Why Not Every Man?: African Americans and Civil Disobedience in the Quest for the Dreamby George Hendrick, Willene Hendrick
The record of civil disobedience by African Americans, which George and Willene Hendrick recount in Why Not Every Man?, begins soon after slaves were brought legally to the American colonies: they began to run away. Through the years of the abolitionists, the struggle against the Fugitive Slave Act, opposition to Jim Crow laws, and the emergence of the civil… See more details below
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The record of civil disobedience by African Americans, which George and Willene Hendrick recount in Why Not Every Man?, begins soon after slaves were brought legally to the American colonies: they began to run away. Through the years of the abolitionists, the struggle against the Fugitive Slave Act, opposition to Jim Crow laws, and the emergence of the civil rights movement, blacks continued the peaceful protest of their inequality and lack of freedom. In addition to describing these often forgotten episodes, the Hendricks show how the idea of civil disobedience, first suggested in America by Henry David Thoreau, crossed oceans to influence Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose thinking in turn attracted a young divinity student named Martin Luther King, Jr. The impact of these ideas was to be profound, forming a central tenet in Dr. King's movement against segregation and for the civil rights of black Americans. The record of civil disobedience in the service of African Americans is not without its failures, but overall it has been a powerful weapon in their quest for a share of the American dream. This is a succinct history of that story.
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WHY NOT EVERY MAN?African Americans and Civil Disobedience in the Quest for the Dream
By George Hendrick Willene Hendrick
Ivan R. DeeCopyright © 2005 George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSLAVERY AND CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE FROM COLONIAL TIMES TO 1830
No more auction block for me, No more, no more, No more auction block for me, Many thousand gone. -From "Many Thousand Gone"
* The twenty Africans who were aboard a Dutch frigate that landed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 were not considered slaves. Instead they were called indentured servants, and like whites in the same condition they were to be given an allotment of land after they had served the terms of their indenture. As more labor was needed for the growing of tobacco, which sold at high prices in Europe, American colonists decided by 1640 that indentured black servants should become slaves in perpetuity. This proposed change in status was put into effect slowly, and as late as 1651 some black indentured servants were freed and given land. Blacks as indentured servants in the decades after 1619 were certainly in an awkward situation: not slaves, not really free, subject to enslavement with few means of protest. Slowly, slavery became recognized by statute, and movement in this direction went on for a generation. In 1662 the House of Burgesses in Virginia declared that children should follow the condition of their mothers, not their fathers, thus making slave birthrates important to slave masters who fathered children in the slave quarters. In 1667 slaves were allowed to be baptized in the Christian faith, but baptism did not confer freedom on them.
The Atlantic slave trade brought thousands of slaves to Virginia, and by 1756 there were 120,156 blacks and 173,316 whites in the colony. Whites were becoming more fearful of plots and organized insurrections against the owners of slaves. A comprehensive slave code, drawing on those developed in the Caribbean islands, was adopted in Virginia: Slaves could leave the plantation only with the permission of their owners. Slaves found outside the plantation without a permit were taken back to their owners. Slaves who murdered or raped were hanged; others guilty of major crimes were to be given sixty lashes. Slaves who committed minor crimes might be whipped or branded. Slaves could not legally marry, could not testify against whites in a court of law, and could not congregate in large numbers. Other colonies adopted similar codes.
The largest numbers of slaves were held in the tobacco-growing areas of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina and in the rice-growing areas of South Carolina. Cotton did not become a commercial crop until the cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793 and after new lands were opened in the Deep South.
Slaves were not allowed in Georgia when that colony was established in 1733, but the prohibition was lifted in 1750, after which slavery grew rapidly. The Georgia slave code of 1755 was highly restrictive: a white chaperone had to be in attendance if more than seven slaves were meeting. It was forbidden to teach slaves to read or write. Blacks, though, were required to serve in the militia and were armed when carrying out official duties. Georgia slaveowners greatly feared slave insurrections, a fear that was largely unjustified, for the slaves had a safety valve: if they were dissatisfied or treated badly, maroons, as fugitives were called, could (and did) declare disobedience and flee to Spanish Florida, often to live with Indians.
In the Middle Colonies, the Dutch slaves in New Netherland lived under a less oppressive slave code. In 1664, however, when the English took over from the Dutch, conditions for slaves began to deteriorate. In 1706 the colony passed a law declaring that the baptism of slaves did not convey freedom to them, and that slaves could not give legal testimony against freemen. By 1715 the numbers of New York slaves attempting to escape to Canada must have been significant, for new legislation called for the execution of slaves who journeyed forty miles north of Albany "upon the oath of two credible witnesses." After bloody slave insurrections in 1712 and 1741, New York City enacted further oppressive laws against blacks.
The English also actively encouraged the growth of slavery in New Jersey. But in Pennsylvania, the home of many Quakers (the Society of Friends) with their belief in nonviolence, slaves were better treated than in many other colonies. By 1784 the Quakers had prohibited slavery altogether. Those Quakers who owned slaves were persuaded to emancipate them, or the slaveowners were themselves disowned by the Friends. John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss, in From Slavery to Freedom, are correct in asserting, "Slavery was never really successful in the Middle colonies." The Dutch, Swedish, and German farmers preferred to do their own work, and the Quaker influence, especially in Pennsylvania, was effectively responsible for the moral and ethical scruples against holding blacks in bondage.
In New England, as Franklin and Moss argue, the "primary interest in slavery was in the trade of blacks." But slaves were living there as early as 1638 when several were brought into Boston. In 1700 the population of the New England colonies was approximately ninety thousand, only a thousand of whom were blacks. The numbers of slaves grew more rapidly in the eighteenth century, and Connecticut and Rhode Island acquired significant slave populations, though the numbers throughout New England remained small. There were occasional rebellions, and the colonies did enact less restrictive slave codes than those in the South. New Englanders, however, were far from humanitarian in their treatment of slaves, and Franklin and Moss note that they "held a firm hand on the institution and gave little consideration to the small minority that argued for the freedom of the slaves."
Some slaves in the New England colonies did not accept servitude and ran away to other colonies. In 1643 the New England Confederation of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven, in its Articles of Confederation, addressed the problem: "If any servant runn away from his master into any other of these confederated Jurisdiccons, That in such cases upon the Certyficate of one Majistrate in the Jurisdiccon out of which the said servant fled, or upon other due proofs, the said servant shall be delivered either to his Master or any other that pursues and brings such Certificate or proofe." With minor changes, similar wording was used in America for the next two hundred years, culminating in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Several of the patterns of escape used by fugitive slaves were set before the American Revolution. Some slaves sought freedom by mingling with free blacks; others joined Indian tribes. Others simply vanished, and owners searched for them, often with armed men and dogs, and advertised for the return of their escaped slaves.
On August 11, 1761, George Washington advertised that four of his slaves had escaped. One of those escapees had spent years around Williamsburg, and Washington suspected he might have returned there, where there were several blacks known to help fugitives escape. An overseer on one of the plantations belonging to Martha Custis Washington wrote that it would do no good to put shackles on slaves in the Williamsburg area, for "the negro Blacksmiths would soon file them off."
Captured runaway slaves were often sold. George Washington was hardly a benevolent master, as Henry Wiencek shows in An Imperfect God. After a slave named Tom belonging to Washington escaped, Washington paid two pounds sterling in expenses for the recovery of the slave and promptly put him out for sale. Tom was not sold "down the river" into the Deep South, for that was a largely nineteenth-century practice for disposing of troublesome or overstocked slaves. Tom was sold into the Caribbean.
Washington wrote on July 2, 1766, to the captain of the Swift, ready to sail to the Caribbean islands: "With this Letter comes a negro (Tom) which I beg the favor of you to sell...." Washington did not set a price in money for the sale; instead he requested a hogshead of molasses, a hogshead of rum, a barrel of limes "if good and Cheap," ten pounds of tamarinds, ten pounds of sweetmeats, "And the residue, much or little, in good old Spirits."
In his letter to the captain about Tom, Washington cast himself as an honest man. He admitted that Tom was a "Rogue & Runaway," but his roguishness was not "remarkable" and his runaway propensities "never practised ... till of late." In fact, Washington testified to Tom's excellent qualities; he was "healthy, strong, and good at the Hoe." Then Washington moved away from truthtelling, insisting that "the whole neighborhood" could testify to Tom's fine qualities. It is highly unlikely that the entire neighborhood around Mount Vernon knew Tom, and certainly buyers in Barbados or Jamaica who might consider purchasing Tom could not easily discover how Washington's neighbors regarded the "Rogue and Runaway" who had declared civil disobedience when he absconded.
Henry Wiencek, in his magisterial An Imperfect God, places Washington in an even harsher light regarding the sale of Tom: "The West Indies plantations were disease-ridden pest holes, the preferred dumping ground for troublesome mainland slaves. Washington had visited Barbados and knew the horrors of the work-them-to-death sugarcane plantations there." Washington sold other slaves to the island and threatened still others with the same fate.
During the Colonial period and later, some slaves disappeared overnight or for a few days while visiting wives and children or lovers on a nearby plantation. Such slaves were almost always peaceful, but they were deliberately disobeying the rule of the master and the slave code of the colony. Slaves who "layed out"-disappeared for an extended period of time-were often guilty of looting and pilfering in order to survive. They were undoubtedly disciplined more harshly than those who were away for a short time visiting spouses and children.
In addition to the maroons in Spanish Florida, there were similar settlements in the colonies. Many maroons had fled harsh punishments and settled in isolated woods and swamps. They were generally peaceful civil disobedients, but they sometimes resorted to petty theft in order to continue living in their remote areas. Were they following the "higher law" in seeking freedom yet "liberating" foodstuffs and household items? A desire for freedom drove them to flight and to theft.
The best-known justification for such action is to be found not in the Colonial period but in Frederick Douglass's only work of fiction, "The Heroic Slave" (1853). The escaped slave Madison Washington, the central character, had hidden in a forest for several years before a fire forced him out, and he headed for Canada, stealing food along the way in order to survive. He justified his actions to a sympathetic white man who aided him: "Your moral code may differ from mine, as your customs and usages are different. The fact is, sir, during my flight, I felt myself robbed by society of all my just rights; that I was in an enemy's land, who sought both my life and my liberty. They transformed me into a brute; made merchandise of my body, and for the purposes of my flight, turned day into night,-and guided by my own necessities, and in contempt of their conventionalities, I did not scruple to take bread where I could get it." Conventional religious people and law-and-order adherents in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, when slavery was a divisive force in American society, would have had problems with such reasoning.
By the end of the Colonial period, patterns of slavery were well established. Masters like to boast that their "servants" were docile and content. At the same time the masters relied upon the slave codes and punishments to break the spirit of runaways, recalcitrants, and "criminals." As Franklin and Moss note, "With the sheriff, the courts, and even the slaveless whites on their sides, the masters should have experienced no difficulty in maintaining peace among their slaves."
In fact the masters had been perpetuating a myth. The spirit of many blacks was not broken. Some revolted. Others murdered their owners, or raided plantation storerooms, or destroyed farm property such as hoes and plows. Some killed or maimed farm animals. Most of the slaves, when they protested, were peaceful in their disobedience: they malingered, deliberately misunderstood directions or orders, or ran away, undeterred by threats, whippings, and a variety of cruel punishments from authority figures.
Some Quakers, such as John Woolman (1720-1772), an itinerant preacher, protested the institution of slavery altogether. He came to believe "slave keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion." A man of conscience, he often spoke out against slavery. The philosopher A. N. Whitehead called Woolman the "first Apostle of human freedom." Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush also urged the freeing of slaves, but their views were mostly ignored.
The high import duties imposed against the colonies in the 1760s and early 1770s were important reasons for the growing resistance to what was thought to be British tyranny. The British did not discern the depth of revolutionary feeling in the colonies expressed by the Boston Tea Party and other protests. Skirmishes began when Minutemen in Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts, clashed with British troops in April 1775. These skirmishes continued until 1776, when the colonies declared their independence on July 4. Their Declaration, with its ringing words about human freedom, did not really apply to blacks, though a literal interpretation could make it seem so. James Forten, a free black who was a successful businessman, wrote in 1813 in A Series of Letters by a Man of Color: "We hold this truth to be self-evident, that God created all men equal, is one of the most prominent features in the Declaration of Independence, and in that glorious fabric of collected wisdom of our noble Constitution." The optimistic Forten was mistaken, for the Constitution, even more than the Declaration of Independence, failed to protect the rights of blacks.
Ironically, thousands of slaves during the Revolutionary War became free by joining British forces. By such action they were declaring civil disobedience against slaveholders and the Continental Congress. General George Washington ordered on November 12, 1775, that blacks, free or slave, were not to be enlisted in the army. A few days earlier, on November 7, Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, proclaimed, "I do hereby ... declare all indentured servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty's troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper dignity." The offer was appealing to slaves. Jefferson estimated in 1778 that thirty thousand slaves had run away in Virginia. Not all of them had joined the British forces, of course, for in the confusion of wartime, slaves could more easily disappear without serving in the British army or navy. Georgia is said to have lost three-quarters of its slaves during the war. These slaves were declaring civil disobedience against their owners and against the newly forming government of what was to become the United States.
General Washington soon reversed his earlier policy and on December 31, 1775, allowed the enlistment of free blacks. About five thousand blacks, most of them from Northern states, served in the Revolutionary army, but Washington's order did not allow slaves to serve in exchange for freedom. In fact several Northern colonies had allowed slaves to enlist in the Revolutionary forces before Washington's order of December 31. Those enlisting slaves and the state officials who sanctioned their enlistment were all civil disobedients. These Northern slaves who enlisted were soon to be free, for many of the Northern states were ready to begin abolishing slavery.
Excerpted from WHY NOT EVERY MAN? by George Hendrick Willene Hendrick Copyright © 2005 by George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick.
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Professor, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Meet the Author
George and Willene Hendrick are independent scholars and researchers who together have written The Creole Mutiny: A Tale of Revolt Aboard a Slave Ship and have edited Fleeing for Freedom: Stories of the Underground Railroad, Two Slave Rebellions at Sea, and several collections of Carl Sandburg's poems. George Hendrick, formerly professor of English at the University of Illinois, has also edited To Reach Eternity: The Letters of James Jones. The Hendricks live in Urbana, Illinois.
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