Black History Month: Radical Black Abolitionists and the Underground Railroad


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Frederick Douglass was known for his dazzling oratory and incisive anti-slavery writings.

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” --Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) was an American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive anti-slavery writing. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Many Northerners also found it hard to believe that such a great orator had been a slave.

Douglass wrote several autobiographies, eloquently describing his experiences in slavery in his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became influential in its support for abolition. He wrote two more autobiographies, with his last, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881 and covering events through and after the Civil War.

Frederick Douglass After the Civil War, Douglass remained active in the United States' struggle to reach its potential as a "land of the free." Douglass actively supported women's suffrage. Without his approval, he became the first African-American nominated for vice president of the United States as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull on the impracticable and small Equal Rights Party ticket.  Douglass held multiple public offices.

Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native-American, or recent immigrant, famously quoted as saying, "I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong

“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” --Frederick Douglass

Book cover:David Ruggles : a radical black abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York CityDavid Ruggles (1810-1849) was another heroic--and often overlooked--figure of the early abolitionist movement in America who secured liberty for more than six hundred former bond people, the most famous of whom was Frederick Douglass.

Graham Russell Gao Hodges, author of David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City explains why it's time to take note of this overlooked hero.  The interview was conducted by the University of North Carolina Press.

Q: Who was David Ruggles?

A: David Ruggles (1810-1849) was a black abolitionist, editor, writer, organizer of the New York Committee of Vigilance and famed conductor of the Underground Railroad. Later, he became a doctor of hydrotherapy in a desperate effort to save his own life and that of others. He was renown for his unflinching courage in the battle against slave catchers, kidnappers, and illicit slave traders. He was the first black bookseller and operated the first black lending library in the nation. His magazine, the Mirror of Liberty, was the first periodical published by an African American.

Q: Why has so little been written about him?

A: Ruggles died in 1849, just before the tumultuous events of the 1850s. His death just preceded the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which riveted national attention to the issue of self-emancipated slaves. Histories of fugitive slaves, beginning with William Still's The Underground Railroad, emphasized the history of fugitive slaves in the 1850s and concentrated on efforts in Philadelphia and western states. Ruggles' valiant efforts occurred earlier. Histories of the 1830s have foregrounded the activities of William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, the Tappan brothers and have neglected the sizable contributions of black abolitionists.

Q: You call David Ruggles a "radical" black abolitionist. Weren't all abolitionists "radicals"? What made him and his colleagues different?

A: Abolitionists saw several pathways to ending slavery. Most considered "moral suasion" the best, non-violent means to convince slave masters to give up their chattel, as did many blacks and some radical whites. Ruggles considered slave masters evil and demanded an immediate, non-compensated end to slavery. He did not regard slavery as only a southern issue but saw it as a national problem. Most important, he employed a "practical abolitionism" that advocated civil disobedience, and he argued that fugitive slaves and free blacks beset by kidnappers had a right to defend themselves. This set him apart from nearly all his contemporary abolitionists but anticipated the violent struggles just before the Civil War.

Q: How did you become interested in Ruggles? And how did you find information about him?

A: When I published my earlier book with the University of North Carolina Press, Root & Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863, I wrote about Ruggles in passing. I knew there was a larger story as his memory shimmers in the margins of most studies about abolitionism. Researching him was not hard as he published over one hundred articles, five pamphlets, and five issues of the Mirror of Liberty. Understanding the breadth and importance of his actions took longer.

Q: Most people know that there were white abolitionists, but as you point out in your book, there were also many active black abolitionists, perhaps, most famously, Frederick Douglass. How does knowing their story change our understanding of abolitionism?

A: In this book, I argue that white and black abolitionists often worked together on an equal basis. My argument re-centers the history of abolitionism, which has tended to valorize whites or portray blacks as working on the sidelines. Ruggles' practical abolitionism appealed to ordinary blacks in New York City and to whites in upstate New York and New England who felt that slave catchers and kidnappers threatened their own ideals of personal liberty.

Q: Ruggles lived in New York during the 1830s. How was New York different from other destinations on the Underground Railroad?

A: It was more dangerous. Upon his arrival in New York in September 1838, Frederick Douglass was told not to trust any man, white or black, for fear of betrayal and arrest. New York was tougher than Philadelphia, Boston, or less urban destinations because much of the city's economy depended directly or indirectly on slavery. Racism among ordinary whites was common, and mobs did not hesitate to attack abolitionists, especially one as provocative as Ruggles. His store was burned down three times; he was beaten in jail twice and once nearly kidnapped to be sold into slavery. To openly operate a radical abolitionist bookstore where fugitive slaves were welcome just one block from Broadway, the most famous street in America, took a mad courage.

Q: Ruggles died at age 39. What was his legacy?

A: One of Ruggles' principal legacies was his courageous example to younger blacks. Frederick Douglass, whom Ruggles helped to gain freedom, learned the ropes of abolitionism from Ruggles, admired his publications, his direct appeals in speeches and debates, and his willingness to put his life on the line against slavery. He watched as Ruggles used civil disobedience against racist laws that, for example, restricted black patronage of railroads and street cars. Douglass, along with William Cooper Nell, James W. C. Pennington and scores of younger blacks, built upon Ruggles' examples. Ruggles' brand of practical abolitionism steered the movement away from abstract debate into confrontation with slavery, a method that came to inspire much of northern society. He did not do this alone, but his record was exemplary and helped radicalize northern ideas of personal liberty.

A conversation with Graham Russell Gao Hodges, author of
David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City
from University of North Carolina Press.


Visit your local library for these resources:

David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City    
Graham Russell Gao Hodges, (2010).

Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July
James A. Colaiaco, (2006).
Antebellum audiences enjoyed patriotic speeches on Independence Day, but a white Rochester, New York, crowd in 1852 was about to be surprised. At the rostrum was their neighbor, Frederick Douglass, who, instead of the expected encomium to the founding of the U.S., delivered a scorching denunciation of the preservation of slavery. A New York University teacher, Colaiaco analyzes this and other speeches, including Douglass’ famously ambivalent 1876 commemoration of Abraham Lincoln...extending the trend for “biographies” of speeches, Colaiaco’s careful study recaptures Douglass’ reputation as one of America’s greatest orators. —Excerpt of review by Gilbert Taylor first published February 1, 2006 (Booklist).

Reference Books

Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive
Gale, (2009).
Produced by Gale imprint Primary Source Microfilm, this is the first of an eventual four-part resource and a stunning example of how the Internet continues to redefine primary source access. Called Debates Over Slavery and Abolition, this part contains more than 1.5 million searchable pages that include more than 7,000 books, 80 serials, plus manuscript collections and court records. The time covered is the sixteenth century until 1888 (the abolition of slavery in Brazil), and the focus is primarily on the U.S., though other nations are represented. Collections include sources from the American Colonization Society and the Anti-Slavery Collection from Oberlin College, among many others.
— Excerpt of review by Ken Black first published November 1, 2009 (Booklist).

The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia
Julius E. Thompson and James L. Conyers and others (editors), (2009).
This encyclopedia, six years in the making, provides information to help readers better understand Frederick Douglass and his place in both African-American and American history. As stated in the preface, the goal is “to place the achievements, contributions, and the lifelong body of work of the leading African-American activist and abolitionist of the nineteenth century before contemporary students, scholars, and the general public.” Each of the more than 100 1- to 10-page articles was written by an authority and concludes with a bibliography of further readings.
—Excerpt of review by Laura Speer first published May 15, 2010 (Booklist).

The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass. 3v.
Paul Finkelman,editor, (2006).
As researchers discover more layers of African-American history, it becomes increasingly difficult to contain the whole sweep of African-American experience in a few reference volumes. This set from Oxford concentrates on history during a relatively short period and is to be followed by a second set, The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. The division between the two sets is based on the fact that Douglass died in 1895, and Plessy v. Ferguson, which ushered in segregation, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1896. The tighter focus of The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895 means it has a place for African Grove Theater; Burned-Over District, New York; Caulker’s trade (practiced mostly by African-Americans, including Douglass, before the Civil War).
— Excerpt of review by  Mary Ellen Quinn first published June 1, 2006 (Booklist).




1. Article illustration:
Frederick Douglass with his second wife Helen Pitts and her sister Eva.
Source: National Park Service: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

2. 1965 US Postage Stamp, published during the Civil Rights Movement

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