Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

By Julie Roy Jeffrey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The Remembrance
Is Like a Dream
REMINISCENCES OF THE 189OS

Surviving abolitionists who had hoped to eliminate both slavery and racial prejudice and also to provide free blacks with civil rights must have found the 1890s a depressing decade.1 Even the words that once signified deep moral and racial commitments were losing old meanings. Century’s editor hailed civil service reformers as modern abolitionists who had created a new emancipation proclamation freeing “political slaves.” The comparison diminished the meaning and achievements of emancipation.2

Black slavery was gone, it was true. But without land, many black sharecroppers were trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty that made a mockery of their freedom. Starting with Mississippi in 1890, southern states ended any possibility of interracial political coalitions by systematically stripping African American men of the political rights that some abolitionists had once argued could never be taken from them. Charles Levermore, writing for New England Magazine, found “infractions” of black voting rights “immoral” but could only wonder what “we, the kinsmen and friends of John Brown, Wendell Phillips, and William Lloyd Garrison” could “say to those who spurn such laws.” With the blessing of the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson, a system of legal segregation was being put in place throughout the South. Although violence against freed people was nothing new, it reached a new level of ferociousness. In 1892 alone, 155 blacks were lynched. Protesting against racial violence that year, the American Missionary argued that every man deserved a fair trial and legal protection against the rage of a vindictive mob. The outrages in the South were “a disgrace to our civilization and a crime against nineteenth century enlightenment.” The entire nation should be concerned, the magazine suggested, especially since newspapers had provided the public with ample information about the problem.3

Some northerners clearly were distressed. In 1894, Faneuil Hall, once the scene of so many abolitionist gatherings, now hosted a large meeting with William Lloyd Garrison Jr. as one of the principal speakers. It resulted in the founding of the Massachusetts Anti-Lynching Society. A few years

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