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New 'Hard to Believe' items will be added from time to time at the top of this page. These will be labeled [Featured Item].


  • The Amistad Affair – An Amazing Saga of the Antebellum Period Beginning With the Illegal Kidnapping of Africans from Sierra Leone, A ‘Slave’ Revolt on a Ship in Cuban Waters, U.S. Presidential Politics At a Time When Slave States and Free States Were Jockeying for Power, Strained Relations Between the United States and Spain, Deliberations of the Supreme Court Led By Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (see Dred Scott Decision in this Section), and Two Surprising Deaths [Featured Item]

    • In August of 1839 New York newspapers reported that a mysterious black schooner was seen cruising in U.S. waters near Long Island, its sails “nearly all blown to pieces.” Fishermen said it was under the control of Cuban slaves who had revolted and killed the crew of the Spanish ship, the Amistad, and were roaming the Atlantic as buccaneers. Orders were issued by the United States Navy and the Customs Service for the capture of the ship, and subsequently, on August 26th, the survey brig Washington sighted the Amistad, seized the schooner and took her in tow to New London, Connecticut. So began the amazing saga known as the Amistad Affair.

    • On board the schooner were two Spaniards, Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, and a number of black men, women and children. Ruiz spoke both Spanish and English, and Montes spoke Spanish, enabling the crew of the Washington to question them. The black people in control of the vessel spoke neither English nor Spanish.

    • Ruiz and Montes said that La Amistad had left Havana, Cuba two months earlier, headed for Guanaja, a coastal city three hundred miles away. Their cargo consisted of merchandise and fifty-three slaves, forty nine adults belonging to Ruiz, and four children, three girls and a boy, belonging to Montes. On the third night, under the leadership of one of their number, Cinque, the blacks rose in revolt and killed the cook and the captain, Ramon Ferrer. Two crew members jumped overboard, and the cabin boy, Antonio, a slave of the captain, was allowed to live, as were Ruiz and Montes. Two of the slaves were killed during the revolt, and eight others later died at sea.

    The slaves directed their owners to set sail for Africa, hoping to return to their homes. Ruiz and Montes sailed in the direction of the rising sun during the day as directed, but during the night turned the vessel towards the northwest, hoping to reach American soil. Eventually, they reached American waters and were captured and taken to Hartford, Connecticut on September 17th, to be charged with murder and mutiny in Circuit Court. They were to be confined in jail until the trial.

    • At this point, abolitionists took an interest in the case. They reasoned that because the blacks spoke no Spanish at all, they could not have been in Cuba very long and probably had been taken from their homes in Africa quite recently. Considering that the slave trade in the Spanish Empire had been outlawed by treaty with Great Britain in 1817 and by royal decree of the Queen of Spain in 1838, it seemed likely that the blacks had been taken from Africa illegally. They concluded that the defense of these people in the Circuit Court should be on the basis that they are captured citizens of Africa rather than slaves in the Spanish Empire.

    • A search for someone who could converse with the blacks in their native language began. Finally, John Ferry, a native of the Kissi tribe who had spent some time in Mende country in Sierra Leone, was able to converse with some of the blacks to a limited extent. He confirmed that they were native Mendians who had been kidnapped in Africa and illegally sold into slavery in Havana. Later, native Mende speakers were located and proved to be extremely valuable in the court proceedings.

    • The Spanish government’s position was that after La Amistad was captured by The Washington, the vessel should have been allowed to return to Cuba so that the blacks could have been “tried by the proper tribunal, and by the violated laws of the country of which they are subject.” The Spanish contended that the Pinckney treaty of 1795, reaffirmed by the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, between the United States and Spain, should be the basis for settling this matter.

    • U.S. President Martin Van Buren, mindful that 1840 was an election year, and wanting to maintain the support of southern Democratic slaveholders, directed U.S. District Attorney William D. Holabird to “take care that no proceedings of your Circuit Court, or of any other judicial tribunal, place the vessel, cargo or slaves beyond the control of the Federal Executive.” Presumably he wished to be able to make an accommodation with the Spanish authorities and settle this matter quickly. However, it was too late for this; the case had already been placed on the docket of the Circuit Court.

    • On the fourth day of the trial the presiding judge, Justice Smith Thompson, gave his opinion. Neither the U.S. Circuit Court nor any other American court had jurisdiction over the charges of murder and mutiny in this case, since the alleged crimes had been committed on a Spanish ship and in Spanish waters. The other rulings related to property claims and to a writ of habeas corpus for release of the girls.

    • Following adjournment, Judge Judson convened the District Court. After hearing the testimony, Judge Judson rendered his decision in seven points:

      • The jurisdiction of the court was clear since the whole affair had occurred on the high seas

      • (Agreeing to payments for salvage of vessel and cargo)

      • Salvage rights on the Africans were denied since they had no value as property under the laws of Connecticut

      • (Regarding another claim for salvage, denied)

      • The slave Antonio, having been born in Cuba, was to be returned to his rightful owners.

      • The Africans were neither slaves nor Spanish subjects

      • They were, therefore, free by the “law of Spain itself.”

    • Judge Judson decreed that the Africans, excepting Antonio, be delivered to the President of the United States to be transported to Africa, there to be delivered to the Agent appointed to receive and conduct them home.

    • At the direction of President Van Buren, the case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Of the nine justices, five were Southerners, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, who 16 years later would deliver the infamous Dred Scott decision. Former President John Quincy Adams, now a congressman, agreed to join Roger Sherman Baldwin in the defense of the La Amistad Africans.

    • In its decision, the Supreme Court essentially upheld Judge Judson's finding that the Africans had been illegally enslaved and had thus exercised a natural right to fight for their freedom. However, it reversed Judson's order to the executive to return the Africans to their homeland. The Africans were freed, and could go back to Africa if they wished.

    • During the Supreme Court hearings, and soon after the decision was read, there were two surprising deaths of prominent officials. Supreme Court Justice Philip P. Barbour died during the proceedings and as a result did not contribute to the opinion. President William H. Harrison, who succeeded President Van Buren, died after only 30 days in office, and was replaced by his Vice President, John Tyler, a pro-slavery Southerner.

    • Timeline:

      • February 22, 1841: U.S. Supreme Court begins hearing the Amistad case

      • February 25, 1841: Supreme Court Justice Philip P. Barbour dies at the age of 57. He does not contribute to the court’s opinion.

      • March 4, 1841: President William H. Harrison takes office

      • March 9, 1841: Justice Story delivers the Supreme Court’s decision, affirming the Africans’ freedom. Only one justice, Henry Baldwin, dissents but offers no comment. (87)

      • April 4, 1841: President William H. Harrison dies of pneumonia at the age of 68, after serving only 30 days in office. He had refused to wear an overcoat at his inauguration on an extremely cold and wet day, and caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia.

      • April 4, 1841: President John Tyler, a Southern pro-slavery Whig, takes office. He refuses to provide a warship for the return of the Amistad Africans.

      • November 27, 1841: The African survivors and American missionaries depart New York for Africa aboard The Gentleman (69), (70), (71)

  • Henry 'Box' Brown, a Virginia Slave, Was Despondent When His Wife and Children Were Sold to a Slave Trader and Sent to North Carolina. He Decided to Escape to Freedom in the North Using a Rather Unusual Method

    • Henry Brown, born into slavery in Virginia in 1815, married another slave named Nancy and had three children. His wife and children were sold to a slave trader in 1848, and sent to North Carolina. Brown, who was powerless to prevent this, never saw them again.

    • Brown decided that he would rather die than continue his life in bondage. He was determined to seek his freedom in the North. With the help of a friend, the freed man James C. A. Smith, and a sympathetic white storekeeper named Samuel Smith, Brown devised a plan to have himself shipped to a free state in a box. Brown paid $86 to Samuel Smith, who contacted Philadelphia abolitionist James Miller McKim. McKim agreed to receive the box.

    • The box measured three feet one inch long, two feet six inches high, and two feet wide. Henry entered the box in March, 1849. Written on the box were the words 'this side up with care.' However, there were times during the journey that the box (and Henry) was turned upside down. Twenty seven hours after the box had been picked up in Richmond, it was delivered to James Miller McKim in Philadelphia. People gathered around the box, wondering if Henry was inside and alive. In addition to McKim there was William Still and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. Images of the scene show Frederick Douglass within the group, holding a hammer to be used to open the box.  McKim rapped on the box, and spoke up: 'Is all right within?' Henry replied from within the box: 'all right.' Everyone cheered, and proceeded to open the box. His first words to the crowd were: "How do you do, gentlemen?"

    • Brown became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society. He was given the nickname of 'Box' at a Boston antislavery convention in May, 1849, and thereafter used the name Henry Box Brown. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Brown was no longer safe in the North; he could be recaptured at any time. Brown decided to move to England, where he performed on the British show circuit with his antislavery panorama, married a second time, and began a new family. He returned to the U.S. in 1875. (67), (68)

  • The Schoolteacher Who Wrote 'Strange Fruit,' A Song About Lynching Made Famous By Billie Holiday, Adopted The Two Sons of Atom Bomb Spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg After Their 1953 Execution

    • Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, wrote the poem 'Strange Fruit' in the late 1930's after seeing Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the  lynching of two African-Americans, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, Indiana (59). The 'strange fruit' in the poem are the bodies of African-American men hanging from trees, having been lynched by racist mobs in the South. He later wrote the music, using the name Lewis Allan, and it began to become popular in the New York area as a protest song. Billie Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society, New York's first integrated nightclub, and began to add the song to all of her performances. She later said that the imagery in 'Strange Fruit' reminded her of her father's death.

    • Meeropol and his wife are also known for adopting the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted spies who were charged with passing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union following World War II.

    • Strange Fruit Lyrics: (60)

      Southern trees bear a strange fruit

      Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

      Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze

      Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees


      Pastoral scene of the gallant South

      The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

      Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

      Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!


      Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

      For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

      For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop

      Here is a strange and bitter crop

      -Lewis Allan, c1940

  • 40 Acres and a Mule - A Promise That Was Not Kept

    In the final months of the Civil War, General Sherman, with the approval of the War Department, issued Field Order No. 15 on January 16, 1865. The order stated that "the islands of Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering St. Johns River, Florida are reserved and set apart for the settlement of Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States" (56). The land was divided into 40-acre tracts and Sherman distributed land titles to the head of each family of freedmen. He also ordered animals that were no longer useful to the military (mules and horses) to be distributed to each of the households. This was the origin of the phrase 'forty acres and a mule.' By the summer of 1865, 40,000 freedmen had received 400,000 acres of abandoned Confederate land.

    • This uplifting story had a somber ending for the freedmen. The former owners of the land, who were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson after the war, sought the return of their land. After Congress (on February 5, 1866) defeated that portion of the Freedmen's Bureau Act that gave it the authority to assign land to former slaves, President Johnson ordered all of the new land titles rescinded. The freedmen were forced off the land, and it was returned to the former white plantation owners. Subsequently, President Johnson vetoed every new proposal that provided land to the former slaves. Finally, Congress overrode his veto and passed a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen's Bureau. However, it contained no provision for granting land to the freedmen, other than to provide them access to the Southern Homestead Act at the standard rates of purchase. Most freedmen had little or no funds and could not take advantage of the Homestead Act. (57)

    • Andrew Johnson took the executive oath of office on April 15, 1865 to become President following Lincoln's assassination. He had been Lincoln's Vice President, and he did not share Lincoln's views on slavery. From the standpoint of the freedmen, the assassination of Lincoln marked a turning point in America that changed hope to despair. Never again would the freed slaves be given land to help them in their time of need.

  • Sojourner Truth, Born a Slave, Became a Well Known Abolitionist, Women's Rights Advocate, and Preacher. Her 'Ain't I a Woman?' Speech, Delivered Extemporaneously at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Akron Ohio, Brought the House Down.

    • A Women's Rights Convention was held at a church in Akron Ohio in 1851. Frances Gage, a feminist activist, presided over the meeting. When Sojourner Truth was invited to address the meeting, many feminist leaders urged Ms Gage not to allow her to speak, worrying that the speech would be about abolition and would derail the meeting. Ms Gage responded "we shall see when the time comes" and did not prevent Sojourner Truth from speaking to the audience. The following is the 'Ain't I a Woman?' speech delivered by Sojourner Truth (in modern dialect), based on Ms Gage's recollection and notes.

    • "Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that between the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.

    But what's all this here talking about? That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?

    Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?

    I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman?

    I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

    Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or Negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

    Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

    If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

    Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say." (55)

  • On May 22, 1856, The U.S. Senate Chamber Became a Combat Zone When Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina Severely Beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Head With a Cane. 

    • Senator Charles Sumner, an antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on May19th, 1856 on the issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. At the time, Stephen Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have the question be determined by popular vote within the states, was a hotly debated topic pitting anti-slave states in the North against slave states in the South. During his speech, Sumner criticized two Democratic Senators, Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Mocking Butler's stance as a man of chivalry, Sumner charged him with taking "a mistress...who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight -- I mean," added Sumner, "the harlot, Slavery."

    • Representative Preston Brooks, Senator Butler's nephew, was quite offended by Sumner's speech. He decided against challenging Sumner to a duel, which was reserved for 'gentlemen.' Instead, shortly after the Senate had adjourned three days later on the 22nd of May, Brooks entered the Senate chamber, accompanied by Congressman Laurence M. Keitt of South Carolina who was armed with a pistol, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his 'crime against Kansas' speech. Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner's head, again and again until Sumner was unconscious, bleeding profusely. Several other Senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Keitt who was holding his pistol and shouting, "Let them be!" (54)

    • Brooks resigned, was immediately reelected, and soon thereafter died at age 37. Sumner recovered over the next three years and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years. Keitt was mortally wounded in the Civil War Battle of Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864, and died the next day. Butler died in 1857.

  • Franklin Pierce, President from 1853-1857 and Considered One of America's Worst Presidents, Did Not Tell His Wife That He Was Running For the Office 

    • Franklin Pierce, who became the 14th U.S. President in 1853, had earlier been Senator from New Hampshire. His wife never liked political life, and was not happy with Pierce's drinking problem. Due to her urging, he had left the Senate and pursued a law practice; however, troubles continued to plague their marriage. They lost three children, two as infants and one at the age of 11 in a train accident which Pierce and his wife survived. When Pierce saw the opportunity to vie for the Democratic nomination, he didn't mention it to his wife. When he got the nomination, he told her it was a complete surprise. On the eve of the inauguration, she learned the truth and refused to attend the inauguration and refused to move in to the White House. (52)

    • Pierce is considered by scholars to be one of America's worst Presidents, and is the only incumbent President wishing to run for another term who failed to be nominated by his party. His support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act enraged many Northerners, leading to armed conflict between pro and anti slavery factions in Kansas. The Act allowed the citizens of Kansas and Nebraska to decide on their own whether or not to adopt slavery. According to the earlier Missouri Compromise, these territories were to be free, so that passage of the Act had the effect of negating that aspect of the Missouri Compromise. The Act, which was authored by Stephen Douglas, passed thanks to the support of President Pierce and the Southern states. The result was that pro and anti slavery groups poured into Kansas to try to influence the 'popular' vote on slavery. Many slavery advocates came across the border from Missouri and voted in Kansas illegally. Inevitably, this led to violence.

    • His foreign policy was equally unsuccessful. Pierce requested that his European ministers secretly consider ways that the U.S. could acquire Cuba. When their report, the so-called Ostend Manifesto, was leaked to the press it caused an uproar and the administration had to disavow it. This secret plan further angered the Northern states who saw it as a means to strengthen the position of the slave states in Congress.  (53)

  • It Took 100 Years for New York State to Ratify the 15th Amendment

    • The 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended voting rights to all adult males, including freed slaves. It stated: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." (39)  The Constitution requires that once an amendment has been proposed, three fourths of the states must ratify for it to be approved. New York State ratified the amendment on April 14th, 1869, and then passed a resolution to withdraw its consent on January 5, 1870. The validity of this reversal was in question at the time. Earlier, Ohio and New Jersey had rescinded ratification of the 14th amendment, and Congress questioned the validity of the reversals and declared the 14th amendment to be ratified, listing Ohio and New Jersey among the states approving it.  Before New York's withdrawal of consent of the 15th amendment, U.S. ratification would have been completed on February 3, 1870; as a result of New York's withdrawal, if valid, U.S. ratification was completed on February 17, 1870 when Nebraska ratified. The New York State legislature rescinded the withdrawal of consent to the amendment 100 years later, in 1970.

  • In the 1857 Dred Scott Decision, the U.S. Supreme Court Ruled That African Americans Could Never be Citizens

    • Some might question U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years, related to 'hanging chads' on the Florida voting cards for example, and decisions related to a woman's right to choose. These are controversial issues, and people tend to line up on one side or the other on such issues. However, when one considers the Dred Scott decision of 1857, from the perspective of America in the 21st century, the Supreme Court Justices at that time appear to have been seriously misguided. Said another way, they come across as a bunch of bigots. In a 7 to 2 ruling, they decided that African Americans could never be citizens because blacks "are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the U.S. Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which the instrument provides and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time [1787-88] considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and Government might choose to grant them."  [as written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in his 'opinion of the court']  (42), (45), (46)

    • The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has an excellent online exhibition entitled "The Dred Scott Decision and Its Bitter Legacy" which includes a number of images of relevant documents and of the people who were involved at the time. (81)

  • How Frederick Douglass Learned to Read and Write, at a Time When It Was Illegal to Teach Slaves to Read and Write in Most of the South

    • As a boy, Frederick Douglass showed great interest in learning to read and write. The wife of his owner began to teach him the alphabet, but when her husband found out about it he put a stop to it. In most of the South, it was believed that teaching slaves to read and write would only make them more restless, and it was therefore unwise. Many laws were passed making it illegal to educate the slaves.

      To continue his education, Frederick decided to make friends with all the white boys in the neighborhood. When he was sent on an errand, he would bring bread and some books with him, and trade the bread for lessons in reading and writing given by his white friends. Most of them were poor and a piece of bread was a treat which they gladly exchanged for a few lessons. (40)

  • By 1820, Nearly 8.7 Million Slaves Had Departed Africa For the New World, Compared With Only 2.6 Million Whites From Europe

    • By 1820 African slaves constituted almost 77 percent of the population that had sailed toward the Americas. From 1760 to 1820 the flow of emigrants included 5.6 African slaves for every European. From 1820 to 1880 the African slave trade, most of it now illegal, continued to ship off from Africa nearly 2.3 million more slaves, mainly to Brazil and Cuba. David Brion Davis concludes "there can be no doubt that black slave labor was essential in creating and developing the 'original' New World that began by the 1840's to attract so many millions of European immigrants." (41)

  • In 1803, the Year of the Louisiana Purchase, Louisiana Had 50,000 Inhabitants, Approximately 28,000 of Them Slaves

    • Of the 28,000 slaves in Louisiana at the time of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon in 1803, about 10,000 had fled the slave revolt in St. Domingue (Haiti) along with their French owners. The slave revolt began in 1791. Other residents at the time included French settlers, free blacks, thousands of Acadians forced out of Nova Scotia, British Canada between 1745 and 1763, and 700 Canary Islanders.

    • The Canary Islanders arrived during the brief Spanish rule of the Louisiana Territory, 1762-1800. In 1762, King Louis XV of France gave Louisiana to his Spanish cousin, King Charles III. In 1788, the city went up in flames, incinerating over 850 buildings. New Orleans was still recovering when a second fire in 1794 destroyed 200 structures. Louisiana was ceded back to France in 1800, and was finally sold by Napoleon to the United States (nearly doubling its size) in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The price was a modest sum, fifteen million dollars.

    • By the 1810 census, the Territory of Orleans (the present state boundaries of Louisiana minus the area known as the Florida parishes) had more than 76,000 people, evenly divided between whites and blacks. These figures do not include Native Americans.  (43), (65), (66)

  • Saudi Arabia Outlawed Slavery in 1962; Around the World, De Facto Slavery Continues Unabated

    • Most New World countries abolished slavery in the 19th century; for example, Haiti 1794, Canada 1803, Mexico 1829, the U.S. 1865, and Brazil 1888. Surprisingly, slavery continued to be legal in Saudi Arabia until 1962, and in Mauritania (north of Senegal) until 1980.

    • Around the world, various kinds of de facto slavery continue to exist today, in spite of the abolition laws. According to the U.S. State Department, somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked -- by force or coercion -- across international borders every year. Between 14,500 and 17,500 of those people are sold into the United States. There are many different kinds of human trafficking -- forced servitude, labor coercion and fraud, sexual slavery and child slavery. The majority of the captives are women and children, although adult men are forced or coerced into labor as well. (44)

Last updated:  September 02, 2008     

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