Abolitionist Women Embrace the Fight
Slavery was a big business in America in the early 1830s. About two million of the country’s thirteen million residents were enslaved, and the enslaved population—who were considered the property of their owners—was worth hundreds of millions of dollars in modern-day money. So ending enslavement was a wildly unpopular idea in the South and in other parts of the country. Plus, enslaved people did the hard work of planting and harvesting sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, and other crops; they were one of the driving forces of the American economy. Now, more than 150 years after the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which formally ended slavery in the United States, it might be difficult to understand why there was so much support for enslaving fellow humans and using brutality, including whipping and torturing people, to keep them enslaved. At thetime, though, many white Americans—both those who owned people and those who didn’t—considered slavery a necessary evil. How else could a new country survive and grow its economy? Congress banned the importation of human cargo into the United States in 1808, but the population of enslaved people in America continued to grow due to “natural increase,” enslaved women having an average of between nine and ten children in their lifetimes. Children fathered by plantation owners and born to enslaved women became enslaved. These were among the factors that caused the US slave population to increase between 25 percent and 33 percent every year. Though many people in the United States, including slaveholders, were aware of the brutality of the institution, for slaveholders, the economic benefits far outweighed the moral conundrum that it presented.
After more than two hundred years of slavery as an American way of life, a number of devoutly religious white men, including professor and activist Theodore Dwight Weld, journalist William Lloyd Garrison, businessmen Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and newspaper owner Benjamin Lundy, publicly questioned whether the moral failure of slavery outweighed its perceived economic necessity. “Enslave the liberty of but one human being and the liberties of the world are put in peril,” Garrison wrote in his anti-slavery newspaper, the Liberator, a quote that illustrated his and other people’s approach to abolition or abolishing slavery. These men, many of whom were Quakers, developed a strategic plan: They created anti-slavery organizations and published newspapers, like the Genius of Emancipation and the Liberator, and delivered speeches and lectures to turn publicopinion against slavery, encourage plantation owners to free the people they’d enslaved, and help craft laws that preserved and protected the rights of formerly enslaved people. The anti-slavery movement spreadthroughout the United States and took hold in eastern cities like Philadelphia, where Black women like Sarah Mapps Douglass also joined the abolition cause.
Frederick Douglass (no relation to Sarah Mapps Douglass), who escaped from a plantation in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1838, became one of the anti-slavery movement’s most recognizable and prominent speakers. He published theNorth Star, an abolitionist newspaper, and traveled throughout Northern states, including New York and Pennsylvania, delivering firecracker speeches that called for the end of slavery. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting,” he said to a raucous crowd during a Fourth of July celebration in Rochester, New York, in 1852. “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Men, including Douglass, were perceived as the principal leaders of the anti-slavery movement. In the nineteenth century, women were considered the inferior or lesser sex. Though many male abolitionists were progressive about ending slavery, they were less welcoming to the idea that women would leave their domestic duties, such as cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, and join the public fight to abolish slavery. Despite these sexist attitudes, a number of women became instrumental in spreading abolitionist ideas. Some of these women, such as activists Mary Edmonson, Emily Edmonson, Maria Stewart, and Ellen Craft, delivered speeches that argued for the end of slavery; others, like poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and author Mary Prince, made slavery a prominent theme throughout their writings; still other women leveraged their roles as wives and mothers and turned their abolitionist views into actions, such as boycotting products that were produced from slave labor. These women stopped purchasing cotton, sugar, and tobacco grown in Southern states, and encouraged other women in their communities to do so as well.
Sarah Mapps Douglass also put her money where her mouth was: In 1831, she and a number of her prominent Black friends came together to raise money for William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, theLiberator, for which she also contributed articles. On September 20, 1831, Douglass and her friends also formed the Female Literary Association, a weekly meeting in Philadelphia for Black women to share their own writings and important readings they’d come across. Each week, twenty members gathered together to “recite and read” anonymous stories written by each of them and then dropped in a box to be taken out and shared. Their overall goals went beyond reading and discussion. Members of the association wanted to use their “endeavors to enlighten the understanding, to cultivate the talents entrusted to our keeping, that by so doing, we may in a great measure, break down the strong barrier of prejudice.” For Black woman abolitionists like Douglass, this kind of community gathering helped them learn about big, contemporary issues, including slavery.
Despite their ongoing commitment to ending slavery and Doug-lass’s close friendship with Garrison, there’s no doubt that the abolitionist movement had a sexism problem: On December 4, 1833, sixty-four abolitionists from ten states gathered at the Adelphi Building in Philadelphia to create the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), an organization that perceived slavery as a “heinous crime in the sight of God.” The organization’s goal was to immediately end slavery and give Black Americans “civil and religious privileges” equal to those of white people in the United States. However, only white woman abolitionists were invited to the meeting, and they were relegated to the sidelines. Lucretia Mott, Lydia White, Esther Moore, and Sidney Ann Lewis were present, but they weren’t asked to participate or sign the AASS’s new constitution. They were to be seen and not heard, sent to the back of the room to become spectators instead of active participants in determining the priorities of this newfound organization. In fact, they were so overlooked that the AASS encouraged the women in attendance to create their own anti-slavery organizations.
So, on December 9, 1833, five days after the AASS was formed, Mott gathered a group of women, mostly Quakers, in schoolteacher Catherine McDermott’s small classroom to create their own female anti-slavery society. When Sarah Mapps Douglass and her mother learned that an anti-slavery society for women was being formed, there was no way they’d miss a chance to attend. They headed to the school for the inaugural meeting of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS). Like its male counterpart the AASS, the PFASS’s mission was to “elevate the people of color from their present degraded situation to the full enjoyment of their rights and to increased usefulness in society.” When Douglass and her mother arrived in the cramped classroom, they were greeted by a number of other female abolitionists, both white and Black. It was an unusual situation; typically, white and Black women were segregated, relegated to their own society and communities. They generally didn’t attend the same schools or churches, and most of the time, they weren’t even buried in the same graveyards, but from the beginning, Black women were integral members of the PFASS.
At that first meeting, Sarah Mapps Douglass and her mother greeted and exchanged pleasantries with a number of other Black women, including Margaretta Forten, who along with her daughters, Sarah and Harriet, was part of a prominent free Black family that included James Forten, one of the organizers of the AASS, and Hetty Reckless, who had escaped from a plantation in New Jersey in 1826 and begun operating a part of the Underground Railroad. These women weren’t treated as inferiors or made to feel as if their opinions didn’t matter because they were Black. Instead, they helped draft the PFASS’s constitution and priorities. A committee of fourteen women—both white and Black—drafted a constitution that declared that slavery was “contrary to the laws of God.” The PFASS also created a governing body that included a president, corresponding secretary, treasurer, librarian, and recording secretary; set up monthly meetings; and began spreading the word that the PFASS was open to all—not just white women, but all women.
Abolition wasn’t an abstract concept for Black women in the 1840s. A great number of them were still enslaved or had fled by foot to free states where, at any moment, they could be captured and returned to slavery. For them, ending slavery wasn’t just about being on the right side of history or taking a moral stance. For Black women, abolition meant the difference between living freely and without fear and being sent back to plantations where they would surely be tortured for escaping and their children could be sold away from them at any time. Many of these women were active abolitionists because they had a firsthand understanding of how high the stakes were for themselves and their families.
Abolition, in the PFASS’s view, was everyone’s work. But Black women were an essential part of the movement because they—especially the abolitionists who were formerly enslaved—understood, far too well, the impact of slavery. They could and did spread the word about the true nature of this terrible institution through pamphlets, books, and speeches far more effectively than those who’d never directly experienced living in slavery. Fearless women, like Hetty Reckless and Harriet Jacobs, unflinchingly told their stories. So did other free Black women who weren’t a part of the PFASS but were on the abolition circuit, writing articles, traveling across the North to deliver speeches, and publicly declaring that their cause was critical to the abolition movement.
Sojourner Truth, a formerly enslaved woman born on a plantation in Ulster County, New York, in 1797, and Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who then traveled to rescue more than three hundred enslaved people from her former plantation, were two of the most famous Black woman abolitionists of that time. Both women understood how brutal and dangerous the institution of slavery was, especially for women and children. Enslaved women occupied unique places on plantations. They were forced to work in planting fields, picking cotton or tobacco, and in plantation homes, cleaning their master’s house, raising their master’s children while still caring for their own children, who could be sold to another plantation at any moment. Enslaved women were also in danger of being assaulted by white and Black men alike. What they endured gave them a powerful perspective about both abolition and women’s suffrage.
The harrowing stories of enslaved women should have been the linchpin of the American Anti-Slavery Society and Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society’s ongoing campaign to persuade the federal government to pass an anti-slavery amendment. Instead, Black woman abolitionists were often overlooked or their voices went unheard.
Black women of the time, including those involved in the PFASS, began strategizing about how to take their cause and experiences to wider audiences. Educating Black children about abolition was one of Sarah Mapps Douglass’s greatest passions, and it was one that the newly formed PFASS strongly supported. Each month, the organization’s members, which still numbered less than thirty, met in Clarkson Hall, a building specifically bought to house meetings for abolitionist groups. They discussed how they’d spread “correct information” about the inhumane conditions enslaved people faced every day and how to remove “this foul stain” from America’s soil. The devoted members of the PFASS continued their efforts to avoid purchasing and using products procured by slave labor. They subscribed to anti-slavery pamphlets, journals, and newspapers; read, discussed, and circulated influential abolitionist Lydia Maria Child’s groundbreaking 1833 book,An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans; and most importantly, they collected enough donations to help Sarah Mapps Douglass found a school for Black children in Philadelphia.
While members of the PFASS mobilized, building the organization’s foundation and donating enough money to keep it afloat, other Black women who were not members of any official anti-slavery organization were also spreading the gospel of abolition.
Black women like Maria Stewart, who had moved into the middleclass only to find that this did not guarantee security, began to look at the connections between abolition and other civil rights. Stewart didn’t hesitate when she came across a January 1831 advertisement from William Lloyd Garrison requesting more Black women to contribute stories to his newspaper, the Liberator. This was the perfect outlet for Stewart to discuss a number of issues that were now on her doorstep. She was the first person to respond to Garrison’s request, and by summer, she’d published a controversial twelve-page pamphlet, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality: The Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build.” It was a departure from the quiet personae typically associated with Stewart and other women of her class. Stewart’s fiery pamphlet caught many people in her community off guard, but it was a freeing moment for her. She finally had a place to express her opinion without being persecuted, and though public speaking was solely the domain of men at that time—women were prohibited or discouraged from giving speeches to mixed audiences of women and men—Stewart had been bottled up for long enough. She was ready to bring her message to the world—or at least her corner of the world—as she proclaimed, “All of the nations of the earth are crying out for Liberty and Equality. Away, away with tyranny and oppression!”
By April 1832, Stewart had turned “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality” into a speech that she first delivered to a very attentive room at the African American Female Intelligence Society, an organization created by fellow free Black women in Boston. Members listened closely as Stewart stirred them to action, encouraging these women to leave the domain of their homes and enter the realm of abolition: “O, ye daughters of Africa! What have ye done to immortalize your names beyond the grave? What examples have ye set before the rising generation?” Stewart continued delivering variations of this speech to other Black women and even to men, a groundbreaking action that set her apart from other speakers of the time.