Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

By Julie Roy Jeffrey | Go to book overview

RITUAL REMEMBRANCES III
The Last Gatherings

December held a special place in the prewar antislavery calendar. It was during this month in 1833 that the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) was founded, a milestone event in the movement for immediate emancipation. December was also the month during which the Philadelphia and Boston female antislavery societies hosted their great annual fairs. These festive bazaars had raised money for antislavery work, but just as important, they had provided opportunities for abolitionists to assess their progress toward emancipation, to renew friendships, and to see and hear from leading men and women of the movement. They helped to create a sense of commitment, community, and continuity among those who sought to end slavery. By coincidence, John Brown had been executed in December, another reason to consider the end of the year as an evocative time for abolitionists.

Despite increasing age, abolitionists of various stripes still came together to talk about the past and to comment on the pressing issues that remained unresolved. Each man and woman must have wondered, however, if this meeting would be the last he or she would attend. At each gathering, speakers expressed their keen sense of how much time had passed since their active work in the antislavery movement.

In December 1879, on the twentieth anniversary of the death of John Brown, a commemoration was held at the Shiloh Presbyterian Colored Church in New York. It had been the hope that the memorial would attract “a grand gathering of old abolitionists,” but the exercises seemed mainly to have drawn African American members of the church. Letters came from white abolitionists who, for one reason or another, could not come. But everyone was conscious of those who had no choice in the matter. As one of the speakers observed, John Brown “is gone. Abraham Lincoln is gone. Charles Sumner is gone. William Lloyd Garrison is gone. Few of the old band of brothers remain”.1

The decoration of the church highlighted one of the themes of the day. The reading desk of Henry Garnett, the church’s pastor, was covered with the American flag, and a photograph of Brown, encircled by myrtle leaves, was displayed. The gathering heaped praise on Brown and expressed their

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