Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

By Julie Roy Jeffrey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Fugitives as Part of
Abolitionist History

In 1870 and 1871, Harper’s Weekly featured an advertisement for plaster statuary suitable for display in genteel parlors. The piece pictured, created by the popular sculptor John Rogers, was called “The Fugitive’s Story” and featured a female fugitive slave recounting her adventures to several well-known abolitionists, including John G. Whittier and William Lloyd Garrison, who had posed for the artist. Rogers had proven to be very successful at producing small plaster groupings on subjects that attracted middle-class buyers. In 1859 he had appealed to antislavery sentiment with his piece “The Slave Auction.” After enjoying success with many Civil War pieces during the war, he returned to an antislavery theme to capitalize on the sympathies of genteel Americans who wanted art in their homes. “The Fugitive’s Story” cost $25 and could be shipped without charge to any railroad station in the country.1

The interest in the fugitive story had also been apparent at the final meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. William Still, an African American member of the Society, showed one of the relics of exciting days now past: the wooden box that had concealed a fugitive slave. Still had also entertained the audience by presenting a paper on Henry “Box” Brown and several other fugitives. As a member of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which had helped escaped slaves who had reached the city, Still had been active in the Underground Railroad network and had firsthand knowledge of fugitives and their stories. His paper fascinated his listeners. According to the National Standard, “The mournful tales thus unfolded were like the thrilling fantasies of romance, but more harrowing because of their reality.” In one of its last actions, the society passed a unanimous resolution asking Still to “compile and publish his personal reminiscences and experiences relating to the Underground Rail Road”.2

The resolution seemed to call for personal recollections, perhaps along the lines of Samuel May’s book. Still’s own life was certainly noteworthy enough for a conventional autobiography. Born free in New Jersey, Still had migrated as a young man to Philadelphia, where he eventually found a job with the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. When the Fugi

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