When Black Women Used Hair Braids to Escape Slavery

A history lesson in brilliance and resilience

Jeffrey Kass
2 min readJan 5


Denver and Atlanta based musician and braid artist Nay Renee a/k/a Project Nayy braids a customer
Image: Hair braid expert Project Nayy in Atlanta and Denver

Any student of history knows that Africans were enslaved in more places than just the U.S.

In fact, over the period of 400 years from the 1500s all the way to the early 1900s, 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped and transported to the Americas.

Most historians, including Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., report that hundreds of thousands ended up in the U.S. while the other 10 million plus went to the Caribbean and South America. Close to 2 million died of starvation and illness during the Middle Passage.

The stories of these enslaved Africans should be told, too.

One of these stories is a fascinating history in creativity, intelligence and a longing for freedom. A lesson in perseverance for us all.

It’s a history of the use of hair braids to escape slavery.

Communities of enslaved Africans in Colombia designed different braid styles to communicate with each other.

A braided hairstyle called departes, meaning “to depart,” was formed on the heads of women when someone wanted to escape.

More intricate braids were then used to draw actual maps of escape routes from the plantations.

Various styles were even used to denote obstacles escapees would encounter.

A river was represented by a braid in the shape of a worm. And a bantu knot was used to signify a mountain.

Image: Shutterstock/Deeworksdesigns

Thicker braids called tropas, meaning troops, were used to show where soldiers were present on the route.

The use of braids to escape was so successful that these Africans were able to establish their own free settlements in Colombia called palenques. There, they were able to build their own communities.

What’s even more amazing about these escape plans is that women hid seeds inside the braids so people would have a way to survive once they achieved freedom. They later planted the seeds in their free settlements.

One of these palenques still exists as the oldest free settlement near Cartagena. That settlement, San Basilio de Palenque, remains preserved and intact inhabited by descendants of slavery and is rich in food, language and culture.

While slavery ended in Colombia in 1851, the history of that slavery provides a glimpse into the talented, devoted people who endured and oftentimes escaped that abuse.

Hair braids aren’t just a fashion style. Their rich history was critical in the path to freedom for so many Black people.

Know history so we can appreciate the giants who came before us. And maybe appreciate braids just a little more.



Jeffrey Kass

A Medium Top Writer on Racism, Diversity, Education, History and Parenting | Speaker | Award-Winning Author | Latest Book: Black Batwoman V. White Jesus | Dad