Gilder Lehrman












Back to Hypertext History: Critical Issues of American History
The Abolitionists
Important Figures in the Antislavery Cause

  Martin Delany  

Following passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, many African Americans were convinced that they had two choices: to submit to continuing prejudice and discrimination or to leave the country. Delany gave vivid expression to the feelings of black anger and disillusionment. He had been born into slavery in western Virginia, but his father purchased his family's freedom and moved them to Pittsburgh. In 1843, Delany began publishing an antislavery newspaper, and later joined with Frederick Douglass to publish The North Star. He then studied medicine at Harvard, worked as a doctor in Pittsburgh, and in 1852 published The Condition, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, which examined why white Americans oppressed African Americans. Convinced that blacks could never attain true equality in the United States, he organized the National Emigration Convention in 1854 to explore emigration to Central, Haiti, and Africa's Niger Valley. During the Civil War, he served as a major in the Union army, and during Reconstruction served in the Freedmen's Bureau and as a judge in South Carolina.

For quotations from Delany's writings, see:

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  Olaudah Equiano  

An Ibo born in Nigeria around 1745, Equiano was just 11 years old when he was kidnapped into slavery. He was held captive in west Africa for seven months and then sold to British slavers, who shipped him to Barbados and then took him to Virginia. After serving a British naval officer, he was sold to a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia who allowed him to purchase his freedom in 1766. In later life, he played an active role in the movement to abolish the slave trade. He published his autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African, in 1789.

For excerpts from his autobiography, see:

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  James Forten (1766-1842)  

One of the leaders of Philadelphia's African American community, Forten served in the navy during the Revolution, been captured by the British, and had refused free passage to England, crying out: "I am here a prisoner for the liberties of my country; I never, NEVER, shall prove a traitor to her interests." In 1814, mobilized 2,500 black volunteers to defend Philadelphia against a threatened British invasion.

Following the Revolution, Forten, a sail maker, became one of the most successful African Americans in the United States, accumulating $100,000 worth of property. Even though his business depended on white patronage, in 1797 he signed a petition to Congress against the slave trade.

Although he had assisted Paul Cuffe (a Quaker sea captain who was the son of a former slave), who transported the first free blacks to west Africa, he later led opposition to the American Colonization Society. In August, 1817, he led 3,000 black Philadelphians in a protest against colonization.

For additional information, see:

  Francis Fredric  

Born into slavery in Virginia, he escaped to Canada after his owner moved to Kentucky. He published his autobiography, Fifty Years of Slavery, in 1863.

For excerpts from his autobiography, see:

  Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882)  

The grandson of a Mandingo leader, Garnet was born into slavery in Maryland, escaped in 1824 and subsequently became a Presbyterian minister in Troy, N.Y. A white mob had protested his graduation from a New Hampshire academy. He then attended an abolitionist-sponsored institute in upstate New York and entered the ministry. In 1843, at the age of 27, he gave an impassioned speech in Buffalo that shocked white abolitionists. Speaking at a time when southern slavery was expanding into the Southwest and discrimination against free blacks was increasing, he appealed to a long tradition of black resistance to slavery and called on slaves to refuse to work until they were properly compensated by their masters. He subsequently founded his own African Colonization Society and began to view emigration to Liberia as a way for African Americans to overcome degradation and prejudice.

For additional biographical information, see:

For Garnet's "Call to Rebellion"

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  William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879)  

The symbol of radical abolition, the Boston-born Garrison was just 25 years old when he denounced colonization as a cruel hoax, designed to racially cleanse the North while doing nothing to end slavery in the South. The son of a drunken sailor who deserved the family before William was three, he served an apprenticeship in the printing trade, and gained public notoriety when he was convicted of libel for attacking a Massachusetts merchant who was shipping maryland to Louisiana. After he was bailed out of jail, he founded the antislavery newspaper The Liberator in 1831. The most controversial figure in the abolitionist movement, he began to question whether the Bible represented the word of God, demanded equal rights for women, and called for voluntary dissolution of the Union. In 1854, he denounced the Constitution as "a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell" because it sanctioned slavery.

For excerpts from Garrison's writings, see:

For Garrison on the death of John Brown, see:

For brief biographies, see:

Historian David Blight on Garrison

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  Moses Grandy  

Born into slavery in North Carolina in 1786, Grandy escaped in 1833 and published the narrative of his life, Life of a Slave, in 1843.

For excerpts from his narrative, see:

  Angelina Grimké and Sarah Grimké  

Angelina and Sarah Grimke were among the first abolitionists to challenge the doctrine that women should not speak before mixed audiences of both sexes. Born to a wealthy South Carolina slave owning family, the two sisters grew to hate slavery and moved to Philadelphia, joined the Quakers, and became active in the antislavery cause. In 1837, Angelina gained notoriety by lecturing against slavery to audiences that included men. Shocked by this breach of the doctrine of separate sexual spheres, ministers in Massachusetts called on their fellow clergy to forbid women from speaking from church pulpits. Sarah responded with a pamphlet entitled Letters on the Condition of Women and the Equality of the Sexes, one of the first modern statements of feminist principles. She denounced the injustice of lower pay and denial of equal educational opportunities for women. She expressed outrage that women were "regarded by men, as pretty toys or as mere instruments of pleasure." men and women, she concluded should not be treated differently since both were endowed with inherent natural rights.

For quotations from Angelina Grimke's An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836), see:

  Walter Hawkins  

A fugitive from slavery in Maryland, Hawkins moved to Canada where he became a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He published his autobiography, From Slavery to Bishopric, in 1891.

For excerpts from his autobiography, see:

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