Cuffee took nine free black families, totaling 38 individuals, to settle in Sierra Leone. The emigrant families consisted of nine adult males, 10 adult females, and six male and 13 female children. Although he had difficulty marketing his trade goods when he returned, Cuffee became even more determined that black Americans needed to emigrate if they were to achieve true independence and racial dignity. Many free blacks as well as some whites received Cuffee’s emigration plan with enthusiasm, but few blacks were willing to give up their American citizenship.


Some emigrationists began to formulate ideas for the colonization of black Americans along the lines that Cuffee had planned. Others envisioned trade ventures, and still others wanted to evangelize Africans. Many whites simply hoped to rid the United States of its free black population. Robert Finley, a New Jersey clergyman, was alarmed by the fact that the free black population in New Jersey quadrupled from 1790 to 1820. Disturbed by the extent of their poverty and political impotence, he feared that nothing would alter the inequality of the treatment of blacks in the state. Finley believed that, “Everything connected with their condition, including their colour,” was against them. He felt that the “methodical colonization of free Negroes would both improve their condition and solve the larger problem of their future in America.” Hence, he proposed a colony similar to Sierra Leone and advocated federal assistance for the colonization plan. In December of 1816, Finley visited Washington to see if he could get support. There he met with a number of influential men, including Elias Caldwell, Bushrod Washington, Henry Clay, John Randolph, and Daniel Webster, as well as about 45 others. The responses of those who met with Finley were varied. Clay, a slaveholder who felt that free blacks were a threat to the institution of slavery, proposed “to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population.” Some of the delegates proposed an African colony that would help in the suppression of the slave trade. Many of the organizers were primarily concerned with the evangelization of Africa, and a few felt that a colony would give free blacks the opportunity to be truly free men. Finally, on December 28, 1816 these delegates took the title “American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States.” Soon, the organization was known simply as the “American Colonization Society” (ACS). The newly formed Society sought to recruit Paul Cuffee to lead their first emigrant expedition, but he died before the plans for the first group of settlers could be formulated. However, Kizzell and the Friendly Society supervised many of the arrangements in Africa for the Colonization Society’s first emigrants. Black leaders in Philadelphia, led by James Forten, Richard Alien, Absalom Jones, and Robert Douglas, immediately held a protest meeting. Cuffee, they contended, had been working to help black people, but that the Colonization Society was definitely against the interests of black Americans. Finley, however, assured the group that the Society’s motives were not sinister, and for a few months black protests were quieted. Nonetheless, so many of the organizers of the society had made their anti-free black and anti-emancipation views public, and few blacks expressed any willingness to apply for colonization.

In addition to criticism by blacks, the Colonization Society encountered considerable resistance from the federal government to pleas for funding their projects. Consequently, funds for the colonization scheme had to be solicited from the public. Thus, the ACS had to establish an African settlement largely at its own expense. Samuel J. Mills, a missionary, and Ebenezer Burgess, an ordained minister, raised funds to travel to West Africa to look for a settlement site. On November 5, 1817, they were appointed agents of the Colonization Society and sailed for Africa. After stopping in England for a month to consult with organizers of the Sierra Leone colonization project, they sailed for Africa on February 2, 1818. They toured Sierra Leone and the surrounding villages for six weeks with Kizzell as their guide and interpreter. They decided on Shebro Island as the site for the colony. Mills died on the way home, but Burgess delivered their report on Sierra Leone to the ACS. With the aid of this report, the Society began to plan for the voyage of the first group of emigrants. Those black Americans who joined the first expedition as emigrants also worked for the U.S. government. A March 3, 1819, Act of Congress authorized President Monroe to deliver African captives taken from slave ships to U.S. agents who would be stationed on the West African coast. The emigrants were laborers hired to build shelters for the “recaptives.” In southern Virginia near the area of the Turner insurrection, hundreds of blacks were eager to move to Liberia because of the ferocity of the reaction of the white public. Yet, even in this region, more blacks were willing to stay or to move to another state rather than to emigrate outside of the country. During the entire nineteenth century, there was only a small minority of the free black population that chose to move to Liberia.


Reverend Peter Williams gave the majority viewpoint at an oration on July 4, 1830: “Though delivered from the fetters of slavery, we are oppressed by an unreasonable, unrighteous, and cruel prejudice, which aims at nothing less than the forcing away of all the free coloured people of the United States to the distant shores of Africa.” He said that he did not think that the motives of all of the members of ACS were impure. Some wanted, he believed, to abolish the African slave trade and others wanted to evangelize the Africans. Other very influential members, he argues, simply wanted to rid the nation of free blacks. Period.

Williams continued his protest, stating that, ironically, the members of the Colonization Society who felt that blacks were “vile” and “degraded” also felt that these same black people would have a beneficial and civilizing influence on African peoples. This type of contradiction in the Colonization Society’s literature and fundraising programs never escaped the notice of black Americans. The issue of African colonization of African Americans arose frequently during the nineteenth century and was regularly a volatile issue at antebellum African American political meetings known as the Negro Convention movement. Frederick Douglass, who felt that the whole idea of colonization was rooted in racism and Negrophobia (fear and hatred of blacks) wrote and spoke out against it on many occasions. In a North Star editorial of January 1849, Douglass lambasted the U.S. Senate about “the wrinkled old ‘red herring’ of colonization. . .” Douglass wrote: “We are of the opinion that the free colored people generally mean to live in America, and not in Africa; and to appropriate a large sum for our removal, would merely be a waste of the public money. We do not mean to go to Liberia. Our minds are made up to live here if we can, or die here if we must; so every attempt to remove us will be, as it ought to be, labor lost. Here we are, and here we shall remain. While our brethren are in bondage on these shores; it is idle to think of inducing any considerable number of the free colored people to quit this for a foreign land.”

The vast majority of black Americans were adamant about remaining in the United States.

In spite of all the doubt on the part of blacks and the suspect motives of some of the members of ACS, blacks left almost every year after 1820 to go to Liberia. Some blacks chose to emigrate to Haiti in the 1820s, but many were dissatisfied there and returned to the United States. The idea of Haitian emigration was renewed in the mid-nineteenth century, but Liberian emigration, though limited, was relatively constant. Some of the Liberian emigrants returned to the United States disenchanted with the new colony. However, Liberia was thousands of miles away. It took money to return to the United States, and many of the settlers had no funds. One humorous Liberian saying was “the love of liberty brought us here, the lack of money kept us here.”

Indeed, it was the love of liberty that drew many free blacks to Liberia. It did not take long after the settlement of the colony for reports to begin coming to the United States about the life of the settlers. They were the reports of a small, struggling settlement. The Liberians fought against hostile indigenous people and various debilitating diseases. They suffered from homesickness. Somehow, however, there was some romance in the reports. It was clear that few whites could survive the climate and that, basically, it was black men who were building a nation. Despite the struggles of the settlers, many blacks believed that Liberia would one day be a great nation that would demonstrate to the world the prowess of the black race. In Liberia, black men could hold leadership positions, sit on juries, vote, and work for the fulfillment of their dreams. To a few black Americans, the promise of such a life, even amid the hardships and privations of the African continent, was enough to draw them away from everything familiar in their homeland. Masters wanted to emancipate their slaves, but the laws of their states tied their hands. Consequently, in order to free them, many indicated in their wills that their slaves had to emigrate to Liberia. Others gave them the option of going to Haiti, Liberia, or to a free state. For years, some slaves felt that colonization was just a scheme to kidnap blacks and sell them farther south.


The small free black population during the period up to 1860, however, aided by sympathetic whites, were most outspoken—and most creative—in their protest against slavery, an institution many of them knew from firsthand experience. Sermons called for liberty, while hundreds of newspaper articles, books, poems, speeches, and tracts echoed a call for liberty not unlike that of the American colonies from their perceived oppressor in the eighteenth

century—Great Britain. Wheatley in 1773 published a poem to the Earl of Dartmouth that reasoned that some who perused her “song” would wonder where her “love of freedom sprung.” She explained that she, “young in life,” had been “snatch’d from Africa’s fancied happy seat.” Wheatley’s position as a “pampered” Boston slave would have been enviable to many in bondage who endured physical and emotion abuse, but that did not squelch her longing for freedom. With the Declaration of Independence, doctrines of equality and the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness reached the ears of the free person of color and slave alike, and the oppressed longed to throw off the oppressor.

Hundreds of thousands of whites allied with free blacks to aid in the destruction of the Peculiar Institution. Quakers, for example, were speaking, writing, and petitioning in state legislatures against slavery from the eighteenth century until emancipation. In addition to formal methods of protest, grassroots networks emerged to fight against slavery. Members of both races acted as conductors on the Underground Railroad. There is a virtual avalanche of records relating to antislavery efforts by great abolitionists, white and black, in the United States. These include the writings of people like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Salmon P. Chase, Martin Delaney, Theodore Weld, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, and William and Ellen Craft, to name only a few. Antislavery and proslavery political debates divided the nation, and led to violence and, ultimately, to the Civil War.


Galvanized by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly in 40 installments from June 1851 to April of 1852 in the Washington, D.C. publication, the National Era. The story riveted the attention of thousands of readers and engendered outrage in many about the institution of slavery. Although the story centers on the mis-treatment of the pious and wise slave, Uncle Tom, many other slaves are featured in the story. The book targets even benign slave owners as partners in the crime against humanity, slavery. Toward the end of Tom’s life, his owner, Simon Legree, who specializes in cruelty, finally beats Tom severely because he knows that Tom has outwitted him in a matter relating to two runaway women. When Tom’s former master finally rescues him, Tom survives only a few miles beyond the door of Legree’s plantation.

In 1851 after Stowe finished the first five installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she consulted with Douglass about true stories relating to slavery that she could weave into her story. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in book form in March 1852, published in two volumes by J. P. Jewett, it sold 300,000 copies in one year. Douglass enthused, “Why Sir, look all over the North: look South, look at home, look abroad! Look at the whole civilized world! And what are all this vast multitude doing at this moment? Why, Sir, they are reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and when they have read that, they will probably read The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Before 1860, more than one million copies had sold in the United States, and more than two million copies abroad, authorized and unauthorized, principally in England, but also in France, Germany, and other nations.

Stowe’s novel added measurably to the polarization of abolitionist and anti-abolitionist sentiment in the U.S. and Europe. Douglass, along with other abolitionists, white and black, had spent most of their lives exposing the horrors of slavery. Most of the abolitionists exulted that Stowe’s books generated outrage against the Peculiar Institution, both nationally and internationally. An ex-slave, Josiah Henson, claimed that he was the model for Uncle Tom, although some circumstances in his life differ greatly from those of Stowe’s lead character. Stowe wrote The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853. In this work, she explained some of the incidents in the story and her motivations for writing them.

Carl Sandburg reported in Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939) that, during a White House visit, President Lincoln greeted Stowe with outstretched hands, saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” Historian Benjamin Quarles noted that at an 1863 abolitionist’s celebration of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the crowd yelled for Stowe to come forward to receive an enthusiastic ovation for the service she had performed by writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The furor over the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the controversy over slavery in Nebraska and Kansas, the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, and the John Brown attack on Harper’s Ferry all polarized the nation, but the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 led southern politicians to finally do what they had been threatening for decades—secede from the Union.


During the Civil War, black soldiers demonstrated that detractors who said they would flee in terror in the midst of a battle were wrong. Black soldiers proved as able to wield guns as they did plows, hoes, or harnesses. They worked behind the scenes as well as on the front lines with the Union troops. Thousands of enslaved blacks in the Confederacy emancipated themselves and fled to the Union encampments. African American civilians proved that they cared about their families in spite of claims that they were too negligent and immoral to care for their own homes. For example, Union chaplains and Freed-men’s Bureau officials worked tirelessly trying to reunite families that had been sold apart and aiding free people in legitimizing their marriage vows. A document in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress indicates that in 1863, a white Union chaplain, Asa Fiske, once performed simultaneous wedding ceremonies for 119 African American couples that had fled to safety behind Union lines. For African Americans, the right to have a family, protect spouses and children, earn an honest living, and dwell in peace became one of the driving desires for freedom from enslavement. Herbert Gutman’s book, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1977), documents the vitality of African American family ties, even during slavery.

As Union soldiers and northern teachers, preachers, businesspeople, and missionaries traveled into defeated areas of the Confederacy, they discovered aspects of slave life and culture hitherto unknown to them. African American spirituals, folk songs, churches, African folk traditions, and linguistic traits caused many northern observers to reassess their views about black creative ability. Because masters and mistresses feared literate slaves, every slaveholding state had passed laws forbidding African American education. This accentuated a longing for learning among the newly freed blacks that impressed almost every chronicler of the South in the period during and after the Civil War. Old and young free people of color would gather in classrooms. The old often clutched their Bibles, longing to be able to read its pages for themselves. One-room schoolhouses, poorly paid teachers, and nascent institutions of higher education sprang up throughout the South. Freedmen’s Bureau officials and thousands of white missionaries and teachers traveled throughout the former Confederacy to teach the education-starved blacks to read and write. Almost every historically black college and university was founded within five years after Appomattox. The 1900 census reports indicate that in the period between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century, the majority of the African American population broke the bonds of illiteracy.

Although some black workers had been used in the Union Army in 1862, blacks were not actively recruited until it became apparent that the war would be long and costly. As a war measure, Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, declaring that all enslaved people in the confederacy should be “forever free” and providing for the use of African American soldiers in the Civil War. This document would go into effect January 1, 1853. Faced with a shortage of manpower among the rank and file, the War Department in 1863 finally established a policy encouraging the use of black men and, subsequently, thousands were actively recruited. By the end of the war, more than 186,000 black men had enlisted, resulting in a ratio of one black soldier to every eight white soldiers. White commissioned officers and both black and white noncommissioned officers led most units of black soldiers. Frederick Douglass and Martin Delaney were recruiters for the U.S. Colored Troops; Delaney, a Harvard-trained doctor, served as a major. Two of Douglass’ sons joined the troops. Although the black troops were treated unfairly by both the Union and the Confederacy, they served faithfully and well.


The immediate post-Civil War period saw the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, gave equal protection under the law, and granted citizenship and male suffrage to all born in the United States, regardless of color or previous condition of servitude. Although this seemed to promise a new era of freedom for African Americans, troubles soon set in. Gains in civil rights legislation and political representation in the state and local legislatures and in the U.S. Congress were eroded in several decades. Congressional reports chronicle the Ku Klux Klan death threats to those blacks who dared to participate actively in the political and economic arenas of the South. Tenancy, sharecropping, and peonage bound many poor African Americans in a new kind of bondage from the 1870s through the turn of the century. Blacks had to begin anew to strive for social and political rights in their homeland.

Despite setbacks, by the turn of the twentieth century a race formerly barred from literacy by law was largely literate and had published thousands of books, pamphlets, plays, and music pieces. Nevertheless, in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a crushing blow to the struggle for freedom by declaring in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that it was legal to provide “separate but equal” accommodations for blacks on public conveyances. The concept of racial separation long predated Plessy and had crept through the fabric of American life, North and South. Historian Rayford Logan in his work, Betrayal of the Negro (originally published in 1954 as The Negro in American Life, The Nadir), called this period the nadir of the historical experience of free blacks. Race riots and other types of racial violence ushered in a reign of terror in much of the South.

The voices of the nation’s black citizens were not silenced by the onslaught of racial repression. Black journalists like Ida B. Wells Barnett and T. Thomas Fortune, and up-and-coming scholars such as W. E. B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson, and educators such as Booker T. Washington, Kelly Miller, Mary Church Terrell, and Fanny Jackson Coppin spoke out against lynching and other forms of violence. Black leaders being trained at African American colleges and universities and a few integrated and mainstream universities formed the relentless vanguard for civil rights and equal opportunity for all in the twentieth century.


(Other important figures from this time period appear in specific chapters according to their occupation. For example, mathematician Benjamin Banneker is biographied in the Science & Technology chapter. To locate biographical profiles more readily, please consult the index at the back of the book.)

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS (1767–1848) President, Politician

The sixth President of the United States, was a white man who said that he was not an abolitionist. Yet, he respected the rights of all citizens to petition the American government. After his presidency, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830. During his tenure, the House banned the consideration of petitions for the emancipation of slaves. This ban, called the “gag rule,” was in force beginning in 1836. Adams tirelessly and successfully fought against the rule which was rescinded in 1844. Although Adams did not consider himself to be an abolitionist, his views on human rights led abolitionists to recruit him as the lawyer for the Amistad Africans This group of Africans staged a slave revolt at sea but we eventually tried in the United States. Adams successfully defended their cause.

ALICE OF DUNK’S FERRY (c.1686–1802) Oral Historian

Alice was born around 1686 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to slave parents brought from Barbados. At the age of ten, she moved to Dunk’s Ferry in Bucks County with her master, where she lived out the rest of what proved to be an incredibly long life, spending some 40 of her 116 years collecting tolls at a bridge. Alice’s long life, coupled with a remarkable memory, made her an ideal oral historian, recounting for listeners her vivid memories of the early days of the colony. She could remember when the

great city of Philadelphia was nothing more than a wilderness, populated by Native Americans and wild animals of the forest. Little is known about her life, although evidence suggests that she remained physically active even past the century mark of her life. She died as a slave just a few miles from Philadelphia in 1802.


CRISPUS ATTUCKS (c.1723–1770) Revolutionary Patriot

A runaway slave who lived in Boston, he was the first of five men killed on March 5, 1770, when British troops fired on a crowd of colonial protesters in the Boston Massacre. The most widely accepted account of the incident is that of John Adams, who said at the subsequent trial of the British soldiers that Attucks undertook “to be the hero of the night; and to lead this army with banners, to form them in the first place in Dock Square, and march them up to King Street with their clubs.” When the crowd reached the soldiers, it was Attucks who “had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down.” At that point the panicked soldiers fired, and in the echoes of their volley, five men lay dying; the seeds of the Revolution were sown. Attucks is remembered as “the first to defy, the first to die.”

CHARLES BALL (1781?–?) Aboltionist, Author

Charles Ball, a fugitive slave, dictated his autobiography Fifty Years in Chains; or, The Life of an American Slave (1836). His narrative was very popular and was updated a few times and reprinted many times. Born in Calvert County, Maryland. in about 1781, Ball was the grandson of an African. His mother died when he was about four years old and father ran away when he learned that he was about to be sold. Ball himself was sold into slavery in Georgia when he was about thirty years old. He subsequently ran away and found his wife and family in Maryland. After living as a free man for a while, he was recaptured. Escaping again, he returned to find that his family members who were legally free had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. At first Ball’s narrative was published anonymously. He discussed the institution of slavery, kidnapping of African Americans, and the effect of the cotton gin on the lives of enslaved blacks.



HENRY BOX BROWN (1815–?) Abolitionist

Henry Brown got his nickname “Box” when he mailed himself from Richmond, Virginia, to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Antislavery office in 1849 to escape from slavery. Brown, who was unlettered, got an abolitionist to write down his autobiography for him. It was first published several months after his escape and revised and republished in England in 1851. In his narrative Brown explains that he was born in 1815 on the Barret plantation in Virginia, When Brown was fifteen years old, his master died and Brown’s family was divided between the owner’s four sons. Taken to Richmond by William Barret, Brown he began to work long hours in a tobacco factory. His new master regularly set aside small sums of money as a reward for Brown’s work. Brown was no spendthrift so he was able to amass some savings.

Brown got permission to marry a slave named Nancy on the condition that he find a place for his family to live. After twelve years of marriage Brown’s wife and children were sold away and he had no idea where they had gone. To add to the calamity, some whites also took everything Brown owned out of his house. Brown began to plan to get away from the terrible confines of enslavement. He wanted to find a way of escape that was unique. In 1849, with the help of two allies, Brown was shipped to Philadelphia in a crate. When Brown’s Philadelphia contacts heard that the box had arrived, several witnesses, including the African American Underground Railroad conductor, William Still, were present for the opening of the crate. To their amazement, Brown was alive. After his escape Brown began speaking on the antislavery circuit about the horrors of slavery. In response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, he fled to England.


JOSEPH CINQUE (1811–1879) Mutineer, Insurrectionist

Born in Sierra Leone in 1811 and purchased by Spaniards in Havana, Cuba, in 1838, Cinque was placed aboard the Amistad bound for Puerto Principe. The Amistad, a Spanish vessel, set sail from Cuba on June 28, 1839. A few days later, led by Joseph Cinque who was about twenty-five years old, the Africans rebelled, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered several others to transport them back to Africa. During the day, the pilots steered the vessel eastward, but at night they headed north, ultimately arriving in August 1839 off Long Island, N.Y. There the ship was seized by U.S. government authorities and the Africans were imprisoned after the white crewmen denounced them as rebellious slaves, pirates and murderers.

Abolitionists took up the cause of the men and enabled Cinque to raise funds for judicial appeals by speaking on their lecture circuit. Almost overnight the incident became a cause célèbre. The Africans, led by the Mende warrior Singbe-Piéh, named Cinque by the slave traders, insisted that they be freed and returned to their continent. Many admired or respected Cinque both as a warrior and leader of his people. President Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) and the Spanish administrators of Cuba claimed that they should be extradited to Cuba to stand trial for mutiny. The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme court where John Quincy Adams defended the Amistad Africans. Adams won the case, the Africans were declared free and missionaries and well-wishers raised money for Cinquez and the remaining Africans to return to West Africa.

DANIEL COKER (1789–1846) Educator, Pastor, Colonizationist

Daniel Coker was an African American preacher, teacher, and missionary to Africa. He was born Isaac Wright in 1780 in Frederick County, Maryland, to an enslaved African father, Edward Wright, and a white mother, Susan Coker, an indentured servant. His mother also had an older white son, named Daniel Coker. Isaac received a rudimentary education and ran away to New York where he assumed his brother’s name, Daniel Coker.

Coker was active in the Methodist movement under the traveling Bishop Francis Asbury. Coker became a minister in a Baltimore Methodist church, modeled after Reverend Richard Allen’s church in Philadelphia, and opened a school in about 1800. In spite of the fact that early Methodists were encouraged to free their slaves, welcome African American members and support abolition, many white preachers, trustees, and members did not agree and treated African-Americans members of their congregation justly or courteously. Coker published a 43-page pamphlet containing one of his 1810 sermons protesting African slavery entitled, A Dialog between a Virginian and an African Minister. In it he describes himself as a “Minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore” and in an appendix lists the names of African ministers “who are in holy orders,” as well as African local preachers, African churches, and “names of the descendants of the African race, who have given proofs of talent.”

In the introduction to the 1817 publication The Doctrines and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Daniel Coker, Richard Allen and James Champion explained how they responded to their mis-treatment by white Methodists after a number of years of dissatisfaction. They stated that the African American members were “disposed to seek a place of worship for themselves” rather than seek legal redress against the white Methodist preachers and trustees who repeatedly tried to keep them from equality with white. In addition to pastoring Coker established a church school, the Bethel Charity School. Several generations of blacks benefited from the teachers and preachers trained in this school. For some unrevealed reason Coker was removed from the church in 1818 but restored a year later. During that year, it seems, Coker decided that he wanted to be a missionary to Africa.

In addition to pastoring and teaching several other important events were taking place in Coker’s life about the same time. Several years prior to the formation of the AME Church Coker became very interested in developments in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Coker decided that he and his family would partner with the American Colonization Society to return to Africa as a missionary After their arrival on an for their white agents to govern the settlers but when “African fever” stisland off the coast of sierra Leone many settlers got sick; some died. The ACS intended ruck the surviving white agent, he appointed Coker to lead the settlers.

The letter explained the state of the colonists. The settlers resented Coker’s leadership but he continued to serve until another white ACS agent arrived. The settlers moved to several locations before finally relocating in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. When some of the settlers decided to move down the coast to found Liberia in 1822, Coker elected to remain in Sierra Leone where he ministered until his death in 1846.

JOSHUA COFFIN (1792–1864) Abolitionist

White abolitionists like teacher Joshua Coffin argued that the existence of slavery in the United States constituted a real threat to public peace and security. He used his volume An Account of Some of the Principal Slave Insurrections (1860) to show how often slaves rose up against their owners to demand their freedom. In it he describes slave resistance through large and small-scale rebellions in the North and South, work slow downs, poisonings, arsons, and murders. He discusses many mutinies, including one on a Rhode Island ship when captives near Cape Coast Castle (in present-day Ghana) rose and “murdered the captain and all the crew except the two mates, who swam ashore.” Coffin was a founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society.


WILLIAM CRAFT (1842–1900) Abolitionist, Businessman

ELLEN CRAFT (1826–1891) Abolitionist, Educator

Ellen Smith’s mother was a Georgia slave who had a child to her master. As a youth, Ellen bore such a resemblance to her father/master that she was ultimately sent away to her master’s daughter in Macon, Georgia, where she worked as a house maid. In Macon Ellen met and married William Craft, a carpenter.

After the marriage, the couple tried to devise escape plans. Finally, by Christmas 1848 they came up with an idea. Ellen would pose as a sickly young man. She dressed in men’s clothing, wrapped her face with a scarf to hid the fact that she had no beard, and bandaged her right hand, pretending that she was wounded, so that no one would know that she could not read and write. Her husband, William, pretended that he was her slave accompanying her to Philadelphia. The left just at the beginning of the Christmas holidays with a pass from their owners. Because bondspersons were usually given some free time at Christmas, the young couple hoped that no one would look for them for several days. They bought fares with money that William had warned as a hired slave and took both trains and boast until they arrived in Philadelphia. Their mission was successful with only a few frightening moments, particularly when Ellen was asked to produce papers showing the she was indeed William‘s owner. The coupled traveled to various places in the North and spoke for the abolitionist cause. They settled for a while in Boston until the arrival of slave catchers convinced them that they needed to spend some time in England. In 1860 William published a book about their experiences entitled Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. At the end of the Civil War, the Crafts returned to Georgia where they opened a school for black children.

PAUL CUFFEE (PAUL CUFFE) (1759–1817) Shipbuilder, Ship Captain, Colonizationist

Paul Cuffee was a Massachusetts free man who learned to articulate the doctrines of freedom for oppressed African Americans. He eventually became an active exponent of African colonization in general and of the British Sierra Leonean scheme in particular. Born in Massachusetts before the Revolutionary War, Cuffee was of mixed Native American and African parentage and was the seventh of eleven children. As a youth he was able to get some education and then found work as a sailor, as a laborer in shipyards and as a shipbuilder. He saw opportunities in this line of work and seized them. By 1780 he had built a ship of his own and by 1806 he owned one large ship, two brigs and some smaller vessels and was able to engage very profitably in trade.

In spite of his accomplishments Cuffee still regularly confronted racial prejudice. Although his wealth continued to grow, as did his contributions to the Massachusetts government through taxes, he could not vote and his children could not attend public schools. Cuffee knew that the colonies had railed against Great Britain for taxation without representation during the Revolutionary War, and it seemed to him that the colonies were guilty of the same injustices by taxing free blacks without letting them reap all of the benefits that tax dollars earned for other citizens. In defiance, Cuffee and his brother refused to pay their taxes. Subsequently, Cuffee financed a Quaker school, which he opened not only to black children but also to all children in his community.

Even when the Massachusetts courts abolished slavery in 1783, Cuffee reasoned that the best avenue for blacks to pursue was to reestablish contact with West Africans for the purpose of colonization and trade. He thought that blacks could contribute both civilization and Christianity to their ancestral homeland. During Cuffee’s 1811-12 visit to Sierra Leone, he formed the Friendly Society with an Afro-American emigrant named John Kizzell for the purpose of encouraging Afro-American emigration and trade.

Cuffee was unable to interest anyone in financing his Sierra Leone colonization scheme. Consequently, he determined that he would finance it himself but encountered one major problem. During the time he was formulating his plans, the United States and Great Britain were involved in the War of 1812 and Americans were not permitted to trade with England or her colonies. In 1814 Cuffee petitioned the United States Congress to lift the embargo against trade with Sierra Leone so that he could begin his venture. His petition passed the Senate but was struck down by the House. Finally, after the cessation of hostilities in 1815 and at a personal expenditure of $4,000, Cuffee took nine free black families totaling thirty-eight individuals to settle in Sierra Leone. The emigrant families consisted of nine adult males, ten adult females, six male and thirteen female children. Although he had difficulty marketing his trade goods when he returned, Cuffee became even more determined that black Americans needed to emigrate if they were to achieve true independence and racial dignity. Many free blacks as well as some whites received Cuffee’s emigration plan with enthusiasm but few blacks were willing to give up their American citizenship, the United States was the only country they knew.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS (1817–1895) Abolitionist, Editor, Diplomat, Government Official, Legislator, Marshall

Born in Talbot County, Maryland, on February 14, 1817, Frederick Douglass was sent to Baltimore as a house servant at the age of eight, where his mistress taught him to read and write. Upon the death of his master, he was sent to the country to work as a field hand. During his time in the South, he was severely flogged for his resistance to slavery. In his early teens, he began to teach in a Sunday school that was later forcibly shut down by hostile whites. After an unsuccessful attempt to escape from slavery, he succeeded in making his way to New York disguised as a sailor in 1838. He found work as a day laborer in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and after an extemporaneous speech before the Massachusetts AntiSlavery Society, he became one of its agents.

Douglass quickly became a nationally recognized figure among abolitionists. In 1845, he bravely published his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which related his experiences as a slave, revealed his fugitive status, and further exposed him to the danger of reenslavement. In the same year, he went to England and Ireland, where he remained until 1847, speaking on slavery and women’s rights, and ultimately raising sufficient funds to purchase his freedom. Upon returning to the United States, he founded the North Star. In the tense years before the Civil War, he was forced to flee to Canada when the governor of Virginia swore out a warrant for his arrest.

Douglass returned to the United States before the beginning of the Civil War and, after meeting with President Abraham Lincoln, he assisted in the formation of the 54th and 55th Negro regiments of Massachusetts. During Reconstruction, he became deeply involved in the civil rights movement, and, in 1871, he was appointed to the territorial legislature of the District of Columbia. He served as one of the presidential electors-at-large for New York in 1872 and, shortly thereafter, became the secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission. After serving for a short time as the police commissioner of the District of Columbia, he was appointed marshal in 1871, and held the post until he was appointed the recorder of deeds in 1881. In 1890, his support of the presidential campaign of Benjamin Harrison won him his most important federal post: he became minister resident and consul general to the Republic of Haiti and, later, the charge d’affaires of Santo Domingo. In 1891, he resigned the position in protest of the unscrupulous business practices of U.S. businessmen. Douglass died at his home in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895.


W. E. B. DUBOIS (1868–1963) Scholar, Activist, PanAfricanist

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the great-grandchild of Elizabeth Freeman, an eighteenth century black woman who successfully sued for her freedom after she was hit with a hot shovel while protecting her daughter. DuBois got a solid educational background but was not able to go to the college of his choice—Harvard—because of his African ancestry. He went instead to Fisk University in Tennessee—an institution of higher learning established for freed slaves. After graduating from Fisk in 1888, DuBois went to Harvard where he earned his doctorate degree in 1895. His dissertation on the suppression of the African slave trade became the first in the series of Harvard Historical Studies.

In spite of his scholarly accomplishments, DuBois faced discrimination on every side. He began to write about the history and culture of African Americans and research a series of cultural sociological essays and studies such as The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and The Souls of Black Folks (1903) and teach at several historically black colleges. In 1905 he met with a group of African American leaders in Niagara Falls, Canada, to articulate the political and social needs of blacks and to strategize way of obtaining first class citizenship. Some of the ideas of the Niagara movement were incorporated by a group of activists—largely whites—who wanted to form an organization to agitate for civil rights for people of color. This group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, formed in 1909, probably became popular because DuBois became the editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis, a role he served in from 1910 to 1934. DuBois used The Crisis to showcase the accomplishments of Africans in the Diaspora while emphasizing the NAACP’s platform for equal rights for all Americans. He also helped popularize the concept of PanAfricanism—the need for Africans worldwide to work together for political and social rights. During his entire life he was a tireless advocate for the rights of all. When he became disenchanted with America and the civil rights movement towards the end of his life, he joined the Communist Party and moved to Ghana in 1961 where he died two years latter. The illustrious scholar and activist had written 17 books—the most famous being The Souls of Black Folks—edited four journals and taken the United States to task on every race relations issue both nationally and internationally.


OLAUDAH EQUIANO (1750?–1797) Narrative Writer

Olaudah Equiano was born around 1750 in an Ibo village in southern Nigeria. At the age of 11, he was kidnapped and enslaved in Africa before being shipped to the New World. His masters included a Virginia plantation owner, a British officer—who gave him the name Gustavus Vassa—and a Philadelphia merchant from whom he eventually purchased his freedom. Equiano then settled in England where he worked diligently for the elimination of slavery. He even went so far as to present a petition to Parliament calling for its abolition.

Equiano’s autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa was published in London in 1789 and went through five editions in five years. It is regarded as a highly informative account of the evils of slavery as it affected the master and the slave, as well as the precursor to other important slave narratives, such as the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.


Born in Azamore, Morocco, young Estevanico’s city was captured in a battle with the Portugese when he was a baby. Eventually, Estevanico was sold into slavery in Spain to Andres de Dorantes. Dorantes gave him the name Stephen; “Estevanico,” is a nickname that means Little Stephen. Two decades later Dorantes left Spain on an expedition to Florida arriving in April 1528. After encountering hostile Indians many of the six hundred colonists and soldiers with Estevanico were killed or enslaved. Those who escaped landed in Texas but most of them lost their lives. Estevanico, Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca and Alonso Castillo managed to escape Indian captivity in 1534. Estevanico, who had a facility for languages, became a guide and scout for the Europeans. He also was able to convince many Indians that he was a healer and in that role was able to act as a mediator between the Spaniards and the Indians. In his communication with the Indians he learned about seven cities of gold known as Cibola. Indians described these cities of wealth and gave him tokens they claimed were from the area.

The small group traveled with great difficulty through Texas and arrived in Mexico City in 1536. The Viceroy there wanted the Estevanico to lead an expedition to Arizona and New Mexico to find Cibola. Estevanico served as the scout for the expedition, which was led this time led by Father Marcos de Niza. Estevanico sent back wooden crosses with to mark the direction of his journey. Still introducing himself as a powerful healer, Estevanico attracted many Indians who traveled with him. When he came to a Zuni pueblo with its large stone structures, he sent back a cross much larger than the ones he had sent previously. Soon after that communication with Estevanico ceased. Some believe he was killed by the Indians. Others speculate that he escaped his bondage.

JOHN FLOYD (1783–1837) Virginia Governor

John Floyd was the white governor of Virginia during the Nat Turner Revolt in Southampton, Virginia, in 1831. He wrote an explanatory letter to the governor of South Carolina. James Hamiliton, Jr., detailing what he believed to be the causal factors of the revolt. First, he blamed the restiveness of slaves to the presence of northerners traveling and doing business in the South. He especially noted that their teaching of Christianity caused enslaved blacks to feed that their were equal before God and their repetition of the Revolutionary War philosophies of liberty incited bondspersons‘ desire for freedom. Floyd also cited white women who in their eagerness to evangelize blacks taught them to read the Bible and religious tract.. He also said that owners allowed large African American religious meetings where teachers taught about equality before God and sang songs which expressed longings for freedom. He also mentioned the number of black preachers who spoke with the slaves insisting that they were probably all directly responsible for the revolt. Floyd was especially concerned about the infiltration of publications such as William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator and David Walker’s Appeal.

WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON (1805–1879) Abolitionist, Journalist

William Lloyd Garrison, a white abolitionist, was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1805. Garrison family deserted by their father, had to find means for their own support. Garrison was apprenticed several times as a youth but finally, in 1818, began working as a writer and editor. In his twenties Garrison began to actively support the movement for the abolition of slavery. He supported the American Colonization Society for a while but then decided that the ACS did not really have the best interests of African Americans at heart. He was also concerned by the high mortality rate of African American settlers in Liberia.

In the late 1820s Garrison met Benjamin Lundy the editor of an antislavery newspaper, The Genius of Universal Emancipation, but he quickly moved on to found his own newspaper, the Liberator, in 1831. He became a relentless opponent of slavery. Garrison wanted immediate, universal emancipation. He believed that the U. S. Constitution was a slavery document. Garrison helped organize the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1832 and the American Anti-Slavery Society the next year. In 1839 Frederick Douglass began to read the Liberator and attend abolition meetings. By 1841 Douglass was traveling to speak out against slavery with Garrison and other abolitionists. Many of the sponsors and subscribers to Garrison’s newspaper were African Americans. After publishing almost two thousand issues of the Liberator, Garrison ceased publication during the Civil War.


LEMUEL HAYNES (1753–1833) Religious Leader

The son of a black father and white mother and born in 1753, he was deserted and brought up by Deacon David Rose of Granville, Massachusetts. He was a precocious child and began writing mature sermons while still a boy. His preparation for the ministry was interrupted by the American Revolution. On April 19, 1775, he fought in the first battle of the war at Lexington, Massachusetts; he then joined the regular forces and served with Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys at the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.


SALLY HEMINGS (1773–1886) Slave

Sally Hemings was born a slave in Virginia in 1773, the daughter of a white man named John Wayles and a mulatto slave named Elizabeth Hemings. She became the slave and perhaps the concubine of President Thomas Jefferson. While it is known that Hemings bore several mulatto children, there is considerable scholarly debate over whether Thomas Jefferson was their father. Contemporaries claimed that Hemings’ children bore close resemblance to Jefferson and scholars argue that all of Hemings’ pregnancies correspond to a date that Jefferson was at home rather than on his extensive travels. The Hemings offspring were among the few slaves that Jefferson freed. One of Jefferson’s contemporaries (albeit, a political enemy) accused him of miscegenation in 1802, but the furor over the exact nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings did not pick up steam until the late twentieth century, when DNA tests on descendants of Sally Hemings concluded that either Jefferson or a close male relative had fathered Hemings’ children. Those who maintain the existence of a sexual relationship between the two figures suggest that Jefferson first seduced Hemings in Paris when she was just 15, and that they maintained a 38-year relationship until his death in 1826.

JOSIAH HENSON (1789–1883) Educational Administrator, Abolitionist, Religious Leader

Born a slave in a log cabin in Charles County (near Rockville), Maryland, on June 15, 1789, Josiah Henson grew up with the experience of his family being cruelly treated by his master. By the time he was 18 years of age, Henson was supervising the master’s farm. In 1825, he and his wife and children were moved to Kentucky, where conditions were greatly improved, and in 1828 he became a preacher in a Methodist Episcopal Church. Under the threat of being sold, he and his family escaped to Ohio in 1830, and the following year entered Canada by way of Buffalo, New York. In Canada, he learned to read and write from one of his sons, and he soon began preaching in Dresden, Ontario.

While in Canada, he became active in the Underground Railroad, helping nearly 200 slaves to escape to freedom. In 1842, he and several others attempted to start the British-American Manual Labor Institute, but the industrial school proved unsuccessful. Henson related his story to Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and it has been disputed whether or not her story is based in part on aspects of his life. He traveled to England three times, where he met distinguished people, was honored for his abolitionist activities and personal escape from slavery, and was offered a number of positions that he turned down in order to return to Canada. He published his autobiography in 1849 and rewrote and reissued it in 1858 and 1879. Henson died in Ontario in 1883.

HARRY HOSIER (1750–1806) Preacher

Most sources report that Harry Hosier (also spelled Hoosier, Hoshur, Hossier) was born a slave near Fayetteville, North Carolina, around 1750. Although little is known as to the circumstances, Hosier experienced both a religious conversion to Methodism and his freedom. He is thought to have met Francis Asbury, the founder of Methodism and evangelist to the slaves, sometime in 1780; Asbury wrote of the meeting that it was “providentially arranged.” The two men partnered together to spread the Gospel, with Hosier acting as Asbury’s servant, guide, and circuit-riding preacher.

Hosier proved to be an eloquent speaker who, though uneducated, was intellectually alert, creative, and possessed a remarkable memory. Those who heard him preach were instantly impressed with his work. He preached with Asbury at the Fairfax Chapel in Falls Church, Virginia, as early as May 13, 1781. This made him the first black preacher to deliver a sermon to a white Methodist church in America. His fame as a preacher brought him into contact with several other major preachers, including Thomas Coke, who wrote of him, “I really believe he is one of the best Preachers in the world, there is such an amazing power attends his preaching, though he cannot read; and he is one of the humblest creatures I ever saw.” Hosier actually resisted learning to read and write throughout his career, relying on his memory for biblical passages and hymns for his listeners. He was present at the historic Christmas conference at the end of 1784, which saw the formal establishment of both the Methodist Episcopal Church and a permanent relationship between black and white Methodists. Although enormously popular, Hosier was never ordained in the Methodist church, possibly because of his rumored problems with alcohol.






Born a slave, James Armistead Lafayette risked his life behind enemy lines collecting information for the Continental Army. He furnished valuable information to the Marquis de Lafayette and enabled the French commander to check the troop advances of British General Cornwallis; this set the stage for General George Washington’s victory at Yorktown in 1781 and for the end of the Revolutionary War. In recognition of his services, he was granted his freedom by the Virginia legislature in 1786, although it was not until 1819 that Virginia awarded him a pension of $40 a year and a grant of $100. He adopted the surname “Lafayette” in honor of his former commander, who visited him during a trip to the United States in 1824.



TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE (1743–1803) Insurrectionist

Born Francois Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, a slave on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1743, he learned to read and write under a benevolent master. When he was 50 years of age, a violent revolt erupted on the island. White French planters, African slaves, and free mulattoes (some of whom owned slaves) clashed over issues of rights, land, and labor, as the forces of France, Britain, and Spain manipulated the conflict. At first the slaves and mulattoes shared the goals of the French revolution in opposition to the royalist French planters, but with time a coalition of planters and mulattoes arose in opposition to the slaves.

L’Ouverture became the leader of the revolutionary slave forces, which by mid-1790s consisted of a disciplined group of 4,000 mostly ex-slaves. He successfully waged a campaign against the British. At the height of L’Ouverture’s power and influence in 1796, General Rigaud, who led the mulatto forces, sought to re-impose slavery on the black islanders. L’Ouverture quickly achieved victory, captured Santo Domingo, and by 1801 had virtual control of the Spanish part of the island. In 1802, a French expeditionary force was sent to reestablish French control of the island. Following a hard-fought resistance to French colonial ambitions in the Western Hemisphere, Toussaint L’Ouverture struck a peace treaty with Napoleon. However, L’Ouverture was tricked, captured, and sent to France where he died on April 7, 1803, under inhumane conditions.

ONESIMUS (fl. 1700s) Slave, Scientific Discoverer

Onesimus was a slave in Boston, Massachusetts, during the early1700s. He had grown up in Africa, a member of the Garamantes tribe, but was enslaved and brought to America. Beginning in 1706, he worked for religious leader Cotton Mather, who also was a contributor to scientific journals such as Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. While reading an article in that magazine, Mather was struck by how closely the recounted practice of inoculation in Turkey resembled what Onesimus had told him about what was done to him in Africa. Mather’s description of Onesimus’s account was printed in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine from a letter Mather wrote to the Royal Society. Nevertheless, nothing came of this information for another five years.

In 1721, Boston was hit with a smallpox epidemic. Because of Onesimus’s story, Mather insisted that the medical community at least attempt the slave’s method of disease prevention. Finally, a country doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, succeeded in saving his six-year-old son and two slaves. Boylston continued to inoculate more and more people safely, keeping careful records. Of the 286 people he inoculated, 2.1% died, compared to 14.9 percent of those who acquired smallpox naturally. Boylston reported his findings to the Royal Society, and the medical community became convinced of the value of inoculation.

Through the accurate recounting of the procedure carried out on him, Onesimus helped bring knowledge of inoculation to the Western world. This would remain the primary way of protecting people from the ravages of smallpox until the introduction of Jennerian cowpox vaccination in 1798.


SALEM POOR (1747–?) Revolutionary War Soldier

Salem Poor was born a slave in 1747 in Andover, Massachusetts. He spent his childhood and the early years of his adult life on his master’s farm in Andover, before purchasing his freedom in 1769. In March of 1774, after the Continental Congress designated certain units of the Massachusetts militia to serve as Minutemen, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety permitted black volunteers to join town and village companies. A number of free black men promptly enlisted, including Poor. He enlisted in the First Andover Company as a private and, like other militia minutemen, was trained to respond at a minute’s notice to British aggression.

When American rebellion against the British turned into open warfare, Poor enlisted under Captain Samuel Johnson in the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment on April 24, 1775. He participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill, and fired the shot that killed British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie. Poor was never far from active duty in the years between 1775 and 1780, and was with some 500 other black sharpshooters in the Continental Army that spent the legendary frozen winter of 1777–1778 with General George Washington in his Valley Forge encampment. He also served in the crucial battles of White Plains, New York, and Providence, Rhode Island. Only one instance is recorded of Salem Poor having been commended for his bravery, the submission of the petition of recommendation in December 1775. Two hundred years later, Poor’s valor was publicly recognized. On March 25, 1975, as part of the United States Postal Service’s Revolutionary War Bicentennial series of stamps entitled “Contributors to the Cause,” a commemorative 10-cent stamp was issued in recognition of “Salem Poor—Gallant Soldier.”

GABRIEL PROSSER (1775–1800) Insurrectionist

Gabriel Prosser was born around 1775. He became the coachman of Thomas Prosser of Henrico County, Virginia, and planned a large, highly organized revolt to take place on the last night of August of 1800 around Richmond, Virginia. About 32,000 slaves and only 8,000 whites were in the area, and it was his intention to kill all of the whites except for the French, Quakers, elderly women, and children. The ultimate goal was that the remaining 300,000 slaves in the state would follow his lead and seize the entire state. The revolt was set to coincide with the harvest so that his followers would be spared any shortage of food, and it was decided that the conspirators would meet at the Old Brook Swamp outside of Richmond and marshal forces to attack the city.

The insurrection fell apart when a severe rainstorm made it impossible for many of the slaves to assemble and a pair of house slaves who did not wish their master killed revealed the plot. Panic swept through the city, martial law was declared, and those suspected of involvement were rounded up and hanged; when it became clear that the slave population would be decimated if all of those implicated were dealt with in similar fashion, the courts began to mete out less severe sentences. Prosser was apprehended in the hold of a schooner that docked in Norfolk, Virginia. Brought back in chains, he was interrogated by the governor. When he refused to divulge details of the conspiracy, he was hung.




DRED SCOTT (1795–1858) Abolitionist

Born in Southhampton, Virginia, in 1795, Dred Scott’s first name was simply Sam. He worked as a farmhand, handyman, and stevedore, and moved with his master to Huntsville, Alabama, and later to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1831, his owner, Peter Blow, died, and he was bought by John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army. Sam accompanied his new master to Illinois (a free state) and Wisconsin (a territory). Sometime after 1836, he received permission to marry, and by 1848 he had changed his name to Dred Scott. At various times, he attempted to buy his freedom or escape, but was unsuccessful. In 1843, Emerson died and left his estate to his widow Irene Emerson, who also refused Scott his freedom. He then obtained the assistance of two attorneys who helped him to sue for his freedom in county court.

Scott lost this case, but the verdict was set aside, and in 1847 he won a second trial on the grounds that his slave status had been nullified upon entering into a free state. Scott received financial backing and legal representation through the sons of Peter Blow, Irene Emerson’s brother John Sanford, and her second husband, Dr. C. C. Chaffee, all of whom apparently saw the case as an important challenge to slavery. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1857, that court ruled against Scott, stating that slaves were not legal citizens of the United States and, therefore, had no standing in the courts. Shortly after the decision was handed down, Mrs. Emerson freed Scott. The case led to the nullification of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, allowing the expansion of slavery into formerly free territories and strengthening the abolition movement.

WILLIAM STILL (1821–1902) Underground Railroad Conductor

In 1872, William Still published a 558-page book with the long title, The Underground Rail Road: a Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom as Related by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author, together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers, of the Road. Still, born in New Jersey in 1821, was the son of former slaves. As an employee of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. He began assisting large numbers of runaway slaves especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. At that time the society made him chairperson of its Vigilance Committee and Still listened to the accounts of many escapees and recorded their stories. In his book he praises his friend and co-conspirator Harriet Tubman, for her bravery and tenacity as an Underground Railroad conductor. Even after slavery was abolished in the nation, Still continued to work for first class citizenship for African Americans.

HARRIET BEECHER STOWE (1811–1896) Abolitionist, Author

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a white teacher, abolitionist and writer but most people remember her only as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet was born June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut, to Lyman and Roxanna Foote Beecher. In 1836 Harriet married Calvin Stowe who taught Biblical Literature at Lane Theological Institute, where Harriet’s father was president. The couple had seven children. Galvanized by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly, in forty installments from June 1851 to April of 1852 in the Washington, D.C. National Era. The story riveted the attention of thousands of readers and engendered outrage in many about the institution of slavery.

Although the story centers on the mistreatment of the pious and wise slave, Uncle Tom, many other slaves are featured in the story. The book targets even benign slave owners as partners in the crime against humanity, slavery. Toward the end of Tom’s life, his owner Simon Legree, who specializes in cruelty, finally beats Tom severely because he knows that Tom has outwitted him in a matter

relating to two runaway women. When Tom’s former master finally rescues him, Tom survives only a few miles beyond the door of Legree’s plantation. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared as a book in March 1852, published in two volumes by J. P. Jewett, it sold three hundred thousand copies in one year. Before 1860 over one million copies had sold in the U.S. and over two million copies abroad, authorized and unauthorized, principally in England but also in France, Germany and other nations. In 1853, 1856 and 1859 Stowe traveled abroad and was enthusiastically received by common folks and nobility.

Stowe’s novel added measurably to the polarization of abolitionist and anti-abolitionist sentiment in the U. S. and Europe. Carl Sandburg reported in Abraham Lincoln: the War Years that during a White House visit President Lincoln greeted Stowe with out stretched hands saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” Historian Benjamin Quarles noted that at an 1863 abolitionist’s celebration of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the crowd yelled for Stowe to come forward to receive an enthusiastic ovation for the service she had performed by writing UncleTom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe died at eight-five in Hartford, Connecticut.

SOJOURNER TRUTH (1797–1883) Lecturer, Abolitionist

Born Isabella Baumfree in Ulster County, New York, around 1797, she was freed by the New York State Emancipation Act of 1827 and lived in New York City for a time. After taking the name Sojourner Truth, which she felt God had given her, she assumed the “mission” of spreading “the Truth” across the country. She became famous as an itinerant preacher, drawing huge crowds with her oratory and, some said, with “mystical gifts” wherever she appeared. She became one of an active group of African American women abolitionists, lectured before numerous abolitionist audiences, and was friends with such leading white abolitionists as James and Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe. With the outbreak of the Civil War, she raised money to purchase gifts for the soldiers, distributing them herself in the camps. She also helped African Americans who had escaped to the North to find habitation and shelter. Age and ill health caused her to retire from the lecture circuit, and she spent her last days in a sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan.

HARRIET (ROSS) TUBMAN (c.1821–1913) Underground Railroad Conductor, Abolitionist, Nurse

Born around 1821 in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman had the hard childhood of a slave: much work, little schooling, and severe punishment. In 1848 she escaped, leaving behind her husband John Tubman, who threatened to report her to their master. As a free woman, she began to devise practical ways of helping other slaves escape. Over the following 10 years, she made about 20 trips from the North into the South and rescued more than 300 slaves. Her reputation spread rapidly, and she won the admiration of leading abolitionists—some of whom sheltered her passengers. Eventually a reward of $40,000 was posted for her capture.

Tubman met and aided John Brown in recruiting soldiers for his raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown referred to her as “General Tubman.” One of her major disappointments was the failure of the raid, and she is said to have regarded Brown as the true emancipator of her people, not Lincoln. In 1860, she began to canvass the nation, appearing at anti-slavery meetings and speaking on women’s rights. Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, she was forced to leave for Canada, but she returned to the United States and served the Union as a nurse, soldier, and spy. She was particularly valuable to the army as a scout because of the knowledge of the terrain that she had gained as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Tubman’s biography, from which she received the proceeds, was written by Sarah Bradford in 1868. Tubman’s husband, John, died two years after the end of the war, and in 1869 she married the war veteran Nelson Davis. Despite receiving many honors and tributes, including a medal from Queen Victoria, she spent her last days in poverty, not receiving a pension until 30 years after the Civil War. With the $20 a month that she finally received, not for her own Civil War service, but for her husband’s, she helped to found a home for the aged and needy, which was later renamed the Harriet Tubman Home. She died on March 10, 1913, in Auburn, New York.

NAT TURNER (1800–1831) Insurrectionist

Born a slave in Southampton County, Virginia, on October 2, 1800, Nat Turner was an avid reader of the Bible who prayed, fasted, and experienced “voices,” ultimately becoming a visionary mystic with a belief that God had given him the special destiny of overthrowing slavery. After recruiting a handful of conspirators, he struck at isolated homes in his immediate area, recruiting men at each home, and within 48 hours the band of insurrectionists had reached 60 armed men. They killed 55 whites before deciding to attack the county seat in Jerusalem, but while en route they were overtaken by a posse and dispersed. Turner took refuge in the Dismal Swamp and remained there for six weeks before he was captured, brought to trial, and hanged along with 16 other African Americans.


DENMARK VESEY (1767–1822) Religious Leader

Born in 1767, Vesey was sold by his master at an early age and later bought back because of epilepsy. He sailed with his master, Captain Vesey, to the Virgin Islands and Haiti for 20 years. He enjoyed a considerable degree of mobility in his home port of Charleston, South Carolina, and eventually purchased his freedom from his master for $600; he had won $1,500 in a lottery. He became a Methodist minister and used his church as a base to recruit supporters to take over Charleston. The revolt was planned for the second Sunday in July of 1822.

Vesey’s plans were betrayed when a slave alerted the white authorities of the city. Hundreds of African Americans were rounded up, though some of Vesey’s collaborators most likely escaped to the Carolinas where they fought as maroons. After a 22-day search, Vesey was apprehended and stood trial. During the trial, he adeptly cross-examined witnesses, but ultimately could not deny his intention to overthrow the city, and he was hanged along with several collaborators.

DAVID WALKER (1785–1830) Militant Abolitionist, Writer

The offspring of a white mother and a black slave father on September 28, 1785, Walker was born free as stipulated by North Carolina law. Walker acquired an education before moving to Boston in the late 1820s. Besides starting a used clothes business, he became an active member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association and an agent for the first African American newspaper Freedom’s Journal. In 1829, Walker published Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, which advocated the violent overthrow of slavery, the formation of African American civil rights and self-help organizations, and racial equality in the United States and independence for the peoples of Africa.

Walker’s pamphlet alarmed Southerners who responded by enacting stricter laws against such “seditious” literature and the education of free African Americans. In the North, he also experienced sharp criticism from such prominent abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison and Benjamin Lundy. On June 28, 1830, nine months after publishing his pamphlet, Walker mysteriously died, leaving behind his wife, Eliza. Though never verified, rumor suggests that he was poisoned.


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Africans in America: 1600–1900

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