African American women resist slavery

"The lady circled in red was Lucy Higgs Nichols. She was born into slavery in Tennessee, but during the Civil War she managed to escape and found her way to 23rd Indiana Infantry Regiment which was encamped nearby. She stayed with the regiment and worked as a nurse throughout the war. After the war, she moved north with the regiment and settled in Indiana, where she found work with some of the veterans of the 23rd. She applied for a pension after Congress passed the Army Nurses Pension Act of 1892 which allowed Civil War nurses to draw pensions for their service. The War Department had no record of her, so her pension was denied. Fifty-five surviving veterans of the 23rd petitioned Congress for the pension they felt she had rightfully earned, and it was granted.

"The photograph shows Nichols and other veterans of the Indiana regiment at a reunion in 1898. She died in 1915 and is buried in a cemetery in New Albany, Indiana." Thanks to Scott Horton.

Ona Judge fled slavery in Washington D.Cl, 1796. The slaver ran this ad in an attempt to recapture her.

"The Loathsome Den: Sexual Assault on the Plantation, #MeToo of the 19th century." by Curtis Harris

"In 1868, Elizabeth Keckly published Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The memoir detailed the 50-year old Keckly’s three decades as a slave, how she secured freedom for herself and her son, and her friendship with the Lincolns during the Civil War. Also within the pages of her book was Keckly’s public revelation that she had been routinely raped by a white man when she was a young woman. Although revealing the abuse, Keckly chose to “spare the world his name.” ...

"Also prevalent in both the modern era and the past, has been the knowledge of bad actors being met with a lack of acknowledgement from society. What we today term “open secrets” were described by white Southerner Mary Chesnut in 1861 as “the thing we cannot name.” Chesnut continued by noting the delusion needed to ignore sexual misconduct [rape]: “[E]very lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.”

"Abolitionists worked tirelessly in the mid-19th century to bring public attention to the plight of the sexually assaulted on plantations. Prominent in the abolitionist campaign were the stories of people who had experienced slavery and were thus harmed by sexual assault, whether directly or indirectly. Frederick Douglass, born in Maryland sometime around 1818, exemplifies how the direct harm of sexual abuse quickly spreads indirect detriments. Douglass recalled in his first autobiography the uncertainty surrounding the identity of his biological father:

“My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me.”

"The “whispers” of Douglass’s white father echo the “open secrets” of our own time. More important, though, is the power dynamic that his mother faced. Much like believing an underage person could consent to sexual relations with an adult, the notion that an enslaved person could consent to any sexual relation with a master is perilously fraught. The plantation system dismantled any notion of consent by the enslaved. Indeed, if there is a central tenet of slavery it is depriving agency from one human and placing it in the craven hands of another. The enslaved who resisted that central tenet risked harsh punishment."

"Living in North Carolina during the 1830s, [Elizabeth] Keckly described “savage efforts to subdue my pride” by a white man:

“I was regarded as fair-looking for one of my race, and for four years a white man – I spare the world his name – had base designs upon me. I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain. Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I – I – became a mother. The child of which he was the father was the only child that I ever brought into the world.”

"Keckly indicted society for its complicity allowing the rampant violation of black women’s rights: “If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth…. he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position.”

"Having witnessed these horrors firsthand, Keckly was not wrong in her indictment. As her son was the product of sexual assault, so was she. Keckly’s mother, Agnes, was an enslaved woman assaulted by Armistead Burwell, her master. The sexual exploitation was generational and resulted time after time in white men owning their children in bondage just as Chesnut described.

"The infrastructure supporting unpunished and pervasive sexual assault on plantations started in America’s colonial era. Beginning in the 17th century, Virginia codified sexual relations between black men and white women as criminal, even when the two parties consented and desired marriage. In 1691, Virginia ordered that any white woman who bore a mixed-race child would be fined fifteen pounds. If the fine was not paid, imprisonment or indentured servitude up to five years would be imposed. Furthermore, any white person who married a nonwhite person would be banished forever from Virginia within three months.

"While that particular crackdown on intermarriage was occurring, Virginia’s laws simultaneously incentivized white men to abuse black women. Since a child’s freedom was tied to status of the mother, if an enslaved mother gave birth, the child would also be enslaved – regardless of the father’s status. Thus, sexual abuse by the master might be followed nine months later by more chattel property added to the estate. Though Virginia’s assembly could have legislated some protections for enslaved black women, historian Edmund Morgan details they did no such thing, thus lending sanction to a master’s predatory whims:

“The laws said nothing about black women who had illegitimate children by white fathers, perhaps because few black women were free and the children of slave women were neither legitimate nor illegitimate, no matter who the father was. Given the power of white masters over women slaves, it is altogether likely that many black women bore mulatto children. But since the mother was a slave, the child, in spite of intermediate color, would be a slave. Such mulattoes would therefore not constitute an intermediate class. They must be seen as black. And the [Virginia] assembly took pains in all its laws to identify them with blacks and to deny them any benefit from a free paternity.”

"Thus, this basic formulation of the slave code in the United States allowed for, even encouraged, the abuse of black women by white men, while making black men and white women engaging in consensual relationships both taboo and a criminal act."

"Thus for nearly two centuries, the cries for help and justice by the enslaved were not acted upon sufficiently. When emancipation finally arrived, there was some reason for hope with the legislative victories of Reconstruction. However, that era was later sundered by the imposition of Jim Crow laws, which resulted in a system nearly as unjust as what was there before. Thus, black women over the next century continued facing brazen assault at the hands of white men who were not held accountable by the legal system and existing power structures.

"In 1944, NAACP secretary Rosa Parks, a decade before she instigated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, investigated the gang rape of Recy Taylor by six white men. Despite acquiring copious evidence of the perpetrators’ guilt, a grand jury in Alabama refused to indict the men. Recy Taylor is still alive at age 97 and lives with the knowledge that the men who assaulted her were never tried, much less convicted, for the crime.

"Despite the injustice for Taylor, another Southern black woman, Betty Jean Owens, was vindicated in 1959 when four white men in Florida were convicted of raping her. The conviction was startling enough, but the four men were also sentenced to life in prison. According to historian Danielle McGuire, this proved a watershed moment in the civil rights movement. By 1965 Jim Crow faced its overdue legal demise."

[That is over-optimistic, but the Civil Rights movement did rise up and forced changes. Is still fighting for a just society.]

Ann Wood leads Band of Teenage Fugitive Slaves for a Bold Stroke For Freedom, Loudoun County Virginia, December 24 1855

On Christmas Eve, 1855, patrollers finally caught up with a group of teenaged slaves who had escaped by wagon from Loudon County, Virginia. But the posse was driven off when Ann Wood, leader of the group, brandished weapons and dared the pursuers to fire. The fugitives continued on to Philadelphia. Although proponents of the Fugitive Slave Law hoped it would reduce the number of slaves escaping to the North, the law fueled abolitionist sentiment. Popular opposition in cities like Boston and Philadelphia, which at times led to the emancipation by force of captured slaves, at times made the law unenforceable.

See the video (page bottom of link above) on the Maroons who took refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp, in eastern Virginia and North Carolina. He says they were often referred to as "the Outliers". "Laying out" is described by slavery survivors who gave oral histories in the 1930s, under one of FDR's programs. These were people who did not try to flee permanently (often because they were so far south) but just took off and "laid out" in hidden shelters, for weeks sometimes.

Elizabeth Keckley: a summary of her autobiography

"Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (ca. 1818-1907) was born enslaved in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, to Agnes Hobbs and George Pleasant. Keckley experienced harsh treatment under slavery, including beatings as well as the sexual assault of a white man, by whom she had a son named George. She was eventually given to her owner's daughter, Ann Garland, with whom she moved to St. Louis. There she became a dressmaker and supported Garland's entire household for over two years.

"She married James Keckley around 1852, discovering only afterward that he was not a free man. Prior to her marriage, Keckley had negotiated with the Garlands to purchase her freedom and that of her son, but she could not raise the required $1,200, because of the strain of supporting her "dissipated" husband and the Garland household. Sympathetic customers loaned Keckley the money to purchase her freedom and that of her son in 1855.

"In 1860, she left her husband and moved to Washington, D.C., where she set up a dressmaking shop. Keckley's clients were the wives of influential politicians, and she eventually became the dresser and close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. After President Lincoln's assassination, Keckley made several attempts to raise money for the former first lady. Keckley published Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House in 1868, partly to help Mrs. Lincoln financially and partly to counter criticism of Mrs. Lincoln.

"Keckley did not foresee the overwhelming public disapproval for publishing personal details about Mrs. Lincoln and White House private life; it led to the end of her dressmaking career as well as condemnation from the Lincoln family.

"She left Washington in 1892 to teach domestic skills at Wilberforce University, but ill health forced her to return and spend her final years in the Home for Destitute Women and Children, which she had helped to establish. She died there after a stroke in 1907.

More on her earlier life:

"The first chapters describe Keckley's childhood and life in slavery. The love of Keckley's immediate family contrasts sharply with the abuse she receives at the hands of her owners. Writing against the antebellum myth of the happy slave, Keckley observes that slave owners were the cause of much suffering, and yet Colonel Burwell "never liked to see one of his slaves wear a sorrowful face, and those who offended in this particular way were always punished. Alas! the sunny face of the slave is not always an indication of sunshine in the heart" (p. 29).

"At fourteen, Keckley is sent to live in North Carolina as a loan to Burwell's eldest son. Keckley's presence causes rancor with young Mrs. Burwell. She encourages Mr. Bingham, the village schoolmaster, to abuse Keckley physically in order to subdue her "proud, rebellious spirit" (p. 38).

"During this period, Keckley is raped by a white man, a topic to which she alludes only obliquely. She gives birth to a son, George. After several years, Keckley and her son are given to Mr. Garland, who moves the family to St. Louis. He is poor and unable to support his family, so Keckley becomes a seamstress and dressmaker. She quickly acquires a good reputation and large clientele. At this time she begins to consider a marriage proposal from James Keckley; however, she does not wish to marry or have additional children while enslaved. She negotiates with Garland to buy her freedom and that of her son for $1200, under which condition she consents to marry. Unable to raise the money while also supporting her husband and the Garland family, Keckley receives a loan from sympathetic patrons and obtains her freedom in 1855.

"Keckley leaves her husband and takes her son to Washington, D.C., where she opens a dressmaking shop in the spring of 1860. Keckley's dream is to become dressmaker to the wife of the President, which she achieves when she is referred by one of her clients. Keckley becomes Mary Todd Lincoln's primary dressmaker and "modiste." [fashion designer or consultant]

"Keckley is often called to the White House to dress the first lady, where she witnesses intimate moments between the President and his wife, receives the confidences of Mrs. Lincoln, and observes the domestic interactions of the first family. Keckley is also present during many of Mrs. Lincoln's discussions with her husband, during which the latter offers opinions about members of his cabinet or his political affairs. Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln also bond over the loss of their sons. As the Civil War draws to a close, Keckley is close enough to the Lincoln family to be invited to join the presidential party during a triumphant tour of conquered Richmond.

"Keckley is Mrs. Lincoln's primary confidante during the devastating period after President Lincoln's assassination. She describes Mrs. Lincoln's intense grief as well as her financial troubles. She accompanies the Lincolns on their return west, and Behind the Scenes includes much of the correspondence written during this time, illustrating Mrs. Lincoln's grief, her frustration at Congress' failure to provide financial support, and her anxiety about finding alternative sources of income. Behind the Scenes is a valuable text for its insightful and very human portrayal of two lionized figures of American history, although the book's publication extracted a high cost from its author."

And it is her proximity to high status white people that enabled us to know her story at all.

Modern artist's commentary on the systemic rape and sexual exploitation in the US slave regime:

“Behind the myth of benevolence,” by Titus Kaphar

"Harriet Jacobs in her memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, also recalled the uncaring attitude of the white mistress toward raped black women. Jacobs’s mistress, suspicious of her husband’s behavior, ordered Jacobs to confess the rapacious actions of the master. Initially, Jacobs and the mistress seemed to share common pain in the ordeal. However, Jacobs realized her pain and that of the mistress were entirely different:

“….I was soon convinced that her emotions arose from anger and wounded pride. She felt that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted; but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband’s perfidy. She pitied herself as a martyr; but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed.”

"Jacobs would lament that it was “criminal” for “a favorite slave…. to wish to be virtuous.” Harkening back to Celia’s plight, Jacobs reminds us that for an enslaved woman to control herself and refuse any sexual advance was essentially illegal. Jacobs’s anecdotal observation has also caught the attention of historians like Walter Johnson, who have researched slave auctions. Johnson identified that “favorite” or “fancy” female slaves sought for sexual exploitation could make handsome profits for slave dealers. A trafficker named Phillip Thomas in Richmond, Virginia, described one such purchase: “13 years old Girl, Bright Color, nearly a fancy for $1135.”"

Ellen Craft disguised herself as an ailing slaveholder accompanied by "his" manservant, in fact her husband, in order to escape to freedom.

The Daring Disguise that Helped One Enslaved Couple Escape to Freedom

In 1848 William and Ellen Craft blurred the lines of race and gender in order to escape slavery.

[Skipping over the romance intro] "William worked as a carpenter under his slaveholder, and the majority of his earnings were taken by his owner. But he managed to save enough to finance his and Ellen’s escape. Ellen was a house servant to her half-sister, where she worked as a seamstress, among other domestic duties. With her skills, she was able to stitch her disguise.

"Neither William nor Ellen could read or write, since it was forbidden for enslaved people to study. In order to hide her illiteracy, Ellen placed her arm in a sling to avoid drawing attention to herself if any signatures were required along the way. She also covered her face in bandages to hide her feminine features.

“[Both William and Ellen] concoct the story that she is very ill. And she's suffering from some kind of…tooth problem, along with arthritis,” says McCaskill. “At that time, middle of the 19th century, Philadelphia was a medical center in the United States. It was renowned for its hospitals, its spas, its cutting-edge medical practices.” It was a convenient coverup: A southern white slaveholder, riddled with injuries traveling with his enslaved worker to help him on the journey for medical treatment. The mouth injury was also used as an alibi for hiding her voice and possibly talking to anyone and raising flags that she wasn’t who she appeared to be, according to McCaskill.

"Both William and Ellen were trusted by their slaveholders, so they were able to acquire travel passes—authorization that allowed enslaved people to travel without fear of being arrested—and avoid raising suspicions as they started their escape in December 1848. 

"There was a terrifying close call, however, when Ellen, who was traveling as William Johnson, ran into a friend of her slaveholder at the Macon station. Ellen found herself sitting next to the man who was well-acquainted with Ellen in her former life. She worried that her cover would be blown and that both she and William would be killed. At the time, surveillance had been heightened for fugitive enslaved people in the 1820s and ‘30s, following a string of revolts.

"Luck was on their side, however, and Ellen wasn’t recognized. The pair traveled onward from Macon to Savannah, Georgia and then crossed the state line into Charleston, South Carolina. The duo was so convincing that, according to an account later written by William Craft, Ellen was often advised by passersby to avoid abolitionists since they would look to free William along the way.

“You have a very attentive boy, sir; but you had better watch him like a hawk when you get on to the North,” said a passenger to Ellen on their trip to Charleston, according to William Craft’s book Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. “He seems all very well here, but he may act quite differently there. I know several gentlemen who have lost their valuable n------- among them [damned] cut-throat abolitionists."

"William was also covertly advised by abolitionists to flee as soon as his feet touched free soil. William and Ellen travelled from Charleston via steamer and train to Wilmington, North Carolina and Baltimore, Maryland, among other cities, before finally reaching their destination, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Day in 1848.

"News of the escaped couple traveled fast throughout Philadelphia after their arrival. Several local abolitionists immediately offered to help and even started reading and writing lessons on their first day in the city. The pair soon relocated to the safe haven of Boston, Massachusetts where they and other abolitionists continued to tell their story. ...

"Eventually, William and Ellen Craft moved to England to avoid bounty hunters who sought to profit by recapturing the pair under the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. In England, they were finally able to build the family they had long hoped for, with the birth of their five children. They were also able to live as a truly free family.

“Since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated,” wrote Ellen Craft in a December 1852 issue of Anti-Slavery Advocate. “Though, had it been to the contrary, my feelings in regard to this would have been just the same, for I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.”

Susie Baker King Taylor

"Susie Baker King Taylor was the first Black educator to teach openly in a school for formerly enslaved African Americans in Georgia. As the author of Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, she was the only African American woman to publish a memoir of her wartime experiences.

"Susie Baker, the daughter of enslaved parents, was born in Liberty County on August 6, 1848. When she was about seven years old, her owner allowed her to go to Savannah to live with her grandmother. Despite Georgia’s harsh laws against the formal education of African Americans, she attended two secret schools taught by Black women. From them she gained the rudiments of literacy, then extended her education with the help of two white youths, both of whom knowingly violated law and custom.

Susie King Taylor

"In April 1862 Baker and many other African Americans fled to St. Simons Island, occupied at the time by Union forces. Within days her educational advantages came to the attention of army officers, who offered to obtain books for her if she would organize a school. She thereby became the first Black teacher for freed African American students to work in a freely operating freedmen’s school in Georgia. She taught forty children in day school and “a number of adults who came to me nights, all of them so eager to learn to read, to read above anything else.” She taught there until October 1862, when the island was evacuated.

"While at the school on St. Simons Island, Baker married Edward King, a Black noncommissioned officer in the Union forces. For three years she moved with her husband’s and brothers’ regiment, serving as nurse and laundress, and teaching many of the Black soldiers to read and write during their off-duty hours. In 1866 she and Edward returned to Savannah, where she established a school for the freed children. Edward King died in September 1866, a few months before the birth of their first child. In 1867 she returned to her native Liberty County to establish another school. In 1868 she again relocated to Savannah, where she continued teaching freedmen for another year and supported herself through small tuition charges, never receiving aid from the northern freedmen’s aid organizations.

"In the 1870s King traveled to Boston as a domestic servant of a wealthy white family. While there she met and married Russell Taylor. She remained in Boston for the rest of her life, returning to the South only occasionally. After a trip to Louisiana in the 1890s to care for a dying son, she wrote her Reminiscences, which were privately published in 1902. She died ten years later. In 2019 the Georgia Historical Society erected a historical marker honoring King Taylor near the Midway First Presbyterian Church in Midway, Georgia."

Present day generations face uphill obstacles trying to recover their families' history. This story was a gut punch, delivered by a slaver-descendant.

"When Delores McQuinn was growing up, her father told her a story about a search for the family’s roots. He said his own father knew the name of the people who had enslaved their family in Virginia, knew where they lived—in the same house and on the same land—in Hanover County, among the rumpled hills north of Richmond.

“My grandfather went to the folks who had owned our family and asked, ‘Do you have any documentation about our history during the slave days? We would like to see it, if possible.’ The man at the door, who I have to assume was from the slaveholding side, said, ‘Sure, we’ll give it to you.’

“The man went into his house and came back out with some papers in his hands. Now, whether the papers were trivial or actual plantation records, who knows? But he stood in the door, in front of my grandfather, and lit a match to the papers. ‘You want your history?’ he said. ‘Here it is.’ Watching the things burn. ‘Take the ashes and get off my land.’

“The intent was to keep that history buried,” McQuinn says today. “And I think something like that has happened over and again, symbolically.”

"McQuinn was raised in Richmond, the capital of Virginia and the former capital of the Confederacy—a city crowded with monuments to the Old South. She is a politician now, elected to the city council in the late 1990s and to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2009. One of her proudest accomplishments in politics, she says, has been to throw new light on an alternate history.

"For example, she persuaded the city to fund a tourist walk about slavery, a kind of mirror image of the Freedom Trail in Boston. She has helped raise money for a heritage site incorporating the excavated remains of the infamous slave holding cell known as Lumpkin’s Jail. “You see, our history is often buried,” she says. “You have to unearth it.”

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