The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

<i>Negroes and the Gun</i>: Slaves, fugitives, freemen, and citizens

Placeholder while article actions load

I said in yesterday’s post that the distinction between political violence and self-defense ultimately becomes the defining theme of the black tradition of arms. But in the early stages, under slavery and extending into reconstruction, avoiding political violence was a secondary concern.

For roughly four score and seven years, the violent capture of slave property was the law of the land, enshrined in Article IV, Section 2 of the United States Constitution and then embellished by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and the Compromise of 1850.

Speaking to both fugitives and freemen in 1854, Frederick Douglass advocated, “A good revolver, a steady hand and a determination to shoot down any man attempting to kidnap…. Every slave hunter who meets a bloody death in his infernal business is an argument in favor of the manhood of our race.” Douglass, like others in the early freedom movement, would come to view slavery as basically a state of war.

Against modern intuitions, there is a remarkably rich story of slaves on the run and fugitives settled in the north acting on Douglass’s advice with earnest practicality. Loveless and Pink Vandane stole supplies and their master’s shotgun and struck out north. Henry Bibb stole his master’s gun, used it to escape, and later wrote a book about it. Slaves in Maryland stockpiled powder and shot in an aborted escape. Others had more luck. One group formed into companies and fought off pursuers with gunfire that allowed the majority of them to escape. A group of 47, the source of their guns unrecorded, fled from Kentucky to varying fates. John Henry Hill fought his master with “a brace of pistels” and fled to Canada where he continued to agitate against slavery.

These lesser known and cryptically reported episodes are illuminated by accounts of other more widely known characters. Harriet Tubman is generally depicted with a long gun or a revolver. Some modern researchers, seemingly squeamish about an armed Tubman, argue that her guns were always unloaded. John Parker of Ripley, Ohio defies such speculation. Parker aided the escapes of countless fugitive slaves. He recounts keeping, carrying, and fighting with guns, as well as an armed rescue of cornered fugitives from a river bank in Kentucky.

William Still, the “father of the Underground Railroad.” adds visuals to the story. His voluminous record of slave escapes includes three powerful images of Negroes with guns fighting off slave catchers. All three escapes were successful. I use all three of these images in the book. One hopes that over time, these stories will become more widely known and America will include among its first order heroes the armed Negroes of The Barnaby Grigsby Escape, Robert Jackson’s Conflict at the Barn, and The Resistance at Christiana.

The Resistance at Christiana is especially notable not just because an entire armed black community rallied to defeated slave catchers. It is particularly evocative because of the detail provided in the written account by the central black hero, William Parker and by Fredrick Douglass who facilitated the final leg of the escape and later wrote this: “I could not look upon them as murderers. To me, they were heroic defenders of the just rights of man against man stealers and murderers.” When they parted ways at the border of Canada, Douglass reports, “I shook hands with my friends, and received from Parker the revolver that fell from the hand of the slaver Gorsuch when he died, presented now as a token of gratitude and a memento of the battle for liberty at Christiana.”

Nineteenth century black men participated in the ultimate act of political violence, fighting bravely in the civil war. Many of them walked out of war into freedom carrying their service weapons and war prizes. They would need them.

Almost as soon as the shooting war stopped, Southern governments moved to reinstitute slavery through a variety of state and local laws, restricting every aspect of Negro life. Gun prohibition was a common theme of these “Black Codes.”

The book chronicles in detail the efforts of freedmen and union officials to uphold the freed slaves’ right to keep and bear arms. A Freedman’s Bureau agent operating in the Sea Islands of Georgia captured the scene with a report that the Negroes under his charge were widely armed and “these guns they prize as their most valued possessions next to their land.”

Other manifestations of this sentiment appear in editorials from the early black press. The Loyal Georgian reprinted the order of Freedman’s Bureau commissioner, General Sickles, affirming Negroes’ right to arms along with this commentary: “Have colored citizens a right to own and carry firearms: Almost every day we are asked questions similar to the above. We answer certainly you have the same right to own and carry arms that other citizens have.” A publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, added detail, explaining to the literate class who would spread the news, “We have several times alluded to the fact that the Constitution of the United States guarantees to every citizen the right to keep and bear arms. Gen. Tilson, assistant Commissioner, for Georgia, has issued a circular in which he clearly defines the right. The Constitution of the United States is the law of the land, and we will be governed by that at present.”

The black tradition of arms unfolds in the post war period as a story where guns were a vital tools for self-defense and instruments of political violence in the battle to exploit the spoils of reconstruction. The book is filled with accounts from men like Emanuel Fortune, Elija Marrs, Abraham Galloway, Wyatt Outlaw, George Brooks and David Cooper, whose stories confirm in detail the assessment of one Freedman’s Bureau agent that any politically active colored man really must go armed.

The practical utility of these arms is demonstrated in episodes of armed black communities coming to the aid of neighbors who were targets of violence. These accounts survive in local lore under names like the Camilla Riot, the Darien Insurrection and the Ned Tennent Riot. As the labels “riot” and “insurrection” suggest, black folk enjoyed a measure of success in these encounters.

After Democrats stole the 1876 presidential election and Republicans stole it back, a compromise was struck that handed the presidency to Republicans and ended reconstruction. It was the beginning of what some consider to be the low point of the black American experience. This is the period where black political violence would seem increasingly fruitless and where individual self-defense would become the driving theme of the black tradition of arms.

It is this period, ranging through the last part of the nineteenth century, that prompted storied anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells to declare, “The Winchester Rifle deserves a place of honor in every Black home.” Tomorrow’s post will offer more on Wells, her contemporaries, as well as the story of armed blacks in the American west.