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Largest slave revolt in U.S. history lives on in reenactment

In 1811, more than 200 enslaved people in present-day Louisiana launched the largest insurgency of people in bondage in U.S. history. The revolt lasted only a few days before the poorly armed rebels were crushed by a militia and U.S. troops. But more than two centuries later, their story is living on in a performance called "Slave Rebellion Reenactment." Special Correspondent Brian Palmer reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's been more than 200 years since a group of enslaved black men and women launched an uprising in modern day St. John the Baptist parish, Louisiana. It lasted only a few days before the poorly armed rebels were crushed by a local militia and U.S. Army troops. Many were captured and convicted of insurrection. But now, two centuries later, an artist has staged his own version of that fateful event. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Brian Palmer has the story.

  • Brian Palmer:

    If we could step back in time to January 8th 1811, to the territory of Orleans, to the porch of a plantation owner named Manuel Andry we might come across a scene similar to this.

  • Reenactor:

    Why are you doing this? Haven't I been a master that's treated you with love and understanding? Charles, why?

  • Brian Palmer:

    It's a question only an owner of people could ask of the very people he owned. Andry wasn't killed that day some 200 years ago. But on this day, in 2019, he met a different fate. This performance is part of a reenactment six years in the making, a reimagining of what many scholars consider to be the largest slave uprising in American history.

  • Brian Palmer:

    So I want to ask you why. Why do this?

  • Dread Scott:

    This history needs to be known. The people who led and participated in this revolt of 1811 are heroes. They had this bold vision of getting free the only way they could, not by individually escaping or not by even escaping with a few people and forming a Maroon colony – each of which would have been righteous – but actually by overthrowing the system of enslavement.

  • Brian Palmer:

    During the reenactment, we spoke with the organizer, artist Dread Scott, whose adopted name is a nod to the past, a reference to the 19th-century enslaved man who took his case for freedom all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost, and so did millions of other Americans when the majority of justices held in 1857 that a black person, whether free or enslaved, "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." But decades before, a man called Charles Deslondes had set out to change that.

  • Dread Scott:

    In 1811, Charles Deslondes went from plantation to plantation and he recruited people to be participants in this rebellion, and he recruited his lieutenants and they in turn recruited the other people on their plantations.

  • Brian Palmer:

    Under the leadership of Deslondes, an enslaved plantation overseer, and others, more than 200 men and women rose up against their enslavers. The goal, to make their way 30 miles east to the capital of the territory, New Orleans, seize the city by force and create a new nation free of slavery.

  • Reenactors:

    Wer're going to end slavery. We're going to end slavery.

  • Brian Palmer:

    Over a two-day period this month hundreds of reenactors, including Scott, traced a route similar to the more than 20 miles covered back in 1811. The original rebels took machetes and muskets from plantations where they had been held in bondage. These 21st-century role players wore 19th-century costumes and carried those same weapons as they marched along the levees of the Mississippi river shouting freedom chants in English and Creole.

  • Dread Scott:

    I talked with a handful of people about participating in this. Some of them were hearing about this rebellion for the first time, but when they heard about it, they're like, we need to make this known. And reenacting it would be amazing. And so they in turn recruited the other people. They became sort of the lieutenants in the army of the enslaved and recruited others.

  • Brian Palmer:

    This community engagement included hands-on activities to prepare. There were sewing circles to create costumes and night rehearsals to map out the steps of a battle between the "army of the enslaved" and the local militia whose job it was to police African American bodies. Volunteers came from across the country to participate.

  • Jordan Rome:

    So as, you know, we're in this period-specific costumes with a mesh of modern jewelry and sneakers, we as performers and anyone who sees us will be forced to question what does liberation look like for black folks.

  • Brian Palmer:

    Jordan Rome travelled from Chicago to take part. It was only this summer that she first learned of the historic 1811 rebellion. But she's since found inspiration in this story of resistance.

  • Jordan Rome:

    They were willing to die free. For some of those enslaved folks, simply holding a weapon in their hands was freedom, just because they had no autonomy over their bodies.

  • Brian Palmer:

    The 1811 rebellion didn't result in an independent nation. In fact, the men and women who rose up against slavery never made it to New Orleans. They were attacked and killed by U.S. troops and local militia and those who survived were tried hastily by the very people who had enslaved them. But that's only one part of the story.

    You're balancing the factual story, which had a very brutal ending, with art. Explain that to me.

  • Dread Scott:

    This is a project about freedom and emancipation. It's not a project about slavery. It's a project about freedom fighters who had a bold vision of getting free by overthrowing the system of enslavement. And as an artwork, I can say I don't want to focus on the brutality of white people. I mean everybody knows that white people were brutal during slavery if you think about it for a second. But this is a project that actually can focus on the agency and self-determination of the enslaved people, Africans and people of African descent, yearning to be free and making a plan to do that.

  • Reenactors:

    …to freedom land. I'm on my way…

  • Brian Palmer:

    Scott sees the slave rebellion reenactment as part of a life's work that seeks to ask hard questions about America's past and present.

    He drew national attention —and heavy criticism — in 1989 for an art installation he called "What is the proper way to display a U.S. flag?" Visitors could step on an American flag while interacting with the art.

    In 2015, he made headlines for an adaptation of a famous anti-lynching banner that hung from the New York office of the NAACP in 1936.

    In Scott's updated version the flags' original words "a man was lynched yesterday" were replaced with "a man was lynched by police yesterday" equating police brutality with lynching. It's an extension of the argument made by many contemporary scholars—and the Black Lives Matter movement—that not only present day police killings, but also mass incarceration grow out of a long history of over policing black people.

  • Dread Scott:

    First there was slavery, then there was Jim Crow, and now there's the new Jim Crow. There's currently about 2.2 million people in prison, and about 1.1 million of those are black. That grows out almost directly from the system of enslavement. There is no modern America without slavery. The leaders in 1811 had this idea of getting free. Not, again, escaping, but overthrowing the system of enslavement. That was really radical.

  • Brian Palmer:

    For Scott to tell this story is to reveal a piece of hidden American history. To tell it from the perspective of the black men and women who rose up to liberate themselves is to give voice to those who were silenced by execution—and in the pages of history, which was written by the people who enslaved them.

    Scott hopes this performance will make people reevaluate what they think they know about this period and how slavery is presented today on plantation tours that focus on the life inside the "big house," the masters residence.

  • Dread Scott:

    These are sites of genocide. They're sites of genocide, and yet they're set up in a way that people take tours that whitewash the history, and other people come to have their wedding there. Who would have their wedding at Auschwitz? Who would do that? But there's a whole tourist industry that's built on making people look back in a romantic way to sipping mint juleps on their veranda and understanding these slave labor camps from the perspective of the enslavers.

  • Ibrahima Seck:

    The Boston Tea Party members, the founding fathers, they fought for their freedom. You know. And these people did the same thing. They wanted to be free.

  • Brian Palmer:

    Ibrahima Seck is the Director of Research at the Whitney Plantation Museum, which tells the story of slavery from the point of view of those held in bondage. He also took part in the reenactment.

  • Ibrahima Seck:

    What people don't know is that enslaved people always resisted. Always fought for their freedom. From the beginning when they were being deported in Africa too. They revolt aboard slave ships, hundreds of revolts. And once they were brought over here too.

  • Brian Palmer:

    It's with this spirit of resistance that the reenactors reached a destination that the 1811 rebels never did. They marched through the French Quarter in New Orleans, past curious tourists and locals, and entered Congo Square, a gathering place for enslaved people in the 19th century on the occasional days off that they were granted.

  • Dread Scott:

    So the most radical ideas of freedom at that time were in the heads of the enslaved people. And that's something for modern day people to both understand but also to learn from.

  • Brian Palmer:

    And for historian Ibrahima Seck, as well as artist Dread Scott, rigid historical accuracy is not the point of this event.

  • Ibrahima Seck:

    What these people got from this 1811 is a song that will never die. And that's the song you heard on Congo Square. I think these ancestors are really happy. I think I could even feel their presence at Congo Square. Isn't that great?

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