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Conference on slave rebellions offers in-depth way to teach history some don’t want in schools

The Slave Dwelling Project in South Carolina highlights the violent resistance of freedom-seeking enslaved Blacks.
An illustration depicting Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County, Va., on Aug. 21, 1831.
An illustration depicting Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County, Va., on Aug. 21, 1831.Library of Congress

CHARLESTON, S.C. — As the campaign to quash the teachings of America’s brutal history of slavery intensifies, Joseph McGill Jr. has waged a counterattack by way of a poignant three-day conference in this antebellum port town that was once responsible for the most sales and transports of enslaved Africans to major cities in the U.S.

A contained glee emanated from McGill, a historian and the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, which kicked off its seventh annual conference last week with a focus on the 1739 Stono Rebellion, an uprising of enslaved people who killed plantation owners and their families in South Carolina to free themselves. 

Joseph McGill Jr.
Joseph McGill Jr. Curtis Bunn / NBC News

“We’re at a place right now of rebellion and resistance in America, just as enslaved Africans were,” McGill said of the Stono revolt, which has been referred to as the largest slave rebellion in the British colonies. Those enslaved hoped to find their freedom in the Spanish-occupied territory of St. Augustine, Florida. 

Peter H. Wood, a former history professor at Duke University who wrote “Black Majority,” one of the first books to discuss the complex history of enslaved people in the South, said: “For political reasons, the Spaniards were willing to offer freedom to those who escaped.

“So a group of 15 or 20 went from plantation to plantation,” he said, explaining how the small collection grew as it marched on, chanting “Liberty” along the way. Later in the day, the freedom-seekers were encircled by a state militia and slaughtered.

A map from the 1700s shows the Stono River in South Carolina.
A map from the 1700s shows the Stono River in South Carolina. Library of Congress

But their fight and willingness to risk their lives helped to inspire other enslaved uprisings over the next two years in the South and later the 13-year revolution in Haiti against the colonizing French that ended with Haiti’s winning its independence in 1804.

“This is the history that must be shared,” said McGill, who has long worked in this area. In 2010, he launched the Slave Dwelling Project, which preserves the former homes of the enslaved and offers a deep history about the living conditions they endured.

The conference, held at the College of Charleston, takes all of McGill’s hard work as an educator to a higher plateau. With sessions like “Beyond Victimhood: Enslaved Resistance on Antebellum Colleges,” “Yes, I Teach Nat Turner’s Rebellion” and “Mapping Insurrections: The Hard Work of Reconstructing Rebel Routes,” the conversations served as an antithesis to the arguments of people trying to eliminate historical teachings on slavery and remove critical race theory from school curriculums.  

The more than 100 registered attendees included students and local residents, most of them Black. Two white middle school teachers from South Carolina said they came so they could convey “accurate” information about slavery and its revolts to their students. They joined a diverse group of scholars, professors, historians and genealogists who have dedicated their lives to sharing this full history and their clear disdain for the anti-critical race theory discourse.

“When we think of the content of what ‘they’ want to keep from our young minds because they don’t want their feelings hurt or they don’t want them to feel bad, we’ve got to think about whose feelings are really being hurt,” McGill said, adding that those against the teachings of slavery and its effect on America could be in support of “racism ... and white supremacy.”

He said the Stono Rebellion and its connection to the fight for freedom are crucial parts of history that should not be forgotten. “We must do our part to make sure that their efforts were not put forth in vain.”

Valencia Abbott leads a discussion on teaching about Nat Turner.
Valencia Abbott leads a discussion on teaching about Nat Turner. Curtis Bunn / NBC News

Valencia Abbott, a high school history teacher from North Carolina, co-led the session “Yes, I Teach Nat Turner’s Rebellion,” which discussed the Southampton Insurrection in Virginia. While her session touched on the importance of Turner’s rebellion, it also was an opportunity to show others how to appropriately convey the events in a classroom. 

“If we do not teach about slavery, then there is no way that you understand why the Civil War was significant,” Abbott said. “And if you don’t understand that history, then the civil rights movement doesn’t make sense. … So I’m going to keep teaching the truth. It’s malpractice, an injustice, if we don’t.”

McGill feels similarly about the importance of his conference. 

“It is necessary because the battle wages on,” he said. “The Stono Rebellion was kind of the start of our means of existence. They began that fight in 1739. This effort today is against anti-CRT, critical race theory, and it has to be fought. This conference is a means of doing that.”