Reen­act­ment to honor largest slave re­bel­lion in US his­tory

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Re­becca San­tana

NEW OR­LEANS — Against the mod­ern back­drop of oil re­finer­ies, strip malls and gated com­mu­ni­ties, hun­dreds of reen­ac­tors will gather Fri­day in south­east­ern Louisiana to re­mem­ber a time when slav­ery flour­ished as a blight on Amer­ica and some en­slaved peo­ple fought back.

They plan to reen­act the largest slave re­bel­lion in Amer­i­can his­tory.

Dressed in pe­riod cos­tumes and hold­ing ma­chetes or ri­fles they will march 26 miles over two days from the sugar plan­ta­tion coun­try along the Mis­sis­sippi River to the New Or­leans sub­urbs.

“I think it will be an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” said artist Dread Scott, who con­ceived of the project, and whose works ad­dress racial in­jus­tice and op­pres­sion.

“See­ing hun­dreds of black folk with ma­chetes and mus­kets and sick­les and sabers, flags fly­ing, chant­ing to tra­di­tional African drum­ming, is go­ing be an amaz­ing mo­ment. And peo­ple would be like, ‘What am I look­ing at? This doesn’t make sense,’ ” he said. “It will be an area where peo­ple can learn a lot and think a lot.”

Reen­act­ments have been a sta­ple of Civil War her­itage in the South, where peo­ple don Con­fed­er­ate and Union uni­forms and stage mock bat­tles. But this ef­fort seeks to il­lus­trate the strug­gle over slav­ery that came to be the heart of that war.

Scott first en­vi­sioned it about eight years ago. He’d wanted to stage a slave re­bel­lion reen­act­ment — maybe Nat Turner’s 1831 up­ris­ing in Vir­ginia — but then a col­league told him about the up­ris­ing in Louisiana.

Slaves across a stretch of plan­ta­tions or­ga­nized for months be­fore launch­ing their re­bel­lion on Jan. 8, 1811. Over two days the group grew to an es­ti­mated 200 to 500 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to Daniel Ras­mussen’s book “Amer­i­can Up­ris­ing: The Un­told Story of Amer­ica’s Largest Slave Re­volt.”

Their goal was to march on New Or­leans and es­tab­lish a free re­pub­lic. The re­bel­lion was in­spired in part by the Haitian rev­o­lu­tion but con­ceived by peo­ple born in Louisiana and Africa, said Dr. Ibrahima Seck, the di­rec­tor of re­search at the Whit­ney Plan­ta­tion and a his­tor­i­cal ad­viser to the reen­act­ment.

Most were field hands who toiled in hot, wet and hu­mid con­di­tions that con­trib­uted to their 13% yearly death rate, he said.

Scott said the project sprung from his in­ter­est in how peo­ple lib­er­ate them­selves and in slav­ery’s con­tin­u­ing ef­fects on Amer­ica to­day. He was also in­trigued to learn about the lit­tle-known re­bel­lion’s goals and how close it came to suc­cess.

“You can’t ac­tu­ally un­der­stand Amer­i­can so­ci­ety if you don’t un­der­stand slav­ery, and you can’t un­der­stand slav­ery if you don’t un­der­stand slave re­volts,” he said.

The reen­act­ment comes at a time of height­ened racial ten­sion in the United States, fol­low­ing the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in 2016.

One of the most con­tentious episodes came in Au­gust 2017 when hun­dreds of white na­tion­al­ists de­scended on Char­lottesvill­e, Vir­ginia, to protest the planned re­moval of a Con­fed­er­ate statue. One per­son was killed when a white na­tion­al­ist plowed his car into a crowd of coun­ter­protesters.

Bob Snead, who heads the arts group An­tenna that’s pro­duc­ing the re­bel­lion reen­act­ment with Scott, said that was a key turn­ing point. Some ques­tioned whether the reen­act­ment should even go on, but Snead said there was also a strong feel­ing that the project was more im­por­tant than ever.

Or­ga­niz­ers have taken pre­cau­tions. They’ll have law en­force­ment and pri­vate se­cu­rity, and reen­ac­tors are ad­vised not to en­gage with any­one along the route who might ha­rass them.

GER­ALD HER­BERT/AP PHO­TOS

Pa­tri­cia Gor­man fits Louis Ward in a pe­riod cos­tume Oct. 23 for Fri­day’s reen­act­ment march in south Louisiana.

Artist Dread Scott had the idea about eight years ago.

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