Warning: The following article wrestles with a difficult topic in American history, a topic contains some horrid depictions of human suffering
Note from the Author: Sorry I missed November! As classes and grad school applications began ramping up, I didn’t have time to write. I know we’re all short on time as finals ramp up, so I’m going to keep this brief. I hope you can still take something away from this snapshot of America’s past.
This article is a continuation of the Revisiting American History Series, where each article revisists a section of American history with a critical eye for the different groups of people involved in that history. In October, we learned about the origins of slavery in America, and now we’re going to continue that thread by learning more about African resistance and how closely early policing in America was tied to race.
When African people were ripped away from their homes and forced into slavery, they resisted. On the voyage from Africa to America, many African people decided they would rather drown than be forced into slavery, and they jumped into the ocean, killing themselves to end their suffering. Those who made it to America found subtler ways of resisting. They would find ways to sabotage their plantation, or work together to participate in slowdowns. Some were courageous enough to run away altogether, either establishing villages on the frontier, or attempting to pass off as free with skills they learned on the plantation.
Gerald Mullin, author of Flight and Rebellion, studied slave resistance in Virginia in the eighteenth century. He studied plantation and county records, as well as newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves. According to his work, “The slaves described were lazy and thieving: they feigned illnesses, destroyed crops, stores, tools, and sometimes attacked or killed overseers. They operated blackmarkets in stolen goods. Runaways were… men who visited relatives, went to town to pass as free, or tried to escape slavery completely, either by boarding ships and leaving the colony, or banding together in cooperative efforts to establish villages or hide-outs in the frontier.”
This spirit of African resistance was truly admirable. Landon Carter, a slave owner from the early 1700s, complained that his slaves were so uncooperative that he began to question whether keeping them was worthwhile. I believe that is a feat worth congratulating. Even more impressive, when the first African slaves were forced to work in Hispaniola in 1503, the governor of Hispaniola complained to the Spanish court that the African slaves were teaching disobedience to their Native American counterparts. Not only were African slaves able to hold on to their roots and resist as individuals – they were able to inspire other enslaved and disenfranchised people to resist with them.
Of course, not all of this resistance was so subtle or non-violent. Many African people decided to take matters into their own hands, and fight for their freedom. In 1739, in Stono, South Carolina, a group of twenty slaves killed two warehouse guards to steal guns and gunpowder. Once armed, they headed south, killing people in their way, and burning buildings. They inspired other slaves along their path to join them until they reached about eighty slaves in total. According to one account at the time, “they called out Liberty, marched on with Colours displayer, and two Drums beating”. These slaves were ready to rise out of their condition. Unfortunately, the militia found and attacked them. The slaves defended themselves. By the time the battle was over, about fifty slaves and twenty five whites were killed. Stono’s Rebellion had just been crushed.
America’s ruling class, composed of landowning white men, was fearful of exactly this kind of outright revolt. As Governor Alexander Spotswood warned in a speech to the 1710 Virginia Assembly, “… freedom wears a cap which can without a tongue call together all those who long to shake off the fetters of slavery and as such an insuerection would surely be attended with the most dreadful consequences so I think we cannot be too early in providing against it, both by putting our selves in a better posture of defense and by making a law to prevent the consultions of those Negroes.” In an attempt to keep African slaves from rebelling, the ruling class broke up family ties amongst the slaves, disciplined them with hard labor, lulled them into adopting new religious beliefs, and even created separation amongst the slaves by splitting them into either more privileged house slaves or less privileged field slaves.
The ruling class was especially fearful of what might happen if slaves were to work together with the lower classes of white freemen to overthrow the ruling class. As early as 1705, Virginia’s ruling class was making attempts to draw a clear color line between white and Black. Virginia’s ruling class proclaimed that all white men were superior to Black, and required that masters must provide their white servants whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, a gun, and 50 acres of land. Their Black counterparts were to receive nothing. The purpose of laws like this was clear: Give the lower class white people just enough privileges that they will see the ruling class as an important defender of those privileges, and maintain the status quo against the further disenfranchised Black slaves.
As Edmung Morgan, a specialist in American colonial history, describes it, “Once the small planter felt less exploited by taxation and began to prosper a little, he became less turbulent, less dangerous, more respectable. He could begin to see his big neighbor not as an extortionist but as a powerful protector of their common interests.”
This led to a form of early policing in America known as “Slave Patrols”. White men were legally mandated to serve as patrollers for up to a year. They were paid for fulfilling their duty to police Black people, and were fined if they chose not to show up to patrol. These patrollers had very few restraints, and could even forcefully enter anyone’s home based on alleged suspicions that they were sheltering escaped slaves. As historian Gary Potter explains, these slave patrols served three primary functions.
“(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves
(2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts
(3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside the law.”
Slave patrollers considered it their civic duty to beat and terrorize America’s enslaved population. In fact, they were legally compelled to do so. They enforced curfew, checked travelers for a permission pass, and broke up any assemblies that were held without permission, explicitly preventing any form of organized resistance.
While this wasn’t the origin of policing in the entire world, it was the origin of policing in America. When you think about American policing and it’s modern day controversies, remember that this is where it started: America’s ruling class uniting with disenfranchised white people to oppress an even more disenfranchised Black population.
I feel that oftentimes, when people are confronted with controversies in current events, they hide their opinion behind the question of, “What’s the legal precedent? What does the law say about this?” While it may be easy to hide behind the supposed objectivity of the law and its legal precedents, we must remember that our laws were not written by some objective arbitrators of moral justice. They were in fact written by people, and we need to be cognisant of what their motives were. Were we never to question and rewrite our laws through new legislation, we might never move towards a more just and equal America. Next time you come face to face with an important issue, I invite you to ask why the current laws and social norms are set the way they are. Who do they benefit? And who created them? I believe that this is key to promoting change in a healthy democracy.
I haven’t yet decided whether I will continue this series next semester. We’ll see how much work I have to do. Regardless, I hope these articles have opened your minds to the tremendous insight we can gain from historical context. Good luck with finals!
- A People’s History Of The United States by Howard Zinn
Many pieces of this article are either direct quotes or paraphrased paragraphs from Zinn that aren’t explicitly called out. Part of this is due to his unique style of writing I hope to capture in this article, how well he articulates certain ideas, so that I can be certain I’m not misrepresenting any facts presented by Zinn, and to not disrupt the flow of the writing.
- NPR Throughline on American Police: https://www.npr.org/2020/06/03/869046127/american-police
By Rund Abdelfatah, Ramtin Arablouei, Khalil Gibran Muhammad
This was an incredible recollection of the history of policing in America, starting out with some of the podcast guest’s personal experiences, and then exploring the history from slave patrols to the Harlem riots.