High School Unit I

Lesson B: Men and Women, Black and White, Who Made a Difference

Key Questions

  1. What strategies did blacks in Massachusetts use to attain civil rights?
  2. What drove these activists to seek change?

Primary Sources

Document HS I-6: A Controversial Poem: Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” 1773

Document HS I-7: Racism in the North: Excerpt from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881

.... As a general rule, there was little difficulty in obtaining suitable places in New England after 1840, where I could plead the cause of my people…. I, however, found several towns in which the people closed their doors, and refused to entertain the subject. Notably among these was ... Grafton, Mass…. In Grafton, I was alone, and there was neither house, hall, church, nor market place, in which I could speak to the people; but determined to speak, I went to the hotel and borrowed a dinner bell, with which in hand, I passed through the principal streets, ringing the bell and crying out “Notice! Frederick Douglass, recently a slave, will lecture on American Slavery, on Grafton Common, this evening at 7 o’clock.” Those who would like to hear of the workings of slavery, by one of the slaves, are respectfully invited to attend.” This notice brought out a large audience, after which the largest church in the town was open to me….

My treatment in the use of public conveyances about these times was extremely rough, especially on the “Eastern Railroad, from Boston to Portland.” On that road, as on many others, there was a mean, dirty, and uncomfortable car set apart for coloured travellers, called the “Jim Crow” car. Regarding this as the fruit of slave-holding prejudice, and being determined to fight the spirit of slavery wherever I might find it, I resolved to avoid this car, though it sometimes required some courage to do so. The coloured people generally accepted the situation, and complained of me as making matters worse, rather than better, by refusing to submit to this proscription. I, however, persisted, and sometimes was soundly beaten by conductor and brakeman. On one occasion, six of these “fellows of the baser sort,” under the direction of the conductor, set out to eject me from my seat. As usual, I had purchased a first-class ticket, and paid the required sum for it, and on the requirement of the conductor to leave, refused to do so, when he called on these men “to snake me out.” They attempted to obey with an air which plainly told me they relished the job. They, however, found me much attached to my seat, and in removing me I tore away two or three of the surrounding ones, on which I held with a firm grasp, and did the car no service in some other respects. I was strong and muscular, and the seats were not then so firmly attached or of as solid make as now. The result was that Stephen A. Chase, superintendent of the railroad, ordered all passenger trains to pass through Lynn were I lived, without stopping. This was a great inconvenience to the people, large numbers of whom did business in Boston, and other points of the road. Led on, however, by James N. Buffum, Jonathan Buffum, Christopher Robinson, William Bassett and others, the people of Lynn stood bravely by me, and denounced the railroad management in emphatic terms. Mr. Chase made a reply that a railroad corporation was neither a religious nor reformatory body; that the road was run for the accommodation of the public, and that it required the exclusion of coloured people from its cars. With an air of triumph, he told us that we ought not to expect a railroad company to be better than the Evangelical Church, and that until the churches abolished the “negro pew,” we ought not expect the railroad company to abolish the negro car. This argument was certainly good enough against the church, but good for nothing against the demands of justice and equality. My old and dear friend, J.N. Buffum, made a point against the company that they “often allowed dogs and monkeys to ride in the first-class cars, yet excluded a man like Frederick Douglass!” In a very few years, this barbarous practice was put away, and I think there have been no instances of such exclusion during the past thirty years; and coloured people now, everywhere in New England, ride upon equal terms with other passengers. 

From The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, ed. by Frederick Douglass (Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1996).

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Document HS I-7: Racism in the North: Excerpt from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881

Document HS I-7: Racism in the North: Excerpt from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881

... As a general rule, there was little difficulty in obtaining suitable places in New England after 1840, where I could plead the cause of my people…. I, however, found several towns in which the people closed their doors, and refused to entertain the subject. Notably among these was ... Grafton, Mass…. In Grafton, I was alone, and there was neither house, hall, church, nor market place, in which I could speak to the people; but determined to speak, I went to the hotel and borrowed a dinner bell, with which in hand, I passed through the principal streets, ringing the bell and crying out “Notice! Frederick Douglass, recently a slave, will lecture on American Slavery, on Grafton Common, this evening at 7 o’clock.” Those who would like to hear of the workings of slavery, by one of the slaves, are respectfully invited to attend.” This notice brought out a large audience, after which the largest church in the town was open to me...

My treatment in the use of public conveyances about these times was extremely rough, especially on the “Eastern Railroad, from Boston to Portland.” On that road, as on many others, there was a mean, dirty, and uncomfortable car set apart for coloured travellers, called the “Jim Crow” car. Regarding this as the fruit of slave-holding prejudice, and being determined to fight the spirit of slavery wherever I might find it, I resolved to avoid this car, though it sometimes required some courage to do so. The coloured people generally accepted the situation, and complained of me as making matters worse, rather than better, by refusing to submit to this proscription. I, however, persisted, and sometimes was soundly beaten by conductor and brakeman. On one occasion, six of these “fellows of the baser sort,” under the direction of the conductor, set out to eject me from my seat. As usual, I had purchased a first-class ticket, and paid the required sum for it, and on the requirement of the conductor to leave, refused to do so, when he called on these men “to snake me out.” They attempted to obey with an air which plainly told me they relished the job. They, however, found me much attached to my seat, and in removing me I tore away two or three of the surrounding ones, on which I held with a firm grasp, and did the car no service in some other respects. I was strong and muscular, and the seats were not then so firmly attached or of as solid make as now. The result was that Stephen A. Chase, superintendent of the railroad, ordered all passenger trains to pass through Lynn were I lived, without stopping. This was a great inconvenience to the people, large numbers of whom did business in Boston, and other points of the road. Led on, however, by James N. Buffum, Jonathan Buffum, Christopher Robinson, William Bassett and others, the people of Lynn stood bravely by me, and denounced the railroad management in emphatic terms. Mr. Chase made a reply that a railroad corporation was neither a religious nor reformatory body; that the road was run for the accommodation of the public, and that it required the exclusion of coloured people from its cars. With an air of triumph, he told us that we ought not to expect a railroad company to be better than the Evangelical Church, and that until the churches abolished the “negro pew,” we ought not expect the railroad company to abolish the negro car. This argument was certainly good enough against the church, but good for nothing against the demands of justice and equality. My old and dear friend, J.N. Buffum, made a point against the company that they “often allowed dogs and monkeys to ride in the first-class cars, yet excluded a man like Frederick Douglass!” In a very few years, this barbarous practice was put away, and I think there have been no instances of such exclusion during the past thirty years; and coloured people now, everywhere in New England, ride upon equal terms with other passengers. 

From The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, ed. by Frederick Douglass (Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1996).

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Document HS I-8: Sojourner Quiets the Mob: Excerpt from The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, dictated by Sojourner Truth, 1850

Document HS I-8: Sojourner Quiets the Mob: Excerpt from The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, dictated by Sojourner Truth, 1850

When Sojourner had been at Northampton a few months, she attended another camp-meeting, at which she performed a very important part. 

A party of wild young men, with no motive but that of entertaining themselves by annoying and injuring the feelings of others, had assembled at the meeting, hooting and yelling, and in various ways interrupting the services, and causing much disturbance. Those who had the charge of the meeting, having tried their persuasive powers in vain, grew impatient and tried threatening.

The young men, considering themselves insulted, collected their friends, to the number of a hundred or more, dispersed themselves through the grounds, making the most frightful noises, and threatening to fire the tents…. Sojourner, seeing great consternation depicted in every countenance, caught the contagion, and, ere she was aware, found herself quaking with fear.

Under the impulse of this sudden emotion, she fled to the most retired corner of a tent, and secreted herself behind a trunk, saying to herself, 'I am the only colored person here, and on me, probably, their wicked mischief will fall first, and perhaps fatally.' But feeling how great was her insecurity even there, as the very tent began to shake from its foundations, she began to soliloquise as follows:–

"Shall I run away and hide from the Devil? Me, a servant of the living God? Have I not faith enough to go out and quell that mob, when I know it is written–"One shall chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight"? I know there are not a thousand here; and I know I am a servant of the living God. I'll go to the rescue, and the Lord shall go with and protect me.

"Oh," said she, 'I felt as if I had three hearts! and that they were so large, my body could hardly hold them!"...

Sojourner left the tent alone and unaided, and walking some thirty rods to the top of a small rise of ground, commenced to sing, in her most fervid manner, with all the strength of her most powerful voice, the hymn on the resurrection of Christ– ….

All who have ever heard her sing this hymn will probably remember it as long as they remember her. The hymn, the tune, the style, are each too closely associated with her to be easily separated from herself, and when sung in one of her most animated moods, in the open air, with the utmost strength of her most powerful voice, must have been truly thrilling.

As she commenced to sing, the young men made a rush towards her, and she was immediately encircled by a dense body of the rioters, many of them armed with sticks or clubs as their weapons of defence, if not of attack. As the circle narrowed around her, she ceased singing, and after a short pause, inquired, in a gentle but firm tone, 'Why do you come about me with clubs and sticks? I am not doing harm to any one.' 'We ar'n't a going to hurt you, old woman; we came to hear you sing,' cried many voices, simultaneously. "Sing to us, old woman," cries one. "Talk to us, old woman," says another. "Pray, old woman," says a third. "Tell us your experience," says a fourth.… 

She looked about her, and with her usual discrimination, said inwardly–"Here must be many young men in all this assemblage, bearing within them hearts susceptible of good impressions. I will speak to them." She did speak; they silently heard, and civilly asked her many questions. It seemed to her to be given her at the time to answer them with truth and wisdom beyond herself. Her speech had operated on the roused passions of the mob like oil on agitated waters …

From online version of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, written by Olive Gilbert based on information provided by Sojourner Truth, 1850.

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Document HS I-9: An Abolitionist at Work: Excerpt from John Greenleaf Whittier’s Autobiography, 1882

Document HS I-9: An Abolitionist at Work: Excerpt from John Greenleaf Whittier’s Autobiography, 1882

Amesbury, 5th Mo., 1882 

Dear Friend :—I am asked in thy note of this morning to give some account of my life. There is very little to give….

I was born on the 17th of December, 1807, in the easterly part of Haverhill, Mass., in the house built by my first American ancestor, two hundred years ago. My father was a farmer, in moderate circumstances,—a man of good natural ability, and sound judgment. For a great many years he was one of the Selectmen of the town, and was often called upon to act as arbitrator in matters at issue between neighbors. My mother was Abigail Hussey, of Rollinsford, N. H. A bachelor uncle and a maiden aunt, both of whom I remember with much affection, lived in the family. The farm was not a very profitable one; it was burdened with debt and we had no spare money; but with strict economy we lived comfortably and respectably. Both my parents were members of the Society of Friends. I had a brother and two sisters. Our home was somewhat lonely, half hidden in oak woods, with no house in sight, and we had few companions of our age, and few occasions of recreation. Our school was only for twelve weeks in a year,— in the depth of winter, and half a mile distant. At an early age I was set at work on the farm, and doing errands for my mother, who, in addition to her ordinary house duties, was busy in spinning and weaving the linen and woolen cloth needed in the family. On First-days, father and mother, and sometimes one of the children, rode down to the Friends’ Meeting-house in Amesbury, eight miles distant….

As a member of the Society of Friends, I had been educated to regard Slavery as a great and dangerous evil, and my sympathies were strongly enlisted for the oppressed slaves by my intimate acquaintance with William Lloyd Garrison. When the latter started his paper in Vermont, in 1828, I wrote him a letter commending his views upon Slavery, intemperance and War, and assuring him that he was destined to do great things. In 1833I was a delegate to the first National Anti-Slavery Convention, at Philadelphia. I was one of the Secretaries of the Convention and signed its Declaration. In 1833 I was in the Massachusetts Legislature. I was mobbed in Concord, N. H., in company with George Thompson, afterwards member of the British Parliament, and narrowly escaped from great danger. I kept Thompson, whose life was hunted for, concealed in our lonely farm-house for two weeks. I was in Boston during the great mob in Washington Street, soon after, and was threatened with personal violence. ... The next year I took charge of the "Pennsylvania Freeman," an organ of the Anti-Slavery Society. My office was sacked and burned by a mob soon after, but I continued my paper until my health failed, when I returned to Massachusetts.

The farm in Haverhill had, in the meantime, been sold, and my mother, aunt and youngest sister, had moved to Amesbury, near the Friends’ Meeting-house, and I took up my residence with them. All this time I had been actively engaged in writing for the anti-slavery cause. In 1833 I printed at my own expense, an edition of my first pamphlet, "Justice and Expediency." With the exception of a few dollars from the "Democratic Review" and "Buckingham’s Magazine," I received nothing for my poems and literary articles. Indeed, my pronounced views on Slavery made my name too unpopular for a publisher’s uses. I edited in 1844 "The Middlesex standard," and afterwards became associate editor of the "National Era," at Washington. I early saw the necessity of separate political action on the part of Abolitionists. And was one of the founders of the Liberty Party—the germ of the present Republican Party.

Quoted in "Writer’s Autobiography in Letter form” at Kimo Press website.

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Document HS I-10: Theodore Parker Denies Bible Supports Slavery: Excerpt from his “Letter To a Southern Slave Holder”

Document HS I-10: Theodore Parker Denies Bible Supports Slavery: Excerpt from his “Letter To a Southern Slave Holder”

Boston, February 2, 1848

Sir
Your letter of January last has just come to hand, and I hasten to reply. I thank you for your frankness, and will reply as plainly and openly as you write to me. You need not suppose that I have any spite against the slave holders; I wish them well not less than their slaves. I think they are doing a great wrong to themselves, to their slaves, and to mankind. I think slave holding is a wrong in itself, and therefore, a sin; but I cannot say that this or that particular slave holder is a sinner because he holds slaves. I know what sin is—God only knows who is a sinner….

You seem to think that the Old Testament and New Testament are just alike, that Christianity and Judaism are, therefore, the same. So as a Christian, you appeal to the Old Testament for your authority to hold slaves. Now, look a little at the matter, and see the difference between the Old Testament and New Testament. The Old Testament demands circumcisions, a peculiar priesthood, sacrifice of certain animals, the observance of certain fast days, full moon days, new moon days, the 7th day, and the like. It demands them all in the name of a Lord. Yet you do not observe any of them….

Now, let us look at the case of the negroes. You think the children of Ham are under a perpetualcurse, and that the negroes are descendants of Ham. The 10th chapter of Genesis treats of the decedents of Ham, but it does not mention among them a single tribe of negroes. I don't think the writer of that account knew even of the existence of the peculiar race of men that we call negroes….

You ask if I could not propose some good to be done to the slaves now. Certainly; their marriage and family rights might be made secure, their work easier, their food and clothing better, they might not be beaten. Pains might be taken to educate them. But all that is very little, so long as you keep the man from his natural liberty….If I were a slave holder I would do this-- I would say "come, now you are free, go to work, and I will pay you what you can earn." I think, in ten year's time, you would be a richer man, and in 2 hour's time, a far happier one, a more Christian one.

…. I have nothing to gain personally by the abolition of slavery, and have, by opposing that institution got nothing but a bad name. I shall not count you my enemy, but am truly your friend.

Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker website.

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