Women, Race and Revolution

An image of Carlota with a machete.

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.

An 1840 illustration by John W. Barber depicts captive Africans killing Capt. Ferrer and taking control of the slave ship Amistad in 1839. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

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.

Mary McLeod Bethune with her students.

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

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  1. Keisha

     /  November 5, 2012

    Megan, an awesome piece. Thank you for taking the time to highlight these women and their achievements. The references to the women slaves in Cuba were ones that I was not familiar. The time and circumstances called for extreme and radical movements. Is that same effort required of women of color today to make a change? I could be ignorant to current efforts… but I am interested in knowing more about the efforts of women of color to make a change and to what extent their acts are revolutionary (extreme/radical). Thanks for igniting that fire!


  2. camille

     /  November 8, 2012

    Fantastic piece Meg!


  3. Mal O. Maher

     /  November 9, 2012

    Nice work. To answer your question at the end, the best examples of women with revolutionary spirit that I can think of are Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy. Or Cynthia McKinney and Michelle Alexander if my answer is supposed to be limited to black women.


  4. Kristina

     /  November 26, 2012

    Great piece Megan. It is unfortunate that we don’t discuss woman like Carlota more often. It makes me realize just how many great women have changed history and there are only a select few I know by name. Women that are such great leaders and heroes, women to look up to as role models for young girls. These are the women that we should talk about and that our children should follow and admire. As a society we should encourage such curiosity around these women. Your piece not only makes me realize just how much there is to know but encourages me to learn more and ask myself the very same question you asked. Who do I know, and explore for more answers.


  5. Noora M.

     /  December 3, 2012

    Discussing the lesser-known people, or the unsung heroes if you will, of social movements is very important. While every social movement needs its celebrities to really get off the ground and to get media attention, there are hundreds/ thousands of individuals who are the real faces behind these movements and without their time, effort, and sacrifices, the movement would not have been successful. It is important to recognize these people not only to pay tribute to their efforts, but also to teach us that we can make a difference as well. We do not have to be the leaders or the face of a movement, but we can still be just as influential.


  6. Zachi R.

     /  December 3, 2012

    Very good piece, this is information I didn’t know about. Thank you for sharing this.


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