By Mumia Abu-Jamal from death row
Time marks the minds of us all.
One need only mention "Sept. 11," and no more is required.
The mind races to images of fire, dread, death and devastation.
As we have noted elsewhere, that date has other meanings for other people, in other parts of the world: In Panama, for example, its mere mention evokes not planes slamming into gleaming towers of power and wealth, nor even the Middle East, but rather the dwellings of the poor, laid waste by the airplanes and land forces of the Americans, who staged an invasion of Panama to secure perpetual dominance over the Panama Canal, for which the barrios of El Chorrillo were pounded into powder.
Yet, history is not done with Sept. 11, for it stands as a date and time when Africans in a hostile America fought back against the dreadful human devastation of slavery, and fought for the bright light of freedom. It was dawn, Sept. 11, 1851, when a group of slave-catchers converged on a farmhouse in a little town called Christiana, in Pennsylvania's southeast corner. Present were the slaveholder Edward Gorsuch, his son, Dickinson, a U.S. marshal named Henry Kline, and several other armed white men. They thought they were out on just another day's work--the work of slavery--but they met five Black men and their wives who had no intention of giving up their freedom. Gorsuch made his demand, telling the Black ex-slaves, "You had better give up," adding, "[F]or I have come a long way this morning, and want my breakfast; for my property I will have, or I'll breakfast in hell."
William Parker, who ran away from a plantation some 12 years before, had no intention of turning over anybody, and called down to Gorsuch: "See here, old man. You can come up but you can't go down again," as Black historian, Ella Forbes, recounts in her stirring "But We Have No Country: The 1851 Christiana Pennsylvania Resistance" (Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers, 1998):
As the posse attempted to enter his house, Parker "met them at the landing; and asked, `Who are you?' The leader, Kline, replied, `I am the United States Marshal.' I told him to take another step, and I would break his neck. He again said, `I am the United States Marshal.' I told him I did not care for him or the United States. At that he turned and went down stairs." [Forbes,134]
Parker's position, in light of the passage and extension of the Fugitive Slave Act, which threatened all Black people whether fugitive or free with seizure and a passage into bondage, was simple. He said, "[T]he laws for personal protection are not made for us, and we are not bound to obey them ... [whites] have a country and may obey the laws. But we have no country." [Forbes, 110]
One of the Black men in the farmhouse began to weaken, a man named Pinckney, who said, "We'd better give up." His wife, Hannah, picked up a machete (called a "corn cutter") and grimly announced she would cut the head off of the first one who tried to surrender.
For a time, Parker and Gorsuch argued over the rightness of slavery, and each quoted the Bible to the other to defend their views, but each knew that words would not decide the argument. Parker's wife, Eliza, seeing the necessity of reinforcements, blew her horn to summon members of the Black neighborhood militia. As she sounded her horn the Marshal fired a pistol shot at her, but missed. As scores of militiamen appeared, the marshal withdrew, but the stubborn Gorsuch men remained. The elder said, "I'll have my property or die in the attempt." He tried. He died. When Dickinson tried, he was shot and wounded.
As night fell, Parker and two other Black men took to the Underground Railroad, en route north. U.S. President Millard Fillmore, who signed the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act into law, dispatched 45 Marines to Christiana, and they arrested scores of people. Thirty-six local Black men and five white Quakers were later tried for treason. The men, defended by the abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, were acquitted by a jury in 15 minutes!
Parker, meanwhile, like thousands of other Blacks, made way for Canada, after stopping off at the Rochester, N.Y., home of the great Black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. Historians have considered the Christiana Resistance the first shots fired in the looming Civil War. Philip Foner has called it a "major harbinger" of that war.
Christiana proved that the fight for freedom in America would be a fight not merely with words, not merely on paper, but with blood. For millions of Americans of that day, September the 11th meant a day that could not and would not be forgotten.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is the author of three books: 'Live
from Death Row', 'Death Blossoms', and 'All Things
Write to Mumia directly at:
Mumia Abu-Jamal AM 8335
175 Progress Drive
Waynesburg, PA 15370