Blacks fought for their own freedom whenever they could. They didn't have much opportunity to fight back; slaves were guarded and whipped for the slightest infraction. Informant slaves who brought news of any trouble were rewarded, and potential troublemakers were punished
without justice or mercy. Even walking on the road at night could spell death to a black man who didn't have clear permission. Despite these barriers, at least 11 slave revolts occurred between colonial times and the Civil War, including these:
- In 1800, an armed insurrection in Richmond led by a tall, strong blacksmith slave named Gabriel was foiled by informants. Gabriel had carefully planned to take Virginia's governor (later president) James Monroe hostage and ask for freedom for slaves in the name of the American Revolution. He was questioned under torture but refused to submit. He, two of his brothers, and 24 others were hanged. After Gabriel's bid for freedom, Virginia kept slaves under extra-tight surveillance.
In 2007, Virginia governor Tim Kaine informally pardoned Gabriel and his co-conspirators. The modern governor said that Gabriel's motivation had been "his devotion to the ideals of the American Revolution; it was worth risking death to secure liberty." The governor noted that "Gabriel's cause — the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality of all people — has prevailed in the light of history." He added, "It is important to acknowledge that history favorably regards Gabriel's cause while consigning legions who sought to keep him and others in chains to be forgotten."
- In 1822, Denmark Vesey, who had managed to buy his freedom after winning a city lottery, was within days of launching a revolt that could have included more than 1,000 slaves in Charleston. Vesey had been able to plan the revolt because he was a free black who worked as a carpenter. He had tried to live with whites, but he was angry because they had repeatedly closed the black church he had helped start. Betrayed by frightened slaves, Vesey and more than 30 of his followers were hanged. Vesey's son survived to reopen the black church after the Civil War.
- Nat Turner was a black slave who could read and who served as a preacher. He had visions that told him to fight for freedom, and in 1831, he led a rebellion of at least 100 slaves in Virginia. The slaves fought for two days, killing around 60 white civilians, before they were defeated by an overwhelming force of soldiers, sailors, and militiamen who rushed in from all directions.
After the battle, Virginia actually debated proposals to end slavery but decided to go the other way instead. The state forbade teaching a slave to read and instituted regular slave patrols that stopped any blacks found on the roads.