Margaret Washington: The Unheralded Black Women Who Railed Against Slavery

Roundup: Talking About History

[Margaret Washington is a Professor of History, Cornell University.]

During the period leading up to the Civil War, black women all over the North comprised a stalwart but now largely forgotten abolitionist army. In myriad ways, these race-conscious women worked to bring immediate emancipation to the South. Antislavery Northern black women felt the sting of oppression personally. Like the slaves, they too were victims of color prejudice; some had been born in Northern bondage; others had family members still enslaved; and many interacted daily with self-emancipated people who constantly feared being returned South.

Antislavery women such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman were only the most famous of the abolitionists. Before either of these heroines came on the scene and before antislavery was an organized movement, black women in local Northern communities had quietly turned to activism through their church work, literary societies, and benevolent organizations. These women found time for political activism in between managing households, raising children, and working.

In the late1820s, Zion’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, and the African Meetinghouse in Boston were centers of female antislavery activity. Black women proclaimed that their cause was “let the oppressed go free.” They organized bazaars to promote the purchase of goods made from free labor, met in sewing circles to make clothing for those fleeing bondage, and raised money for Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first black newspaper. In 1830, when Boston editor William Lloyd Garrison proposed his idea of publishing a newspaper devoted solely to immediate emancipation, a committee of black women began raising funds for it. The first copy of The Liberator appeared on January 1, 1831 with strong financial backing from black women. At their literary-society meetings, black women switched from reading European classics to discussing The Liberator and antislavery pamphlets, and inviting male speakers to expound on the evils of slavery.

Throughout the 1830s, black women engaged heavily in activism. They vowed to, “heed the enslaved mothers’ cry for children torn away,” and designated their dwellings as “free homes” for those fleeing bondage. For example, Hester Lane of New York City, a successful black entrepreneur, used her home as an Underground Railroad station. Lane also traveled South to purchase enslaved children whom she freed and educated. Mary Marshall’s Colored Sailors’ Boarding Home was another busy sanctuary. Marshall kept a vigilant eye out for refugees from bondage, and was determined that “No one who had the courage to start should fail to reach the goal.” Other black women organized petition drives, wrote antislavery poetry, hosted traveling abolitionists, and organized fairs. By 1832, black women had formed the first female antislavery society in Salem, Massachusetts. They also held executive offices in biracial female antislavery societies in Philadelphia, Boston, and elsewhere. ...

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James E. Johnson - 9/17/2005

Perhaps it is a typo but the article's notation of "Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia" as a focal point of black women's antislavery work should be identified as Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church... J.E. Johnson