As the Flag Boy for the Golden Eagle Mardi Gras Indians, Marwan Pleasant has sewn many beaded panels depicting Native Americans wielding axes and shooting bows and arrows in battle.
“We’re paying homage to Indians that helped the slaves,” Pleasant says.
On a Wednesday night in late October, as he has for two months, Pleasant is sewing outfits for New York artist Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment, in which an army of volunteers will trace the steps of the largest slave revolt in U.S. history, an uprising in the parishes upriver from New Orleans in January 1811. Pleasant, who designs and produces his own line of clothes, has made men’s shirts, women’s skirts, turbans and other period clothing for participants in the reenactment.
Roughly 15 volunteers are at the weekly sewing circle. Two work on sewing machines while others finish skirts and pants with needles and thread. Next to Pleasant is Rosanne Archery-McGowan, who is sewing turbans, but also plans to march with the reenactors through the River Parishes to New Orleans Nov. 8 and 9.
Archery-McGowan is a native of Durban, South Africa. She came to New Orleans to attend Tulane University in the 1980s, while apartheid was in place and Nelson Mandela still was in jail. She learned about the reenactment while listening to former New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas’ radio show on WBOK.
“It was a profound moment,” Archery-McGowan says. “The size of the revolt was significant. They had a vision to be free. It inspires me, because there are so many challenges we still face.”
Scott, who has been planning the reenactment for six years, visits with volunteers, sharing that he’s excited to see full costumes. One reenactor models a completed outfit: a long skirt, a brown turban and a vest and holds a machete.
“That’s part of the outfit,” Scott tells the group of the weapon. “The slaves were freedom fighters.”
Scott and an array of collaborators are seeking to match the size of the rebellion, which was estimated to include 500 enslaved people marching from plantations in what now are St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes toward New Orleans with the goal of overthrowing the system of enslavement and establishing a black-run state.
The project is a large-scale durational performance, in which the group will march 26 miles and reenact some of the historical moments of the rebellion. It will be filmed by Ghanian-born London-based artist John Akomfrah. The event concludes with a final leg from the New Orleans Jazz Museum to a celebration in Congo Square.
“This is a freedom march,” Scott says. “There will be people who are the army of the enslaved and they will be in period costumes. They will have machetes, sickles, sabers and muskets. There will be a battle scene with musket fire, and that’ll be cool, but it’s about much more than a battle scene. It’s about freedom and emancipation of people, not troop movements and costumes.
“Imagine this outdated army in 19th-century clothing marching past Dominos Pizza, Norco oil refineries, grain elevators and small churches — the people in local communities seeing this and engaging with this.”
When Scott began thinking about doing a project based on a slave revolt, he didn’t know about the 1811 Louisiana rebellion. In 2013, he was invited to apply for a residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, North Carolina. The residencies are project-based, and he pitched a slave rebellion concept.
“I said I’d love to do a slave rebellion reenactment,” Scott says. “I was thinking that they would say no, especially when I told them it would probably not happen in Charlotte and probably not happen during the time of the residency. They said yes.”
There were more than 250 incidents of 10 or more enslaved people rebelling in the U.S., Scott says. The best-known revolts include Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Virginia, and the 1739 Stono rebellion in South Carolina, in which rebels tried to escape to Spanish colonies in Florida. Turner’s rebellion may be the best known, both because many people, black and white, died — and an interview with Turner was recorded.
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At the residency, Scott learned about the 1811 rebellion from one of the residency directors, and it became the focus of his project.
“It was the largest,” he says. “It was in many ways the most significant in that it had a chance of succeeding. If it was successful, it would have changed U.S. and world history. And success wasn’t just killing some white people and escaping with a few people. They wanted to seize all of Orleans Territory, which is modern-day Louisiana, and set up an African republic which would have outlawed slavery, which was a hugely radical vision of freedom and emancipation. Since it was a buried history, it made the most sense to reenact.”
The prospect of a successful slave revolt may have seemed highly possible in Louisiana following the revolution in Haiti — then called Saint Domingue — which overthrew French rule in 1804. Slaves and slave owners had arrived in Louisiana from Haiti and the Caribbean with knowledge of it.
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The 1811 revolt started on a sugar cane plantation owned by Manuel Andry near what now is LaPlace. Charles Deslondes (who had taken the last name of a family of plantation owners) led the rebellion, which grew as the group moved from plantation to plantation. Many of the rebels carried the machetes used to cut sugar cane, but they also picked up guns and rode horses. They were reported to have appropriated military uniforms and marched under flags, though no record exists of what was on the flags.
The group expected to continue to grow as it liberated enslaved peoples. The contingent was headed to New Orleans’ Fort St. Charles, which was where the Old U.S. Mint later would be built.
On the third day, the rebel army reached a plantation in what is now Rivertown in Kenner, where they encountered federal troops. The rebels were turned back and defeated, and some members fled into the swamps.
The response to the rebellion was severe. Deslondes was tortured and killed. Many rebels who had fled into the swamps were hunted and killed. The heads of decapitated slaves were posted on spikes along miles of road along the German Coast to intimidate and deter any other slave revolts.
Despite the gore, the episode faded into history. Scott says that may be because the territory was pursuing statehood, which was granted in 1812, and the territorial governor didn’t want the rebellion to interfere.
“The spin from the governor was to downplay (the revolt’s) significance,” Scott says. “Locally they wanted to say, ‘Do not even think of this,’ but nationally, they wanted to send the message, ‘Oh everything is calm here. We’d be a perfect state.’ There wasn’t an AP wire service, there wasn’t Google. People took the word of the governor.”
Scott draws heavily on the book “On to New Orleans: Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt” written by Albert Thrasher and published by Leon Waters, who had relatives familiar with the revolt. (A detailed list of books, articles and films about slavery and subjects related to the reenactment is posted on the resources page of the project website, www.slave-revolt.com.)
There were written records of the revolt in tribunal transcripts, correspondence between the territory’s governor and Wade Hampton, the top military commander in the Orleans Territory, and in newspaper accounts in New York, Philadelphia and London.
Until well into the 20th century, the history of slavery and revolts was told almost exclusively from the point of view of the slave owners. “On to New Orleans,” published in 1995, was the first book to focus on the 1811 rebellion. Influential contributions about slavery in Louisiana include Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s 1992 book “Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century.”
When he explored the history of the region, Scott visited plantations along the Mississippi River. At Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, the tour took visitors to what remained of slave quarters. On one of the cabin walls was a copy of a plantation inventory, listing the people enslaved there and a dollar value for each human.
“I asked, ‘Can you tell me more about the lives of the people that were enslaved here?’” Scott says. “They said, ‘Well, we don’t know anything.’
“I said, ‘Actually, I can show you a database and you can see who was here.’ They said, ‘People aren’t interested in that.’”
How the history of the antebellum South has been preserved and memorialized is an ongoing bone of contention. Monuments to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate generals were erected decades after the end of the Civil War. Three such monuments were removed from public display in New Orleans in recent years, and other cities have taken down some monuments to the Confederacy. A lone reference to the 1811 revolt is posted on a historical marker near Woodland Plantation.
“I am all for preserving history, but how you preserve it is important,” Scott says. “[Plantations] stand in stark contrast to how Germany remembers its recent history of fascism. These plantations, which are better known as slave labor camps, were sites of genocide. That’s what they are. Nobody would have their wedding at Auschwitz or Treblinka or Bergen-Belsen. The fact that people routinely come to do that here or rent out the spaces for corporate gatherings or use them as a bed and breakfast — it’s disgusting. It poses serious moral questions for people who do that. It reinforces and perpetuates an errant understanding of history.”
Scott has created installations and performances addressing injustice and police brutality, protesting racism and exploring history and patriotism. He grew up in Chicago, where he changed his name from Scott Tyler to Dread Scott as homage to Dred Scott, an enslaved man who sued for his freedom. In an 1857 decision in that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution did not extend rights to black people, free or enslaved.
Scott’s work is included in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, The Brooklyn Museum and others.
In 1989, Scott gained national attention for an installation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag” featured a photo montage of protests over a book in which viewers were invited to share their thoughts about displaying the flag, but they had to walk on an American flag spread on the floor in front of the book in order to do so. In an era when Republican senators, led by North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, attacked public funding for the arts based on the work of a handful of artists including photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, Scott’s work was panned by President George H.W. Bush as “disgraceful.”
In 2012, Scott created the performance piece “Dread Scott: Decision” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He read and discussed the Dred Scott decision while guards with dogs corralled four naked black men. The audience became participants who had to walk by the men and the dogs to enter a voting booth where they answered questions about how they participate in the democracy of a country with a legacy of slavery and segregation.
“Much of my art when I was younger was looking more directly at the present: murder by police or looking at a lynching that took place in 1998 (the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Texas) or police brutality,” he says. “I have become more aware that it’s important to look at foundational assumptions in order to talk about America, hence ‘Slave Rebellion’ and ‘Dread Scott: Decision.’”
His view of “Slave Rebellion” also has changed as he’s worked on it.
“It’s not actually a project about slavery,’ Scott says. “It’s about people with a bold vision to get free from a society that is oppressive and exploitative with the only option they have. It’s not like they could form a Super PAC and say let’s get whipped only Monday through Friday. They had to overthrow the system of enslavement. The agency of enslaved people changes how people see this.”
Creating “Slave Rebellion Reenactment” has been like building a movement, Scott says.
He started formally working on the project at the McColl Center and also developed it in a Spillways artist residency at New Orleans’ Antenna Gallery in 2016. He’s networked extensively with participating groups. Actor Karen-Kaia Livers serves as the project’s outreach coordinator, and Scott has had public meetings and forums at parish councils, churches, art organizations, museums and universities, including Xavier University, Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans and Louisiana State University, as well as other schools across the country, including historically black colleges.
During recent months, 14 people have been working on the project full time and numerous participants have worked on components such as weekly sewing circles in New Orleans and in outlying parishes.
The project has garnered more than $1 million in support from the Open Society Foundation, VIA Art Fund, the Ford Foundation, Surdna Foundation, MAP Fund, the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts and other groups and individuals.
The reenactment will be filmed by Akomfrah, and Scott expects that project to debut at museums in 2020. Akomfrah’s work has been presented at the Venice Biennale and the Tate Britain museum. Locals may remember “Precarity,” his film about Buddy Bolden, which was screened at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as a part of the Prospect.4 international art triennial.
Due to concerns about event safety, information about the route was not posted in advance. Information about recommended viewing sites will be posted on the project website this week.
Responses have ranged from the positive to a small amount of hate mail, Scott says. He was most surprised by the reaction of some students at the historically black Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte. Some were required to attend his talk and did not want to hear about slavery.
“The more I talked, the more it became clear they had a shame about slavery and even actually about being black,” Scott says. “They couldn’t understand why their ancestors were enslaved, but also why are black people disproportionately in prison. Why are we the ones on welfare, even though most people on welfare are white, but that’s the popular notion. Or why are we being arrested? … When they came to understand that this wasn’t about slavery but about freedom fighting, and that there was resistance, and that their ancestors were not slaves, they were people who were enslaved, it was something that was done to them — then they were like ‘Wait, we want to know more. Why don’t we know more about this event?’ It lifted a sort of shame off of them. If it changes how they see themselves in the present, that’s powerful.”
Scott also encountered reluctance about the project, including from a white pastor in the River Parishes.
“The (pastor) said, ‘I can see why you are interested in this; this is your history. For me, I am a little worried,” Scott says. “I was like, ‘You, a person who espouses Jesus in some form and turning the other cheek. You’re looking at the color of your skin and siding with enslavers who are white instead of looking at people trying to overthrow oppression and siding with them.’ Isn’t that the story that’s in the Bible, or part of it? People are so caught up with skin color and identification: ‘OK, I am going to side with the racists.’
“Why would you do that?” Scott asks. “You are looking back in time; you can take anything you want from the story.”