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Enslaved people resisted their condition in a range of different ways. Oftentimes those ways were small and personal. There were also times when that resistance took on larger, more dramatic forms, like with slave uprisings and rebellions. Today, we'll learn about the Stono Rebellion, which was an uprising led by enslaved people in South Carolina in 1784. We'll also talk about ways that enslaved people resisted in general and methods like enforced illiteracy used by those who sought to keep people in bondage.

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Sources and References
-Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.
-Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968, reprinted in 2012)
-Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974).
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#crachcourse #history #rebellion

 (00:00) to (02:00) Hi, I'm Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course Black American History.


As we mentioned before, enslaved people resisted their condition in a range of different ways. Often times, those ways were small and personal- slowing down the pace of work, pretending to be sick, purposefully misplacing your tools- things that might slow down the efficiency of the system and give back to the enslaved some small sense of agency. 

There were also times when that resistance took on larger, more dramatic forms, like with slave uprisings and rebellions. We should note that notions of what constitutes as a successful versus an unsuccessful rebellion are often subjective, unhelpful, gendered, and can really obfuscate the fact that such a rebellion took place at all. Still, some of these uprisings have taken on notable historical significance, and today, we're going to talk about one of those, and that's the Stono Rebellion. 

*theme music plays*

Large plantations where Black people outnumbered the white people who enslaved them were not at all uncommon to slavery in the Americas. This was especially true in South Carolina, where the colony was built on the demands of cash crop production. 

 Raising cash crops like tobacco and rice gave rise to plantations that were designed to grow as much of that valuable crop as possible. And what those plantations needed, more than anything, was labor. The heavy reliance on slavery in the southern colonial economy resulted in a vast expansion of the practice. In South Carolina, the high demand for slave labor led to a Black majority in the colony. And by the year 1740, slavery in the colonies was no longer characterized only by African captives, but had grown to include Black people who were born on American soil. The population of Black people in South Carolina had risen to approximately 40,000, compared to 20,000 white people.  (02:00) to (04:00) making Black people about 2/3 of the colony's entire population. Moreover, ships were still bringing large numbers of African captives into South Carolina, adding to the growing enslaved population there.


And as demographics continued to change, white planters began to worry about being so outnumbered, and about the potential for violent resistance. But instead of, I don't know, deciding that slavery was an unethical and morally unsustainable enterprise, they just decided to fight potential fire with fire.

In response to the growing numbers of enslaved Black people in the colony, in August of 1739, South Carolina passed the Security Act, requiring all white men to carry firearms to church each Sunday. Before this act, it wasn't customary for white men in South Carolina to take their weapons to church. And also on Sundays, Black people regularly worked unsupervised. But these planters wanted to be ready at a moment's notice, anywhere they went, to protect themselves from the enslaved people who they were worried might turn on them. But notably, this act was passed before the Stono Rebellion took place, and it wouldn't go into effect for another few weeks. The Stono Rebellion took place in that interim period. 

Also heightening the generalized sense of white fear in South Carolina was the Spanish threat brewing in nearby Spanish-controlled Florida. And although they also practiced slavery, the Spanish were intent on disrupting colonial life in the English territory.

 So, the Spanish further disrupted the racial dynamics in the English colony by issuing a proclamation that, with only a few stipulations, including converting to Catholicism, Spain would grant freedom to any Black person who could make it to St. Augustine, Florida. Many captives coming to Charlestown, which is present-day Charleston, came from areas in West Central Africa where the Portuguese had spread their language and religious beliefs. And many of them would have been aware of the 1733 offer. A growing Black population, including some African natives not yet fully accustomed to plantation culture, in combination with the Spanish offer, created the perfect storm for the Stono Rebellion to take place.  (04:00) to (06:00) This insurrection would become the largest the colony would ever face, and one of the bloodiest in the United States' history. Let's go to the Thought Bubble.


 Thought Bubble (4:10)


The Stono Rebellion, which erupted on Sunday, September 9th, 1739, was led by an enslaved man named Jemmy. Jemmy, and those who fought alongside him, chose Sunday to revolt because they believed that it presented the best conditions to actually pull this thing off, given that all the planters and their families were at church, and the enslaved were working largely unsupervised.

We don't know too much about Jemmy. Historical records suggest that he was from what is now Angola, and many enslaved Africans who came to Carolina from Angola were in fact trained soldiers who had fought in the region's civil war and who had experience with guns. And Jemmy may have been able to read Portuguese and Spanish, which increases the likelihood that he would have heard of the 1733 Spanish Proclamation. 

Starting with just 20 enslaved people, Jemmy and the group acquired guns and ammunition by raiding a warehouse, and marched up the Stonover banks carrying banners that plainly read, "Liberty." As they marched south, others, seeing what was happening, dropped their tools and joined the group. By nightfall, the crowd swelled to nearly 100 Black people willing to risk it all for their freedom. 

The rebels hoped to make their way to St. Augustine to gain their freedom, but just 10 miles later, when they reached the Edisto River, white colonists overtook them, killing an estimated 30 rebels. While some initially escaped, many were ultimately captured and executed. Others were sold and shipped off to the Caribbean. As for Jemmy, historians aren't really sure what happened to him. He is lost to the missing pages of history. Thanks Thought Bubble.

 These attacks weren't haphazard or indiscriminate. Many of the rebels had specific ideas of who they wanted to attack and who they didn't. As a result, some white people were spared along the way.  (06:00) to (08:00) A local tavern owner, for example, known to be relatively kind to his laborers, was intentionally left alone. Some of the enslaved even protected their enslavers from the violence.  One group shielded a Quaker man named Thomas Elliot by hiding him from the rebels as they approached.


The Stono Rebellion was a moment of clarity for South Carolina authorities and they wanted to make sure that something like this would never happen again. 

But again, it's telling that they did not come to the conclusion that maybe slavery and the idea of holding large groups of people in intergenerational chattel bondage was actually the real problem.  Instead, they blame the enslaved, and they blame the Spanish.

The South Carolina government claimed that "the Negroes would not have made this insurrection had they not depended on St. Augustine for a Place of Reception Afterwards."

Following the rebellion, South Carolina's house of assembly passed a law called "An Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Other Slaves in this Province," and if this sounds like the slave codes we've mentioned previously, you're right, it does.

The legislation enacted by the South Carolina House of Assembly became another legal avenue to block Africans from obtaining any rights or liberties.

Among the new statures and limitations was a policy that made it illegal for enslaved people to learn how to read and write.  

Throughout the era of slavery, planters wanted to prevent enslaved people from learning to read and write for a range of different reasons; In this case, Jemmy and his compatriots' proud display of their liberty banner, as well as their knowledge of the Spanish policy. proved that there were dangerous consequences for white planters who allowed their laborers to become literate.

This idea would remain relevant more than a hundred years later.

In his 1845 memoir, Frederick Douglass, the formerly enslaved writer, orator, and abolitionist, quoted his own enslaver on the subject of literacy and enslaved people:

 "If you teach [him] how to read, there will be no keeping him.  It would forever unfit him to be a slave.  He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master." (08:00) to (10:00) This was an existential fear for the planters, who feared that literacy would allow enslaved people to recognize words, written clues, and directions that could help them develop plans to escape.


They even worried that the enslaved might forge freedom papers, which were official documents that free Black people needed to prove their free status, as they could be stopped and questioned by suspecting whites at any time. 

White enslavers also enforced illiteracy, to ensure that enslaved people couldn't form their own interpretations of Biblical text, because many whites used the idea of evangelism and bringing Christianity to enslaved people as justification for their enslavement.

Many laborers were required to attend church services and listen to sermons that interpreted scripture to mean that God intended for Africans to be enslaved to Europeans, and that obedience to one's enslaver was necessary for them to get into heaven.

So the thinking was, if enslaved people learn how to read and write, they might come to understand these preachings that they had heard from their enslavers were actually being manipulated to serve their own ideological ends.

And to put the cherry on top, 'schools' were established in South Carolina to indoctrinate enslaved people with this ideologically infused interpretation of Christianity.  These 'schools' taught Black people to believe that the institution of slavery was ordained by God and should not be challenged.

This message was disseminated in hopes of discouraging any further violent rebellion.

Authorities in South Carolina also created new policies that they hoped might shift the demographics of the state.  According to historian Peter Wood, after the Stono Rebellion, slave importations were cut by nearly 90% during the 1740s, and policies were put in place to encourage immigration from Europe, with the goal of increasing the white population of the colony.

 (10:00) to (12:00) There were also some half-hearted attempts to 'improve,' if you can even call it that, the treatment of enslaved people.  Planters could be penalized for especially cruel punishment and for imposing excessive work.


Legislators hoped that the improved conditions might reduce the chances of another rebellion, but the phrases "cruel punishment" and "excessive work" should be understood in context.

Treating enslaved people with less cruelty, but continuing to keep them enslaved, isn't really an act of benevolence.  Therefore, we should be careful to note that these stipulations did not make slavery more humane in South Carolina.

Slavery is still slavery.

The record of the Stono Rebellion highlights the courage and bravery of enslaved Black people who are willing to go to extreme lengths to gain their freedom, and I guess when you put it that way, it's not so different from the stories we've long been told of Americans who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the prospect of liberty.

Those who led and participated in the Stono Rebellion were not the first to rebel violently against slavery in the colonies, and would certainly not be the last.

And remember, trying to determine whether a rebellion was successful or not kind of misses the point.  The Stono Rebellion isn't important because of its relative success or failure; It's important because it is emblematic of a resistance that will echo throughout the history of slavery.

I hope you'll keep this in mind as we continue to celebrate the myriad forms of resistance that Black Americans have exhibited over time.

Thanks for watching, I'll see you next time.

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      (12:00) to (12:01) [Outro music]