Black Women and American Freedom in Revolutionary America

The tea-tax-tempest, or the Anglo-American revolution (Wikimedia Commons).

What is the price of freedom? Is it worth the cost if failure means a return to slavery or death? This was a question many enslaved women asked themselves as they struggled with leaving behind family and friends to gain freedom.  During the American Revolution, one-third of fugitives were enslaved women.  Their desire for freedom did not originate with the American Revolution; however, the Revolution amplified their quest for freedom.  Enslaved women’s desire for freedom for themselves and their children propelled them to flee slavery during the Revolutionary War, a time when lack of oversight and opportunity from the presence of British troops created spaces for them to invoke the same philosophical arguments of liberty that white revolutionaries made in their own fierce struggle against oppression.  Thousands of women of diverse circumstances escaped bondage despite their status as mothers and wives.  In fact, motherhood, freedom, love and family propelled black women to escape bondage during the Revolutionary Era, a time when, as historian Matthew Spooner argues, the chaos of war made flight possible due to the break-down of oversight and colonial authority. The stories of Margaret, Jenny, and Bett reveal the precariousness of their lived experiences and their resolve for freedom.   

Margaret escaped slavery twice in Baltimore, Maryland; first in 1770, and again in 1773. In her first escape, she wore men’s clothing and sought to conceal her identity by dressing as a waiting boy to John Chambers, an escaped English convict servant.   Margaret sought to escape by passing as both white and male performing fugitivity in a way that Ellen Craft, another escaped slave, would do decades later.  

Margaret’s actions indicate that she knew her “soul value.” According to historian Daina Ramey Berry, “soul value” refers to “an intangible marker that defied monetization yet spoke to the spirit and soul” of who she was as a human being. Soul value “represented the self-worth of enslaved people.” For some, like Margaret, this meant that she would not comply with slavery.  The escape of Margaret and other bondwomen during the Revolutionary Era constituted a major refutation of slavery. The American Revolution, which inspired enslaved and free African Americans to claim greater rights for themselves, created both psychological and physical freedom for those who “pretended to be free” or who simply fled to create their own liberty.  Women ran away more frequently during the Revolutionary Era than at any time before or after the war due to the breakdown of oversight and state authority. In addition to Margaret, Sarah, a pregnant woman who changed her name to Rachel, ran away with her six-year-old son, Bob. Rachel’s husband had joined the British Army and she intended to “pass herself as a free woman.” 

Jenny ran away eight months pregnant in September 1776 with her two-year-old daughter from Monk’s Neck near Petersburg, Virginia.  She and her daughter were described as “well dressed” by their enslaver.  She likely spent months planning her escape and had been aware of Dunmore’s Proclamation, which offered freedom to slaves who would aid the Loyalist cause.  Her enslaver noted that she would attempt to pass as a free woman and was likely headed to Richmond, Virginia, which had a comparatively large free black population.   

None of Jenny’s probable movements, the impetus of her flight, or her experience in fugitivity, are recorded in the existing archives. Still, it is certain that the publicity and intention of the runaway ad challenged her concealment and freedom. If fugitivity is “the artful escape of objectification” (racial, commodified, legal/political), Jenny’s disappearance was a defiant act against these constraints.  Fugitive women “subverted the very paradigm of enslavement – immobility, disembodiment, violation – and created an alternative self” by pursuing a rival geography.  The discourse of runaway advertisements remained an ever-looming and corporeal threat for the absconding slave. According to Marisa Fuentes“this discursive power combined with the legal right of whites to interrogate, inspect, probe, and detain any Black suspect made fugitivity both an insecure and defiant status.”  In Virginia, laws enacted in 1723 and 1748 prescribed punishment by dismemberment for attempts at escape. Consequently, fugitivity embodied both a critique of slavery and the precarity of the fugitive condition.  Yet, the Revolutionary War bolstered the independence of Black women, gave them increased access to their families with whom they fled, and greater autonomy in their daily lives once they reached safe havens. 

Bett, at the age of 21, escaped slavery with her three-year old daughter in British occupied Pennsylvania in 1781.  Two white men accompanied them.   The involvement of white men in Bett’s quest for freedom served to provide the pathway for a successful escape.  It is likely that one of the white men involved in Bett’s escape sought to portray Bett and her child as his property through subterfuge. Their presence reduced the likelihood of being stopped by slave patrols or other inquisitive whites. 

Bett’s liberatory aspirations provide important insights into the lived experiences of enslaved women seeking freedom through flight. Her resistance to racial oppression and domination by enslavers mirrors that of other enslaved women in Revolutionary America who overcame tremendous obstacles to attain freedom. Like enslaved women everywhere, Bett was not permitted to leave her enslaver’s estate without a pass. She broke the rules on where she should be and when she should be there. Like other enslaved women, Bett was enmeshed in a network that included fictive and non-fictive kin relationships, which were central to the Black family. Many women, like Bett, viewed themselves as deeply connected to their communities. Although women considered permanent escape difficult for these reasons, Bett was among thousands of women who absconded during and after the Revolution with family in tow.   

Bett, her child, and the two white men who accompanied her materialize briefly in the runaway advertisement. Their history reveals itself only through the production of the advertisement, from which we can glean the process (their backstory) and conditions (the circumstances of their escape) of their narrative. Only through this overlap can the differential exercise of power that makes some narratives possible while silencing others be elucidated.  The dangers that women anticipated if they thought about escape reveal the many obstacles to freedom: cold, heat, lack of food, unknown directions, the risk of capture, and the certainty of subsequent punishment. These social and logistical difficulties were nearly insurmountable for enslaved women and served to complicate what was possible in freedom’s spaces. 

Black women’s various efforts to escape bondage have been viewed as ancillary in studies of slavery. However, Black women’s freedom was intertwined with the movement for American independence, and African American women followed the military conflict and were powerfully influenced by its outcome. Thousands became free and gave new voice to a growing abolitionist movement. Black women, in fact, played an integral role in the expansion of abolitionism during the American Revolution. 

It is not surprising, given America’s Revolutionary heritage, that slavery has long captured the collective historical consciousness of the nation.  Telling the stories of fugitive women is a necessary act of recovery for understanding the ethical and racial foundations of the nation. It has been 245 years since Thomas Jefferson issued the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming that all men are created equal and have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Yet, America is still struggling to live up to the ideals enshrined in that document.  Both successful and attempted escapes of enslaved women matter to the present-day discourse on freedom and equality, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, which was started by three black women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—to fight for freedom, liberation, and justice.   

 

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Karen Cook Bell

Karen Cook Bell is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Government at Bowie State University and author of Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021). Follow her on Twitter @kbphd08.

Comments on “Black Women and American Freedom in Revolutionary America

  • Thoughtful and informative piece.

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  • An informative piece highlighting the significant role women played in subverting slavery in their commitment to gain their freedom. These are stories that are not presented in textbooks or history books. We must take up the challenge of getting them out to children in particular and a broad public audience in general.

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