The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was one of the first official black units in the U.S. armed forces. Led by the white officer Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment was met with disdain by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who accused President Lincoln of encouraging a black revolt. Though promised equal pay, the black soldiers were initially paid less than their white counterparts. The 54th Regiment refused to collect their unequal payment, and Congress eventually relented. The regiment suffered several hundred casualties at the battle of Fort Wagner, but established a reputation for heroism and helped to significantly bolster the Union’s recruitment of black troops.
Though present since the early seventeenth century, Canadian slavery was never as prevalent as it was in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean. Instead, slavery in Canada took a domestic form as colonial elites turned to African and Indigenous labor to work as carpenters, cooks, and housemaids. As Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe began the initiative to abolish slavery in Canada. The Act Against Slavery passed on July 9, 1793, effectively beginning the gradual end of slavery in Upper Canada.
Congressmen and citizens of Washington, D.C. established the African Education Society of the United States on December 28, 1829. The society aimed to provide an education for persons of African descent that would “qualify them for usefulness and influence in Africa”. Membership included abolitionists and slave owners from surrounding states.
Formed in 1833, the American Anti-Slavery Society became the largest and most influential abolitionist organization in the United States. Before the organization’s inception, organized antislavery activism was heavily intertwined with organizations that believed free blacks should be removed from the United States. The American Anti-Slavery Society created a network of newspaper “agents” and lecturers to spread their message that slavery was contrary to the Christian religion and that blacks were equal to whites. These efforts were hugely successful, spurring over 1,000 anti-slavery societies throughout the North. Disagreements within the organization led to a split in 1840.
Presbyterian Reverend Robert Finley founded the American Colonization Society on December 28, 1816 with the assistance of Elias B. Caldwell, Francis Scott Key (Star-Spangled Banner fame), and other influential whites. The organization wanted to send free and recently freed African Americans “back to Africa” as a way to rid the United States of free black labor and promote Christian morality and industry on the African coast. Finley’s connections to many wealthy businessmen, slave owners and government officials earned the organization $100,000 to relocate freed men and women. Significant involvement from slave owners deterred African American support.
Amherstburg, Ontario was a critical gateway for runaway slaves who turned the Canadian border into a source for their freedom. Approximately 2,000 black men, women, and children found refuge in Canada after the War of 1812 and many settled in Amherstburg. Many of the men and women who came to Amherstburg brought knowledge of tobacco cultivation with them when they fled Kentucky and Virginia. In 1827, the tobacco industry in Amherstburg failed and both black and white planters suffered. Economic instability aggravated already tense racial conditions, prompting the creation of Canada’s first black churches.
On July 1, 1839, Joseph Cinquè led a revolt against the crew of La Amistad. Cinquè spared the lives of Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montes so that the Spaniards could navigate the ship back to Africa, presumably to Sierra Leone. Ruiz and Montes instead steered the vessel toward the northwest, reaching Long Island, New York on August 24, 1839. Thirty-nine Mende-speaking men and women were imprisoned for murder and piracy. Their trial lasted for two years and garnered international attention. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor and on November 27, 1841 Cinquè and 34 African men and women began their voyage back to Sierra Leone.
Somewhat forgotten today, many of Ann Arbor’s citizens were active abolitionists and anti-slavery activists in the nineteenth century. John Allen and Elisha Rumsey founded “Annsarbor” in 1824 and by 1845, 3,030 people called the city home. By 1860, only about 100 black settlers lived in the area, a portion of whom lived in a segregated area outside of the city called “Lower Town.” Black Ann Arborites were active in civic life and collaborated with white abolitionists to advocate for African American rights.
Prior to living in Boston, Anthony Burns was enslaved in Sufford County, Virginia by a merchant named Charles F. Suttle. Not much is known about Burns’s childhood but he is most known for being captured by slave catchers in Boston, Massachusetts. His case sparked controversy throughout the nation, as it was one of the first high profile fugitive slave cases after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
For four years, Arnold Gragston took nearly three hundred slaves across the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio. Himself enslaved in Kentucky, Gragston decided to remain in bondage so he could help others reach freedom. Those seeking freedom would meet Gragston on the banks of the river and he would take them to Reverend John Rankin’s home just across the river. Rankin would clothe and feed them and help continue their journey north. After four years helping as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, Gragston and his wife Sallie took their freedom and relocated to Detroit.