Abolitionists Remember: Antislavery Autobiographies & the Unfinished Work of Emancipation

By Julie Roy Jeffrey | Go to book overview

RITUAL REMEMBRANCES II
Reunions

Soon after the antislavery societies disbanded, abolitionists began to gather to commemorate their long years in the antislavery struggle, to regain the sense of camaraderie that reform commitments had once provided, and to ensure that their memories lived on in the hearts and minds of a new generation. In 1874, western abolitionists held what they hoped would be the first of many reunions in Chicago. A year later, members of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, an organization that had resisted the rush to dissolution, held a meeting to commemorate 100 years of activism. At both meetings, speakers laid out their understandings of the abolitionist achievements. Abolitionists also revealed a keen interest in contemporary events, understanding that they could help to realize or undermine the accomplishments they celebrated.1

Not all approved of such gatherings. In June 1874, abolitionists appeared before the Massachusetts legislature to hear George Curtis deliver a eulogy for the late Charles Sumner. The pro-Democratic paper, the Brooklyn Eagle, labeled the event as a national antislavery reunion, although it was no such thing. The paper ruminated on the value of meetings of former activists and pronounced them nuisances. “The work being done, of what avail these meetings, save to remind others of the conflict that attended it?” it asked. These assemblies stirred up bitter feelings that impeded reviving the “old feelings of American brotherhood.” As for the idea that abolitionism still had a purpose, the paper was dismissive: “In the direction in which it worked there remains no more to do.” While the remarks had a hostile tone, they eerily echoed some of the comments uttered by abolitionists during the debates over dissolution.2

The Chicago Tribune disagreed, hailing the Chicago reunion as the most important assembly of abolitionists held since the war’s end. The gathering was the brainchild of some Chicago abolitionists who had determined in early 1874 to call together those who had been active “at any time the cause of the slave needed friends.” Sending the announcement of the upcoming meeting to 400 newspapers, planners hoped to attract to Chicago a cross section of antislavery workers, from those who had assisted fugitive slaves

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