On this day in American history, a group of enslaved people in South Carolina's low country congregated at a bridge over the Stono River. Their plan: To initiate an insurrection they hoped would result in their freedom in the Spanish-controlled territory of present-day Florida.
The Stono Rebellion of 1739 resulted in bloodshed, however, not freedom, with residual effects on Southern blacks -- none of them good -- that lasted more than a century. It would seem, given the unsettling racial unrest of 2020, that those consequences are lingering still.
* * *
The Stono River Slave Rebellion, which is how the National Park Service's historic landmarks division refers to it, commenced on a Sunday. This was not a coincidence. Sundays were generally a day off for South Carolina slaves, most of whom were allowed to grow their own gardens, socialize, and congregate without permission on the Sabbath. Soon that would all change.
Most of the men who gathered at the Stono River on Sept. 9, 1739 were born in Africa, not America, most likely in Angola, which was then a Portuguese colony. They had been brought in bondage to an alien land controlled by the British.
The apparent leader of the rebellion is a man identified by whites as "Jemmy," and by his own descendants as "Cato." Little is known about him, except that he probably also came from Angola or the Congo. He may have spoken Portuguese, and he seems to have learned that Spanish authorities in what was then known as "Saint Augustine" had promised freedom to any New World slave who managed to make it that far south.
And so, on this date 281 years ago, Cato's band met at the river. Their first aim was to arm themselves, which they did by raiding a place called Hutcheson's Store. After killing two white shopkeepers, they helped themselves to guns, powder, and ammunition. The band had little in the way of a strategic plan, an uncertain knowledge of how far they would have to travel, and no concept of the difficulty of fighting against a mounted militia.
But for one day, they marched on the road, their numbers swelling with other slaves, beating drums, chanting, "Liberty! Liberty!" while murdering white men, women, and children at a succession of plantations.
By the time the marauding army stopped to camp for the night in a large field near the Edisto River, their ranks totaled more than 100 people. They lit fires and danced in celebration of what seemed to them a victorious day. Their mood, and their perception of the situation, was likely altered by the rum they also liberated in the houses they'd ransacked. In any event, the celebration was short-lived: Around dusk, a posse of armed whites showed up on horseback. The attack began almost immediately.
About three dozen Africans were cut down on the spot. Many of the others ran into the woods, to be hunted down in the days and weeks ahead. Some of those apprehended were shot where they stood. Others were hanged. If it was determined that they'd been forced to join the rebellion, which was true in some cases, they were returned in chains to their plantations.
In the aftermath, harsh new slave codes were written into the law, all of them putting the lie to any paternalistic fantasies of the Margaret Mitchell variety.
In 21st century America, as part of what the media likes to call a "racial reckoning," various monuments to white men once considered heroes (at least to other whites) are being replaced or torn down. Sometimes this process has been orderly and lawful; other times it has not. But allowing self-appointed mobs to destroy historical markers is a dodgy precedent to set. You'll notice that the vandalism has hardly been confined to statues of Southern slaveowners and Confederate soldiers. A better solution, it seems to me, is more statues -- of a better cross-section of American historical figures. Right now, the monument to the Stono rebellion is just a little-known plaque in a forgotten field. Is that sufficient?
The written history of this one-day carnage was recorded by whites, which is where most of the information I have related comes from. Yet the blacks of South Carolina recorded their history orally, and during the Great Depression Cato's great-great-grandson was asked for his family's version of the rebellion. The striking thing is how similar the two accounts are.
On one key point, however, which was the cause of the rebellion, whites seemed to be at sea. Not Cato's descendant. He was describing, in the 1930s, events that happened four years before Thomas Jefferson was born. But the Sage of Monticello was no more forceful in his Declaration of Independence than Jemmy from Angola had been 37 years earlier in that field near the Edisto River. Let's give his great-great-grandson the last word:
"When the militia come in sight of them … Commander Cato speak for the crowd. He say, ‘We don't like slavery. We start to join the Spanish in Florida. We surrender but we not whipped yet and we is not converted.' The other 43 men say, ‘Amen.'
"They was taken, unarmed, and hanged by the militia," he added. "He die, but he die for doing right, as he see it."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.