Celia, #BlackLivesMatter, and the Diffusion of Black Thought

"Virginian Luxuries," c. 1825.
“Virginian Luxuries,” c. 1825.

One of the hardest days in my early African American history class is the day that we analyze State of Missouri v. Celia (1855). But it is also one of the most rewarding class periods. Each semester, students bring fresh perspectives to a trial that is now well-known thanks to the work of Douglas O. Linder and Melton A. McLaurin. Every group of students finds new and important things to say about a trial that resulted in the execution of Celia, an enslaved teenager who killed her master after years of sexual abuse.[1]

This semester was no different. Using the primary sources found on Linder’s excellent website, our class broke into groups and dissected the background of the case, the trial, and its aftermath. After putting all of the pieces together, each group tried to identify the significance of the case. They more than succeeded. After the spokespeople for the various groups suggested that the case demonstrated the unique challenges faced and considerable resistance offered by enslaved women, one student, looking downward, murmured four simple words: “black lives didn’t matter.”

Those four words offered by the normally quiet student said it all. The case was about much more than Celia. It was even about much more than an enslaved teenager’s inability to claim the same anti-rape protections afforded to free white women. By linking State of Missouri v. Celia to Black Lives Matter, the student identified the ways in which justice systems beholden to white supremacy have never been and can never be considered just. They were meant to defend the interests—even the depravities—of Newsom; they are supposed to protect Timothy Loehmann, not Tamir Rice.

Black Lives Matter Protest, Brooklyn
Black Lives Matter Protest, Brooklyn

The student who hinted at those connections did not just offer a useful lesson about the relevancy of the past. Instead, she offered a striking illustration of the ways in which ideas spread and social movements blossom. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, the founders of Black Lives Matter, have created a vibrant international organization dedicated to affirming the humanity of black people. But they have contributed to something much larger, too. If the assertion that “Black Lives Didn’t Matter” in a discussion of enslaved people is any indication, #BlackLivesMatter has become a key part of a transhistorical language of black liberation. It is a useful and effective way for a new generation to articulate complex thoughts about the singular, systematic, and enduring devaluation of black life. It is, to be sure, much more than a hashtag.

In many ways, the unfolding story of Black Lives Matter is thus about the diffusion of an idea. It is the story of how a generation bearing witness to the promises and pitfalls of the Obama era have seized opportunities to express an expansive notion of social justice. It is a development unfolding in classrooms as well as civil rights organizations, a history shaped by ordinary students in addition to activists. Members of the media have struggled to remember that. While they focus on Bill Clinton’s asinine caricature of Black Lives Matter activists as ignorant millenials bent on “defending the people who kill the lives you say matter,” the ideas incubated in their movement have already diffused across the world and transcended organizational boundaries.

As Jelani Cobb notes, the future of Black Lives Matter is unknowable. It’s effect, however, is not. The state of Missouri hanged Celia less than one-hundred miles from what became the city of Ferguson. More than a century and a half after it did, the state-sanctioned killings of black people in Sanford, Florida, Baltimore, Charleston, Cleveland, Staten Island, and the St. Louis suburb near Celia’s site of execution transformed the nation. They revealed a crisis that birthed a movement that nurtured an ideology. That ideology—a set of ideas centered around the simple belief that black people deserve dignity and essential human rights—has influenced the ways a student sees the world she inherited and interprets the world she thought we left behind. It has moved her to consider the life and death of Celia and find them equal parts haunting, disheartening, and far, far too familiar.


[1] The basic details of the crime: Robert Newsom, a sixty-year old white Missourian, purchased Celia in 1850. Celia was fourteen. Newsom raped Celia the first day that he purchased her and the violence continued over the next five years. Celia protested to Newsom’s daughters, took up a consensual relationship with an enslaved man on Newsom’s farms, and pleaded for Newsom to stop. He did not, at least until the night of June 23, 1855. Earlier that day, Newsom had told Celia that he was coming to her cabin for sex later. When he did, Celia, backed away from Newsom’s advances, grabbed a large stick that she had placed in a corner. She struck Newsom on the head twice. The second blow killed him. Afterwards, Celia burned Newsom’s body in her fireplace.

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Brandon Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and author of 'The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti.' Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.

Comments on “Celia, #BlackLivesMatter, and the Diffusion of Black Thought

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    How interesting and tragic that the days of Ms. Celia haven’t changed much. They have only taken a different form.

    I just read an article by Henry A. Giroux and he challenges all such movements to come together and fight capitalism and injustice. The bigger the mass movement, the more likely it will have an effect.

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    I wasn’t aware of that particular case. Yes, That is the context in which to see the Black Lives Matter Movement.

    Good student, great teacher, amazing history. The humanity of African American people has always inspired the world to defy injustice. The tolerance of evil is inhuman blasphemy.

    From Celia to today’s students this great strength continues.

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