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Modern Voices
David Blight on racism in the abolitionist movement
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Q: Please discuss the racism in the abolitionist movement.
David Blight

A: Black and white abolitionists often had different agendas by the 1840s, and certainly in the 1850s. But one of the greatest frustrations that many black abolitionists faced was the racism they sometimes experienced from their fellow white abolitionists. In many cases, within the Garrisonian movement in particular, the role of the black speaker or the black writer or the black abolitionist was, in some ways, prescribed, as the famous case of Frederick Douglass' relationship with the Garrisionians.

The Garrisionians wanted Douglass to simply get up and tell his story, to tell his narrative on the platform. They didn't want him to speak about Northern racism, to take on the whole picture of the anti-slavery movement as much as he did. And it had a lot to do with why Douglass eventually broke with the Garrisionians.

It was a problem for white abolitionists as well, because, in many ways, what they had discovered with black speakers is the authentic black voice, and they were using it all that they could, whether it was Douglass or whether it was Henry Garnett or whether it was others.

But for black abolitionists, it became very often simply a case of the demand for recognition, the demand for mutual respect. And it was also especially frustrating to black abolitionists to deal sometimes with the kinds of abstract debates that abolitionists would have, that white abolitionists would have, over doctrine. And, increasingly, in the 1850s, black abolitionists didn't have time to struggle over doctrinaire questions of tactics and strategy. They were by the 1850s about the business of building their own communities, and trying to organize real strategies against slavery in the South.

Many white abolitionists had certain expectations of what black abolitionists were to provide or to perform within this movement. Very often, black abolitionists had different, very different, perceptions of what their role ought to be. So, there was a struggle among white and black abolitionists about just what the proper role of a black abolitionist was in this movement.
David W. Blight
Professor of History and Black Studies
Amherst College

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