The fear of Black rebellion and centering Black notions of freedom, color much of what is happening today in the USA.
Early on the morning of Sunday, September 9, 1739, a group of Black men and women, who were enslaved, met near the Stono River, approximately twenty miles southwest of Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina. At Stono’s bridge, they took guns and powder from a white owned store called Hutcheson’s. “With cries of ‘Liberty’ and beating of drums,” they gathered more Black recruits along the way and killed those whites who attempted to stop them, sparing one innkeeper, according to historian Peter Wood, who was known to be kind to his Blacks. The most visible leader of the group was a man known as Jemmy or Cato, and he, like most of his band, was from the greater Kongo Empire, in what today is known as Angola. Thus, commenced the Stono Rebellion, which is the largest slave uprising in Colonial America, decades before the American Revolution. The fact that they knew the word Liberty raises interesting research questions.
The rebels were organized and knew where they were headed. They were marching south toward the Spanish town of St. Augustine, Florida, where because of tensions between Britain and Spain, they would be declared free if escaping British enslavement. Given that many Atlantic sea trading vessels included enslaved Black sailors, who shared information in the port cities and towns of the Atlantic, the rebels knew about St. Augustine. They were likely also aware of other insurrections. For example, the 1733 revolt on the Danish Island of St. John (now the US Virgin Islands), and the 1738 joint attempt by enslaved Blacks and Irish workers to burn down the city of Savannah, Georgia. In fact, there were dozens of revolts attempted and launched in the America’s during this time. Most of those enslaved at this time were from Africa, and they were fighting captivity in hopes of returning home.
By pure chance, South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor, William Bull and four of his companions, were in the area and came upon the Stono rebels, now close to 160 persons. Unprepared to take on the rebels, Bull and his companions retreated on horseback to mobilize the planter-class militia. After having traveled some ten miles, the rebels encountered the militia and a bloody battle ensued. The rebels fought well and bravely, but ultimately were defeated. Interestingly, some thirty rebels escaped and were only caught days and weeks later; one rebel leader was not captured until 1742, three years later. According to Bull’s documents, some of the rebels were spared if they convinced the planters that they were forced to join. Those who refused to surrender were decapitated and their heads put on poles to deter further uprisings.
The story of the Stono Rebellion is important to know for several reasons. First, too few students in the United States (US) learn of rebellions in US history that are not connected to the American Revolution and the nation-state project. Second, it shows that exploited people were often willing to risk life and limb for freedom. And third, the notion of who is and who is not a hero is challenged by this history. Imagine what today would be like if it was understood that people of African-Descent had a deep notion of freedom before the founding fathers? This is an interesting question for a US history classes.
The Faculty Advisory Board of the Arcus Center for Social Justice leadership and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Faculty team present this monthly notice aimed at educating the K community on African-American history and culture. 19 marks 1619, the year in which the first set of African captives were brought to what would become the United States, and June 19th, 1865, the day that Blacks celebrate the end of enslavement in the US. Both of these dates, and their meanings, were largely unknown to many outsides of the Black community. We feel much of the “surprise” at recent uprisings led by the Black lives Matter movement derives from a lack of knowledge of the rich fabric of Black History. This month, and every month, hereafter, we will offer messages like this one to help better educate our College community as we work towards being an anti-racist Institution.
Regina Stevens-Truss, HHMI Inclusive Excellence + Chemistry department
Lisa Brock, ACSJL + History department