On the night of January 8, 1811, beginning on the Andry Plantation in Louisiana, several hundred enslaved black people overthrew their masters and began the two-day trek eastward to New Orleans, where they planned to free the region’s slaves and create a polity ruled by free blacks. It was the largest slave revolt in U.S. history—and quickly forgotten.

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This article is a selection from the January/February issue of Smithsonian magazine

Scenes From a Reenactment of a Slave Uprising
On the second day, re-enactors strode along a levee near the Shell Norco refinery. The flag reads “Death or Liberty!” Scott designed other flags for the march, drawing on Creole, Yoruba and other influences. Daniella Zalcman

Over two days last November, more than 300 black re-enactors wearing 19th-century clothes traced the rebels’ 26-mile route from LaPlace, in St. John the Baptist Parish, through the industrial sweep of lower Louisiana—a stretch known as “cancer alley” because of high rates of the disease attributed to chemical pollutants—and into Congo Square in New Orleans. The re-enactors, some on horseback, wielded axes, pitchforks, muskets and machetes. “We’re going to end slavery!” they cried. “Onto New Orleans! Freedom or death!”

Scenes From a Reenactment of a Slave Uprising
Scott recruited re-enactors via word-of-mouth and by holding town halls at local universities, including Tulane and Xavier. The participants invited onlookers to join, and some did. Daniella Zalcman

The march was the creation of the performance artist Dread Scott. “This image of a slave army is not the popular image people have of slavery,” Scott says, even though “revolts of ten or more people were actually pretty common.” He’s unsurprised that many Americans are unfamiliar with the rebellion. “There have been efforts to prevent people from knowing” about it, he says.

Scenes From a Reenactment of a Slave Uprising
Clockwise from top left, Tolliver Anderson, Necho Webster, Derron Cook and Dread Scott. “I feel a lot of sympathy for the struggle because I’ve immersed myself in it” via re-enactment, Scott says. Daniella Zalcman

At the time, whites didn’t want enslaved people in other areas to be stirred by the rebellion on the German Coast, named for an influx of German settlers to Louisiana in the 18th century. As Daniel Rasmussen writes in American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, the government and slave owners “sought to write this massive uprising out of the history books,” and were quite successful in doing so.

Scenes From a Reenactment of a Slave Uprising
From left, Raykimwo Two Bears, Scierra LeGarde, Jean-Luc Pierite. Daniella Zalcman

A Louisiana government militia crushed the original uprising on the morning of January 10. After trials on the plantations, most of the insurgents were executed, dismembered and displayed. The heads of many participants came to adorn pikes along River Road on the Mississippi.

Scenes From a Reenactment of a Slave Uprising
Jarret Luter Daniella Zalcman

To Scott, the sight of re-enactors in antebellum garb marching through a modern industrial landscape is not as jarring as it might seem: He notes that many of the enslaved were buried where factories now stand. “You can’t understand America if you don’t understand slavery,” Scott says, “and you can’t understand slavery if you don’t know that slave revolts were constant.”