...in 1853, Sarah Parker Remond and two other African Americans entered a Boston theater intending to enjoy a Mozart opera. When the manager discovered they were people of color, he directed them to the segregated balcony. Remond and her companions refused to sit there. When they were asked to leave, an argument ensued, and the police were summoned. One of the officers handled Sarah roughly. Refusing to be intimidated, she sued and won $500 in damages. The Remond family challenged discrimination on all fronts. Sarah's brother Charles was the first black man to testify before the Massachusetts House when he protested being forced to sit in segregated railway cars, another example of the racism Massachusetts blacks faced in their home state.
Sarah Parker Remond was in her late twenties when she committed her first act of civil disobedience, but she was a young girl when she first encountered racial prejudice.
Her mother Nancy was the Newton-born daughter of a man who fought in the Continental Army; her father John was a free black who arrived from the Dutch island of Curacao as a ten-year-old boy in 1798. The Remonds settled in Salem, where they built successful catering, provisioning, and hairdressing businesses.
Although they were prosperous free citizens of Massachusetts and protective parents, they could not shield their eight children from racial discrimination. The family set great store by education, and in 1835, Sarah and her sister passed the examination to enter Salem High School. Within a week, a segregationist school committee forced them to leave the school. Outraged, the Remonds moved to Newport, RI, where Sarah attended a private school for blacks. John Remond helped mount a campaign to desegregate the Salem schools. The campaign succeeded, and in 1841 the family returned home. Now too old for the classroom, Sarah continued her education by reading widely and attending concerts and lectures.
Salem in the l840s was a center of anti-slavery activity. The Remonds played host to many of the movement's leaders, both black and white, and to more than one fugitive slave. When Robert Forten, Philadelphia's leading black abolitionist, wanted to send his daughter Charlotte north to school, he chose to have her live with them.
Sarah Remond's father was a life member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Her older brother Charles Lenox Remond was the American Anti-Slavery Society's first black lecturer and the nation's leading black abolitionist until Frederick Douglass appeared on the scene. Charles's testimony in 1842 helped secure passage of a state law prohibiting separate rail cars (although it was only in 1865 that the Massachusetts legislature acted to forbid "unjust discrimination on account of color or race" in "any place of public amusement, public conveyance, or public meeting.")
Along with her mother and sisters, Sarah was an active member of the state and county female antislavery societies. Although her sisters followed their parents' trade and became caterers, bakers, and hairdressers, Sarah made a different and highly unusual choice. With the moral and material support of her family, she became an anti-slavery lecturer.
In 1856 at the age of 30, she began her career as a public speaker, touring New York with other agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society that included her brother Charles and another courageous Massachusetts woman, Abby Kelley Foster. Abby Foster's example and encouragement were critical in Sarah Remond's decision to take the step of becoming a public speaker. "I feel almost sure," Sarah wrote to Abby, "I never should have made the attempt but for the words of encouragement I received from you. Although my heart was in the work, I felt that I was in need of a good English education.. . . When I consider that the only reason why I did not obtain what I so much desired was because I was the possessor of an unpopular complexion, it adds to my discomfort."
Although she was inexperienced, Sarah Remond proved to be a natural on the stump. William Lloyd Garrison praised her "calm, dignified manner, her winning personal appearance and her earnest appeals to the conscience and the heart." Over time, she became one of the Society's most persuasive and powerful lecturers. She addressed crowded anti-slavery meetings in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Sarah Parker Remond proved to be such a good speaker and fundraiser that abolitionists in Great Britain invited her to help promote the cause on their side of the Atlantic, as her brother had done ten years before. When she sailed in September 1858, she told Abby Kelley Foster, she feared not "the wind nor the waves, but I know that no matter how I go, the spirit of prejudice will meet me."
In fact, she met with acceptance in Britain. "I have been received here as a sister by white women for the first time in my life," she wrote; "I have received a sympathy I never was offered before." She spoke out against both slavery and racial discrimination, and stressed the sexual exploitation of black women under slavery. She played an important role in drawing British abolitionists' attention to the discrimination suffered by free black people throughout the United States. In a short autobiography, written in 1861, she stressed that "prejudice against colour has always been the one thing, above all others, which has cast its gigantic shadow over my whole life."
A clear and forceful speaker, Sarah Remond lectured to enthusiastic crowds in cities throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, and raised large sums of money for the anti-slavery cause. Once the Civil War began, she worked to build support in Britain for the Union blockade of the Confederacy and did much to influence public opinion in Britain in support of the North. At the end of the war, she lectured on behalf of the freedmen, soliciting funds and clothing for the ex-slaves.
During her years in Britain, she combined lecturing with studying at the Bedford College for Ladies (now part of the University of London). In 1866 she left England for Florence, Italy, and at the age of 42, entered medical school. She became a doctor, married an Italian man, and apparently never returned to the United States. She preferred her self-imposed exile to life under "the gigantic shadow" of racism.
Black Women in Nineteenth Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings, ed. by Bert J. Loewenberg and Ruth Bogin (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977).
Journals of Charlotte Forten, ed. by Brenda Stevenson (Oxford University Press, 1988).
"The Remonds of Salem, Massachusetts: A Nineteenth-Century Family Revisited," by Dorothy Burnett Porter in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Vol. 95. 1985.
"Sarah Parker Remond: Black Abolitionist from Salem," by Ruth Bogin in Essex Institute Historical Collections, April 1974.
We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, ed. by Dorothy Sterling, W.W. Norton, 1997).