Black women around the world and throughout history have fought for their freedom and inclusion in society. In the United States, we are most familiar with the likes of Rosa Parks, Ella Baker and Claudette Colvin – African American women leaders that fought for Civil Rights throughout the 1960s. The struggle for freedom in the Americas actually started much earlier than that. Today marks the anniversary of a Cuban revolution that began nearly a century before Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s July 26th Movement. Carlota, who predates both Guevara and Castro, was one of several female Africans responsible for leading a string of successful slave uprisings in Cuba from 1843-44. The freedom of her compatriots would eventually cost Carlota her life.
In 1843, Cuba’s Havana-Matanzas region was the country’s sugar plantation capital. On November 5th, a woman and man by the name of Fermina and Evaristo organized a group of slaves to rebel against the overseers and plantation owners. Drums were used as the primary means of communication, sounding the call to action. Drumming was a great tool for the slaves – their African heritage gave the beat meaning while it sounded like ordinary music to the overseers and landlords who remained unaware of the plan to revolt. Over a series of months, many female and male slaves were freed from four different sugar plantations. During one battle, Fermina and some of her fellows were captured and chained. After months of careful planning, an armed Carlota successfully lead her rebel army to free Fermina. Carlota, and later Fermina, were killed in the subsequent response to these successful uprisings.
Carlota and Fermina may have fallen, but they died as heroes in the pursuit of justice and their actions made a huge difference in the lives of their fellow slaves. The uprisings of 1843-44 were not isolated events; Cuba has a long history of rebellion. Earlier, in 1839, slaves aboard the slave ship La Amistad (which departed from Havana) mutinied and – after a long legal battle in New Haven, Connecticut – eventually returned to Africa as free people. The road to freedom, which these brave women helped pave, was long. The first Cuban War of Independence began in 1868 and slavery was officially abolished in Cuba in 1886.
Carlota was not only remembered by her contemporaries, but has resurfaced during this century; in 1973 when Cuban revolutionaries aided Angola’s military efforts to expel South African forces, their initiative was called “Operation Carlota.” In 2009, the city of Matanzas opened a national museum dedicated to the history of slavery in the region and its legacy in our modern societies.
Carlota’s spirit of advocacy and justice is mirrored in the lives and actions of many other Black women in the United States and abroad. Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of South Carolinian slaves, overcame the challenges of her time and went to college. In 1904 she started a school for the education of Black women in Florida, the quality and prestige of which rivaled the local White Schools. Eventually the school combined with a school for local African American men and became Bethune-Cookman University. Later, she became an adviser to President Roosevelt as a member and founder of the Black Cabinet. Dame Eugenia Charles became the first female President of Dominica in 1980, and was the first female head of state to hold that office in any of the Americas. She served for 15 years.
These women are just some examples of the intelligent, dedicated, and compassionate individuals who have worked for the freedom of their fellow women and men. They have challenged the status quo and brought about real social change. While the few highlighted above are well-known, there are numerous strong Black female leaders visible in every facet of our lives, whether or not they are recognized as such. Who do you know that channels Carlota’s revolutionary spirit, sense of conviction and fights for social equality?
by Megan O’Keefe