My Reflections on Researching White Abolitionists
By Gweyn Mae Shelley (she/they)
Former Program Manager for Inclusion at the shift network
I’ll be honest here. I felt uncomfortable writing a piece on White Abolitionists during Black History Month. That discomfort isn’t gone, but I have more capacity for the inner conflict of being a white person taking up space while helping to heal internalized and systemic racism.
Remembering the lives of White Abolitionists has me feeling empowered. I’ve only learned about white people in the context of slavery as owning enslaved people, never as allies on the Underground Railroad and helping to abolish slavery.
Let’s explore this powerful learning and how you can work with these stories to support your personal journey of healing collective racism.
To feel belonging in this vast world, it has helped me to know where I came from. One way to support my sense of belonging has been through getting to know the waters, lands, and familial ancestors who passed their lives to mine. It’s a courtship. I ask the healthy ancestors who came before me to share their wisdom and guidance so that I may feed what they began long ago.
This helps me feel as if I’m not the first of something just dangling out here and figuring it out alone in the universe, but instead riding the crest of an ancient wave.
In a similar vein, at this time now more than ever, we are searching for our collective belonging to each other and the earth. Narrowing in even more, as white people, we hold a unique belonging wound because our ancestors were colonized and assimilated to become colonizers themselves so long ago that we have forgotten almost all the stories of our first peoples who lived in sacred reciprocity with the earth.
In many ways, white people have unconsciously accepted the stories of colonization, taking without invitation, and domination as part of our identities. Yet, as it becomes more conscious, we are in choice. Our acceptance of this story is dehumanizing ourselves. It’s one that says our comfort, privilege, and control is worth protecting more than our humanity.
This inherited identity of colonization and white supremacy is what allowed for the first ship to leave on the Middle Passage, for slavery to be perpetrated and legalized, and for the legacy of systemic racism to continue to this moment.
I think that white people are starving for stories of identity that inspire healing and wholeness, and catalyze transformation. And just as our lives weren’t born out of nothing, neither will our collective healing journey. To help us come home, we have ancestors of “soul purpose.”
These five white abolitionists below are not in the “past.” Their contributions are vitally alive within us. I urge you to read through what is written here while breathing life into the space between facts. Try to imagine their minds and hearts. What fears kept them up at night? What made them weep with joy? How did they show vulnerability and care? Step into their skin. What did they wear and how did it feel against them? Did they have aches or pains? What was the environment and weather like where they lived? And feel their courage. What empowered them to take the risks they did? How did they pick themselves up when they grew tired and doubtful? How did they show loving kindness through their brave actions?
And notice how this lands in your own being here and now in 2021. Who pulls on your heartstrings most, and why?
I invite you to court them as you would a familial ancestor. If you have an altar or a place you go for spiritual support in nature, write their name down and place it there with a meaningful object as a reminder that you can shape your destiny as a loving force of racial healing in these pivotal times.
White Abolitionist Stories
There are perhaps thousands of people whose white skin afforded them a large measure of protection in their choice to help black enslaved people escape bondage and reach free lands. But, it still required incredible bravery. This offering is meant to honor their bravery.
For some perspective, in 1860 there were 3.9 million enslaved people and only 488,000 free Black people. There are estimates that the number of people who escaped slavery is between 25,000 to 50,000, some even guessing 100,000. While it is generally understood that most people who helped people escape slavery were free Black people and people who had also escaped slavery, there were also white-skinned kinfolk who supported those efforts. Here are a few that I never heard of, and one that I had — with a surprise piece of information.
Levi & Catharine Coffin
This abolitionist couple living in the mid-1800s harbored thousands of fugitive enslaved people where they lived in Indiana and Ohio. Their residence in Fountain City, Indiana, the Levi Coffin Quaker Meeting House, is a National Historic Landmark.
After leaving North Carolina in 1826 in opposition to slavery, they opened a mercantile store in Indiana. While living there, they noticed that there was a strong need to help enslaved people passing through the area on their quest for freedom. Despite fears of the federal Fugitive Slave Law enacted in 1793 which made it illegal to help people running from slavery, they took a moral stand and helped many people find their way to freer lands.
They kept the Levi Coffin House busy with people working on seemingly benign projects like sewing, when in reality, they were creating clothing for the people on the run from slavery.
The Coffins partnered with their friend and doctor, Dr. Henry Way, who tended to the sheltered people’s medical needs.
After the war, Levi Coffin raised more than $100,000 in one year for the Western Freedman's Aid Society to provide food, clothing, money, and other aid to the newly freed enslaved populations in the United States. In 1867 he served as a delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris.
Maria Weston Chapman
Maria Weston Chapman (July 25, 1806 – July 12, 1885) was an American abolitionist living primarily in Boston. She was elected to the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1839, and from 1839 until 1842 she served as editor of the anti-slavery journal, The Non-Resistant.
Maria and her husband Henry were both “Garrisonian” abolitionists, a category of abolitionists that follow the strategy of the famous William Lloyd Garrison, meaning that they desired an immediate end to slavery, to be brought about by nonviolence. They rejected all political and institutional coercion — including churches, political parties, and the federal government — as agencies for ending slavery.
Though Chapman came to the anti-slavery cause through her husband's family, she quickly took up the cause, enduring pro-slavery mobs, social ridicule, and public attacks on her character. Her sisters, notably Caroline and Anne, were also active abolitionists, though Maria is generally considered to be the most outspoken and active among her family. According to Lee V. Chambers, through their "kin-work," the sisters supported each other through family responsibilities in order to take their active public roles.
Lydia Maria Child
“Over the river and through the woods to grandfather’s house we go…” (The common reference is usually “grandmother”; however, in its original form, “grandfather” was used.)
This is the famous song written by Lydia Maria Child who used her pen as a sword to call for the end of enslavement.
She grew to fame originally as a novelist, writing stories for mainstream audiences that fit nicely with their comfortable and white worldview. However, in 1833, she wrote a book called, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. This volume was the first book ever published in support of abolishing slavery written by a white woman. She paid out of pocket to publish it and was socially ostracized for her strong opinions. However, this book succeeded tremendously in introducing many people to join the abolition movement.
She also served as a transcriber to write about the stories of enslaved people who had won their freedom. This was a common and essential practice of white people with access to literacy, writing materials, and social power — supporting people who escaped from slavery to tell their brave stories. Without the partnership of courageous formerly enslaved people and white allies, there wouldn’t be the abundance of stories that we know today that help us understand the brokenness and brutality of systemic slavery in White America.
Lewis G. Clarke
One of the stories that Lydia Maria Child helped tell was that of Lewis G. Clarke. Clarke was born enslaved, yet 7/8 of his ancestry was white. He lived in captivity for more than 25 years and was sold multiple times to brutal owners. His life underscores the violence of the “One Drop Rule,” which was an enforced law stating that a person with even one ancestor of African descent was considered a “Negro” in historical terms.
In his mid-20s, after Clarke learned he would be sold in New Orleans, he fled to Ohio and across to Lake Erie. On arriving in Canada, he wrote: When I stepped ashore here, I said, sure enough I am free. Good heaven! what a sensation, when it first visits the bosom of a full grown man — one, born to bondage – one, who had been taught from early infancy that this was his inevitable lot for life.
He published Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke in 1845 — and an extended edition which included the experiences of his brother Milton, in 1846. He also traveled about giving lectures on his experiences as an enslaved person. It was during one of these trips that he met Harriet Beecher Stowe. Many believe that she was so impressed by Clarke and his story that she would base the character George Harris in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Clarke; however, this is disputed.
You wouldn’t think that this famous darker-skinned African American person would make it to a list of White Abolitionists; however, Frederick Douglass’ father was white. This makes him a multi-racial abolitionist and blurs the biologically fictitious categories of race. Because of the one-drop rule, Douglass was treated as a Black man; however, he was half African American and half white — just like our recent President Barack Obama.
Frederick Douglass began his abolitionist journey two decades before America entered the Civil War. Through his lifetime he lived to see black emancipation, worked actively for women’s suffrage long before tit was successful, and realized the freedom for which he fought.