History of Braids in Slavery

Ancient African people identified themselves using their braids. Each pattern of the braid would indicate the person’s social, religious, and marital status. 

During the Enslavement of African people, masters would shave their heads to strip them of their unique identity. To show a sign of resistance, African slaves wore cornrows. 

The resilience of African slaves was also demonstrated through cornrows. It was their way to communicate escape ways with their fellows.

The braids also served as a means to hide sustenance for survival. Hence the history of braids in slavery goes much, much deeper. 

Keep on reading as we dive into the significant connection of braids with slavery. 

The History of Black Hair Myths from Slavery to colonialism

History of Braids in Slavery

Oftentimes, we’ve seen how sentimental black people are to their braids. And it’s because braids carried and signify their long history of oppression, resistance, freedom, and more. 

And there are many myths surrounding black hair and braids taking advantage of its uniqueness. Some of the myths are true while some are not. Let’s take a look at them – 

1. Braids Used as Maps During Slavery

During the enslavement period, African slaves used braids to fight for freedom. African braids are intricate and they took it to their advantage. 

Slaves would create their map of escape ways with the help of braid. This way, they could communicate with others without using any words. 

Considering their inhumane condition, using cornrows as a way to communicate how to escape was rather ingenious. 

Through these cornrows, fellow slaves would know how many paths there are to follow. 

Used as Maps During Slavery

The number of plaits would indicate how many roads to walk and where to meet up after escaping. 

These time-consuming braids made elaborate maps to escape their masters. Later these would spread and become the tool to freedom for many slaves.

2. Slaves Were Not Allowed To Be Literate

With the help of anti-literacy laws, between 1740 to 1834 slaves were prohibited from being literate. At this age it sounds outrageous and such the world was for African slaves. 

So the myth is indeed true that slaves were not allowed to be literate. Because then they’d gain the power to free themselves.

As a sign of rebellion, African slaves continued to wear traditional braids. Which later became tied to the notion of being illiterate. 

But in reality, African people were not illiterate but they were forced to stay so. Any other people who’d attempt to teach them to read and write would be punished as well.

3. Black Hair is Often Misunderstood as “Dirty” and “Not Growing”

Often Misunderstood as "Dirty

People deemed black hair as dirty and they wouldn’t wash their hair for a few weeks.

But there are multiple reasons why black people do not wash their hair as often. Firstly, because of how intricate and time-consuming their braid is, black people, don’t wash their hair daily.

Secondly, washing their hair every day would lead to damaging the hair follicles. So braids also work as a protective style. And they have ways to keep their scalp clean other than washing. 

Due to the coiling nature of Black hair, it’s common to conclude that black hair never grows. This myth was totally imposed by non-black people. To figure out how long black hair is, you’d need to uncoil a strand. 

Hence, this myth is totally false. 

4. Black Braided Hair Is a Sign of Being Unkempt

Once after braiding, black people keep their braid for 2-3 weeks. Then the hair is undone and cleaned. 

However, this span of keeping their braids translated to white people as they don’t maintain good hygiene. This myth came to be from the lack of knowledge about black hair. 

Unlike Asian and Caucasian hair, black hair doesn’t require an everyday wash. Braids are what keep their hair in good health. Just like how thick and straight hair requires to be cleaned every other day.

It was never unhygienic, it was never lazy for black people to keep their braid. Rather it was a symbol of their culture, their identity, and their status. 

5. Braids Were to be Used by Slaves as A Means of Communicating in Code

Means of Communicating in Code

White people would immediately deem the foreign language as a means to rebel or escape. So to avert their eyes, African slaves used their braids to communicate.

At the time of enslavement, black people faced grueling treatment from their masters. And they were not allowed to use their mother tongue to communicate with their fellows. 

Braiding their hair in many different intricate patterns, slaves would communicate with slaves. Each plait, each pattern was a code for different things. 

They’d communicate the location of the escape routes, and the number of roads they’d need to take. These codes ultimately brought them liberation from being enslaved.

6. How Braids Were Used by Slaves to Escape Slavery in South America

Braids Were Used by Slaves

Africans had many types of braiding techniques. They used those patterns and plait to communicate with their fellows. For their caucasian masters, it was just hairstyle. Yet for them, it was rebellion. 

It’s fascinating how black people used braids to escape from slavery which was once their identity.

Benkos Biohos, an enslaved king came up with the idea of using braid to communicate. When Benkos escaped, he proposed that women created maps by braiding cornrows. 

Then cornrows passed information to other enslaved African. And there was no way for white people to decipher how they were communicating. 

7. Did Braiding Maps in Cornrows Help Black Slaves Escape Slavery

Braiding Maps in Cornrows

Cornrows definitely helped black slaves from slavery. By braiding their hair as their ancestors did, black people carved their way to freedom.

Black slaves would often braid their hair in cornrows. Adding their ingenuity, they created maps that they’d use to escape their masters.

The patterns and rows would tell them which path to take. And how many roads to cross to reach freedom. 

They also hid grains inside their braid to give them sustenance during the escape. Sometimes, they are the only source of food to keep them alive.

8. How Were Cornrows A Sign of Resistance For Slaves?

Cornrows A Sign of Resistance

Cornrows were a sign of resistance because it was black hairstyle. Masters would shave their heads to strip off their identity. Later on, when they grew back, they didn’t have the needed products to take care of their hair.

So with butter, kerosene, and even bacon grease, slaves braided their hair in cornrows. It’d later also help them to hide food inside their hair without suspicion. 

And they’d use cornrows to draw out maps evading their masters’ eyes. Let’s not forget they were not allowed to write or read either. 

9. Why did Slaves Braid Their Hair

Why did Slaves Braid Their Hair

African slaves braided their hair to resist, communicate, protect their hair, and look clean. 

Slaves were banned from being educated. So there were no tools to communicate the escape route with other slaves. So they used their traditional skill and pride, braid. 

Cornrows also kept their hair close to the scalp which helped them during work. 


What were the terrible conditions during the Slave trade for the Bantu people?

The Bantu people were forced onto ships during the Slave trade and sold into bondage where they experienced some of the worst treatments in history.


That concludes the history of braids in slavery. Braids played a significant role in freedom for African people. 

Hopefully, reading this article will encourage you to learn more about black hair and its surrounding history. 

See you around!

By Cindy Mahlangu

Hey there! I'm Cindy Mahlangu, a pro hairstylist with a serious passion for natural hair care. My mission? To inspire and educate others on the beauty and benefits of protective hairstyles. Through my creative writing, aim to empower individuals to embrace their unique hair texture and confidently care for their locks. So, whether you're rocking locs, braids, or twists, join me on this hair journey and let's achieve healthy, fabulous tresses together!

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