Slavery | Abolitionists

Charlotte Forten

Charlotte Forten, teacher, abolitionist, and suffragist grew up surrounded by activism. It’s no wonder she got involved in work for civil rights and equal rights for Black Americans.

In 1861, soon after the Civil War began, Union forces took over the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina. Confederate plantation owners fled the area leaving behind people they had enslaved, plus hundreds of acres of land and crops that need to be harvested.

The federal government issued an order that those freed by the Union Army would be resettled on those abandoned farms and would, for the first time, be paid to harvest the crops.

Enslaved Americans were not able to go to school so many of the emancipated men in women were not able to read and write. They needed assistance making the transition from slavery to citizenship.

Charlotte Forten, who was involved in the anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts, was recruited to go south and teach emancipated Black Americans on the Sea Islands of South Carolina.

Charlotte was the child of well respected abolitionists in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area. She was born on August 17, 1837 and spent her early years in Philadelphia. Her parents were well-off and were able to hire a private tutor for her education. When she was seventeen they sent her to Salem, Massachusetts to live with friends who were also well-known abolitionists, and to attend an integrated school.

In 1856 Charlotte graduated from Salem Normal School, now Salem State University. She was the school’s first Black student. After graduation she worked as a teacher in Salem and taught Black and white students. She also joined the Female-Anti Slavery Society, before moving to South Carolina in 1862 to teach on St. Helena Island.

Charlotte taught on St. Helena Island for two years. She returned to Philadelphia in 1864 where she continued her activism. She also published “Life on Sea Islands” in 1864, which was about her experience teaching in the south.

Charlotte remained an activist for the rest of her life. She became active in the suffrage movement and in 1896 helped found the National Association of Colored Women.

Charlotte died in 1914 at the age of 76.

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth KeckleyElizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. She was sent out to work by her enslaver to make money for his family. She worked as a seamstress and soon had several prominent customers, several of whom loaned her money so she could purchase her freedom.

Keckley moved to Washington, DC in 1860 where she opened a successful dressmaking business. At one point she had 20 female employees in the business.

Keckley was highly sought after by the Washington elite and was soon the dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She and Mrs. Lincoln bonded and became friends and traveling companions.

In 1862, with the help of her church, Keckley established the Contraband Relief Organization to help newly freed slaves in the Washington DC area. She was the organization’s first president and her connection to Mrs. Lincoln helped her find needed financial support.

She published her diaries, “Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” in 1868. The book, which was somewhat of a tell-all, was condemned by blacks and whites. It also brought an end to the Keckley-Lincoln friendship. Even though her business was affected she was able to maintain some customers as well support other African American women by training them to be dressmakers.

In 1892 Keckley moved to Ohio to take the position of Head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. After her employment at Wilberforce, she returned to Washington DC where she died in 1907.

One of the dresses, believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln, is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

John S Rock

John S Rock

John S. Rock was the first black attorney admitted to the United States Supreme Court Bar.

Rock was born to free parents in Salem, New Jersey on October 13, 1825. Education was very important to the family, and though not wealthy, his parents were able to provide enough so he wouldn’t have to start working at a young age. With his parents’ support Rock was able to continue his education until he was nineteen.

Rock loved reading and educating himself. Throughout his life he had several professions. His first was teaching. From 1844 to 1848 he taught in a one-room school in New Jersey. He was good at his job but was not content. While working as a teacher, he began looking into the study of medicine. Two local white physicians, whom he admired, let him use their library and study their medical books.

In 1848 Rock tried to enroll in a nearby medical school. His application was rejected because of his race. Disappointed, he turned to the study of dentistry and in 1850 opened a dentistry office in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rock was an innovative dentist and became known for his ability to make false teeth. In 1851 he actually won a medal for a set of silver false teeth that he made.

Rock seemingly enjoyed his dentistry work, but never gave up on his dream of becoming a doctor. He was eventually able to attend medical lectures at American Medical College and received his medical degree in 1852. Shortly thereafter he moved to Boston and opened a medical and dentistry practice in 1853. Most of his patients were runaway slaves passing through Boston on their way to Canada.

Rock was an abolitionist and regularly spoke out against slavery and the treatment of black men and women. He was critical of President Lincoln for the slow pace to end slavery. He also petitioned city officials to remove the word “colored” from voting and tax lists.

When Rock’s health began to fail he choose to go to France for the surgery that he needed. His departure was delayed because, at the time, blacks were not allowed to have passports. However, by this time Rock had become such a beloved and respected figure in Boston that prominent white citizens intervened on his behalf and he was granted a passport to travel to France.

Rock remained in France several months recuperating from surgery and learning the French language. When he return to American his health improved but soon began to fail again. Doctors told him that he needed to slow down so he gave up his medical practices and began studying law which was less stress on the body. In 1861 he became a licensed lawyer in the state of Massachusetts.

Even with failing health Rock continued speaking out against slavery and like other abolitionists, believed that slavery would be extended if the south won the Civil War. When Congress authorized the recruitment of black troops, he became a recruiter for Massachusetts black regiments. He also attacked the government for not giving equal pay to black soldiers.

As a lawyer John S Rock advocated for the rights of blacks and represented many runaway slaves.  The highlight of his career came on February 1, 1865, when he was licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court.

John S. Rock was one of the most educated men of his time, black or white. He died on December 3, 1866 before he was able to try a case before the US Supreme Court. Get Activity for Students Grades 4-8: John S Rock Crossword Puzzle

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

How well do students know Frederick Douglass? Do they know that he recruited troops to fight in the Civil War, including his sons Lewis and Charles?

When the war broke out Douglass, who had already escaped from slavery, was living in Massachusetts. He was very active in the abolitionist movement and traveled on the lecture circuit speaking out against slavery. He was also the publisher of the North Star, an antislavery newspaper.

Douglass saw the Civil War as a war to end slavery and believed that black men should be allowed to fight in the battle for their freedom. As the war progressed his speeches and newspaper editorials included calls for President Lincoln to grant slaves their freedom and to allow them to enlist in in the Union army. “A war undertaken and brazenly carried for the perpetual enslavement of the colored men, calls logically and loudly for the colored men to help suppress it”, said Douglass.

In 1863, after suffering defeats on the battlefield and a decrease in white volunteers, President Lincoln authorized the enlistment of black men in combat and asked states to begin recruitment of black men.

The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was the first black regiment formed after President Lincoln issued the call for black troops. The governor of Massachusetts asked Frederick Douglass to help recruit men for the unit. Douglass agreed and wrote an editorial for the local newspaper urging men to join the Union forces.

“Men of Color, To Arms! The case is before you. This is our golden opportunity. Let us accept it, and forever wipe out the dark reproaches unsparingly hurled against us by our enemies. Let us win for ourselves the gratitude of our country, and the best blessings of our posterity through all time.”

Douglass’ sons, Lewis and Charles were among the first to enlist.