The Black Freedom Struggle in Nineteenth-Century Leeds

On the Secret Library this week we hear from guest author Dr Hannah-Rose Murray from the University of Edinburgh. Hannah-Rose will be discussing her new book entitled African American Narratives and Speeches which will published in 2022.

During the nineteenth-century, African American freedom fighters and survivors of U.S. chattel slavery made radical and politicized journeys across the Atlantic. They travelled to Britain and Ireland to inform audiences about the barbarity they had personally experienced or witnessed during enslavement. From the 1830s to the early 1900s, Black women and men wrote autobiographical narratives, composed their own poetry, exhibited weapons of torture, displayed paintings and panoramas, and lectured to millions of people throughout the nineteenth century. Most of these speaking tours took place between the 1840s and the legal abolition of American slavery in 1865; but many came after, as the legacies of slavery, such as the convict lease system, white domestic terrorism, lynching and Jim Crow segregation devastated Black communities.

By this point, the British government had legally ended slavery in 1838 and African Americans seized the chance to work with transatlantic abolitionists and encourage their audiences to lend support to the antislavery cause in the U.S. However, they also pointed to Britain’s role in the slave trade and the nation’s reliance on goods produced by enslaved labour from the American south; for example, from the 1850s, 90% of the cotton that was imported from Liverpool came directly from the slave states. Activists like James Watkins urged his audiences to be more thoughtful and aware of the products they bought and consumed on a daily basis, for their actions bolstered the tortuous and dehumanizing system of slavery.

I have tried to map as many African American speaking locations as possible on my website So far, I have collated records of nearly 4,700 lectures from 1,550 locations across Britain and Ireland, but this represents a mere fraction of the total number of lectures given.

Black activists travelled tens of thousands of miles on trains, buses, carriages, horseback and even on foot to lecture. They often relied on established antislavery and reformist networks in cities like London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Bristol, Sheffield and of course Leeds – but they also veered off traditional pathways and lectured in Penzance, Ventnor, Llanberis, Bakewell, Keswick, and even the Orkney Islands. Whether in cities, towns, villages or hamlets, Black women and men spoke in churches, chapels, Friends’ Meeting Houses, schools, town halls, trade halls, temperance halls, guildhalls, concert halls, lecture halls, YMCA rooms, theatres, corn exchanges, mechanics’ institutions, taverns, collieries, factories, literary institutions, private clubs, hotels, restaurants, palaces, the private houses of wealthy patrons and even public spaces. The sheer extent of their activism through these lectures is staggering, together with the knowledge they were recounting traumatic stories of the torture they had personally experienced or witnessed.

It’s no surprise that Leeds welcomed numerous African Americans to the city, and I’ve recorded at least 56 lectures that took place there between 1838-1894. Activists such as Moses Roper, James W.C. Pennington, Frederick Douglass, William Allen, William Wells Brown, Henry ‘Box’ Brown, William Powell, Alexander Crummell, William and Ellen Craft, Sarah Parker Remond, James Watkins, Jacob Green, William Henry Jackson, John Sella Martin, Lewis Smith, Amanda Smith, Peter T. Stanford, Bishop Walter Hawkins, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett spoke to tens of thousands of people about slavery; the racism they experienced both in the U.S. and in Britain; the history of the abolitionist movement; boycotting goods produced by enslaved labour and the cruelty they witnessed in enslavement. They also told stories of their own heroic escapes or those of other Black activists who defied their white oppressors. For those who live in Leeds, there are numerous sites rich in the history of Black activism that deserve to be highlighted.

In October 1856, African American activist, freedom fighter and abolitionist William Craft spoke at the Philosophical Hall (pictured below).

Park Row, junction with Bond Street, Philosophical Hall,

Born into U.S. chattel slavery in Georgia in 1825, William Craft and his wife Ellen planned a death-defying escape to Philadelphia in 1848, with Ellen impersonating a white, male enslaver. Travelling by train and steamboat, they both managed to reach the northern states as a direct result of Ellen’s skillful performance. Unfortunately, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act threatened their survival in Boston, and both fled to England. This Act was a proslavery law that demanded the return of formerly enslaved people from the northern states (where slavery did not exist) to their enslavers in the south. This was mandatory and was legally endorsed by the government; any who sheltered freedom seekers, white or Black, were subjected to heavy fines and imprisonment.

For nearly two decades the Crafts lived in Britain, touring the country to campaign for abolition, the suffrage movement and racial justice. They were often joined by fellow freedom fighter William Wells Brown, who was born into U.S. chattel slavery in Kentucky. Brown travelled around Britain and Ireland for five years in the early 1850s and exhibited his Panorama of Slavery (a large painting on canvas unveiled and unraveled at meetings to give the impression of movement).

The Crafts attended or led antislavery and reform meetings, challenged the Confederacy during the US Civil War (1861-1865), raised five children, and turned their home into a hub of Black activism. In 1860, the Crafts published Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom in London, which retold their miraculous escape to transatlantic audiences. The Crafts returned to the United States in 1868 and founded a farm in Georgia.

Here is an excerpt from Craft’s speech in Leeds, where he describes the manner of their hair-raising escape:

“They were born slaves in different towns in the state of Georgia, but at an early age were taken by their owners to Macon, the largest town in that state, at which place they became acquainted with each other. Their marriage was postponed several years, simply because slaves were compelled to follow the condition of their mother. The father might be the President of the United States – a not unknown occurrence; but so long as it could be proved the woman was a slave at the birth of her child, the poor child was condemned to the same fate. They agreed to devise some plan of escape before they became united. Plan after plan was devised by which to escape from Macon to Philadelphia, a distance of 1,000 miles, and at last one was agreed upon. His wife was a fair complexioned quadroon, so nearly white that the tyrannical old lady, her mistress, becoming annoyed at her being mistaken for a member of the family, gave her away as a marriage present. After describing the sale of his own brother and sister whom he had never since seen, he stated that his master lent him to a cabinet-maker, and this cabinet-maker used to pay him for overtime, so that in this way he enabled to save sufficient money to pay the future travelling expenses from Macon to Philadelphia, first class. The plan decided upon for escape was for his future wife to dress herself as a gentleman, and for him to attend her as her slave. At Christmas, 1848, they had each passes granted them for a few days, according to an established custom. This was the time decided upon to make the attempt. His wife dressed herself as a gentleman, put a poultice upon her face to disguise the smoothness of her chin, and another upon her hand, because she knew it was customary for slaveowners travelling with their slaves at certain places to sign their names, and she was unable to write as well as himself. Disguised in this manner, and limping, under the pretence of being troubled with inflammatory rheumatism, they took train from Macon to Savannah. Just before the train started he saw the cabinet-maker looking through the carriages for them, but before he came to the one in which the speaker was sitting the train started, and he would leave them to imagine his feelings on that occasion. They next took steamer to Charleston, and on their arrival there the difficulty anticipated arose. The officer refused to grant a ticket to Philadelphia unless the gentleman signed his name, and that of his slave. Here again Providence favoured their design – the captain of the steamer in which they had come to Charleston came forward, and, perhaps, fearful of loosing his passengers, signed for ‘Master,’ who gave the name of William Johnson, the speaker assuming the name of Nathan Johnson. They then passed safely by Wilmington, North Carolina; Petersburg, Virginia; Washington, and Fredericksburg, until they came to Baltimore, where, after some demur, and much fear and anxiety on their own parts, they were allowed to pass on their way to Philadelphia, where they arrived four days after that had started.

‘American Slavery: Lecture on Slavery,’ Leeds Mercury, Leeds, 25 October 1856, 5.

To learn more about William and Ellen Craft, and the history of people of colour in Leeds, look for Joe Williams’ brilliant and award-winning heritage work including his ‘Leeds Black History Walk.’ See his website for more details: 

Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray

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