July 21, 2005
Web chronicles little-known Fla. slave revolt
By Scott McCabe, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
[This news article, originally published in the Palm Beach Post, is distributed without profit to those who have expressed interest in receiving the information for research and educational purposes, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.]
As President Andrew Jackson sought to push Florida's Indians west and capture Black Seminoles to return them to slavery, the allies quietly slipped into Florida's plantations along the St. Johns River, west of St. Augustine, with a warning:
"A war is coming."
The plantation slaves were given bundles of sticks dipped in red paint. Each day, the slaves were told to burn one stick. When the sticks ran out, it was time for rebellion.
In all, at least 385 slaves fought for their freedom at the outset of the Second Seminole War in 1835, making it the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history, five times larger than the Nat Turner rebellion four years earlier, according to a new historical Web site: www.johnhorse.com.
For three years, these people fought desperately for their freedom and their struggle ultimately provided President Lincoln the legal authority to emancipate Southern slaves, said the Web site's creator J.B. Bird, an Austin, Texas-based documentary filmmaker.
"They were pioneers of freedom," Bird said, "and we've been robbed of their story."
The Web site, which carries the label, "Rebellion: John Horse and the Black Seminoles, the first black rebels to beat American slavery," substantiates 385 slaves who fought for their freedom. Florida A&M University historians, such as Canter Brown and Larry Rivers, estimate that between 750 and 1,000 slaves participated.
"Rebellion" is sourced and researched with more than 300 images and a book-length study that draws from U.S. military records and correspondence from the period.
Bird, a public relations official at the University of Texas, spent four years gathering money and getting copyright approval for the Web site, which he created after trying to film a documentary on the Black Seminoles.
At the height of the revolt, hundreds of blacks fled to the Seminoles. Some were promised free passage to Cuba, where slavery was outlawed, Bird said.
Many defectors painted their faces to signal their new allegiance. Slaves who didn't defect helped the Seminoles get supplies such as gun powder and lead.
During the first two months, the allies destroyed more than 21 sugar plantations in Central Florida.
"Where slavery and sugar mills once flourished," Bird wrote, "soldiers found smoking ruins and an industry laid waste."
The rebels eventually were pushed south into the wilderness, fighting military units often led by their former masters; most were eventually captured.
But for more than 167 years, scholars have overlooked this struggle in Florida. The story remains largely unknown even in Palm Beach County and Okeechobee, where many of the last plantation slave holdouts made their final stand alongside Seminole warriors.
The oversight can be traced to many factors, Bird said: a climate of censorship when the conflict took place, the slaveholders' tendency to claim that their slaves had not rebelled but had been captured by Indians and the legacy of pro-slavery historical scholarship that perpetuated the myth of the contented slave.
"The plantation owners didn't want to encourage the slaves that there was an open rebellion going on and they didn't want to create a panic," said Brown, the FAMU historian who first emphasized the Florida slave rebellion as the largest in U.S. history.
After the Nat Turner revolt, Southerners warned against open discussion of slave rebellions, Bird said. They passed gag rules prohibiting discussion of slavery in Congress and they allowed censorship of the mail when anti-slavery tracts were sent south.
Although the story of the Black Seminoles and Florida rebellion may be obscure now, Bird said, these people influenced the public mood before the Civil War and their struggle entered the debate over the use of federal war power to grant freedom to rebellious slaves. Lincoln used this argument when issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Bird said.
"They lived within the margins," Bird said, "but they changed the lives of millions."
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