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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

American Uprising Chronicles Long Suppressed History of Black Resistance in New Orleans

On January 8, 1811 a group of determined enslaved Africans set into motion a plan to rise up against slavery and take their destiny into their own hands.  Vowing to cast the shackles that bound them to the sugar cane plantations just west of the Crescent City, these ambitious warriors carved out a place in history for themselves that some have sought to bury for two centuries.

While many are familiar with the stories of uprisings led by Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey and John Brown, a significantly fewer number of people know the  story of revolutionaries Charles Deslondes, Harry Kenner, Kook and Quamana who  led a group of enslaved Africans toward a vulnerable New Orleans during the annual Mardi Gras celebration in hopes of gaining their freedom.

That is about to change.

American Uprising, a new book written by Daniel Rasmussen and slated for an early January 2011 release tells the story of the planning and execution of this uprising and its aftermath.

Rasmussen, a recent Harvard University grad, says he began researching and writing the book about three years ago after stumbling upon the story of the revolt while working on his senior thesis. "In a lot of history about slavery there were only three sentences about this revolt, the largest slave revolt in America," he told The Louisiana Weekly. "Very little was known about it. The more I came upon this in different books, I said to myself 'I've got to figure this out.' I've done a fair amount of investigative journalism so the idea of looking into something that other people didn't know about and I think some people have consciously tried to keep secret was really intriguing to me.

"The more I learned about it, the more fascinated I became," he continued.  "Number one, my thesis was exactly right, this revolt had been covered up for almost 200 years by very powerful people with very strong interests in keeping this secret. As soon as I found that out, I got even more excited."

Rasmussen says that over the course of his research he learned that a lot of what he had been taught about slavery was wrong. "First of all, the revolt shows the slaves as complex, politically organized and highly sophisticated in a way that challenges a lot of what we think about slaves," he said. "That they were able to forge these communication networks, that they were in touch with people from all over the world, that they had real republican political vision...that was really shocking and exciting.

"This revolt demonstrates the heroism of the men that resisted slavery," he added. "These were not complacent victims; these men fought back. I as a 21- to 22-year-old guy at the time fell in love with the story and wanted to tell that story to a broader audience. I was so excited by it and thought that these men deserved to be honored and to have a real place in American history which they don't right now."

To tell that story, Rasmussen had to spend countless hours sifting through public records, military records, archival documents and transcripts from 19th-century court trials. While exhaustive and tedious at times, his painstaking research yielded a treasure trove of information about an important event in the history of New Orleans and the United States.

After learning about the geography of the area and everything he could about the sugar plantations along the Mississippi River, Rasmussen was able to reconstruct the social and economic climate of the time and turn the obscure heroes who revolted against slavery into living, breathing human beings.

He says he was aided greatly by longtime activist and historian Professor Leon Waters, who has led tours of the area where the revolt took place for years and has a website devoted to teaching others about the important uprising and what it means as part of the long, protracted struggle of Africans in America for freedom, justice and self-determination.

According to www.historyhidden.net, Leon A. Waters is a licensed tour guide for Hidden History Tours, a division of Hidden History, a touring, publishing, and research company started by Waters. Waters is also a founding member of the Louisiana Museum of African American History located in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Waters' great great grandfather, Hanniball Waters, was an enslaved African on the James Brown plantation in St. Charles Parish who escaped from the plantation and later served in the 1st Heavy Artillery Corps d'Afrique of the Union Army in the Civil War. By doing so, he avenged the enslaved Africans who died fighting for their freedom during the 1811 slave revolt and played a critical role in Union's ultimate victory over the Confederacy.

For much of his life, Waters has fought for justice and dedicated his time and energies to keeping the memory of the 1811 slave revolt alive and teaching "what they don't teach you in the Great American Schools."

The self-described "archive rat" says he was blown away by the experience of visiting the area where the slave revolt took place. "To set foot on the grounds of these plantations and to walk along the River Road and follow in the footsteps of these slaves 200 years later was incredibly powerful," he said.  "These men are real heroes of mine, so to walk in their footsteps and see what they saw was just so cool."

Some who read American Uprising may be surprised to learn that many of the revolutionaries who fought for their freedom in 1811 were executed and decapitated and that their heads were placed on poles along the levee of the Mississippi River and in Jackson Square (then called Place d'Armes). They may also be surprised by the fact that some of the enslaved Africans held for trials after the revolt were kept at the Cabildo, when served as City Hall in the 19th century or that the federal government compensated the plantation owners for the enslaved Africans they killed and the property destroyed during the 1811 uprising.

In American Uprising, Rasmussen underscores some of the reasons the wealthy and powerful families of southern Louisiana and the government have labored to marginalize if not completely obliterate the story of the 1811 slave revolt and its brutal suppression.

"It's remarkable when you think about hundreds of slaves beheaded and their dismembered corpses dangled in Jackson Square and there's not a single reminder of that," he said. "In fact, it's named after (Andrew) Jackson who himself was a notorious crusher of the Seminoles ...That's sort of an ultimate irony that the place where this happened is not only forgotten but is named after Andrew Jackson."

Rasmussen recounts these incidents but he also tells the triumphant and amusing story of a St. Bernard Parish man who was appalled at the thought of former enslaved African men showing up to claim their "wives" at gunpoint after the tide during the Civil War.

After being told of the ongoing efforts of the family of Henry Glover to find the victim's skull after he was murdered by New Orleans police and his body was burned on the Mississippi River levee, the author acknowledged the "powerful parallel" with the displaying of the rebel slaves' heads on poles along the levee and said the Glover case reflects a long history of racial violence. "I think the best we can do is tell the stories of these men and make people recognize this," Rasmussen said. "I think the more we learn about the past, the more these things are discussed, to know that 100 heads were put on pikes...that's powerful stuff. It makes you question about who we are as a country. We need to deal with that memory and that legacy."

Rasmussen says he hopes American Uprising raises awareness of the 1811 slave revolt and leads to a greater understanding of the nation's past. "Other than Leon Waters and a small people who are actually familiar with the history of New Orleans, almost nobody knows about the revolt," he told The Louisiana Weekly.  "It's almost entirely secret. There's only one marker or monument to the revolt way up in Norco across from McDonald's and that's it.

"You think about Boston or Washington, D.C. where they got the Freedom Trail and historical markers . . . there are no historical markers up on River Road," he continued. "Although the houses of the men who suppressed the revolt are still preserved and celebrated, the slaves who participated in the revolt are almost completely forgotten. There are no roads named after them and no markers in their memory."

Rasmussen hopes to use his book to right that historical wrong and is hoping that its publication in early January leads to the 1811 slave revolt being studied in U.S. schools and that a walking trail with historical markers is eventually established in the area where the uprising took place.

"As with all things, it has to filter down," he said. "First the teacher reads it and hopefully tells the class about it.

"I'm certainly going to try to convey to people who write textbooks that they need to remember the heroism of these men who resisted slavery rather than just talking about the depressing victimization that really doesn't reflect who these slaves were and doesn't really capture what they were able to achieve under slavery. I think that's a tremendous story that we need to pay attention to."

Rasmussen says he wholly agrees with the adage that says "the past is always with us."

"That's absolutely right," he told The Louisiana Weekly. "The story of the slaves involved in the 1811 revolt has a lot to teach us today. This story talks about slaves in a new light. It's the story of powerful Black men and women who stood up to slavery and stood up for their rights.  That's part of a larger story in American history of men and women who stand up for their rights in the face of tremendous oppression. That battle for rights is still going on in this country.

"I think that the more we remember these historical struggles, they can serve as an inspiration and a reminder to us today of the things that we are up against - whether it's racism, greed or blinding nationalism...

"We're still fighting those battles and in order to fight those battles we need to confront the past and deal with it and its legacy in ways that are better than we are doing today."

Rasmussen says he will travel across the country in January and February to talk about the 1811 slave revolt.

Rasmussen is scheduled to speak at the Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA) on January 6, will visit the St. Charles Parish Historical Society and the St. John the Baptist Parish Library (2920 Highway 51 LaPlace, LA) on Jan. 7 and will also make an appearance at the Garden District Book Shop (2727 Prytania St.) in New Orleans during his visit to the city.


DANIEL RASMUSSEN ’09 found his senior thesis topic where the history books left off: scattered but brief references to a slave rebellion in New Orleans in 1811 piqued his interest junior year. When the history and literature concentrator realized that, with a militia of some 500 black slaves, this was the single largest and most tactically sophisticated slave revolt in American history, and that not only this fact, but the event itself, had gone largely unexamined, he knew he had his topic.

The thesis went on to win a Hoopes Prize for excellence in undergraduate research, but Rasmussen wanted to make sure that the story had readers beyond the prize committee. “This is a story that needs to be told,” he says. “This is a tremendously important moment in American history, and a very important moment in African-American history. It undermines our understanding of slavery as depressing, and of the slaves as victims. These slaves were heroes.”

Since graduation, Rasmussen has been working as an analyst at a private equity firm in the Boston area and devoting his free time to expanding his thesis into a book. The result, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, will be published by HarperCollins in January.

The book ranges geographically from the origins of both the slaves in West Africa and the planters in France and Spain to their collision in the early-nineteenth-century Amer­­ican South, narrating not just the event it­self, but the ideologies that went into making it, the implications of its failure and brutal suppres­­sion, and the subsequent silenc­ing of the entire story by those in power. “If other slaves found out about this, it was not going to be great for Louisiana, the Deep South, and the sugar economy,” Rasmussen explains. “This goes against the fundamental premise of plantation slavery, which is that slaves are not people.”

His thesis, “Violent Visions: Slaves, Sugar, and the 1811 German Coast Uprising,” left out a lot of material, and he was eager to retell the story in its fullest form. “I think of the thesis as the ‘Google Maps’ version; the book is sort of the ‘Google Street View,’” he says. “For the thesis, writing the first definitive account of the largest slave uprising in American history was enough, but for a popular audience you have to do more—you have to explain why it matters, who these people were. I want this to speak to people who are in high school, people who are retired, people who are interested in American history and never knew about this.”

Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in an advance review, “This book would be a major accomplishment for any historian; for a historian at such an early stage in his career, it is breathtaking.” Yet for the moment, Rasmussen is happy simply to be where he is. “I considered graduate school, but going to grad school is like entering the priesthood—you have to know it’s the perfect thing for you,” he says. “I certainly want to continue to write. I’m not yet sure what my next project will be…I want to see how this one goes, how it’s received, what people like and don’t like about it.”

Bravo, Mr. Rasmussen!

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