Slavery always has, and always will, produce insurrections where it exists, because it is a violation of the natural order of things, and no human power can much longer perpetuate it.--abolitionist Angelina Grimke in her 1836 Appeal to the Christian Women of the South
There is no documented evidence of a large-scale plot being led and centrally implemented by slave women in North America, but they were participants. One of the first major slave rebellions in North America occurred in colonial New York in 1708. A slave woman was executed for having participated in the uprising. In a New York Revolt that took place in 1712, twenty-three to twenty-five slaves armed with guns, hatchets, and swords, set fire to a building in the middle of town. When captured, six of the rebels committed suicide, one of them a woman. Another of those caught was a pregnant woman. In 1739 yet another rebellion took place in New York under the leadership of an Angolan born slave named Jemmy. They killed some twenty-five whites before encountering a militia force that resulted in the death of thirty of their followers and the execution of near all the rest; a good number of these rebels were women. Participation in revolts continued into the antebellum era; one of the forty slaves to join Virginian slave rebel Nat Turner's band was a woman.
Beyond large scale insurrections, slavery produced a culture of general resistance. Slaves understood their human identity, matched slaveholder rhetoric against perceived reality, and engaged in continued resistance against a system that defined them as property. Though not as represented in the large scale revolts of their male counterparts, slave women at times met violence with violence. Much of this is detailed in the WPA ex-slave narratives recorded in the early 1900s.
When it came to whippings and beatings, there were slave women did not merely submit quietly to abuse. "Aunt Catherine . . . was very unruly, no one could whip her," ex-slave America Morgan stated, "She fought so hard, it was as much as the men could do to tie her." Ex-slave Elvina Smith said her father's mother "wouldn't be conquered. When they got ready to whip her, it would be half a day before they could take her." Henry Essex said simply that when the overseer tried to whip his grandmother, "he can't." Fannie Clemons proudly claimed much the same: "Nobody tried to whip me cause they couldn't." Emma Watson related the story of how her mother simply refused to be whipped. "One day Miss Tilda get de buggy whip to whip my mammy," Watson said, "Maw grabs de whip and says, 'Miss Tilda, you ain't gwine do dat.'
Verbal resistance and outright physical disobedience to a whipping often went hand in hand. James Abbot Monroe said that when the young master of his mother told her to "swallow dat tobbaccy" she was chewing, not only did his mother refuse but she retorted to the slave owner "You chewing tobaccy? Whyn't yuh swaller dat?" Former slave Caroline Richardson said her "mammy would sass dem all," in reference to whites, and then refused to let her mistress "whup her."
In the face of a whipping, some slave women threatened their abusers with retaliatory violence. When Leonard Franklin's mother was told by her master to obey or "get that bull whip," she warned him sternly, "Yes, and we'll both be gittin' it." Mamie Thompson said that her mother threatened to kill her master rather than take a beating. "Master Redman got her in the kitchen to whoop her with a cow hide," Thompson said of the incident, "she told him she would kill him; she got a stick."
Threats were not always empty. Some slave women carried them out. Anna Williamson told of how her mother fought an overseer, ripping off all his clothes in the process. "A ridin' boss went to whoopin' her once and she tore every rag clothes he had on offen him," Williamson said. Leonard Franklin recalled that when an overseer tried to whip his mother, "she knocked him down and tore his face up so that the doctor had to 'tend to him." Ex-slave Lulu Wilson of Texas claimed her mother knocked down and bloodied their master when he tried to whip her. "Mammy fought back," recalled ex-slave Josie Jordan, "and when the ruckus was over…Master was laying still on the ground and folks thought he was dead."
Ex-slave James V. Deane recalled that when the mistress slapped his aunt one day, the aunt "struck her back." When Sophia Word's mistress attempted to drag her forcibly into the house, Word said "I grabs that white woman . . . and shook her until she begged for mercy." Ex-slave John Rudd said that when his mistress began to whip his mother without just cause, his mother proceeded to chase after her with a knife. "Ole Missus run so fas' Mamma couldn't catch up wif her," Rudd recalled, "so she throwed the butcher knife and stuck it in the wall up to the hilt." In this upset of the antebellum social order, the mistress was forced to flee the wrath of her slave and lock herself into an upstairs room out of fear for her life.
Irene Coates told of a slave woman who, after witnessing an overseer strike another woman with a whip, warned him "that if he ever struck her like that, it would be the day he would die." After hearing the remark, the overseer called her bluff and struck the woman with the whip, at which point she allegedly knocked him from his horse with a hoe and decapitated him. "She went mad for a few seconds and proceeded to chop and mutilate his body," Coates recounted. "That done to her satisfaction, she then killed his horse."
Because sexual exploitation was an ever present threat for slave women, resistance was commonplace. Some appealed to authority figures, hoping that they would intervene on their behalf. Others looked to male slaves such as husbands for protection. Neither of these groups, however, could be wholly relied upon. Many authorities in the slave regime, including white mistresses, turned a blind eye to rape, condoned it, or blamed the slave women themselves. In the case of male slaves, most lacked the power to stop acts of rape and faced severe punishment, even death, for interfering or even insinuating that such incidents by white males took place. Most slave women thus understood that there was no one to rely upon but themselves, and actively took matters into their own hands.
Ex-slave Fannie Berry related a personal experience of sexual assault from which she was forced to defend herself. "Dese here ol' white men said, 'what I can't do by fair means I'll do by foul," Berry said, "We tusseled an' knocked over chairs an' when I got a grip I scratched his face all to pieces; an der wuz no more bothering Fannie from him." Richard Macks told the story of a slave woman who castrated a slave trader who attempted to rape her, resulting in his death. "She could not be coerced or forced so she was attacked by him," Macks said, "in the struggle she grabbed a knife and with it, she sterilized him and from the result of injury he died the next day."
Of course, these incidents of overt physical resistance must be viewed in context. Most slave women did not react violently, simply because they could not. Slave women had to weigh the choice of resistance against the reality of the power structure aligned against them. Each decision to react in a violent manner brought the risk of overwhelming brutality or other punishment—being sold, or having one's children sold—by the white master class. And yet, in the face of such dire odds, some still chose to resist. Ex-slave Sophia Word almost shrugged off the whipping she received by her master after beating her white mistress. "I wuz given a terrible beating with a whip," she said, "but I did'nt care fer I give the mistress a good'un too."
WPA Slave Narrative Project. Federal Writer's Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA); Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 1936-1938.
Bynum, Victoria. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Gaspar, David B. and Darlene Clark Hine. More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas. Bloomington: Indiana, 1996.
McLaurin, Melton A. Celia: A Slave. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar'n't I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985.