O, ye daughters of Africa, awake! awake! arise! No longer sleep nor slumber, but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties. (Maria Stewart, 1831)
Early Dissent and Rebellion
Maria Stewart was exceptional. Born in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut, Stewart was orphaned at the age of five and bound out to a clergyman’s family as a domestic apprentice. She spent years in this family home, cleaning, cooking, serving, and hoping for an opportunity to better her “condition.” She was especially interested in gaining a formal education but instead received an introduction to religious rhetoric and deep philosophical convictions of self-help and service to one’s community. These attributes profoundly colored her life and her work as an advocate of abolition and free African American equality. In 1831, fired by her belief that God had ordained her with a “holy zeal” to these causes, she began to write and lecture. Remarkably, this poor, informally educated domestic servant became the first American-born woman of any color to hold a series of public lectures before racially mixed audiences of men and women.
During her brief stint on the Boston lecture circuit, Stewart spoke about every major issue of concern to African Americans of her generation—abolition, colonization, the expansion of rights for free people of color, the necessity of educational and occupational opportunities for African Americans, racial unity, racial pride, and self-determination. During her later life, she became a teacher in New York and eventually established two schools for free African American children in Washington, DC.
Maria Stewart was an exceptional woman, but she was not alone. Many other women took similar paths, dedicating their lives to abolition and black rights. Accordingly, her 1832 call to the “daughters of Africa” for activism and self-improvement was provocatively timed. In 1829, just two years before Stewart began her public reform efforts, a friend and mentor, David Walker, published what his critics called his “incendiary” Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. The following year, forty black delegates (all men) from eight states met in a convention to consider the problems of African Americans. Then, in 1831, William Lloyd Garrison initiated his Liberator magazine, and activists soon formed the American Anti-Slavery Society and numerous other regional and local organizations. These activities were centered in the Northeast, but in August 1831 another abolitionist effort was initiated in the rural Virginia county of Southampton, where Nat Turner riveted the nation as the leader of a slave rebellion that left sixty Anglo-Americans dead, sparked the murder of countless African Americans, and influenced the onslaught of new, discriminatory legislation aimed at free people of color.
Thus, Stewart’s challenge to her community of women occurred at a time when abolition and other reform efforts were becoming more organized and gaining a national audience. The slave population was growing rapidly, increasing from approximately 1.5 million persons in 1820 to more than 2 million in 1830. A “cotton kingdom” dependent on slave labor was being established in the South and Southwest, which meant widespread territorial expansion of the institution of slavery. Clearly slavery was not dying out, as optimists had hoped at the end of the eighteenth century.
The movement to end slavery not only grew during the second half of the antebellum era, it also changed substantially. Although some ideological and methodological splintering did occur over the years, most abolitionists of the post-1830 era did not support efforts of gradual emancipation as their predecessors had. Immediate abolition became the call of most, and among African American abolitionists, it held virtually universal appeal. Therefore, the issue of slavery, its fate and its impact on the socioeconomic and political character of the country, summoned a growing corps of abolitionists into conflict with proslavery advocates, a clash that would propel a second generation into national division and warfare.
Slavery and Other Issues
Slavery was not the only issue at hand, however. Intimately related to this cause was the position—social, economic, and political—of free people of color who were victims of increasing legal and customary discrimination. Most southern states, for example, required free people of color to carry evidence of their status, or “certificates of freedom,” wherever they went. Those who could not immediately produce this kind of documentation were held in jail until they could; some eventually were sold into slavery. Many southern jurisdictions also demanded that free people of color register with the local police or court authorities—Florida, Georgia, and Alabama even required them to have a white guardian. Most antebellum southern states also forced those who were recently emancipated to leave within twelve months of their manumission or risk reenslavement. These laws and hostile customs forced many free people of color to leave the South. Those who remained faced mounting restrictions, particularly after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, including mandatory curfews, an end to free assembly, and exclusion from schools as well as from many trades and occupations. Southern political and judicial systems were just as discriminatory. Black southerners generally could not vote, serve on juries, or testify against white defendants in a court of law, and they usually received stiffer criminal penalties than did white convicts for the same offenses. Political and judicial restrictions, of course, had a direct impact on the lives of free men of color and further diminished their ability to “protect” their women. These restrictions, therefore, not only undermined ideals of black manhood, but also those of black womanhood. Both African American men and women had to turn to white male sponsors, employers, or social acquaintances in order to gain access to this kind of protection.
The Northwest and West provided few additional expressions of freedom for the black minority. Many of the so-called black laws enacted in these regions were drawn directly from southern legislation and tradition. Free people of color fared better in the Northeast than in other parts of the nation, but that region was still far from welcoming. Where discrimination was not founded in law, custom was often the basis. None of the northern states, for example, legislatively ousted black persons from the courtroom, but social convention often prevented free people of color from sitting on juries everywhere except Massachusetts. Likewise, northern free people of color generally were not segregated in places of public accommodation or in publicly owned institutions, except schools, but they routinely were denied admission to hotels, restaurants, theaters, public lyceums, hospitals, and even cemeteries patronized by white residents.
It was not just that free African Americans faced growing opposition, which limited their opportunities, resources, and fundamental rights; there also was an attempt mounting to force black people out of the country permanently. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1816 for that express purpose. The black community widely opposed colonization, and their campaign against this effort, coupled with the inability of the society to fund removal, kept the organization from being successful. In the end, only about 1,400 persons moved to the West African colony of Liberia, despite the support of leading U.S. statesmen and the federal government. Instead of the number of free black people in the population diminishing, however, there actually was a steady increase: from 108,435 persons in 1800 to 233,634 in 1820; to 386,293 in 1840; and to almost one-half million, 488,070, in 1860. The majority were located in the Northeast, although Maryland and Virginia contained the largest population within state boundaries. Baltimore, with a population in excess of 25,000 in 1860, contained the largest number of free African Americans residing in a city. While most free people of color south of Maryland lived in rural locales, north of Maryland they tended to congregate in urban centers, cities, and towns, and it was in such places that their abolitionist activities were centered.
Women constituted a major part of the free black community, about 52 percent of their antebellum nineteenth-century population. Their numerical superiority, however, was not reflected in their social or economic status. Because of extremely limited educational resources and exclusion from lucrative employment due to racial and gender bias, few free women of color were able to acquire a comfortable lifestyle independently of men. Only a small number found work in the expanding industrial sector of the northern urban economy or were able to invest in their own businesses in any section of the country. Likewise, the number of free women of color who owned farmland and who had access to labor resources in the overwhelmingly agrarian South was minuscule. The free black woman, therefore, most readily found employment as a washerwoman, maid, cook, day laborer, or seamstress. Most women worked all of their lives, beginning as older children and continuing through old age, yet rarely achieved financial security. In Philadelphia in 1849, for example, 46 percent of free black women were washerwomen. They fared similarly in the Midwest and South. Sixty percent of free women of color in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1835, for example, were described as laundresses, as were 36 percent of those in Richmond County, Georgia, in 1819. Their poverty had an incredible social impact on the free African American community because these women headed a significant minority of households. Given the tragic effect of racial oppression on their daily lives, it is no small wonder that many free women of color became involved in efforts to expand the rights of black Americans.
In the most fundamental sense, African American women’s participation in abolitionist efforts began with African girls and women who resisted their enslavement at every juncture. Their desire to be free fueled their participation in innumerable individual and group acts of resistance and rebellion throughout the colonial and antebellum eras. This tradition is perhaps most readily symbolized in the courageous work of Harriet Tubman, a slave woman from Maryland who was not content to acquire her own freedom, but risked her life at least nineteen times in order to help approximately three hundred other slaves find their way to safety and freedom. Tubman’s determination to end slavery did not end with these brilliantly planned and executed escapes funded principally by her own sporadic work as a domestic. She also served as nurse, scout, and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. Like her, some of the most important female participants in organized abolition during the antebellum era were fugitive slave women. And like her, they were exceptional—exceptional in the sense that the vast majority of slave women did not become fugitives. They did not run away—at least not permanently or for long periods of time—as many men did. Their gender precluded them from access to travel passes at the same rate as males and restricted them from earning the same amounts of additional cash that would help to finance an escape. Their gender ideals tied them closely to their children, whom they refused to leave behind—and taking them along could mean certain capture. So they chose not to run away; and when they did, it usually was for short periods of time to avoid a dreaded punishment or to gain a desperately needed psychological break.
Female Societies Form
African American women publicly involved in abolition derived much of their inspiration and legitimacy from the self-help and self-improvement traditions of the black community. Many of the earliest female societies first formed as auxiliaries to male groups. Women who belonged to gender-integrated societies sometimes faced male opposition to their membership or, once admitted, were not allowed to fill leadership positions. Some women believed that their gender distinguished both their agenda and their strategies for service and reform, and they resented having to seek the approval of men when trying to express these differences. In the early nineteenth century, free women of color began to create many of their own literary, debating, insurance, and abolitionist societies. In so doing, they helped create a community of women who shared a common sense of sociopolitical and cultural identity and who had a moral, civic, and intellectual agenda that embraced, among other causes, abolition.
Their organizations generally had three important priorities: service and charity to members and the adjoining black community; individual and group intellectual development; and moral instruction appropriate for Christian women. The preamble to the constitution of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston is exemplary:
Whereas the subscribers, women of color of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, actuated by a natural feeling for the welfare of knowledge, the suppression of vice and immorality, and for cherishing such virtues as will render us happy and useful to society, sensible of the gross ignorance under which we have too long labored, but trusting, by the blessing of God, we shall be able to accomplish the object of our union—we have therefore associated ourselves under the name of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society.
Many such organizations formed throughout the Northeast as well as in such southern cities as Baltimore, Alexandria, Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans. Most, however, were centered in northeastern urban centers, for example, the African Female Benevolent Society of Newport, Rhode Island, formed in 1809; the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1818; the Coloured Female Roman Catholic Beneficial Society of Washington, DC, in 1828; the Colored Female Charitable Society of Boston in 1832; the Minerva Literary Association of Philadelphia in 1834; the Ladies Literary Society and the Female Literary Society, both of New York City, in 1834 and 1836; and the Ladies Literary and Dorcas Society of Rochester in 1836.
The majority of African American women reformers, as one might imagine, were middle-class or relatively well-to-do women who had received some formal education and were involved in numerous self-help and community-improvement ventures. Many represented second- and third-generation activists who had the benefit of growing up in homes and among friends who, as influential reformers and revolutionaries in their own right, set rigid standards for their younger kin to emulate. The number of elite black people in many communities was so small that some of their self-help and reform organizations resembled extended families. Race, class, gender, and sometimes even family lines, therefore, influenced the development of the work they performed. Of course, there were many exceptions to this middle-class standard. The Daughters of Africa in Philadelphia, for example, consisted of working women who pooled small amounts of their income in order to provide a collective fund to serve their members in times of emergency. It was difficult for individuals, particularly for such pioneers as Maria Stewart, to have a significant impact on the African American community or the abolitionist movement without the benefit and support of a network of sponsoring black reformers.
Literary societies were popular among free women of color throughout the antebellum years. Given the lack of educational opportunities, or intellectual and artistic outlets for black women, it is not difficult to imagine why many joined these organizations. Yet the African American women who supported these literary and debating societies had a political agenda as well. Many were as equally invested in abolition and issues of equality as in literary development and intellectual exercise. As the decades passed and abolition became the dominant African American reform issue, however, some organizations shifted their emphasis to address this priority. Although the title of a group might suggest only a literary society, often the favored interests of its members were abolition and the expansion of black rights. Many raised money to support these movements by selling some of their original texts, writing letters for persons who were illiterate, hosting bake sales, and holding fairs. The Ladies Literary Society of New York, for example, held numerous fund-raising activities in September 1837 in order to assist the Colored American, an African American antislavery journal. They also donated funds to the New York Vigilance Committee.
Even at the most fundamental level, therefore, African American women who were active in literary groups believed that their goals supported abolition and black-rights activism, maintaining that the intellectual acuity and high moral standards demonstrated by their work undermined racist notions of innate black inferiority and debasement. “As daughters of a despised race,” the Female Literary Association of Philadelphia asserted in 1831, “it becomes a duty...to cultivate the talents entrusted to our keeping that by so doing, we may break down the strong barrier of prejudice.”
Their intellectual endeavors also helped inspire a core of dedicated teachers who worked among free black people and, later, southern freedmen. Many abolitionist women, including Maria Stewart, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Margaretta and Charlotte Forten, Mary Peake, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Sarah Douglass, believed that their teaching careers were laudable expressions of their abolitionist sentiment. As Frances Harper declared in 1852, “There are no people that need all the benefits resulting from a well-directed education more than we do.”
Female Authors Champion the Cause
Free women of color used their talents and accomplishments, honed in their literary societies, to protest slavery and racial discrimination on several fronts. Indeed, many of the literary texts written by African American women promoted their sociopolitical assertions. Harriet Wilson, Charlotte and Sarah Forten, Harriet Jacobs, Maria Stewart, Ann Plato, and Frances E. W. Harper were foremost among the early black female realists and protest writers. Their literature not only carried powerful statements affirming the African American cause; it also credited some of them with tremendous firsts. Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831), a horrifying document of Caribbean slavery, was the first slave narrative written by a black woman in the Americas. The following year, Maria Stewart became the first free African American woman to publish a book of hymns and meditations. In 1835 Stewart also published a collection of her works, including political speeches, essays, and religious meditations. Ten years later, Ann Plato became the first African American to publish a book of essays, and Harriet Wilson was the first black person in the United States to publish a novel. Her 1859 text, Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, details some of the excruciating problems of free families of color, and the abuse of African American servant children and female domestics, whose only chance of financial survival was to work under conditions similar to those of chattel slavery. Two years later, Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl personalized the plight of the southern female slave by detailing episodes of her own psychological torture, sexual abuse, physical intimidation, and loss of family. Jacobs’s testimony, which expresses her determination to resist abuse and claim her humanity and femininity as much as it describes her life as a slave, was an invaluable defense of abolition and the black female character.
Some women also published in various antislavery journals and literary magazines. The writings of Charlotte Forten, for example, appeared in the Liberator, the Christian Recorder, the Anglo-African Magazine, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New England Magazine. An avid scholar and educator, Forten also impressed her “society” of friends with her linguistic abilities, translating for publication the French novel Madame Thérèse: or, The Volunteers of ’92 by Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian.
One of the most prolific writers of her generation was Frances E. W. Harper, a free woman of color from Baltimore who had worked as a domestic, seamstress, and teacher before turning to writing and lecturing for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society on a full-time basis. Harper’s poems were published in three volumes: Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), Poems (1871), and Sketches of Southern Life (1872). Eager to provide financial support as well as inspiration and information to the abolitionist movement, Harper used much of the income derived from her first book of poems to support William Still and his efforts on behalf of the Underground Railroad.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary not only was an influential abolitionist writer and activist, but also was the first African American female editor. Shadd Cary was born in Wilmington, Delaware, but grew up in Pennsylvania. Like many of her female peers, she was reared in an African American abolitionist household and as a child came to understand the kinds of sacrifices that one had to make in order to promote black freedom and equality. Yet her solutions differed substantially from those of many others. For one thing, she supported immigration to Canada, and she spent much of her time and energy during the 1850s promoting the exodus that eventually included approximately fifteen thousand people. In 1852 she wrote a lengthy pamphlet titled A Plea for Emigration; or, Notes of Canada West, in Its Moral, Social and Political Aspect. Like other emigrationists, she believed that free black people would live better outside the United States; she also knew that Canada was one of the few places on the continent where fugitive slaves could live without constant fear of being captured. Determined not to have her political views or social critiques censored, Shadd Cary created her own newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, in 1853. For six years, she juggled key positions on the fledgling antislavery and emigrationist journal, serving as its editor, writer, promoter, and fund-raiser.
Antislavery Societies Emerge
During the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, free women of color were at the forefront of establishing and maintaining female antislavery societies. They are credited, for example, with founding the first women’s abolitionist society, the Salem (Massachusetts) Female Antislavery Society, in 1832. Although many of these organizations did not include white members, some were racially integrated. The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1833 by both white and at least seven women of color, including four from the prominent Forten family. Women created other integrated organizations in Rochester, New York, and in Lynn and Boston, Massachusetts. Members sponsored numerous revenue-producing projects, public lyceums, exhibitions, and lectures, and they circulated abolitionist literature and various petitions directed at local, state, and national government agencies. Gaining a sense of their unique contributions to, and their general self-assurance within, these politically charged reformist circles, black women acted as representatives to regional and national antislavery conventions as well as helped initiate the earliest organized strivings for women’s rights.
Integrated abolitionist societies, however, did not eliminate demonstrations of racial bias. Many Euro-American abolitionists did not believe in racial equality or social integration. Often they refused to socially embrace black antislavery advocates, allow them to take leadership positions in various organizations, or support African American journalists and lecturers. Many spoke to or about black abolitionists in a condescending or patronizing manner, willing to tolerate some African American participation in the movement but demanding that Euro-American activists retain ultimate control. Black women abolitionists did not ignore these conflicts when they arose in their integrated meetings. “Our skins may differ, but from thee we claim/A sister’s privilege and a sister’s name,” Sarah Forten wrote in a poem commissioned for the 1837 Convention of American Women. That same year she noted bitterly in a letter to Angelina Grimké that “even our professed friends have not yet rid themselves” of their prejudice: “To some of them it clings like a dark mantle obscuring their many virtues and choking up the avenues of higher and nobler sentiments.”
A few people were able to move beyond the bounds of racism and sexism not only to participate in local abolitionist organizations, but also to lecture as representatives of some of the largest and most powerful national antislavery societies. Younger generations of African American women were able to take advantage of the opportunities painfully created by their predecessors. Sarah Parker Remond, for example, born in Salem, Massachusetts, to a family of activists and a member of several antislavery groups, became lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1856. She lectured throughout the Northeast, England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1859 through the Civil War era, at first supporting the cause of abolition and then hoping to influence the British not to support the Confederacy. Her stint on the lecture circuit followed in the tradition established by Maria Stewart in 1832. Branded as “promiscuous,” however, Stewart eventually was subdued by criticism that her behavior was not befitting a woman. After giving only four public speeches in Boston, she felt compelled to retire. In her “Farewell Address to Her Friends in the City of Boston” on 21 September 1833, Stewart took the opportunity to chastise that black male leadership who had been so critical of her public strivings:
Be no longer astonished...my brethren and friends that God at this eventful period should raise up your own females to strive by their example....to assist those who are endeavoring to stop the strong current of prejudice that flows so profusely against us at present. No longer ridicule their efforts. It will be counted for sin. For God makes use of feeble means sometimes to bring about his most exalted efforts.
“Feeble” was the word to use to describe a convention of nineteenth-century feminine identity that many black female abolitionists seemed to defy. Consider, for example, the life and work of Sojourner Truth. Born a slave in New York State at the end of the eighteenth century, Truth (named Isabella Bomefree while a slave) was the victim of a series of cruel masters and devastating personal experiences, including separation from her parents as a child and having her own children sold away from her. Taking her freedom in 1826, Sojourner Truth embraced Christianity and later came to believe that it was her religious duty to further the cause of black men and women, slave and free. She was a tireless lecturer, often appearing unexpectedly, but always managing to fascinate her audience whenever she spoke.
Fighting for Freedom and Education
Free women of color continued their various activities in support of abolition and black rights through the antebellum era and beyond. Not content to end their efforts with the initiation of the Civil War, they continued their agitation, hoping to convince the U.S. government and the American people to mandate general emancipation as a condition for peace. Others joined forces to collect food, clothing, schoolbooks, and medical supplies for the thousands of slaves who escaped to Union lines during the war. Their efforts inspired younger activists, many just finishing their formal education, to travel to the South during and after the Civil War to educate black southerners. Teachers such as Charlotte Forten, Sara Stanley, Lucie Stanton Day, and Blanche Harris helped create the first generation of literate former slaves. As always, their work, pursued under trying social and economic conditions, was part of their determination to fulfill their twofold duty as women and African Americans.
Colored Females’ Free Produce Society
The United Farm Workers’ grape boycott in the 1960s was far from the first time Americans had refused to eat food produced under conditions of exploitation. In the 1830s the black women of Philadelphia organized to encourage black women and their sympathetic white sisters to reject food and other products that were grown, harvested, or manufactured by enslaved labor. They worked to make available alternatives that were produced by free labor.
The Philadelphia Colored Females’ Free Produce Society was part of a larger movement, with groups in many northern cities. They targeted products like sugar, molasses, cotton, rice, and tobacco, and provided a training ground for women activists like Frances E. W. Harper and Grace Bustill Douglass.
Accounts can be found in the newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, 4 and 14 July, 11 August, and 15 September, all in 1827; 8 March 1828; January, February, April, May, July, 1831. This periodical is available through ProQuest’s American Periodical Series I.
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