David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City

David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City

David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City

David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City

Synopsis

David Ruggles (1810-1849) was one of the most heroic--and has been one of the most often overlooked--figures of the early abolitionist movement in America. Graham Russell Gao Hodges provides the first biography of this African American activist, writer, publisher, and hydrotherapist who secured liberty for more than six hundred former bond people, the most famous of whom was Frederick Douglass. A forceful, courageous voice for black freedom, Ruggles mentored Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and William Cooper Nell in the skills of antislavery activism. As a founder of the New York Committee of Vigilance, he advocated a "practical abolitionism" that included civil disobedience and self-defense in order to preserve the rights of self-emancipated enslaved people and to protect free blacks from kidnappers who would sell them into slavery in the South.

Hodges's narrative places Ruggles in the fractious politics and society of New York, where he moved among the highest ranks of state leaders and spoke up for common black New Yorkers. His work on the Committee of Vigilance inspired many upstate New York and New England whites, who allied with him to form a network that became the Underground Railroad.

Hodges's portrait of David Ruggles establishes the abolitionist as an essential link between disparate groups--male and female, black and white, clerical and secular, elite and rank-and-file--recasting the history of antebellum abolitionism as a more integrated and cohesive movement than is often portrayed.

Excerpt

The euphoria that Frederick Augustus Bailey felt after escaping from slavery on September 3, 1838, evaporated soon after his coming to New York City. At two o’clock in the morning on the night of his arrival, Bailey was stranded on the docks. He worried about slave catchers and saw in “every white man an enemy and in every colored man cause for distrust.” Broke, lonely, and homeless, Bailey spent the night sleeping among the wharf barrels. He had planned to find a black man named David Ruggles, who headed the New York Committee of Vigilance, an organization famous among enslaved people fleeing from their bondage. Before going to Ruggles’s home, however, Bailey met a friend from home, “Allender’s Jake,” now calling himself William Dixon. Dixon warned him against trusting anyone. Deep in distress, Bailey anxiously pondered his future. Luckily, Ruggles searched for the forlorn fugitive and took him home, where Bailey joined several other fugitives from slavery. At Ruggles’s house at 36 Lispenard Street, Bailey had long talks into the night with Ruggles about abolitionism. Ruggles advised Bailey that New York was unsafe. The fugitive from bondage indicated a desire to go to Canada, but Ruggles favored New England, where a fugitive could find work as a caulker or go seafaring.

In addition to advice on work and safety, Ruggles helped Bailey forge a new identity. To celebrate his freedom and to throw off potential slave catchers (and possibly inspired by Allender’s Jake), Bailey adopted the name of . . .

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