May 30th, 1822
Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion Against Slavery Uncovered
Denmark Vesey spent his childhood traveling throughout the Caribbean as an enslaved black servant of a white sea captain, then worked for the captain as a house servant in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr. Vesey eventually started a family, fathered three children and, in 1799, purchased his freedom with $1500 won in a lottery. His family remained enslaved.
Over the next decade, Mr. Vesey worked as a carpenter and co-founded an African Methodist Episcopal church. In 1820, Charleston authorities ordered the closure of Mr. Vesey’s church. Angered by the closure, fed up with the continued enslavement of his children, and inspired by the Haitian Revolution of 1791, Mr. Vesey began planning a rebellion to free enslaved black people in Charleston. The attack was planned for the second week of July 1822.
Mr. Vesey modeled his plan after the Haitian Revolution by exhorting his followers to kill their masters, free other enslaved blacks in the city, and sail to Haiti before whites could retaliate. On May 30, 1822, the plan was foiled when a black house servant named George Wilson informed his master of the pending revolt. Charleston authorities promptly arrested and interrogated dozens of suspected conspirators. Mr. Vesey was captured on June 22 and tortured but he refused to identify his comrades.
A total of 131 men was arrested; 67 were convicted and 35, including Denmark Vesey, were executed. The city destroyed Mr. Vesey’s church building. Mr. Vesey and his followers inspired abolitionists and black soldiers through the Civil War.
© 2014 Equal Justice Initiative | 122 Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama 36104 | 334.269.1803
June 30th, 1829
Cincinnati, Ohio, Enforces Laws to Drive Out Black Population
On June 30, 1829, officials in Cincinnati, Ohio, issued a notice requiring black residents to adhere to laws passed in 1804 and 1807 aimed at preventing “fugitive slaves” and freed blacks from settling in Ohio.
The 1804 law required every black person in Ohio to obtain proof of freedom and to register with the clerk’s office in his or her county of residence. It also prohibited employers from hiring a black person without proof of freedom, imposed a fine on those who hid fugitive slaves, and provided to any person asserting “a legal claim” to a black person a procedure for “retaking and possessing his or her black or mulatto servant.” The 1807 amendments to the law required black people seeking residence in Cincinnati to post $500 bond guaranteed by two white men. In addition to increasing fines for employing a black person without proof of freedom and assisting fugitive slaves, the 1807 amendments prohibited black people from testifying in court against whites.
The 1804 law and 1807 amendment failed to stem the growth of Ohio’s black population and by 1829 blacks represented at least 10 percent of Cincinnati’s population. In another attempt to discourage black residence in Cincinnati, officials posted a notice informing the public that the 1807 law would be “rigidly enforced” and warning against helping any black person in violation of the law. The notice effectively sanctioned mob violence against the black community, stating, “The full cooperation of the public is expected in carrying these laws into full effect.”
Recognizing the notice as a threat, hundreds of black people organized, requested, and were granted asylum in Canada. Those who remained were targeted with mob violence by whites.
© 2014 Equal Justice Initiative | 122 Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama 36104 | 334.269.1803
January 8th, 1811
Largest Slave Insurrection in U.S. History Begins in Louisiana
On January 8, 1811, Charles Deslondes led a rebellion of some 500 enslaved black people in New Orleans, Louisiana, in what became known as the German Coast Uprising.
After black people in Haiti won their independence from the French in 1804 following a thirteen-year war, surviving white planters relocated from Haiti to Orleans Territory, now the State of Louisiana. Many brought with them enslaved black laborers, including Charles Deslondes, who had been born into slavery in Haiti. Orleans Territory’s black population tripled between 1803 and 1811, leaving whites fearful of a black rebellion.
In early January 1811, Charles Deslondes convened a meeting of enslaved black people to plan an anti-slavery rebellion in New Orleans. The rebellion began on January 8, 1811, with a plantation attack that left one white man dead. The rebels then traveled along the Mississippi River, attacking plantations and recruiting more fighters. Some enslaved blacks joined the rebels, while others warned their masters and tried to avert plantation attacks. Many whites escaped across the river.
On January 11, a militia of white planters confronted the rebels in a brief battle, killing many and forcing others to flee. Deslondes and his supporters were captured. Some were returned to their plantations; others were tried and executed, their corpses publicly displayed as warning against future uprisings. The final death toll included two whites and ninety-five blacks. The territorial legislature later voted to financially compensate whites whose enslaved black laborers had been killed.
November 15th, 1830
North Carolina Passes Laws to Limit Access to David Walker’s Anti-Slavery Pamphlet
On September 28, 1829, David Walker, a free African American abolitionist and activist living in Boston, Massachusetts, published An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, a radical, militant anti-slavery pamphlet advocating for racial equality and calling for free and enslaved blacks to actively challenge injustice, racial oppression, and the institution of slavery.
Mr. Walker exhorted enslaved people to “lay aside abject servility” and to unite and rebel against their masters. The Appeal was the first published document to demand the immediate and uncompensated emancipation of slaves in America. Mr. Walker also indirectly targeted his pamphlet to whites, urging them to cease their inhumane treatment of slaves and warning that “your destruction is at hand, and will be speedily consummated unless you repent.” The pamphlet was quickly and clandestinely circulated among blacks, especially in the South, inciting anger among many whites.
The response was swift and harsh. Jacob Cowan, a literate enslaved man in North Carolina, was sold “down river” to Alabama after he was caught with 200 copies of the pamphlet for distribution to other enslaved people in the community. Copies of the pamphlet found by Southern officials were destroyed, the State of Georgia offered a bounty for Mr. Walker’s capture, and several Southern states passed laws to further oppress both enslaved and free black people.
On November 15, 1830, North Carolina passed two laws designed to limit the influence of the pamphlet and discourage its dissemination. An Act to Prevent the Circulation of Seditious Publications banned bringing into the state any publication with the tendency to inspire revolution or resistance among enslaved or free black people; a first violation of the law was punishable by whipping and one year imprisonment, while those convicted of a second offense would “suffer death without benefit of clergy.”
The second law forbid all persons in the state from teaching the enslaved to read and write. A white person convicted of violating the law would be subject to a $100 to $200 fine or imprisonment; a free black person would face a fine, imprisonment, or between twenty and thirty-nine lashes; and an enslaved black person convicted of teaching other slaves to read or write would receive thirty-nine lashes.
Mr. Walker’s Appeal had significant impact and is widely credited with turning the abolitionist movement in a more radical direction and setting the stage for later insurrections, such as Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Virginia.
August 21st, 1831
Nat Turner Leads Enslaved Black People in Virginia Rebellion
Nat Turner was an enslaved black man who lived in Southampton, Virginia. By many accounts, Turner was a very religious man who ministered to fellow enslaved blacks as well as whites. Turner studied the Bible fervently and often claimed to have divine visions. In the late 1820s, Turner claimed to have several visions leading him to believe that God was calling him to lead a rebellion. In February 1831, he witnessed a solar eclipse and interpreted it as a sign to start his campaign. Turner and his followers planned to rebel on July 4, 1831, but postponed the plan. On August 13, 1831, Turner witnessed a second eclipse and believe it to be yet another sign to begin the rebellion.
On August 21, 1831, Turner led his most trusted followers to various plantations, recruiting other blacks, until their ranks swelled to between 60 and 70 fighters armed with muskets and tools. As the rebels moved, they indiscriminately killed white plantation owners, but seemed to spare poor whites. Turner and his followers killed nearly 60 whites before they were confronted and defeated by a militia. Turner’s men were killed or captured immediately, but he escaped and remained at large until October 30, 1831. Upon capture, Turner was criminally convicted and executed along with 30 other blacks convicted of insurrection. In the wake of the rebellion, angry white mobs tortured and murdered hundreds of blacks and Southern legislatures passed laws prohibiting blacks from assembling freely, conducting independent religious services, and gaining an education.
January 17th, 1834
Alabama Legislature Bans Free Black People from Living in the State
On January 17, 1834, the Alabama State Legislature passed Act 44 as part of a series of increasingly restrictive laws governing the behavior of free and enslaved blacks within the state.
In the immediate aftermath of the infamous Nat Turner slave rebellion in Virginia, Alabama passed a statute in 1833 that made it unlawful for free blacks to settle in Alabama. That statute provided that freed blacks found in Alabama would be given thirty days to vacate the state. After thirty days, the freed slave could be subject to a penalty of thirty-nine lashes and receive an additional twenty-day period to leave the state. After that period had expired, the free person could be sold back into slavery with proceeds of the sale going to the state and to those who participated in apprehending him.
Act 44 expanded on this legislation by specifying a series of procedures that had to be followed for a slave to be freed within the state. One of the requirements was that emancipation for an enslaved person could take effect only outside of Alabama’s borders. Further, if an emancipated slave returned to Alabama, he could be lawfully captured and sold back into slavery. In fact, Act 44 required sheriffs and other law enforcement officers to actively attempt to apprehend freed slaves who had entered Alabama for any reason.
July 1st, 1839
Kidnapped Africans Seize Control Aboard Amistad Slave Ship
Though the United States Congress passed legislation in 1807 banning the importation of enslaved persons, traders continued to transport enslaved Africans into the country. During the early 1800s, many European countries also placed prohibitions on the trafficking of enslaved Africans. In January 1839, a group of Africans from the Mende tribe who had been kidnapped in Sierra Leone by Portuguese traders were sold to Spanish traders Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro. Ruiz and Pedro then transported the Africans to Havana, Cuba, on the ship La Amistad. In Cuba, the traders falsely classified the Africans as native Cubans. On June 27, 1839, the Amistad departed for another Cuban city, still carrying 49 of the Africans.
On July 1, 1839, Cinque, a Mende leader aboard La Amistad, used a file to free himself and others from their chains. The captives then revolted, killing the ship’s captain and cook. After taking control of the ship, the Africans demanded that the remaining crew return them to their homeland. The crew deceived the revolters and instead sailed toward the northeastern United States.
On August 24, 1839, American authorities in New York seized the ship. The Africans aboard were arrested and charged with murder. Though murder charges were eventually dropped, a debate arose over the status of the Africans: were they free human beings or enslaved property? Future President John Quincy Adams represented the Africans in litigation to decide that question, and won their release with a ruling from the United States Supreme Court. Many of the Africans died awaiting recognition of their freedom, but in 1841, 35 of the survivors – including Cinque – were returned to their homeland.
(From Mural No. 2, The Court Scene, by Hale Woodruff, 1938, housed in Savery Library at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama)
March 7th, 1842
Maryland Criminalizes Possession of Anti-Slavery Publications
Black resistance to slavery was active and high profile between 1820 and 1839; during this period, Denmark Vesey’s slave revolt was planned and uncovered in South Carolina; Nat Turner’s sixty-person slave revolt was staged in Virginia; the Underground Railroad began operations that would ultimately help more than 75,000 enslaved black escape bondage; and the Amistad slave ship was taken over by the kidnapped Africans onboard. While these events encouraged critical conversations about the inhumanity of slavery and the need for abolition, they also moved lawmakers and other officials in pro-slavery jurisdictions to work harder to suppress abolitionist sentiment.
On March 7, 1842, Maryland’s General Assembly demonstrated a commitment to maintaining slavery and quelling rebellions when it enacted a law prohibiting free “Negroes” and “mulattoes” from possessing any fliers, pamphlets, newspapers, pictorial representations, “or other papers of an inflammatory character.” The law also forbid the receipt of these items through any post office within the state of Maryland. Violation of the law would be a felony, and those declared guilty would face up to twenty years in prison.
To enforce the law, Maryland residents were asked to alert authorities in their respective communities about African Americans that were in possession of the banned abolitionist materials. Citizens of Maryland who failed to report these violations faced a fine of no less than $500 or no less than sixty days imprisonment in a county jail. County courts and the city of Baltimore’s courts were tasked with informing grand juries of the law and charging them with enforcing it when court was in session.
June 26th, 1844
Oregon Territory Bans Free Black People
On June 26, 1844, the legislative committee of the territory then known as “Oregon Country” passed the first of a series of “black exclusion” laws. The law dictated that free African Americans were prohibited from moving into Oregon Country and those who violated the ban could be whipped “not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes.”
On December 19, 1844, the law was amended to substitute forced labor for whipping. It specified that African Americans who stayed within Oregon would be hired at public auction; the “hirer” would be responsible for removing the “hiree” out of the territory after the prescribed period of forced service was rendered. This law was enforced even though slavery and involuntary servitude were illegal in Oregon Country.
The preamble to a later exclusion law, passed in 1849, explained legislators’ beliefs that “it would be highly dangerous to allow free Negroes and mulattoes to reside in the Territory, or to intermix with Indians, instilling . . . feelings of hostility toward the white race.”
The Oregon Constitution of 1857 included racial exclusion provisions against African Americans and Asian Americans. It barred African Americans outside of Oregon to “come, reside, or be within” the state; prohibited African Americans from owning property or performing contracts; and prescribed punishment for those who employed, “harbor[ed]”, or otherwise helped African Americans.
Between 1840 and 1860, in the midst of this exclusion and discrimination, African Americans never constituted more than 1 percent of the population in the American Pacific Northwest.
February 4th, 1846
Alabama Begins Statewide Convict Leasing
The Alabama state legislature voted to construct the first state-run prison on January 26, 1839. In 1841, the Wetumpka State Penitentiary was built in Wetumpka, Alabama. The prison received its first inmate in 1842: a white man sentenced to 20 years for harboring a runaway slave. In the antebellum penitentiary, 99 percent of inmates were white, as free black people were not legally permitted to live in the state, and enslaved black people were instead subject to unregulated “plantation justice” at the hands of slaveowners and overseers.
The penitentiary was supposed to be self-sufficient, but soon proved costly as the prison industries of manufacturing wagons, buggies, saddles, harnesses, shoes, and rope failed to generate enough funds to maintain the facility. On February 4, 1846, the state legislature chose to lease the penitentiary to J.G. Graham, a private businessman, for a six-year term. Graham appointed himself warden and took control of the entire prison and its inmates, claiming all profits made from inmate labor and eliminating every other employment position except physician and inspector. Alabama continued to lease the prison to private businessmen until 1862, when warden/leaser Dr. Ambrose Burrows was murdered by an inmate.
This initial leasing of the prison and its inmates marked the beginning of the convict leasing system in Alabama, and that system was soon renewed. In 1866, after the end of the Civil War, the government again authorized inmates to be leased to work outside of the prison, and 374 prisoners were leased to the firm Smith & McMillen to work rebuilding the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad. In this post-Emancipation society, black people were no longer enslaved, and the convict population that was formerly almost all white was now 90 percent black. The system of convict leasing became one that forced primarily black prisoners – some convicted of minor or trumped up charges – to work in hard, dangerous, conditions for no pay. This practice continued until World War II.
© 2014 Equal Justice Initiative | 122 Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama 36104 | 334.269.1803
February 16th, 1847
Missouri Prohibits Black Education
On February 16, 1847, the legislature of Missouri passed an act that prohibited “Negroes and mulattoes” from learning to read and write and assembling freely for worship services. The act also forbade the migration of free blacks to the state. The penalty for anyone violating any of the law’s provisions was a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars, a jail term not to exceed six months, or a combination of fine and jail sentence.
The 1847 law supplemented a Missouri law passed in 1825 that imposed various restrictions on free black people. The 1825 law defined a black person as anyone having at least one black grandparent, and made a distinction between those considered full-blooded Negroes and mixed-blooded mulattoes. The 1825 law also prohibited free blacks from keeping or carrying weapons without a special permit and settling in Missouri without a certificate of citizenship from Missouri or another state. Free blacks who migrated to or through Missouri without citizenship documents faced arrest, a court order to leave the state within thirty days, and a punishment of ten lashes. Under the 1825 law, white ship captains and labor bosses were permitted to bring free blacks into the state as workers, though for no longer than six months at a time.
In 1840, nearly 13 percent of Missouri’s population was composed of enslaved black people, while free black people made up less than one percent of the state’s residents. The 1847 law was enacted to place further limitations on the black population and calm fears of a possible rebellion.
April 16th, 1848
Enslaved Africans Try to Escape Washington, D.C., Aboard Ship
In mid-nineteenth century Washington, D.C., slavery was legal, pervasive, and a source of significant and growing tension. Abolitionists maintained a forceful presence in business and politics throughout the city and enslaved people escaping bondage in the nation’s capital often fled to Pennsylvania, a free state only eighty miles away.
In 1848, two white abolitionists, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, decided to charter a sixty-four-foot cargo ship nicknamed the Pearl to help enslaved people in the Washington area escape to Pennsylvania. On Saturday, April 15, at least seventy-five enslaved adults and children from Washington, Alexandria, and Georgetown boarded the Pearl and embarked upriver. Saturday was a traditional day of rest for enslaved people and the abolitionists reasoned the escape would not be detected for at least a day.
The plan seemed destined for success until the wind unexpectedly changed direction at the mouth of the Potomac River, forcing the group to anchor and wait for better weather. By Monday, white slave-holding families in the city had been alerted to the escape. Thirty armed men promptly boarded a steamboat and chased down and captured the Pearl while it was still at rest. Mr. Drayton and Mr. Sayres were imprisoned until they were pardoned by President Millard Fillmore in 1852. The escapees were re-enslaved and many were sold to cotton and sugar plantations in the southwest. The escape attempt sparked three days of riots in Washington, as pro-slavery rioters attacked local abolitionists.
© 2014 Equal Justice Initiative | 122 Commerce Street, Montgomery, Alabama 36104 | 334.269.1803
March 17th, 1851
Scientist Discovers “Drapetomania”
In December 1849, the Louisiana State Medical Convention selected Southern physician and pro-slavery advocate Samuel Cartwright to chair a committee tasked with investigating and reporting on diseases unique to African Americans. In March 1851, at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Medical Association, Dr. Cartwright presented a report of the committee’s findings entitled, “A Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race.” In the report, Dr. Cartwright claimed blacks were very different physiologically from whites, possessing smaller brains, more sensitive skin, and overdeveloped nervous systems. These unique traits, he claimed, gave black people an especially high propensity for servitude.
Citing “scientific” evidence and scripture, Dr. Cartwright argued that “the Negro is a slave by nature and can never be happy . . . in any other condition.” He invented the term Drapetomania, derived from the Greek words for “runaway slave” and “crazy,” to describe a curable mental disease. When infected, he claimed, enslaved black people were struck with an urge to flee bondage and seek freedom. Dr. Cartwright explained the disease as a mental affliction triggered by masters who unwisely treat their slaves as equals and prescribed severe whipping and amputation of the toes as cures. Couched in pseudo-science and presented as medical assertions, Dr. Cartwright’s report was an effort to justify and defend the institution of slavery as natural and optimal for both master and slave.
April 3rd, 1851
Thomas Sims, Escaped Slave, Captured in Boston
In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which sought to force Northern officials to apprehend alleged runaway slaves and ensure their return to slavery in the South. Any official who would “hinder or prevent” the arrest of a runaway slave or “harbor or conceal” a fugitive slave faced a fine of $1000 or six months imprisonment. Captured fugitives – as well as the many free blacks who were erroneously captured under the law as runaway slaves – had no right to a trial by jury and could not defend themselves in court.
In early 1851, Thomas Sims, a slave from Savannah, Georgia, successfully escaped and fled to Boston, Massachusetts, where slavery had been abolished. Only a few weeks later, on April 3, 1851, Sims was arrested by a United States Marshal and members of the local police force and taken to the federal courthouse. Fearing riots or an escape attempt, authorities surrounded the courthouse with chains and a heavy police force.
The morning after his capture, attorneys for James Potter, the man who purported to own Sims, presented a complaint to the United States Commissioner. After a short proceeding in which several individuals testified that Sims was the slave who had escaped from Potter’s possession, the Commissioner issued an order remanding Sims back to Georgia. Sims sought review from both the Massachusetts Supreme Court and the United States District Court in Boston, but was unsuccessful. On April 12, Sims left Boston and was returned to Savannah, where he promptly received 39 lashes as punishment for seeking freedom. The marshals who escorted Sims to Georgia received praise and a public dinner for their service.
After the Emancipation Proclamation and in the midst of the Civil War, Thomas Sims again escaped from slavery in 1863, this time fleeing Vicksburg, Mississippi, to return to Boston.
June 23rd, 1855
Enslaved Black Woman Kills Her White Rapist; Later Hanged for Murder
In the summer of 1850, Robert Newsom, a sixty-year-old white man, purchased Celia, a fourteen-year-old black girl, from a man in a neighboring county. Before Newsom had even returned to his farm, he raped the enslaved girl, and he continued to do so frequently over the next five years. Newsom regularly came to Celia’s cabin and forced himself on her, and she gave birth to a child in 1855. At some point during the course of this abuse, Celia entered into a relationship with a man named George who was also enslaved by Newsom. When Celia became pregnant again in late winter of 1855, George insisted that she put an end to Newsom’s sexual abuse.
Celia begged Newsom to stop “forcing her while she was
sick” and even appealed to his daughters for help. The assaults continued. On June 23, 1855, Newsom told Celia he was “coming to her cabin” that night. When Newsom arrived and began to lower his face over hers, Celia struck him in the head with a stick. Eventually, Celia realized that Newsom had died from the blow. Not knowing what to do, she disposed of the evidence by cremating the body in her fireplace.
An investigation into Newsom’s disappearance led authorities to question Celia until she admitted to the act. Missouri law at the time allowed a woman who believed she was in “imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse” to be acquitted on a self-defense theory. However, the judge in Celia’s case did not give such an instruction to the jury because, in his view, she was a slave with no right to refuse her “master.”
The jury convicted Celia of first degree murder on October 10, 1855. On December 20, 1855, she was hanged.
March 6th, 1857
United States Supreme Court Rules Black Americans Are Not Citizens and Cannot Sue
Military physician Dr. John Emerson traveled and resided in several states and territories where slavery was illegal, always accompanied by Dred Scott, an enslaved black man. Dr. Emerson and Mr. Scott eventually returned home to Missouri, where slavery was legal. Dr. Emerson died in 1843, still owning Mr. Scott as a slave.
After Dr. Emerson’s death, Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sought freedom in the Missouri state courts. The Scotts argued that their prior residence in free territories had voided their enslavement. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against the Scotts and authorized Dr. Emerson’s widow, Irene, to continue to own them. When Irene Emerson later gave her estate, including the Scotts, to her brother, John Sandford, Dred Scott brought suit in federal court.
On March 6, 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the United States Supreme Court dismissed Mr. Scott’s claim on the grounds that he was property and lacked standing to sue in federal court. The Court’s opinion concluded that black people could not be citizens under the United States Constitution because at the time of its signing they had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The Dred Scott decision further held that the Fifth Amendment did not allow the federal government to deprive a citizen of property, including slaves, without due process of law. This ruling invalidated the Missouri Compromise and re-opened the question of slavery’s expansion into the territories. The resulting uncertainty greatly increased sectional tensions between northern and southern states and pushed the nation forward on the path toward civil war.
July 8th, 1860
The Last Slave Ship Docks in Mobile, Alabama
On July 8, 1860, more than 50 years after Congress banned the importation of slaves into the United States, the Clotilde, a slave ship under the command of Captain William Foster, arrived in Mobile, Alabama, carrying more than 100 enslaved Africans from Ghana. Captain Foster was alleged to be working for Timothy Meaher, a Mobile shipyard owner who built the Clotilde.
Captain Foster evaded capture by federal authorities by transferring the enslaved Africans to a riverboat and burning and then sinking the Clotilde. The Africans smuggled in on the ship were subsequently distributed to those who financed the voyage, with Meaher retaining more than 30 of the Africans on Magazine Point, his property north of Mobile, Alabama. In 1861, Meaher and his partners were prosecuted for illegally importing enslaved Africans into the country but a federal court dismissed the case, citing insufficient evidence to prove that Meaher participated in the scheme.
While the government was investigating Meaher, the Africans who had been taken to his property were left to fend for themselves and provided no means of returning to Ghana. Those men and women settled along the outskirts of Meaher’s property, at a site that came to be known as “Africatown.” Many descendants of those stolen people continue to live in northern Mobile; in 1997, a group of them formed the Africatown Community Mobilization Project to seek recognition of an Africatown Historical District and encourage the restoration and development of the town. In December 2012, the National Park Service added the Africatown Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places.
April 12th, 1861
The Battle of Fort Sumter: Beginning of the Civil War
In 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States. As more states followed suit and the Confederacy took shape, many federal installations in the South were taken over by state governments. Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, continued to fly the United States flag, even as Confederate forces surrounded it.
On April 10, 1861, Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, in command of the provisional Confederate forces at Charleston, South Carolina, demanded Fort Sumter’s surrender. Union commander Major Robert Anderson refused. On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops opened fire on the fort. On April 13, Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter and evacuated the following day. The bombardment of Fort Sumter marked the beginning of the Civil War.
The firing on the fort was the culmination of an emerging conflict in which a small garrison of Union troops in South Carolina found themselves isolated when the state seceded from the Union. The firing on Fort Sumter lasted less than two days and had no great tactical significance, but the symbolism was enormous for both sides. Once Fort Sumter was fired upon, the North and South were officially at war.
May 1st, 1863
Confederate Congress Authorizes Enslavement or Execution of Black Troops
On December 24, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued orders to the Confederate Army “that all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong, to be dealt with according to the law of said States.” A joint resolution adopted by the Confederate Congress and signed by Mr. Davis on May 1, 1863, adjusted this policy to provide that all “negroes or mulattoes, slave or free, taken in arms should be turned over to the authorities in the state in which they were captured and that their officers would be tried by Confederate military tribunals for inciting insurrection and be subject, at the discretion of the court and the president, to the death penalty.”
The treatment of African Americans in Confederate custody varied, depending on location and the capturing commander but atrocities committed against black troops during the Civil War, such as the massacre of surrendering black troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, have been well documented.
July 13th, 1863
1000 Killed or Injured in New York City Draft Riots
On July 13, 1863, poor white laborers in New York City rioted in protest of the Union draft and a law exempting from the draft all blacks and men able to pay $300 or hire substitutes. Many working class whites already believed the Civil War sacrificed white lives to free black men; the draft law reinforced that belief and reminded poor whites of their precarious social and economic position. The law also signified blacks’ growing political power and the impending exodus of black freedmen to the North. Poor white Northerners feared that exodus would lead to more competition for already scarce jobs and force them into even closer contact with blacks.
On July 11, 1863, the draft began without incident. Two days later, the draft resumed but was quickly disrupted by a mob of working class whites launching a first round of attacks directed at military and government officials. The mob burned down the draft office and beat Police Superintendent John Kennedy nearly to death. As the crowd grew in number and anti-black sentiment, it set its sights on an orphanage for black children. The rioters, which now included women and children, raided the orphanage, taking anything of value and then setting it ablaze. Despite police efforts to extinguish the flames, the orphanage burned to the ground. The mob grew to thousands of angry, violent whites who attacked any black person or business in their path.
By the end of the riots, which by some accounts lasted for several days, more than a thousand people had been killed or injured, most of them black. At least eleven black men were hung and countless homes and businesses were destroyed.
July 18th, 1863
Black Union Soldiers Lead Attack on Confederate Troops at Fort Wagner
In February 1863, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew issued the Civil War’s first enlistment call for black soldiers. More than 1000 men from Massachusetts and other states volunteered to serve, including Frederick Douglass’s sons, Charles and Lewis. Governor Andrew selected Colonel Robert Shaw, a young white officer, to lead the nation’s first black infantry unit.
From the outset, the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry were treated differently than their white counterparts, receiving $7 less weekly pay than white soldiers. It is reported that, as a protest against this inequity, the entire infantry refused to accept any pay until black soldiers received the same wages as white soldiers. Wage inequities between black and white soldiers persisted for the duration of the Civil War.
On July 18, 1863, the 54th prepared to storm South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, which guarded the Port of Charleston. Colonel Shaw assembled 600 soldiers, waited just outside Fort Wagner’s fortified walls, and led the men over the walls at nightfall. Colonel Shaw and the Union generals had underestimated the number of Confederate soldiers waiting inside the fort, and the men of the 54th were outnumbered and outgunned. More than 200 Union soldiers, including Colonel Shaw, were killed. As a sign of disrespect, Confederate soldiers unceremoniously dumped the fallen soldiers’ bodies in a single unmarked grave.
Despite the Union’s loss at Fort Wagner, Confederate troops abandoned the site soon after the battle. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry continued to fight for the Union and participated in a series of successful military operations in Georgia and South Carolina before the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.
February 24th, 1865
Slavery in Border-State Kentucky
Kentucky, a border state, remained in the Union but the state’s legislature did not fully support President Abraham Lincoln or his Republican administration because lawmakers worried that Lincoln would abolish slavery. Throughout 1861, Lincoln assured Kentuckians he had no intention of interfering with the state’s “domestic institutions.” In March 1862, Lincoln proposed a plan of gradual emancipation for the border states, offering to compensate slaveholders who released their slaves. When the congressional delegations for the border states turned down that offer, Lincoln issued a draft Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 and signed the final version on January 1, 1863.
Kentucky legislators opposed all efforts to abolish slavery, and on February 24, 1865, the Kentucky General Assembly rejected the Thirteenth Amendment. Prominent politicians and other public figures harshly criticized President Lincoln and members of Congress, and the Kentucky legislature expressed their disapproval of the amendment’s adoption by politically siding with the former Confederacy throughout the post-Civil War era. Kentucky did not officially adopt the Thirteenth Amendment until 1976.
November 22nd, 1865
Mississippi Authorizes “Sale” of Black Orphans
After the physical and economic devastation of the Civil War, Southern states faced the daunting task of rebuilding with the young white male population drastically reduced by war-time casualties and, due to emancipation, without the enslaved black labor supply on which the entire region had been built. In response, some Southern state legislatures passed race-specific laws to establish new forms of labor relations between black workers and white “employers” that ostensibly complied with the letter of the law while re-creating the involuntary, master-slave relationship.
The Mississippi legislature on November 22, 1865, passed “An Act to regulate the relation of master and apprentice, as relates to freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes.” Under the law, sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other county civil officers were authorized and required to identify all minor black children in their jurisdictions who were orphans or whose parents could not properly care for them. Once identified, the local probate court was required to “apprentice” black children to white “masters or mistresses” until age 18 for girls and age 21 for boys.
Though not required to pay a wage to the children, whites were required to pay a fee to the county for the apprentice arrangement and the children’s former owners were to be given preference. The law purportedly required white “masters” to provide their apprentices with education, medical care, food, and clothing but also re-established many of the more notorious features of slavery, including authorizing white masters to “re-capture” any apprentice who left their employment without consent, and threatened children with criminal punishment for refusing to return to work.
November 24th, 1865
Mississippi Criminalizes Unemployment and Assembly by Free Blacks
Shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865, Southern states sought to control and confine their large populations of newly-freed black people by passing laws that authorized their arrest and incarceration. These laws, known as “black codes,” typically applied only to black people and criminalized acts that were not offenses at all when committed by whites.
In November and December 1865, the Mississippi legislature approved numerous black codes. One passed on November 24, 1865, declared that “all freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes” found without proof of employment or business or found “unlawfully assembling themselves” would be deemed vagrants and, upon conviction, owe up to $50 in fines and serve up to ten days in jail. The same law threatened whites with vagrancy convictions if found assembling or associating with freedmen “on terms of equality” or found “living in adultery” with a black partner. If convicted, whites faced up to $200 in fines and up to six months in jail.
As a result of black codes like these in Mississippi, and similar laws passed during the same period in states throughout the South, the post-Civil War era brought American black people more contact with the criminal court and prison systems than ever before. As the former Confederacy learned to wield the criminal justice system as a tool of racial control, countless black men, women, and children were convicted and sentenced under unjust laws that criminalized them for existing as free, black citizens.
December 19th, 1865
South Carolina Requires Blacks to Enter into Contracts with White “Masters”
Following the Civil War and emancipation, many freed black people in the South remained beholden to their former white masters. In South Carolina and other former slaveholding states, many freed people continued to reside in the same communities, sometimes on the same land, working for whites who had previously purported to own the men, women, and children as property. Freedmen had limited opportunities to earn money to support themselves and their families and often continued to work as manual laborers in slavery-like conditions. In many ways, “black codes” enacted following emancipation sought to maintain white control over freedmen and perpetuated the exploitation black people had experienced during slavery.
South Carolina’s black codes, like others, contained many laws that applied only to black people. One measure restored freed blacks’ subservient social relationship to white landowners, stating that “all persons of color who make contracts for service or labor, shall be known as servants, and those with whom they contract, shall be known as masters.” The law required black “servants” to work from dawn to dusk and to maintain a “polite” demeanor. South Carolina reached even further into black laborers’ personal lives, prohibiting apprentices to marry without their masters’ permission, forbidding farmers living on their masters’ land to have visitors, and imposing a curfew. Another black code sought to restrict the upward mobility of the black community by forbidding freedmen in South Carolina from pursuing any occupation other than laborer unless able to pay a $100 fee.
October 29th, 1869
White Mob Kidnaps and Whips Black Georgia Legislator for Promoting Equal Rights
Abram Colby was born into slavery in Greene County, Georgia, in approximately 1817. The son of an enslaved black woman and a white landowner, Colby was emancipated 15 years before the end of American slavery and worked tirelessly to organize freed slaves following the Civil War. A Radical Republican, Colby was elected to serve in the Georgia House of Representatives during Reconstruction. His impassioned advocacy for black civil rights earned him the attention of the local Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization founded in 1865 to resist Reconstruction and restore white supremacy through targeted violence against black people and their white political allies.
Klansmen attacked and brutally whipped 52-year-old Abram Colby on October 29, 1869. Three years later, when called to Washington, DC, to testify about the assault before a Congressional committee investigating reports of racial violence in the South, Colby bravely identified his attackers as some of the “first class men in our town. One is a lawyer, one a doctor, and some are farmers.” Shortly before the attack, Colby explained, the men had tried to bribe him to change parties or give up his office. Colby refused to do either and days later they returned:
On October 29. 1869, [the Klansmen] broke my door open, took me out of bed, took me to the woods and whipped me three hours or more and left me for dead. They said to me, “Do you think you will ever vote another damned Radical ticket?” I said, “If there was an election tomorrow, I would vote the Radical ticket.” They set in and whipped me a thousand licks more, with sticks and straps that had buckles on the ends of them.
Colby told the committee that the attack had “broken something inside of [him],” and that the Klan’s continued harassment and violent assaults had forced him to abandon his re-election campaign. Colby testified most emotionally about the attack’s impact on his daughter, who was home when the Klansmen seized him to be whipped: “My little daughter begged them not to carry me away. They drew up a gun and actually frightened her to death. She never got over it until she died. That was the part that grieves me the most.”