The Black Abolitionist Papers - Vol. 1

By C. Peter Ripley | Go to book overview

30.
William P. Powell to Sydney Howard Gay 12 December 1850

Black visitors were overwhelmed by the apparent egalitarianism of mid- nineteenth-century British society. Northern free black abolitionists contrasted this with the racism and restrictions they had encountered at home. No one spoke more effectively about what it meant to be in England than William P. Powell, a successful, freeborn, black hotel keeper from New York City and a lifelong antislavery advocate. Powell's mounting concern about the effect of racial prejudice on his family-- particularly the fear that his seven children would be denied an adequate education in America--prompted him to investigate the possibility of moving to Britain. He arrived in Liverpool on 12 December 1850 and, within a week, recorded his impressions of Britain for his friend Sydney Howard Gay of the National Anti-Slavery Standard. One year later, Powell sold his New York business and resettled his family in Liverpool, where he served the antislavery cause in a variety of ways. FDP, 31 July 1851; Philip S. Foner, "William P. Powell: Militant Champion of Black Seamen," in Essays in Afro-American History ( Philadelphia, Pa., 1978), 94-98.

LIVERPOOL, [ England]
Dec[ember] 19, 1850

DEAR GAY: 1

I am here at last. Things pass so vividly before my eyes, it is difficult for this spell-bound tongue of mine to ejaculate. The change is so sudden so unexpected, that I can hardly believe my senses. Though not a chattel personal, yet socially, civilly, politically and religiously bound down in fetters equally as galling as that of Slavery in the United States itself. I feel for once in my life though under a foreign flag--a man, indeed! This is strange talk for a man of my age, just completed my forty-fourth year the day I landed on British soil, and the father of seven children, to talk of my manhood as a thing just having an existence; but so it is, and more shame for my color-hating country. Oh! my country, my country, with all thy faults I love thee none the less. O, if I could wash out the foul blot of the iniquitous system of Slavery with my tears, fain would I do it. I would lay down my life if I could with my last gasp, rid my country of this damnable sin! But enough of this for the present. British hospitality is doing the work of moral and social regeneration. One thing I know, yea two, in my own country--according to the letter and spirit of the Fugitive Slave Bill I am a--THING, but here according to British magnanimity I am a MAN.

-234-

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