Upon discovering that his wife Sophia was teaching their young enslaved boy the alphabet, Baltimore slaveholder Hugh Auld scolded her, claiming that this education would “forever unfit [the boy] to be a slave ” (4). The young enslaved boy in question was Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist and orator (8). Despite Auld’s opposition, Douglass set out to teach himself to read and write throughout his childhood. Douglass’ narrative serves as a rare insider’s account of Black children’s experiences throughout the antebellum era. Although fifty-six percent of the enslaved population in 1860 was under twenty years old, this “enormous population,” as historian Wilma King writes, “did not write or speak for itself and was often ignored by others” (10). In fact, the actions of Black youth in the antebellum United States are often overshadowed by the paternalistic and racist voices of white abolitionists. This essay will thus begin by examining the biases in white abolitionists’ portrayals of Black children, as well as in their education of white children to become “little abolitionists,” or saviors of their supposedly powerless Black peers (6). However, despite white abolitionists’ suggestion of a lack of agency amongst Black children and their supporters, this essay will demonstrate how their actions and narratives played a vital role in dismantling slavery and advancing the abolitionist movement throughout the antebellum era.
While many white abolitionists praised Black children’s resistance against slavery, their perspectives were still often steeped in racism and paternalism. In this case, ‘paternalism’ can be understood as “the interference of an individual with another person, against their will, and…motivated by a claim that the person interfered with will be better off or protected from harm” (5). This kind of paternalism is evident in the reviews of Susan Paul’s Juvenile Choir, established in 1833 and made up of free Black children (3). A Black abolitionist woman and Boston primary school teacher, Paul led the choir in songs that directly objected to slavery and colonization (3). White audience members produced numerous reviews that reveal an underlying paternalistic attitude and racial prejudice towards the young Black performers. One reporter in the Abolitionist, the New-England Anti-Slavery Society’s monthly periodical, was taken aback that the Juvenile Choir’s performance he attended was “quite equal, if not rather superior to any that we had ever heard at schools of white children” (1). This reporter’s surprise that the choir of free Black children could possess the talent to the level of their white counterparts exposes the racial prejudice that coursed through white anti-slavery discourse at the time. In her discussion of the Juvenile Choir, author Lois Brown further contends that abolitionist newspapers such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator painted the choir as “needy black children who would benefit from increased antislavery, that is, white activity” (1). In other words, while Susan Paul effectively offered Black youth a chance to be agents of change and to speak—or in this case, to sing—out against slavery, white reviewers failed to view them outside of a paternalistic, racialized lens.
In addition to direct objection to slavery such as that of the Juvenile Choir, the sharing of Black children’s narratives was also a fundamental tactic in the abolitionist movement. Unlike Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, however, the majority of these stories were published by white abolitionists—thus often including tones of paternalism and racism. The most famous of these white authors was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the acclaimed 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In hopes of heightening the novel’s emotional appeal as an abolitionist text, Stowe placed a particular emphasis on the narratives of enslaved children. One of the young Black characters, a young girl named Topsy, is bought at only eight or nine years old by white slaveholder Augustine St. Clare. When St. Clare’s cousin Ophelia first meets Topsy, she observes “great welts and calloused spots” on the girl’s back, which the narrator describes as “ineffaceable marks of the system under which she had grown up thus far” (13). Here, Stowe utilizes Topsy’s character not only to indicate the abuse that enslaved children endured but also to criticize the brutality of slavery as a whole. At the same time, however, Stowe characterizes Topsy as an ill-behaved child who, when taught to read and sew by Ophelia, learned “with surprising quickness” (13). Although one cannot assume the narrator’s opinions to be synonymous with Stowe’s, the description of Topsy’s aptitude for learning as ‘surprising’ reveals a level of racial prejudice. Hence, Stowe’s portrayal of Topsy, along with other enslaved children in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, illustrates the ways in which white authorship often implied Black children’s inferiority and their need for the aid of white authority.
However constructive Stowe and other white abolitionists’ efforts may have been in educating children on the horrors of slavery, they also served to reinforce white children’s paternalistic and racialized views of their Black peers. These views are evident in a monthly anti-slavery periodical entitled Slave’s Friend, established by the American Anti-Slavery Society in the 1830s to encourage children to join the movement (6). Given that, as scholar Angela Sorby points out, most young Black readers had been “legislated…out of existence,” one can infer that white children were the periodical’s primary audience (12). The Slave’s Friend included educational materials such as anti-slavery poetry, illustrations of abuse at the hands of slaveholders, and depictions of white and Black children playing together (6). The periodical served a crucial purpose in its exposure of white children to the brutal realities of slavery and the ideal of interracial friendship. Still, although the Slave’s Friend charged the “little abolitionists” with joining the movement and sharing their new knowledge with the public, it simultaneously placed a limit on their activism (6). For example, the periodical discouraged its readers from protesting any legal injustices, such as those that punished fugitive slaves (6). Moreover, rather than encouraging the young white readers to include their Black peers in their activism, the Slave’s Friend only urged them to “help ease the plight of the slaves” (6). This phrasing reveals a paternalistic attitude, depicting Black children as the passive beneficiaries of white abolitionist activity. As evidence has shown, however, white abolitionism was not enough. Slavery would not have met its end without the resistance of the Black community and its children.
While white abolitionists’ efforts to engage children in the movement occupy most histories of the antebellum era, numerous Black leaders also recognized the importance of abolitionist pedagogies. As we have seen with the Boston Juvenile Choir, Susan Paul claimed an unlikely position in the public sphere as a Black abolitionist woman, working to teach free Black children about the injustices of slavery (3). In fact, most of the songs that the Boston Juvenile Choir performed explicitly critiqued racism and, as Wilma King asserts, “provided a clear historical context that could be easily understood by many children” (10). One such song entitled “This, This Is Our Home” objected to the American Colonization Society’s mission to send free Blacks back to Africa (3). This song not only sent a powerful abolitionist message to the choir’s audience but also empowered the young performers to be agents of justice and to defend their own sense of belonging. Meanwhile, despite the constraints of Southern slavery, many enslaved women also strove to educate—and consequently, to empower—the children in their communities. Milla Granson, for example, established a “midnight school” in Mississippi, where she taught hundreds of enslaved children to read and write (2). Although Mississippi law denied all enslaved individuals the right to literacy, Granson resisted, conducting her teaching secretly from eleven or twelve at night to two in the morning (7). According to author Laura S. Haviland, many of Granson’s students used their schooling to write their own passes and escape to Canada (7). Like Frederick Douglass, these children understood their education as “the pathway from slavery to freedom” (4). Hence, the efforts of Paul, Granson, and their students demonstrate how Black children and their supporters used education to actively dismantle the forces of slavery.
Indeed, with a closer look, one can find many examples of Black children who used their education—sometimes even independently—as a means of advancing the abolitionist movement. The young Frederick Douglass, for instance, taught himself how to read and write despite his master Hugh Auld’s vehement opposition. Douglass declares in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, that Auld’s forbiddance of his education further motivated him to learn (4). It is unsurprising, then, that Douglass utilized every possible opportunity to educate himself, such as secretly reading the schoolbooks belonging to Auld’s son and trading bread for reading lessons from poor white children (4, 8). Douglass went on to use this self-taught literacy to become an agent of change, working as both an author and orator. Although Douglass’ narrative is the most well-known, there exist many others that also reveal Black children’s independent determination to use their education as a form of resistance. At the Couvent School in New Orleans, founded in 1848 by free Black woman Marie Couvent, a group of young male students took the opportunity in their English class to write letters that reported the current political climate in their city and told stories from their daily lives. Historian Mary Niall Mitchell contends that, with their writings, these free Black students rejected the popular celebration of the antebellum South as a “lost age of genteel plantations and happy slaves,” instead presenting their own history (11). Thus, Black children of the antebellum era—whether enslaved or free—fashioned themselves into authors, historians, and activists as part of the abolitionist movement.
Moreover, Black children’s true narratives—as opposed to the fictional narratives found in white abolitionist sources like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Slave’s Friend—served as essential promotion for the movement. Not unlike Frederick Douglass’ publication of his own childhood experience, famed Black abolitionist Sojourner Truth shared the story of recovering her five-year-old son, Peter, after he was illegally sold into slavery (14). Due to her illiteracy, Truth dictated the story aloud to her friend Olive Gilbert, who went on to publish the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave in 1850 (9). In her narrative, Truth reveals that, after entering a complaint to her local Grand Jury, she set out alone to search for the slave trader who wrongfully sold her son (14). Upon her reunion with Peter, she found “callosities and indurations on his entire body” and described his back as “being like her fingers, as she laid them side by side”—signs of whipping and physical abuse (14). By sharing the trauma that Peter suffered and suing for his freedom, Truth exposes the injustices of slavery to her readers and society as a whole. Similarly, in the 1836 Massachusetts Supreme Court case of Commonwealth v. Aves, the legalities of slavery were disputed when a New Orleans slaveholder brought a six-year-old enslaved child by the name of Med to Boston (15). The court debated whether or not the free soil of Massachusetts legally granted Med her freedom, ultimately deciding in her favor. With the support of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, the case was brought to national attention (10). Thus, despite the absence of first-person testimony from children like Med and Peter, the national attention that their narratives drew was a victory for the abolitionist movement in itself (10).
Accompanying the narratives of Black children were also their independent acts of resistance against slavery. Although the historical record of enslaved children is scarce, sources like Douglass’ autobiography and various courtroom testimonies can help us piece together their actions. Douglass shares, for instance, that he was sold to a plantation at age fifteen and repeatedly disobeyed his new master, Edward Covey (8). When Covey asked Douglass whether he intended to persist in his resistance, Douglass retorted that Covey had “used [him] like a brute for six months, and that [he] was determined to be used so no longer” (4). The two proceeded to engage in a fistfight that Douglass reports to have lasted nearly two hours (4). In spite of the danger involved in rejecting Covey’s authority, the teenage Douglass refused to be ‘used,’ instead asserting his own agency and defending his right to freedom. The young Douglass was not alone in his resistance. As King emphasizes, an “untold number of enslaved men, women, and children declared themselves independent” before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 (10). While many enslaved youth attempted to run away, some engaged in more violent resistance. Cases of infanticide, for example, rose as an objection to the absence of legal protection for young enslaved women against sexual abuse—and against the brutalities of slavery as a whole (10). These stories reveal how enslaved youth often reached a point of desperation, taking it upon themselves to resist. Each of their acts of resistance, large or small, contributed to the dismantling—and eventually the abolition—of slavery.
Even under the debilitating forces of slavery, paternalism, and racism, many Black children were crucial contributors to the abolitionist movement. Still, our lack of knowledge regarding the experiences of these children is an unsettling reality (10). As this analysis has suggested, our disturbing lack of awareness can be attributed to the predominance of white abolitionists’ depictions of enslaved children as essentially powerless. While the reality of racism and slavery did in fact limit the Black community’s ability to enter the abolitionist spotlight, countless Black children and their supporters worked behind the scenes to fight injustice. Black abolitionist women, such as Susan Paul and Milla Granson, empowered the children of their communities through education. Others, such as Frederick Douglass, educated themselves despite the constraints of slavery and racism that sought to strip them of their agency. Furthermore, as this analysis has proposed, the dissemination of Black children’s narratives who lived in the antebellum era bolstered the abolitionist cause. Unearthing these narratives is a fundamental step in amplifying the voices of those who underwent the traumas of racism and slavery. If we want to gain an authentic picture of the antebellum era, we must shine a light on the experiences and actions of the Black community and its youth. Thus, a further area of research could examine how the education and activism of Black children evolved during the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction, especially as new forms of racism began to take shape—and continue to develop in the present United States. We must recognize the Black educators and youth activists of the abolitionist movement as the true initiators of the fight against injustice that the nation still wages today.
Meg Bueter is an American Studies and English double major with a minor in Education, Schooling, and Society (ESS). Her essay was originally written for an American Studies course titled ‘Black Freedom Struggles: Slavery in the USA 1619-1865’ that she took while studying abroad at the University of East Anglia
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