Earth Day turns 45 years old this week. Tia Nelson’s dad is rolling over in his grave.
A little-known slave revolt that occurred 300 years ago in New York can teach us a lot three centuries later.
On April 6, 1712, African slaves in New York City rose up with anger and fury. These African men and women — enslaved and oppressed into an inhuman system — had reached the breaking point. They would rather have died than continue to be treated as less than human beings simply on the basis of their skin color.
At the time of the revolt, New York was similar to the Deep South in how slavery and racial oppression was maintained. Africans had little opportunity to gain their freedom. And if they were somehow emancipated, second-class citizenship awaited them for the duration of their lives. This decision by those who controlled the colony to uphold chattel slavery and racial oppression was the fuel to the uprising of April 6, 1712.
The insurrection began when 24 Africans (including two women) gathered late in the evening and set fire to an outhouse in the middle of town. When local whites arrived to extinguish the fire, the Africans emerged wielding axes, guns, and swords. Nine whites were killed and seven were wounded.
The rebels then attempted to recruit other slaves and free blacks into a full-scale assault on the colony, but these efforts largely failed. Militias from the New York area were called in to put down the insurgency. In the end, 21 Africans were executed for participating in the revolt and many others were imprisoned.
But the lesson New York authorities took away from the revolt was not to end the institution of slavery and the oppressive racial hierarchy; it was to strengthen that system. New York maintained slavery for decades thereafter. It wasn’t until 1799 that a law was finally passed that would begin to do away with slavery in the state. The United States, of course, did not abolish slavery until 1863 and preserved for a century after that a system of race-based discrimination.
As a result, racial division and mistrust is still part of our lives; progress is significant but fundamental change in many areas is lacking. Segregation in many cities and communities remains a fixture. Institutional racism in the housing and lending market, employment, and the criminal justice system continues to keep society unequal in many ways.
The history of the United States is full of stories like the African slave revolt of April 6, 1712. We ignore the message of that fateful day at our own peril: Racism is wicked and destructive and can lead to violence. Let us learn from our history and make more change.
Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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