African American Solidarity, 19th Century Style

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Frederick Douglas1In the second half of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass was as well-known as Martin Luther King. For many years he lived in Rochester near the Anthony family and frequently dined with them and their Quaker friends.

This association eventually flowered into antislavery activism for at least three members of the Anthony family—Susan, D.R., and Merritt.

After escaping slavery, Douglass came north to the city of New Bedford. This ship-building community was perched on the coast of the Atlantic across Buzzard’s Bay from Martha’s Vineyard. Here is his account of the free African-Americans he met there:

“I found the colored people much more spirited than I had supposed they would be. I found among them a determination to protect each other from the blood-thirsty kidnapper, at all hazards. Soon after my arrival, I was told of a circumstance, which illustrated their spirit. A colored man and a fugitive slave were on unfriendly terms. The former was heard to threaten the latter with informing his master of his whereabouts. Straightway a meeting was called among the colored people, under the stereotyped notice, “Business of importance!” The betrayer was invited to attend.

The people came at the appointed hour, and organized the meeting by appointing a very religious old gentleman as president, who, I believe, made a prayer, after which he addressed the meeting as follows:

“Friends, we have got him here, and I would recommend that you young men just take him outside the door, and kill him!”

With this, a number of them bolted at him; but they were intercepted by some more timid than themselves, and the betrayer escaped their vengeance, and has not been seen in New Bedford since. I believe there have been no more such threats, and should there be hereafter, I doubt not that death would be the consequence.”

(Excerpt from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845, by Frederick Douglass)

A decade after Douglass’s narrative was released, women of Martha’s Vineyard smuggled a freedom seeker across Buzzard’s Bay to New Bedford in a daring escape that figures prominently in my book. Since Anna Osborn Anthony’s father was a shipbuilder, it is entirely possible that Douglass worked on some of Osborn’s ships.

Photo of Frederick Douglass from the Library of Congress

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