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

By Cameron, Christopher | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Cameron, Christopher, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Graham Russell Gao Hodges. David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 266 pages. $30.00 (cloth).

In this captivating biography, Graham Russell Gao Hodges explores the life of one of the most important yet understudied abolitionists of his time, David Ruggles. While countless historians have written studies of Black activists such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Richard Allen, none have examined in depth the life of Ruggles. Hodges cogently demonstrates in this book the significance that Ruggles had on the antebellum abolitionist including his publications, speaking tours and, most importantly, his work in New York City's Underground Railroad. With his examination of Ruggles's exploits, Hodges is able to shed light on both his subject's life and important themes in the larger antislavery movement, including class divisions, views on gender, and radicalism versus moderation.

David Ruggles was born in eastern Connecticut in 1810 to a free Black couple. His father was a blacksmith, a special position in the Black community, and his schooling in a small New England town during the 1810s and 1820s trained him in classical and sacred literature, ethics, and logic. At the age of fifteen, Ruggles left home for New York, where he became a mariner, an occupation that exposed him to "militant black abolitionism," according to Hodges (30). Slavery existed in New York City until July 4, 1827, and Blacks still had to be wary of kidnappers and slave catchers because of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. It was in this context that Ruggles began his activism on behalf of both slaves and free Blacks during the early 1830s.

Ruggles started his abolitionist career in June 1833 as an agent for The Emancipator, the newspaper that Arthur and Lewis Tappan started in New York. That year he also gave up his grocery business to become a full-time abolitionist. As an agent for the newspaper and the American Anti-Slavery Society he traveled often to rural areas, speaking to residents and attempting to persuade them to oppose slavery. The following year Ruggles opened up a bookstore and an antislavery circulating library, where he featured, among other works, the writings of Maria Stewart. Stewart, along with David Walker, Samuel Cornish, editor oí Freedom's Journal, and William Lloyd Garrison were the chief intellectual influences on Ruggles during this period.

Hodges argues that Ruggles was central to the northern abolitionist movement with his work in New York City's Underground Railroad. Frustrated with the growing presence of racial violence in the city, Ruggles and other friends organized the New York Committee of Vigilance in 1835 to oppose kidnappings and slave catchers. This committee held large public rallies on kidnapping, which helped raise funds for the movement and got ordinary Blacks involved in the cause. Hodges notes that this organization was "by far the most radical response any abolitionist group had made to the problems of kidnapping and easily the most overt demonstration of support for self-emancipated slaves" (89). …

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