Reexamining U.S. Slaves' Role in Their Emancipation

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
December 6, 2002

The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States was ratified 137 years ago today, on December 6, 1865. Fittingly, today is also the start of a conference at Yale University focusing on the often overlooked role that enslaved Africans played in freeing themselves.

The experience of enslaved Africans in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries varied greatly.

In the United States, Abraham Lincoln and white abolitionists have been largely credited with slavery's demise.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, slaves are often credited in taking a far more active role. But the "difference is chiefly about the forms resistance to slavery takes, given different conditions of enslavement," said Robert P. Forbes, associate director of Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.

In the Caribbean and Latin America, where slaves greatly outnumbered whites, relatively large numbers of slaves escaped to isolated areas and established self-governing "maroon" communities.

In the Deep South of the United States, where slaves comprised only 12 to 14 percent of the population, the ability to escape and form hidden communities was much more limited. The mantle of resistance rested on the efforts of individual fugitive slaves.

"In each location, one finds resourcefulness, pragmatism, and adaptation to local conditions, which in places like Jamaica and Surinam meant creation of quasi-independent political institutions, and in the United States meant making the best use possible of existing ones," said Forbes.

Strategies differed based on what was possible and practical. But always there was resistance.

"Impact in historical situations doesn't necessarily depend on large numbers," said William Freehling, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky. "Slaves [in the U.S.] very shrewdly picked a mode of resistance that was absolutely perfect for their situation and helped to bring about the end of their enslavement."

Slavery as War

Interpretations of the slavery experience in the United States over the last century or so, have been based on the premise that enslaved Africans in the United States essentially acquiesced to a paternalistic arrangement that kept them enslaved but allowed them to form a strong and separate cultural identity.

"What's been emerging over the past ten years is an acknowledgement of the greater sense of agency slaves themselves had in achieving their freedom, rather than whites bringing about that freedom," said John Stauffer, a professor at Harvard and author of several books on slavery in the United States.

Continued on Next Page >>




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