Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Abolition: Five Faces Of Freedom

“A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people.” ~ Frederick Douglass
“The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” ~ William Lloyd Garrison
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” ~ John Brown
“I appeal to you, my friends, as mothers: are you willing to enslave your children? You stare back with horror and indignation at such questions. But why, if slavery is not wrong to those upon whom it is impressed?” ~ Angelina Grimke
“Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” ~ Harriet Beecher Stowe
“A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it.” ~ Frederick Douglass
“I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.” ~ William Lloyd Garrison

A few weeks ago, I watched The Abolitionists, a PBS documentary on the abolition of slavery movement in America during the decades before the Civil War. The documentary mixed together the traditional tools of the format- narration, commentary by historians, period photos and pictures, and location footage- with the use of actors playing parts, and all in all, the combination was effective and insightful. It told the story through the point of view of five individuals whose lives intersected, whose contributions to the cause varied. They were seen as radicals and troublemakers by some; liberators and prophets by others. They, and those who were in the movement, were people of fierce principle, and extraordinary courage. Four of them were well known to me.
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the eloquent speaker, the most influential African-American of the century. William Lloyd Garrison, the ardent abolitionist who sought for decades to persuade society that the institution of slavery was wrong. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that fuelled the cause. And John Brown, the militant abolitionist who went to war in the West against the institution of slavery years before the Civil War, and more than any other individual brought about the War itself by unleashing his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Frederick Douglass

William Lloyd Garrison

The fifth was someone not known to me. Angelina Grimke was an abolitionist with a peculiar background. Born and raised in a wealthy, prominent Southern family, she grew up with slaves around her... and yet something about the institution and the idea of slavery offended her. She believed it to be wrong, spoke out publicly against it, and would end up estranged from some of her family and social circles. She spent much of her adult life in the North, involved in the Abolitionist and suffrage movements with her husband until she largely withdrew from public life out of exhaustion. I suspect that this is why, unlike the other more familiar names, I didn’t know about her. As abolition drove events forward towards the war, Grimke herself was mostly absent from the proceedings.

Angelina Grimke

John Brown

Harriet Beecher Stowe
I’ve had an idea for a one-off book for years, something in between what I usually write, and perhaps that’s why her story seemed to resonate: she had something in common with the character who would be at the heart of it. A Southern man, raised in a wealthy family in Virginia, uneasy with the concept of slavery so close at hand, goes to West Point to the military academy for his education in the late 1850s. There he’s exposed to the abolitionist movement for the first time, giving voice to his doubts. He undertakes a decision to steal away as many of the slaves on his family property as he can, and when it’s finished, his brothers and father vow that no matter how long it takes, they’ll have their revenge on him for the betrayal, a course that takes them all into the war itself.
Still, it’s a tall order. With some books, you have to be from the area in question to do justice to the story. Can a Canadian who hasn’t lived in the South, let alone been there since childhood, properly tell that kind of story?
How familiar are you with the abolitionist movement in America? Have you seen that documentary, by chance? And had you heard of Angelina Grimke?


  1. You're so funny...and then you write something like this and remind me how much more you know about US history than I know. Maybe I really am getting senile....

  2. Of course you can write this story! You know our history better than a lot of us. Even more, I have a sensing you know how we think.

    I'm familiar with Grimke! I can see someone like her in your story.

    I have a small book from Gunston Hall, not far from me, that gives terrific insight into the lives of slaves. If you'd like the book, I'd be most happy to pop it into the mail to you, yours to keep. I'm at:

    I've been to Harper's Ferry many, many times. The National Park Service does a terrific re-enactment of sorts -- or they did, prior to sequestration.

  3. Sounds like a great idea for a book.

  4. I remember back in school, during black history month, we had to pick an abolitionist to write about. I did a lot of reading back then, because we didn't have internet, we had those huge encyclopedias. lol

    I finally settled on Harriet Tubman. She was the most fascinating woman ever.

  5. You so definitely could do it William. I didn't see the documentary and probably only know as much as I've seen in movies, but i do know that there was a simialr situation in South Africa in that so many of the whites were very much against apatheid and fought against it too..thank goodness for the 'fighters for justice and peoples rights' in the world!

  6. @Norma: every once in awhile I like blindsiding my readers with something serious.

    @Kittie: I do have some books on the subject, and access to others at my campus. I suspect the book in question could be among them. And I'd enjoy seeing Harpers Ferry.

    @Ken: thank you!

    @Diane: she's a good choice!

    @Grace: another worthy cause. We have a prime minister here who's often maligned (and with cause), but to his credit, he really worked to pressure South Africa on the apartheid question in the eighties.

  7. I'm not too familiar with the history, but I love the concept. I'm in awe of those people who went against the values of their families and communities to do what they felt was right. The underground railroad was an incredible act of courage for those who helped supply it, and those slaves who risked their lives to gain their freedom.

  8. I say go for it. It sounds like an amazing idea. There are tons of resources on slavery and abolitionists. With the right amount a research, you could write this story convincingly without having lived in the South.

  9. I have certainly heard of the Grimkes. There were two of them, sisters, who were staunch abolitionists as well as fighters for women's rights.

    There were also many people in the south who abhorred slavery but were not as outspoken as the ones you mentioned. In GA, a county tried to secede from the STATE whenever GA seceded from the union. (I'm not sure that was because they were so set against slavery as it was they were absolutely against dividing the union, though. Still, it shows the division for and against, isn't clear cut.)

    And you do not have to be from an area to write about it. You're a writer! You don't have to murder someone to write about it, do you?

    So get busy!

  10. Sounds like a field trip is in order for you, William. Come on down! Okay, I'm not in the south, but you know what I mean.

  11. I did extensive reading of slave narratives while I was earning my English degree several years back. I have not seen the Abolitionists, although will try to locate it on Netflix now that you have pointed it out.

    An absolutely fascinating time in history fraught with atrocities too horrid to think upon and courage beyond belief.

    Your story idea sounds interesting.

  12. I wish I had heard of Angelina, she sounds fascinating. And I love the story idea you've set up--sounds like a great one!

  13. No, I have never heard of her, and I have not seen the documentary. Sure, a Canadian could write such a book, but you might have to put in twice the work to check and double check issues because this didn't happen at your doorstep and it is not something you have breathed in since you were a child.

  14. I know a bit about the other abolitionists but never heard of Angelina Grimke. The research for this great book idea would be fascenating. Don't let being a Canadian talk you out of it!

  15. I had never heard of Angelina Grimke before. But I suspect there are MANY people who had a real hand in the movement who are in the shadows. I was raised in a little village in NE Ohio that had a very significant role in the Underground Railroad system. In fact, in addition to Safe Houses, there was/is a literal underground tunnel system beneath Main St. that connected to the river which led to Lake Erie on the way to Canada. On a slightly connected note: last night I watched Lincoln on cable and was disappointed but have to dissect why before I comment further- so maybe I shouldn't have even said anything here? Oh well.

  16. @Karla: it took amazing courage.

    @Auden: thank you.

    @Cheryl: looks like I'll have to get on it.

    @Kelly: a field trip is indeed in order.

    @Christine: it should be available through that, or through libraries.

    @Meradeth: thank you!

    @Jack: that's what I've thought.

    @Lynn: it was a surprise to learn her story.

    @Cheryl: there are a lot of places in southern Ontario that were final points for the Underground Railroad, so the history really is still there.


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