Grass-Roots Garrisonians in Central Massachusetts: The Case of Hubbardston's Jonas and Susan Clark

Article excerpt

Much of the enormous literature on American abolitionism has been centered on state and national leaders and prominent lecturers. Yet as Gary Nash reminds us, "without thousands of anonymous individuals, black and white, male and female, taking unpopular and often dangerous stands, it would have foundered."1

Leaders must have followers; lecturers, hearers. A number of recent studies have attempted to strip away the anonymity of which Nash speaks by using various prosopographic methods to uncover the religious, economic and social affinities of those adhering to the movement.2 More research needs to be done along such lines, especially at the level of localities and local abolitionist societies. Little more has been done at the intermediate level, examining the commitment of local activists and the consequences for their later lives.3 Yet the participation of persons who were active only at the regional level may serve as something of a key to the lived experience of many of the abolitionist rank and file who must, for lack of sufficient documentation, remain utterly anonymous.

The question of motivation in such cases remains elusive. We do not often get as clear a statement as that of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who recalled in 1928 "in my youth I was an abolitionist and shuddered at a Negro Minstrel Show, as belittling a suffering race and I am glad I was and did."4 Those former grass-roots abolitionists for whom documentation has been preserved are most often those who, like Holmes, had become important for something else in their later lives. Such was the case with Jonas and Susan Clark. As Holmes' statement would be of little historical interest had he not become a distinguished jurist, so the grass-roots abolitionist activism of Jonas Clark would be of little or no interest had he not subsequently founded Clark University.

Opened in 1889 in Worcester as an all-graduate and research institution,5 Clark University, unlike Oberlin or Howard, had no role in the education either of future abolitionists or former slaves. The abolitionist link occurs in the early lives of the founder of Clark University, Jonas Gilman Clark (1815-1900) of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, and his wife Susan (Wright) Clark (1816-1904) who, together with Clark's older sister Caroline (1811-1896) and her husband, James Alson Waite (1807-1861), were grass-roots Garrisonian activists during the 1840's and 1850's. Most writers of biographical and memorial sketches of Jonas Clark in the 1890's and early 1900's, however, were unfamiliar with his early life, and make no reference to his anti-slavery activity.6

A single book kept by Susan Clark during anti-slavery days survives. Its entries, dated between 1845 and 1847, include long inscriptions or poems written out by Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Rev. Adin Ballou and Mrs. Abby H. Price of the utopian Hopedale Community, and others. A few scattered additional references exist in manuscript material, references and reports in The Liberator, the records of the Worcester County Anti Slavery Society, North Division, and local histories. From these, along with the facts of Jonas Clark's business career, it is possible to reconstruct the moral commitments of a local abolitionist family confirming the general profile of grass-roots activists that historians of the movement have recently begun to identify.7

Jonas Gilman Clark was born on February 1, 1815 in Hubbardston, Massachusetts, which was a prosperous hill-country town about twenty miles northwest of Worcester. He was the fifth of eight children of William Smith Clark, a substantial Yankee farmer and stock-raiser, and his wife Elizabeth (Clark) Clark, her husband's second cousin once removed. Both his grandfathers were Revolutionary War veterans and his paternal great-grandfather had been Hubbardston's delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congresses of 1774 and 1775. His maternal grandfather's first cousin, Rev. …