Mahasin Muhammad guided sand-colored fabric through a sewing machine on Saturday, doing her bit to create trousers for an army of enslaved people who will march on New Orleans later this year.
Muhammad, 60, a retired trauma nurse, was drawn to the work by the history of sewing circles in African-American communities, where the gatherings have traditionally been used to spread news and exchange ideas.
But Muhammad, a history buff, was also proud to use her sewing skills to help raise the profile of the 1811 German Coast slave revolt, the largest armed rebellion against slavery in U.S. history. Though it took place on plantations just upriver from New Orleans, its story isn’t well-known here or anywhere, she said.
“It’s a history that most Americans don’t know,” Muhammad said, as she and her daughter, Dahlia Santos-Muhammad, 31, spent the day at sewing machines set up in Paper Machine, an artists studio off St. Claude Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward.
All across New Orleans, groups of people are quietly gathering to sew and plan for a large-scale re-enactment of the revolt, which took place on the east bank of the Mississippi River in what are now St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes.
In November, their work will culminate in the armed band of African-American rebels who will spend two days walking from the German Coast to New Orleans, a distance of 26 miles, just as the rebellion leaders intended to do in 1811, aiming to seize the city and end slavery.
This bustle of planning and hushed conversations was the vision of Dread Scott, 54, a conceptual artist who envisions “500 black people in period-specific costume with horses and cane knives and sabers and muskets, walking the locations where this rebellion originally happened.”
Though documents about the revolt are mostly limited to the letters and documents of the white officials and slaveholders who suppressed it, Scott’s research shows that the original rebellion likely was quietly planned for at least a year.
To mirror the original process, Scott has recruited a group of New Orleanians for what he calls the “army of the enslaved.” Those people must recruit others in one-on-one, in-person conversations and cannot reveal their role publicly, emulating the secrecy of the original revolt's planning.
Scott does allow modern technology and methods in some parts of the planning process, including the sewing circles, whose members aren’t sworn to secrecy.
Malcolm Suber, of the group Take 'Em Down Nola, which led the fight to dismantle Confederate monuments in New Orleans, is also leading community forums in communities near where the actual revolt took place.
For Scott, whose birth name was Scott Tyler, the project is not just historical. “This is a project about freedom and emancipation,” he said. “You can’t understand American history unless you understand slavery. And you can’t understand slavery unless you understand slave revolts.”
None of that history was taught in local schools, said Ron Bechet, 62, a New Orleans native who chairs the art department at Xavier University of New Orleans. “We heard, ‘Your ancestors were slaves,’ ” he said. “And we’d think, ‘Gee, didn’t they do anything about that?’ ”
Bechet recalled his reaction as a child. “It made you feel subhuman,” he said. By contrast, learning how commonly slaves ran away or rebelled gives their descendants a different understanding about subjugation. “You know that is not your destiny,” Bechet said.
Ava Hernandez, 39, who was sewing a waistband onto a pair of khaki pants, said that knowing about the rebellion changes her sense of history and strengthens her confidence in the ability of people to make change. “To not just withstand, but to take a stand,” she said.
Hernandez recalled touring the Destrehan Plantation as a schoolchild and hearing nothing about the slave revolt that had happened there and at other nearby plantations. (The plantation has since installed an exhibit about the revolt, which had a bloody ending, with 100 rebels killed by slave owners and federal troops.)
Instead, as a child, Hernandez mostly heard about valiant white people — President Abraham Lincoln and Union soldiers — who helped to end slavery.
It seemed as if enslaved people “had played no role in securing their freedom,” said Bechet’s student, Liyah Patrick, 21, as she pushed material through her sewing machine as part of community service she’s doing for his class.
Patrick, the youngest seamstress in the group, had actually learned about the revolt in her Mississippi high school history class.
The re-enactment promises to sear that event into people’s memories in a different way, Patrick said. “You can learn about something in a book, but you gain more through visuals,” she said. “People who actually see this will be better able to connect with it.”