February 20, 1872

Worcester Puts Fosters' Home Up For Auction

On this day in 1872, Worcester city officials put up for auction the home of Stephen and Abby Kelley Foster. The veteran abolitionists were once again sacrificing their personal well-being to protest an injustice. Ninety-nine years after the Boston Tea Party, they sounded the cry "No taxation without representation." Since Abby Kelley Foster—like every other American woman—was deprived of the right to vote, she and her husband refused to pay their taxes. The city took title to the property, but unwilling to antagonize a sympathetic public, did not evict them. A new auction was held every year. Every year, Stephen Foster was the only bidder, and the city took the back taxes out of what he paid.

At the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association in 1872, Abby proposed that all the members sign a pledge to withhold their taxes until women were permitted to vote.

In the years before the Civil War, a Worcester couple, Stephen and Abby Kelley Foster, were among the nation's most constant and courageous campaigners against slavery and for women's rights. Both had shown themselves willing to take great risks in support of causes they believed in. In the 1870s, near the end of their lives, they again took a stand against injustice. Insisting that "taxation without representation is tyranny," they refused to pay their real estate taxes because Abby could not vote. The City of Worcester auctioned their home to the highest bidder.

Abby Kelley was born in 1811 in the Hampshire County town of Pelham. Growing up in a Quaker family, she developed a strong sense of morality and an independent spirit. She attended a combination of town and Quaker boarding schools. She earned the money to pay for her own and her sister's tuition by taking a teaching job every few terms. She was 25 before she could strike out on her own. She moved to Lynn and began teaching at the Quaker school there.

Lynn was a hot-bed of abolitionism, a cause Abby Kelley soon embraced. Among her new abolitionist friends was Stephen Foster, an outspoken anti-slavery lecturer from New Hampshire. For the next four years, they devoted all of their energies to the anti-slavery movement. In 1845, they were married.

By this time both of them had earned national reputations — even notoriety — for their willingness to make personal sacrifices for the cause. Abby Kelley was an unusually gifted public speaker. As a fellow abolitionist once said, "She was one of the few whose words startled and aroused the land; who compelled attention; who made the guilty tremble; who forced sleeping consciences to awake; and forbade that they should sleep again until slavery ceased. . . . "

"She was one of the few whose words startled and aroused the land . . ."

Beginning in the spring of 1839, she defied convention by going on the road and lecturing to mixed audiences of men and women on the evils of slavery. Very few other women had dared to assume what was generally considered a male role. Her practice of traveling with male and occasionally black abolitionists drew charges of gross immorality. Abby Kelley was undeterred; in fact, she realized that her notoriety brought needed attention to the cause.

Stephen Foster was an equally controversial figure. He publicly and repeatedly denounced the clergy for its refusal to condemn slavery as a moral wrong. Believing that it was a failure of character to compromise on moral issues, Foster also attacked public officials for their willingness to tolerate the institution of slavery.

Their first and only child, Alla, was born in 1847. For a few years, neither did much public speaking. By 1850, however, both of them had returned to the anti-slavery lecture circuit, and Abby Kelley had also taken up the cause of women's rights. She "stood in the thick of the fight for the slaves, and at the same time she hewed out the path over which women are now walking toward their equal political rights," Lucy Stone recalled at Kelley Foster's death. "The world of women owe her a debt which they can never pay. The movement for the equal rights of women began directly and emphatically with her. . . . She has no peer, and she leaves no successor."

"The movement for the equal rights of women began directly and emphatically with her. . . . She has no peer, and she leaves no successor."

A devoted and loving mother, she found the long absences from her daughter painful. She took comfort in the fact that Stephen usually remained at home with Alla on the small farm they had bought near Tatnuck Square in Worcester. In this, as in so many other ways, the Fosters disregarded traditional expectations.

When the first national woman's rights convention convened in Worcester in the fall of 1850, both Fosters were in attendance. Speaking to the crowd in Brinley Hall, Abby Kelley attacked the laws that deprived married women of their property, their earnings, even their children, and decried the fact that women were denied the right to vote.

All through the 1850s and again after the Civil War, the Fosters worked to win equal rights for women. The couple repeatedly petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for woman suffrage; their petitions were ignored or rejected. They decided that more dramatic action was needed. At the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association in 1872, Abby proposed that all the members sign a pledge to withhold their taxes until women were permitted to vote. Only two other women had the courage to sign, but the action drew attention to the issue.

Worcester officials were not eager to confiscate the home of such a well-known couple, but they were afraid to leave the challenge unanswered. The Fosters pushed the matter, claiming that the city should take a stand one way or another — either forgive their taxes or seize their house. Finally, the Tax Collector posted a notice in the newspapers and nailed a signed copy on the Fosters' door: the property would be auctioned on February 20, 1874, unless the couple paid $69.60 in taxes plus interest and court costs.

The newspaper headline "Abby Kelley Foster Homeless" aroused public sympathy and a stalemate began.

The Fosters immediately organized a Convention on Taxation Without Representation, held in Worcester the day before the auction. The meeting drew national attention to the Fosters' protest. At the auction the next day, only one man offered a bid, but he reneged when Stephen Foster called him a "robber." Stephen declared that he and Abby would not leave the house of their own accord but would have to be forcibly evicted.

The city took legal possession of the property, but the Fosters refused to move. The newspaper headline "Abby Kelley Foster Homeless" aroused public sympathy and a stalemate began. For the remaining five years of Stephen Foster's life, the city held an auction every year; each year Stephen Foster was the only bidder. The back taxes were taken out of the amount he paid to repurchase his home. In 1880 Stephen Foster died. Two years later, with her own health failing, Abby Kelley Foster sold the property.

In 1973, 100 years after the couple began their tax protest, the National Park Service designated Liberty Farm, as the Fosters' home in Worcester was known, a National Historic Landmark.

If You Go

Liberty Farm, the Fosters' home in Worcester, is included on the National Park Service's "National Register Travel Itinerary" of Underground Railroad sites.

Abby Kelley is one of four Worcester area women honored with a portrait in the city's historic Mechanics Hall.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Central region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Notable American Women, Vol. 1

Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and the Politics of Antislavery, by Dorothy Sterling (W.W. Norton & Co., 1991).

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