American History Through an African American Lens

Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

Let Your Motto Be Resistance


Photo: Runaway notice, National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Emancipation was not the product of one act, but of many Americans, enslaved and free, chipping away at slavery through daily acts of resistance, organized rebellions, and political pressure.  Some were small steps, others were organized actions taking advantage of national debates to fracture and destroy the peculiar institution.” - Excerpt from Changing America, exhibition on display now through September 17, 2014.

Enslaved Africans resisted slavery in a variety of ways. During day-to-day activities they could slow down production, break, hide or lose work tools, feign illness, or burn crops. Some took it a step further by attempting to end their oppression through force. Violent revolts, though uncommon, were feared by slave owners and other supporters of slavery.

In an effort to suppress slave violence, white plantation owners often restricted enslaved Africans’ ability to travel or gather in groups. Enslavers also used religion to teach obedience and fear. Suspected rebellions leaders were severely and violently punished, their deaths used to scare others into submission.

Our Changing America: Emancipation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963 exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History features several objects that tell the story of resistance among enslaved persons. We’ve highlighted two below:

John Brown’s Pike Head:


Photo: John Brown Pike Head, National Museum of American History, gift of Luther M. Divine

John Brown attempted to ignite a slave insurrection in Virginia. He and a small band of men raided the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859 to seize weapons for the uprising. He brought 1,000 pikes (like the one pictured above) with him to help arm the people he freed. Brown was captured and executed, but his raid stoked the fears of white southerners. With one third of the southern population held in bondage, whites lived in fear of an armed insurrection.

Nat Turner’s bible:


Photo: It is thought that Nat Turner was holding this Bible when he was captured two months after the rebellion. National Museum of African American History and Culture, gift of Maurice A. Person and Noah and Brooke Porter.

Enslaved people rose up against slaveholders in Southampton County, Virginia, on August 21, 1831. Led by Nat Turner, rebels moved from plantation to plantation, murdering roughly 55 whites and rallying enslaved people to their cause. The revels planned to move on to Jerusalem, Virginia, seize supplies, and then make a permanent home in the Great Dismal Swamp. By August 23, the rebels had been defeated. More than 200 black men and women, both enslaved and free, were executed. Nat Turner’s Rebellion alarmed Americans and inflamed the debate over the future of slavery.

View the entire exhibition at the NMAAHC gallery at the National Museum of American History from Dec. 14, 2012 - Sep. 7, 2014. 

Or view the online version of the exhibition here:

Written by Lanae S., Digital Content Specialist, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.


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