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Braids. They are an easy, go-to style to up chicness, comfort, and convenience. However, did you know that they were used as maps for escaped slaves?

San Basilio de Palenque is a village in Northern Colombia. Palenque literally means, “walled city,” and San Basilio de Palenque is one of the several walled cities founded by escaped slaves back in the 17th century. It was set up as a refuge for escaped slaves and is the only walled city that has survived and is still inhabited by about 3,500 people.

The inhabitants are mainly Afro-Colombians; descendants of African slaves forced into slavery in South America by the Spanish during the Colonization of the Americas.

The slave that escaped and is the person who established San Basilio de Palenque was Benkos Biho. It was rumored he was an African King and was captured in Africa by the Portuguese and sold several times and finally was sold to a Spanish slave owner in Cartagena. He attempted to escape several times and finally succeeded.

Benkos Bioho founded San Basilio de Palenque and him with other escaped slaves founded their own language called Palenquero. He also formed an army and intelligence network to help get other escaped slaves in formation and guide them to safety and freedom. He was pretty much the Harriet Tubman of Colombia.

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One of his secret intelligence networks was having women shape maps in their cornrows. Women would often be left unsupervised and were the least suspecting, so they would wander and map out paths to liberation. Some cornrow hairstyles were even utilized as symbols to deliver clandestine messages.

Today, San Basilio de Palenque is a very poor village; however, it’s rich in culture, heritage, and revolution. Next time you braid your hair, think about how those three winding strands led so many to liberation.


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Mapping Out Freedom: Escaped Slaves Used Braids For Direction  was originally published on