Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

By Julie Roy Jeffrey | Go to book overview

Afterword

Mary Grew had never undertaken to write the story of her life. But she did compose the history of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and participate in the process of collective reminiscences when she attended antislavery reunions. At the age of seventy-nine, she was still appearing and speaking in public. She told her old friend Elizabeth Gay in 1893 that she had gone to a meeting of Philadelphia’s New Century Club, “where reminiscences of Anti-Slavery days were told to a large audience by Dr. Furness, Harriet Purvis & myself. How new & strange & exciting it was to most of them! A very few of ‘the old guard,’ who survive unto this day, were there”.1

Grew had been elated by her reception. But the comment that her audience was unacquainted with the history that she and others were presenting hints at the obstacles facing abolitionists as they tried to keep their understanding of the past alive. It is hardly surprising that so few abolitionists took on the task of writing and publishing their life stories. Those stories were increasingly at odds with what Americans believed had happened in the decades leading up to and following the Civil War. And, because the act of recollection itself is necessarily shaped by all that happens since the events being described, the understanding of the past was transformed as each autobiographer attempted to make sense of his or her life. Even Samuel J. May had the uneasy sense that the long-sought goal of emancipation had results more limited than abolitionists had imagined during the many years of struggle. And as the significance of the past seemed to change, so too could the value of the individual life that had been devoted to that struggle.

For all the reassessment that accompanied the process of composing life narratives, however, abolitionist autobiographers refused to accept the ever more negative evaluations of their movement and their own participation in reform. Increasingly regarding their work as unfinished, most maintained their basic commitment to a more just society and the values that had fueled their struggles against the political and cultural currents of the day. Their book’s explicitly or implicitly encouraged their readers to follow

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