Staten Island Abolition Movement

"Am I Not A Man And A Brother?" Medallion created as part of anti-slavery campaign by Josiah Wedgwood, 1787. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Dr. Samuel McKenzie Elliott, a distinguished oculist, was the first of the prominent abolitionists to arrive in Richmond County in the 1840s. By the mid-1850s, the principal abolitionists living in Richmond County can be characterized as mainly expatriates from New England, including philanthropist Francis George Shaw and family; journalist Sydney Howard Gay and family; George William Curtis; George A. Ward and son George C. Ward; Frederick Law Olmsted; William Emerson, brother of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and for a short period time, Henry David Thoreau. A good number of these local abolitionists were ardent supporters of the American Anti-Slavery Society and its literary arm, The National Anti-Slavery Standard. Their financial contributions to the organizations were faithful and consistent, and were an integral part of keeping the organizations running. Members of this community attended the Lyceum lectures and political meetings across the island. With few exceptions, white male friends provided the tight security often necessary for these local gatherings. The women held annual anti-slavery fairs and organized the National Bazaar for the American Anti-Slavery Society to assist African American refugees and lend financial support to the movement as a whole.

In general, Staten Island abolitionists were white and male and descended from backgrounds of considerable wealth, privilege, and influence. These progressive abolitionists used the Island to entertain other radical members of the national movement and offered them a safe refuge when traveling grueling distances between speaking engagements and anti-slavery bazaars. Luminaries of the national movement relied on the well-established intimate relationships with the North Shore anti-slavery community and, as friends, frequented the Island for family visits or as they traveled the anti-slavery lecture circuit.

People of color were absent from the organized practice of abolitionism that was explicitly and overwhelmingly white. The black community recognized this flaw in the tight-knit circle of white abolitionists and decried it as flagrant exclusionism. But rather than pander to a white body politic, Richmond County African Americans managed to carefully take control of their own emancipation efforts, and on one occasion, going so far as to compete with Garrison and Gay. In Richmond County, the African American Methodist communities’ participated in annual religious camp meetings and anti-slavery picnics, called “First of August” celebrations, and invited prominent abolitionists to be the keynote speakers.