Reversing a Culture of Ignorance: People Who Fought Back Before D’Jango

Everyone is talking about Quentin Tarantino’s D’Jango Unchained. I still have a review that I will be dropping soon on my views of this movie and how both extremes of people are taking this movie into directions it doesn’t need to be taken. Nonetheless, I was talking to a lot of people about the many other slave uprisings and planned revolts that were great stories that most people need to learn about. There were many big slave uprising such as the Seminole Wars, the Haitian rebellion, the Amistad rebellion,  etc. I was shocked how many people didn’t know about the stories of Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, and as Malcolm X said the only white man who he knew was totally down John Brown. With these stories not know by many of my readers I decided to drop another edition of Reversing a Culture Ignorance on people who took extreme measures to fight against slavery in America.

Denmark Vesey

denmark-vesey-2No records existed on Denmark’s origins, although scholars have speculated that he may have been born in St. Thomas or in Africa. Denmark labored briefly in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), and then was settled in Charleston, South Carolina as a youth, where Joseph Vesey kept him as a domestic slave. On November 9, 1799, Denmark Vesey won $1500 in a city lottery. He bought his own freedom and began working as a carpenter. Although a Presbyterian as late as April 1816, Vesey co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. The church was temporarily shut down by white authorities in 1818 and again in 1820.

Inspired by the revolutionary spirit and actions of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution, and furious at the closing of the African Church, Vesey began to plan a slave rebellion. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast.  Remember Vesey was no longer a slave when he planned the revolt so his motives were not self-serving. The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to execute their enslavers and temporarily liberate the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation.

On May 30, 1822, George Wilson, “a favorite and confidential slave” informed his master of a planned insurrection that involved thousands of free and enslaved blacks who lived in and around Charleston. Charleston authorities after uncovered evidence of the most extensive black insurrection in American history, planned for July, 1822. The city’s suppression of the African Church, which boasted a membership of over three thousand in 1820, provided the catalyst for revolt; Denmark Vesey began using his position as a respected free man and Methodist leader to organize other free and enslaved blacks.

Once the plot was betrayed, Charleston officials moved quickly to arrest and question the leaders. Following a lengthy trial, Vesey and thirty-six others were hanged. On the day of Vesey’s execution, state militia and federal troops had to be called out to contain a demonstration by black supporters. Despite arrests and beatings, many blacks defied authorities by wearing mourning black as they witnessed the executions of the chief co-conspirators.


Gabriel Prosser

Gabriel ProsserBorn into slavery at Brookfield, a tobacco plantation in Henrico County, Virginia, Gabriel had two brothers, Solomon and Martin. They were all held by Thomas Prosser, the owner. As Gabriel and Solomon were trained as blacksmiths, their father may have had that skill. Gabriel was also taught to read and write.

By the mid-1790s, as Gabriel neared the age of twenty, he stood “six feet two or three inches high”. His long and “bony face, well made”, was marred by the loss of his two front teeth and “two or three scars on his head”. White people as well as blacks regarded the literate young man as “a fellow of great courage and intellect above his rank in life.”

The conspiracy was well-formed by the spring of 1800, and there is a hint that wind of it early reached Governor Monroe, for in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, dated April 22, he referred to “fears of a negro insurrection.” Crude swords and bayonets as well as about 500 bullets were made by the slaves through the spring, and each Sunday Gabriel entered Richmond, impressing the city’s features upon his mind and paying particular attention to the location of arms and ammunition.

Nevertheless about one thousand slaves, some mounted, armed with clubs, scythes, home-made bayonets, and a few guns, did appear at an agreed-upon rendezvous six miles outside the City, but, as already noted, attack was not possible, and the slaves disbanded. As a matter of fact even defensive measures, though attempted, could not be executed.

The next few days the mobilized might of an aroused slave State went into action and scores of Negroes were arrested. Gabriel had attempted to escape via a schooner, Mary, but when in Norfolk on September 25, he was recognized and betrayed by two Negroes, captured, and brought back, in chains, to Richmond. These same slaves thought they would be able to buy their freedom from the 300 dollar bounty but were only given 50 dollars. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to hang, but the execution was postponed until October 7, in the hope that he would talk. James Monroe personally interviewed him, but reported, “From what he said to me, he seemed to have made up his mind to die, and to have resolved to say but little on the subject of the conspiracy.”

Along with Gabriel fifteen other rebels were hanged on the seventh of October. Twenty-one were reported to have been executed prior to this, and four more were scheduled to die after October 7. A precise number of those executed cannot be given with certainty, but it appears likely that at least thirty-five Negroes were hanged, four condemned slaves escaped from prison (and no reference to their recapture has been seen), while one committed suicide in prison.

Historian Douglas Egerton believed that Gabriel had two white co-conspirators, at least one of whom was identified as a French national. He found reports that documentary evidence of their identity or involvement was sent to Governor Monroe but never produced in court, and suggests that it was to protect the Republican Party. The internal dynamics of Jefferson’s and Monroe’s party in the 1800 elections were complex. A significant part of the Republican base were major planters, colleagues of Jefferson and Madison. Egerton believes that any sign that white radicals, and particularly Frenchmen, had supported Gabriel’s plan could have cost Jefferson the presidential election of 1800. Slaveholders feared such violent excesses as those related to the French Revolution after 1789 and the rebellion of slaves in Saint-Domingue. Egerton believed that Gabriel planned to take Governor Monroe hostage to negotiate an end to slavery. Then he planned to “drink and dine with the merchants of the city”.

Historian Douglas Egerton noted that Gabriel did not order his followers to kill all whites except Methodists, Quakers and Frenchmen; rather, he instructed them not to kill any people in those three categories. During this period, Methodists and Quakers were active missionaries for manumission, and many slaves had been freed since the end of the Revolution in part due to their work. The French were considered allies as they had abolished slavery in their Caribbean colonies in 1794.


John Brown

John BrownJohn Brown was born into a deeply religious family in Torrington, Connecticut, in 1800. Led by a father who was vehemently opposed to slavery, the family moved to northern Ohio when John was five, to a district that would become known for its antislavery views.

In 1847 Frederick Douglass met Brown for the first time in Springfield, Massachusetts. Of the meeting Douglass stated that, “though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.” It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined his plan to Douglass to lead a war to free slaves.

Brown moved to the black community of North Elba, New York, in 1849. The community had been established thanks to the philanthropy of Gerrit Smith, who donated tracts of at least 50 acres to black families willing to clear and farm the land. Brown, knowing that many of the families were finding life in this isolated area difficult, offered to establish his own farm there as well, to lead the blacks by his example and to act as a “kind father to them.”

Despite his contributions to the antislavery cause, Brown did not emerge as a figure of major significance until 1855 after he followed five of his sons to the Kansas territory. There, he became the leader of antislavery guerillas and fought a proslavery attack against the antislavery town of Lawrence. The following year, in retribution for another attack, Brown went to a proslavery town and brutally killed five of its settlers. Brown and his sons would continue to fight in the territory and in Missouri for the rest of the year.

John Brown believed that if he could strike a blow to a slave state that it will inspire slaves and abolitionists all around to gather up arms against slavery. He just needed to get arms to supply his freedom fighters…enter Harpers Ferry.

Brown arrived in Harpers Ferry on July 3, 1859. A few days later, under the name Isaac Smith, he rented a farmhouse in nearby Maryland. He awaited the arrival of his recruits. They never materialized in the numbers he expected. In late August he met with Douglass in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where he revealed the Harpers Ferry plan. Douglass expressed severe reservations, rebuffing Brown’s pleas to join the mission. Douglass had actually known about Brown’s plans from early in 1859 and had made a number of efforts to discourage blacks from enlisting.

On October 16, 1859, Brown (leaving three men behind as a rear guard) led 18 men in an attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory. He had received 200 .52 caliber Sharps rifle and pikes from northern abolitionist societies in preparation for the raid. The armory was a large complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles, which Brown planned to seize and use to arm local slaves. They would then head south, drawing off more and more slaves from plantations, and fighting only in self-defense. As Frederick Douglass and Brown’s family testified, his strategy was essentially to deplete Virginia of its slaves, causing the institution to collapse in one county after another, until the movement spread into the South, essentially wreaking havoc on the economic viability of the pro-slavery states. Thus, while violence was essential to self-defense and advancement of the movement, Brown’s hope was to limit and minimize bloodshed, not ignite a slave insurrection as many have charged. From the Southern point of view, of course, any effort to arm the enslaved was perceived as a definitive threat.

John was able to hold Harpers Ferry for a few days. His idea that slaves would rise up because of his strike never came to fruition. By the morning of October 18 the engine house, was surrounded by a company of U.S. Marines under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee of the United States Army. A young Army lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, approached under a white flag and told the raiders that their lives would be spared if they surrendered. Brown refused, saying, “No, I prefer to die here.” Stuart then gave a signal. The Marines used sledge hammers and a makeshift battering-ram to break down the engine room door. Lieutenant Israel Greene cornered Brown and struck him several times, wounding his head. In three minutes Brown and the survivors were captives. Altogether Brown’s men killed four people, and wounded nine. Ten of Brown’s men were killed (including his sons Watson and Oliver). Five of Brown’s men escaped (including his son Owen), and seven were captured along with Brown. On November 2, after a week-long trial and 45 minutes of deliberation, the Charles Town jury found Brown guilty on all three counts. Brown was hung with not much struggle in public on December 2.


Nat Turner

Nat_TurnerAt birth on October 2, 1800, Turner’s owner recorded only his given name, Nat, although he may have had a last name within the slave community. In accordance with common practice, the whites referred to him by the last name of his owner, Benjamin Turner. Turner had “natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few.” He learned to read and write at a young age. Deeply religious, Nat was often seen fasting, praying, or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. He often experienced visions which he interpreted as messages from God. These visions greatly influenced his life; for instance, when Turner was 22 years old, he ran away from his owner, but returned a month later after having such a vision. Turner often conducted Baptist services, preaching the Bible to his fellow slaves, who dubbed him “The Prophet”.

Beginning in February 1831, Turner came to believe that certain atmospheric conditions were to be interpreted as a sign that he should begin preparing for a rebellion against the slave owners. In August of that year he would begin a slave revolt that would rock not only the south but America.

Turner started with a few trusted fellow slaves. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing the white people they found. The rebels ultimately included more than 70 enslaved and free blacks.

Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone to their presence as they carried out their attacks, they initially used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex, until it was determined that the rebellion had achieved sufficient numbers. Nat Turner only confessed to killing one of the rebellion’s victims, Margret Whitehead, whom he killed with a blow from a fence post.

Before a white militia was able to respond, the rebels killed 60 men, women, and children. They spared a few homes “because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants ‘thought no better of themselves than they did of Negros.'” Turner also thought that revolutionary violence would serve to awaken the attitudes of whites to the reality of the inherent brutality in slave-holding; it was an idea of “violence as purgatory”.Turner later said that he wanted to spread “terror and alarm” among whites.

The rebellion was suppressed within two days, but Turner eluded capture until October 30, when he was discovered hiding in a hole covered with fence rails. On November 5, 1831, he was tried for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection”, convicted and sentenced to death. Turner was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia, now known as Courtland, Virginia. His body was flayed, beheaded and quartered. In the aftermath of the insurrection there were 45 slaves, including Turner, and 5 free blacks tried for insurrection and related crimes in Southampton. Of the 45 slaves tried, 15 were acquitted. Of the 30 convicted, 18 were hanged, while 12 received mercy and were sold out-of-state. Of the 5 free blacks tried for participation in the insurrection, one was hanged, while the others were acquitted.

After Turner’s execution, a local lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, took it upon himself to publish “The Confessions of Nat Turner”, derived partly from research done while Turner was in hiding and partly from jailhouse conversations with Turner before trial. This work is the primary historical document regarding Nat Turner.

In total, the state executed 56 blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising. In the aftermath, close to 200 blacks, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were murdered.

Before the Nat Turner Revolt, there was a small but ineffectual antislavery movement in Virginia, largely on account of economic trends that made slavery less profitable in the Old South in the 1820s and fears among whites of the rising number of blacks, especially in the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. Most of the movement’s members, including acting Governor John Floyd, supported resettlement of blacks to Africa for these reasons. Considerations of white racial and moral purity also influenced many of these antislavery Virginians.

Nevertheless, fears of repetitions of the Nat Turner Revolt polarized moderates and slave owners across the South. Municipalities across the region instituted repressive policies against blacks. Rights were taken away from those who were free. The freedoms of all black people in Virginia were tightly curtailed. Socially, the uprising discouraged whites’ questioning the slave system from the perspective that such discussion might encourage similar slave revolts.


Make sure you check out this week’s episode of the “Straight Outta Lo Cash” Radio Show. This week’s show “Pop a Molly…I’m Sweatin”w/ guest Matt Whitener. You can also subscribe to the show on I-Tunes or listen on your Android, I-Phone, or I-Pad with Stitcher Radio.

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17 responses to “Reversing a Culture of Ignorance: People Who Fought Back Before D’Jango

    • Unfortunately, this post will not receive as many readers as that type of article will draw. The solution is for more black bloggers/writers to offer pieces that focus on meaningful things of this nature, which will lead more readers to consuming significant things like this article.

  1. What’s sad is that for ass posts like this won’t be looked at and learned at much by people. I forwardedthos personally to 5 people and I encourage others to do the same

  2. This is why I felt Django has an unrealistic plot. Sure its nice to feel like he “won” in the end. But where’s the part of the movie where someone rats him out and he hangs? Not that I want that to happen…but we saw what happened to Celia the slave who was so called justified by Missouri law for her actions. She still lost.

    Now im sure there were probably slaves who were successful at killing their masters. However a large part of that success was probably due to their secret remaining secret. Everyone says there will be a sequel. I’m curious to see if that one will be more historically correct.

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