One of the largest antislavery groups to emerge before the Civil War was one of the most unlikely. Located in the isolated northwest corner of Ohio, the Ashtabula County Female Anti-Slavery Society attracted over 500 members. Led by a rural schoolteacher, Betsy Mix Cowles, the group focused on fighting the state’s racist “Black Laws” and providing educational opportunities for free African Americans.
Cowles was a one-woman organizing dynamo that pursued members across the county with relentless determination. Typically, she would corner a potential convert, describe the horrors of slavery, point to the sisterly ties between enslaved and free women, and convince her listener that she could make a difference. She followed up with repeated correspondence until her target joined the group.
Betsy Mix Cowles offers those of us interested in organizing against slavery on college campuses valuable lessons. Perhaps most important, Betsy teaches us that it takes only one determined, focused, and energetic advocate to create a successful antislavery organization. She quickly inspired a small group of supporters, instilled in them her own passion, and enlisted them in expanding the group. These advocates relied on Betsy for occasional injections of hopefulness, but by and large they carried the message forward with their own sense of commitment. As faculty members consider organizing antislavery groups on college campuses it is helpful to remember this “one-passionate-leader” lesson.
But as any faculty member involved with student organizing knows, that one passionate student eventually graduates, and the group suffers. What then? How can we establish vibrant abolitionist groups on college campuses and maintain those groups over the long term? After discussing this challenge with various members of the non-profit organization, Historians Against Slavery (HAS), who have served as advisors to antislavery groups on college campuses, I share below a series of suggestions for the establishment of a thriving antislavery group. I believe these recommendations are applicable to high school environments as well.