In the United States, there has been a renewal of interest in slavery, the abolition movement, and the Civil War. In 2012 the movie Lincoln opened to popular acclaim, shortly afterwards PBS premiered a three-part mini series, The Abolitionists, and last year, Steve McQueen’s brutal and path-breaking film about Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave, was released. Despite the increased renewal of interest in abolitionism, blacks have largely been absent from these portrayals. In Lincoln, black opposition to slavery was kept to a few scenes; PBS’ The Abolitionists profiled only one black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass; and in 12 Years a Slave, abolitionists are all white, ignoring even Solomon Northup’s role fighting slavery and demanding reparations after his emancipation. Textbooks and state curricula devote little attention to the abolition movement, let alone to black abolitionists. As Bill Bigelow writes in the introduction to “‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement”: “U.S. history textbooks and curricula tend to marginalize the abolition movement. For example, Oregon’s state social studies standards mention ‘abolitionists’ only once in the 8th grade benchmarks, and not at all in the high school standards.”
In fact, black abolitionists were central to the abolition movement and the ending of slavery. The leading abolitionist newspaper of the time, The Liberator, was funded largely by black abolitionists and the newspaper’s subscribers were by and large African American. Three years after The Liberator’s founding, African Americans accounted for three-quarters of the newspaper’s 2,300 subscribers.
To counter this invisibility, every day during Black History Month, the Zinn Education Project will feature a noted black abolitionist on our Facebook page and online. We also offer the role play on the people’s history of the abolition movement, referenced above, which helps students learn a more accurate and empowering history of the fight to end slavery.
This collection is not comprehensive, indeed there are many more black abolitionists who fought against slavery, assisted people in the Underground Railroad, or supported the movement in a myriad of ways.
It is our hope that the role play and these profiles will encourage people to learn more about the significant role of black liberators in the struggle against slavery.
Teacher education student Tristan Brosnan prepared this introduction and the collection of images and short bios of black abolitionists.