Fugitive Abolition: Resisters and Refugees Impact on the Antislavery Movement

AHA Session 133
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Richard Blackett, Vanderbilt University
Manisha Sinha, University of Connecticut at Storrs

Session Abstract

This panel capitalizes on a major turn in the historiography of abolition to explore how fugitives from slavery shaped the larger anti-slavery movement: by direct action and network building, by witnessing and sharing information, and by inspiring public memories of resistance.

First, Graham Russell Gao Hodges pushes the history of the Underground Railroad back by more than a century, to the period from 1610 to 1775. He traces the networks created by self-emancipated people and their allies—often across racial lines—in the northern English, French, and Dutch colonies and in Native American lands, and explores textual evidence to sketch out the ways these people articulated their own version of abolition, which set precedents for the more formal movement of the nineteenth century. Second, Phillip Troutman follows white abolitionist Elizur Wright as he interviewed fugitives and published their stories in the early 1830s. This interracial engagement significantly influenced Wright’s anti-slavery ideology--he came to emphasize civil and human rights over Christian principles--and it therefore highlights the role of fugitives' information in shaping an interracialist abolition, as their stories emphasized a continuity between civil rights violations in the North and those in the slave South. The centrality of fugitives' eyewitnessing to those violations continued to resonate in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Our third presenter, Matthew Clavin, follows the public memory of the destruction of 1816 destruction of Negro Fort, a colony of fugitive slaves, and the death of all its inhabitants, men, women, and children. Abolitionists figured the fight as a stand for freedom, framing it in the template of the Revolution, and holding it up as a symbol of Black bravery and the subversion of the U.S. Governmental by the Slave Power.

Central to the panel is the notion of “fugitive abolition” as articulated by Manisha Sinha in her new book, The Slave’s Cause:  the idea that fugitives and refugees were always central in shaping the abolition movement’s objectives, ideology, culture, and organizational strategies. Sinha, our panel commentator, overturns prior notions of an elite-driven movement hamstrung by bourgeois male paternalism and hampered by factional splintering, revealing instead an incredible variety of local manifestations of radicalism, inter-racialism, feminism, and often, pragmatic cooperation across ideological fault lines. While her work synthesizes two decades of scholarship making this grass-roots turn, her perspective is also informed by a thorough reading of the abolitionists’ archive, both their publications and their manuscripts. Our panel chair, Richard Blackett, is among the scholars whose work is represented in this “turn”—he has long placed fugitive activists at the center of the Anglo-American anti-slavery movement and is currently researching the role fugitives played in generating the political crisis of the 1850s.

While these two scholars' insights are critical to the panel, we place a high premium on audience participation and will leave plenty of time for Q&A from the audience.

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