Fugitive Witnesses: Elizur Wrights Chronicles of Kidnapping in New York”

Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:50 PM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Phillip D. Troutman, George Washington University
In 1834 and 1835, Elizur Wright published a series of articles in The Emancipator and in The Anti-Slavery Record, the latter of which he edited, reciting specific cases of African Americans locked in New York City jails on suspicion of flight from slavery. In each, he detailed specifics of the accused’s arrest, incarceration, and the outcome in the case. Wright’s biographer Lawrence Goodheart has called attention to these missives, arguing that they highlighted resistance to the fugitive slave laws and helped convert Wright from Christian arguments to more secular, civil rights premises. I would agree, but I want to expand on Goodheart’s observations and call attention to their broader impact on Wright’s ideology and through him, on the movement around him, for as Corresponding Secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, his own writings, both private and public, helped shape the interracial character of the movement in this era. In particular, these individual interracial interactions—for Wright appears to have done the interviews himself—led Wright to emphasize civil rights violations in the North as much as those in the South and to lobby, along with the Colored Convention movement (ultimately successfully), for jury trials in New York for suspected fugitives. These interviews—the stories these fugitives and kidnappees told—emphasized a continuity of experience for African Americans between the North and the South, a struggle in a system that was national, not sectional, and the necessity for action that was coordinated across that space, among activists black and white. Wright and others in the larger movement recognized that and would continue to come back to this theme especially in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.