In its inaugural editorial in 1837 the black abolitionist newspaper Weekly Advocate promoted “Universal Suffrages and Universal Education,” and promised that “we shall oppose all Monopolies, which oppress the Poor and laboring classes of society.” Black abolitionism was not imitative, elitist, or a failure hobbled by racism. It was broad in conception. Moral reform and racial uplift were constitutive of rather than an alternative to the politics of resistance. Black abolitionists did not simply deploy bourgeois values, prove black worthiness in white eyes, and stigmatize the working poor; they also developed complementary strategies to challenge slavery and community-wide problems of racism and poverty that cut across class lines. Nor did their efforts lie outside the abolition movement, as a recent historian has proposed; in fact, they came to define its agenda.1

Despite the rise of interracial immediatism, the fight against racial proscription gave black abolitionism a distinctive character. African Americans pioneered a theoretical critique of the pseudoscience of race and confronted the growth of legal and popular racial discrimination. Their struggle against disfranchisement, segregation, and racial violence is often forgotten in the history of abolition. The black fight for equal rights, however, did not mean acquiescence to racist conditions at home. Emigration remained an integral part of black abolitionism. Critiquing and perfecting American democracy was the black man’s burden.


Black abolitionists transcended modern ideological boxes of integration and separation, uplift and activism, and laid the foundation of a distinct protest tradition that encompassed all of these strategies. The convention movement marked the independent organization of black abolitionism. Black abolitionists dominated their proceedings. Calls for the national conventions put out by Junius Morel, a former slave and abolitionist, regularly appeared in the Liberator.2 The successors to the conventions of 1830 and 1831 established the contours of antebellum black abolitionism.

The national conventions were not staid gatherings of self-appointed leaders but sites of protest. The convention of 1832, held in Philadelphia, was attended by twenty-nine delegates from eight states and included for the first time delegates from New England. Presided over by veteran black abolitionists like Henry Sipkins and John Vashon, it hosted a debate between Rev. R. R. Gurley and Rev. Robert Breckinridge of the ACS and abolitionists like Garrison, Shipley, Evan Lewis, Vashon, and Morel. The business committee expressed qualified approval for Canadian emigration but strong disapproval of colonization, which had “raised the tide of our calamity.” It suggested concentrating resources to improve conditions at home and condemned racist opposition to black education. Its address to the free people of color censured slavery, colonization, and intemperance, tying their struggle as an “oppressed people” to gain citizenship to “personal and mental elevation.”

Whatever rivalries separated the large Pennsylvania and New York contingents to the conventions, there was no dispute over the simultaneous promotion of moral reform and political rights. Despite William Hamilton’s attempt to move the convention to New York, it met again in Benezet Hall in Philadelphia in 1833. Nearly sixty delegates from all the northern states and border slave states attended. Resolutions presented by Ruggles and Purvis voiced support for abolition. The same year, a local convention in New York City led by Thomas Jennings demanded immediate emancipation and black rights. The committee on temperance, headed by Pennington, created the Colored American Conventional Temperance Society (CACTS), which developed twenty-three branches in eighteen cities, though the first black temperance societies were formed as early as 1829. Pennington was also the secretary of the Brooklyn Temperance Society, founded in 1830. Whipper headed the committee that wrote the CACTS’s constitution. It promoted temperance as part of the struggle against those “who are forever prating about . . . African inferiority.” The convention’s reports again condemned colonization but praised Canadian emigration as a way to escape laws that “would have been a disgrace to the most barbarous nations of antiquity.” Its address, by Shadd as the president, seamlessly linked the black struggles against “slavery, ignorance, and misery.”3

The next year the convention finally met in New York. In his presidential address Hamilton drew attention to the “demon of prejudice and persecution” that “beset the path” of black people. He connected the fight against “tyranny, cruelty, prejudice and slavery” with improvement and reformation. It was important for black people to “closely attend to their own particular interest,” he said, even as he recommended cooperating with the new antislavery societies. Elizur Wright and Arthur Tappan addressed the convention. Resolutions decried the systematic economic discrimination faced by “colored workmen” from both journeymen mechanics, who refused to work alongside them or include them in their guilds, and master craftsmen, who refused to hire them. The convention stepped up its organization, forming a new constitution and regularizing the election of delegates from state and local organizations. Its Declaration of Sentiment, addressed to all citizens, issued a telling indictment: “That we find ourselves, after the lapse of three centuries, on the American continent, the remnants of a nation amounting to three millions of people, whose country has been pillaged, parents stolen, nine generations of which have been wasted by the oppressive cruelty of this nation.” Theirs was a revolution against “American slavery and American prejudice.” The Colored Anti-Slavery Society of Newark proclaimed, “It is our opinion, that if all the blood of our colored brethren, shed by the people of the United States, since the Declaration of Independence, was kept in a reservoir, the framers of that instrument, and their successors might swim in it.”4

The last national convention of the decade met in Philadelphia in 1835 and gave birth to a new organization, the American Moral Reform Society (AMRS). Often portrayed as having hijacked the convention movement, it did not abandon activism for moral reform. The AMRS evoked a higher allegiance to human rights and called for a struggle against racial discrimination. It also called for the training and hiring of black mechanics and supported an independent black press. Buffum, Shipley, and Edwin Atlee addressed this convention. Though the convention called for a meeting in New York the next year, the AMRS supplanted it. While Forten, Purvis, and Whipper were associated with the formation of the AMRS, others like Shadd, Cornish, Watkins, and Lewis Woodson of Pittsburgh were its delegates, agents, and officers. The convention’s address to the American people and the AMRS identified racism as an acute moral failing of the nation. It put forward education, temperance, economy, and universal liberty “as principles of moral reform” and the “destruction of all vice universally.” As its constitution put it ambitiously, they sought “the successful resuscitation of our country from moral degeneracy.” The problem lay not with blacks but with white racism. The convention also called for political action and endorsed the abolitionist petition campaign against slavery in the District of Columbia and federal territories.5

The creation of the AMRS coincided with the antebellum flowering of black civic culture. In his sketch of the black community in Philadelphia, Joseph Willson used statistics compiled by the AMRS to showcase the city’s black literary and fraternal societies. The black abolitionist adoption of moral reform was neither a naïve blame-the-victim strategy nor simply imitative of the dominant culture of benevolent reform. It had deep roots in the community-building efforts of northern free blacks and their abolitionist allies. Access to schools, trades, professions, and public facilities represented community-wide concerns. At the convention in 1833 Hamilton had recommended the formation of Phoenix societies after New York’s Phoenix Society, known for its educational activism. Literary societies, such as Philadelphia’s Library Company of Colored Persons and New York’s Philomathean Society, and, later, the Adelphic Union in Boston and the Banneker Literary Institute in Philadelphia, became springboards of racial activism. Black autonomy symbolized in churches, societies, and fraternal associations like black Masonry did not abate but provoked severe racism, which periodically degenerated from lampooning in broadsides and the penny press to violence. The civic activism of black Philadelphia’s “higher classes,” which included former slaves, master chimney sweeps, “hog drivers,” and porters, benefited the entire community. Willson, himself a former slave from Georgia, spent considerable time demonstrating their worthiness because, with a handful of exceptions, they barely qualified as middle class. Class, as a category, takes on a whole new meaning in the context of a largely impoverished, severely proscribed northern black population. Leading abolitionists such as Pennington and Ruggles suffered debilitating poverty. Nor did cultural elitism characterize these men, whose aspirations found an outlet in racial activism.6

Black abolitionists made compelling analogies between slavery, ignorance, and vice on the one hand, and freedom, literacy, and virtue on the other. In his speech of 1834 to the Colored Temperance Society, Whipper condemned the “national cruelties” of slaveholding countries that oppress the enslaved physically, morally, and intellectually. He noted that only blacks suffered the ravages of slavery, yet they were “not more intemperate than the whites.” Quoting Clarkson, he alluded to the “murderous effects” of alcohol on their “mother country” and “its excruciating effects on upwards of two millions of our brethren in this our native land.” His speech was no bland, bourgeois reformism but used abolitionist appeals to enlist support for temperance. Whipper did not attend the Pennsylvania temperance convention, being well aware of its racial exclusivity and conservative politics. At the first meeting of the AMRS in Philadelphia in 1836, Watkins, one of the vice presidents, also cast ignorance with racism. Learning should not be characterized by mere “scientific and literary” attainment, he said, it should eschew all bigotry. He coauthored an AMRS address to the colored churches urging greater activism and the boycott of goods produced by slave labor.7

The AMRS acted as a national black abolitionist organization and met annually until 1841. At the meeting in 1837 the society’s endorsement of education was coupled with resolutions thanking Adams for his championing of abolitionist petitions, abolitionist women laboring in the cause of “Universal Freedom,” Thompson, and Lundy; in addition, there was a resolution against the admission of Texas. A competing Association for Moral and Mental Improvement in Philadelphia, founded in 1839, also devoted itself to promoting education and abolition. Unlike its white counterpart, which included a few evangelical abolitionists, the AMRS admitted women. The white AMRS stressed religious infidelity, but the black AMRS deployed moral reform in the fight against slavery and racial discrimination. John F. Cook dwelled on the four principles of the latter organization, changing the last from “universal liberty” to “universal love” in order to include the struggle against racism. The black abolitionist rhetoric of reform claimed moral superiority over blacks’ oppressors. In his address to the society, James Forten Jr., the namesake and son of the black abolitionist, stated that its foremost aims were “to palsy the Herculean arm of prejudice” and advance education. As the secretary of the AMRS, a regular contributor to the Liberator, and a member of the Young Men’s Antislavery Association, the younger Forten was an abolitionist in his own right. In a speech before the PFASS, he defended abolitionist women from attacks by southern congressmen.8

The AMRS’s Whipper soon came under severe criticism from Cornish, Watkins, Woodson, and the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Hinton. They opposed Whipper not because of his advocacy of moral reform, an idea they too endorsed, but because of his theoretical and, in their opinion, impractical critique of the idea of race. On Whipper’s suggestion, the national convention in 1835 rejected the use of colored and African to designate themselves and their institutions after an “animated and interesting discussion.” The so-called naming controversy symbolized a debate over larger issues. Whipper’s attempt to abolish the myth of race, or “racecraft,” broke on the shoals of the black tradition of protest. Unable to chart a middle course between rejection of all forms of racism and an identity based on racial oppression, Whipper demanded the rejection of racial monikers and the theoretical rejection of racially exclusive organizations. Practically, he knew that the AMRS was an all-black body whose sole white delegate was Leavitt. Unlike Purvis and Forten, Whipper ironically was not active in interracial antislavery societies. He remained in black abolitionist organizations, a participant in the UGRR and the revived national conventions, and became an advocate of Canadian emigration.9

The debate between Whipper and his critics received full exposure with the reemergence of a black newspaper after a hiatus of ten years. Devoted to the “moral and political interests of our people,” the independent black press was another site for the maturation of black abolitionism. In a message to prospective subscribers, the Weekly Advocate, renamed the Colored American (CA) in March 1837, made “IMMEDIATE EMANCIPATION” its guiding principle. Founded by Philip Bell, the paper offered abolitionist content that included antislavery poems and articles on the slave trade and on the “galling chains of prejudice.” By the end of 1837 it had over a thousand subscribers, and by 1838 the number had doubled. Black antislavery societies such as the Pittsburgh Juvenile Anti-Slavery Society, led by George Boyer Vashon, the son of John Vashon, and David Peck, sent donations to sustain it. Though dependent almost entirely on black subscribers, it called for “whole souled abolitionists” to contribute to it financially. Cornish took over the editorship of the paper, Bell became its proprietor and agent, and for much of its life a committee of New York abolitionists, including Bell, Cornish, Wright, and Ray, published it. Justifying the name change, Cornish claimed the name “American” from “those who would rob us of our nationality and reproach us as exoticks,” and, in a reproach to Whipper, “But why colored? some have said; why draw this cord of cast[e]?—because the peculiarity of our circumstances require[s] special instrumentalities and action.” Sending a five-dollar donation from Rochester, Steward wrote that the newspaper would “pull down the strong holds of tyranny and oppression.”

The CA became the national voice of black abolitionism. In an appeal for backing, Ray noted, “This is the only weekly paper published in this country, entirely under the management and control of colored men; and we know of but one other in the world,” referring to a newspaper in Jamaica. Seeing itself as part of a larger, transnational movement, the paper warned, “Let slaveholders think of St Domingo and tremble.” It also urged African Americans to continue supporting the Liberator, “the GREAT ENGINE of the colored man’s liberty, and of the colored man’s rights.” In its fifth annual report, the AAAS recommended the CA as “efficient and useful . . . in the cause of human rights” and called for abolitionists to patronize it. The AASS and the Liberator solicited subscriptions for it. Ray collected forty dollars for the newspaper at a single meeting of the NYASS. Born in Massachusetts and educated in the Wesleyan Academy at Wilbraham, Ray was a reporter and agent who took over as editor in 1839.10

The failure of the AMRS to endorse the CA as its official organ, even though it commended the paper as a “valuable acquisition to our cause,” irked Cornish. That honor went to the local abolitionist paper, Lundy’s National Enquirer, founded in 1836 in Philadelphia. Cornish dismissed the AMRS for being “visionary in the extreme.” He criticized its refusal to devote itself exclusively to black people and its “BOMBASTIC, HUMBUG EFFORTS” to redeem the whole country. For Hinton, too, the AMRS’s refusal to adopt racial identification crippled its effectiveness. Whipper defended the AMRS on principle: “Now, what is it that deprives us of the benefit of institutions of learning—churches—the social circles—schools—the mechanic arts—elective franchise—the privileges and protection of government—the favor of just and equitable laws—trial by jury—mercantile employments—riding in stages and steamboats on a footing with ‘white people,’ but that odious distinction in language, principle, and practice, that confers the boon of favor on those that are known by the distinctive appellation of ‘white people.’”

Whipper’s theoretical objections to racial identification made no sense to most black abolitionists. Morel was in favor of “retaining the term ‘Colored Man,’” as, he wrote, it carried no “inherent degradation.” He argued that, like Quakers, black people should appropriate designations meant to denigrate them and make them a source of pride. Cornish protested that the “good sense of our brethren in Philadelphia has forsaken them” when they suggested Oppressed American as a substitute for Colored American. Or as Philos put it, no organization or newspaper working for the uplift of black people should be “VAGUELY” styled. In his Augustine letters Woodson wrote that since black people had been enslaved as a “distinct class” they should organize as such. Born a slave in Virginia, Woodson first moved to Ohio and then to Pittsburgh, where he became a minister, schoolteacher, and mentor to Martin Delany. Often seen as the original “father of black nationalism,” Woodson differed with Whipper on black organizations and with Cornish on emigration. But Woodson shared their commitment to “moral elevation” and called for the support of Sabbath schools. The Cranberry auxiliary of the AMRS fully concurred with Augustine. Woodson’s letters were published under the heading “Moral Work for Colored Men.” When Peter Paul Simons, a black porter, in a speech to the African Clarkson Association in 1839, repudiated “MORAL ELEVATION” in favor of physical and political activism, Cornish refused to publish his speech except as a paid advertisement.11

Cornish aired his and other black abolitionists’ differences with Whipper in a respectful manner, loath to make it a source of ongoing conflict. While he felt that the venerable Forten should step down as president of the AMRS, Cornish could not help but praise Whipper’s and Forten Jr.’s speeches as evidence of the “talents of colored men.” He reprinted in full Whipper’s speech on nonresistance. Perhaps Cornish appreciated Whipper’s classic antiracist argument that those responsible for brutish treatment of other human beings were closer to an animal state than their victims. Responding to the racist discourse on black criminality, Whipper argued that crime and violent punishment of it by the state fed off each other. The CA gave brief but favorable reports on the proceedings of the AMRS, praising its conduct, inclusion of women, and a few of its resolutions but characterizing others as unsound. It welcomed Whipper’s decision to start publishing a new paper for the society. Morel expressed fears that starting a newspaper might endanger the CA and stressed the importance of racial unity. Whipper dissented, calling for the necessity of debate, “free discussion,” and even controversy among African Americans.12

Whipper’s theoretically logical yet practically ineffective effort to get rid of all racial categories and champion universal reform received a full airing in his short-lived newspaper the National Reformer, published from 1838 to 1839. He reiterated that “in our reciprocal duties to each other, we should never be guided by national or complexional preferences” and that “the highest impulse of human duty ought to be exerted in aid of the oppressed.” He observed that his philosophy was consistent with the African American fight against invidious racial distinctions, as in the attempt to introduce the word white into Pennsylvania’s state constitution and disfranchise all black voters. He professed even that his nonracialism challenged colorism within the black community, in which too often fair skin and European features were admired and whites were seen as the human norm. Racism, he wrote, had “dethroned the dignity of our human nature. The evil is so deeply buried . . . that our anti-slavery societies cannot penetrate it. Legislation cannot reach it.” He published the new prospectus of the CA for 1839 but still objected to calling it a colored paper. Whipper also published Watkins’s critique of his ideas. Watkins’s parable of a drowning white man and black man, the former gaining the sympathy of many and the latter of none, forcefully made the case for racially conscious activism. In the last issue of his paper, Whipper renounced all “COMPLEXIONAL ALLEGIANCE” but was apologetic: “We take no pleasure in giving offence.” The fight for racial equality was dependent on “the improvement of the white man’s heart, not the colored man’s mind.” Black people should simply present their “certificates of our BIRTH and NATIVITY” to obtain their rights.

Whipper appealed to the New York abolitionists to attend the annual AMRS meetings. Its board of managers admitted that “little has been done to advance the great principles of our Society.” The most active auxiliaries to the AMRS were based in Philadelphia and within Pennsylvania. By 1841 it had ceased to exist. Its nonracial philosophy simply did not appeal to the racially proud traditions of black protest. Moral reform and temperance, however, continued to be popular among all black abolitionists. In Cincinnati, members of the Colored Education Society formed a local moral reform society devoted to the “entire extinction of slavery, oppression, and ignorance in every quarter of the land.” In Connecticut, Pennington, James Mars, and Rev. Amos Beman led a statewide temperance and moral reform convention in 1840, which Wright and Ray attended. The black state temperance societies coalesced into the States Delavan Union Temperance Society of Colored People in 1842. Like moral reform groups, black temperance societies linked their cause to that of abolition.13

Calls for revival of the convention movement eclipsed Whipper’s crusade against racial essentialism. In 1837 Hamilton proposed a national convention addressing those involved in the early conventions. Woodson also recommended the revival of the national conventions. Pennington wrote a series of proconvention letters as the Long Island Scribe. Cornish too favored the renewal of black conventions. In 1841, writing as Sidney (this was probably Garnet since Sidney had died in 1840), Garnet challenged Whipper’s color-blind abolitionism in a series of letters and defended a black state convention that met in Albany. In his second letter Sydney (same as Sidney) replied that the “combined efforts of the oppressed” were the only answer to racism. Arguing for the natural connection between free blacks and slaves, he contended, “They [white abolitionists] are our allies—OURS is the battle.” In his last letter Sidney gave an unapologetic defense of the word colored, arguing once again, “We sustain relations to our own people, so peculiar that white men cannot assume them.” Garnet led the revival of the convention movement in the 1840s.14 Most black abolitionists endorsed the idea of a racially conscious activism. Independent institutions had proven to be the breeding ground of black abolitionism.


In developing an intellectual response to racism, black print culture constituted a genuine counterpublic. A CA editorial pointed out that “we are the first people ever oppressed by a christian nation, for their PHYSICAL CONFORMATION.” It published a multi-issue exposé, “Prejudice in the Church,” decrying the segregated “negro pews.” Racist conduct, Cornish agreed, “in the cruel and ungodly manner in which it is done in this Republic, would disgrace the barbarous ages and the savage tribes.” The “American aristocracy of skin” was just as cruel, irrational, and arbitrary as European aristocracies. In an appeal for the newspaper, Ray admonished that as far as racism was concerned, “Here, at least, our white friends will allow they may learn from us.” The newspaper argued that “the real battle ground between liberty and slavery is prejudice against color. . . . The friends of humanity have as yet but possessed a few out-posts upon its frontiers. They have not yet undisputed possession of the field, even in their own hearts.” At the same time, it approvingly quoted an abolitionist newspaper that castigated “colorphobia” as the “national insanity.” Woodson delineated the kinds of prejudice, from partiality to one’s family and ethnocentrism or “national prejudice” to “prejudice of caste,” which he condemned as springing from “that proud and sinful desire in our nature, for exaltation and dominion over our fellows.” Henry Scott of Worcester complained that “notwithstanding your boast of your free institutions, you at the same time grind the colored people in the dust, by destroying their spirit of self respect and independence—and by degrading them by your haughty and unjust regulations.”15

Black abolitionists produced the first full-blown analyses of American racism. In 1834 the national convention, to combat racial prejudice, sponsored the writing of a true history of black people by the abolitionist Charles Denison. In 1837 Rev. Hosea Easton, whose father, James Easton, had participated in the conventions, published a treatise on racism, signing off as A Colored Man. Ranging over biblical, ancient, and medieval history, Easton contended that Egypt and Africa were the birthplace of civilization and Europeans were the historical and cultural descendants of barbarians. It is remarkable, he wrote, that these “barbarous people,” “staining their route with blood” across the Atlantic, professed intellectual and religious superiority. Disputing modern philosophers of the “negro character” who compared African Americans to “ourang outangs,” he argued that slavery, not any “original hereditary cause,” was the determinant of racism. The malignant nature of popular racism had secreted into the “very vitals of the colored population.” It was “slavery in disguise . . . the very essence of hell.” Easton exposed the perniciousness of racism by repeating grotesque racist language in describing black bodies. He disputed the emerging pseudoscience of race, writing, “Analyze a black man, or anatomize him, and the result of the research is the same as analyzing or anatomizing a white man.” Easton was the pastor of the Talcott Street Congregational Church in Hartford. Mobs attacked his congregants and burned his church down in 1836, and he spent the last year of his life collecting money to rebuild it. Garrison and Knapp published his book and a long eulogy on him.16

Robert Benjamin Lewis’s history of the “colored and Indian race” was printed a year earlier than Easton’s book and republished in 1844 by a Boston committee of “colored gentlemen” led by Thomas Dalton, the former president of the GCA. The printer was Benjamin F. Roberts, the son of Robert Roberts. In the introduction Lewis was identified as the “descendant of the two races he so ably vindicates.” His seemingly chauvinistic history claimed not just Egypt but also, by association, nearly all the important figures and discoveries of antiquity for Africa. Treating the Bible as a historical text, he invoked historical truth as a refutation of modern racism. Lewis posited an etymological explanation for racism. The word negro he traced to the Moors, who used niger to “designate any inferior object or animal.” Europeans had adopted it “in order to oppress and degrade us as a people.” Especially drawn to linguistic explanations, he pointed to African and Indian languages as evidence that both groups were “descendants of Israel.” Lewis ended his book with the speech of an Indian chief, who recounts European rapacity in the New World. In the second edition of his book, perhaps at the prompting of his sponsors, he added a chapter called “Modern Eminent Colored Men,” which included the founding of an “independent government, administered by a colored people” in Haiti. A peculiar postscript on color gradations among African Americans and Indians called for racial unity: “We are all one, and oppressed in this land of boasted Liberty and Freedom.”17

So-called racial science, with its notions of biological racial inferiority and polygenesis, or the multiple origins of alleged human races, was a handmaiden of the proslavery argument. The American faux science of race gained popular and scholarly currency in the works of scientific racists such as the craniologist Samuel Morton of Philadelphia and, later, his followers the English Egyptologist George Gliddon, the physicians Josiah Nott of Alabama and Samuel Cartwright of Louisiana, and the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, the president of Harvard University. Pennington published an extended response to the new racial pseudoscience in 1841. An escaped slave from Maryland, he settled in Brooklyn and taught in a black school in Long Island. He was an early participant in the convention movement and regularly advocated black education in the CA. Pennington audited theology classes at Yale—he was not allowed to enroll—became an ordained Presbyterian clergyman, and took over the Talcott Street church on Easton’s death. He sought to write a history of black people that would cultivate a “right state of feeling on the total subject of HUMAN RIGHTS.”

Using the Bible as his touchstone, he refuted the purported scientific theories of race on the premise that the “notion of [racial] inferiority is not only false but absurd and therefore ought to be abandoned.” He challenged the idea that “there is an inferior order of intellect, and that those of this order are radically and constitutionally inferior, so that no means can change that constitution or raise them from that order.” He argued that “intellect is identical in all human beings” and is “the great distinguishing point between man and brute creation.” It was a God-given gift to human beings, and it was both inconceivable and blasphemous to contend that there were diverse, inferior orders of intellect in humans. Pennington gave Jefferson the benefit of the doubt that he had denied to black slaves, writing that the Virginian had “plainly discovered to the world the adverse influence of slavery on his great mind.” In a small chapter on race, Pennington reasoned that difference of color was mainly attributable to climate and environment, using both the Comte de Buffon and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. But he challenged Rush, who held that blackness was the result of leprosy or a skin disease.

More significantly, Pennington developed a sustained moral and philosophical argument against racism. He categorized racism as sacrilegious, “supreme selfishness,” “emphatically ill will,” and illuminated its tendency toward violence, as illustrated in mob attacks against abolitionists in the 1830s, “blindness of mind,” or ignorance, and its resulting vices among whites of injustice, dishonesty, hypocrisy, and “brutish and uncivil manners.” Racism, according to him, was “carrying the total nation to a state of refined heathenism.” Pennington portrayed black Americans as superior Christians who must educate, “love and pity” these “men hating Christians.” His widely advertised book echoed Whipper’s aim to reform racist whites.18

That year Pennington assisted the daughter of one of his congregants, Ann Plato, an Afro–Native American schoolteacher, to publish her book of poems and essays, writing in the introduction that it showed the “fallacy of the stupid theory” that “nature has done nothing but fit us for slaves, and that art cannot unfit us for slavery.” Plato’s essays ranged from universal subjects like education, religion, and benevolence, where she borrowed heavily from the colonizationist Lydia Sigourney’s work, to the particular, airing her views on gender and race. Writing about two of her female students, one given to hard work, the other to frivolity, she remarked, “Time was, when the temple of science was barred against the foot of woman.” In another essay Plato wrote that her views on race came from the wisdom of an “aged sire” who said that “God hath made of one blood all who dwell upon the face of the earth.” Two of her poems, “The Natives of America” and “To the First of August,” which celebrated British emancipation, were overtly antiracist and antislavery. She also published poems in the CA. An abolitionist essay of 1839 by A Colored Woman that appeared in a Hartford reform journal may well have been written by her. It called on women to sign petitions against the slave trade even though “our GREAT and WISE men in the nation’s BLACK LAW FACTORY have decided that you have no right to ask for mercy in their behalf.” The essay was reprinted in many abolitionist newspapers. According to her latest biographer, Plato left Connecticut to settle in Iowa.19

Another free black woman in Boston, Harriet E. Wilson, published the recently rediscovered semiautobiographical novel Our Nig in 1859. It was a searing critique of northern racism. Wilson nevertheless wrote, “I would not from these motives even palliate slavery at the South, by disclosures of its appurtenances North. My mistress was wholly imbued with southern principles.” Her purpose was to show, as the subtitle announces, that “slavery’s shadows fall even there.” The novel begins with the story of a fallen white woman who marries a black man. On his death she “was expelled from the companionship of white people; this last step—her union with a black—was the climax of repulsion.” She abandons her seven-year-old daughter, Frado, Wilson’s alter ego, to the Bellmonts. Frado’s servitude closely resembles slavery, as she is subject to hard labor, whippings, and blows at the hands of her cruel mistress. Her master, however, insists on sending her to school, where a kind teacher prevents her from being bullied. The last chapter, rather than being an exposure of northern racism, a staple of abolitionist discourse, instead explains the book’s lack of reception among abolitionists. Frado, having married and then been abandoned by a man claiming to be a fugitive slave who would occasionally lecture, bitterly criticizes the heart of the movement. Her husband discloses that “his illiterate harangues were humbugs for hungry abolitionists!” She is alone, poor, and abandoned in the end, her only child, for whose benefit she published her story, dead at the age of seven. Wilson eventually became a successful entrepreneur, selling hair products, and was involved with the spiritualist movement before she died in 1900.20

More than the obscure Plato and Wilson, black abolitionists developed a concerted intellectual response to American racism. The abolitionist physician James McCune Smith was trained in Glasgow because he was denied admission in American medical schools. The son of a slave woman from South Carolina, Smith was freed by New York’s gradual emancipation law and had excelled in Andrew’s Free African School. His early essays, such as “The Destiny of the Colored Race” (1843), challenged the notion that blacks were an alien race. Smith predicted that they would be absorbed into a composite American nationality. He rejected the false science that challenged the “unity of the human race” and recommended an impartial study of cultural and ethnic variations. Smith counterposed racial denigration—“We are compelled to endure the stings of insult and calumny, frequently without opportunity of reply, or the hope of redress by law”—to black artistic accomplishment. Black people, he wrote, were destined to produce the music, literature, and oratory of the nation. In Frederick Douglass’ Paper Smith published realistic portraits of black men and women in his series “Heads of the Colored People,” which was influenced by the popular but sham science of phrenology. Douglass balked at these accurate descriptions, which were at odds with abolitionist paeans to black achievers, yet Smith revealed a strong empathy with the mostly working-class people he wrote about. He took on the popular craniologists of his day, systematically deconstructing racist conjectures based on facial angles, size and shapes of skulls and brains, texture of hair, and the color of skin. Douglass probably approved of the elaborate “Afric-American Gallery” published in the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859 by the Brooklyn abolitionist and schoolteacher William J. Wilson. Writing as Ethiop, Wilson, who had published a letter in Frederick Douglass’ Paper about the complete erasure of blacks from a gallery he had visited, created an artistic panorama of black history, starting with the slave ship through a genealogy of resistance, Louverture, the black conventions, the UGRR, and visions of black vengeance. Wilson’s Afric-American gallery anticipated Du Bois’s elaborate historical pageant, the Star of Ethiopia.

Smith also brought his scholarly expertise to bear on the sectional debate over race and slavery. In one of his last essays on race he refuted Jefferson’s notion of “physical and mental distinctions between the negro and the white man.” Instead of asking how to get rid of blacks, Smith declared, Jefferson, had he possessed the “insight or sagacity for which he is so celebrated, would have welcomed their presence as one of the positive elements of natural progress.” In 1844 Smith produced a statistical refutation of the flawed data of the U.S. Census of 1840 on free blacks, which Calhoun had used to prove that African Americans fared better under slavery than under freedom. Slavery, Smith affirmed, murdered black people, and the proslavery opinion that “emancipation has made the free blacks deaf, dumb, blind, idiot, insane, &c &c” was a concoction of lies. A table he compiled revealed that the numbers of insane blacks listed in towns of the state of Maine in the census exceeded the total number of black inhabitants. He concluded pithily, “Freedom has not made us mad.” Smith’s work played a large role in discrediting the census data on free blacks, in the eyes of Edward Jarvis, the founder of the American Statistical Society.21

Delany, Douglass, and Garnet furthered the denunciation by blacks of scientific racism. Garnet’s speech on race before the all-black Female Benevolent Society of Troy showcased how black men, women, and community institutions were involved in a common endeavor to challenge the new racial science. It was published as a pamphlet, The Past and Present Condition and Destiny of the Colored Race (1848). Garnet refused to even engage the idea of different races: “In order to pursue my subject I must, for the sake of distinction, use some of the improper terms of our times. I shall therefore speak of races, when in fact there is but one race, as there was one Adam.” He avowed that it was the condition of the colored race rather than physical attributes or nature that shaped racism. Like Pennington, he invoked the biblical as well as secular history of Africans to refute racist ideas, and, like Smith, he forecast that “this western world is destined to be filled with a mixed race.”22

Douglass and Delany also battled the growing popularity of American ethnology. In his speech “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered” (1854), Douglass, prefiguring Du Bois’s opinion that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, stated, “The relation subsisting between the white and black people of the country is the vital question of the age.” No amount of “scientific moonshine” or the “southern pretenders to science” could place black people on a “sliding scale of humanity.” He complained that racists compared the most “degraded” blacks with “those of the highest cultivation,” so that the “very crimes of slavery become slavery’s best defense.” He developed an abolitionist critique of the new racial science: “I say it is remarkable—nay it is strange that there should arise a phalanx of learned men—speaking in the name of science—to forbid the magnificent reunion of mankind in one brotherhood. A mortifying proof is here given, that the moral growth of a nation, or an age, does not always keep pace with the increase of knowledge, and suggests the necessity to increase human love and human learning.” Years later Delany, who advocated the separation of the races after the fall of Reconstruction, published his Principia of Ethnology. But he too continued to discard the pseudoscientific theory of polygenesis and anticipated the findings of modern science in insisting that Africans were the original humans.23 Black abolitionists had better politics and better science than their opponents. In developing a theoretically sophisticated response to the spurious science of race and racism, they made an original intellectual contribution to abolition.

The antebellum abolition movement, founded on an ideological commitment to racial equality, was receptive to their ideas. In 1831 Garrison drew attention to the “unjust and grievous disabilities” of free black people and their treatment in the North as an “inferior caste.” Throughout its history the Liberator documented numerous instances of the ill-treatment of African Americans and leading black abolitionists. In 1833 David Lee Child, in his The Despotism of Freedom, an exposé of racism, argued that free people of color were subjected to “inveterate, cruel, and, I will add ferocious prejudice against their skins” and that in no country of the world did racism exist as strongly as it did in the American Republic. The next year Garrison proclaimed that abolition would not be successful until “all unequal laws, having respect to the color of the skin, shall have been universally expunged from the statute-books, and prejudice scouted as a fiend, and the cord of caste burnt to ashes.”24

Abolitionists criticized the pervasiveness of racial discrimination in the North. African Americans were excluded from all institutions, leading Garrison to quip, “Hardly any doors but those of our State Prisons, were open to our colored brethren.” Elizur Wright reported that Williams College admitted a black man who looked nearly white on the condition that he leave for Liberia on graduating. Child asked abolitionists to use only those public conveyances that did not discriminate against African Americans, and Ellis Gray Loring demanded the repeal of all racially discriminatory laws. At the NEAS convention in 1837, John Levi, a former slave from the West Indies, said he did not know what racial prejudice was until he came to the United States.

African Americans testified to the depth of racist treatment and ill-usage. In 1834 Rev. William C. Munroe of Portland, Maine, reported that when he applied for admission to Amherst, Dartmouth, and Bowdoin colleges, which had graduated the first African Americans, he “met with immediate rejection” or admission upon “such degrading terms” that he could not accept. Two years later a man named Caples from Boston testified how his “heart had bled” at the discrimination he had encountered in churches and schools. Abolitionists, he decided, have done much, but they needed to do more to ensure that blacks could enter the trades. Roberts, frustrated in his efforts to print a black newspaper, the Antislavery Herald, in Boston, complained, “[It is] altogether useless to pretend to affect the welfare of colored people, unless the chains of prejudice are broken.” In 1839 Rev. Andrew Harris reminded abolitionists that the poison of slavery does not stop at the South but “presses down upon the free people of color” in the North as well.25

African Americans led the way when it came to resisting racial discrimination. They demanded that abolitionists compile statistics on the free black communities in the North, initiate practical measures in finding gainful employment, and combat racism more vigorously. In 1835 Easton called on the AASS to compile information on free black people. An OASS convention report mentioned the growth of churches and schools among the state’s black population and the persistent discrimination encountered by them in law, popular prejudice, and exclusion from mechanical associations and public institutions; it recommended education as a way to combat legal disabilities and “unyielding prejudice on the part of whites.” At the third annual convention of the AASS, Wright asked that the society compile statistics on the free black population in the country and undertake “strenuous efforts” to improve their conditions.26

The black abolitionist Rev. Theodore S. Wright was most responsible for raising the issue of racism. The son of the black abolitionist R. P. G. Wright, he was named after the Federalist antislavery lawyer Theodore Sedgwick. Wright attended Princeton Theological Seminary and, mentored by Cornish, he took over Shiloh Presbyterian in New York, the largest black Presbyterian church in the country. As a student Wright had defied the colonizationist views of his professors, selling subscriptions to Freedom’s Journal. A founding member of the Phoenix Society as well as of the board of managers of the NYASS and a member of the AASS executive committee, Wright was a prominent abolitionist. In a dramatic speech delivered in 1836 he drew attention to the “spirit of slavery” which surrounded black people like an atmosphere. That year Wright was assaulted for sitting on a bench in a Princeton chapel, and his sick wife died after exposure while riding in a Jim Crow boat. Wright argued that racism “scourges us from the table, it scourges us from the cabin, from the stage-coach, from the bed, wherever we go.” A year later, in another speech commending the progress of abolition, Wright talked of eliminating racism. “It is an easy thing to ask,” he said, “about the vileness of slavery in the South, but to call the dark man a brother, heartily to embrace the doctrine advanced in the second article of the constitution [of the AASS] . . . that is the test.” Abolitionists must first “annihilate in their own bosom the cord of caste,” and they must “burn out this prejudice, live it down, talk it down.” In 1842 the black abolitionist Stephen Myers of Albany, in his short-lived Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate, also wrote that abolitionists must help blacks practically by hiring them and by eradicating “prejudice from their own hearts.”27

Antislavery societies like the ASS of Meriden, Connecticut, responded to black admonitions. It made the fight against racism part of its constitution. At the RIASS convention Jocelyn exhorted abolitionists to prove their love for the slave by working to improve the condition of free people of color. In Indiana a convention to organize a state ASS in 1838 deemed racial prejudice “rebellion against God.” The NEAS resolved in 1837 “not only to educate and elevate the free people of color, but also to eradicate from our white population, and especially from abolitionists themselves, the remains of the irrational, unnatural and unchristian prejudice, which, while it operates most injuriously upon our colored brethren, at the same time degrades, pollutes and disgraces those who in any degree cherish and retain it.” The next year at the annual anniversary meeting of the AASS, Gerrit Smith importuned abolitionists to purge their hearts of the wickedness of racism, saying that, as a movement, abolition should aim to revolutionize the world on matters of race. An abolitionist pamphlet condemning segregated “negro pews” in churches asked those who called themselves “friends of the colored man” to examine their hearts. It reprinted Wright’s speech.28 Black abolitionists had made the struggle against racism central to the abolitionist program.


Attempts to restrict black rights in “the white man’s democracy” led black abolitionists to inaugurate the fight against disfranchisement. In their memorial of 1832 to the Pennsylvania legislature, Forten, Purvis, and Whipper criticized attempts to prevent black migration to the state and to overturn the personal liberty law of 1826 that afforded runaway slaves some legal protections. In a separate statement of evidence, they showed that free blacks were a tiny fraction of the population of the city’s almshouses and that, despite racial proscription, they had churches, schools, beneficent societies, and employment in mechanical arts. Arguing for disfranchisement, the colonizationist lawyer John F. Denny judged that Pennsylvania’s laws were too mild when it came to the treatment of black aliens who were polluting the state’s body politic. Black abolitionists condemned proposals to disfranchise them in the state constitutional convention in 1837. Rev. Charles Gardner, a member of the AMRS and a founding member of the PASS, quoted Garrison: “Let it be remembered, that the man of color has to labor against wind and tide.” The next year he led protest meetings and at a large gathering in his church proposed a day of humiliation, fasting, and protest. A memorial to the convention composed by him and Hinton pointed out that distinction of color was unknown to God and violated the immutable principle that all men are created free and equal. People of color in Pittsburgh expressed their “holy indignation” at such “contracted, narrow-minded doings.” The convention, dominated by Democrats, refused to consider the memorials and expelled black observers.29

The best-known protest against the convention’s decision to disfranchise black men came from a committee headed by Purvis that composed Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement to the People of Pennsylvania. Purvis asked his fellow citizens if they intended to make “political rights depend upon the skin in which a man is born.” Disfranchisement bolstered schemes to colonize free blacks, but Purvis countered, “We are Pennsylvanians.” Bowers lambasted the colonizationist aims of the convention, which was trying to force them “to look to Africa for a home.” It had sacrificed the rights of black Pennsylvanians upon “the altar of slavery.” The constitution of 1838 disfranchising black men was ratified in a referendum. Combined with the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, this act revealed the anti-abolitionist mood of northerners, who, together with slaveholders, viewed black rights as a threat to the Union. Black Pennsylvanians did not give up, sending fifty-one petitions to the legislature for enfranchisement and some even to Congress. In a public letter in 1841 Purvis protested in vain that he was denied the vote yet had to pay taxes.

Racial violence accompanied black disfranchisement. That year a race war, which began as a confrontation between black and Irish workers, resulted in the destruction of the Philanthropist press in Cincinnati. The race-baiting Democratic Cincinnati Enquirerincited mob fury. African Americans armed themselves against the rioters until officials persuaded them to disarm. The rioters then proceeded to go on a rampage and raped some black women. The authorities arrested a number of black men and enforced the state’s black laws. Only the intervention of Gov. Thomas Corwin prevented further violence. The flagrant miscarriage of justice revived the sagging fortunes of the Philanthropist. After the Philadelphia race riot of 1842, Purvis despaired, lamenting, “[The] Press, Church, Magistrates, Clergymen and Devils—are against us. The measure of our suffering is full. . . . I am convinced of our utter and complete nothingness in public estimation.” Purvis, Gardner, and Daniel Payne wrote another protest detailing the indiscriminate attacks on black men, women, and churches.30

Abolitionists rallied against black disfranchisement. In 1837 Stanton, in a speech to the Massachusetts legislature, said that there should be no tests for citizenship “on account of color.” The PAS commissioned a study of the condition of the people of color in Philadelphia and vicinity to highlight their achievements. The committee included the veteran abolitionists Edward Needles, Joseph and Isaac Parrish, and Edward Hopper as well as James Mott and William Harned. The two reports, published in 1838, used a census of the city’s black population and information gathered by Gardner. An appended address to the people of color sympathized with them in their “dark and gloomy” hour and warned that their disfranchisement would “render your condition more insecure and dangerous.” Blacks had been met with insult and injury and lawless violence, the reports observed, while praising their admirable associations of mutual aid and schools. In his pamphlet William Jackson of Chester County, posed “a general amalgamation of the two races” as a way to end racial prejudice.31

That year the Baptist abolitionist William Yates of Troy published his Rights of Colored Men to Suffrage, Citizenship and Trial by Jury. Pointing to the disfranchisement of African Americans in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and, most recently, Pennsylvania, Yates reminded whites that black people had been citizens of the Republic from its inception and fought in its War of Independence. While a lot had been written pleading the slave’s cause, Yates pointed out that in the North “prejudice against color, let it be understood, is the battle ground between the friends and foes of human rights in a contest for equal laws.” He acidly suggested a “chronometer by which we may in all cases measure the hue of a man’s skin, and ascertain whether it reaches a shade which robs a native American of his property and rights, and renders him an alien in the land of his birth.” The CA recommended his book as an important publication that should be “in the hand of every colored man and colored man’s friend.” A black juvenile antislavery society promptly named themselves after him.32

In 1839 William Jay published his pamphlet against racial discrimination. In mapping the “geography of prejudice,” he listed the legal and popular disabilities confronted by free blacks, noting that their number exceeded the total number of inhabitants in such states as New Jersey and Connecticut. They were denied the franchise, as prejudice had grown with the country, and could not serve in the nation’s army or militias. Their “right of locomotion” was impaired by the black laws of slave and free states like Ohio, which also denied free blacks the right to testify against whites. They faced “impediments to education,” religion, and industry. Most egregiously, they could be kidnapped into slavery and subjected to insult and outrage. A supporter and donor to the CA, Jay was aware of the black fight for citizenship.33

The movement for black suffrage gained its greatest momentum in New York, buoyed by the growing strength of political abolitionism. The CA led the charge, publishing extracts from the New York constitutional convention of 1821, which had limited black voting by a property-holding qualification of $250, under such headings as “On the Rights of the Colored people to Vote” and “On the Injustice of Disfranchising them.” The editors wrote, “The tens of thousands of foreigners that annually come into our state, soon climb to all the rights and immunities of citizens,” while Africans Americans were denied the vote. In 1837 black New Yorkers formed ward committees to gather signatures and forwarded three petitions to the legislature demanding the right of trial by jury for fugitive slaves and the removal of the property-holding voting qualification. The CA and its many correspondents called for a black convention to combat colonization and black disfranchisement. In Pittsburgh, Vashon, John Peck, Woodson, and Delany also called for a state black convention. From Harrisburg, Morel recommended a convention of colored people that would utter its “deep condemnation” of the proceedings in Pennsylvania. In June that year New York’s leading black abolitionists along with Remond formed the New York Political Association to fight for equal suffrage and called for a convention in Albany. The AASS endorsed its efforts.34

The abolitionist schism and the fight for equal voting rights spurred autonomous black activism in New York. Those who had led black conventions and fraternal societies, Hamilton, Sipkins, and Peter Williams Jr., all died between 1837 and 1840. A younger generation, including Ray, the Reason brothers, Patrick, an accomplished artist and engraver, and Charles, a schoolteacher, whose parents had emigrated from Haiti and Guadeloupe, and Alexander Crummell spearheaded the move to hold a state black convention. Samuel Ringgold Ward, a former slave and clergyman, remarked that since whites “have yet to learn to crucify prejudice against color,” independent black action was crucial. Making an exception for his Liberty Party allies, Ward alleged that although abolitionists had fought for their own civil liberties, they had not done enough for black rights. Willis Hodges, who with his brother William fled Virginia and settled in Brooklyn, said that black men must act for themselves, as abolitionists were “men of words [more] than [of] deeds.”

Nathaniel P. Rogers, the editor of the NASS, scorned exclusive conventions, and even McCune Smith had reservations about all-black conventions. Like Whipper, Rogers felt that if African Americans drew a color line it would simply reinforce rather than challenge racial separation. Van Rensselaer initially opposed Rogers but was eventually convinced by Smith. Ray justified black state conventions as a way to redress local political disabilities faced by blacks, but he did not deem a national convention necessary. Woodson and Vashon in Pittsburgh and a meeting led by Scott in Worcester supported Ruggles’s call for a national convention. A “national reform convention” convened by Ruggles at Hartford in 1840, attended mainly by black abolitionists from Philadelphia and New England but opposed by Amos Beman of New Haven, proved to be a failure. Ruggles, Pennington, Mars, Vashon, and William C. Nell of Boston formed the short-lived American Board of Disfranchised Commissioners, which met the following year in New York. Black abolitionists in New York signed on to the call for a state convention in Albany. The Albany convention criticized the national reform convention.35

The state conventions of the early 1840s, however, led to the revival of the national black convention and made the fight for citizenship central to black abolitionism. The first state convention met in Albany in August 1840, chaired by Ray with Austin Steward as president. Disagreement arose between those such as Ray and Wright, who urged black men to acquire property to become eligible to vote, and radicals like Garnet and Crummell, who simply wanted to do away with the requirement. Differences also arose between those who wished to endorse the Liberty Party and those who wanted the convention to fight only for voting rights. A committee of six, including Wright, Ray, the Reason brothers, and Crummell, composed an address to the people of the state. “We can find no system of moral or political ethics in which rights are based on the conformation of the body, or the color of the skin,” they wrote. The address linked the oppression of blacks with that of Native Americans and the Irish and with the “degradation of the Greeks” and of the lower castes in India, revealing the cosmopolitan nature of black abolitionism. Despite being a target of mob violence by immigrants, African Americans did not endorse nativism.

A petition to the legislature asked for equal political rights. The convention formed a committee to coordinate a petition campaign and county committees to acquire signatures. An address to colored fellow citizens written by Garnet, Ray, and Wright called for protests against disfranchisement in every corner and hamlet of the state. Meetings in Troy, Schenectady, Buffalo, Albany, all in the upstate heartland of the Liberty Party, and in Brooklyn demanded equal franchise. The Albany convention inspired a meeting in Newark led by Cornish, Amos Freeman, and W. F. Gardner against disfranchisement in New Jersey. Ray, reporting that a meeting in Michigan led by Robert Banks and William Munroe also protested disfranchisement, exulted, “It is really inspiring to see the effect of the Albany Convention upon our brethren of other States, and how easily they take fire, from the action of that body.”

The attempt to extend “impartial suffrage” to African Americans came to naught, despite Garnet’s eloquent address before the Judiciary Committee on the presentation of black suffrage petitions. Not deterred by this setback, the CA sent out a call for another state convention. Local meetings sent delegations to the state convention in Troy in 1841. The Troy convention issued an address “To the Electors of the State of New York,” again trying to convince whites that to take away the political rights of some was to destroy the entire edifice of republican government. One by one it answered objections to black voting—that black people would vote en masse, that they demanded social equality when the object was political equality, and that they were too ignorant and degraded—holding that if immigrants who came from monarchical European countries were given the franchise then African Americas reared in the American Republic should be accorded the same privilege. Large county conventions in Albany and New York following the Troy convention revived the suffrage movement at the local level and the petition campaign.

In 1844 the state convention in Schenectady, led by Garnet and Myers, was still calling for another petition campaign for black suffrage. Its highlight was a debate over a protest by Ray and Wright against resolutions passed by the Rochester convention a year earlier denouncing both Whigs and Democrats as being proslavery at the behest of the Liberty men. They objected to partisan politics being introduced into the conventions, which they felt should maintain a united front. Garnet opposed the protest, and the Garrisonian William P. Powell approved of it. In the end, the convention voted it down resoundingly 38 to 11, revealing growing support for political abolitionism among black New Yorkers. McCune Smith and Powell, representing, they said, twenty thousand people in New York City, resigned in protest. The last of the New York suffrage conventions was held in Geneva in 1845. The convention received a letter from the antislavery Whig governor, William H. Seward, who supported black suffrage, conveying his regrets in not attending the convention. Seward noted that “a dark skin never covered a doughface.”36

Black agitation for suffrage gained enough momentum to be debated at New York’s constitutional convention in 1846 and received the backing of the Whig Party. Though the Democratic-dominated convention refused to do away with the property requirement, it authorized a referendum on the question, which was decisively defeated 224,336 to 85,406. Not until the eve of the Civil War would the issue of black suffrage emerge again in state politics. Gerrit Smith sought to circumvent the property-holding requirement in a spectacular gesture the same year. In a public letter to Wright, Ray, and McCune Smith, he announced his plans to deed 120,000 acres of his land to three thousand black men. It was, the three men responded, a “great experiment” for the race. For McCune Smith, his “generous deeds” shone through the “sad memories of crushed hope” excited by the “terrible majority” against black suffrage. Though the land turned out to be rocky and infertile, black abolitionists advocated landownership as a way to gain the right to vote and the advantages of a rural farming life.37

The state conventions in Pennsylvania were likewise devoted to repealing black disfranchisement. Woodson, Delany, Peck, and Vashon presided over a convention in Pittsburgh in 1841. A resolution asking the convention to attend to the accommodation of ladies and gentlemen disclosed that, unlike the New York conventions, women were in attendance here. Ray had shot down the idea of women delegates, though they were spectators. The convention petitioned the legislature to amend the state constitution and “remove all restrictions on account of color.” It counseled education and temperance, adopted the CA as its organ, and called for holding county conventions to promote its aims. Its address to the “colored freemen” of the state, composed by Vashon and Woodson, among others, endorsed suffrage, farming, and an independent press but disavowed the strategy of withholding taxes to protest disfranchisement. Nearly ten years earlier, when the Rhode Island legislature had refused to receive a petition from African Americans demanding exemption from taxation because they did not have the vote, Garrison advised that they decline to pay taxes and sue the government. New York abolitionists voiced reservations about this strategy adopted by black Rhode Islanders, complaining that it could be used as an excuse to deny black men the vote.

In a familiar pattern, Rhode Island had disfranchised black men in 1822, and two years later whites had attacked black homes in the Hard Scrabble area of Providence. In the 1830s a committee that included laborers such as George Willis and the barber Alfred Niger in Providence demanded the right to vote. By 1841 a suffrage movement geared to removing property-holding qualifications and led by Thomas Dorr, a former member of the RIASS, held out some hope to blacks. But the suffrage associations excluded African Americans and restricted their demand to democratize the vote to whites only. The people’s convention rejected a petition prepared by Ichabod Northrup and Crummell, who was now a pastor of the Christ Church in Providence, to remove the word whitefrom its constitution despite Dorr’s support for black voting. Dorr managed to ensure jury trial for fugitive slaves and insert a mandatory provision to put the whites-only clause to a referendum. But African Americans rejected the people’s constitution, and Kelley, Douglass, Foster, and Pillsbury campaigned against it. The racial animosity of Dorrites allied blacks with conservative state authorities. The Law and Order Party put black suffrage on the ballot in 1842, and it was approved by voters. The state constitution of 1843 gave black men the right to vote. After his imprisonment for leading the rebellion against state authorities, Dorr became a proslavery Democrat. Rhode Island was the only northern state to reverse black disfranchisement.

The fight for suffrage continued in Pennsylvania, where the easterners Purvis, Stephen Smith, Whipper, Shadd, McCrummell, and Bowers dominated the second state convention, which met in Harrisburg in 1848. Vashon, Peck, and Remond also attended. The convention’s address to voters as “arbiters of our political destiny” again asked for the removal of the word white from the state constitution, invoking the names of Franklin, Rush, Benezet, and Woolman as well as the European revolutions of 1848. Its appeal to colored citizens read, “Our fathers sought personal freedom—we now contend for political freedom.” Even if their object was not realized, “we will gain in the consolidation of our people on the subject of our rights.” It hoped to plant the “seeds of revolution.” The convention constituted itself into the “Citizens’ Union of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” in order to carry on the struggle for voting rights. In 1855 the state’s disfranchised black citizens submitted a memorial to Congress detailing that seventeen years of disfranchisement had led to the burning of black churches and institutions and mob violence and calling the attempt to list all the outrages they were subject to a “Herculean task.”38

The revival of the national conventions also spurred the fight for black citizenship. In his speech of 1843 to the national convention in Buffalo, meeting after a hiatus of eight years, President Samuel Davis noted that while abolitionists had made “noble efforts in behalf of the poor slave . . . We, ourselves, must be willing to contend for the rich boon of freedom and equal rights.” The meeting became famous for Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves,” but much of its business was geared to reviving a national network of independent black activism, the establishment of a black press, and the economic growth of northern black communities. Two years later the national convention in Troy, on Garnet’s behest, called on folks to “agitate! AGITATE!! AGITATE!!!” The national convention of 1848, held in Cleveland and presided over by Douglass, took up the topics of gender and class. A Mrs. Sanford asked for the “Elective Franchise” and the right to property. She encouraged the convention to fight for “unqualified citizenship of the United States.” The convention’s address to the colored people pointed out that whereas they were held as slaves in the South, in the North they were “the slaves of the community.” Debate over Delany’s resolution that black people avoid servile jobs resulted in a compromise mediated by Douglass. The address urged moving out of menial positions but refuted the notion that they were a mark of degradation.39

The conventions did not stem the tide of black disfranchisement but acted as sites of resistance, especially in the more racially intolerant northwest with its large southern-born populations and black laws that penalized African Americans for entering the region’s states. The black laws were sporadically enforced, and the rise of abolition posed a challenge to them. Black conventions held in Indiana in 1842, 1847, and 1851 took up many issues, but the right to vote was their foremost demand. The last convention met on the eve of the passage of a law that, implementing an article in the new state constitution, prevented blacks from entering the state. The meeting’s president, John G. Britton, insisted that “[as] Americans we are entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of citizenship.” Abolitionists protested the exclusionary law and rejected state-sponsored colonization schemes. Given the dismal conditions faced by black Indianans, colonization found favor among antislavery men like Robert Dale Owen and the Methodist minister Rev. James Mitchell, who would be recruited by the Lincoln administration as emigration commissioner to promote colonization. Illinois and Oregon too had antiblack immigration clauses in their constitutions.

In the antislavery upper northwest, black abolitionists and their political allies managed to initiate state referendums on black suffrage. Detroit’s activist black community called for a state convention in 1843, identifying African Americans “as an oppressed people wishing to be free” who will gain their liberties only by their “own exertions in their own cause.” Despite repeated disturbances over the issue of rightful delegates, the Michigan convention was one of the most successful. Its resolutions made the gaining of the right to vote its primary aim, protesting that blacks were “passive instruments of the law.” On the initiative of the fugitive slave Henry Bibb it passed resolutions demanding the immediate abolition of slavery and praising abolitionists, starting with Wilberforce, Clarkson, and Lovejoy and adding local abolitionists. Its address to the citizens of Michigan referred to the ancient history of Africa to refute the charges of inherent racial inferiority deployed as an excuse to deny equal political rights. A new state constitution in 1850 extended voting to immigrants and Indians, but black suffrage went down to defeat by a vote of 32,000 to 12,000. In neighboring Wisconsin, which entered the Union in 1848, a black suffrage proposal was rejected despite winning a majority because most voters abstained. In 1857 black suffrage was defeated in Iowa.40

The states in the northwest modeled their “black laws” after Ohio’s. In the 1830s the legislature turned down abolitionist petitions against the black laws and in 1839 denied African Americans the right to petition against them. Black abolitionists such as Peter Clark and William O’Hara had long agitated for civil rights. In 1834 the light-skinned Williams family from Xenia sued to gain admittance to the public schools, and black Ohioans held “education conventions.” Ohio held the greatest number of state conventions. The address of the Columbus convention held in 1843 to the citizens of Ohio, written by George Boyer Vashon and others, insisted, “WE ARE AMERICANS” and condemned the “pseudo-philanthropy” of colonizationists. The broad-based nature of the conventions was evident in its call for farmers to leave their land, mechanics to put down their tools, laborers to abandon their work, and domestic servants to “leave their lords.” It invited white abolitionists to attend “without the privilege of voting” or without compromising its character as sites of independent black activism. It targeted the removal of legal disabilities, which barred blacks from giving testimony. They were “oppressed, disfranchised and otherwise degraded on account of complexion by certain infamous and most tyrannical laws.”41

The Ohio convention of 1849 made the repeal of the state’s black laws its primary concern. The political emergence of the Free Soil Party and Salmon P. Chase, who was elected to the Senate, made it an auspicious time for repeal. The delegates invited “ladies to share in the doings of the Convention” after they had protested their exclusion. The Oberlin-educated black abolitionists William Howard Day, born in New York, and Charles and John Mercer Langston dominated the proceedings. The Langston brothers, sons of a Virginian planter and his enslaved common-law wife, migrated to Chillicothe, Ohio, home to the pioneering Colored Antislavery Society, founded in 1834. The convention’s address demanded the desegregation of the state’s schools and ended with the slogan, “Repeal, Repeal, Repeal” the black laws. Black protest and electoral victory of a Free Soil Democratic coalition orchestrated by Chase resulted in the overthrow of the black laws. The convention in 1850 capitalized on this success. It formed the Ohio Colored American League, demanded the right of suffrage, and asked that all discriminatory laws be done away with. It also recommended that Day be appointed superintendent of the colored schools. The next year the convention appointed a commission to the governor and sent an address to the Ohio Constitutional Convention demanding suffrage. Day and James Watson spoke before the legislature on black suffrage. The constitutional convention, however, voted it down by 75 to 15. Undeterred, the Ohio conventions in the 1850s made suffrage their central demand.42

The struggle for the franchise also dominated the New Jersey and Connecticut black conventions of 1849. The New Jersey convention at Trenton, which was addressed by Van Rensselaer and led by the physician John Swett Rock, who became a prominent abolitionist in Massachusetts, launched a petition campaign for black suffrage. It also recommended obtaining signatures of white citizens and issued an address to them appealing for their support to make the state “the first consistent reformer of human rights in the Western World.” The Connecticut convention’s call noted, “We are dead to citizenship—struck down by an unrighteous State Constitution, and our life spark quenched by a cruel and unreasonable prejudice.” Amos G. Beman led the convention, which was attended by his father, Jehiel Beman, and Bibb. Despite the presence of black women, the demand for black citizenship remained male centered, especially when citing black military service in the revolution and the War of 1812 as a reason for enfranchisement. The address to the colored men of Connecticut held that disfranchisement assailed their “manhood and Citizenship.” The appeal to the voters of the state, written by Amos Beman and others, listed southern proslavery actions as akin to opposition to black citizenship, rebuked racism as an unchristian “corrupt public sentiment,” and listed black achievements as arguments for free suffrage. In the 1850s the state convention movement spread to Illinois, California, Kansas, and even Maryland. Nearly all focused on demanding the right to vote, civil rights, and equality before the law.43

Black abolitionists also made the desegregation of public facilities integral to abolition. The question of segregation became entangled with factionalism when Charles Reason, responding to Van Rensselaer’s criticism of the city’s black abolitionists affiliated with the AFASS, accused Van Rensselaer of not serving him and Crummell in his restaurant. Van Rensselaer replied that as a matter of principle he served blacks in his establishment, even though that had cost him business among whites. In 1839 Crummell publicized Bishop Onderdonk’s efforts to exclude him from the Episcopalian General Theological Seminary. Earlier, Isaiah De Grasse had been admitted and then was forced to leave the seminary. A few years later Onderdonk’s brother obstructed Crummell’s attempt to found an Episcopalian church in Philadelphia, demanding that neither Crummell nor his church be seated at his convention. In his introductory remarks to the history of the Episcopalian church, Jay used the Crummell case to indict it for racism, as did his son John Jay II in his pamphlet Caste and Slavery in the American Church (1843), based on material Crummell forwarded to him. Smith sent Crummell twenty dollars, the latter writing that the “kindnesses of friends” had helped soften the blow. Black abolitionists led by George T. Downing, John J. Zuille, Wilson, and Bell held a meeting protesting Crummell’s treatment. Onderdonk also refused to ordain Charles Reason. The Onderdonk brothers soon fell from grace, accused of womanizing and alcoholism.

The Liberator and CA regularly reported the experiences of blacks encountering Jim Crow. Cornish protested the exclusion of his children from the public school system in New Jersey, and Van Rensselaer for being thrown off a steamboat. Ruggles recounted being defrauded by a Rhode Island steamboat and “lynched” in the Stonington railroad. In 1841 Downing was unsuccessful in his suit against the Harlem Railroad Track Company for a “barbarous outrage upon him.” Black abolitionists circulated a petition for the removal of the company as a nuisance to black citizens. It also denied black women access to the ladies’ cars, repudiating their claims to respectability. In 1854 the eviction of Elizabeth Jennings, a schoolteacher and the daughter of Thomas Jennings, and her female companion from a streetcar by an Irish conductor instigated community protest and a successful lawsuit argued by the future Republican president Chester Arthur. Jennings, McCune Smith, and Pennington founded a Legal Rights Association to contest segregation in the streetcars. The next year Pennington was evicted from a streetcar but lost his suit. The association prosecuted a number of cases of discrimination, and it developed a female branch. Pennington and Garnet reported that they had successfully desegregated certain streetcar lines in the city. When Day and his wife were denied cabin accommodations on a steamboat, he pursued his case against the owner all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court only to lose. In 1864 Ellen Anderson, thrown out of a whites-only car in New York by the conductor and a policeman, sued the police commission. She won her case and effectively desegregated public transit when the city police stopped enforcing segregation. The battle against streetcar segregation was not won completely. Well after the war Sojourner Truth asserted that she had been sent so often to the smoking car that she smoked in self-defense, swallowing “her own smoke [rather] than another’s.”44

Desegregation was most successful in Massachusetts, where “the story of civil rights [was] born in the age of abolitionism.” Garrison had called for the repeal of the law against interracial marriage. Female antislavery societies in the state led by Kelley conducted annual petition campaigns against the law since 1839. With positive committee reports in successive years, the legislature came close to passing the repeal in 1842. The next year Nell submitted a black petition against the discriminatory law. In March, despite the strong opposition of some members, the legislature passed a law proposed by the abolitionist George Bradburn of Nantucket that repealed the marriage prohibition. The Liberty Party played a crucial role in negotiating the final passage of the repeal. Garrison hailed it as “a signal victory over prejudice and the spirit of caste.”

Black abolitionists spearheaded the campaign to desegregate public transportation and schools in Massachusetts. In 1840 the Liberator reported on the mistreatment of Thomas Jinnings by the Eastern Railroad Company and of Ruggles in the Nantucket steamboat and at the railroad depot in New Bedford. Ruggles, who was evicted from his seat, lost his glasses and his bag and tore his clothing in the scuffle, unsuccessfully sued the railroad company for damages. The next year the AASS agents Douglass and Collins were assaulted while attempting to travel together on the notorious Eastern Railroad. Collins sustained a bad cut on his lip from blows to his head and face, and Douglass tore up a good number of seats resisting removal. They were targeted precisely because they were “damned abolitionists” and traveled in interracial groups. In protest, Garrison and Phillips chose to travel in the dirty Jim Crow cars with black abolitionists like Nell. Shadrach Howard and Jeremiah Sanderson had to face charges in court for their confrontation with the conductor of the New Bedford Railroad. Mary Newhall Green of the Lynn ASS was assaulted by a conductor for traveling in a whites-only car, an attack that injured her, the baby in her arms, and her husband. White bystanders who came to the aid of African Americans were also mistreated, one Daniel Mann, represented by Sewell, losing his suit for assault. Garrison published a travel directory for black readers with information on the policies of local railroads and steamboats and a lengthy essay against racism by the Haitian writer S. Linstat.

Abolitionists began a petition campaign against Jim Crow railroads after failing to obtain redress in the courts. The petitions and mass meetings condemning the Eastern Railroad created a wave of public sympathy, as editorials in newspapers across the state sided with them. Garrison was hard on the Quaker superintendent of the Eastern Railroad, saying, “Quaker garb ill becomes him,” as he was “lost to shame” and gloried in his brutality. But the Quaker abolitionist Nathaniel Barney, a stockholder in the New Bedford line, donated all his dividends to the abolitionist fight against segregation. Most Massachusetts railroads voluntarily desegregated their cars because of abolitionists’ protests. A hearing over Jim Crow transportation in the legislature in 1842, in which Phillips, Loring, and Remond testified, revealed that only the Eastern and New Bedford–Taunton railroads persisted in their policy of segregation. The committee reported that Jim Crow violated the rights of black citizens and counseled a law prohibiting it. The law failed to pass the legislature, but Gov. Marcus Morton assured abolitionists that African Americans would receive redress. The Eastern Railroad desegregated on the prompting of its stockholders. As Garrison put it, “The corporation has proved, beyond dispute or cavil, that neither convenience, accommodation nor improvement is the ruling principle with them, but monopoly and profit.”45

Remond was prominent in the fight against segregated transportation. During his first lecture tour in Maine, he had faced “mobocrats, eggs and brickbats” and even debated the Democratic representative Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s future vice president. An effective agent, he had organized antislavery societies in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island and became a member of the AASS business committee. Known for his polished speeches, Remond acquired considerable fame as a delegate to the Antislavery Convention in London. On his return, he was ejected from the Eastern Railroad along with several whites who were eager to hear about his tour. At a large meeting in Faneuil Hall, Remond pointed out that while he had been treated as an honored guest in England and Ireland, he could not safely travel in his own country. Similarly, Nancy Prince, who had been received in the Russian court, wrote to Garrison that she was thrown off a steamboat for which she had purchased a ticket and dislocated her shoulder. Remond reasoned that “complexion can in no sense be construed a crime, much less be rightfully made the criterion of rights,” thereby linking desegregation with the quest for equal citizenship. Maria Chapman observed that in a few words black abolitionists could convey an argument against racial prejudice that might take a white man all day.

Black abolitionists tested the boundaries of segregation by initiating boycotts and lawsuits. In 1845 the New Bedford Lyceum’s refusal to admit Nathaniel Borden and David W. Ruggles (not to be confused with David Ruggles of New York) resulted in an abolitionist boycott during which popular lecturers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, and Theodore Parker canceled their engagements. The issue of segregation in theaters emerged in 1853, when Nell, Sarah Parker Remond, and Caroline Remond, sisters of Remond, challenged segregated seating at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston. Sarah, who was pushed down the stairs and hurt herself, was awarded five hundred dollars as compensation after bringing a criminal complaint against the guard who assaulted her. Three years later Julian McCrea and John Stephenson sued the same theater for refusing to seat them but lost their suit. Not until 1865 did Massachusetts outlaw segregation in all public spaces.46

Black abolitionists led by old stalwarts such as John Hilton and by the young Nell and Robert Morris became involved in a protracted struggle to desegregate Boston’s public school system. Nell, who led a decade-long fight for “equal school rights,” was Garrison’s printing apprentice, running an employment registry for blacks in the Liberator and becoming a writer of some repute. As a student, Nell was recognized for scholarly distinction but, unlike white students, was denied the Franklin medal and given a voucher for purchasing Franklin’s biography. Excluded from the ceremony, he attended as a waiter. Nell developed a lifelong commitment to ending educational discrimination. He initiated numerous petition drives for the desegregation of Boston’s school system, one of the last holdouts in the state. Blacks had successfully desegregated public schools in Nantucket, Lowell, and Salem. The petitions asked for the dismantling of the all-black Smith school, where deplorable conditions and an abusive white schoolteacher had resulted in a boycott by a majority of parents. The school committee denied their requests despite the dissent of the abolitionist member Henry I. Bowditch. By bringing in the Dartmouth-educated Thomas Paul Jr. as head of the Smith school, the committee bolstered a small faction led by his cousin Thomas Paul Smith that defended the school as a community institution.

In 1849 Roberts sued the committee on behalf of his daughter Sarah Roberts, who, rather than attend the school, which was near her home, was forced to walk a mile to an all-black school. Morris, who had learned law under Loring and became the first black lawyer to be admitted to the Massachusetts bar, argued the Roberts case. His cocounsel was the antislavery politician Charles Sumner. In his brief, used a hundred years later by plaintiff’s counsel in Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated school desegregation, Sumner contended that “all men without distinction of race or color are equal before the law,” that separate was inherently unequal, and that segregation harmed black as well as white children. Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Lemuel Shaw upheld segregation and thereby established the only legal precedent for Plessey v. Ferguson, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation constitutional in 1896. Despite this setback, Nell did not give up. A resurgent boycott of the Smith school, in which activists surrounded the school and even beat up Thomas Paul Smith, led to its collapse. Nell noted the cooperation of black mothers, who made the action successful. In 1853 Morris sued the city schools again on behalf of Edward Pindall. The fight against Jim Crow schools resulted in the passage of a law by the Know-Nothing legislature and governor in 1855 that desegregated the states’ schools. The nativist party contained enough free soilers such as Henry Wilson and the state legislator Charles Slack to ensure this abolitionist triumph. Armed with a stack of petitions, Nell had enlisted Slack for his cause. Slack presented a report for desegregation, liberally borrowing Sumner’s words, which led to the passage of the law. The black community duly honored Nell at a meeting addressed by Garrison, Hilton, Phillips, Remond, and Slack after this long, hard-fought victory. While Phillips jokingly noted that he was tired of Nell’s petitions, Garrison remarked that desegregation had been achieved mainly because of his “indefatigable efforts.”47

The state’s success with school desegregation was not replicated elsewhere. A similar movement in Rhode Island begun by Downing, the son of Thomas Downing and a wealthy caterer who moved to the state in 1846, failed. Educated at Hamilton College, New York, Downing was unable to enroll his children in the public schools. In 1857 he coauthored a petition with Northrup, Will the General Assembly Put Down Caste Schools? They compiled evidence from Boston, New Bedford, Nantucket, and Cambridge to tout the benefits of integration. The assembly failed to pass a desegregation bill the next year. In 1859 black abolitionists issued a statement for integration, To the Friends of Equal Rights in Rhode Island, but the Providence school committee refused to desegregate the schools. The assembly considered desegregation again that year, but a counterpetition from forty-five black men against disbanding the all-black schools doomed it. Garrison noted that the entire press was arrayed against Downing’s persistent efforts. The battle for school integration was won only after the war, in 1866. If the antebellum North birthed Jim Crow, it also gave rise to the abolitionist struggle for black citizenship and desegregation, a forgotten nineteenth-century antecedent to the long civil rights movement.48


Black abolitionists’ rejection of colonization and fight for citizenship were coupled with approval of emigration. “Black cosmopolitanism” posited an identity of interest among all people of African descent in the Western world.49 Emigration was a declaration of black independence that transcended national borders. It was not just a nationalist but a Pan-African project. Emigration to free spaces like Canada, Haiti, the West Indies, and Africa found acceptance among a growing minority.

Starting with the colony at Wilberforce, emigration to Canada received the support of abolitionists in the United States and Britain. Wilberforce virtually ceased to exist in 1836, consumed by the rivalry between Israel Lewis, one of the settlement’s original founders, and Steward, who headed it from 1831 until its demise. Lewis, accused of misappropriating funds he had raised for the colony, was declared persona non grata by the abolitionist press, the Wilberforce board of managers headed by Steward, and the AASS. Steward’s vision of black economic and political independence, plans of buying an entire township, and even sending “one of our own race” to represent the colony as a member of Parliament never came to pass. Following Wilberforce, Rev. Hiram Wilson, one of the Lane rebels; the fugitive slave Josiah Henson, who previously headed a small black settlement in Colchester, Canada West; and James Fuller from Skaneateles, New York, founded Dawn in 1841. A year later they opened a manual labor school, the British–American Institute. This colony also fell victim to financial woes and internal disputes between Henson and Wilson on one side and Rev. Isaac Rice, a poor Presbyterian minister from Ohio, and William P. Newman, a black Baptist minister, on the other. Henson, accused of mismanagement of funds, traveled to England in 1849 to raise money for the heavily indebted settlement. Wilson left Dawn and became an AMA missionary at St. Catherine’s in 1850. The British and Foreign ASS sent John Scoble, cordially despised by Garrisonians for his conservatism, to investigate. He proved to be a self-aggrandizing administrator who alienated the black residents. Within two decades Dawn was sold to found the Wilberforce Education Institute at Chatham.

Canadian emigration was an alternative to colonization. A new settlement founded north of Amherstburg in 1846 by the Windsor black convention and its “Sandwich mission” became the Refugee Home Society (RHS) in the 1850s, attracting fugitives and black emigrants from Michigan. Aided by Tappan’s AMA, the society counted Henry Bibb and his wife, Mary, among its founders. On Bibb’s death in 1854, the society collapsed. The most successful black settlement, in Elgin, was founded by William King, an abolitionist Presbyterian minister who inherited and freed his wife’s slaves, and rejected the Wilberforce–Dawn system of fund-raising. Despite the hostility of neighboring whites, it was largely self-sufficient and, like the RHS, geared toward the settlement of former slaves. It housed King’s Buxton Mission, named after Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, black schools, churches, and libraries.

Black emigrants to Canada faced discrimination and whites’ hostility, but they enjoyed formal political rights. In the east a largely unknown wave of black refugees, many of them slaves from the Chesapeake region after the War of 1812, created a large black community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with its own African churches and an African Abolition Society in 1846. It too was a haven for fugitive slaves. For black migrants like Jehu Jones, the first ordained black Lutheran minister, civil liberties enjoyed by black Canadians compared favorably with racial proscription in the United States. Around forty thousand fugitive slaves and free blacks immigrated to Canada before the Civil War.50

The most passionate proponent of Canadian emigration was Mary Ann Shadd, the daughter of the black abolitionist Abraham Shadd, the only black man elected to public office in Canada before the Civil War. Educated in a Quaker school, Shadd, a schoolteacher, published Hints to the Colored People in the North in 1849. She regarded public celebrations as a waste of scarce resources, as they did not address the needs of the masses of poor black people. The pamphlet is lost to history, but it was excerpted in Douglass’s paper. A year later, in a letter to Douglass, she called for practical action rather than speeches and conventions. Shadd migrated to Canada. In 1851, together with her father, she attended the Great North American Anti-Slavery Convention in Toronto called by Bibb. Prominent emigrationists such as James Theodore Holly, Ward, and Delany participated. That year Bibb started publishing Voice of the Fugitive, with prominent black abolitionists serving as his agents. Shadd ran a school in Windsor, supported by the AMA. In 1852 she published A Plea for Emigration, Notes of Canada West. Bristling with information on Canadian climate, soil, crops, society, and government, Shadd’s book, like Bibb’s editorials, advocated emigration to Canada and the British West Indies as opposed to African colonization, which “invites moral and physical death” under the “escort” of the most “bitter enemies” of black people. Comparing other sites for emigration like Haiti, Mexico, and Central America, she averred that only the British government was powerful enough to withstand the expansion of slavery.

Canadian emigration became the focus of a bitter dispute between the Bibbs and Shadd. The Bibbs recommended separate communities and institutions, Shadd integration into Canadian society. The feud started over the school issue, Mary Bibb lobbying for an all-black government school and Shadd rejecting the idea of racially segregated schools. She targeted separate churches, schools, and Bibb’s proposed all-black agricultural leagues as fostering prejudice. Despite her praise of Bibb’s newspaper, Shadd criticized the RHS for welcoming fugitive slaves but not impoverished free blacks. Their falling out, fueled by rival accounts to the AMA, which sponsored the missionary and educational activities of both, did not end until Bibb’s death. Both had partisans among missionaries and black emigrationists, Holly supporting the Bibbs and Ward, Shadd. Shadd lost AMA backing of her school, and her rivalry with Bibb was sharpened by gender, free versus freed, and ideological differences. In 1853 Bibb’s printing office was destroyed by fire. Shadd’s Provincial Freeman, named after the one abolitionist newspaper that had noticed the publication of her emigrationist tract, the Pennsylvania Freeman, soon overtook his newspaper. Shadd’s stinging editorials excoriating Canadian prejudice as well as the financial malfeasance of the leaders of Wilberforce, Dawn, and the RHS, Bibb, Henson, and Wilson, and the “begging” system of fund-raising, ruffled many feathers. In 1856 she married the much older Thomas Cary, who invested in her paper, which she published until 1859. After the Civil War and his death, she returned to the United States. A pioneering abolitionist, Shadd Cary was not only the first black woman editor but also, after studying at Howard University, the first black woman lawyer.51

Shadd’s coeditor in Canada, Ward, had edited the Liberty Party newspaper the Impartial Citizen. His name appeared as the editor of the Provincial Freeman in its first years of publication mainly for the sake of propriety. Ward’s family had escaped slavery. Born in Maryland, he became a teacher in New York. By 1839 he was an AASS agent and a licensed preacher for the Congregational church, known for his dynamic lecturing style. Like a majority of black ministers, Ward, who called himself a Christian abolitionist, followed the Tappanite wing out of the AASS. Moving to upstate New York, he became a successful journalist and an admirer of political abolitionists like Smith, Goodell, and Green. Ward fled for Canada after being indicted in the “Jerry Rescue” fugitive slave case in Syracuse. Like Bibb, who condemned “Color-Phobia in Canada,” Ward argued that “Canadian Negro Hate” was “MEANER,” as it was gratuitous. But he felt that Canadian emigration acted as a “powerful influence upon our cause in the United States.” Holly, a shoemaker from Vermont, also remarked that Canadian emigrants would “hang like an ominous black cloudover this guilty nation.” Ward applied for a commission as an AMA missionary, and he belonged to the AMA’s board of managers. By 1853 he left for Britain on a fund-raising tour as an agent of the Canadian ASS but became embroiled in a financial dispute and sent back very little money for the Freeman, earning Shadd’s ire.52

African Americans proved to be receptive to the idea of emigration to Trinidad and the West Indies after the British abolished slavery. Woodson advocated voluntary and free emigration to “colonies of our own choice” in Canada and the British West Indies and urged African Americans to form independent communities. In 1839 the legislative council of Trinidad offered passage money for colored laborers from Canada and the United States. Replying to Hinton, who helped a shipload of black emigrants from Philadelphia move to Trinidad, Whittier noted that abolitionists, although opposed to colonization, had never opposed voluntary emigration to Canada or Haiti and were willing to consider emigration to Trinidad. The CA rejected emigration as policy and warned that the islands and British Guiana needed cheap labor. When offered a chance to migrate to Trinidad, Canadian blacks refused to jeopardize their dearly won freedom, especially given fears of reenslavement.

Abolitionists were critical of West Indian emigration schemes sponsored by colonial authorities. The antislavery Baptist missionary William Knibb perceived that emigration for cheap labor was another name for slavery. Prince, who published an account of her stay in Jamaica in 1841, wrote that most migrants ended up unacclimated, poor, duped into paying for their passage, and “ruing the day they left their country.” Reverend Renshaw reported that Jamaican authorities simply wanted the “the lowest caste of laborers.” By 1840 the AASS, Garrison, black abolitionists in Philadelphia led by Purvis, Bowers, and Robert Douglass, the AFASS, and the British and Foreign ASS announced their combined opposition to West Indian emigration. Lewis Tappan wrote to James G. Barbadoes, whose family was from the West Indies and who died there, that he would not recommend emigration to Trinidad to his colored friends. The Albany convention also passed an anti-emigration resolution over the objections of Charles Reason and Crummell. The next year African Americans, noting the involvement of Maryland colonizationists in the Trinidad scheme, held anti-emigration meetings in New York and New Jersey. They welcomed Rev. T. P. Hunt, who had gone on a fact-finding mission, and thirty-eight emigrants returning from Trinidad. If African Americans were possessed of the “migrating spirit,” the CA recommended the new territories of Iowa and Wisconsin. Only Maryland free blacks entered a counterstatement willing to explore emigration to British Guiana after the failure of Trinidad. Despite abolitionists’ reservations, a few hundred blacks from Boston to Baltimore migrated to Jamaica, Trinidad, and British Guiana in the 1830s and early 1840s.53

The biggest booster of Haitian emigration in the 1830s was not an abolitionist but the slave trader and planter Zephaniah Kingsley. Kingsley had written a proslavery treatise in 1828, married an African slave, and had children with her and other enslaved women. Unable to protect his family once Florida was acquired by the United States, Kingsley proposed Haitian emigration. Like abolitionists, he sang the praises of the black republic, denigrated Liberia, and in 1839 relocated his son George and “liberated African slaves” to Haiti. After his death in 1843, his son and wife, Anna, successfully fought Kingsley’s white relatives for his property. Lydia Maria Child met him before he died, puzzled by the contradictions of his life, and abolitionist newspapers like the Philanthropist approved of his Haitian scheme. The African Repository and Colonial Journalcriticized the Kingsley emigration. It touted the “government of freemen” in Liberia and Cape Palmas as opposed to Haiti, where blacks would be “slaves of the government,” and the West Indies and Canada, where they would never be treated as equals.54

Confronted with failure at home and abroad, the ACS devolved into an emigration society relying on the private philanthropy of slaveholders. John McDonogh of Louisiana struck a bargain with his slaves, training them and making them work to pay for their passage to Liberia. McDonogh noted that he had to sell two of his slaves for bad behavior but that the promise of freedom made his slaves industrious and moral, so that they earned him enough money to buy a fresh batch from Virginia. The first of his slaves left in 1842 and the last in 1859, nine years after his death, according to the provisions of his will. In a letter from Liberia one of his former slaves wrote, “Here we enjoy the same rights & privileges that our white brethren does in America. It is our only home.” Another slaveholder, Capt. Isaac Ross of Mississippi, gave his slaves the choice between freedom in Liberia and being sold on his death. Northern auxiliaries like the Pennsylvania Colonization Society (PCS) helped raise money to manumit and transport freed slaves to Liberia, many of whom negotiated the terms of their freedom. In the two decades before the Civil War, manumitted slaves outnumbered free black emigrants to Liberia. Appropriations by upper south state governments and smaller contributions from northern states allowed the ACS and state societies to send nearly four thousand emigrants to Liberia between 1848 and 1854.55

Black abolitionists, however, continued to critique colonization. In 1840 Cornish and Wright, identifying themselves as pastors of the Colored Presbyterian churches in Newark and New York, published The Colonization Scheme Considered in response to Sen. Theodore Frelinghuysen and Benjamin F. Butler. Frelinghuysen, the so-called Christian statesman, presided over the American Tract and Bible Societies, opposed Indian removal, and promoted the Christianization of Africa. He was Clay’s running mate on the Whig ticket in 1844 and the vice president of the ACS. The religiosity of the Pilgrims and of William Penn’s followers, Cornish and Wright argued, did not lead to the survival of Native Americans. Most Christian colonies led to resentment by the natives and to their oppression. This reaction had occurred “irrespective of the color” of the colonists in Liberia, where colonists waged incessant wars with the surrounding native populations.56

The rhetoric of the ACS became emigrationist after Liberia’s independence in 1847. Joseph J. Roberts, a wealthy Monrovia merchant from Virginia whose enslaved mother bought his freedom, was elected president. The motto of the new nation read, “The love of liberty brought us here.” The ACS and the NYCS reported a spike of interest in emigration to Liberia among blacks. The “black nationality of Liberia is a fact not to be gain-sayed or resisted,” the thirty-second annual report of the ACS proclaimed. According to Ephraim Peabody, Liberia had proven that black men were capable of supporting civilized government. In 1849 Archibald Alexander, in his mammoth history of colonization, included an appendix containing the Liberian Declaration of Independence and its new Constitution. The British abolitionist Wilson Armistead used the independence of Liberia to argue for black equality. He was particularly impressed by the inaugural address of Roberts and an “eloquent speech” by the Liberian senator Hilary Teague.57

Colonizationists deployed increasingly nationalistic appeals to free blacks. Breckinridge noted the ACS’s “sublime design” to “organize a real and enduring nationality” for black people “in its original seats.” Acquiring state funds and money from the federal government to relocate recaptives taken from the illegal African slave trade, the ACS and the state societies published a barrage of information on emigration to Liberia in the 1850s. Jacob Dewees of the PCS argued that American Africans, by redeeming the continent, repaid America’s debt to it. Alluding to Buxton’s African Civilization Society’s exploration of the Niger River valley in 1841–42, he recommended that it become the site of a free black state. He concluded that without a black nation, Africa would be brought under “colonial vassalage to the white race.” Rev. C. Van Rensselaer rebuked both abolitionists for failing to promote black nationality and proslavery ministers like George Armstrong of Virginia for fostering the permanence of slavery.58

Prominent Liberians promoted black emigration. As the governor of Liberia, Roberts was a proponent of independence and toured the United States in 1844 to encourage emigration. Russwurm admonished that if the ACS was “actuated by a right spirit” it could have acted as a vehicle for black emigration instead of being forced to “seek Emigrants.” As the governor of Cape Palmas, Russwurm praised the Maryland Colonization Society for its experiment in elevating men of color to offices of great trust and responsibility. He died in 1851. The Maryland colony declared its independence in 1854 and joined Liberia three years later. In the 1850s a number of other blacks made the case for Liberian emigration. In their report of 1852 Thomas Fuller and Benjamin Janifer wrote, “There is not a single office filled by a white man” in Liberia. For Rev. William B. Hoyt, Liberia was a land of hope. Rev. Daniel H. Petersen extolled his missionary calling in Africa and contended that black people must employ a national point of view. H. W. Ellis, sent by the Presbyterian Synod of Alabama and Mississippi, hoped to “live, labor and die in Africa.”59

The project of a modern black nation represented an amalgam of romantic nationalism and black autonomy. Before he left for Liberia, Crummell in his writings fell in line with abolitionist criticisms of colonization. In 1847, attracted to missionary work in the newly independent nation, he met President Roberts in London. Like most emigrationists, Crummell was a product of Western education, and his nationalist project was primarily a political one. Christianity and civilization would redeem Africa, in his view, as it had Europe. At the same time, Crummell confronted the racism of white missionaries and colonizationist authorities. He criticized the treatment of native Africans by American settlers but regarded it as the duty of the African diaspora to save Africa through Christianization, commercial development, and education. The West Indian–born intellectual Edward Wilmot Blyden saw Liberia as “destined . . . to revolutionize for good the whole of that portion of Africa.” Blyden, who migrated to Liberia in 1851 and taught at Liberia College, was Liberia’s first ambassador to England and died in Sierra Leone.60

Other black abolitionists announced their conversion to Liberian emigration. Lewis Putnam in New York founded the Liberian Agriculture and Emigration Society. When the wrath of the entire black leadership descended on him for his “Judas-like” turn to traitor, he disavowed any connection with the ACS. The Committee of Thirteen led by Pennington, Cornish, Bell, and Downing convened to oppose both Putnam and the colonizationist Gov. Washington Hunt. A black delegation waited on Hunt to oppose state funding of the ACS. In 1860 Putnam would issue another appeal for emigration. Augustus Washington, a teacher from New Jersey who, financed by Lewis Tappan and Samuel Cox, studied at Dartmouth and then worked as a daguerreotypist in Hartford, published Thoughts on the American Colonization Society in 1851. Containing a judicious overview of abolition and colonization, it detailed Washington’s interest in forming a “separate state” for black people. African Americans must be the “architects of our own fortunes.” He advocated a coming together of abolition and colonization so that abolitionists might acknowledge the disabilities free blacks labored under and colonizationists support black education and uplift rather than simply removal. Washington asked the American government to recognize Liberia and endorsed the ACS plan to supply a line of steamers for mass black emigration. In 1853 he migrated to Liberia. A year later Washington, in a letter that was widely reprinted, detailed the less-than-ideal conditions in Liberia. It was “no Paradise, no Elysium, no Eldorado,” but if Pennington and Douglass could plead for black rights in America, which consistently denied African Americans full citizenship, Washington asked black migrants to correct abuses and oppression in Liberia. In 1863 he planned to visit New York but was “afraid to venture” in the aftermath of the Draft Riots, which became a racial pogrom against the city’s black community, a reminder of why he had left in the first place.61

Black abolitionism existed as a distinct phenomenon in the years before the Civil War, with its own institutions and concerns. African Americans made antiracism, at a programmatic as well as intellectual level, an essential part of the abolitionist project. They remained instrumental in developing movement strategy and ideology, taking on the burden of redefining the white man’s democracy.

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