What do nineteenth-century abolitionist Parker Pillsbury and his twentieth-century biographer have in common? They both crossed the Atlantic on an antislavery mission. In this dispatch, cross-posted from her blog, HAS co-director Stacey Robertson reflects on our new efforts to build connections with what Pillsbury might have called our “coadjutors across the pond.”
When American abolitionist Parker Pillsbury traveled to Britain in 1853, he hoped to strengthen ties among antislavery supporters on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite his prickly personality and unwillingness to compromise, which resulted in increased tensions between different brands of abolitionists, he did inspire a core group of passionate advocates, especially among women. He also set aside his commitment to temperance, and enjoyed the occasional pub beer during his sojourn.
With Parker as both an inspiration and a caution, I recently engaged in a ten-day U.K. lecture tour that stretched from Oxford to Belfast, aiming to spread interest in the nonprofit organization that I co-direct, Historians Against Slavery. The mission of HAS is to support and inform the modern-day antislavery movement by providing it with historical context and perspective. We believe that in order to successfully battle slavery today, we need to understand its history and evolution. HAS encourages the development of antislavery student organizations on college campuses, organizes a bi-annual conference in collaboration with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, supports a Speakers Bureau, publishes blogs and provides other resources on its website, and edits a book series. Our membership is spread across the U.S. and into the U.K., and I hoped during my trip to further extend our reach and build new partnerships. As I prepared for lectures, raced for trains, shook hands, and collapsed from exhaustion in bed each night, I wondered how Parker and my other predecessors coped over longer periods of time with far fewer creature comforts. I concluded that they, like me, found their energy and inspiration in the people they met and the widespread eagerness, and resolve, to build an international antislavery movement.
My lectures highlighted the many lessons that history could teach us as we continue our crusade against slavery in the 21st century. I focused particularly on those American and British abolitionists who advocated for "Free Produce"—an economic boycott of all slave goods. Such a boycott, they hoped, would force slaveholders to pay a financial price for their inhumane labor system and also allow abolitionists to purify their homes and their souls by distancing themselves from the products of slavery. Some abolitionists considered Free Produce unrealistic and overly burdensome. King Cotton, they argued, was far too powerful to feel the impact of the few who abstained from slave-made products. Moreover, it was difficult and expensive to find "free" goods. William Lloyd Garrison became an outspoken opponent of Free Produce because it distracted from the more direct assault upon slavery that he favored. While acknowledging that Free Produce had little economic impact on slavery, I suggested in my lectures that the movement’s importance lay in its lessons about consciousness raising and catalyzing collective action. By teaching today’s consumers about supply chains, bonded labor, sex trafficking, and multiple other forms of slavery, we can raise awareness about how to become conscientious consumers and, hopefully, participants in a global antislavery movement.
Now, as with American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison who had gone to the United Kingdom, I learned as much as I shared when discussing my work. My first lecture was at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University, courtesy of my friend Vanderbilt University Professor Richard Blackett, the 2013-14 Harmsworth Fellow at Oxford. Richard was a superb host, inviting me to attend High Table at Queens College, (what an experience! I learned important rules of etiquette like how to "close" my plate and which direction to pass the after-dinner drinks!) and introducing me to clotted cream, tea, and scones at Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds. Among the lessons learned at Oxford was the centrality of food in culture. It reminded me to connect Free Produce to the organic food movement and other related social justice issues.
My next stop was the University of Manchester, where I attended the American Studies Postgraduate Conference. As I listened to energetic young speakers discuss their research, I was pleased to see that much of their scholarship interacted with social justice issues. However, I also noticed a tentativeness to engage directly in current political debates. Graduate students are often hesitant to link their scholarship with hot-button issues because they fear that their work will be tainted with "bias." This is especially true in the U.S. where senior professors are known to caution their students about becoming involved with political or justice groups that may affect their marketability and weaken their scholarly credentials. For those of us who believe that it is a social and moral responsibility for public intellectuals to engage with humanitarian and justice issues, we must empower the next generation of scholars to do the same. For me, this involves modeling socially engaged research and providing young scholars with guidance and impetus to incorporate humanitarian issues into their teaching and research (Historians Against Slavery has a selection of excellent syllabi for integrating modern slavery into history courses).
I left Manchester to spend a few days in Belfast at Queens University courtesy of my friend Dr. Catherine Clinton, an historian of southern and women’s history and a leading member of Historians Against Slavery. Catherine had already organized a student abolitionist group through our website The Free Project, and I was delighted to meet some of those students and learn about their projects. I was especially intrigued by the online abolitionist magazine created by Rosie Watterson and Jack Gallagher and the energy and enthusiasm of graduate students Glen Whitcroft and Matthew Jackson. I learned that a single motivated professor could transform student life and opportunities on a campus. Catherine engaged her students around abolitionist issues inside and outside the classroom and encouraged them to approach the topic with scholarly rigor, creativity, and compassion.
During my last stop in Liverpool I discovered the multitude of opportunities for socially engaged research at the Centre for the Study of International Slavery and the International Slavery Museum, thanks to the efforts of co-directors Richard Huzzey and Richard Benjamin. I met with a thoughtful group of Liverpool graduate students— including a retired attorney who devoted his legal career to antislavery —and we had a lively discussion about the intersections of history and modern activism. The result of these various conversations is an exciting plan to develop a collaborative international antislavery conference in Liverpool that brings together students, activists, scholars, legal experts, politicians, and survivors. The willing engagement of the local university and museum around social justice issues in Liverpool offers a critical lesson about the importance of institutional support in abolitionist success. When justice and equality are priorities for our government, businesses, and schools, citizen engagement will follow.
I left the U.K. inspired and hopeful. There is immense opportunity for increased global collaborations of the sort that our nineteenth-century ancestors could only dream. With technological advances we are capable of developing international online student gatherings, cross-university projects, large-scale global petitions, and tremendously powerful marketing campaigns. Learning from those abolitionists who fought slavery 150 years ago, we have the ability to "use history to make slavery history!"
Although I followed Parker Pillsbury’s lead in visiting a few pubs during my trip, I hope that my time in the UK was less contentious and more constructive. And like Parker and other American abolitionists who crossed the Atlantic, I look forward to developing new alliances that will include creative programming, strategic fundraising, and energetic partnerships.