To the person/people who found their way to this blog by googling “is the baby a slave if the father is black and the mother white?” amongst other similar search engine terms: This one’s for you!
Apparently three years have flown by since I first learned of and blogged about Mary Ellen Pleasant. Whoa.
Anyway, I was truly delighted to come across this Drunk History segment on a Sunday afternoon #sharing. I love that some funny creative knew of the story and decided to give it life as an inebriated tale. The piece is actually longer, but this is all I could find on youtube. If you have Comedy Central and On Demand you can find the entire tale in the “San Francisco” episode. Highly recommended.
“Where was I at historic-al-ly?”
…you’re free. Have been for two and a half years, but who’s counting?
I mean, can you even imagine!? Finding out you’d just slaved away for, well, nothing. I suppose that’s an oxymoron or something. It’s also what happened in Texas back in 1865. Somehow it took 2.5 years for news of the end of the war and emancipation of the slaves to reach Texas. Word finally arrived on June 19th, 1865. We call it Juneteenth. It’s a national holiday. Nobody wished me a Happy Juneteenth though. I don’t think it’s common knowledge. And I do think it should be.
Juneteenth celebration in Eastwoods Park, Austin, 1900 (Austin History Center)
Today in Texas History: Juneteenth
On this date in 1865, Union General Gordon Granger (November 6, 1822 – January 10, 1876) read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, thus officially ordering the freeing of 250,000 slaves in Texas. Since then, many African Americans celebrate Juneteenth as a distinct Independence Day, marking freedom from bondage.
Most Americans assume that President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, on January 1, 1863, abolished slavery. In truth, the majority of African Americans remained enslaved after that date. The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to Confederate States. The Proclamation did not free black slaves in Border States like Maryland, Kentucky, West Virginia and Delaware, where slavery was practiced. The Proclamation targeted the Confederacy, precisely where American law held no emotional or political authority.
Juneteenth marks the abolition of slavery in Texas. The news of freedom inspired celebrations by African Americans across the state, as well as reflections on and strategies regarding the future of the Texan black community as freed people. Historian Palomo Acosta writes, “The first broader celebrations of Juneteenth were used as political rallies to teach freed African Americans about their voting rights.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau organized the first official Texas Juneteenth celebration in Austin in 1867. Since 1872, Juneteenth has remained a part of the calendar of public events. Juneteenth often includes a host of events and activities which people of all ages can enjoy. The day is often marked by dance, theater and musical performances, as well as by sport activities and barbecues. “Lift Every Voice” remains a popular and traditional song performed at most Juneteenth celebrations held across the country.
Juneteenth declined in popularity in the 1960s as the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. Calls for integration lessened the importance of black only events as African Americans tried to end de jure and de facto segregation. The rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1970s renewed interest in Juneteenth as many African Americans advocated for recognition of the uniqueness of the African American experience while also advocating for integration and equality in the country’s political, economic and educational spheres.
In 1979, state Rep. Al Edwards, a Houston Democrat, introduced a bill into the Texas legislature calling for the recognition of Juneteenth as a public holiday in the state of Texas. A state-supported Juneteenth celebration took place a year later.
Juneteenth illustrates two challenges facing the black community in the post civil rights era — fighting racism and the ideology of race while, at the same time, communicating the fact that, although the concept of race has no scientific basis, the color of one’s skin in America continues to inform the American experience on both a personal and community level. Simply stated, race may not be real, but it is lived. Juneteenth reflects this dual reality for the African American community.
Today, Texas and 29 other states recognize Juneteenth as an official public holiday. Last year, Representative Sheila Lee Jackson spoke in support of a resolution commemorating the historical significance of Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States.
Today, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced legislation honoring Juneteenth Independence Day as a federal holiday. In a statement released by the senator, she stated, “By commemorating this day, the U.S. Senate will honor the role that Juneteenth has played in African-American culture in Texas and throughout the Southwest, and it will remind us that, in America, we are all blessed to live in freedom.”
I simply could not let the month go by completely without acknowledging Confederate History Month. So, if you didn’t know… now you know…and you have the next hour and 16 minutes or so to observe it as you see fit.
From Wikipedia (the shame, i know):
-Confederate History Month is a month annually designated by six state governments in the Southern United States for the purpose of recognizing and honoring the history of the Confederate States of America. April has traditionally been chosen, as Confederate Memorial Day falls during that month in many of these states.
Although Confederate Memorial Day is a holiday in most Southern states, the tradition of having a Confederate History Month is not uniform. State governments or chief executives that have regularly declared Confederate History Month are as follows:
- Florida (since 2007)
- Georgia (by proclamation since 1995, by legislative authority since 2009)
- Texas (since 1999)
- Virginia (1994–2002, 2010)
Four states that were historically part of the Confederacy, Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, do not have a tradition of declaring a Confederate History Month.-
Yep, Confederate Memorial Day. Who knew?
Reading this passionate blog post refuting (with what I hope are actual facts… mea culpa re: no fact checking) the good old “It was about States Rights, not slavery” stance might be a fine way to spend the last few moments of this month of remarkable celebration.
Confederate History Month: Celebrating Racists, Traitors And Slavers
Right now, this very second, we are in the middle of Confederate History Month. Right now, this very second, there are entire states celebrating their failed attempt to secede from the United States while killing hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and civilians.
These people are, by and large, a**holes.
Now, this isn’t like the descendants of World War II vets (and the surviving vets themselves)commemorating a long and bloody war; these people are celebrating the side that lost. You know, the one that attacked the very country Southern conservatives claim to love more than life itself? And let’s be honest, most of the people who fly the Confederate flag are not liberals. These are the people who long for the “good ol’ days” when the South was a decent proper place where a white man could whip a black slave just for fun.
Oh, did I offend? Tough noogies.
This is about the time that some jackass insists that the Civil War was about “state’s rights.” You see, this is a story that Southerners enamored of the Old South tell themselves, and anyone in earshot, to avoid the reality that they are “proud” of a heritage inextricably bound to slavery and treason.
Take a moment to enjoy the sound of right-wing heads exploding.
Now, there are a numbers of ways to debunk this fairy tale that the South was all about state’s rights and “freedom” from an oppressive central government and it’s hilarious watching traitor-worshipping conservatives contort themselves to avoid the truth. So let’s make a list!
1. Declaration of Causes of Seceding States:
Georgia “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”
Mississippi “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”
South Carolina “Those [non-slaveholding] States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States.”
Texas “They [non-slaveholding states] demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.”
Does it get any clearer than that? Yes, actually, it does.
2. The Cornerstone Address (I wrote about this in brief on my blog so it might seem a bit cribbed):
“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the ‘storm came and the wind blew, it fell’.”
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
This speech was delivered on March 21, 1861, by the VICE PRESIDENT of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. But what the hell did he know? He was just the VICE PRESIDENT. Do keep in mind, dear conservatives, that this was over one hundred years before Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin. Vice Presidents generally had to be reasonably intelligent.
3. This is all crap! The Confederacy was all about FREEDOM™ and State’s Rights™ (FREEDOM and State’s Rights are both trademarks of the Angry Ignorant White Man Coalition, also known as the GOP)!!!
Well, OK, if that were true, then the newly-minted CSA’s constitution would reflect that. Heck, if states wanted to abolish slavery on their own, then FREEDOM™ and State’s Rights™ would demand they be allowed to do so:
Article IV Section 9(3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several states; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form states to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.
Soooooo, no state could join the Confederacy unless it allowed slavery? What if they didn’t want it or changed their minds later? Well, that was just too bad. You HAD to allow slavery. Why? Because the central government would have forced you to. Just to make this crystal clear, a central government forbidding the enslavement of other human beings is “tyranny,” but a central government forcing states to adopt slavery is “FREEDOM™?” Yeah, that makes perfect sense.
There you have it, in their very own words; the traitors of the Confederacy attacked the United States and caused the bloodiest war in American history for the sole purpose of preserving their “right” to treat other human beings as property. Anyone that flies the Confederate flag, reminisces about “better times” or insists that “The South Will Rise Again!” is celebrating racists, traitors and slavers. If you celebrate a culture based on the most immoral of all crimes against humanity, you are, by definition, a racist asshole. If you try to pretend that slavery wasn’t so bad or that the “War of Southern Scumbaggery” was about FREEDOM™, you are a lying racist asshole. If you actually believe the right-wing whitewashing of the Civil War, you are delusional but not necessarily an a**hole (although the odds against this are not good).
it’s stories like this that lead to comments (taken from various youtube videos i’ve made) like this :
-mixed people r racist and would love 2 blacks extinct and wiped of the planet!
-Bi racial my ass,these people are black when they get through talking.Stop running from your blackness and them white folks that you are trying lick up under are calling you nigger behind your backs.More videos we see on youtube or myspace,will thousands of video blogs from these coons hating they’re blackness and fronting like they’re special because the have one parent that is white and the other black,that bull shit and these coons know it.
all i can say/speculate is “sign of the times,” and “survival of the fittest,” and his karma sure did catch up to him in the end…
i wonder if his children were mulatto by virtue of carruthers’ mulatto-ness alone, or was kitty also a mulatto. doesn’t matter. just curious. i also wonder who owned him. it doesn’t seem to be his father or the neighbors whom he apprenticed… maybe it was the father though. i’ve read this four times and just haven’t a clue. ah, history…
The story of John Carruthers Stanly, a former slave who gained his freedom, only to become the largest slaveholder in Craven County, North Carolina.
John Carruthers Stanly
Stanly, born a slave in 1774, was the son of an African Ibo woman and the white prominent merchant-shipper John Wright Stanly. He was apprenticed to Alexander and Lydia Stewart, close friends and neighbors of his father. They saw to it that John received an education and learned the trade of barbering. At an early age, they helped him establish his own barbershop in New Bern. Many of the town’s farmers and planters frequented his barbershop for a shave or a trim. As a result, Stanly developed a successful business. By the time he reached the age of twenty-one, literate and economically able to provide for himself, his owners petitioned the Craven County court in 1795 for his emancipation. However, he was not completely satisfied with the ruling of the court and in 1798, through a special act, the state legislature confirmed the emancipation of John Carruthers Stanly, which entitled him to all rights and privileges of a free person.
Between 1800 and 1801, Stanly purchased his slave wife, Kitty, and two mulatto slave children. By March 1805, they were emancipated by the Craven County Superior Court. A few days later, Kitty and Stanly were legally married in New Bern and posted a legal marriage bond in Raleigh. Stanly’s wife was the daughter of Richard and Mary Green and the paternal granddaughter of Amelia Green. Two years later, in 1807, Stanly was successful in getting the court to emancipate his wife’s brother.
Some politically correct Court Historians end the story here, if they acknowledge the existence of black slaveholders at all. What a noble thing, to purchase and emancipate one’s own family! But there is much more to the story.
After securing his own and his family’s freedom, Stanly began to focus more on business matters. He obtained other slaves to work for him. Two of them, Boston and Brister, were taught the barbering trade. Once they became skillful barbers, Stanly let them run the operation while he used the money they helped him earn to invest in additional town property, farmland, and more slaves.
Through his business acumen, Stanley eventually became a very wealthy plantation owner and the largest slaveholder in all of Craven County. He profited from investments in real estate, rental properties, the slave operated barbershop, and plantations from which he sold commodities such as cotton and turpentine.
Stanly’s plantations and rental properties were operated by skilled slaves along with help from some hired free blacks. To improve his rental properties in New Bern, he used skilled slaves and free blacks to build cabins and other residences and to repair and renovate these properties. During the depression of the early 1820s it was slave labor that kept Stanly economically stable.
The 1830 census reveals that Stanly owned, 163 slaves. He has been described as a harsh, profit-minded task master whose treatment of his slaves was no different than the treatment slaves received from white owners. Stanly’s goal, shared by white southern planters, was on expanding his operations and increasing his profits.
During the early 1820s, Stanly’s wife, Kitty, was taken seriously ill. She became bedridden and, despite careful attention by two slave nurses, she died around 1824. It was at this same time that Stanly began to face a series of financial difficulties. His fortune began to plummet when the Bank of New Bern, due to the national bank tightening controls of some state and local banks, was forced to collect all outstanding debts. Unfortunately, Stanly had countersigned a security note for John Stanly, his white half-brother, in the amount of $14,962. Stanly was forced to assume the debt. This, along with his own debts forced him to refinance his mortgages and sell large pieces of property, including slaves. When these options did not resolve his economic woes, he resorted to mortgaging his turpentine, cotton, and corn crops, as well as selling his barbershop, which had been operating continuously for forty years. Without a steady flow of income, his fortunes continued to decline. In 1843, his last 160 acres of land were sold at public auction. Three years later, at the age of 74, John Carruthers Stanly died. At the time of his death he still owned seven slaves.
John Wright Stanly House, New Bern, North Carolina
I mean… I just don’t have words… which is weird for me… a little sick to my stomach over this, actually… talk about a different fourth grade experience…
I’d love to believe that were I subjected to this horror show I would have been able to poke fun at the situation. That maybe I would have been able to choose one male white friend and taken the ‘performance’ to a whole ‘nother level by crying, “Oh please don’t sell me away, father…” However, being nine or ten and shy, I probably would at best have refused to participate, but, more likely, gone along, swallowing my anger, humiliation, and shame until I got in the car after school and told my mother who would promptly have taken care of it. I assure you of that.
My mother would have gone to school and ripped the teacher, and anyone else who was walking by, a new a**hole had this happened to me. She did that when she didn’t like the way they taught about the Mayflower and the Indians in first grade. We did it together in the fifth grade when Sr. Mary Ann said some offensive b.s. about MLK and used me, the only student of color, as a reference. She got fired.
As a “black” student who nearly always served as a speck of pepper in a sea of salt, I can tell you that it is uncomfortable enough to go through the history lessons on the Civil War when the class is simply reading straight from the textbook, but to actually be used to physically demonstrate the atrocity…. It feels bad enough when you’re in geography and your friend accidentally reads the “river Niger” aloud as the river nigger and a hush falls over a crowd and everyone is looking at you in your desk at the back of the room even though their eyes are facing forward… but THIS. I just can’t… Jessica Boyle, imho, you officially suck as a teacher and a human being. Hopefully this will open your eyes to all that you have had the privilege of being blind to, and you’ll come out of this a better person. Good f***ing luck!
The principal of Sewells Point Elementary School has apologized to parents for a teacher’s classroom exercise last week that cast her black and mixed-race fourth-graders as available for sale.
The apology came after the teacher separated the students from their white classmates and auctioned them, division spokeswoman Elizabeth Thiel Mather said. The exercise was part of an April 1 class on the Civil War.
In an April 6 letter sent to parents of students in the class, Principal Mary B. Wrushen wrote: “I recently became aware of a history lesson that was presented to the students in Ms. Jessica Boyle’s fourth grade class. Although her actions were well intended to meet the instructional objectives, the activity presented was inappropriate for the students.
“The lesson could have been thought through more carefully, as to not offend her students or put them in an uncomfortable situation,” Wrushen wrote.
Wrushen said the exercise was not supported by the school or division. “I will follow up with the classroom teacher to ensure nothing like this ever occurs again,” the letter said. “In addition, the guidance counselor is available to discuss any concerns your child may still have concerning this classroom lesson.”
Wrushen declined to comment Friday. Boyle, who has been with the division since 2005, did not return a call to the school. She has taught at Sewells Point for three years, and before that was at Dreamkeepers Academy, according to the division website.
Mather said the division was responding to the incident with “appropriate personnel action.” She did not give details.
Wrushen became aware of the auction exercise after receiving complaints from two parents, and spoke to the class about the incident, Mather said.
“This lesson was not part of the approved curriculum,” Mather said.
Chris Lee, whose daughter is in Boyle’s class, was among parents picking up their children Friday at the school on Hampton Boulevard near Norfolk Naval Station. He said he’d heard no details about the exercise, though he received Wrushen’s letter.
“My wife and I were trying to figure out what the letter was about, because we heard nothing about it, we just saw the letter,” he said.
Told by a reporter about the auction, Lee said, “That sounds inappropriate to me. Wow. That’s interesting – that’s something I have to digest.” He said he would ask his daughter to tell him about the incident.
The school has 590 students.
Contacted Friday by The Virginian-Pilot, School Board Chairman Kirk Houston said he had not known about the auction.
“That’s very disturbing to me, extremely disturbing to me,” he said. “Mock slave auctions involving children are absolutely unacceptable in a classroom. At this point this is a personnel matter, and the School Board will monitor its outcome.”
Peggy Scott, treasurer of the Norfolk Council PTA, also first heard about the incident from The Pilot.
“I’m sitting here with my mouth hanging open,” Scott said. “There are some things you don’t do.”
In a statement Friday, Superintendent Richard Bentley said: “The school district does not condone this type of lesson in any way. It was wrong. It was outside the boundaries of the curriculum and appropriate instructional practices.”
London Illustrated News, February 16, 1861, depicting a slave auction in Virginia. The sign on the podium reads “Negroes for sale at auction this day at 1 o’clock.”
Dealers inspecting a negro at a slave auction in Virginia. [The Inspection]
by Lefevre James Cranstone Image rights owned by the Virginia Historical Society
Silvia Federici’s Slave auction, United States
in my search for vintage images of mulatto folks i recently stumbled upon a gem!! Joan P. Gage is a journalist and a collector of photographs. on her blog A Rolling Crone she shares one of her collectibles and the fascinating (and still unfolding) story behind it. i feel all kinds of ways about this piece of our history (and by “our” i do mean mulatto, i do mean american, i do mean human seeing as everything is everything and all.) anyway, i feel sad for the little girl. i feel pride for the little girl. i feel a sense of satisfaction that i can point to this child and to the efforts charles sumner as evidence that, even way back when, a white man and a white-looking black child attempted to change people’s minds (way back)when it would have been much easier (not to mention safer!) to relish in the societal refuge that their phenotype offered. i am not implying that the attempt was perfect, nor that there is nothing offensive or off-color about the sentiment behind the message. but, if you consider the general consensus of the times on this matter, i think it safe to view sumner’s cause as a benevolent one. i wonder how little mary felt. i wonder if she understood. i wonder what her parents looked like. and her siblings. i assume there’s a reason that they were not photographed or ‘exhibited’ together. and i wonder how they felt about that, about all of it. and what became of all of them…
From “Raising Freedom’s Child—Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery,” written by a University of New Orleans professor, Mary Niall Mitchell:
From joanpgage, the blogger (and current owner of the daguerrotype) from which I am re-blogging this piece:
…Prof. Mitchell is currently working on a book about Mary Botts that will tell more about this former slave’s life, including the drama of how Sumner purchased her and spirited her out of Virginia, how he introduced her to the media and society as a living advocate for the abolitionist cause, and how her family settled in the free black community in Boston.
i’ve no idea where i found this. it’s been waiting to be posted since last july…
in light of the current posting trend over here, i found the last line to be somewhat relevant…”document(s) white recognition of beauty and attraction in their slaves.” not quite so “flattering” as the modern recognition.
This one is so good that I don’t have perspective to add or anything witty to say about it. However that could just be because I’ve only had three hours of sleep and just can’t do any better. Either way, this excerpt of a transcript of an NPR interview is definitely worth reading and pondering. You could also listen to it in it’s entirety HERE.
Author Examines ‘The History Of White People’
Once upon a time, notorious laws in this country defined as black anyone with as much as one drop of black blood. Similar laws struggled with the rights of people of mixed race, octoroons, for example. But nowhere can you find a definition of white people, and as a practical matter, that non-definition has changed. Ethnic groups now regarded as white Irish, Jews, Italians – were once very much on the outside.
These points (are) from Nell Irvin Painter’s new book, “The History of White People,” which traces ideas about color and race from antiquity to the Obama administration.
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. Nell Irvin Painter is our guest…
CONAN: …you conclude at the end of your book, you say the fundamental black-white binary endures even though the category of whiteness or we might say more precisely a category of non-blackness effectively expands. That non-blackness, is that by lack of a definition of whiteness?
Ms. PAINTER: Yeah, that’s about how it goes. There as you noted, there have not been legal definitions of whiteness. It’s kind of what’s leftover from blackness.
CONAN: What isn’t.
Ms. PAINTER: And blackness, there’s the idea of a one-drop rule is an idea. What the states did was say one-fourth, one-eighth, that kind of thing, one grandparent, one great-grandparent. That’s how they decided what one drop was.
I suppose people use the word one drop because actually color disappears very quickly in people. And so you can look functionally white with one black grandparent, which in most places would make you legally black. So what makes you black has been defined and redefined and re-re-redefined. What makes you white is what’s leftover.
CONAN: And in fact, you say that has been, well, ill-defined but redefined and redefined over the years, too.
Ms. PAINTER: Yeah… The whole point of defining races is mostly to put people down, and so those needs change over time. Who do you want to put down? Well, you want to put down, say, Jews and Italians and Slavs 100 years ago, but 150 years ago, you wanted to put down the Irish.
…We think of race as something physical, biological and permanent, but the way people used race in the 19th and 20th centuries and probably still today is that it has to do with temperament, racial temperament. So how people look on the outside is a key to what they’re like on the inside, their temperament. So that had to do with Protestantism, too.
…CONAN: It’s interesting, Nell Irvin Painter, you describe how, in fact, racial laws made a transition in the late part of the 20th century from being used to exclude persons of color to define injustices against persons of color.
Ms. PAINTER: Not persons of color, Negroes, to be exact. The laws were against Negroes. But you’re absolutely right that before desegregation, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all those laws, exclusionary laws, were meant to keep Negroes out. And the counting up was to keep Negroes out.
And after that, particularly after the 1970s, the need to rectify the injustices meant that we had to count people in order to straighten things out. So now we count up racial categories, say, to track mortgage lending, where there’s still a good deal of racial discrimination.
So in the census, the census keeps counting us by race for purposes of undoing racial harm in the past.
Read more (or listen) HERE
I cannot forget that “liberty and justice for all” wasn’t really for all. So much for being impeccable with your word, Founding Fathers. Here’s an interesting snippet of the history of the struggle for freedom in this nation. The struggle of those who toiled to build it and cultivate it’s wealth, and one man who was dedicated to assisting them. I’m curious about the early years of Henry Ward Beecher’s life. I wonder how he came to see the truth, when the illusion was set up to work in his favor.
The road to freedom is one of the great themes of American history. The story of the Underground Railroad exemplifies the profound power of that journey. Following the lead of its famed antislavery preacher Henry Ward Beecher, Plymouth Church played a fundamental part in New York City ‘s underground activity.
From the very beginnings of slavery in America, slaves escaped to freedom. They ran to the wilderness; they went to live with the ever-hospitable Indians; they slipped into cities and made their claim as free Blacks. In the Revolutionary era, Puritan New England and Quaker Pennsylvania passed legislation abolishing slavery. The exodus northward, which came to be known as the Underground Railroad, began. By 1831, the term “Underground Railroad” had been coined to describe the informal, secretive network of ordinary citizens, Black and White, whose safe houses offered refuge.
Although Plymouth Church was not established until 1847, just fourteen years before the start of the Civil War, it later became known as “the Grand Central Depot” of the Underground Railroad. Oral tradition and several published memoirs tell us that slaves seeking passage to Canada may have hidden in the tunnel-like basement beneath the church sanctuary (this space can still be visited during our public and school tours). Beecher’s private stenographer, T.J. Ellinwood, quotes the Minister as claiming, “I opened Plymouth Church”, though you did not know it, to hide fugitives. I took them into my own home and fed them. I piloted them, and sent them toward the North Star, which to them was the Star of Bethlehem.“ The Rev. Charles B. Ray, an African-American living in Manhattan, and the founding editor of the Colored American newspaper, was quoted as saying, “I regularly drop off fugitives at Henry Ward Beecher‘s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn.” Other churches in Brooklyn and Manhattan, especially Black churches, also hid escapees, but most have since moved to newer buildings. Plymouth Church is one of the few active Underground Railroad congregations in New York still housed in its original location.
Plymouth’s first minister, the Rev.Henry Ward Beecher , spearheaded and symbolized Plymouth’s antislavery activity, but the founding members of Plymouth selected him as their pastor in no small part because they knew he would do so. He already had a record as an opponent to slavery when he made those beliefs clear in his trial sermon for Plymouth. Beecher and his peers were greatly influenced by the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival of the early 1800′s, firmly committed to abolishing slavery. As a student at Amherst College, he helped found an abolitionist organization, which was promptly shut down by the faculty. At seminary in Cincinnati, he contributed to an antislavery newspaper which was mobbed and destroyed; he also patrolled the streets of that city, fully armed, when temporary special policemen were called upon to protect free Blacks from threats. When he was a minister in Indianapolis, his limited preaching on the subject caused members to leave his church, but he remained active in the Underground Railroad there, as his widow, Eunice, recalled years later.
Enormous publicity surrounded one of Beecher’s first antislavery acts at Plymouth Church. In 1848, 77 fugitive slaves were sold in Washington after the failure of the largest group escape attempt on the Underground Railroad. In that group were two teenage girls, the Edmondson sisters. Thanks to the fundraising efforts of people like Beecher to regain the girls’ freedom, the Edmondsons galvanized public support for the abolitionist movement – and inspired Beecher’s own sister, Harriet, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Beecher, with his newly elevated public profile, had to be especially circumspect in harboring escaped slaves. Eventually, in 1872, he was named by The Brooklyn Eagle as an active participant in the Underground Railroad. The article claimed that Plymouth’s minister helped dozens of fugitives in cooperation with a man in New York named “Napoleon.” This Napoleon “had the matter of escape under his charge and whenever a slave was sent on to Mr. Beecher he, Napoleon, would fix things along the Central Railroad and see to it that the officials along the route were got into friendly disposition for the fugitive.” The article does not indicate Napoleon’s race, but he may well have been Black, for Black involvement in the Underground Railroad almost certainly exceeded that of Whites.
There are believed to be many members of the Plymouth congregation who were active in the Underground Railroad. Evidence suggests that escaped slaves were hidden in the homes of several Plymouth members. The Church treasurer, S.V. White, had a small chamber in his house said to have been used to hide runaways, a room that was still in existence in the 1900s. One of the Church’s greatest activists in the Underground Railroad was Lewis Tappan. He is best remembered as a leader in organizing efforts to release the escaped slaves of the Amistad in 1839. Later, he helped fund the creation of Plymouth Church (his daughter, Lucy Tappan Bowen, was one of the original 21 members), but he did not join until 1856. As part of his work helping runaway slaves, he provided refuge in his home to a 15-year-old girl who escaped by pretending to be a male conductor on a New York-bound ferry.
All this was taking place in one of the most pro-slavery states of the North. Not until 1827 was slavery finally abolished in New York. Much of this attitude may be traced to the years when New York was a proprietary colony of the Duke of York, a major shareholder in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company. With his powerful influence, he instructed the governors to do everything possible to sell more slaves. After independence, the close business relations between Southern planters and New York merchants continued to enhance pro-owner sympathy.
Whatever ambivalent feelings about slavery remained in New York, they were greatly tested in 1850. That year, the country began negotiating slavery in the newly acquired territories seized during the Mexican-American War. The designation of new slaveholding states, plus the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act requiring all American citizens to assist in apprehending runaway slaves, incensed many Northerners. The work of the Underground Railroad intensified. These were the years of Plymouth Church’s greatest involvement, and, by 1860, it was certainly the most famous church in America. One year later, the Civil War began, and Plymouth continued to supply material and spiritual support to a devastated country. Five brutal years later, slavery was outlawed, and Plymouth Church’s role in the Underground Railroad could finally, thankfully, come to an end.
The exact statistics of the Underground Railroad – how many slaves escaped, how many free citizens aided them – will never be known. But we do know that this was a time and an undertaking in which Blacks and Whites came together to right a grievous wrong. It should also be said that, for the members of Plymouth Church, and for most if not all of those who took part, they did so to live out their Christian faith.