Reenactment to honor largest slave rebellion in US history
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.
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.