Forgotten Heroes of Freedom

"As much as any of the Revolutionary patriots and Founding Fathers," writes our reviewer, a historian of slavery, "we need to recall these plantation rebels and outlaws."

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

In Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantationthe historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger have written a methodical and deeply researched study of a group of men and women whose exploits have often been shrouded in myth or simply ignored. The number of attempted escapes remained relatively small -- conservative estimates put it at about 50,000 annually, with perhaps 1,000 or 2,000 successful in reaching the North, out of a population that at its peak, in 1860, numbered almost four million -- but the impact of these attempts, judging by the elaborate machinery that whites constructed to deal with the challenge to their authority and racial beliefs, was disproportionate.

THE motives that precipitated flight are meticulously documented in Runaway Slaves.Some runaways kept an eye out for any chance to claim freedom. But for many flight was a response to an incident, a grievance, or a need -- the most powerful, perhaps, being to reunite with loved ones. Slaves defied formidable odds to find and rejoin families broken up by sale. Those efforts did not diminish during the Civil War and in the immediate aftermath of emancipation, when husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, sought each other out with an equal resourcefulness. Nothing, in fact, more dramatically belied popular theories about a race of moral cripples who placed little value on marital and familial ties.

The moods of even the kindest slaveowning families could vary greatly from day to day, and some slaves simply reached a point where they could no longer tolerate the sassiness, insolence, and violence of those who owned them. Nor could they accept deceit and dishonesty -- as in the failure of owners to keep promises that their slaves might buy freedom. As late as the Second World War field hands in Coahoma County, Mississippi, sang this version of an old slave song:

My ole mistress promised me
Before she died she would set me free....
Now she's dead and gone to hell,
I hope the devil will burn her well.

After making an extensive statistical examination of runaway slaves advertised in newspapers, Franklin and Schweninger constructed a profile. They found that the profile maintained "a remarkable consistency" even as the institution of slavery underwent significant changes. Runaways were mostly young (three out of four in their teens and twenties) male (81 percent) field hands (only one in six was a skilled artisan or a house servant). The preponderance of males reflected the fact that female slaves had often begun to raise children by their late teens and twenties, and family escapes were exceedingly difficult. Franklin and Schweninger also discovered a consistency in personality traits and demeanor, with "most runaways" exhibiting -- not surprisingly -- self-confidence, determination, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and intelligence. Some of the runaways were not legally slaves at all. Rather, they were seeking to win back a freedom taken from them by overzealous "slave catchers" eager to capitalize on the vulnerability of free blacks in a slave society. A number of narratives were written by free blacks who had been kidnapped off the streets of northern cities and transported to slave markets.

is the Morrison Professor of American History at the University of California at Berkeley. His book (1980) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history.

The Atlantic Monthly; November 199; Forgotten Heroes of Freedom - 99.11 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 5; page 116-120.