The Revolutionary Language of Black Abolitionists

Lee, R., photographer. Photo engraver of the Chicago Defender, Chicago, Illinois, 1941 (LOC)

In the summer of 1854, a group of free Black men and women from across the United States met in Cleveland, Ohio, to discuss their future of living in the country divided between half slave and half free states. Between the 24th and 26th of August, members at the National Emigration Convention of Colored People argued that Black people would be better suited to live in Canada where the legal system was (perceived to be) much more hospitable to them, and men and women could afford to purchase land and become members of a community without facing the hostility they faced settling as free people in America. Though Canada was not the oasis that some Black people fleeing the U.S. envisioned, as historian Gerald Horne notes, since they were not given opportunities to become full citizens in Canada.

At this convention was Hezekiah Ford (H. Ford) Douglas of Louisiana, a refugee from slavery who was born on a Virginia plantation. Although he supported the emigration of free Black people from the injustice of slavery, Douglas’s life in the Midwest, particularly in Illinois, illustrates a different assertion of agency than Martin Delany and others sought. Douglas set out to defy racism, slavery, and prejudice in an extremely prejudiced Northern state by virtue of his residency and political advocacy. Historians Robert Harris Jr. and (more recently) Christopher Robert Reed note his activism as an emigrationist and key figure in developing Chicago’s Black community, but his language often evoked memory of the American Revolution, implying a second revolution was necessary for Black freedom. This link to the American Revolution was explicit and allowed Black men and women to claim citizenship on U.S. Constitutional grounds. When these two strategies work in tandem, they emphasize Black activists’ desire to become represented members in the social and political body.

Douglas moved to Chicago in 1855, the year after the conference in Cleveland. He and his wife, Sattira Steele, married in 1857 and reportedly lived with her parents at their Chicago home. Douglas frequently moved about, traveling to Canada—where he was co-proprietor of the Black newspaper, the Provincial Freeman—and going on frequent antislavery speaking tours. Mary Ann Shadd Carey and Douglas co-edited the Provincial Freeman together, and Douglas often authored pieces while he was off traveling. As suggested by historian Holly Pinheiro Jr., moving regularly was a key part of his life, and speaks to how important movement between states and nations was to the Black experience during the Civil War period. Transportation and residency in other states, and even nations, gave Black men and women agency over their lives and helped them evade their white oppressors. But Illinois was not the most hospitable place for a refugee from slavery to settle. While a budding Black community was showing its first thriving flowers in the 1850s, the Illinois legislature had been writing and reforming laws since the 1820s trying to limit Black migration into the state, as highlighted by historians Christopher Robert Reed and Stephen Middleton.

Illinois’s original state constitution, in 1818, legally permitted slavery under the guise of indentured servitude, as enslaved labor was utilized in several mining regions. Black men could not serve in the state militia and were excluded from voting. Then between 1813 and 1865, the Illinois legislature forced Black people living freely in the state to provide certificates of freedom to their local court judge or residency authority and forced them to register all members of their family. The legislature made aiding refugees from slavery without certificates a crime punishable by fine or imprisonment.

Douglas’s words echoed Revolutionary War rhetoric as he emphasized the Southern “founding fathers’” desire for liberty. He describes men such as Thomas Jefferson as “Herculean” in their strength for promoting liberty, yet blamed (white) southern slaveholders for perpetuating this system of “despotism” as American freedom lovers wept for the people of Europe struggling for independence. But Douglas believed that “the Spirit of Liberty and surviving manhood would lead the American slave to imitate the example of the fathers of ’76.” He called Bunker Hill’s monument, erected in Boston, an idyllic spot for the abolitionist, where the true anthems of “Revolutionary Freedom” exist. On the verge of the Civil War, in 1860, he stated “the liberty that Lafayette fought for” was compromised because the founders “sold the liberty of the black man.” “So long as that compromise exists,” Douglas continued, “we are bound to stand outside the government.”

Frustrated with the legislature’s attitude toward Black people in his “adopted state,” H. Ford Douglas emphasized that Republicans refused to acknowledge the plight of Black Illinoisans, ignoring their petitions to the state government to have access to the courts. They also failed to secure the fundamental principle of democratic state government, taxation, and representation. Douglas declared that even the so-called “antislavery” Republicans, like Abraham Lincoln and Lyman Trumbull, blatantly stole Black peoples’ wealth by forcing Black families to pay for white education and other government funded activities without including them as members of the political and social body. Douglas claimed that whenever Black Illinoisans attempted to assert their “manhood” or any form of political or social equality, the prejudices against them became more apparent in the legal system and the legislature.

H. Ford Douglas not only spoke this revolutionary language, but took up arms against the Confederacy in a revolutionary manner. Douglas enlisted in 1862 in the Ninety Fifth Illinois Regiment, mustered in at Belvidere. The Ninety Fifth was a white regiment, and Douglas attributed his acceptance into the unit to his light complexion. As James G. Mendez notes, Black men of a complexion similar to Douglas had the racial privilege of passing for white in the U.S. Army in 1862. When the unit discovered his identity as a Black man, Douglas reckoned that he was very much accepted by his fellow soldiers in his unit. The acceptance Douglas found was highly unique. In a time when Black soldiers in the USCT received less pay, and when the most egalitarian white colonels of a Black regiment still harbored some paternalistic ideas, his popularity spoke to his dedication to the U.S. as well as to the Black communities in bondage and those facing inequalities in Northern states. Still H. Ford Douglas advocated for the development of Black regiments as the war raged on in 1862 and 1863, and he asked Republican Congressman Owen Lovejoy to transfer him to a Black regiment because he regretted not serving with his fellow Black countrymen who faced the same challenges.

H. Ford Douglas understood that the institution of slavery and the treatment of Black people as unequal in the free North both led to the war. As historian Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr., notes when discussing Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Black people deserved equality after white male policymakers refused to acknowledge the equal manhood and citizenry of Black men, both socially and politically. Douglas understood that the will of Black people to fight (in and outside of slavery) further suggested that he, and others, were willing to sacrifice their lives for these social and political equalities to be achieved.

In many ways, H. Ford Douglas’s activism harkens back to the Revolutionary War. He was more than an emigrationist, as the past literature generally views him. His emphasis in Illinois on taxation and representation alongside his intentional rhetoric discussing the “founding fathers” and the battles fought for freedom from England, signify what he believed Black Americans were fighting for. Douglas not only broke the color barrier by passing as a white man and serving in a white regiment, but his residency in a Northern free state that denied Black Americans civil and political rights reinforced his belief that Black Americans were, in many ways the successors to the Revolutionary generation. Douglas’s language provides a key glimpse into how Black Americans understood the coming of the Civil War. As recent literature has argued, the American Civil War was indeed a second Revolutionary War. Emphasizing Douglas’s role in the making of this second Revolutionary War places Black political and social activists at the heart of this narrative.

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Frank Kalisik

Frank Kalisik is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. His academic work and research interests have focused on abolition, anti-slavery politics, and suffrage rights in the Midwest during the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods. In his dissertation, he emphasizes the Black communities in Illinois and Wisconsin, and the way these communities of Black men and women asserted their claims to equal citizenship and suffrage rights via residency, political advocacy and organization, and military service within a white dominated political structure.

Comments on “The Revolutionary Language of Black Abolitionists

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    ” Douglas not only broke the color barrier by passing as a white man and serving in a white regiment…”

    It seems to me that passing as a white man is not breaking the color barrier at all. He’s inclusion in a white regiment only goes to illustrated that the color barrier was in place; being accepted by whites was contingent upon appearing as white. There is nothing subversive nor revolutionary about that at all. In fact, it imparts the idea that only by passing as white could a Black man of that time break barriers — And with that we are back where we started: Behind a color line.

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