Painting of the Boston Massacre showing Crispus Attucks, one of the leaders of the demonstration and one of the five men killed by the gun fire of the British troops, as he is shot. The Boston Massacre took place in 1770 and was a preliminary riot in the War of Independence from the British. (Getty Images)

Tear down the statues of racist traitors — and raise monuments to heroes of Black resistance

To repair American history, let's raise monuments to Ona Judge, Maria Stewart, Crispus Attucks and many more



Jeff Biggers
June 28, 2020 4:00PM (UTC)

Goodbye Robert E. Lee,  Williams Carter Wickham, Juan de Onate and the thousands of other Confederate and racist monuments

Now let us raise thousands of monuments to Crispus Attucks, the Stono Rebellion, Ona Maria Judge, Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, Martin Delany, William Parker and the Christiana uprising and others among the African-American resistance heroes who have shaped our history.

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As a response to erasure and "historicide" — the intentional destruction or oversight of history — monuments of resistance can serve as a first step and a public act of truth and reconciliation, especially in times when our nation and its leaders need to be held accountable for the unfulfilled aspirations of justice for all Americans. 

In reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a groundswell of public acclaim arose after abolitionists used "virtually every form of media available" to revive the legacy of Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the American Revolution. 

Attucks became a household name by the 1870s, and the namesake for organizations and militia organizations across the country, after advocates revived his reputation. Attucks was a stevedore, or dock worker, killed by British soldiers at the Boston Massacre in 1770. It's an event that in some ways feels strikingly contemporary. Outraged by the abuses inflicted on local residents by roving British troops, dock workers had joined Attucks on a march to confront a contingent of soldiers. In front of a government building, troops opened fire on the crowd, killing Attucks and four others. 

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Patriot leader and future resident John Adams, in fact, defended the British soldiers in their murder trial, referring to the American resisters as "outlandish" and nothing more than a motley rabble. Adams' characterization of Attucks, in fact, provides a compelling insight into the enduring white depiction of black males as inherently dangerous, thereby exonerating any official police or military force who shot them down. Adams charged Attucks with being a hero of the "myrmidons" — literal ant-men of Greek mythology, who followed orders without question — whose very presence in the street was "an unlawful assembly." The "very looks" of this "stout Molatto fellow," Adams claimed, "was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear?"

Two centuries later, in his book "Why We Can't Wait," Martin Luther King Jr. recovered the history of Attucks as part of the continuum of civil rights. "A great-great-grandson of Crispus Attucks," he wrote, "might be ruled out of some restricted, all-white restaurant," notwithstanding his military uniform and his legacy as a hero of American independence.

It's time to recover the legacy of Ona Maria Judge and Maria Stewart, among so many others. 

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On April 30, 1789, Judge did not appear in the background of wigs, silk stockings and pomp in New York City, as the federal Congress of white men ushered in the first presidential inauguration. The "light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair," as she would be described in an advertisement seven years later, labored in George Washington's household a few blocks away as the enslaved body servant of Martha Washington. She would have assisted our first first lady with her gown that morning, held the garment and then stepped back and watched its glorious elegance unfold, a sliver of her face in the background of the dressing room.

Ona Judge's role in the early American resistance has similarly been placed in the background of her times. Yet the recovery of her presence is part of the process of reversing the erasure of important parts of our history. Judge did not just liberate herself; she disrobed the duplicity of a new nation founded on the principle of inalienable rights for all.

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Judge's story, like others in the resistance, allows us to explore our history beyond the appearance of things. To reconsider the historic scene on the balcony of the Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, for example, where an oath was taken in our nation's first capital in 1789, set against a monumental backdrop that celebrated Washington, the founding fathers and the victors of the American Revolution.

The irony of the "reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen," as Washington declared from that balcony, would not have been lost on Judge, who had been enslaved since her birth at Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation.

Born in 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party, Judge was the daughter of a white indentured servant and a Black "dower slave," bequeathed to Martha Washington from her deceased first husband's huge estate in Virginia.

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Judge had never been considered freeborn. The dowry of slavery insured perpetuity, each generation linked in captivity like an heirloom chain. Writing in 1764, Boston attorney James Otis had already warned his fellow colonists that any demand of freedom to the British Crown reflected like a dark mirror on their own treatment of enslaved Americans:

Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast.

Relegated to being a playmate for Martha's granddaughter in her childhood, Judge lived a youth tethered to Martha's command. As a teenager at Mount Vernon, she had numbered as one of hundreds of African Americans enslaved by Washington and his wife on their plantation. Denied any schooling, she excelled as a seamstress, and then, at age 16, found herself loaded into a wagon for the historic occasion in New York. The move separated the teenager from her enslaved mother, and also removed her from the time-warp of Mount Vernon.

Freedom surrounded Judge on the streets of New York City. Thousands of African Americans had arrived in the city during the American Revolution, seeking sanctuary among British troops. Others had responded to Lord Dunmore's Proclamation of 1775: "I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels,) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty's Troops." This was of course strategic rather than humanitarian, but its effects spread widely throughout the enslaved people of the colonies.

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According to documents filed by Lund Washington, a cousin of the first president who oversaw affairs at Mount Vernon, 16 enslaved laborers owned by the Washington family had fled when a British sloop anchored off the Potomac River in the spring of 1781, as the Revolution raged in its final stretch. "There is not a man of them, but would leave us," Lund wrote, "if they believe'd they could make their escape. ... Liberty is sweet."

While an estimated 3,000 Black people boarded British ships for refuge in Canada as the war ended in 1783, thousands remained behind to face an uncertain fate in New York. An outraged Washington, accompanied by Thomas Paine, who happened to be visiting, rode his horse to the banks of the Hudson River and watched the departure of Black Loyalists who sought their freedom elsewhere. That group included Harry Washington, an enslaved horse groomer who had escaped from Washington's Virginia plantation, who would go on to attempt a rebellion against the colonial government in Sierra Leone.

Ona Judge would not have been unaware of this fact; the stories of fugitives and freed slaves passed quickly along the coastal routes. Another young woman from Mount Vernon, the enslaved Deborah Squash, had escaped from Washington's plantation as a teenager, and made her way to New York City. She and her husband had also boarded one of the British ships for Nova Scotia at the end of the American Revolution — in search of liberty for all.

This perceived British insolence outraged Washington. He sent an underling to the docks to search for his own slaves. British commander Sir Guy Carleton defied a last-minute insertion in the peace treaty demanding the return of all liberated fugitives. "Delivering up Negroes to their former masters," he told Washington, "would be a dishonourable violation of the public faith." On the docks of the liberated city, as formerly enslaved Americans boarded the ship, the British filled a registry — the Book of Negroes — with the testimonies of their escapes, and the details of their bondage. Washington viewed that registry as stolen property; the British commander saw it as a rap sheet of crimes. The treaty, Carleton declared, did not oblige the British to violate "their faith to the negroes who came into the British lines."

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The incongruous status of a slave in a state of emancipation became even more evident when Washington transferred his family and entourage to the presidential residency in Philadelphia in 1790. The president's household grew to include 10 enslaved Americans.

It also sat at the cross streets of abolitionist fervor in our nation's temporary capital.

Whether or not Thomas Paine had a hand in shaping the preamble of the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in Pennsylvania in 1780, as many debate, the law enacted a decade before Judge's arrival leaned heavily on the inalienable rights recognized by the Declaration of Independence, and embodied by Washington:

When we contemplate our abhorrence of that condition, to which the arms and tyranny of Great Britain were exerted to reduce us, when we look back on the variety of dangers to which we have been exposed, and how miraculously our wants in many instances have been supplied, and our deliverances wrought, when even hope and human fortitude have become unequal to the conflict, we are unavoidably led to a serious and grateful sense of the manifold blessings, which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being, from whom every good and perfect gift cometh. Impressed with these ideas, we conceive that it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our power, to extend a portion of that freedom to others, which hath been extended to us, and release them from the state of thralldom, to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have now every prospect of being delivered.

Contrary to its abolitionist title, the Pennsylvania law did not "free" enslaved Americans. It prohibited the importation of slaves into the state and set up a more restrictive system of registration. It granted gradual emancipation for children of enslaved Pennsylvanians.

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The new law, however, exempted members of Congress, and provided a loophole for slave owners like Washington and his wife Martha. Washington was warned by his attorney general that he needed to remove his enslaved laborers from the state every six months, to avoid a slaveholding restriction, even if that openly flouted an amendment to the law made in 1788.

In fact, Washington's preoccupation with his escaped slaves underscored the passing of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Overriding state laws, the act empowered slave owners to cross state lines and "seize or arrest" any escaped slave. The agent or bounty hunter acting on behalf of the slave owners only needed to provide "oral testimony or affidavit." Anyone harboring or interfering with the arrest was liable for punishment; conversely, it provided virtually no protection for the rights of free blacks who might be fraudulently kidnapped. "The law made rendition essentially a private matter," historian Eric Foner wrote, "identifying little role for the state or federal governments."

Washington signed the Act into law on Feb. 12, 1793. Ona Judge had just turned 20.

With disquieting precision, Washington gave orders to circumvent the intention of the Pennsylvania law by exploiting the six-month rotation system. In a letter to his secretary, Tobias Lear, he spelled out his motives:

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In case it shall be found that any of my Slaves may, or any for them shall attempt their freedom at the expiration of six months, it is my wish and desire that you would send the whole, or such part of them as Mrs. Washington may not chuse to keep, home — for although I do not think they would be benefitted by the change, yet the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist. At any rate it might, if they conceived they had a right to it, make them insolent in a State of Slavery.

Washington understood the deceitful nature of his operations — and their implications for his public persona as president. He wrote Lear of his plan to "deceive both them (the enslaved) and the Public," through a staged journey back to Mount Vernon for a family visit. He commanded his secretary to keep the plans secret, "known to none but yourself and Mrs. Washington."

Lear's response underscored the sentiment of most white Americans in this period; while he was against the idea of slavery, he deferred to Washington's authority, and therefore conjured an excuse that such duplicity was in the interests of the enslaved:

You will permit me now, Sir (and I am sure you will pardon me for doing it) to declare, that no consideration should induce me to take these steps to prolong the slavery of a human being, had I not the fullest confidence that they will at some future period be liberated, and the strongest conviction that their situation with you is far preferable to what they would probably obtain in a state of freedom.

The "sacred fire of liberty" that Washington summoned in his first inauguration, "arising out of the present crisis," also burned in Judge.

She had met many free African Americans and abolitionists in New York and Philadelphia, including visitors to the president's house. As Martha Washington's body servant, Judge had already navigated the social networks in Philadelphia, moving freely in the marketplace and attending social events.

In 1796, Judge learned of Martha Washington's plan to sign over her dower enslavement to the first lady's granddaughter as a wedding present, ensuring her bondage back in Virginia. "I wasn't going to be her slave," she would tell a journalist nearly a half century later.

At the age of 23, having spent her adulthood in the nation's revolutionary center, often a witness of the proceedings of state in President Washington's house, Judge quietly organized her plan of action.

"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where," she later told the editor of the Granite Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper in New Hampshire. "For I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner."

A ship secretly awaited Judge at the port. Capt. John Bowles commanded the Nancy, a sloop that made regular trips between Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Philadelphia. His role in her escape remains mysterious, although Judge's refusal to name him until after his death, "lest they should punish him for bringing me away," suggests that Bowles was aware of her fugitive status.

Dismissing Judge as too simple, Washington claimed that her "escape has been planned by some one who knew what he was about, and had the means to defray the expence of it and to entice her off: for not the least suspicion was entertained of her going, or having formed a connexion with any one who could induce her to such an Act." Washington couldn't believe Judge's "ingratitude," claiming she had been "treated more like a child than a Servant."

Washington didn't hesitate to track down his "child" with "impunity." The president of the United States posted an ad with a $10 reward in the Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser on May 24, 1796:

She has many changes of good clothes, of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to be described — As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is; but as she may attempt to escape by water, all masters of vessels are cautioned against admitting her into them, although it is probable she will attempt to pass for a free woman . . .

Judge didn't need to pass for a free woman; she liberated herself. And her shrewd defiance of Washington triggered an obsession with her capture. He learned where she was living when the daughter of a New Hampshire senator recognized Judge on the streets of Portsmouth later that fall. Washington immediately invoked the Fugitive Slave Act to "seize her and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place, or to Alexandria."

In an interview with Portsmouth's collector of customs, Joseph Whipple, Judge spoke of her "thirst for complete freedom," and won over the local officials. Whipple warned Washington that he should not risk angering that city's fervent abolitionist community without going through the courts. Washington didn't relent; he proposed a careful plan of abduction, which would not "excite a mob or riot ... or even uneasy Sensations in the Minds of well disposed Citizens." Whipple's second reply, most likely orchestrated with Judge, placed the nation's commander in chief in a bind. Whipple contended that Judge would voluntarily return, but only if Washington agreed to grant her manumission on Martha's death. The offer offended the president: "To enter into such a compromise ... is totally inadmissible."

The resistance continued within Washington's household. Within a few months, Washington's enslaved chef, Hercules, who had been highly praised for his culinary abilities, escaped from Mount Vernon while the first family was celebrating Washington's 65th birthday in Philadelphia. Again disparaging his enslaved laborer for a lack of gratitude — Martha had even given him a couple bottles of rum after his wife's death — Washington issued an order to apprehend Hercules. At the same time, Washington wrote a nearby plantation friend in Virginia of his decision to break his vow never to purchase another human being, and instead to acquire another enslaved laborer as a chef.

Hercules understood that his act of resistance haunted Washington until his death. The chef disappeared into the free state of Pennsylvania. The Washington family still spoke of his "black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth coat with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat, and gold-headed cane." Hercules created a different history for himself.

So did Ona Judge. In the process, she committed to a life of daily resistance as one of the most famous fugitives in America — the former enslaved body servant to the first lady. Even as he retired to Mount Vernon, Washington never gave up his pursuit: In 1799, his nephew, Burwell Bassett Jr., arrived in New Hampshire with the task of kidnapping Judge. Once again outwitting the slave owners, Judge managed to escape to the neighboring town of Greenland in the middle of the night. Now in her confidence, the New Hampshire governor who was hosting Bassett had tipped her off the fugitive.

Judge married a seaman and raised three children, though she suffered hardship in the small New Hampshire town. She acquired literacy and became a deeply religious Christian. After her husband died in 1803, a year after Washington's own death, Judge scrambled to make ends meet, eventually seeing her daughters hired out as indentured servants and her son depart as a sailor. In her later years, she relied largely on the charity of the town.

In a rare interview with the Liberator abolitionist newspaper in 1846, Judge was described as a "pauper" maintained by Rockingham County officials. She chastised Washington for his lack of Christian morals, as much as for holding human beings in bondage. "Card-playing and wine-drinking were the business at his parties," she said, "and he had more of such company Sundays than on any other day."

"Great names bear more weight with the multitude, than the eternal principles of God's government," the Liberator declared. "So good a man as Washington is enough to sanctify war and slavery; but where is the evidence of his goodness?"

The Liberator concluded by discussing Judge's enduring status as a "dower" slave:

This woman is yet a slave. If Washington could have got her and her child, they were constitutionally his; and if Mrs. Washington's heirs were now to claim her, and take her before Judge Woodbury, and prove their title, he would be bound, upon his oath, to deliver her up to them. Again — Langdon [the New Hampshire governor] was guilty of a moral violation of the Constitution, in giving this woman notice of the agent being after her. It was frustrating the design, the intent of the Constitution, and he was equally guilty, morally, as those who would overthrow it.

In an earlier interview, Judge countered the reporter's conclusion with her own declaration of resistance: "No, I am free, and have, I trust been made a child of God by the means."

John Adams once said that Washington had the "gift of silence." The nation's first commander in chief kept his comments private; but Washington's silence on slavery did not go unheard. Visitors made note of his slaves, and the vast number of "dower" slaves at Mount Vernon estate. In 1796, British abolitionist Edward Rushton confronted Washington's legacy directly.

"Shame, shame," he wrote in a letter to the president. "Ages to come will read with astonishment that the man who was foremost to wrench the rights of America from the tyrannical grasp of Britain was among the last to relinquish his own oppressive hold of poor unoffending negroes."

Rushton's final question to Washington remained unanswered: "In the name of justice what can induce you thus to tarnish your own well earned celebrity and to impair the fair features of American liberty with so foul and indelible a blot?"

Washington may have never answered Rushton's biting query, but a letter to the customs director in New Hampshire, as he pursued Ona Judge's return, revealed his enduring allegiance to the politics of slavery:

I regret that the attempt you made to restore the Girl (Oney Judge as she called herself while with us, and who, without the least provocation absconded from her Mistress) should have been attended with so little Success. To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissible, for reasons that must strike at first view: for however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.

Once again, the resistance answered Rushton instead.

"What if I am a woman?" asked Maria Stewart from the stage of Franklin Hall in Boston in 1833. The mixed crowd shifted in disapproval; the older men had already expressed their scorn at her reproach. Yet the main objection might have come from the elite circle of other women who found that this extraordinary African-American woman went too far beyond the bounds of accepted true womanhood.

"Had experience more plainly shown me that it was the nature of man to crush his fellow, I should not have thought it so hard," she lamented. "Wherefore, my respected friends, let us no longer talk of prejudice, till prejudice becomes extinct at home. Let us no longer talk of opposition, till we cease to oppose our own."

The previous two years had generated intense scrutiny of Stewart, a compelling voice of Black resistance in Boston. Self-educated and financially stable, she was the widow of a shipping agent who had thrived on the entrepreneurial genius of black sailors on the seas. Everyone knew Paul Cuffe, the famous colonial tax resister and one of the richest Black men in Massachusetts, who had built a fortune as a whaler before departing for the colonial experiment in Sierra Leone. Some literary scholars have suggested Cuffe as a model for Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick"; there is textual evidence to support a reading of Ahab as mixed-race or partly Black. 

But Stewart was no fictional character. Abolitionist readers of the Liberator had turned to the "Ladies Department" for the past year for Stewart's essays. It had become the paper's most radical page. The ease with which she had entered the hall, as if Black women could determine their entrance and exit in a world controlled by white men, had brought her words beyond the page to a public in a way few other women of color had dared.

"Is not the God of ancient times the God of these modern days?" Stewart continued. "Did he not raise up Deborah, to be a mother, and a judge in Israel? Did not Queen Ester save the lives of the Jews? And Mary Magdalene first declare the resurrection of Christ from the dead?"

Inspired by fellow Bostonian transplant David Walker, the son of enslaved parents from the Carolinas, Stewart shared the call for immediate abolition, at any cost. Walker's Appeal, a pamphlet in the tradition of Paine with its own preamble, had riveted the Black community with its harbinger of insurrection; it blasted the rhetorical deceit of Thomas Jefferson, only three years dead; it mocked Jefferson's hypocritical paeans to Roman slaves as damning the progress of African Americans for centuries, forever "removed beyond the reach of mixture."

Circulated among underground networks, including black sailors who subversively stacked it among the packages of contraband along the seaboard ports, the Appeal was "read and re-read until their words were stamped in letters of fire upon our soul," according to one black abolitionist leader in New England.

And while the Appeal thrust the Liberator into a more radical direction, shaming its white abolitionist editor's privilege of passive resistance, it cast the armed resistance into the hands of men only. Stewart, on the other hand, according to historian Christina Henderson, did not just envision women at the head of the anti-slavery vanguard — she stood there herself.

"Methinks I heard a spiritual interrogation," Stewart countered. "Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people color? Shall it be a woman? And my heart made this reply — If it is thy will, be even so, Lord Jesus."

Deeply Christian, and deeply moralistic, Stewart's lean into Black self-improvement had cast aspersions as much as inspiration on her own free community. She shared Walker's view that "disunited, as the colored people are now," they were ill-prepared to fight for liberation. In an attack on the elite Black Masons before her, she called out the obstacles hindering social progress as self-inflicted. Her words could be blunt, sharpening the edges of her detractors, especially among men. "Is it blindness of mind, or stupidity of soul, or the want of education, that has caused our men who are 60 to 70 years of age, never to let their voice be heard, nor their hands be raised in behalf of their color?"

At the same time, she held her white liberal women friends account-able for their low ceiling of aspirations for women of color. Why did their businesses not hire African-American girls, beyond calls of domestic servitude?

Let our girls possess what amiable qualities of soul they may; let their characters be fair and spotless as innocence itself; let their natural taste and ingenuity be what they may; it is impossible for scarce an individual of them to rise above the condition of servants.

A decade before nationally known Black nationalist Martin Delany or famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass would command the same stage, Stewart methodically embraced her role as a writer of the resistance, publishing essays — not sermons — and performing them in spaces that had been reserved for white advocates of abolition. "The first Black feminist-abolitionist in America," historian William Andrews has called her.

"O woman, woman! upon you I call," Stewart appealed, "for upon your exertions almost depends whether the rising generation shall be anything more than we have or not. "

Still negotiating the limits of "true womanhood" of the period, she extolled women to first "possess the spirit of independence ... the spirit of men, bold, enterprising, fearless and undaunted." In her footsteps, women had to take the next move as resisters of unwarranted prejudice: "Sue for your rights and privileges. Know the reason that you cannot attain them. Weary them with your importunities."

Violence was inevitable, as part of an unrelenting weariness, as if she couldn't share the privilege of nonviolence. Stewart declared she would be "a willing martyr" for the African-American cause: "I can but die for expressing my sentiments: and I am as willing to die by the sword as the pestilence."

Not as apocalyptic as Walker, Stewart reframed the resistance against slavery as part of a historical tradition of triumph, referencing recent revolutionary movements in different parts of the world:

Look at the suffering Greeks! Their proud souls revolted at the idea of serving a tyrannical nation, who were no better than themselves, and perhaps not so good. They made a mighty effort and arose: their souls were knit together in the holy bonds of love and union: they were united and came off victorious. Look at the French in the late revolution! no traitors amongst them, to expose their plans to the crowned heads of Europe! "Liberty or Death!" was their cry. And the Haytians, though they have not been acknowledged yet as a nation, yet their firmness of character and independence of spirit have been greatly admired, and highly applauded. Look at the Poles, a feeble people! They rose against three hundred thousand mighty men of Russia; and though they did not gain the conquest, yet they obtained name of gallant Poles.

After 1833, Stewart never took the stage again; her essays became sparse. She too moved to New York City, taking her resistance into schools as a teacher. But she lived to see slavery overthrown and abolition become a reality, dying in Washington in 1879. If she and Ona Judge and David Walker Crispus Attucks and other heroes of Black resistance do not deserve monuments, then no one does.  


Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of "Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition," forthcoming from Counterpoint in July, among other books.

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