Early Abolitionists Have Lessons for Us Today

American slavery was a cancer, polluting politics, dominating the economy, paralyzing the nation’s moral spirit. And ultimately, killing people. Abolitionists in the 19th century developed many strategies– some more successful than others– to fight it.

The organizing efforts of Black and white abolitionists in the 1800s can provide us with powerful inspiration as we face today’s forces of white supremacy. 

Their tactical versatility sustained what was ultimately a victory over America’s “original sin” and the established order that protected it.

Grassroots organizing was the backbone of the movement.  Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley and many others visited dozens of Connecticut towns and cities, building local groups, face to face, which were able to fight the top-down powers that kept slavery viable.

The earliest abolitionists didn’t have a choice: no political party took them seriously. They were forced to oppose slave-holding presidents, the South’s stranglehold on Congress, and a racist majority on the Supreme Court.

Slavery opponents invented sanctuary (we know it as the Underground Railroad). Defying federal law, they engaged in civil disobedience by hiding and transporting other human beings who escaped bondage at the risk of their lives. Our state’s own Freedom Trail documents the locations where fugitives from slavery could find protection.

They used the boycott to refuse food and goods associated with slave labor. This would have included the “negro cloth” made in Willimantic and the “negro hoes” manufactured in Winsted.  [The fabric was rough and cheap, supposedly good enough for slaves. The farm implement was made sturdier than the traditional tools slaves had been breaking in deliberate acts of sabotage.]

Their DIY media was the only way to break through establishment newspapers. William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, Frederick Douglass’s North Star, and Hartford’s own Republican spoke truth to power and effectively kept the national anti-slavery movement linked.

They supported the early labor movement, especially Douglass, who helped organize the Colored National Labor Union. This should not be surprising, because many abolitionists came from the growing working class: Douglass was a ship caulker, Garrison was a shoemaker and Kelley was a teacher and a farmer. Abolitionists understood that white workers could either be their allies or enemies, depending on the approach. Their message: no one was truly free until everyone was united in a common fight.

And finally, the abolitionists struggled with their own internal weaknesses.  The best were truly intersectional. Kelley, Douglass and others not only fought slavery, they advocated for the full participation of women in their movement. They were first to pick up the banner of women’s suffrage. They opposed the U.S. war against Mexico (1846-1848) from an anti-imperialist viewpoint, condemning it as a land grab.

Not all slavery opponents truly believed that people of color were equal with the “white race.”  Many harbored their own deep prejudices that betrayed a paternal attitude towards black people, both free and enslaved.

Still, there were allies like Hartford’s Rev. Dr. Joel Hawes. It was he who welcomed Douglass and Kelley to speak on the grounds of Center Church, a gesture that was surely criticized by the city’s elite. And Hartford’s Alanson Work, who spent almost four years in a Missouri prison for aiding slaves.

“I would as soon think of holding an angel as property as an immortal man,” Hawes explained. When he offered a venue for Douglass and Kelley, Hawes had crossed the line from passive bystander to active resister.

Today, for the first time in their lives, ordinary people in Connecticut and around the nation are standing up– for peace, racial justice, gender equality, workers’ rights and environmental protection. Like the abolitionists of old, they too  are connecting the dots between the political and economic policies that foster the evils we now face.

Frederick Douglass and Abby Kelley found the strength to commit their lives to a historic struggle. The fight must have seemed overwhelming to them, like an unassailable wall fortified by money and power. But in the end they persisted, and won.

It will take just as much courage and perseverance for us today.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks Steve. It’s so important for us all to know our herstory/history about our part in enslaving folks who had a different skin color. Leslie and I watched most of the inauguration and celebrations yesterday and we can only hope that we finally are looking at our racist past and being more active against it and other forms of discrimination. We are thankful that our democracy has survived!

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