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The Stono Rebellion took place on September 9, 1739, in South Carolina. It was the largest insurrection by enslaved Africans that took place in Colonial America.
One of the most pernicious allegations made against Black people was that our enslaved ancestors were either exceptionally “docile” or “content and loyal,” thus explaining their purported failure or desire to rebel.
As the historian Herbert Aptheker informs us in American Negro Slave Revolts, he “has found records of approximately 250 revolts and conspiracies in the history of American Negro slavery.” Other scholars have found as many as 313.
The first revolt in what became the United States took place in 1526 at a Spanish settlement near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in South Carolina.
Yet, the Stono Rebellion remains the largest slave revolt ever staged in the 13 colonies.
What happened at Stono?
On the early morning of Sunday, Sept. 9, 1739, a day free of labor, about 20 enslaved Africans, under the leadership of an Angolan man named Jemmy, provided Whites with a painful reminder of the innate African desire for freedom.
Looking to cause unrest within the English colonies, the Spanish had previously issued a proclamation stating that any enslaved person who deserted to St. Augustine, Fla., would be treated as a free person.
Led by Jemmy, the men and women would walk south, recruiting more enslaved Africans along the terrorizing trek.
With their sights set on liberation, many of them knew that small groups of runaways had already made their way from South Carolina to St. Augustine, Fla, where they had been provided freedom and land.
PBS reports many members of the group were seasoned soldiers, either from the Yamasee War or from their experience in their homes in Angola, where they were captured and sold, and had been trained in the use of weapons.
After gathering near the Stono River, they raided a warehouse-like store, Hutchenson’s, executing the White owners and placing their victims’ heads on the store’s front steps for all to see.
They moved on to other houses in the area, killing the occupants and burning the structures, marching through the colony toward St. Augustine.
As the march proceeded, not all enslaved Africans joined the insurrection; in fact, some (presumably in the Big House) actually helped hide and protect their enslaver(s).
Nevertheless, many were drawn to the march to freedom, and the number grew to about 100. They paraded down King’s Highway, according to sources, carrying banners and shouting, “Liberty!” — lukango in their native Kikongo.
They went to a shop that sold firearms and ammunition, armed themselves, then killed the two shopkeepers who were manning the shop. From there they walked to the house of a Mr. Godfrey, where they burned the house and killed Godfrey and his son and daughter.
The slaves stopped in a large field late that afternoon, just before reaching the Edisto River. They had marched over ten miles and killed between 20 and 25 Whites in that distance.
They continued south. It was not yet dawn when they reached Wallace’s Tavern. It’s reported the tavern’s innkeeper was kind to his captives, in return his life was spared. The White inhabitants of the next six or so houses were not so lucky, all were reportedly murdered.
At the time, it was reported one individual, Lieutenant Governor Bull, eluded the raging rebels and fled to spread the alarm.
Bull’s alarm was quickly heeded; around four in the afternoon, a large number of Whites had set out in armed pursuit, and when they approached the rebels, it’s reported that the enslaved Africans fired two shots. The Whites returned fire, bringing down fourteen of the rebels. By dusk, about thirty enslaved Africans were dead and at least thirty had escaped.
They fought off the English for more than a week before the colonists rallied and killed most of the rebels, although it’s believed some very likely reached Fort Mose in St. Augustine.
Most were captured over the next month, then executed; the rest were captured over the following six months — all except one, who remained a fugitive for three years.
Racist Whites created racist laws to punish all SC Blacks for Stono Rebellion
Colonial rulers outlawed the African drum because the English believed it was being used as a military organizing tool by enslaved militia.
Uncomfortable with the increasing numbers of Blacks for some time, the White colonists had already been working on a Negro Act of 1740 to limit the privileges of enslaved Africans. This act was quickly finalized and approved after the Stono Rebellion.
No longer would Black people be allowed to grow their own food, assemble in groups, earn their own money, or learn to read.
It also authorized White enslavers to whip and kill enslaved Africans for being “rebellious.”
Much of the Low-country culture with African roots became identified in the 19th and 20th centuries as Gullah-Geechee culture.
Despite centuries-long efforts to silence and stifle Black progress, Africans and their descendants across South Carolina’s Low-country remain rooted in their identities, which have influenced the economic, political, spiritual, and artistic direction of the region during enslavement, after emancipation, and into the present-day.