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 pmproj@progressive.org.

You can read more pieces from The Progressive Media Project by clicking here.


Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.


It's finally setting in: Trump is Trump and he’s not going to change because of winning the nomination.

The new head of the Environmental Protection has a history of suing the agency for trying to do its job.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project