United for Egalitarianism

  August 17, 2021   Read time 5 min
United for Egalitarianism
Abolitionist publications took due note of Negroes who were successful in business or professional life. They extolled J. B. Smith of Boston as "the prince of caterers."

Readers of the antislavery press might learn of attorney Macon B. Allen of the Portland Bar, or of John V. Degrasse, graduate in medicine from Bowdoin College, who had spent two years in London and Paris hospitals, and had made several trips across the Atlantic as a ship surgeon before settling in Boston. In September 1834 The Liberator requested Negro inventors to write to the paper so that it could assist them in obtaining patents and also furnish them with proof of colored talent and ability.

Abolitionist newspapers carried advertisements of Negroes who ran clothing or grocery shops, invariably adding an editorial note that the proprietor of the establishment was richly deserving of the patronage extended to him. Some advertisements came from owners of lodging houses, invariably Negroes themselves, who had rooms for the accommodation of "Genteel Persons of Color." Abolitionist newspapers carried letters to the editor praising this or that Negro in business or the professionals—Thomas Jennings, a surgeon dentist of Boston, for example, received such unbilled advertising.

The abolitionist press had a marked effect in making Negroes more active in social and civic affairs. Negro organizations felt no hesitancy in asking these newspapers to carry notices of their coming meetings and lists of their officers. At many Negro meetings the final order of business was a motion instructing the secretary to send a copy of the proceedings to a specified list of journals. Brief notices of Negro weddings dotted the back pages of abolitionist weeklies. How warming to the self-esteem to see one's name in print! But more important was the sense of civic participation it engendered.

As they prepared to organize a state society in the fall of 1838, the abolitionists who assembled at Milton in Wayne County, Indiana, read a sobering letter from Gamaliel Bailey. Bailey was editor of the Cincinnati Philanthropist, the first antislavery journal in the West, whose office had been the tar- get of mobs on three occasions. "Your troubles are yet to come, and they may indeed be fiery," wrote Bailey. The prejudice against the Negro would be directed against his friends, ran Bailey's words of warning: their motives would be impeached, their doctrines misrepresented, their good name slandered, and, like as not, their persons assailed. Maria Weston Warren, pillar of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, bore a similar reckoning of the price one paid to join the movement: "It has occasioned our brothers to be dismissed from the pastoral charge—our sons to be expelled from colleges and theological seminaries—our friends from professorships—our selves from literary and social privileges." By most of their countrymen, the abolitionists were looked upon as sappers of the social order who incited the slaves to rebel and the free Negro to seek intermarriage. And almost as bad, they endangered property rights, enfeebled the church, and subverted the Constitution.

Ostracism from polite society was one of the crosses an abolitionist might be called upon to bear. The public health pio- neer, Dr. Henry I. Bowditch, found himself debarred from many fashionable parties despite his international reputation in medicine. "Ticknor's pleasant literary coteries were no longer accessible," he noted wryly in his journal. For opposing slavery, wrote the clergyman-author Theodore Parker, he had "got nothing but a bad name." While in Philadelphia in May 1833, the clergyman Samuel J. May escorted one of the Forten sisters to an abolitionist meeting. When he returned to Boston he found that the news had preceded him. " 'Is it true, Mr. May,' said a lady to me, 'that you walked in the streets of Philadelphia with a colored girl?'
To be an abolitionist was to invite economic reprisals, a freezing of one's credit, a loss of employment, or a blacklisting of one's name. A clergyman like Adin Ballou might have a wealthy parishioner suddenly demand payment on a note. An abolitionist professor might lose his chair, as did Charles Follen at Harvard, or an abolitionist judge might lose his seat on the bench, as in the case of William Jay, son of the first chief justice of the United States. Joshua Coffin lost his mailman's job for assisting a kidnaped Negro. James Russell Lowell was loath to take money for antislavery work but he accepted $500 a year to do a weekly article for The Anti-Slavery Standard, ruefully noting that his abolitionism had cut him off "from the most profitable sources of my literary emolument." For his antislavery views, John G. Fee was disowned by his father.
Social intermingling between whites and blacks in the abolitionist movement had its special perils. A few white abolitionists, troubled because their colored fellow workers faced discrimination in public places, made it a point to appear with them, courting their lot. Still fewer, like Theodore D. Weld, ate at Negro homes and attended their parties, weddings, and funerals. At the marriage of Weld and Angelina Grimke on May 14, 1838, Grace Douglass and Sarah M. Douglass were among the nearly fifty guests and Theodore S. Wright was one of the two clergymen offering prayers. But such conduct was as unpopular as it was uncommon. When the just completed Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia was sacked and burned two days after the Weld-Grimke wedding, the newspapers charged the abolitionists with bringing it about by having Negroes seated side by side with whites at meetings and by condoning if not fostering interracial arm-in-arm walking in the streets adjacent to the building.

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