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Race in Abolitionists

Gabriel's Plot

The slave Gabriel, often mis-identified as Gabriel Prosser (though historian Douglas R. Egerton has shown that no contemporary documents accord him with his master's surname) was a blacksmith who plotted a slave rebellion in the spring of 1800 and planned to seize Richmond, Virginia. He devised a complex plan with branches in at least three Virginia cities. It was to involve a large-scale massacre of whites, with the exception of only three groups historically supportive of emancipation: Quakers, the French, and Methodists. Gabriel's plot was uncovered amidst heightened tensions and public unrest over the specter of the Haitian Revolution, in which the Caribbean island had erupted in violence and bloodshed as the enslaved black majority rose up against their masters to claim their freedom. Many of the white masters and several of their black servants fled to the United States, which took them in but suspected the motives of the black servants and feared the spread of rebellion stories to their own slaves. To demonstrate their commitment to defeat any such plots on the United States, Virginia authorities had twenty-five of the conspirators executed and ten others deported to the West Indies.

This was a turning point in the history of slavery in American life. The Virginia Assembly, terrified by the possibility of slave revolution, debated the possibility of gradual emancipation, provided that the freed slaves were colonized to Africa. They also wanted to colonize free blacks. Though this was the scheme that he had recommended in his 1787 work, Notes on the State of Virginia, President Thomas Jefferson now failed to implement the Assembly's recommendations. He argued that there was nowhere to send the blacks under such a colonization scheme, since Sierra Leone was still unstable and so was Haiti (even though Jefferson had helped to bring about Haiti's unrest by economically isolating the island under an American embargo).

As a result of Jefferson's inability to act, the state legislature decided against any further plan of reform and chose instead to restore the old colonial methods of control in order to discipline the troublesome labor force and crush its rebellious spirit. After 1806, any freed slave (per the manumission act of 1782) had to leave the state within twelve months or risk being sold back into slavery. The law turned free blacks into a closed class. Within the next decade, the state also passed added restrictions against slave literacy, cracked down on black and mulatto sailors' ability to obtain a pilot's license (so as to cut off slave communication between other port and river towns), bolstered urban defenses, and outlawed the practice of hiring out surplus slaves.

Southern society could have reacted to attempted slave rebellion by working to eliminate the troublesome institution from their lives, or they could pass laws to strengthen that institution to prevent any potential unrest. They wound up opting for the latter, thereby solidifying sectional differences over social organization and labor.

Some nineteenth-century southern academics and officials took the example of Haiti as proof of the dangers inherent in immediate abolition, recommending gradual emancipation instead. They insisted the Caribbean disaster had conclusively proven that, in the wake of emancipation, neither race could coexist with the other in the same country. For most others, Haiti only strengthened their resolve to fight abolition. North Carolina passed legislation restricting a slaveholder's rights to free his own slaves, although most slave states did not outlaw private manumission until the mid-nineteenth century.

Abolitionists in Black and White

Free blacks in the North organized their own anti-slavery societies even before the formation of national societies (such as the AAS), in which several of them were active participants. At black anti-slavery meetings, held in Boston, New York City, Rochester, Nantucket, New Bedford, Salem, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Providence, Trenton, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, delegates adopted resolutions against slavery and African colonization. Though blacks were usually reduced to the most menial jobs in the North, they could apply their overlooked skills and talents by making several important contributions to the cause. When William Lloyd Garrison sought to undertake a mission to England in order to secure support for a proposed manual labor school for blacks, and to attack the aims of the American Colonization Society, free blacks contributed about one half the necessary funds—over $300. Blacks served as agents for the sale and distribution of antislavery publications like The Emancipator, which began in New York in 1833. They contributed to the columns of The Liberator with reports from their meetings and comments on the condition of their people. They also purchased advertising space. Colored Female Anti-Slavery Societies were organized beginning in the fall of 1831 in Philadelphia and quickly spread to Providence, Rhode Island, Nantucket and Salem, Massachusetts, Rochester, New York, and Middletown, Connecticut.

Several blacks held leadership roles on the Board of Managers of the American Anti-Slavery Society, but free African-Americans also maintained their own societies throughout the period, from Lexington, Ohio to Albany, New York. Yet not all free blacks participated in such activism, as the scathing resolutions of these societies (condemning their apathetic brethren) attest. Those who did participate clearly invested a considerable portion of their time, energy, and hard-earned wages for a deeply personal cause. Black Americans knew just what was at stake in the struggle to end to slavery and in fighting the colonizationists to remain in their own country. Though whites formed an important aspect of the movement, free blacks had been organizing and taking action for generations before the antebellum period.

Henry Highland Garnett

Henry Highland Garnett, one of the most prominent black leaders throughout the antebellum period and a leading figure in the American Anti-Slavery Society, was born a slave but escaped from bondage in 1824. After making his way to New York, he pursued an education and became a Presbyterian minister. He attained national notoriety and shocked many when, at the 1843 National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York, he called upon slaves to murder their masters. The convention refused to endorse such a radical proposition, and Garnett increasingly turned to religion, leaving his fellow leader and former fugitive, Frederick Douglass (who spoke after Garnett in 1843 and denounced his "Call to Rebellion") to assume the mantle of black leadership. Garnett supported the cause of an independent black republic in Liberia, which was established in 1847, but also held out optimism for the future of blacks at home in America. He later went on to assist victims of the Civil War from his post in the national capital, and then the government in devising programs to help former slaves.

Yet in a disheartening turn, fueled in no small part by the failure of the Reconstruction period, Garnett lost hope and faith in the prospect of a black future on American soil. He was appointed minister to Liberia in 1881 and supported colonization. Two months after his arrival in Africa, he died. In many ways, Garnett represents the most cynical aspect of the colonization movement: the conviction that blacks and whites cannot coexist on equal terms in American society, because white prejudice is just too great. Garnett began his career with a fiery passion for justice and he ended it consumed by bitterness and disenchantment over all that he had experienced and witnessed in America. Even before his turn to colonization, Garnett's radical approach to the slavery question—and the differences of opinion between him and other abolitionists, including Douglass—remind us that factions abounded within the antislavery movement. Black activists had to navigate these differences in orderto achieve their cherished goals: freedom and equality.

Internal Factioning

By the 1840s and 50s, the anti-slavery movement was splintering. Many white abolitionists fervently believed in their cause but tried to take control of the movement or approached interactions with their black comrades in a patronizing or inexperienced way. Blacks and whites had seldom worked together on an ostensibly equal plane in national or international history. When escaped slave and author Frederick Douglass began lecturing about his experiences and the importance of the antislavery cause, his white counterparts in the Anti-Slavery Society debated with him about his message. They thought that he should simply tell his dramatic story of bondage and his escape, and attempted to censor his comments about the racism that he encountered after fleeing to the North. Douglass also began to express his opinion that the Constitution was not necessarily a pro-slavery document, and that the lofty aims stated in its preamble could be consistent with the abolitionist cause. This was directly contrary to Garrison's firm position against the Constitution, and a result, Douglass broke with the Garrisonian faction of the abolitionist movement in 1851. Other black abolitionists experienced similar problems and frustrations in their very personal struggle to emancipate friends and family members still held in bondage, and to simultaneously find and articulate their views and command respect. White activists debated the correct strategy to employ, but for many blacks, the situation was much too urgent to engage in such abstract discussions.

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