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The slave rebellion the country tried to forget

ORIGINAL SOURCE: johnhorse.com

Imagine that the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history had gone unrecognized for more than a century and a half, even by the country’s leading scholars. Imagine further that the rebellion was not some obscure event in a rural backwater, but a series of mass escapes that took place in conjunction with the largest Indian war in U.S. history and that resulted in a massive, well-documented destruction of personal property. How could scholars forget such an event? And what would such an oversight say about the country? A country that had robbed generations of the story of its most successful black freedom fighters. A country that had taught its children a lie, that over the first American century, only white men fought for freedom and won.

There is no need to imagine such a scenario, because the scenario is true.

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The rebellion

From 1835-1838 in Florida, the Black Seminoles, the African allies of Seminole Indians, led the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history.[1] The uprising peaked in 1836 when hundreds of slaves fled their plantations to join the rebel forces in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). At the heights of the revolt, at least 385 slaves fought alongside the black and Indian Seminole allies, helping them destroy more than twenty-one sugar plantations in central Florida, at the time one of the most highly developed agricultural regions in North America.

Amazingly, one would hardly know any of this from the country’s textbooks. For over 150 years, American scholars have failed to recognize the true size and scope of the 1835-1838 rebellion. Historians have focused on the Indian warriors of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), with some attention to the maroon fighters (the Black Seminoles) but almost none to the plantation-slaves.

The omission fits a general pattern in American history. In a trend dating back to the country’s earliest national histories, scholars have tended to downplay all incidence of slave resistance. Contemporary scholars may believe that they have overcome this legacy, and yet their failure to identify the country’s largest slave revolt speaks to the contrary.

It might not matter much that the country forgot a slave rebellion, but why the largest? And why the only one that was partially successful?

Certainly in the 1800s, it was never in the political interests of the white South to admit defeat at the hands of black rebels. But how did the censorship of the nineteenth-century become the amnesia of the twentieth? It remains something of a mystery how the country’s largest slave rebellion has remained unrecognized for so many years even by the country’s leading scholars of African American studies.

For more on the mystery, and for facts on the rebellion, check out the two original essays on this site, “The Largest Slave Rebellion in U.S. history” and its follow-up, “The Buried History of the Rebellion.”

Why did America forget this rebellion?

The Black Seminole slave rebellion was not only the largest in U.S. history, it was also the only one that was even partially successful. During the Second Seminole War the U.S. Army could never conclusively defeat the black rebels in Florida. After three years of fighting, the army chose to grant freedom to the holdouts in exchange for surrender — the only emancipation of rebellious African Americans prior to the U.S. Civil War.