Black August has many markers throughout the long history of resistance in the Americas. There are more than we could ever recount here. But here are a few that are important and undeniable events that affected other events and indeed had global impact.
It was a hot, humid morning in August 1619, when dark skinned Africans were unloaded from a ship in the English colony of Jamestown in Virginia. They were called “indentured servants” by the people who purchased their contracts. It is unknown what the Dutch sailors called them. Some thirty years later, they would be called something that millions of other Africans would be called on American shores for the next two hundred years, Slaves. They were in fact captives. Chained, stolen captives of a vicious race war against black life by the merchant princes of Europe. For those people who call themselves African Americans their unique history begins here.
Another notable date in the struggle for liberty in the Americas happened on another shore among people who spoke no English and perhaps no European languages at all. Their freedom struggle, however, would change the course of world history. And before it ended transformed the face of at least two empires. I speak of the valiant people of Haiti, at the time called Saint-Domingue. In the northern reaches of that Caribbean island, in August 1791, Africans mostly from the Congo held religious services in the dark of the night. They prayed to their ancient gods of African memory and vowed to fight against every slave owner and overseer in the land. They vowed to not stop until free or dead. It was a sweaty time when the slaves rebelled against their tormentors. It would be thirteen long years, but by January 1804 a new and independent nation was born. Free of the monstrous transatlantic slave trade. The Haitian revolution, the first truly successful slave revolution in history has succeeded. The destruction of the French army by the black and mullato armies of Toussaint L’Ouverturemeant far more than a military or even a political victory. It meant the end of French dreams of an American empire and the loss of the richest colony in the world. It meant Napoleon could not hold the vast mid-American territories called Louisiana. The revolution therefore weakened French holds on the Americas and allowed the United States to purchase a prize that would double the new nation’s size overnight. All of this began in the dead of night in August 1791 when slaves planned a revolution.
On August 21, 1831 the explosive rebellion of Nat Turner turned southern society inside out. Although he has been labeled by traditional, that is white, historians as a madman, Turner was in fact a deeply religious man who was moved by signs and (???) that he saw in the summer sky compelling him to fight for the freedom of his captive people. Only in a slaveocracy would the idea of freedom fighting and resistance seem mad. Some thirty years after Nat Turner’s rebellion, the civil war would deal a death blow to American bondage.
If there is a fasis of American history that does not go beyond the books in records of yesteryear, it has been the various Seminole American wars that were waged across Florida. There were at least three Seminole US wars and one of them ended on August 14, 1842. Though some will ask, what does an Indian American war have to do with Black August? Well that’s because the nature of the Seminole’s and the real reasons behind their raging wars with the Americans is hidden beneath the mists of history. The very name Seminole derives from the American Spanish term for escapee, refugee or runaway. It stems from the term Semeron (???), which was used by the Spanish to denote Indian or African runaways from slavery. The English in Jamaica and (???) islands called their runaways maroons from the same root word. The Seminoles were once part of the Creek Confederacy, but unlike many of their contemporaries they forge close and lasting relationships with runaway Africans and habitually refuse British and American demands for the return of slaves to white service. The American general who fought in the Seminole wars, Thomas Jessup, put the question squarely when he declared, “this, you may be assured, is a Negro not an Indian war”. General Jessup wrote those words because of the hundreds of black warriors fighting on the side of the Seminoles and because the Seminoles refused to sell men, women and children who had become their kinfolk. It is noteworthy that of all the Indian wars fought against the Americans the Seminole wars cost the most American casualties.
August 30, 1856. When the name of John Brown is evoked the shadow of Harper’s Ferry arises in the mind. Of the small group of rebels who tried, unsuccessfully, to seize an American armory and fullment rebellion among the slaves. But years before Harper’s Ferry, John Brown had waged war against pro-slavery forces in Osawatomie, Kansas, after Missourians had sacked the town of Lawrence, Kansas some three months earlier. The fighting in Kansas led to excited reports about bleeding Kansas. What they were were tough, nasty border wars between anti and pro-slavery forces. Each trying to dominate the other. Indeed, Brown was called Osawatomie Brown before Harper’s Ferry marked him as a martyr for the sacred cause of freedom.
August 11-16, 1965. The fires of Watts, a black community in Los Angeles, CA were markers for rebellion for the generation of blacks in the 1960s. These rebellions, staged in response to brutal police attacks on people, cost the lives of 34 people and also almost 20 million dollars worth of property damaged or destroyed.
August 5, 1970. The Black Panther party’s minister of defense, Huey P. Newton, spent some four years in prison before winning his release on $50,000 bail on this date. It marked his physical return to the party at the time a period of great hope.
August 8, 1978. One of the earlier MOVE confrontations. Some nine MOVE men and women were sent to prison for hundred of years stemming from a deeply flawed trial. MOVE members continue to fight for the release of their imprisoned comrades. MOVE veterans of the August 8 police assault have been in prison for 25 years in dungeons throughout Pennsylvania. They remain rebellious spirits who oppose a repressive status quo.
The spirit of Black August moves through centuries of Black, Indian and multi-cultural resistance. It is an emblem of the spirit of freedom. It is a long smoldering spark of the fire in the hearts of a people, hearts burning and yearning for freedom.