FOR a country that has celebrated its uniqueness as the land of freedom and the refuge of the oppressed, and in recent decades has acclaimed the feats of "freedom fighters" around the world, the United States has done little to recognize and honor some of its native-born fighters for freedom -- slave rebels and fugitives in the antebellum South who risked their lives to escape oppression. Their absence from the galaxy of American heroes is easy to explain. The nation founded on the proposition that "all men are created equal" was based on the most enormous of human inequalities, and for many decades the prevailing interpretation of slavery in our history books reflected the racial views of the slaveowners. The slave eulogized and enshrined in southern mythology was not the freedom fighter but the passive, pampered, faithful Sambo who would refuse his freedom even if offered it. ("So faithful that he volunteered for slavery," the novelist Ishmael Reed wrote mockingly in Flight to Canada."The slaves voted him all-Slavery.")
For more than a century historians, social scientists, and novelists validated this image, along with pseudo-scientific theories of black degeneracy and inferiority. Generations of American students imbibed the textbook version of history taught by two eminent historians, Samuel Eliot Morison, of Harvard, and Henry Steele Commager, of Columbia, who wrote in the 1950 edition of The Growth of the American Republic,"As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its 'peculiar institution.'" After all, most slaves "were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy," they continued. "Although brought to America by force, the incurably optimistic Negro soon became attached to the country, and devoted to his 'white folks.'"
Given the beneficence of slavery, why would any sensible slave want to flee? Any slaves who did were obviously abnormal -- deceived misfits who, once they reached the inhospitable North, would obey their instincts and cheerfully return to "those they loved best." Refusing to believe that slaves might flee of their own volition, aggrieved southern whites blamed outside agitators -- abolitionists -- for the growing numbers of misfits. (As if the white South had learned nothing from history, meddlesome Communist agitators were accused in the 1950s and 1960s of subverting an otherwise contented black population.) Physicians could offer conscience-easing comfort to whites: Samuel Cartwright, for one, diagnosed slave flight as "Drapetomania" -- a disease peculiar to blacks, "as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation." It could be treated, by first watching for symptoms -- a "sulky and dissatisfied" attitude -- and then determining and eliminating the cause. Cartwright recommended that in the absence of any ascertainable cause, "whipping the devil out of [slaves]" was the appropriate preventive medicine.
No matter how often slaveowners boasted of their loyal "darkies," nearly every slaveowner had to contend with "troublesome property" -- men and women who refused to reconcile themselves to a system of uncompensated labor that stripped them of their humanity. These "rebels" expressed their dissent by committing arson, faking illness, damaging crops and tools, and even assaulting their owners or overseers. Short of insurrection, one of the most dramatic actions slaves could take was to run away. Whether their actions were defined as "resistance" or as "intransigence," runaways constituted a persistent reminder that apologists for slavery spoke primarily for themselves.