Slave resistance: Jim and Aaron’s story

Enslaved men at Whitehall, c. 1803

Enslaved men at Whitehall, c. 1803

No record remains to tell us what overseer George Ford had done, but it was serious enough to require a major response from Whitehall’s enslaved community. Young men Jim (age 18) and Aaron (16) either volunteered or were selected for the job, and they did it well. On the evening of Thursday, Aug. 13, 1795, they caught Ford alone and beat him severely—so much so that he spent much of the following week in hiding before he finally wrote to his employer, Benjamin Chew, for help: “I am very porly at this time and wold wish you to come down as quick as posable you can for I am In danger of my life being taken by the neagroes Last thursday evining I was beatin by Clubs till I was blody as a bucher with severll bad wounds so that I am hardly able to go about to see to any thing therefore I hope you will Come down and correct them to give me satisfaction for their abuse.”

The enslaved people already knew that Chew never came, even for events like this. Thus it took Ford two more weeks to gather enough white help to bring Jim and Aaron in for whipping. Even as the lash cut into Aaron’s flesh, he cursed Ford and threatened his life, which, Ford said, “I make no dout but he will try to do if he could get a chance.” Nor did Chew remove the two from the plantation, which would have provoked even greater problems given the strength of its community and the extent of intermarriage and family connections. This meant Ford had to work alongside these two men for two years before he was finally let go in 1798. The tension must have been palpable.

Two years after these incidents, on Aug. 3, 1797, Ford wrote again to his employer:

“Since harvest begun no less than three and four of the hands sick … which puts us very backward in our work and the people are so slow and indlent about their work that I have no comfort with them and some of them are so late home from ther wifes that they lose two ours time in morning and that 3 and 4 times a weak and as for the women they are not worth their vittles for what work they do.…”

At the height of harvest season, when every hand was urgently needed, the enslaved workers were doing everything they could—resisting in every possible way—to drive him crazy and cause him grief. And he couldn’t do a thing about it, because he knew if he pushed them too hard, there would be a bloody price to pay.

Jim and Aaron knew they had the whipping of their lives ahead of them when they went out that dark August night. But they did it anyway. Their sacrifice bought some distance—and perhaps some peace—for their community, and if they had to, they would do it again.

Sources: Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), Chew Family Papers: George Ford to Benjamin Chew, August 20, 1795, September 12, 1795, August 3, 1797 (all box 774, folder 2).

About Phillip Seitz

Phillip Seitz is the 2011 recipient of the American Association of Museums' Brooking Prize for Creativity. He is an historian and curator (and home brewer, bread baker, and sometime certified beer judge). He lives in Philadelphia and has been listening to BB King since he was old enough to play a record.
This entry was posted in Slavery History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.