Negro Women in Freedom's Battles
by Augusta Strong

Originally published in Freedomways, Winter, 1967

[ Augusta Strong was a veteran of the Southern Negro Youth Congress and a founding member of Freedomways]
Where is tomorrow born? How does the future start? On a winter working day. In a Negro woman's heart. ...

The day was December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a working woman, took a seat on a bus in Montgomery and refused the driver's request to move to the back and give her seat to a white passenger. ...

No one could have realized they were sharing in a momentous event. The handful in the bus were privileged to witness the opening of a new epoch which would see the revolutionary awakening of the long-oppressed Blacks of the United States. Mrs. Parks was taken off the bus and jailed. By that night a committee of women were protesting the arrest, calling upon local leaders for action. Three days later, the idea of a boycott of buses had taken hold, and a new young clergyman, Martin Luther King, Jr, was elected president of the association formed to organize to achieve their goals, which at that time were very modest.

Ten months later, a United States Supreme Court ruling struck down segregated travel on all municipal facilities, and the seemingly timeless facade of segregation in the South had received another in a series of mortal wounds. The Rosa Parks incident was over, but a new era of struggle had begun-a struggle that was to extend from the South to all parts of the nation.

It is an interesting circumstance that a woman and a women's committee gave the impulse to this new revolution of our day. Whatever impelled her — whether tiredness, frustration, suppressed anger, over — long humiliation-at that moment she became, as many other courageous women have, a center from which spread widening circles of social consciousness and resistance to oppression. Despite the image that has been kept alive in the public mind of the Negro woman as a patient matriarch or carefree harlot, there are countless stories, far more dramatic, of their role as inspirers, instigators, collaborators, and as leaders in the cause of freedom. ...

Pre-Civil War Period

The first recorded petition made by an individual Negro to a legislature is the appeal of a woman, dated 1661, in Dutch, addressed to the government of New Netherlands, seeking freedom from slavery for the adopted son of Reytory Angola who "...with the fruit of her hands' bitter toil, she reared him as her own child, and up to the present supported him, taking all motherly solicitude and care for him, without the aid of anyone in the world." The petition happily was granted.

One of the more curious outrages of slavery was that sometimes the road to freedom meant buying one's self. Usually it was the male who took on additional work, if permitted by his master, which over the years earned him a sum to purchase liberty. In other instances, those who most ardently believed in freedom had to purchase slaves in order to free them. There is preserved the petition of Jemima Hunt, "free woman of color," in 1810 who contracted to pay ten pounds a year for ten years to a Virginia slave-owner to secure the freedom of her husband, Stephen, father of the children whom she supported through her daily labors. Many women who had escaped from slavery sent money to a third party to purchase a son, daughter, sister or brother. Other free Negro women in the North formed organizations for the purpose of raising funds to buy and liberate slaves; a few women devoted their lives and most of their earnings to this work.

From the beginning of the organized anti-slavery movement, Negro women were active participants and leaders. While the movement was interracial, such centers as Boston and Philadelphia and other areas also had all-Negro Ladies' Anti-Slavery Societies. They were represented in national and international gatherings, became accustomed to facing hostile mobs, circulating petitions, and effectively agitating against slavery.

Women were among the leaders of the New England Freedom Association, founded in 1845 by Negroes to assist fugitive slaves. Though their purpose was illegal, they boldly published their aims: ". extend a helping hand to all who may bid adieu to whips and chains, and by the welcome light of the North Star, reach a haven where they can be protected from the manstealer. An article of the Constitution enjoins us not to pay one farthing to any slaveholder for the property they may claim in a human being. ... Our mission is to succor those who claim property in themselves, and thereby acknowledge an independence of slavery."

One of those who became famous and was widely regarded as a heroine for her daring exploits was Ellen Craft who with her husband, William, in 1849 made her way out of Georgia by a ruse. Since her color did not betray her identity, Ellen was able to travel disguised as a Southern gentlemen. Using money they had saved (through William's working nights and Saturdays after his master was served) they traveled the public conveyances and stayed at first-class hotels. Ellen carried her arm in a sling to account for the fact that she did not sign the register at hotels, for neither of them could read or write. Posing as her valet, her husband was able to remain constantly at her side during the risky experiments. After their escape the Crafts traveled widely for the Anti-Slavery Society for a number of years, talking to audiences in the United States and in Europe.

While the abolition of slavery remained the principal concern of the freedom movements of the pre-Civil War era, there was also continuous action around other issues. National and state conventions were called during the 1830's and 1840's which sought equal education, the right to vote and to serve on juries, the right to enroll in the militia, to bear arms in the Navy, to be eligible for settling on public lands, and the repeal of oppressive "black laws." At these gatherings, women were always present as delegates, and occasionally as leaders. One of these conventions, representing Garrison's view of the Constitution as "a covenant with the devil and an agreement with hell," meeting in Cleveland in 1854 with a Negro woman, Mary E. Bibb as vice-president, proclaims in surprisingly contemporary terms: That no oppressed people have ever obtained their rights by voluntary acts of generosity on the part of their oppressors. ... That if we desire liberty, it can only be obtained at the price which others have paid for it. ... That we are willing to pay that price, let the cost be what it may."

The Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society of Delaware, Ohio, in an address to a State convention of men in 1856, with eloquent rhetoric urges united action for freedom: "It was a Spartan mother's farewell to son. 'Bring home your shield or be brought upon it' ... and we pledge ourselves to exert our influence unceasingly in the cause of Liberty and Humanity." The militancy of their words was echoed by other groups of women throughout the nation who followed eagerly the gallant attempt of John Brown and his 17 followers to seize the Harper's Ferry arsenal and free the slaves of the surrounding area. When Brown and his men were condemned to death a tremendous wave of indignation and sympathy found expression in Negro communities — meetings, demonstrations and resolutions paid tribute to the idealistic leader and letters of solidarity poured in.

A typical one, adopted at a meeting of The Colored Women of Brooklyn, was addressed to the martyr, while he was under sentence, to be executed a week later:

"We a portion of the American people. ... offer you our sincere and heartfelt sympathies in the cause you have so nobly espoused. .. We consider you a model of true patriotism, and one whom our enemy will yet regard as the greatest it has produced. ... We shall ever hold you dear in our remembrance, and shall infuse the same feelings in our posterity."

From Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, poet and an indefatigable traveler and lecturer for the Abolitionist cause, came a pledge to never desist from the cause of freedom. Writing to John Brown in prison a few days before his death, she wrote: "Although the hands of slavery throw a barrier between you and me, and it may not be my privilege to see you in your prison house, Virginia has no bolts or bars through which I dread to send you my sympathy. ... You have rocked the bloody Bastille; and I hope that from your sad fate great good may arise to the cause of freedom. Already from your prison has come a shout of triumph against the giant sin of our country.

"I have written your dear wife, and sent her a few dollars, and I pledge myself to you that I will continue to assist her. Send my sympathy to your fellow prisoners. ...If any of them, like you, have a wife or children that I can help, let them send me word. Yours in the cause of freedom."

Frances Harper, born of free parents, in Maryland in 1825, was then one of the best-known woman poets of her day. A striking woman of handsome features and commanding voice, she was an experienced and indefatigable speaker for the Abolitionist cause. Orphaned early in life, she attended a School for Colored Children run by an uncle and aunt, but went to work at 13, and was largely self-educated. She left Maryland to teach school in Ohio and in the North where she came into contact with the Underground Railroad. She was engaged as a permanent lecturer for the anti-slavery movement, traveled and spoke, attaining wide popularity both as lecturer and poet. Fellow anti-slavery workers spoke of her as a "good and glorious" speaker. Her poems, moral and didactic, in the fashion of her day, are eloquent in their denunciation of slavery and in honor of those who have given their lives for freedom. She was still a woman in the prime of life when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and she greeted it with these enthusiastic words:

It shall flash through the coming ages,
It shall light the distant years;
And eyes now dim with sorrow
Shall be brighter through their tears.

Her last poems were published in 1900, when she was seventy-five years old, and she remained a figure in the freedom movement until her death in 1911.

John Brown's conviction that the slaves themselves must be armed and rise against the system had a following among the anti-slavery workers. One of them, Charles Remond, advocated an appeal for insurrection before the 1858 Massachusetts State Convention of Negroes. He proudly proclaimed himself a traitor to a government which condoned slavery, and declared that he would rather stand over the graves of his mother and sister than to feel that they might be violated at the whim of a slaveholder.

The sister of whom he spoke was as fiery an Abolitionist as her brother, a familiar figure on lecture platforms of the Anti-Slavery Society, for whom she lectured in the North and abroad in England, Ireland and Scotland where she was received with friendship and sympathy. During the Civil War she came to England, like other Abolitionist leaders, to win the support of the British for the liberation struggle of the slaves. Though British textile mills were closed and workers unemployed because of the disruption of cotton farming in the South, she spoke against British support of the Confederacy: "Let no diplomacy of statesmen, no intimidation of slaveholders, no scarcity of cotton, no fear of slave insurrections, prevent the people of Great Britain from maintaining their position as the friend of the oppressed Negro, which they deservedly occupied previous to the disastrous civil war."

Sarah Remond numbered among her antecedents a grandfather who fought in the American Revolution, a father who was an immigrant from the West Indies. She was born of free parentage in Salem, Massachusetts, was well educated and well read. She continued her education after the end of the Civil War, obtaining a medical degree in Florence, Italy, at the age of fifty-six, and working there as a practicing physician until her death. ...

Copyright © Augusta Strong, 1967.

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(Labor donated)