Section title Fight the Power on a drawing of two colorfuly dressed women

Not all fighting is violence, especially when it is political. For centuries in this country, from its Colonial beginnings, African Americans fought for their freedom in myriad ways. From grassroots organizing through petitions, executing planned insurrections, to eventually becoming members of Congress, Black people knew that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not attainable by being passive spectators during the ages of slavery and Jim Crow. They were determined to resist, agitate, and fight the power through their political activism, adornment, institution building, wealth accumulation, and subversive use of language. As activist David Walker preached to African Americans, “There is a great work for you to do.”

Text with title Celebration

Banneker Institute, The Celebration of the Eighty-Third Anniversary of the Declaration of American Independence, by the Banneker Institute (Philadelphia, 1859).

Created by an African American literary society, this pamphlet celebrates the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It states the organization’s political position on the nation since the establishment of the United States.

Drawing of Black Brazilian women selling goods at a market

C. Shoosmith, “A Free Negress and Other Market-Women,” in James Henderson, A History of Brazil: Comprising Its Geography, Commerce, Colonization, Aboriginal Inhabitants, &c. &c. (London, 1821). Lithograph.

This image of Black Brazilian market women selling goods shows the importance of women entrepreneurs in the marketplace. Their presence demonstrated how savvy and creative Black businesses were in the 19th century.

A spread from a book showing two full pages of text

David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (Boston, 1829).

One of the most feared pamphlets that circulated during the antebellum era, David Walker’s Appeal told enslaved and free Africans to seek freedom through self-help and education. Walker was convinced that white Americans would never elevate the socio-economic status of Black people in America. Thus, he urged enslaved Africans to take up arms and revolt against their oppressors to attain liberty.

A spread showing charts

Charleston (S.C.), An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection Among a Portion of the Blacks of This City (Charleston, 1822). Loan from Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The monograph printed by A.E. Miller highlights enslaved Africans plotting a revolt against whites in Charleston, South Carolina. Although many of the insurrections were stymied by sabotage and gossip, any Black person accused of planning insurrection was executed for their attempt to be free.

A spread showing records of court cases

Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court of New Jersey; Relative to the Manumission of Negroes and Others Holden in Bondage (Burlington, 1794). Loan from Historical Society of Pennsylvania

This monograph highlights New Jersey Supreme Court cases involving the manumissions of Black people. In the case of an enslaved African named Jack, New Jersey Supreme Court granted him freedom based on the agreement made between him and his former slaveholder.

A page showing text

American Society of Free Persons of Colour, Constitution of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour (Philadelphia, 1831).

Colored Conventions proliferated during the 1830s and 1840s. They espoused political theories of racial unity and consciousness in Black America. Most conventions emphasized how Black people should pursue true freedom and liberty in America by various means.

An image of seven Black men wearing suits

Currier & Ives, The First Colored Senator and Representatives (New York, 1872). Lithograph.

These seven individuals embodied Black politics during the Reconstruction Era. While serving in their respective positions, these politicians advocated for public school education, universal suffrage, war amnesty, funding national infrastructure, labor rights, and civil rights.

A drawing of the Berkeley Hall building and portraits of four women

National Association of Colored Women (U.S.), Historical Records of Conventions of 1895-96 of the Colored Women of America. (United States, 1902).

Black women were heavily involved in shaping politics through their labor in the 19th century. Although they were often excluded from male-dominated colored conventions, they still found ways to impact the socio-political lives of African Americans.

African king wearing a blue robe, with his servant holding a sunshade

M. & N. Hanhart after F.E. Forbes, “Gezo, King of Dahomey” in Frederick E. Forbes, Dahomey and the Dahomans: Being the Journey of Two Missions to the King of Dahomey, and His Residence at the Capital, in the Years 1849 and 1850 (London, 1851), vol. 1.

King Gezo of Dahomey (present-day Benin) is depicted here as regal and commanding. He was wealthy and powerful but made his riches selling other Dahomeans to European slavers. His presence complicates the role of African elites in the trans-Atlantic slave trade amidst a robust abolitionist movement.

Title page

First page with title and text

Page 4

Page 5

Lover of Constitutional Liberty, The Appendix: or, Some Observations on the Expediency of the Petition of the Africans, Living in Boston, &c. Lately Presented to the General Assembly of This Province (Boston, 1773).

In this petition to the Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson and the Province’s House of Representatives, enslaved Blacks living in Boston requested to be freed from slavery.

A printed letter

The backside of a printed letter, showing cursive notes

Boston, April 20th, 1773 (Boston, 1773).

This petition was written by four Africans to the General Assembly of Boston and advocates for slavery to be ended in Massachusetts.