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Enslaved Women as American Revolutionaries: Karen Cook-Bell

On March 5, 1770, a twenty-three-year-old woman, her eight-month-old daughter, and her husband escaped from bondage in Leacock Township in Pennsylvania.  This unnamed fugitive woman was not the only one who tried to escape from slavery; one-third of all runaways during the Revolutionary Era were women and girls. Despite this number, the stories of these enslaved and fugitive women and the contributions they made to the cause of liberty have rarely been told. In her new book Running From Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press; July 1, 2021), historian Karen Cook-Bell aims to rectify this historical omission. A specialist in the studies of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and women’s history, Cook-Bell tells the compelling stories of enslaved women and the ways in which they fled or attempted to flee bondage during and after the Revolutionary War. “Enslaved women ran away,” Cook-Bell explains. “Women in bondage were not content, and running away, or flight, was one of the ways in which they registered their protest.”  Robert Greene II, Senior Editor of Black Perspectives, interviewed Cook-Bell about her newest work. 

Robert Greene II (RG): What inspired you to write Running from Bondage

Karen Cook-Bell (KCB): Researching my first book introduced me to women who fled slavery either alone or with their families during the late eighteenth century.  This led me to question how widespread was the flight of enslaved women.  My research led me to the American Revolution which according to historian Benjamin Quarles was the first large-scale slave rebellion.  I wanted to tell the stories of these women who fled or attempted to flee bondage during the Revolutionary Era. 

Running from Bondage tells the story of enslaved women who escaped bondage during the era of the American Revolution, a time period when the chaos of war and lack of oversight made escape possible for Black women in both the North and South. One-third of fugitives were in fact enslaved women. 

 The book consists of five chapters that examine why and how enslaved women escaped bondage and the challenging circumstances they faced over the course of five decades from 1770 to the 1810s. I provide an overview of enslaved women’s labor during the colonial period and their various resistance strategies and then take a deep dive into looking at the lives of individual women who escaped.  The book really underscores the fact that enslaved women were not one-dimensional figures but lived multi-dimensional lives as wives, mothers, sisters, and freedom fighters. 

RG: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you? 

KCB: I began this study several years ago and the research for the study brought me to the realization that there is so much that historians can uncover in the lives of enslaved women.  Although the evidence is fragmented, the experiences of fugitive women are far from unknowable.  I examined over 1,000 runaway newspaper advertisements from the eighteenth century.  There is a great amount of literature on enslaved people who escaped during the 1800s, however, the accounts of runaways during the 1700s are limited to colonial newspaper advertisements for runaways. 

Other sources include a published interview with George Washington’s escaped slave Ona Judge and trial records of fugitive slaves. 

The story of Margaret Grant will surprise people.  Margaret escaped slavery twice, first in 1770 and then in 1773, both times from Baltimore, Maryland; and in her first escape, she wore men’s clothing and sought to conceal her identity by dressing as a waiting boy to an escaped English convict servant, John Chambers.  So Margaret sought to escape by passing as both white and male performing fugitivity in a way that Ellen Craft, another escaped slave, would do decades later. 

Also surprising is the fact that women not only ran away with immediate family members but also in groups without established kinship relations. They correctly perceived that their best chances for freedom resided with a British victory and a disruption of the existing social order. In the north and south, women fled to urban centers, took refuge in British camps, aided the Loyalist cause as spies, cooks, nurses, and performed duties for the British Army Ordnance Corps. In the postwar period, most Black women did not seek freedom in the North but instead pursued “informal freedoms” in urban cities such as Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans where they defined freedom in terms of family and mobility. In these cities, they relied on networks of acquaintances, marketable skills, clothing, and language skills to assume identities as free women and carve out free spaces for themselves. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives