By Littice Bacon-Blood, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
on January 03, 2011 at 9:45 PM, updated January 04, 2011 at 5:10 PM
More than a century before the first modern-day civil rights march, there was Charles Deslondes and his make-do army of more than 200 enslaved men battling with hoes, axes and cane knives for that most basic human right: freedom.
They spoke different languages, came from various parts of the United States, Africa and Haiti, and lived miles apart on plantations along the German Coast of Louisiana. Yet after years of planning at clandestine meetings under the constant threat of immediate death, they staged a revolt on Jan. 8, 1811, that historians say is the largest uprising of enslaved people in this country.
“Slavery was very harsh and cruel, but the slaves themselves were not mindless chattel with no aspirations and no basis for humanity,” said John Hankins, executive director of the New Orleans African American Museum. “This revolt demonstrates that there were people willing to make the ultimate sacrifices to better not just themselves but other people.”
A year of events planned
To mark the 200 year anniversary of that revolt, Destrehan Plantation, in conjunction with Tulane University and the African American Museum, located in Treme, is organizing a yearlong look at the uprising that reverberated around the fledgling nation because of the large number of enslaved people involved, its military strategy and oddly enough, because it demonstrated that all was not well among those held in bondage.
“I don’t think the United States as a whole understood that the enslaved black population were as unhappy as they were,” said Hazel Taylor, the special project coordinator at Destrehan Plantation. “Slave owners had a tendency to say that (slaves) were happy. What this did was put awareness on the people who were being oppressed.”
The revolt, which started in St. John the Baptist Parish about 30 miles west of New Orleans, also raised awareness of the harshness of the slave system and fueled the abolitionist movement, Taylor said.
It occurred just a year before Louisiana gained statehood and 50 years before Louisiana and 10 other southern states voted to secede from the union in favor of forming the Confederacy. One of the central issues driving the secession, historians say, was an attempt to keep slavery legal because of its huge economic benefits for farmers.
Still the battle remains largely unheard of outside historical circles, according to Taylor and others who hope the year’s events will change that.
“These were real people and we have many of their names and we hope to encourage people to continue to study these brave individuals,” Hankins said. “We want to provide the platform for a discourse about these moments in history and in this case a very important movement. What we want to do is put the Slave Revolt of 1811 into the national discourse to give it just due.”
The series of commemorative events kicks off Saturday with the opening of an exhibit at Destrehan Plantation that features the art and sculpture of the revolt by local artist Lorraine Gendron and documents that give accounts of the uprising.
“It’s an introduction to the subject, a museum exhibit that you can walk through and get a whole picture of what happened,” Taylor said.
Uprising started on Woodland Plantation
While historians may differ on whether there was one specific catalyst for the uprising, the historical accounts of the events that unfolded on Jan. 8 are generally uniform.
It started in LaPlace on the Woodland Plantation, led by Charles Deslondes, the son of an enslaved black woman and her white owner.
Deslondes, along with more than 200 others known mainly by first names, were headed to New Orleans in the hopes of joining with other revolution-minded free and enslaved black people.
Historian Daniel Rasmussen spent two years researching the revolt as part of his senior thesis at Harvard University and has expanded his initial work into a recently published book, called “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt.”
He is scheduled to discuss his book Friday at the LaPlace library and Saturday at the East Regional Library in Destrehan.
According to Rasmussen, the revolt had been planned for years and was “highly organized.”
“There were 11 separate leaders of the revolt, representing various different ethnic groups. In my book, I profile a few of these leaders, mainly Charles Deslondes, Kook, and Quamana. Kook and Quamana were Asante warriors brought over from Africa a mere five years before,” Rasmussen said. “Charles Deslondes was the half-white son of a planter who had risen to the rank of driver, but was, actually, the ultimate sleeper cell, plotting revolt. These leaders took advantage of clandestine meetings in the cane fields and taverns of the German Coast, the slave dances in New Orleans, and the vast network of slave communications that extended throughout the Caribbean.”
Inspired by Haitian revolt
Rasmussen and other historians say the revolt was inspired by the 1791 events in Haiti where the enslaved population took over that island nation and abolished slavery. These revolutionists had similar dreams as they marched to the beat of drums and under waving banners toward New Orleans.
“These three men, each with different insights and abilities, had planned their insurrection and spread word of the uprising through small insurrectionary cells distributed up and down the coast, especially at James Brown’s plantation, the Meuillion plantation, and the Kenner and Henderson plantation,” Rasmussen writes in his book.
Along the way they burned plantations and crops and collected weapons and ammunition. Two white planters were killed; their wives and children were spared.
Rasmussen said his research, which included accounts from court records and the ledgers of some planters, held some surprises for him.
“I realized that the revolt had been much larger — and come much closer to succeeding — than the planters and American officials let on. Contrary to their letters, which are the basis for most accounts of the revolt, the slave army posed an existential threat to white control over the city of New Orleans,” he said. “My biggest surprise as I dug into the sources was . . . . just how close they came to conquering New Orleans and establishing a black Republic on the shores of the Mississippi.”
Revolt came to tragic end in Kenner
But their dreams of freedom were not to be realized.
On Jan. 10 at Jacques Fortier’s plantation near present-day River Town in Kenner, the makeshift army was forced to turn back after encountering a detachment of military troops, but found their retreat blocked by a group of local militia organized by planters. The number of insurgents killed when they were forced back to an area close to present day Norco varies: Some say 40 to 66, but the end result was that the uprising was stopped in Kenner.
Historians say some survivors were able to escape into the swamps, while others were returned to bondage.
On January 13, 1811 a tribunal convened at Destrehan Plantation and after three days of hearings, 45 men were either sentenced to death or sent on to New Orleans for further trials. Those sentenced to death, among them Charles Deslondes, Kook and Quamaan, were executed by a firing squad and beheaded.
Their heads were stuck on poles and placed along the river levee from New Orleans to LaPlace in an attempt to discourage similar rebellions.
“”It was really brutally put down,” said Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a New Orleans author and historian who is now an adjunct history professor at Michigan State University. “It was incredibly bloodthirsty in the way the elite put it down, cutting people into little pieces, displaying body parts.”
In 2000, Hall, 81, published a database on enslaved Africans in Louisiana compiled over 14 years that offers rare snippets of information on slaves, such as skills, ages and places of origin, frequently missing from historical documents.
And like many of those enslaved, Hall said the 1811 revolt has not received the historical attention of other seminal events.
“There’s been a historical amnesia about anything that showed a really bitter exploitation and violence directed on the slave and former slave population,” Hall said. “A lot of historians didn’t want to talk about it and a lot of the public didn’t want to hear about it. But that’s evidently changing and I’m glad I lived long enough to see it.”