Bail Funds, Buying Freedom, and a History of Abolition

#FreeBlackMamas Rally in Philadelphia (Joe Piette/Flickr).

In recent months bail funds have gained unprecedented popularity as a way to redistribute funds to release protesters arrested in the rebellions and those in jail who face extreme risk of infection and death due to COVID-19. Calls for donations have flooded social media. While local bail funds circulated the internet, some funds received more of an influx than others. In response to the pandemic, National Bail Out raised $1.2 million over Mother’s Day week as part of their annual drive to “Free Black Mamas,” which releases Black mothers and caregivers. As rebellions, sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, began in Minneapolis the Minnesota Freedom Fund alone received an overwhelming $30 million.

Sustained uprisings quickly spread across the nation. The over-policing of, and state violence against, Black and brown people, as well as the effects of the militarization of the police have been laid bare, again, in the state responses to the protests. Rooted in anti-Blackness, these longer standing conditions for rebellion were exacerbated by the pandemic. Abolition and defund the police quickly became rallying calls for protestors and activists in cities, towns, schools across the United States, gaining wins that would have perhaps seemed impossible only months ago. Bail funds and other forms of mutual aid, which are currently saving people’s lives, are an integral part of those efforts. Connections between buying freedom and abolition movements have a much longer history.

In 1845 the National Anti-Slavery Standard ran a story about a Black man named Carolina Jones. Jones spent the previous year travelling to raise money to purchase his family members. He secured funds, in part, from abolitionists. The Standard believed that those who had “contributed to his happiness” would appreciate knowing that he successfully raised enough to buy his wife and two sons. One son, however, remained enslaved.1 Jones was not alone, African Americans frequently traveled abolitionist lecture circuits, published narratives, and networked with movement activists to raise funds for freedom. Although they may not have used our contemporary terms, free African Americans like Jones and enslaved people looking to purchase their own freedom often crowdsourced funding and depended on mutual aid.

Like today’s abolitionists, nineteenth century activists debated ameliorative measures and reforms that fell short of total abolition. For early activists, that sometimes included paying into the system to secure release, even as they fought for the total abolition of slavery. From the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, American abolitionists called for immediate and uncompensated emancipation. Paying for freedom was “a surrender of the great fundamental principle that man cannot hold property in man.” If money was exchanged, it should go to the “outraged and guiltless slaves.”

Yet many abolitionists recognized the necessity of buying individual freedom, even as they opposed compensating enslavers as a class. When circumstances presented the choice between permanent enslavement and emancipation, many African Americans did whatever they could to be free. Their first line of defense was their own communities. The enslaved used connections with free African Americans and even across racial lines. Still, abolition remained an important freedom network, especially for those who escaped to the North.

Black abolitionists made clear that movement principles did not always align with their experiences. Some Black fugitive activists stood fast in their refusal to participate in slavery’s market for freedom, chosing to maintain illegal freedom as a way to focus attention on the overthrow of the larger systems the movement worked against. When English abolitionists purchased Frederick Douglass’ freedom in 1846, debate exploded across abolitionist print culture. In defending himself, Douglass declared that he would use his free papers as a “brand of infamy, stamping the nation, in whose name the deed was done.”2 In describing the necessity of his “ransom,” Douglass offered a radical critique of slavery that also exposed its power over the entire nation.

 The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ensured that fugitives who remained in the U.S. could not truly escape the bonds of slavery. In her 1861 narrative, Harriet Jacobs described how the law affected thousands of African Americans who lived under its constant threat. Hunted and haunted by her former enslaver for the majority of her life, Jacobs was eventually forced to accept the purchase of her freedom. In describing her manumission papers, Jacobs declared that while she knew their value and loved freedom, she did not like to “look upon it.” Jacobs understood that true freedom could not come from the literal ownership of self. This self-possession was made by markets in human flesh that were upheld by American law. Her natural right to freedom was marred by its material representation in the form of her freedom papers. Jacobs wanted to live free, not be freed through the legal exchange that slavery required. She suggests that “future generations will learn from [her bill of sale] that women were articles of traffic in New York.” Robin D.G. Kelley recently asked, “What kind of society values property over black life?” Jacobs and Douglass would have had a ready answer.

Those flooding the streets today have historical precursors in the urban rebellions of the 1960s, radical abolitionists, and the enslaved who used more forceful measures to secure freedom. Enslaved people escaped every day. Others, like Nat Turner, openly rebelled against slavery. The band of the co-conspirators who attacked Harpers Ferry with John Brown also chose open and violent rebellion. Abolitionists stormed courthouses and used physical resistance to protect fugitives from recapture alongside moral suasion and legal tactics like buying freedom. In debates over techniques, activists have always attempted to address the complicated relationships amongst immediate needs, justice, and the complete overthrow of the systems that continue to oppress Black people.3 The legal and extralegal had to work in tandem and allow room for each other. In practice, that meant that people were liberated through a variety of techniques every day. Individual emancipations mattered on the way to full abolition, both to the people freed, and as steps towards justice. In the end, it took everything.

Bail systems and funds themselves have a long history. National Bailout describes them as the “Black Codes of Bail,” which recalls other historical systems meant to control Black freedom from slavery to Jim Crow. According to NBO, pretrial detention practices “trap people in the criminal legal system, exploitment economically, condemn them to debt, attempt to control their movement and interaction with family and loved ones, or make them vulnerable to further criminalization.” This disadvantage activates the necessity of paying to get people out of jail, even as organizers work towards ending cash bail and the total abolition of police and prisons.

There are critical differences between paying bail and buying freedom under racial slavery. Bail support is meant to release people being held pretrial. Those released from jail are not simultaneously freed from the law’s hold. Many may still end up in prison, some for extended periods. Self-purchase led to legal emancipation from slavery. Barring kidnapping, i.e. illegal re-enslavement, that freedom was permanent and could be intergenerational because it was recognized by the same legal system that protected slavery. As systems upon which racial capitalism depends, slavery and mass incarceration are not unrelated and paying for freedom under each can be compared for what it tells us about how we care for people, use funds to secure escape, and leads us to deeper questions about what freedom is and what it should be.

In our current moment there is an immediacy to bail funds and a capacity and dedication to freeing people that are directly related to the larger project of contemporary abolition. Like earlier movements, today’s uprisings and their underlying abolitionist organization seek to overturn the world as we know it and to imagine and enact new ones.4 Buying freedom is a place to use community support to change power dynamics and the legal system’s hold over human beings in the interest of full liberation.

From racial slavery to contemporary mass incarceration, Black lives have been both valued, in economic terms, and devalued as human life. Today, African Americans are more heavily policed and incarcerated. Anti-Black policies and economic disparities, including being held pretrial because one cannot post bond, are at the heart of that experience. In the case of Kalief Browder, held for three years at New York City’s Rikers Island without conviction, this system cost him his life.

Abolitionist scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore often reminds us that, “where life is precious, life is precious.” What abolitionists across the centuries have understood is that that preciousness must exist in a world outside of racial capitalism. Enslaved people and abolition activsits provided the imagination and blueprint the nation needed to end slavery and in many ways they radically transformed the world. Yet, what our current moment shows is that the work remains incomplete. As abolitionists have always known, true liberation will come in a world where freedom cannot be bought.

  1. “Freed,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, October 23, 1845.
  2. “Letter to Douglass with his Reply,” The Liberator, January 29, 1847.
  3. For more on the history abolition movement see Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016); Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019)
  4. For recent media on abolition see Mariame Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” New York Times, June 12, 2020; Dan Berger, Mariame Kaba, David Stein, “What Abolitionists Do,”  Jacobin Magazine, August 24, 2017; Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition, The Intercept, June 10, 2020
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Julia W. Bernier

Julia W. Bernier is an Assistant Professor of History and Black Studies at the University of North Alabama. She got her PhD in African American Studies at UMass Amherst in 2017. Her first book, 'Freedom's Currency: Self-Purchase in the Antebellum United States,' will be published by Yale University Press. Follow her on Twitter @jwbernier.