The Retelling of the Spring Bank Resistance

It all started on a Saturday night in Fairfax County Virginia - February 29, 1840. Slave patrollers were circling making sure enslaved people were where they needed to be to make sure a slave rebellion wouldn't occur. Four Black boys around the age of 15 - Alfred, Spencer, Taylor, and Henry were accused of “conspiring and making rebellion and insurrection by lying in ambush” (Sprouse, 2004) and attacking slave patrollers Stephen B. Jones, Josh Ashford, and Francis P. Ashford. Earlier that night, slave patroller Stephen Jones was checking the papers of the enslaved people from William H. Foote’s property to make sure they were where they needed to be. During that moment, he claimed that Spencer approached him and whistled in his face. Jones told Spencer that “he would slap him in the face or punish him” (Sprouse, 2004) if he didn’t go away. As they passed by Cameron Run and approached a road towards Mount Vernon that’s when it was claimed that Spencer, Alfred, and the other boys jumped out behind bushes and attacked the patrols.


Alexandria Gazette Newspaper - March 5 1940

According to most accounts, the boys were brought into The Fairfax County Court on March 11 to hear their fate. The charges set against Henry and Taylor were removed because witnesses couldn't identify them but, Spencer and Alfred were sentenced to death by execution. They sat in jail until the day of their execution, April 3rd, for the crime they were accused of. While their two fates were connected, one of the boys would get another chance to live. Spencer still faced execution a month later than his intended execution date, May 7th. Alfred’s execution sentence got expunged by governor Thomas Gilmer. Instead of him being sent back to his enslaver, Dennis Johnston, he was bought by Rudolph Littlejohn, who was instructed by Virginia Law to take Alfred and other enslaved people outside of the United States (Forret, 2020).


Edith Moore Sprouse presents the above account in her article Outrage near Spring Bank: Slave Resistance in Fairfax County.” Published almost 20 years ago, Sprouse’s account fails to consider the incident from the perspective of the four enslaved boys. As a result, this project raises several questions about the accepted account of the event. Those questions include “How is the location of where “the outraged” took place important to the event?" How were the accused viewed as enslaved young men in Virginia?” and lastly “How is the surveilling of the four Black boys in the mid-nineteenth century more than 100 years ago still relevant today?” 


These questions frame this project and offer a critical retelling of slave resistance at Spring Bank that centers Black lives in Northern Virginia. As Katherine McKittrick explained in The Authenticity of This Story Has Not Been Told, Black geography is the basis of understanding that “[geographical structures] can be entangled in captivity, liberty, and resistance” McKittrick, 2006). Moreover, given that Black history, as Katherine Mckittrick has argued, is “spatial history” it is necessary to understand the enslaved boys, the surveillance of their lives, and their resistance against white supremacy through the lens of Black geography. There are several geographical structures that will be pinpointed in this project, but the overarching one is the location of Spring Bank where the resistance took place. In The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies, Tiffany King talks about how "the shoal functions as a site that introduces new formations, alternative grammar and vocabularies, and new analytical sites that reveal the ways that some aspects of Black and Indigenous life have always already been a site of co-constitution" (King 2019). My research project is a shoal as it will be analyzing the traditional narrative around the Spring Bank resistance and offering an alternative narrative about it.


Tosin Olanrewaju 

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