Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society papers, 1848-1868
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- The collection is open to research.
- Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society
- The Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society papers consist of documents generated by the society as well as correspondence to and from various members of the society about slavery, the conditions of freemen, and other progressive issues.
- 100 items
- Collection processed and finding aid created by Galen R. Wilson October 1983; Rob S. Cox October 1995
- Scope and Content:
The Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society papers contain only a small portion of what must at one time have been a much larger collection. As a society devoted to the immediate abolition of slavery, the antislavery movement forms the context of most of the correspondence in the collection, but the members of the society were individually and collectively involved in the education of freedmen and in other movements, including women's rights. As a result, the collection offers a broad perspective on the mentality and activity of a small group of progressive northern women involved in the reform of what they saw as the worst inequities in American society.
The Society maintained contact with several national-level leaders of the antislavery movements, and provided important financial support to Frederick Douglass, in particular. The nine letters from Douglass in the collection all relate to the assistance provided for publication of his newspaper or are requests from him for direct aid to fugitive slaves en route to Canada. A particularly affecting letter is one that he wrote from England in 1860, while on an antislavery tour. Harriet Tubman, Beriah Green, Lewis Tappan, George B. Cheever, and Gerrit Smith also appear in the collection, either as correspondents or subjects of letters. Among the more interesting of these letters is one from John Stewart, probably a free black man, addressed to Harriet Tubman; a letter from Moses Anderson, also African-American, writing about the importance of Uncle Tom's Cabin in shaping his political consciousness; Jacob Gibb's letter of introduction for a fugitive slave; and William Watkins' report on the number of fugitive slaves that have passed through Rochester into Canada in the year 1857.
British support for the Society was crucial in keeping it viable in the late 1850s, and is documented through the letters of Julia Griffiths Crofts (Leeds, England); Sarah Plummer (Dalkeith, Scotland), and Maria Webb (Dublin, Ireland). The fund-raising efforts of the society can be tracked partly through the list of goods donated for a Festival (1:77), a small collection of ephemera relating to British antislavery societies (1:82), and a list of donations from those British societies (1:28). The most significant item for tracking finances, however, is the account book for the Society (2:20), which covers its entire history. The secretaries of the Society recorded the complete finances of the organization, and provided lists of speakers at their annual events, and carefully delineated money remitted to individual fugitive slaves. Included at the end of the collection are a set of photocopies of the manuscripts (2:21) and supplemental information about the Society and its members, provided by the University of Rochester (2:22).
Freedmen's education was a major concern of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, and is discussed extensively by several correspondents. The single most frequent correspondent in the collection is Julia A. Wilbur, writing while working with freedmen in Alexandria, Va., 1862-1865. Wilbur writes long and vivid letters describing the miserable living conditions found among the freedmen, their want of clothing and shelter, and she describes several individual cases. Wilbur also met and became familiar with the renowned ex-slave and author, Harriet Jacobs. The situation that Wilbur describes in Virginia verges on the chaotic, with corruption at the highest levels, dissension among those in charge of contraband matters, and many in the military reluctant or unwilling to take any responsibility. She was a perceptive observer of the progress of the war, Southern citizenry, and of the destruction that the war had inflicted upon Virginia. Her official reports to the Society, which are more general and less pointed than her private correspondence, were published in the Society's published annual reports (2:1-13).
In addition to Wilbur's letters, there are six other items pertaining to freedmen's education. Three letters from G. W. Gardiner and one document signed by Lewis Overton, 1862-63, relate to the work of the Colored School, founded for freedmen at Leavenworth, Kansas, and both letters from Daniel Breed, 1863-64, include discussions of the Rochester School for Freedmen in Washington, D.C., named for the Society whose money founded it.
The printed items in the collection include fourteen of the seventeen known annual reports of the Society, a report from the Toronto Ladies' Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored fugitives (2:14), and circulars from two British societies (2:15-16). Three issues of Frederick Douglass' Paper (October 2, 1851, February 19 1858, and July 1, 1859) and one issue of The North Star (April 14, 1848) are included in Oversize Manuscripts. An issue of the Christian Inquirer (New York, July 24, 1858), having no direct relation to the Rochester Society, was transferred to the Newspapers Division. Finally, in two letters written in 1859 and 1861, Rebecca Bailey discusses her father William Bailey's newspaper, The Free South.
- Biographical / Historical:
"Slavery," according to the constitution of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, "is an evil that ought not to exist, and is a violation of the inalienable rights of man" In the summer of 1851, notices were distributed throughout Rochester, N.Y., to gather together any women interested in becoming active in the antislavery cause. Six women responded, and on August 20, 1851, formally organized themselves into the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Sewing Society (the "Sewing" was dropped by 1855), electing Susan Farley Porter as president, Julia Griffiths, secretary, and Maria G. Porter, treasurer. As noted in their first annual report, the Society remained steadfast in refusing any partisan political alignment, hoping to broaden their appeal across partisan lines in recognition of "the utter coldness, in the community on the slavery subject." Although Rochester was widely known as the home of Frederick Douglass' Paper, at the time, Douglass' was "the only anti-slavery instrumentality in the community." The Rochester Ladies were anxious to improve the situation.
By March, 1852, the Society had grown to nineteen members, when they held the first of their Festivals, or bazaars. In these events, held annually for over a decade, the women of the Society raised money through the sale of items made locally or contributed by other anti-slavery societies as far away as Britain, and through gate receipts for lectures by Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, or other activists held in the Corinthian Hall. The first Festival was advertised in newspapers as far away as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and by all accounts, it was a rousing success, netting over $250. Following on the heels of this bazaar, the Society intensified their fund raising efforts, matching success with success. In 1853, Julia Griffiths edited Autographs For Freedom, a collection of antislavery essays with facsimile signatures of the contributors, which sold so well that a second edition was prepared the following year. In the winter of 1854-55, the Society also sponsored its first annual lecture series, bringing in renowned speakers. Once again, the Society found a large and receptive audience for their message. Colleagues in British antislavery societies provided an important and regular source of funds through bazaars held on behalf of the Rochester Society. By the late 1850s, the annual receipts of the Society surpassed $1,500.
The bulk of the money raised by the Society was used in the important task of keeping Frederick Douglass' Paper solvent, but money was also used to help support a school for freedmen in Kansas and for the publication and distribution of anti-slavery literature in Kentucky. The Society played a crucial support role in one stretch of the Underground Railroad, providing small cash gifts directly to fugitive slaves to aid them on the last leg of their escape to Canada. The Society's annual reports for 1855 and 1856 listed 136 fugitives who had passed through Rochester with the Society's help, and by the following year, they had begun to develop a connection with veteran "railroad" engineer, Harriet Tubman.
The political crisis of the late 1850s and 1860s began to effect the way the Society conducted their business, and even its most committed members began to demur from taking too radical a stance in such an increasingly polarized climate. In its annual report for 1860-61, the Society lamented that "the various means used in former years for raising money and disseminating Anti-Slavery doctrines have been unsuited to the times, or [have become] dangerous in execution." As secession replaced slavery as the dominant public issue, and as politicians and members of the white public became increasingly hostile to antislavery activity in general, even radical Rochester felt the backlash. One meeting of the Society was forcibly disbanded by reactionary citizens, and the lecture series and bazaar were both canceled in 1861. When open warfare erupted in April, 1861, and all hope of sectional compromise was ended, the Society resumed a more open antislavery stance, but by that time, the tight wartime economy, ended the Festival as a practical fund raiser, and more and more, the Society had to depend on donations from British colleagues. Their most ardent British supporter was Julia Griffiths Crofts of Leeds, a charter member of the Society who returned to her native England in 1856 after marrying.
The women of the Society responded directly to new war-time realities, and devoted the greater part of their energy to assisting the large numbers of freedmen, escaped slaves and "contrabands" who had come into the Union lines. In October, 1862, the Society undertook perhaps its most impressive mission, sending its former corresponding secretary, Julia A. Wilbur, to Alexandria, Va., to work with freedmen's education and relief programs.
At the end of the war, with the formal abolition of slavery and the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau, the edge was taken off the urgency of the (now) Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery and Freedmen's Aid Society, and the Society fairly rapidly dissolved. In 1868, the 17th and apparently final annual report of the society claimed that "Southern ideas of social life are giving way to more liberal views and to the more enlightened tendencies of the age," though they also noted that "in the present whirl and chaos of affairs, both civil and political, the Freedpeople will undoubtedly continue to have a hard time of it." The Society, however, found little support for continuing their efforts in freedmen's education and less in confronting the problem of racial inequality in America. The incoming resources of the Society declined sharply, and this last report recorded less than ninety dollars in receipts for the year.
- Acquisition Information:
- 1983. M-2084 .
- Custodial History:
The history of the collection remains unclear, but it is likely that this body of material was originally held in the custody of the secretary or treasurer of the Society, last held, respectively, by Anna M. Cornell Barnes and Maria G. Porter.
- Rules or Conventions:
- Finding aid prepared using Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS)
- Additional Descriptive Data:
Copies of both the 1853 and 1854 editions of Julia Griffiths' Autographs For Freedom are located in the Clements Library's Books Division.
Griffiths also edited a volume of anti-slavery essays, Voices of Freedom (Worthington: N.Y., [188_?]), which is not present in the Clements' holdings. Research suggests that Voices of Freedom is a reprint of the second volume of Autographs for Freedom (1854) - see Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society Papers control file.
The Clements Library also holds one of Frederick Douglass' speeches before the Society published in 1855, entitled The Anti-Slavery Movement; A Lecture Before the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society (Lee, Mann & Co.: Rochester, 1855).
The Library of the University of Rochester houses an extensive collection of papers of the Porter family, including a large number of items relating to Maria G. Porter and Susan Farley Porter.
- Alternative Form Available:
Transcripts of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery papers are located in the transcripts section of the Manuscripts Division.
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Using These Materials
The collection is open to research.
- USE & PERMISSIONS:
Copyright status is unknown.
- PREFERRED CITATION:
Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan