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The Nat Turner rebellion.

In 1831 a slave named Nat Turner led a rebellion in Southhampton County, Virginia. A religious leader and self-styled Baptist minister, Turner and a group of followers killed some sixty white men, women, and children on the night of August 21. Turner and 16 of his conspirators were captured and executed, but the incident continued to haunt Southern whites. Blacks were randomly killed all over Southhampton County; many were beheaded and their heads left along the roads to warn others. In the wake of the uprising planters tightened their grip on slaves and slavery. This woodcut was published in an 1831 account of the slave uprising.

Abolitionists Drew Blood in Fighting Slavery

“It was fugitive slaves, who were violent in defending themselves against slave-catchers, who pushed abolitionists towards militant and sometimes violent tactics,” said Duke University historian Jesse Olavsky. The abolitionist movement was, at its core, quite radical, said Olavsky, author of a recent article titled “Women, Vigilance Committees, and the Rise of Militant Abolitionism, 1835 – 1859.

How white women’s “investment” in slavery has shaped Amerika today

A group of enslaved women and a man sit on the steps of the Florida Club in St. Augustine, Florida, mid 19th Century. A white woman, possibly a manager or overseer, stands behind them. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

White women are sometimes seen as bystanders to slavery. A historian explains why that’s wrong.

In the American South before the Civil War, white women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t hold office. When they married, their property technically belonged to their husbands.

But, as historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers notes, there was one thing they could do, just as white men could: They could buy, sell, and own enslaved people.

In her recent book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American SouthJones-Rogers makes the case that white women were far from passive bystanders in the business of slavery, as previous historians argued. Rather, they were active participants, shoring up their own economic power through ownership of the enslaved.

In the past, historians had often based their conclusions about white women’s role in slavery on the writings of a small subset of white Southern women. But Jones-Rogers, an associate professor of history at the University of California Berkeley, drew on a different source: interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted during the Great Depression as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration. These interviews, Jones-Rogers writes, show that white girls were trained in slave ownership, discipline, and mastery sometimes from birth, even being given enslaved people as gifts when they were as young as nine months old.

The result was a deep investment by white women in slavery, and its echoes continue to be felt today. As the New York Times and others commemorate the date, 400 years ago, when enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, Vox reached out to Jones-Rogers to talk about the history of white, slaveholding women in the South and what that history says about race, gender, wealth, and power in America in 2019. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Anna North

Can you talk a little about how this book came about?

Stephanie Jones-Rogers

When I was in graduate school, I was taking all these different courses and reading all these books on African American history but also on women’s and gender history. I was particularly interested in what these two subfields of history had to say about white women’s economic investments in the institution of slavery. What struck me is that they seemed to be in direct contradiction to each other, in many respects.

Those historians who explored the experiences of white Southern women would often argue that while women had access to enslaved people that male kin or their spouses may have owned, they were not directly involved in the buying and selling of enslaved people — particularly married women weren’t.

Conversely, those individuals who explored the enslaving of African Americans would often, in fact, say that a formerly enslaved person talked about having a female owner or talked about being bought or sold by a woman. And so I asked myself, what’s the real story here?

Were white women — particularly married white women — economically invested in the institution of slavery? Meaning, did they buy and sell enslaved people?

I looked to traditional sources where we might think to find those answers: a white woman’s diary, a white woman’s letters and correspondence between family members, et cetera. They mentioned very sporadically issues related to answering this question, but there was not this kind of sustained conversation. So, I said, African Americans are talking about this. Formerly enslaved people are talking about this. So, let me look to the interviews that they granted to these Federal Writers in the 1930s and 1940s. And so when I look to those interviews, formerly enslaved people were talking about white women’s economic investments in a variety of ways consistently, constantly, routinely.

Portrait photograph of Stephanie Jones-Rogers, author of “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South”
Stephanie Jones-Rogers, author of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. 
Lily Cummings

Anna North

The historians you mention who didn’t see white women as economically invested in slavery — what sources were they drawing on and why is there such a disconnect between those sources and the interviews with formerly enslaved people that did really delve into these economic questions?

Stephanie Jones-Rogers

I tried to focus primarily on married slave-owned women in this book, in large part because those are the women who many historians of slaveowners say did not have a direct impact on the economic institution of slavery. And they say that, in large part, because of this legal doctrine called coverture. Essentially, this doctrine says that when a woman who owns property or earns wages, or has any assets, gets married, those assets, those wages, that wealth, immediately becomes her husband’s — their identities are subsumed into one.

Many historians have looked into this legal doctrine of coverture and seen it as all-encompassing. [But] scholars who have made this argument have essentially not examined the voluminous evidence that appeared in the testimonies of formerly enslaved people.

They also looked to a very small subset of women: highly literate, very elite white women who had the time to sit down and jot down their thoughts about the day. And so they’re missing the vast majority of those women who owned slaves.

The vast majority of women who owned slaves owned less than 20. And often, the women that I talk about in the book owned one or two, no more than five. So these are the women that were probably not literate, and if they were literate, they didn’t have enough time to sit down and write down what was going on in their day. The vast majority of the women who owned slaves are missing from the analyses, in large part because they did not leave documents behind to tell us how they felt about these things, to tell us how they were investing in the institution.

Formerly enslaved people’s testimonies about these women are, in many respects, the only surviving record to document exactly that.

Anna North

So in looking at those testimonies, what did you find in terms of the roles that white women and girls had in slavery, and the way that they formed their identities through their involvement in slavery?

Stephanie Jones-Rogers

What I thought was really interesting as I read much of the scholarship on white slave-owning women is that so much of it starts when women are adults. One really wonderful thing about the interviews of formerly enslaved people is they talk about white girls. They talk about white infants, female infants, and female adolescents.

So we are allowed into several phases of white female life through these interviews that have heretofore been obscured or kind of left out of the picture. I decided, in order for the second half of this story, the story of women, to make sense, I have to start the story at the very beginning, in the early years.

So I start the book by talking about how white slave-holding parents trained their daughters how to be slaveowners. They give them lessons in slave discipline and slave management. Some even allow for their daughters to mete out physical punishments.

Slave-holding parents and slave-holding family members gave girls enslaved people as gifts — for Christmas sometimes, when they turned 16 or when they turned 21.

There are even accounts of slave-holding parents and family members giving white female infants enslaved people as their own. There is one particular instance of a case, in a court record, where a woman talks about how her grandfather gave her an enslaved person as her own when she was 9 months old.

An enslaved woman holds a white child circa 1855 in Arkansas.
 Library of Congress

When you think about the fact that their relationship to slavery, to slave ownership in particular, begins in infancy, in girlhood, what you begin to realize is that their very identities as white girls, as white Southerners, as white women, is intricately tied to not only ownership of enslaved people but also the control of enslaved people, the management of enslaved people.

The other really important lesson that their parents, their family members, and even their girlfriends, cousins, female cousins, and so forth are also teaching them along the way is that the way the law is set up, you have this property. And when you get married, it will, if we don’t do anything about it, become your husband’s. And, if he is a loser, you’re going to lose. So, they essentially say, we have to make sure that does not happen.

So before these young women get married, their parents and sometimes female kin and friends will encourage them to develop legal instruments, protective measures to ensure that they don’t lose all of their property to their husbands. These legal instruments that they develop are very much like prenuptial agreements today. They’re called marriage settlements back then, or marital contracts, which essentially detail not only what property they’re bringing into the marriage but what kind of control their husbands can or cannot have over it.

These women are not stupid. They’re like, I’m about to get married, the law says that everything I have is going to be my husband’s. I don’t want that to happen. What can I do to prevent that from happening?

They are prepared, they are knowledgeable, and they work with parents and others who are willing to assist them to develop protective measures to ensure that the relinquishment of all of their property wealth and assets doesn’t happen once they get married.

Anna North

Going along with that, can you talk about the ways in which slavery benefited white women and girls, both economically and socially?

Stephanie Jones-Rogers

Women cannot do many of the things that men can do in this period of time. One thing that they are allowed to do by law, and this is particularly the case in the South, is invest in slavery.

And that’s exactly what they do. Not only do they inherit enslaved people, but they also go into slave markets. They buy enslaved people. They’ll hire them out and they’ll collect their wages. Then they use those wages to buy more slaves.

They open businesses, and they employ those enslaved people in their businesses, those businesses make a profit, they use those profits to buy more slaves. So they are investing in the institution of slavery in the same ways as white men are.

The other really interesting thing that I observed in the interviews with formerly enslaved people is that white women often owned twice as many female slaves as they did male slaves. When I would talk about this with scholars in the field, some of them would remark, “Oh, that makes sense, because if women are in the house, they need more female help.”

I said, “Okay, yes, that would be practical,” but what has also been important to recognize is that these women understood the law. There are laws on the books, during this period that ensure whenever a person owns an enslaved woman, if that woman gave birth, that person also legally owned her children.

And so owning an enslaved woman means that you’re not only reaping the benefits of this woman’s productive labor but also her reproductive labor.

Anna North

Was that true of white men, too? Did they have more female than male slaves?

Stephanie Jones-Rogers

Much of what I’m describing was also true for white boys and white men. [But] during this period of time, there was the development of the domestic slave trade, which essentially was the purchase of enslaved people in the upper South, in places like Virginia and Maryland, and then their transport into the lower South and into the Southwest when the country expanded during the 1800s.

In these sales, if an enslaved woman had a child, that child was seen as a liability to the slave trader. There are accounts that I talk about in the book where these slave traders are willing to just toss away the baby. But, there was this [white] woman in one particular case who would go to state auctions, and if there were babies there that were not sold along with the mother, she would ask for those babies to be given to her. She would keep the babies for free.

In those respects, there were instances in which white men saw enslaved children as liabilities, and white women saw them as long-term investments.

This 1849 document is a receipt for sale of a woman named Jane, age 18, and her son, Henry, age 1, and all future children in Eufaula, Alabama.
 Library of Congress

Anna North

You talk in the book about how white women were able to achieve economic and social empowerment through ownership of enslaved people, essentially gaining some status in a patriarchal society through dominance over black people. I’m curious if we see echoes of this today when we look at white women gaining economic empowerment under capitalism?

Stephanie Jones-Rogers

There is a certain kind of power that comes with wealth. Enslaved people were wealth, their bodies held value on a real market, within a capitalist market. White women understood it.

But in order to sustain this system, white men realize that white women must be a part of that system. They must support it, they must see the value in it for themselves, not simply for their husbands or their children. They need to understand that this system benefits them personally and directly. The only way they can do that is to allow for them to invest in the system and to participate in the system.

And they are, in fact, invested in this system; they participate in the system. They benefit from this system, in every single way that white men do. And that is key to the longevity of, the perpetuation of the system. I think that is the same for capitalism — when you tell a woman, “You might not make as much as a man for doing the same work, but if you can get your hands on these funds, nobody can deny you.”

Slavery was a regime based on human bondage, [but] it was also an economic regime, one that was funding the national economy. When those white women are invested, it’s not very different from them being invested in capitalism today. It’s just a different commodity. It’s just a different source of wealth.

Anna North

In thinking about the 1619 commemoration, I was thinking about the part of your book where you look at the way white women wrote about slavery after emancipation. In your epilogue, you write that they portrayed themselves as “forever sacrificing women who had played purely benevolent roles within a nurturing system.” And you quote a white woman who wrote that maybe the descendants of enslaved people should even consider creating an “anniversary to celebrate ‘the landing of their fathers on the shores of America,’ when they were bought and domiciled in American homes.”

Can you talk a little bit about how white women remembered their role in slavery after the fact and how we actually ought to remember it today?

Stephanie Jones-Rogers

When I think about that part of the book, I also think about what is happening today. The erasure of certain elements of horror and the darkness of [white women’s] investment and involvement in the history of slavery are very much why we’re shocked to see the way that some white women respond to interactions with black people today.

You can also see that in the “send her back” chants — the idea that black people have never been citizens and they never belonged. I think there are parallels to what this woman said in the early 1900s and what white women are saying today about African-descended people, whether they be congresswomen or just average black folk on the street.

It’s very much like, you should be grateful because you’re here now and stop complaining, because look what we’ve done for you. I think there are many parallels between that kind of language now, and the argument that she made back in the early 1900s.


150 years since ‘Bloody Kansas’/The legacy of John Brown


May 9 marks the 220th anniversary of this great abolitionist’s birth. This article was originally published in Workers World on Sept. 14, 2006.

Many historians agree that the Civil War really started on a flat patch of land known as “Bloody Kansas” 150 years ago, in the spring, summer and on into the autumn of 1856.

This area of land covering some 82,000 square miles now sits at the geographic center of the continental United States. It rarely gets national attention these days, and when it does it’s usually for reactionary developments, ike the effort to ban evolution from the public schools’ science curriculum.

Yet this was once the hub of the most important political conflict of its day, indeed of all U.S. history: the struggle over slavery. This was where diametrically opposed forces — abolitionists and pro-slavers — clashed.

When 1856 began, the pro-slavery forces had looked to be ascendant. Congress had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854. The law provided for popular sovereignty — voting by white male landowners, that is — to decide whether Kansas and Nebraska would be free or slave states. Kansas had since been the scene of a violent terror campaign, based across the border in Missouri.

Death squads, known as Border Ruffians, aiuadsed to kill or drive out those who opposed the spread of slavery to Kansas, and to flood the territory with their own numbers. Jesse and Frank James, glorified as “rebellious” outlaws in the movies and folklore, were the most well-known of these ruffians.

The Border Ruffians hunted down and murdered African Americans who had escaped slavery and were heading north to Canada. They brazenly assassinated Underground Railway station operators and anti-slavery newspaper editors.

It had started to seem like a foregone conclusion that Kansas would enter the union as a slave state. Then John Brown arrived.

With a small, brave band of stalwarts, he took on the slave owners’ death squads in direct combat, and bested them. He revived and rallied the anti-slavery forces.

At the Battle of Osawatomie, on Aug. 30, 1856, his brilliant tactical maneuvers led to the defeat of a pro-slavery force of 300 soldiers by his group of under 20 — and from then on he was affectionately known as “Old Osawatomie” by admirers around the country.

In Lawrence, Kanasas, in the first two weeks of September, he led the military defense of the state capital against a pro-slavery assault — and ever after was respectfully called “Captain Brown” by those who fought alongside him.

But before Osawatomie, before Lawrence, John Brown had already become a legend. That happened at Pottawatomie Creek.

A daring raid

At Pottawatomie on the night of May 24-25, 1856, John Brown led an armed band in a lightning raid against an encampment where he knew he’d find several of the worst of the Border Ruffians who were terrorizing the territory.

When Brown and company rode off, they left the dead bodies of five racist thugs. The criminals Brown and his band killed had been responsible for many assaults and murders; they were also known for capturing Native women and forcing them into prostitution and sexually assaulting Free State women.

Until Brown acted, the slaveocracy had been waging an undeclared war with what seemed like impunity. And not just in the fields and towns of Kansas. On May 22, two days before Brown rode to Pottawatomie, Preston Brooks, a member of Congress from South Carolina, had strode onto the floor of the U.S. Senate and beaten anti-slavery Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts nearly to death as retaliation for Sumner’s speech “The Crime against Kansas.”

After Pottawatomie, all this changed. The slaveocracy did not surrender — it would take the Civil War for that. But from Pottawatomie word went out.

No longer would the racist death squads have free reign in Kansas. A new force, a force for freedom, was fighting back.

For years afterward, in fact to this very day, bourgeois historians have misrepresented what happened at Pottawatomie. It has been portrayed as an insane, isolated event, as a senseless, inexplicable act of violence — and its perpetrator as a wild-eyed, crazed, fanatical maniac. The official bourgeois version removes the Pottawatomie raid from its historic context — the bloody terrorist war the Border Ruffians were waging — and omits the fact that the men Brown’s troops killed were racist murderers.

John Brown was no lunatic. He was a hero. By first frost in the fall of 1856, he had accomplished what six months earlier no one thought possible. The territory had been secured. Kansas would enter the union as a free state.

The victory came at a high personal cost for Brown. His son Frederick died at the Battle of Osawatomie. Another son, John Brown Jr., was captured by the pro-slavery forces and tortured horribly while held prisoner, which led to many years of illness and anguish.

Brown himself was now a wanted man. A price on his head, he went underground, leaving Kansas. He headed toward the Northeast.

There he would spend the next three years raising funds, recruiting troops, writing, speaking and planning. His goal was nothing less than to launch a guerrilla war, whose leadership would be taken up by African Americans, to end slavery and establish full freedom and equality for all.

On to Harpers Ferry

Before, during and after his time in Kansas, John Brown was keen to learn how to wage the kind of guerrilla warfare he believed would be necessary to destroy slavery. To whom did he look as his teachers?

To Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and other enslaved African American leaders of U.S. slave revolts; to the Seminole nation that had resisted domination by colonial settlers; to the Maroons of the South and of Jamaica and Surinam, escaped slaves who fought the settler state’s forces in daring raids from bases in the hills and mountains; and to Toussaint L’Ouverture, one of the great liberators of Haiti.

Most well-meaning whites, including abolitionists, were under the sway of racism to varying degrees. In contrast, Brown not only admired but sought to learn from and emulate Black and Native leaders. He was that free of the taint of racism.

In Kansas, Brown worked closely with a Native ally, Ottawa Jones, who sheltered, fed and helped arm Brown’s group at several points during the months of conflict. Although he himself was a fiercely devout Christian, Brown counted Jews and atheists among his troops.

For three years after leaving Kansas, Brown was based in North Elba, N.Y. [in upstate New York].There he established a cooperative farming community, the first ever where Black and white families lived and worked as equals.

Along with farming and guiding escaped slaves along an Underground Railroad route across the border to Canada, Brown would spend those three years preparing for the action he was determined would give rise to a generalized mass uprising by enslaved Black people. He would write a new constitution for the United States which first and foremost proclaimed race and sex equality.

He would travel to Canada and recruit several African Americans, including Osborne P. Anderson, who would fight alongside Brown at Harpers Ferry, Va. (now W.Va.), and live to write about it. He would meet often with the great organizer and orator, Frederick Douglass, and the two would become close friends. Douglass had escaped from slavery as a young man.

He would confer with the “Moses” of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, whom he always respectfully referred to as “Gen. Tubman.” Some believe that Tubman helped plan the raid on the U.S. Army arsenal at Harpers Ferry and would have taken part in it had she not fallen ill.

African-American freedom fighters Dangerfield Newby, Lewis S. Leary, John Brown’s sons Watson and Oliver, and six others of their number would die at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. Five would escape and survive. Seven, including John Brown, would be captured and hanged.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, who scant months later would lead the secessionist Confederate army, led the opposing force that captured John Brown at Harpers Ferry. John Wilkes Booth, who would assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, was among the troops guarding the scaffolding on the day they hanged John Brown.

On that day, Dec. 2, 1859, just before they led him from his cell to the gallows, this great soldier for human liberation would write, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Brown was buried in the majority Black cemetery in North Elba, a fitting tribute indeed.

In April 1861 the Civil War would begin.


Written Into Law: The Legacy of Afrikan-Amerikan Subjugation

By Isidoro Rodriguez 


Sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. by Lei Yixin, in West Potomac Park in the National Mall. Photo by Ricardo Martinez/TCR

How did being black become equivalent to being inferior in the United States? How did that inferiority come to excuse and even justify African-American enslavement and criminalization?

As we honor Martin Luther King Day, a new book offers a timely look at the ugly history of race-based laws in our country. In Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law In Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana, professors Ariela J. Gross, co-director of the Center for Law, History, and Culture at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law; and Alejandro de la Fuente, Director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University, trace how colonial-era laws used to subjugate people of color still impact our justice system.

In a conversation with The Crime Report, Gross discusses how the racialist attitudes behind those laws continue to be reflected in definitions of who is an American, typified by President Donald Trump’s call to “send back” some of his congressional critics, in the language often used to describe campaigns for justice reform by communities of color, and in the resurgence of the anti-immigrant nativist movement.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Crime Report: Why did you and Alejandro De La Fuente decide to write this book, and why do you feel it holds relevance today?

Ariela Gross: My last book is called What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race On Trial In AmericaAs I studied the origins of racism in law in America for that book, one of the things that became very clear to me was the importance of the middle ground between black and white for understanding race and our history. Traditionally, people have described the U.S. as just black and white, while Latin America [is characterized by a] multiple racial regime.


That got me thinking comparatively, and I teamed up with Alejandro, who studies Cuba, and looked at what makes the U.S. and a Latin American country like Cuba so different with regards to race. In the U.S., whiteness was associated with citizenship, and you can really see the legacy of that today. When you have [President Trump] saying “send them back,” directed at people of color, it’s clear the assumption that nonwhite people are not really American has deep roots.

TCR: The book looks at the establishment of racial lines as basic laws to be both enforced and protected. Do echoes of that exist today?

AG: Unfortunately, I think the answer to that is yes. We do see echoes of the ideology of race that was created in a much earlier time period under slavery. One of the things that we found that was interesting was that it actually wasn’t the law of slavery so much as the laws of freedom, the laws that restricted free people, that really set up these racial regimes. The restrictions on free people of color, which restricted their mobility, limited their ability to go into professions, and restricted their ability to act as citizens have a lot of echoes today. Assumptions that people of color don’t have the capacities of full citizenship are behind so many of the efforts to suppress voting, [our immigration laws], and many of our criminal laws.

TCR: Is there a connection between slavery and what’s been called today’s “prison industrial complex”?

AG: As a question of historical development, the trajectory from enslavement to mass incarceration is not a straight line. There’s a lot of history in the middle. As an institutional matter, I don’t see the direct development; I think it’s more complicated than that. As an ideological matter, I think there’s an absolute connection. The real legacy of that period and the establishment of [racial separation] through law is the development of race as an ideology, as a hierarchy, as an understanding that this is a group of people who are uniquely fit for this degraded status of enslavement. And that ideological basis can justify other terrible forms of degradation, of subordination—and it is used in that way.

That aspect is the one that is especially reserved for African Americans: that this is the group of people who are put outside of society, whom it’s really appropriate to take freedom from. Whether it’s through convict policing or police brutality, that sense of the expendability of black life has its roots in slavery.

 TCR: Popular narratives discuss the slave who broke free or was saved by a white man, but your book shows both free and enslaved blacks winning their freedom on their own in the courts by maneuvering through a legal system that was otherwise stacked against them. Does that offer some hope in today’s struggles for racial justice?

 AG: I think there’s something hopeful about the fact that even very oppressive legal systems can be shaped from below as well as from above. It isn’t about waiting for a white savior at all. What is really remarkable is what people, even at the lowest rung of society, are able to do using “the master’s tools.”

I’ve thought a lot about an Audre Lorde quote: “You can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” And I think it’s probably right that you can’t completely take apart the master’s house. But it’s remarkable what people of color were able to do with just limited access to the master’s tools. In a state like Virginia, where there was no legal right for an enslaved person to purchase themselves, and any contract they signed was unenforceable in a court of law, people would still make these contracts and find ways to get them enforced. They’d find native ancestors to make a claim for freedom and then somehow get lawyers. The news would pass around 20 counties and pretty soon dozens of people were making a claim from that same native ancestor through these networks of knowledge they created to gain freedom for entire extended kin groups.

coverMany of the abolitionists who really pushed the antislavery movement, like David Walker and Frederick Douglass, were free people of color who had either escaped slavery or been born free. So, cumulatively, it does eventually break down the master’s house. I think there is some hope in that for every person who feels that there’s really nothing one person can do, or who looks at [today’s] legal system and says it’s rigged. [During slavery], the system was unbelievably rigged: no enslaved person or person of color was allowed to testify against a white person. But people just kept pushing against it. And they formed communities able to leverage the system on behalf of other members, claim more rights, and then turn customary rights into law by just pushing and pushing against the system.

TCR: Your book points out that black communities of this type were a great source of discomfort and stress for whites at that time. Does that translate into today’s hostility as well to African-Americans who advocate for justice reform?

 AG: What we describe is the way so many white political leaders and ordinary citizens, especially slaveholding whites, were absolutely convinced that white and black communities could never live side by side in freedom. That was the origin of the colonization movement, which was the 19th century version of “send them back.” Establish a colony in Africa and send free slaves there.

For a long time this united those white antislavery advocates who wanted to free the slaves and send them to Africa, and the proslavery advocates who wanted to forcibly remove blacks who were already free to Liberia. In the south, removal became the dominant condition. And then the communities that were left were subjected to these increasing restrictions, shutting down their churches, and their schools, and trying to cabin them in these small areas. I think the policing of black communities and the long history we have of enforced segregation, redlining, trying to keep urban communities within a particular area and policing them regularly, has come from a similar impulse: we can’t live together. There are no overt efforts to actually remove communities to Africa anymore, but we do see a new call now for colonization with immigrant communities.

TCR: Your book discusses how legal language was used to subjugate people of color. Is that true today as well?

AG: All of the court cases about race in the late period of slavery established a tight connection between whiteness and citizenship: that a white man is somebody who can exercise these rights of citizenship and be fit for citizenship. Everyone else is unfit. Look at how the petitions for removal of free people of color from Virginia changed from the 1830s-1860s. They started out by saying it’s unfortunate that we can’t live together, that blacks are going to be better off and happier in Africa. But by 1850, they used loaded language, talking about this “pestilence,” and what a “scourge” it is to have this group of people here, and how unfit they are for being part of the polity and society. We’ve seen this [rhetoric] through U.S. history, during waves of nativist sentiment and moments of struggle with the law, on who is white.  There are cases that go all the way to the Supreme Court deciding whether or not Mexican-Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, or people from India, Japan, Syria, or Hawaii, are white. [it reflects the idea advanced by] nativists that some people are so degraded that they couldn’t possibly fit in and have to be removed. I think we’re in one of those moments now.

TCR: Can your book play a role in changing that?

 AG: We’re seeing a big controversy over the 1619 Project and the central idea that slavery is key to the American story. What we show in our book is that slavery has created these [racialized legal] regimes that are really durable. We’re not really going to understand race in the US, in Cuba, in the Americas overall, unless we understand that history.

But, if what you want is only a progress story, that this was something that happened, but it’s deep in the past and it has no effect on the present, you’re not going to like stories that say slavery is fundamental to our trajectory. One of the corollaries might be that if this has been so central and so supported by the state, then this government does owe some form of redress to African Americans. I think the fact that we are talking about this publicly for the first time, that Democratic candidates are talking about it, is a big deal.

I’m not holding my breath for reparations to happen, but talking about it shows that things are starting to shift a little bit in terms of people publicly recognizing the importance of history. Getting people to think in that way is part of our job. Some of the shock at what’s happening now is the fact that the more recent history of race, the last 50 years, has been a shift away from overt expressions of racism, and towards what people call dog-whistling or colorblind constitutionalism. Critical race theorists have shown how much racism is still embodied in that supposedly color-blind narrative. It has been beneath the surface, and I think what’s shocking to so many people is seeing all of this hatred come up from under the surface, even with permission and participation from our president.

But to anyone who has been paying attention to what was going on under the surface, it’s not a surprise. It’s not a surprise to most people of color in this country and to most immigrants. I don’t want to take away the shock, if it compels them to act.


How did the slavery clause get into the 13th Amendment?

Alexander Stephens, who had been vice president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, is later (in about 1875) escorted by a man freed from slavery by the Confederacy’s loss. Stephens is most remembered for his “Cornerstone” speech, delivered March 21, 1861. Noting that the U.S. Constitution rests “upon the assumption of the equality of races,” he says of  the Confederacy: “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens and Lincoln had been friends when they served in Congress together before the war.

by Ronald Brooks, Decarcerate Louisiana

Dear friends and comrades:

Please read the following information that helps explain the legislative intent of the 13th Amendment to perpetuate slavery under the guise of criminal justice and law and order. My hope is that we can get this information to attorneys, lawmakers, and on-the-ground activists and organizers so that we can strike down finally the constitutional provision of upholding slavery for persons convicted of crime.

This provision clearly has racist roots in the slavery era and we must abolish it immediately!

Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, said of the Corwin Amendment:

“I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution – which amendment, however, I have not seen – has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service (slavery) … Holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”


Just weeks prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln sent a letter to each state’s governor transmitting the proposed amendment, noting that Buchanan [James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln as president] had approved it.

The Corwin Amendment was the second proposed “13th Amendment” submitted to the states by Congress. The full text of the proposed amendment reads as follows, from March 2, 1861:

“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

I traced the history of the 13th back to 1777. It wasn’t something they just thought up – on the spot exception clause and all. That particular wording went through a number of phases as first Northern and then Southern states started using convict leasing.

Lincoln was a proponent of the convict lease system and saw it as a restricted form of slavery that the state could exploit and the people would accept. He said as much clearly in his letter to Alexander H. Stephens just four months before the start of the Civil War. [Alexander Hamilton Stephens was vice president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, 1861-65.]


Letter to Alexander H. Stephens 

From “Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, December 22, 1860.

“For your own eye only, Hon. A. H. Stephens:

“My dear Sir”

“Your obliging answer to my short note is just received, and for which please accept my thanks. I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me.

“Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.

“The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.

“Yours very truly


These prisoners at Angola Prison in Louisiana in 1934 – that’s Leadbelly in the foreground – are slaves, according to the slavery clause of the 13th Amendment. It was written to protect the practice of convict leasing, yet it remains in effect today. Under the U.S. Constitution, all prisoners will continue to be slaves until the slavery clause is removed from the 13th Amendment. – Photo via Wikipedia


Bury Me Not in a Land of Slaves: A Short History of Immediatist Abolitionism in Philadelphia, 1830s to 1860s

by Arturo Castillon (Edited by Madeleine Salvatore) January 19th, 2018

The above image is a depiction of the 1851 Christiana Riot, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where a slave-owner was shot and killed when attempting to retrieve an alleged “fugitive slave.” The subsequent trial took place in Philadelphia.


I ask no monuments, proud and high,

To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;

All that my yearning spirit craves,

Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
-Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “Bury Me in a Free Land”

In the 1850s, the author of the above poem, Frances Harper, was part of a network of revolutionaries who made it their mission to abolish slavery in the United States. Known as Abolitionists, these partisans of freedom fought for the immediate emancipation of slaves, and developed a specific approach to Abolitionism known as “immediatism.” [1] In the 1820s, the most radical Abolitionists in England and the United States began using this term, “immediatism,” to distinguish their strategy for abolition from the predominant, gradualist one. [2]

The Abolitionists that we are most familiar with today – Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown – all fought for the immediate emancipation of slaves, a prospect that most people at the time, even most abolitionists, considered extreme and impractical. Yet in the long term, the immediatist tendency proved to be the most practical and strategic. Instead of miring themselves in legislative strategies or insular sects, the immediatists built organizations to secretly assist thousands of people fleeing from slavery, who in taking the risk of freedom, deprived the southern planters of their primary source of labor-slave labor.

In Philadelphia, black abolitionists like Frances Harper, William Still, and Robert Purvis would rise to the forefront of the immediatist struggle against slavery. Because of the city’s proximity to the South, it was an important junction point on the Underground Railroad, a secret network of routes and safe houses that people followed northward when fleeing from slavery. Undeterred by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which legally guaranteed a slaveholder’s right to recover an escaped slave, hundreds of escapees made their way to Philadelphia every year, most coming from nearby Virginia and Maryland. With the Compromise of 1850, the Southern slaveholders strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, which now required the governments and citizens of free states, like Pennsylvania, to enforce the capture and return of “fugitive slaves.” This compromise between the Southern slaveholders and the Northern free states defused a four-year political crisis over the status of territories colonized during the Mexican-American war (1846-1848). For the immediatist wing of the Abolitionist movement in Philadelphia, the implications of the new Fugitive Slave Law were clear: it had to be disobeyed and disrupted, even if that meant engaging in illegal activities to assist fugitives.[3]

Already by the early 1830s, the Abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania had begun to radicalize, reflecting developments on the national scene, such as David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, and the 1831 Nat Turner slave insurrection. The older, mostly white Quakers, who had led the movement for decades, favored legal, non-violent measures for gradually abolishing slavery, while a growing tendency of mostly black abolitionists demanded the immediate abolition of slavery. [4] This growing dichotomy, between the gradualists and the immediatists, reflected the essential difference between reformist and revolutionary politics in the Abolitionist movement.

As the Abolitionist movement became more immediatist in the 1830s, the Vigilance Committee, as it came to be known, emerged as the principal organizational form for assisting fugitives as well as victims of kidnapping. After black Abolitionist David Ruggles founded the first Vigilance Committee in New York City in 1835, Robert Purvis and James Forten formed the “Vigilant Association of Philadelphia” in 1837. Abolitionists in the rural counties surrounding these cities soon followed suit, becoming part of a regional network between Philadelphia, New York City, and other nearby cities, like Boston. The Vigilance Committees raised money, provided transportation, food, housing, clothing, medical care, legal counsel, and tactical support for people escaping from slavery. [5]

The committee in Philadelphia was a racially integrated group that also included a (predominantly black) women’s auxiliary unit, the “Female Vigilant Association.” This degree of inter-racial and inter-gender organization was unheard of at the time, even in the Abolitionist movement. [6] The committee also included ex-slaves. Amy Hester Reckless, for example, was a fugitive who went on to become a leading member of the committee in the 1840s. [7]

While providing strategic resources to fugitives, the committee also carried out bold interventions. Members of the committee orchestrated two of the most notorious slave escapes of the 1840s: 1) that of William and Ellen Craft from Georgia, who used improbable disguises to make their way to Philadelphia in 1848, and 2) that of Henry “Box” Brown from Virginia, who arranged to have himself mailed in a wooden crate to Philadelphia in 1849. These daring escapes were widely publicized in the antislavery movement, and these fugitives appeared in public lectures in order to rally support to the Abolitionist cause. [8]

However, by the early 1850s, several waves of repression had left the committee disorganized. These included anti-abolitionist riots, and a string of crippling lawsuits against those who defied the Fugitive Slave Law, including participants in the Christiana Riot of 1851, wherein a slave-owner was shot and killed after attempting to capture a “fugitive.” A new organization was needed, so in 1852 William Still and other abolitionists established a new Vigilance Committee to fill the void left by the older, scattered one. [9]

Led by William Still, who had escaped from slavery as a child with his mother, the new Vigilance Committee was even more effective than its predecessor, assisting hundreds of fugitives every year in their quests for freedom. By the mid-1850s, Still and the immediatists had transformed Philadelphia into a crucial nerve center of the Underground Railroad, by then a massive network that spanned the U.S. and extended into Canada. The most prominent “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, people like Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett, directed hundreds of fugitives to the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee every year. [10]

Although the original Vigilance Committee was a clandestine organization, its reincarnation operated both publicly and in secret. Some of the members of the committee were lawyers who defended fugitives in the Pennsylvania courts, while others assisted fugitives using methods that were unequivocally prohibited by those same courts. Some even published their names and addresses in the Pennsylvania Freeman newspaper and in flyers so that fugitives could easily find them. In order to generate public support for their cause, they used the antislavery press and public lecture circuit to broadcast the success of their illegal activities-without revealing specific incriminating details and only after the fugitives were safe. Carefully documenting the daily operations of the committee, William Still wrote extensively about the hidden stories of slave resistance and the inner workings of their secret network. When he finally published The Underground Railroad Records in 1872, it would be the first historical account of the Underground Railroad. [11]

This delicate balance between secret operations and public activity was dramatically demonstrated in the summer of 1855, when William Still and others organized the escape of Jane Johnson and her children from their owner, John Wheeler, as they were en route to New York, docked in Philadelphia. During the escape, Passmore Williamson, one of the only white members of the Vigilance Committee, physically held back Wheeler, a well-known southern Congressman, while Still led Johnson and her children away to a nearby safe house. [12]

In the legal proceedings that ensued, a federal judge charged Williamson with riot, forcible abduction, and assault. The judge in the case rejected an affidavit from Johnson affirming that she had left Wheeler of her own free will and that there had been no abduction, and Williamson spent 100 days in Moyamensing prison. The case became a national news story, as Abolitionists used the media to trumpet the success of the Johnson rescue, and to expose the southern slaveholders’ domination of the federal court system, which the Abolitionists called a “Slave Power Conspiracy.” Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other Abolitionist leaders visited Williamson during his confinement and wrote admirably of his actions in the antislavery press. [13]

The Philadelphia immediatists were fully aware of their strategic role in the national struggle against slavery. At a mass meeting in Philadelphia in August 1860, leader of the immediatist wing, William Still, explained that because they were “in such close proximity to slavery” and their “movements and actions” were “daily watched” by pro-slavery forces, they could do, “by wise and determined effort, what the freed colored people of no other State could possibly do to weaken slavery.” [14] By defying the Fugitive Slave Law in a border city, the immediatists in Philadelphia exacerbated the growing conflict between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South to a degree that few other Abolitionists could.

The Vigilance Committee acted as the organizational nucleus of the Underground Railroad in a city that was publicly very hostile to Abolitionism. Most white workers were opposed to the abolition of slavery as well as the legalization of racial equality, while the merchant elites and early industrialists of the city had close economic ties to slaveholders in the South and throughout the Atlantic. There where numerous anti-black and anti-abolitionists riots throughout the 1830s and 1840s in Philadelphia. [15] Even though they were vastly outnumbered, by subverting the Fugitive Slave Law in this border city, the immediatists antagonized the slaveholders and their allies-a much larger and well-established enemy.

As the overall antislavery movement continued to grow throughout the North, the southern slaveholders went on the defensive. With the John Brown attack at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, and the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, who campaigned against the expansion of slavery, the slaveholders in the South became more entrenched and alienated from the rest of the United States. In February 1861 the Lower South region of the U.S seceded, creating a separate country called the Confederate States of America, also known as the Confederacy. The U.S. national government, known as the Union, refused to recognize the Confederacy as a legal government. The Civil War officially began in April 1861, when Confederate soldiers attacked Fort Sumter, a Union fort in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. As the Civil War took its course, Abolitionists from Philadelphia, like Octavius Catto, worked to radicalize the Unionist cause from within. Catto and other Abolitionists organized the enlistment of black troops into the Union army and advocated for a coordinated military assault on slavery in the South, for which they were strongly condemned by white Philadelphians. [16]

Before the war, and during its initial years, much of white Philadelphia was sympathetic to the Southern slaveholder’s grievances. But with the deepening of the conflict between North and South, most Philadelphians came to support the Union and the war against the Confederacy. A turning point came in 1863 when the city was threatened with Confederate occupation. Entrenchments were built and people fought to defend the city, defeating the Confederate Army at the Battle of Gettysburg. [17] However, even with the shifting of opinion against the South, most white Philadelphians still believed that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. Many white Americans continued to believe that the Civil War was a “white man’s war” to preserve the Union and nothing more. Abolitionists and black Philadelphians continued to be the targets of mob violence, and some white Philadelphians even blamed the Abolitionists for the war. [18]

With all odds stacked against them, the Abolitionists proclaimed the need to end slavery from the very beginning and identified the structural contradictions that would tear the nation apart. But rather than wait for the gradual disintegration of slavery, the immediatists worked to hasten its destruction. In a society that was for the most part hostile to their cause, the immediatist wing of the abolitionist movement performed the historic duty of following through, with long-term consistency, those revolutionary tactics that alone could save the Union and drive the Civil War to a decisive conclusion. More and more slaves escaping from plantations, the enlistment of black troops into the Union army, the immediate emancipation of slaves throughout the South-these tactics were indeed the only ways out of the difficulties into which the Civil War had descended.

The Civil War stemmed from a breakdown of the structural compromise that developed between two distinct modes of production-northern industrial wage labor, and southern slave labor. The growth and radicalization of the antislavery movement over time made this “unholy alliance” impossible to maintain. In this, the Civil War confirmed the basic lesson of every revolution, which stands the logic of gradualism on its head. Revolution doesn’t advance with small increments, with legislative preconditions, but with prompt, uncompromising actions that destabilize the structural limits of the existing system.

The will for revolution can only be satisfied in this way-with strategic, revolutionary activity. Yet the masses of people can only acquire and strengthen the will for revolution in the course of the day-to-day struggle against the existing class order-in other words, within the limits of the existing system. Thus, we run into a contradiction. On the one hand, we have the masses of people in their everyday struggles within a social system; on the other, we have the goal of immediate social revolution, located outside of the existing system. Such are the paradoxical terms of the historical dialectic through which any revolutionary movement makes its way. The immediatists transcended this contradiction by responding to the mass self-activity of the slaves, who in their day-to-day resistance to the slave system offered the Abolitionists a means to realize their revolutionary objectives.

For over three decades, through ebbs and flows, victories and defeats, the immediatists consistently engaged with the everyday struggles of the slave class. They constructed multi-racial, multi-gender organizations that operated both legally and illegally, publicly and secretly, in order to help people emancipate themselves from slavery, to help them stay free, and to help them gain basic legal rights. In doing so, they fostered the development of a revolutionary movement that precipitated the U.S. Civil War and culminated in one of the greatest social revolutions of world history-the emancipation and enfranchisement of millions of slaves and workers in the South during the Reconstruction Era.

By the end of the Civil War, a once-persecuted minority of fanatical Abolitionists were now national leaders. Today we see them as good-hearted activists, or even as moderates. But there should be no mistake about it-all Abolitionists were considered extremists prior to the Civil War, and during most of it. Few people believed that the slave system would fall. The Abolitionists certainly did not believe their revolutionary goal would one day become official government policy. In the end, the Abolitionists recognized the historical crisis in front of them for what it was, and the immediatists responded to it better than any other Abolitionist tendency of their time.
“Lines,” Frances Ellen Watkins Harper:

Though her cheek was pale and anxious,

Yet, with look and brow sublime,

By the pale and trembling Future

Stood the Crisis of our time.

And from many a throbbing bosom

Came the words in fear and gloom,

Tell us, Oh! thou coming Crisis,

What shall be our country’s doom?

Shall the wings of dark destruction

Brood and hover o’er our land,

Till we trace the steps of ruin

By their blight, from strand to strand?
Arturo Castillon is an independent historian and retail-service worker from Philadelphia, who has participated in movements and struggles against gentrification, police violence, sexual harassment, homophobia, workplace exploitation, and racism.
This article was previously published on the blog of the Tubman-Brown Organization .

[1] On Harper’s and others contributions to the abolitionist movement in Philadelphia, see Still, Underground Rail Road, 740-61; Helens Campbell, “Philadelphia Abolitionists ,” The Continent; an Illustrated Weekly Magazine, January 3, 1883, 1-6.

[2] Junius P. Rodriguez, “Immediatism,” The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Volume 1; A-K (Santa Barbara, California, 1997), 364.

[3] On the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, see Fergus M. Bordenwich, Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement (New York, 2005), 49; Carol Wilson, “Philadelphia and the Origins of the Underground Railroad,” unpublished essay on file in the archives at Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia.

[4] On the radicalization of the antislavery movement in Pennsylvania, see Richard S. Newman, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2002), chapter 3.

[5] Beverly C. Tomek, “Vigilance Committees,”

[6] Ibid, Tomek.

[7] Joseph A. Borome, “The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 92 (January 1968); 320-51.

[8] Elizabeth Varon, ” ‘Beautiful Providences’: William Still, the Vigilance Committee, and Abolitionists in the Age of Sectionalism” Antislavery and Abolition in Philadelphia, 230-31.

[9] Ibid, Varon; Borome, “The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia,” 320-51.

[10] James A. McGowan, Station Master on the Underground Railroad: the Life and Letters of Thomas Garret (Jefferson, N.C, 2005); Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York, 2004), 122-25.

[11] Varon, “‘Beautiful Providences'” Antislavery and Abolition in Philadelphia, 233- 34.

[12] For a detailed account of the Jane Johnson rescue and its impactions, see Nat Brandt and Yanna Koyt Brandt, In the Shadow of the Civil War: Passmore Williamson and the Rescue of Jane Jane Johnson (Columbia, South Carolina, 2007).

[13] Ibid, Brandt.

[14] National Anti-Slavery Standard , August 18, 1860.

[15] Russel F. Weigley, “The Border City in Civil War, 1854-1865” Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, (New York and London, 1982), 295-296.

[16] Donald Scott, “Camp William Penn’s Black Soldiers in Blue-November ’99 America’s Civil War Feature” .

[17] Ibid, Scott, 389-93.

[18] Ibid, Scott.



Finding our way back to the religions stolen from our ancestors

By Sherrona J. Brown

Not enough people know about Bois Caïman. I only learned of it myself within the last few years. Even among those of us who are familiar with the 18th century slave rebellion that led Haiti (once called Saint-Domingue) to its independence from French colonial rule, some do not know that this insurrection began with a secret Vodou ceremony.

Bois Caïman is the site where the seed was planted that would eventually grow into the Haitian Revolution. A black pig was sacrificed to honor Erzulie Dantor, a goddess associated with love and protection from violence, and the group made a pact with her to fight against the white people and denounce their white god.

It is said the ritual was led by Houngan Boukman Dutty. The following is the prayer attributed to him as he stood before the gathering:

“The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man’s god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It’s He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It’s He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men’s god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts.”

Growing up, any religion outside of Christianity was considered “the devil” in my home and community. There was no other god. I wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter or talk about the zodiac, and the pastor of my childhood church once spent an entire sermon ranting about a neighborhood woman who offered psychic readings, saying we needed to run her out of town. There was violence, repression, and fear of knowledge in the environment where I grew up, and it was learning the truth about our history that saved me from how miserable and inadequate I felt.

It was the interests I developed in college, studying history, media, literature, race, gender, and their connections, that eventually led me to the work I do now and to readings about religions like Vodou/Voodoo that do not demonize them. This is how I learned that the belief system carries deep cultural roots and significant meaning in Haiti and West Africa, and about how it helped lead enslaved Haitians to freedom.

Its integral use in birthing the successful Haitian slave insurrection has partly influenced white perceptions of the religion, especially among white Christians. Pat Robertson has alluded to the Bois Caïman ritual in order to demonize it, referring to it as a “pact to the devil’’ and citing it as the cause of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010.

Vodou, of course, is not the only religious tradition with roots in Africa to be demonized and misrepresented throughout the centuries. Much of the panic that prompted the infamous Salem Witch Trials was due to the white Puritan fears of Tituba, an enslaved Afro-Indigenous Barbadian woman, and her non-Christian spiritual practices which were quickly interpreted as witchcraft and dark magic.

Part of the main inciting event was the accusation that Tituba was teaching these practices to others and engaging with the devil. It was her forced, fantastical, and false confession that ultimately set everything in motion. The Salem witch panic was both gendered and racialized, and a product of white Christian colonialism, though retellings of or references to this historical event often overlook this point.

These things have been on my mind a lot lately, especially since I read about the “Slave Bible” now on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands, is its chosen title, stating clearly its intent for use in the area of the world that is the modern-day Caribbean. The Haitian slave rebellion culminated in their independence in 1804, and the first iteration of this “Slave Bible” was published in 1807, according to associate museum curator Anthony Schmidt.

Passages that might have encouraged enslaved Africans towards uprisings were intentionally omitted from these Bibles. Schmidt puts it into perspective by saying, “[T]here are 1,189 chapters in a standard protestant Bible. This Bible contains only 232… What they’ve cut out is the story of the Israelites captivity in Egypt and their eventual liberation and journey to the promised land.”

I can’t say whether or not the Haitian slave revolts and the publishing of Bibles like these are directly linked, and I haven’t come across any historians arguing this theory in my reading. I can’t say whether or not the rebellion—one of many—and how Vodou was used in it sent waves of panic throughout the other Caribbean colonies and inspired the British to specifically work towards further suppressing African religious practices among the enslaved and forcibly converting them to a kind of Christianity that did not include stories about liberation from captivity. But I think it’s a fair connection to make.

White colonizers, enslavers, and capitalists have always conspired to keep Black and Indigenous people from uprising, and Christianity has been consistently used as a tool of white supremacy. We know how Christian enslavers in the U.S. used the Bible to subjugate and control the enslaved and how pro-slavery passages like Ephesians, 4:5 were often uplifted—“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”

Like I said, these things have been on my mind a lot lately. Especially after the killing of Christian missionary John Allen Chau by the Sentinelese people. His death has brought the violence of colonialism and Christian missionary work to the surface for people who haven’t been paying attention to history. The Sentinelese, estimated to have lived on their island for at least 60,000 years, are known as one of the last “uncontacted tribes” in the world, but there have been attempts to invade the tribe for centuries. Even 13th century traveler Marco Polo wrote in his journal about how hostile they were to anyone who approached the island—“They are a most violent and cruel generation who seem to eat everybody they catch.” Simply referring to them as an “uncontacted tribe” does not provide enough weight for the fact that they have been violently resisting colonialism for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years.

I envy the Sentinelese, and I celebrate them, and I’ve spent many hours sitting with that. I’ve spent many hours soaking in my own sadness about the fact that I don’t know more about African and Indigenous religions and belief systems because I was brought up in the American South, in the Bible Belt. It’s not fair that so many of us have been deprived of the cultural traditions of our ancestors, and I spend a lot of time considering what white Christian colonialism has taken from us, to the point where Vodou is even demonized in African countries to this day.

When I learned of the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman and how they called upon Erzulie Dantor, I sought out more information on her and other Vodou spirits. I learned that she is considered the patron of lesbians. She is a fierce defender of women and children, especially single mothers and victims of domestic violence. Her protections often come in the form of exacting revenge against abusive husbands and philanderers. A knife is her weapon of choice. She has two scars on her dark cheeks, which are believed to either be tribal scarification or the result of a fight with her sister, Erzulie Freda, the patron of gay men and drag queens.

Though I found this intriguing at the time, I wasn’t ready to come to terms with a queer Black goddess and her protections, or my own queerness. I had to spend some time unpacking all my trauma from a Christian indoctrination before I could truly begin such an exploration.

I used to think it was religion that traumatized me, but I’ve come to understand in recent years that it was the violence of the puritanical Christianity I was raised in. And even if I never return to religion, at least now I know there are knife-wielding queer Black goddesses.

Black millennials are moving towards embracing African and Indigenous religions and practices in large numbers, learning about the cultural truths we have been kept away from for too long. Cultural genocide has always been one of the most insidious parts of white supremacy and colonialism. Suppressing the religions of Black and Indigenous people in order to forcibly install Christianity has been integral to maintaining a system of institutional racism, and I’m proud to see that so many of us are intentionally finding our way back to belief systems more akin to what our ancestors practiced before it was ripped away from them. I hope we continue to embrace them and recognize that, in doing so, we honor those who came before us.

source: Finding our way back to the religions stolen from our ancestors

A blueprint for rebellion: C.L.R. James and the politics of ‘Black Jacobins’

by   M. Matsemela-Ali Odom

C.L.R. James

Published in 1938, “Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution” became C.L.R. James’ magnum opus, though fans of the sport of cricket might beg to differ. “Black Jacobins” was printed by the British publishing house Seckel Warburg as addressing “the only successful slave revolt in history.” Though this claim has been countered by successive historians, it should be argued that the Haitian Rebellion was truly the first social revolution in modern world history.

Defying the capitalist and racist historiography on Black rebellion that had defined academia and even radical intelligentsia, James displays how it was, in fact, Saint-Domingue/Haiti which resulted in the greatest shift in social relations. For, despite the French overthrow of the Ancien Régime, which left the bourgeoisie in power, the uprising on what was once known as “the Jewel of the Antilles,” when the dust settled, the ownership of the land rested in the hands of the formerly enslaved.

As one historian quaintly notes: the paradox of the Haitian Revolution is in the end, Africans defended ideals of the French Revolution against the French themselves. What the radical historian Robin D.G. Kelley says of the James’ abbreviated account of the Black radical tradition, “A History of Pan-African Revolt,” is certainly true of “Black Jacobins”: “What made this book even more subversive is that James places Black people at the center of world events; he characterizes uprisings of [people previously described as] savages and religious fanatics as revolutionary movements; and he insists that the great Western revolutionaries needed the Africans as much as the Africans needed them.”1

The dialectical materialism of James as well as Toussaint L’Ouverture and the other revolutionaries in “Black Jacobins” altered the way we all came to the process of Black internationalist struggle for the last 200 years. It also alters the erasure of the Black Radical Tradition amongst the other great social revolutions. No longer just “France, Russia and China,” as Theda Skocpol writes about, Haiti, Jamaica, the Reconstruction American South, Cuba and South Africa, are indispensable for our study of global revolutions.

“Black Jacobins” is the result of C.L.R. James’ ideological and political development as James moved from the liberalism of West Indian society to revolutionary socialism, pan-Africanism and Black Internationalism.

Culture and anti-imperialism

Cyril Lionel Robert (C.L.R.) James was born in 1901 in Tunapuna, Trinidad, about ten miles east of the nation’s capital, Port of Spain, to a family of Barbadian descent. Affectionately known as Nello by his friends, James was raised in a middle-class and religiously conservative household, where he was deeply impacted by British culture from classical to Late Victorian culture, namely theater and literature.

James read everything from William Shakespeare to William Thackeray and developed a deep interest in the humanities and social sciences. James writes, “I laughed without satiety at Thackeray’s constant jokes and sneers and gibes at the aristocracy and at people in high places. Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me.”2 James completed his secondary education at the prestigious Queen’s Royal College (QRC) in Port of Spain. Excelling in academics and athletics, James became a club cricketer and an accomplished track and field athlete, setting the Trinidadian record in the high jump. It was there that James also developed his love for writing.

In his first act of resistance, James rebelled against the Puritanic Christian beliefs of his parents and the trappings of bourgeois Caribbean culture. James’ love for carnival, calypso, jazz and cricket literally moved him beyond the trappings of his class privilege and racial subjugation in colonial Trinidadian society.

It would eventually be his works as a sports journalist and biographer that influenced his migration to England in the early 1930s. Yet, after his completion at QRC, James had decided to remain in Port of Spain, where he served as a schoolmaster teaching English and History.

At QRC, James taught the radical scholar and future Trinidadian prime minister, Eric Williams. As a teacher and part-time journalist, James joined two groups that expanded his love for literature and began the process of advancing his political ideology. Now a liberal Trinidadian nationalist, James became the secretary of the Maverick Club, an elite social club free of white colonial participation: “For the most part we were Black people and one brown,” James noted.

James also participated in an anti-colonial literary society called the Beacon group. James’ love for Victorian literature became the counterpoint through which he began to attack colonial British society through what has been defined as his cultural activism.

With the Maverick Club, James staged operas and other theatrical performances. With his class at QRC, James put on a fully public rendition of “Othello.” James’s production of the Shakespearean classic undoubtedly anticipated his chronicling of the man that Abe Reynal defined as “The Black Spartacus”: Toussaint L’Ouverture. Understanding the centrality of art and cultural production to radical scholarship and social movements, at the climax of “Black Jacobins,” James notes, “There is no drama like the drama of history.” It was not enough just to tell the truth. One must make it fun.

C.L.R. James and the Black radical tradition

In 1958, the Caribbean American radical Cyril Briggs was red-baited by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Cold War U.S. strategy had sought to blame the surge of Black communist activity in the United States on outside agitation, removing any form of Black agency.

In his retort, the founder of the African Blood Brotherhood and former Communist Party member Briggs stated, “I don’t know what Communists or communism have to do with my position, because this has been my position since 1912, before there was, as I understand it, a Communist Party in the United States. It will continue to be my position despite any attempt by this committee to intimidate me.”3

Briggs’ story is true of James and many other Black Marxists since. Communism did not bring them to Black liberation politics. Black liberation politics brought them to communism. Though many would like to remove this context from the production of “Black Jacobins,” it would be ahistorical. “Black Jacobins” is the result of James’ movement towards revolutionary socialism and African liberation politics upon his migration to England in the early 1930s as he fell into Trotskyist circles.

“Black Jacobins” is not just a historical text but also a Black manifesto — a declaration of revolutionary independence. In the preface to the 1963 version of the book, James writes that “Black Jacobins” was “intended to stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa” but “only the writer and a handful of close associates thought, wrote and spoke as if the African events of the last quarter of a century were imminent.”

As well, he intended his second edition of the book to attempt “for the future of the West Indies, all of them, what was done for Africa in 1938.” Both of James’ editions proved to be prescient adventures seen as an independence movement emerged in the Caribbean in the 1960s as it had in Africa during the 1940s — and let us not forget the social and cultural revolutions taking place in Black North America as well.

“Black Jacobins” has become not just a blueprint for revolution, but a blueprint for writing about revolutions. The text stands out because of the fact that it is not simply a historical analysis but also a historiographical analysis in which James engages the traditional historian critique of the Haitian Revolution as well as the overall discourse on Black agency.

“The only place where Negroes did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians,” James wrote in 1939. Notably, James did not simply say “conservative” or even “white supremacist.” Instead, he states “capitalist historians,” which expresses the limits of conservative and white supremacist scholarship. Conservative historians such as Ulrich B. Phillips had penned apologies for slavery. Yet, it was the liberal scholar that attributed Black freedom to well-intentioned European and white American reformers.

In a remarkable line in the preface, James says that the traditionally famous historians were more artists than scientists: “They wrote so well because they saw so little.” This trend–his critique of traditional historiography–continues later in the text; he criticizes French historians’ patronizing and critical views of Toussaint while lacking major critique of Laveaux (Etienne Laveaux). As well, another instance of historiographic critique is in his explanation of the destruction of the white population of Saint-Domingue, which James describes as being caused by voluntary white emigration to the United States of America in the late 18th century. In James’ critique, historians seemed more interested in apologizing for white racism than actually intensely critiquing the actions of the Black revolutionaries.

It is worth noting that James also departed from Marxist scholarship of the moment, including that of his childhood friend Malcolm Nurse, who had by the 1930s assumed the nom de guerre George Padmore. At that moment, in stark contrast to James’ Trotskyism, Padmore was a Stalinist. Yet, despite the anti-vanguardist position taken by some adherents to Trotskyist socialism, the difference between Padmore’s “The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers” (1931) and James’ “Black Jacobins” was not whether a vanguard party would emerge to lead the cause for Black liberation, but exactly how that revolutionary leadership would emerge.

The question of power

This became the essence of what James would later call “The Question of Power.” Very similar to James in his text, Padmore chronicled the exploitation of Black workers, condemning slavery, colonialism and the exploitation of the Black masses by opportunist reformists. Yet in the end, Padmore saw it as the role of the progressive white working class to educate “backward” Black workers.

In an obituary to the historian and revolutionary, Walter Rodney, C.L.R. James recalled a conversation he had with Leon Trotsky about Vladimir Lenin’s leadership and political analysis. Trotsky told James, “Lenin always had his eyes upon the mass of the population, and when he saw the way they were going, he knew that tomorrow this was what was going to happen.”4

Far from a submission to spontaneity, revolutionary leadership came from within, “ This defined Toussaint’s leadership. A formerly enslaved coach driver, Toussaint had risen to the level of a well-read landowner. But once the revolution began, Toussaint committed what the Guinean-Cape Verdean revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral, called “class suicide.” Toussaint abandoned his wealth and privilege, fled to the hills and built amongst the rebels.

Throughout the text, emphasis is placed on the collective organization of the slaves as well as the remarkable sense of justice and restraint repeatedly shown towards mulattoes, big whites (“grand blancs” — the planter class) and the small whites. Common identity and place of origin as well as religious commonality emerge as signifying factors in “Black Jacobins.”

“Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy. In spite of all prohibitions, the slaves travelled miles to sing and dance and practice the rites and talk.” The first leader of the conspiracy was a head slave and high voodoo priest named Boukman. James describes Boukman as following in the tradition of a maroon slave revolutionary, Mackandal, who attempted to lead an overthrow of slavery in Haiti a generation earlier.

African slaves poisoned their masters, broke tools and destroyed crops. Obviously, James attempts to explain the role of slaves in the destruction of capitalism; henceforth, he compares them to “the Luddite wreckers.” As stated earlier, even amidst the remarkable white-on-Black violence that takes place throughout the text, the slaves and Toussaint are repeatedly described as practicing restraint.

Distinction is placed on this being an organized revolution and not merely a slave riot, as it was repeatedly described. “The slaves had revolted because they wanted to be free,” James writes. But as the famous adage goes, without struggle there can be no progress, and progress for Haitian revolutionaries took over a decade. Toussaint led the fight against the white and mulatto slaveholders, the Spanish, the English and the French before the Black slaves of Saint-Domingue were able to declare complete independence in 1804.

The lessons of Saint-Domingue

Besides Toussaint and Boukman, major players in this text are:

The story plays out as a struggle between the most privileged of the population versus those seen as grassroots leaders. The whites and mulattoes are treated with the most suspicion throughout the book. They are even treated with more skepticism than metropole white’s Sonthonax, the right-wing Jacobin.

Seemingly critiqueing his contemporary times, James goes back and forth with his critique of French liberal efforts to end slavery — such as the efforts of the “Friends of the Negro” society. While they had very well-intentioned rhetoric, they are depicted as powerless early on in the book and unwilling to take extra steps to eradicate slavery later on in the book. At the points where they do find legislative success in France, it is because they were aided by the revolutionary actions of slaves back in the Antilles.

Recalling his love for drama, “Black Jacobins” is told in acts. James begins with the conspiracy of the island’s maroon societies led by François Mackandal and ends with Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ final thrust towards Haitian Independence.

Toussaint’s central leadership, in “Black Jacobins” is defined by his keen sense of strategy. Toussaint successfully united various forms of Saint-Domingue’s society: Free and enslaved; Christian and Vodun; African and mulatto.

Unlike almost every other African slave rebellion, the rebels in Saint-Domingue solicited foreign support for the cause of the rebels and not the slave owners, as Toussaint played European nations against each other. However, Toussaint’s organizational strength in the end became his weakness. Captured by the French and imprisoned in a cold prison in the French Alps, Toussaint fell victim to his own Eurocentrism.

His “failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness,” James wrote. Comparatively, Toussaint’s successor, Jean Jacques Dessalines “could see so clearly and simply … because the ties that bound this uneducated soldier to French civilization were of the slenderest.” The path towards freedom for people of African descent now is just as it was in Haiti, James believed: Clear your mind of any negative ideas of Africa. Turn your head away from Europe and towards Africa to find freedom.

“Black Jacobins” was the final leg in a three-part chronicling of the Haitian Revolution and the Black Radical Tradition. First, James produced a play on the life of Toussaint starring Paul Robeson. Second, James produced the pamphlet, “A History of Negro Revolt,” later retitled “A History of Pan-African Revolt,” and lastly, was the masterpiece: “Black Jacobins.”

With three distinct forms of media, James altered Black consciousness and world history. Accompanied by W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Black Reconstruction in America” and Herbert Aptheker’s “American Negro Slave Revolts,” no longer could it be said that freedom was something given to African people. Subsequent authors like Cedric Robinson, Robin Kelley, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, William Martin and Michael West, Vijay Prashad, Robin Blackburn, Steven Hahn, Gerald Horne, Hakim Adi and others have followed in James’ stead. But James’ work remains the pinnacle of Black radical scholarship.

  1. Robin Kelley, “Introduction” to “A History of Pan-African Revolt” by C.L.R. James, 17.
  2. James in “Beyond a Boundary”quoted in Cedric Robinson’s  “Black Marxism, 70.
  3. HUAC,
  4. Walter Rodney and the Question of Power,” C.L.R. James, 1981,


source:A blueprint for rebellion: C.L.R. James and the politics of ‘Black Jacobins’

How 20,000 Blacks died through starvation and overwork in the ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’ labour camp in Mississippi


In America’s chequered history, the South is regarded as the more villainous; on account of their treatment of enslaved blacks and great lengths it went to recapture slaves, who attempted running away to freedom.

But the North proved that on its own account, it was as vile thanks to the fate that befell supposed free Blacks in Natchez, Mississippi in the 1860s.

America, supposed land of the free and great opportunities, had its own concentration camp which some estimate claimed 20,000 Black lives

With Black males being convinced to fight on the North’s behalf against the South with a promise to gain freedom, there was hope that life will get better after the civil war (1861 to 1865) but any such hope soon floundered.

After the Civil War, Natchez Mississippi experienced an enormous influx of former slaves as new inhabitants trooped in but the unenthused locals constructed an ‘encampment’ forcing all former slaves to live there. The area was then walled off with the former enslaved refused the option to leave.

Former Director of the Natchez City Cemetery Don Estes revealed in a news report: “So they decided to build an encampment for ’em at Devil’s Punchbowl which they walled off and wouldn’t let ’em out.”

Estes further added: “Disease broke out among ’em, smallpox being the main one. And thousands and thousands died. They were begging to get out. ‘Turn me loose and I’ll go home back to the plantation! Anywhere but there’.”

Devil’s Punchbowl via

It will take some time for the atrocities meted out to these Blacks to be revealed. Regarding how the camp came by its curious name – ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’ – it was due to how the area is shaped with the camp located at the bottom of a cavernous pit with trees located on the bluffs above.

While a propaganda of the North was that the South’s attempt to secede will break up the union and make the U.S vulnerable, another was that the South’s long slave trading of Blacks was inhumane and had to be stopped. It was on the back of abolishing the war and freeing up the enslaved which gingered many Blacks to fight alongside Union soldiers against the Confederates soldiers of the south but soon after victory, the Union troops showed they didn’t care about the well being of blacks rather to contain the economic advantage of the South made possible by the hard work of enslaved blacks.

Union soldiers unhappy with arce swell in the population of Natchez from 10,000 to 120,000 by freed Blacks recaptured free males and forced them into the labour camps while the women and children were locked behind the concrete walls of the encampment and starved. Within a year, 20,000 freed slaves were killed in the concentration camp.

But what caused such rapid deaths?

The Union Army forbade the removal of dead bodies, instructing them to “bury their dead where they fell.”

Availability of Food and water is key for human survival but at the encampment alias ‘Devils Punchbowl’ lacked fresh food and water and soon enough disease and starvation will combine to claim loved ones rapidly and in astounding numbers.

For southern plantation workers who endured brutal conditions to be so overwhelmed with their Natchez experience to plead with their white guards to let them return to the plantations, underlined the atrocious living conditions.

Aside thousands of men, women, and children perishing because of exhaustion and starvation, there were also disease outbreaks chiefly smallpox.