What comes to mind when you hear the phrase, “I Should be Free”?
For people enslaved in America, it was a thought they knew all too well. Many enslaved individuals in the United States had known or heard of freedom prior to their enslavement and sought accesses to that liberty again through any means necessary. A prominent example of such was through self-emancipation. By “voting with their feet,” the act of self-emancipation represented the enslaved choosing to stake their claim on freedom, whether it be absolute or the power of daily freedoms, such as marriage and attending church.
The Atlantic Slave Trade saw an estimated ten to twelve million Africans sold into slavery in the Americas. For the enslaved, survival in the antebellum era required learning several craft skills and trades. For many, reading and writing was the first step towards self-emancipation. However, Civil Rights activist W.E.B. Dubois estimated only 5% of enslaved people could read by the end of the American Civil War.
Resistance from the enslaved became more prominent as the new nation increasingly questioned the morality and profitability of slavery. In response, the harshness of enslaved labor intensified, especially in the rice and cotton producing states of the South. Open rebellions started gaining traction across the United States. Though they rarely were successful, they were pivotal in revealing how far enslaved individuals would go in their quest for freedom. Although we do not have an exact number, Hebert Aptheker, an American Marxist historian and political activist, documented over 250 organized uprisings.
Enslaved individuals fought to regain or earnt their freedom through various means such as courageous escapes, violent rebellions and even seeking legal counsel for their freedom.
One of the most famed and successful proprietors of self-emancipation is Harriet Tubman. Tubman freed not only herself, but at least 70 other enslaved individuals before the Civil War. During the conflict, she served the Union Army as a spy, a nurse, and even a military commander, freeing several hundred more people enslaved on rice plantations during the Combahee River Raid. Several of the freed African Americans, including Tubman, would reside in New York. By the mid 1800’s New York had become a strong hold for abolitionists such as herself, Frederick Douglass, John Brown. Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth after the state abolished slavery in 1827.
The stories of enslaved people and their attempts of self-emancipation deserve to be told. Unfortunately, not all of them were successful.
“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute's freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.” – Elizabeth Freeman
During the 1770’s, Mum Bett, an enslaved Massachusetts woman in the household of Colonel John Ashley, bore witness to a powerful yet exclusive declaration.
In 1773 Ashley, joined 11 local citizens, including Theodore Sedgwick, on a committee that published the Sheffield Declaration. The Sheffield Declaration expressed anger at Great Britain for its poor treatment of Massachusetts colonists. It also declared "that mankind in a state of nature are equal, free, and independent of each other, and have a right to the undisturbed enjoyment of their lives, their liberty and property.” This same language would later be used in the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Mum Bett likely would have overheard these discussions while performing her duties and possibly used these promises of freedom in her own case.
According to some accounts, after hearing the new Massachusetts Constitution read aloud in the Ashley household, Bett sought her freedom with the assistance of Theodore Sedgwick, a local lawyer. Due to the fact women had such limited legal rights, lawyers added an enslaved male, Brom, as a party to the suit. It is believed that many lawyers of the time, Sedgwick included, viewed Brom and Bett v. Ashley as a test case against the entire institution of slavery.
The jury hearing the case was comprised of all white men and, it only took them one day to make their decision. On August 22, 1781, the jury decided in favor of Brom and Bett. Each were awarded 30 shillings and Ashley was charged nearly six pounds in court fees. With the jury ruling in her favor, Bett became the first woman of African descent to be set free under the Massachusetts constitution. The case served as precedent in the 1783 Commonwealth v. Jennison case that brought an end to the practice of slavery in Massachusetts.
Now a free woman, Bett took the name Elizabeth Freeman to complement her new status. Ashley attempted multiple times to hire her but she refused. Instead she lived out the remainder of her life as a healer, midwife, and paid domestic worker for the Sedgwick family. Eventually, she was even able to buy her own home where she lived with her children. Upon her death she was buried in the Sedgwick family plot, called Sedgwick Pie, and is the only non-family member buried in the inner circle.
Elizabeth Freeman's case serves as a wonderful success story. Sadly, not many were able to follow her same path due to strict laws or the lack of those willing to help. Some, as is the case of Nat Turner, resorted to more drastic and violent measures.
In the early morning of August 22, 1831, Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher, led a group of six other enslaved men out of the woods in Southhampton County, Virginia. Armed with hatchets, axes and knives, they stormed the house of Turner’s enslaver, John Travis, killing him and his family.
Next, they gathered additional resources and managed to enlist about an additional 75 other enslaved people in a revolt that ultimately resulted in the murder of an estimated 55 white people over the span of two days.
As the group continued their revolt, their numbers dwindled and eventually they were met by armed white men everywhere they went. The band dispersed as some of the rebels were killed and others ran away, including Turner. In the frenzy that followed, more than 100 Black men and women, both slave and free, were killed by militia, accused of being collaborators.
Additionally, 48 were tried in court. Of the tried, 28 were convicted and 18 were hanged. Among the group to be hanged was Turner, who, after managing to hide in the nearby Dismal Swamp for nearly two months, had been accidentally discovered by a hunter in the area. Prior to his hanging, Turner gave a controversial, yet detailed confession and testament, basing the revolt on divine restitution.
Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of the bloodiest rebellions in American history. It ignited a culture of fear of not only in Virginia, but the South as a whole. It is said to have expedited the Civil War and the immediate response lead to harsher restrictions on Blacks, both enslaved and free.
Eight years later, during Martin Van Buren’s presidency, the Amistad revolt occurred. The case of the Amistad is unique in that it represents both a violent rebellion as well as judicial intervention.
This case began during 1839 in Sierra Leone when a group of Mende Africans were illegally captured by Portuguese slave hunters. They were then shipped across the Atlantic and smuggled into Cuba. Many perished during the voyage and the surviving 53 Africans were purchased by Spanish enslavers, Pedro Mendes and Jose Ruiz.
The Africans and their captors left for Haiti on June 28, 1839 aboard La Amistad. One of the captured men, Sengbe Pieh (also known as Joseph Cinque), managed to free himself and the others using a nail he had found. They then searched for weapons and armed themselves with sugar cane knives. Pieh led the revolt and after both the cook and captain were killed, the ship was now in their control. They demanded Mendes and Ruiz to sail them home, but the Spaniards tricked them by sailing east by day and north by night, hoping to be intercepted by another ship. Their plan succeeded when the Amistad was seized off the coast of Long Island, New York.
Pieh and the others were brought to Connecticut where their legal status was disputed. Were they free men? Or enslaved and the property of Spain?
President Martin Van Buren, fearing repercussions from Spain, tried to quickly and quietly return the Africans. However, northern abolitionists funded their defense and argued the group had been illegally captured, making them free. After lengthy trials and appeals by the Van Buren administration, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Africans in a 7-1 decision on March 9, 1841, a mere five days after Van Buren left office. Pieh and the other 34 survivors departed to return home in November 1841, after several delays in funding for their voyage.
The Amistad decision further enraged Southern slave owners who feared the decision could be replicated and encourage the enslaved men and women of the South. The decision also contributed significantly to the growing divide between North and South as the nation crept closer to Civil War.
Possibly the most common form of self-emancipation the enslaved relied on was that of escaping, highly popularized by heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. This choice was a dangerous one. There were certainly many unsuccessful escape attempts by enslaved individuals, but what about those that were successful and returned to their enslaver? One such curious case is that of a man named Levi, the enslaved valet of Henry Clay.
After Charles Dupuy, Clay’s previous enslaved valet was freed by Clay in 1844 for years of “faithful service”, Levi was made his new valet. As valet, Levi was responsible for tending to Clay’s needs, such as setting out his clothes, pouring his drinks and listening to conversation. For years, Levi travelled extensively with Clay and on more than one occasion sought his freedom from him.
The first recorded time Levi fled is documented in a letter from Henry Clay to his son, James Brown Clay, dated Monday September 3, 1849. In the letter Clay states that Levi had escaped him that previous Saturday, with the help of abolitionists during their visit in Newport, Rhode Island. But, in an interesting turn of events, in the same letter, Clay denotes that by 3 pm Monday, Levi had returned to him. Clay also maintained he had no intentions to recapture Levi.
Upon his return, Levi and Clay departed for Lindenwald to visit with Martin Van Buren. It was at Lindenwald where Clay penned a second letter, this time to his wife, Lucretia. In the letter he claimed Levi had been offered $300 from abolitionists in Newport but the two parties became distrustful of each other in Boston and went their separate ways.
Following their three day stay in Lindenwald the two left for Buffalo, New York where Levi was again successful in leaving Clay. However, Levi soon reported himself to a distant family-member in Louisville, Kentucky.
After the second attempt in Buffalo, Levi may have sought his freedom a third and final time. There appears to be no further mention of Levi and in a letter dated December 15, 1849. Henry Clay wrote to his daughter-in-law that he is now using the services of a free man, who he described as an excellent valet.
From the beginning, enslaved individuals took an active role in their own emancipation. Occasionally they were able to use the legal system to reveal the bitter irony of enslavement in a society built on the premise of freedom from oppression. Sometimes they organized violent rebellions in an act of defiance against the society that had held them captive for so long. Often, they made daring, possibly life-threatening decisions to escape form their enslavers, knowing full and well the consequences should they fail. They travelled through hazardous terrain, dodging slave hunters, avoiding aggressive wildlife, and wondering who they could and could not trust. They voted with their feet, and their feet led them to freedom.
Last updated: November 16, 2023
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