The Historical Roots of Abolition in the Twenty-First Century

Signs during the South Minneapolis Protests at the 3rd District Police Station, May 28, 2020 (AndrewStecker /

In June 2020 Mariame Kaba penned an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, “Yes We Literally Mean Abolish the Police.” The essay responded to calls for institutional reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, MN and the resulting rebellions and protests across the world. It is also included in We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, a must-read collection of Kaba’s writing published this year. Reformist proposals from groups like Campaign Zero and Democrats, including then presidential hopeful Joe Biden, failed, as they always do, to address the fundamental issues at hand. Instead, activists all over the country, perhaps more popularly than ever before, demanded action at every level to abolish the police. Kaba’s essay offers an important historical lesson about the failures of police reform. In doing so, Kaba helps us consider the uses of history as a method for thinking not only about the past and its present, but towards the just future which abolitionists have long sought. 

Abolitionists across the history of the United States have thought historically in attempting to change the worlds in which they lived. In the nineteenth century United States, Black abolitionists used history to argue for a world without slavery. In their writings and speeches they compared the conditions of contemporary slavery to past iterations of the institution. They revised historical narratives to pull at the loose threads of hypocrisy present in the ideals of the nation. Some even imagined their position from the future, suggesting that their evidence of enslavement might be of interest to historians who lived after they, and hopefully slavery, were gone. Still others, like William C. Nell, William Wells Brown, and Martin Delany, produced historical work on African Americans that revealed complex and rich histories that challenged their absence in the field’s accepted historiography and white supremacist ideas. In his book A Faithful Account of the Race, Stephen G. Hall argues that this historical work was central to Black intellectual thought in the period. By creating Black narratives, these thinkers rooted the histories of people of African descent in the history of the world and built community as they constructed a past that could help them better consider both their present and futures.

In the hands of Black abolitionists, history helped the movement critique the current condition of African Americans, enslaved and free alike. But, importantly, it was also invoked as a way to envision and call forth a new world in which slavery would cease to exist. The history of Haiti, the revolutionary Black nation that David Walker called the “glory of blacks and terror of tyrants,” loomed large in these discussions. Abolitionists conjured the memory of the first independent Black nation in the Americas and the first country to abolish slavery in the revolutionary age. Speaking on the history of Haiti in 1854, William Wells Brown closed his speech by comparing the careers of Toussaint L’Ouverture and George Washington. He warned that the institution of slavery, which, unlike L’Ouverture, Washington had “aided in giving strength and vitality” would “one day rend asunder the Union.” Brown claimed that the enslaved “burns for revenge” and that if their revolution would occur in the United States, as in Haiti, the one “commenced in 1776 would then be finished.” 

In the same year, Brown had been forced to purchase his legal freedom while in England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It is maybe unsurprising that Brown, who had previously refused to do so despite living as a fugitive from slavery for over a decade, looked to Haiti as a warning for a government that would enact such laws. The history of Haiti, although complicated, acted as an alternative tradition to that of his own nation which continually refused to stop protecting slavery and enslavers despite decades of abolitionist work. This is also why abolitionists in the United States commemorated the end of slavery in the British Caribbean. These public acts of transatlantic memory kept a history of emancipation, as a possible future for African Americans, alive until they had their own reason to celebrate. 

The ways that Black abolitionists understood Haiti as both a past and a future is useful for thinking about history’s place in between and how historians can work to help us all ask those “better questions for the future” as Kaba purposes. History can tell us not just about the past, but serve as a reminder of what is possible, and what is at stake. In looking to Haiti, abolitionists like Brown reminded their audience that the end of slavery had a past and present, invited them to envision a future without slavery, and to act on making that future a reality. 

By the Civil War, the actions of enslaved people and abolitionist activists led the nation to imagine itself without slavery. Through both force and vision emancipation did come. Yet in the wake of the war, even constitutional change, a type of reform, was not enough to completely transform the future. As abolitionist and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper claimed in 1867, “slavery, as an institution, has been overthrown, but slavery, as an idea, still lives in the American Republic…” Activists, then and now, described slavery’s afterlife. This afterlife, which Harper saw in 1867, continues to affect Black lives through a “racial calculus and a political arithmetic entrenched centuries ago,” as described by Saidiya Hartman. Some 150 years after emancipation, we can see the way abolition remains incomplete. Activists continue to disorder historical narratives that maintain the “idea of slavery” as they work against institutions born of slavery. Even the normative narratives dismantled by African American writers since the nineteenth century remain alive, the former president’s 1776 Commission being just one example. 

Abolitionists today wrestle with the failures of these centuries of reform. The uprisings against state violence last summer also brought down monuments to white supremacy, settler colonialism, and anti-blackness. Protesters targeted these symbols, from those of Christopher Columbus and confederates like Robert E. Lee in Richmond to the Minneapolis Police’s Third Precinct. These actions do important historical work as they disrupt what has been, what is, and create a landscape for what can be. This, too, is what abolitionist organizers do in their work to end police and prisons. They require us to imagine and organize towards a world that may seem impossible to some at present. This imagined impossibility is why it is also important to remember that abolition has a history. It is one of both achievement and still to be realized aspirations.  

In 1935 W.E.B. Du Bois published his radical rewriting of the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Given its subject, it is perhaps appropriate that Du Bois ended Black Reconstruction in America with a meditation on the historiography of the period and the practice of history itself. In his time, Du Bois could see the ways that emancipation had failed. Not quite a century after abolition, Du Bois lived through the violence that the destruction of Reconstruction’s radical possibilities had wrought. He believed that the propagation of “cheap and false myth” by historians was partially to blame for the “present lawlessness.” He could see, because he both created and lived under them, the ways that historical narratives had power and could shape what comes. For Du Bois, the future of the world was wrapped up in the history of abolition. 

The ways that we learn and teach about the relationships between the past and present and even time and progress, can be better informed by abolition. In this context, Kaba’s positioning on how to use history is a perceptive methodological call for historians. The study of history should help us all understand how the time of reform is past. It should bring us all closer to abolition, which is to say the future. 

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Julia Bernier

Julia Bernier is an Assistant Professor of History and Black Studies at the University of North Alabama. Her work focuses on slavery and abolition in the United States. She completed her PhD in African American Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2017. Her current project, “Freedom’s Currency,” is a comprehensive study of self-purchase in the antebellum United States and centers the importance of this path to freedom for African American communities. She has taught courses in African American Studies and History at UMass Amherst, the College of Wooster, and Georgetown University. Before joining the department, Julia was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow for the Study of Slavery at Georgetown where she worked on the university’s Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation initiative. When she is not working, she enjoys being at the beach and looking for sea glass.

Comments on “The Historical Roots of Abolition in the Twenty-First Century

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    I really liked this piece. It put the current prison abolition movement into an important historical tradition. It shows that what may have appeared radical to some at one point become understood as necessary to many more. Thank you for helping me to understand this. It is both sobering and optimistic.

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