"We, (colored people of the United States of America) are the most
wretched, degraded and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began, and
that the white Americans having reduced us to the wretched state of slavery, treat us in
that condition more cruel than any heathen nation did any people whom it had reduced to
our condition." -David Walker Appeals to the Colored Citizens of the
World, 1829 (Wilentz 473)
White groups were not alone in their opposition to slavery. Free blacks gave
enthusiastic support to abolition. Before William Lloyd Garrison was even born, blacks had
been speaking out against slavery. Black abolitionists educated themselves and their white
counterparts. Samuel E. Cornish and James Forten are thought to have influenced Garrison
into opposing slavery (Bennett 144).
During and after the Revolutionary War, blacks sought the abolition of slavery by
petitioning the state and federal governments to outlaw the slave trade and begin a
program of emancipation (Bennett 144). There were various types of attempts to avoid the
persecution of slavery. In 1815, Captain Paul Cuffe sailed to Sierra Leone with
thirty-eight black American settlers (Voices of Triumph 90). Cuffe believed that the only
way for blacks to truly be free was for them to be totally independent. The mission,
however, was unsuccessful. Cuffe died in Massachusetts in 1817 (Bennett 146). Daniel
Coker, an African Methodist Episcopal leader and John B. Russwurm led other expeditions to
Many people disagreed with the idea of totally forfeiting American independence. Another
uprising came from within the depths of slavery. Slaves were tired of waiting for and end
to slavery by political means. They decided to take matter into their own hands. Slave
revolts began with the institution and persisted until abolishment in 1865 with the Emancipation
Proclamation. In Henrico County, Virginia slaves planned a revolt by gathering clubs,
swords and such items. On August 30, 1800, more than 1000 slaves gathered six miles
outside of Richmond and marched on the city. Several slaves were arrested, 35 were
executed and one committed suicide.
Denmark Vesey of Charleston, South Carolina, a former slave who purchased his own freedom,
carefully plotted a revolt over several years. He collected 250 pikes heads and bayonets,
and 300 daggers. July 2, 1822 was the proposed day for the revolt. Meanwhile, somehow
whites became aware of the conspiracy and began rounding up suspects. At least 139 blacks
were arrested. Estimates of how many blacks were involved in the plot were as high as
9000. Nat Turner organized another slave revolt. Turner, a Southampton County, Virginia
slave believed he had been chosen by a divine power to free his people from slavery.
Naturally, he selected July 4, 1831 as his "Independence Day." However he became
ill, and postponed the revolt until August 21. Turner and his followers started by killing
his master, Joseph Travis, and his family. In a matter of 24 hours, 60 whites had been
killed before Turner and his followers were met by federal troops and destroyed. Over 100
blacks were killed. Turner was captured on October 30 and was executed on November 11
Many abolitionists belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ). AMEZ became a
platform for preaching against slavery. "The ministry was by far the most common
occupation of the black leaders in the abolitionist movement" (Sorin 101). AMEZ
enabled people like Denmark Vesey to plan revolts. Other famous preachers involved with
Anti-slavery were James W.C. Pennington and Samuel Ringgold Ward. Pennington traveled as
far as Europe to preach against slavery. He wrote, "If the New Testament sanctions
slavery, it authorizes the enslavement of whites as well as us" (Voices of Triumph
127). Ward was born into a slave family that escaped in 1820. He lived in upstate New York
and was an agent for the American Anti-slavery Society. Ward actively protested the
Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. He was also an assistant to fugitive slaves (Voices of Triumph
After the Missouri Compromise, people began to examine "the monster they had
created" (Bennett 145). Additionally, in the early nineteenth century, two events
occurred that sparked the Anti-slavery movement. On January 2, 1800, a petition was sent
to the House of Representatives by a group of Pennsylvania blacks. The group wanted the
legislature to eliminate the slave trade, Fugitive Slave Law and the institution of
slavery. The House was afraid that the petition had a "tendency to create disquiet
and jealousy." The petition died in the committees. The other significant occurrence
was Gabriel Prossen's slave uprising in the state of Virginia (Bennett 145). Whites
responded to these events by "tightening the screws on slavery." They began to
consider the colonization of blacks into a separate society called "Liberia"
(Bennett 145). By 1830, over fifty Anti-slavery societies existed. The Free African
Society of Philadelphia had passed a resolution calling for the abolition of slavery.
Active groups existed in New Haven, Boston, New York and Philadelphia (Franklin 250).
Many important events for black abolitionists occurred in 1829. David Walker issued his Appeals
to the Colored Citizens of the World, which blasted slavery. Walker's Appeal
created alarm. George Moses published Hope of Liberty (see pop up discussion.) Robert A.
Young published Ethiopian Manifesto, issued in defense of black man's rights, in
the scale of universal freedom. "Young believed a messiah would arise from the blacks
with the strength to free the people" (Franklin 250).
Blacks were important to local and regional Anti-slavery groups that needed speakers and
also people to contribute time and energy to the cause. Famous speakers included:
Frederick Douglass, William Jones, Charles Lenox Remond, Theodore S. Wright, Frances E. W.
Harper, Henry Foster, Lunsford Lane, Henry Highland Garnet, Charles Gardner, Andrew
Harris, Abraham Shadd, David Nickens, James Bradley, and William Wells Brown (Franklin
251). Black female abolitionists were also major contributors to the Anti-slavery
movement. Maria W. Stewart, was a free black that broke the "taboo against female
speakers," by lecturing in New England in the 1830s. Later, other speakers like Sarah
Parker Remond (Charles Remond's sister), Frances Ellen Harper, Mary Shadd and Mary Bibb
arose. Soon to follow were Frederick Douglass's female counterparts, Harriet Tubman and
Sojourner Truth (Bennett 163). Sojourner Truth traveled throughout New England and the
West speaking about her hatred of slavery in a distinct and mysterious way that had an
effect on people (Franklin 251). Tubman is remembered for her involvement with the
The most important and probably the most influential black abolitionist was Frederick
Douglass. He was born the son of a slave in Tuckahoe, Maryland in 1817. Poor treatment
from his master fueled his hatred towards slavery. He failed to escape his master in 1836,
but managed to escape just two years later. He was first introduced to the Anti-slavery
movement when he attended a convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1841. His address to
the convention showed that he was "an orator of great eloquence" (Encarta),
which made it hard for some people to believe that he was a former slave. In fact, his
opponents alleged that he was in imposter and that he was put up to this "trick"
by the abolitionists. However, he was no imposter and he happened to be mostly
self-educated, like many others among the black abolitionists. His physical
characteristics were typical of a great orator: "A magnificent, tall body, a head
crowned with a mass of hair, deep-set flashing eyes, a firm chin, and a rich, melodious
voice" (Franklin 253). As "a recent graduate from the institution of slavery
with his diploma on his back" (Encarta), he was employed by several societies, namely
the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society. His speeches throughout the years and his work for
the Underground Railroad furthered the cause of the abolitionists and made his name
synonymous with freedom and achievement. Very few abolitionists did as much as Douglass to
carry the case of slavery to the people of the United States and of Europe. In 1845,
Douglass went to England to avoid being captured under the Fugitive Slave Laws. Several
other black abolitionists fled to England, Scotland, Germany, and France at this time as
well such as Charles Remond, J.W.C. Pennington, Nathaniel Paul and several others.
After returning to the United States in 1847, Douglass became the "conductor"
for the Underground Railroad in Rochester, New York, where he established his abolitionist
newspaper The North Star, which he continued to edit until 1860 (Franklin 253).
Much of the African-American involvement in the Anti-slavery movement revolved around
newspapers. Soon afterward, blacks that began their own newspapers to spread the word
about the Anti-slavery movement. They were considered to be "militant
abolitionists" (Bennett 147). The first black newspaper was the Freedom Journal,
created by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm in 1827. Cornish was also responsible for
publishing Rights of All and the Weekly Advocate, as well as the editing of
the Colored American (Franklin 252). Other black abolitionist papers included the
National Watchman, Mirror of Liberty and Douglass's North Star. The first convention by
African-Americans was organized after the publication of William Lloyd Garrison's The
Liberator, which spoke out vehemently against slavery. Blacks immediately became
strong supporters of the paper (Franklin 251). Most of the first agents and subscribers
for The Liberator were black (Sorin 99-100). The convention was held on Wednesday,
September 20, 1830. Forty delegates attended the convention, representing eight states
(Bennett 147). African-Americans met twenty-three times in ten different states between
1832 and 1834 to discuss issues that were confronting them (Sorin 100).
These meetings were very important because they connected leaders from cities throughout
America. However, African-Americans had yet to organize a successful protest, "a task
that had eluded them for seventy years" (Bennett 147). In the 1830s a group finally
rose up to meet the challenge of protesting against slavery. "Like the demonstrators
of the [1960s], the militant abolitionists pioneered in nonviolent direct action, holding
mass meetings, singing freedom songs, staging sit-ins and freedom rides" (Bennett
149). African-Americans played a significant role in the Anti-slavery movement. Various
attempts to spread the movement were made by this group of Americans. From slave revolts
to non-violent protests, they made themselves visible and heard.
Bennett, Lerone. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. Chicago: Johnson
Pub. Co., 1988.
"Douglass, Frederick." Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia. 1997 ed.
Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negroes. 3rd ed. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967.
"North Star." June 20, 1850, p. 1 Newspaper Serial and Government Publications
Division (49). http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/influ.html.
Sorin, Gerald. Abolitionism: A New Perspective. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.
Time Life Books, ed. African Americans Voices of Triumph: Leadership. Alexandria,
VA: Time Life Inc. USA, 1993.
Wilentz, Sean, ed. Major Problems in the Early Republic 1787-1848. Lexington, MA:
Heath & Co., 1992. P.471.
Boyer, Paul S., Clark, Clifford E., Jr., Kett, Joseph F., Purvis, Thomas L., Sitkoff,
Harvard, and Woloch, Nancy, eds. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People.
Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990.
Litwack, Leon, and Meier, August, eds. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century.
Illinois: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1988.