UW News

November 22, 2004

Everyday resistance to slavery far more common than believed, historian says

By today’s standards pretending to be sick to get out of a day’s work, sneaking away to meet friends in the woods at night, learning to read and write, or tacking up an abolitionist poster in their quarters may seem to be pretty tame infractions. But for slaves in the American south such activities were dangerous, daring and far more common than previously believed.

“Some historians have called this passive, or a way of letting off steam,” said Stephanie Camp, a University of Washington historian and author of a new book, “Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South.”

“I take issue with those kinds of statements considering the dangers people exposed themselves to from owners and overseers. Look at what might have happened as a result of a slave missing an afternoon’s work. Men were shot, people were whipped, shackled or forced to wear a ball and chain for weeks, and some were sold. All of these punishments were possible, certainly for repeat offenders,” she said.

In her book, recently published by University of North Carolina Press, Camp, an associate professor of history at the UW, said that most of the everyday resistance was covert and “generally slipped under the radar. But the fact that slaves were willing to risk violent punishment ‘just’ to be truant for a few days showed how much it mattered to them.”

Slave owners considered these kinds of offenses to be passive. They typically did not accept or understand this kind of behavior and fought it.

“It was very difficult for slaves to display their discontent,” said Camp. “To whites, working slowly or not showing up for work were considered to be examples of black laziness. Control over their slaves was important to slaveholders. They wanted them fully available at maximum efficiency, believing it would compromise their authority if slaves were not available when and where they wanted them. It was an intangible issue of mastery. The slaveholder had to be obeyed and a rule that had been made had to be obeyed, period. By the middle of the 19th century the slaveholder was the state on the plantation and exerted a personal tyranny over his slaves.”

Camp’s book focuses on the resistance activities of women in antebellum and Civil War days when there were stringent laws restricting the travel of slaves. These laws were gender-neutral on paper and didn’t permit slaves to leave their owner’s property without a pass. But plantation journal records Camp studied showed that exceptions were made for males because travel sometimes was necessary as part of their work. She was only able to find two or three references that permitted women slaves to travel.

“Rules restricting travel were very consistent and persistent,” Camp said. “Most slaves spent their lives in one place doing their work day after day; unless they were sold. And maybe, if they were lucky, their children would, too.”

In resisting the domination of their owners, slaves resorted to what Camp calls “rival geographies” to temporarily occupy parts of a plantation or adjacent property. Slaves used woods, swamps, outbuildings or even a plantation kitchen when whites weren’t present as places for rest and recreation, religious services, creative expression and simply to escape from the pervasive oversight of their every move.

While most resistance was covert, the occasional overt act against slavery, such as Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Virginia, shook the south.

“Many whites in the south found the Turner rebellion to be confounding and terrifying because they had convinced themselves that some people are subservient to others and that slaves were happy in their condition,” said Camp.

Even so, these attitudes remained fixed when the Civil War broke out and many slave owners believed their slaves would remain on the plantations and farms. Resistance against slavery broke into the open during the war. Where Union armies were geographically at a particular time changed the location of open resistance and freedom.

The role of slave women shifted with the outbreak of hostilities. Many continued in traditional covert roles of feeding and hiding runaway slaves, as well as deserting soldiers or escaped prisoners of war. But an increasing number of women also joined men in fleeing plantations and farms to take direct steps in gaining their own freedom.


For more information, contact Camp at (206) 616-2418 or stcamp@u.washington.edu

Review copies of the book are available from the University of North Carolina Press by contacting Gina Mahalek at (919) 966-3561 or Gina_Mahalek@unc.edu.