The Abolition Movement and International Campaigning for Black Human Rights

Since the Abolition Movement, Black Americans have been seeking international recognition of the plight of Blacks in the New World, but also to seek opportunities for themselves. While in England, William and Ellen Craft published their account, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom” documenting their escape from slavery which entailed Ellen, a light-skinned enslaved woman donning the character of a sickly White man traveling with his dedicated slave. The account utilized sensationalism and the uniqueness of the couple’s story to exemplify the lengths enslaved Africans will go through in order to escape to freedom. Then upon entering ‘Freedom,’ the couple details their constant fugitive status in Boston after the Fugitive Slave Act is passed and their newly won freedom became tenuous. The couple’s story traveled through Europe and is one example of many in which Black Americans traveled to Europe to create international pressure to change the status of Blacks in the US.

Frederick Douglass is another example of a trailblazer who traveled to Europe after the publication of his autobiography. His travels did not only raise awareness of the issue of slavery in the US, but also shaped his own speeches and abolitionist activism. Frederick Douglass is known for his constant campaigning not only in the US but around the world. What Douglass was doing is better known today as consciousness-raising. Activists today will often go on shows, podcasts, write op-eds to highlight and bring attention to a certain issue. This strategy is best exemplified by the life of Frederick Douglass. I should also note the many days, months, years, on the road this meant for Douglass, who traveled across the United States and Europe not in an effort solely to tell his own story, but also the story of Black people. Douglas also being present and with his famous oratory skills actively refuted assumptions and stereotypes surrounding Black men at the time. Well-dressed, well-spoken Black men are still utilized in white spaces to explain their own stories. This offers an interesting question of how Respectability politics utilizes this “Frederick Douglass,” type to appeal to White folk who will only see our humanity if we are well-dressed. Nevertheless, the amount of tenacity and perseverance Douglass exhibited in campaigning against slavery, then for the equal treatment of Black Americans, is admirable and not easily replicated even today as an industry pipeline of professional Black activists has emerged.

Like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells also traveled internationally on lecture tours in the 1890s speaking out against lynchings, as documented in her detailed account, “The Red Record.” Not only did Wells document the lynchings that were epidemic in the South, but also the circumstances of the lynchings as extra-judicial practices. She detailed the crowds and celebrations around the events. Many lynchings did not take place in the dark with a few evil-spirited Klan members, but rather on Sundays after church to crowds of thousands. In “The Red Record,” Wells even talks about how overflowing the trains into town were, as residents of neighboring towns, counties, and areas traveled in to witness lynchings, many paying to go home with souvenirs in the form of fingers or toes, pictures with the lynched body. Wells brought these accounts to an international audience, showing the practice of lynching as something so deplorable it should horrify everyone. The amount of quantitative and qualitative journalistic work to create “The Red Record,” is a tactic used by activists today to understand the breadth and depth of an issue. It can be hard to communicate a problem without facts and numbers to rely on. Quantitative data helps the activist make an argument that the experiences of a group are more than anecdotal but rather systemic, which is crucial information for an international public.

These abolitionists and trailblazers utilized the press and their personal narratives in order to call international attention to the plight of Blacks in America. These publications were also coupled with tours and awareness-raising campaigns abroad. William and Ellen Craft gave 153 presentations in England and Ireland whereas, Ida B. Wells gave 106 lectures, and Frederick Douglass gave 281 speeches (including one aboard a ship in British Waters). In total, during the Abolition and Reconstruction era, Black abolitionists gave 4,531 lectures, speeches, and presentations in England and Ireland. Hannah-Rose Murray mapped the presentations and created the website, “FrederickDouglassinBritain.com.” In Murray’s analysis, the below map was created to show the active awareness-raising campaign between the 1840s to 1900.

For over a half-century, the work of Black American activists meant building international awareness of the injustices and dehumanization Black people were subject to in the United States. To do this, abolitionists had to build a moral and data-backed message to expose the systemic horrors of Slavery and Lynchings. In doing so, abolitionists had to justify their humanity, and respectability, and articulate a Call to Action for the urgent political intervention of the international community.

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Angela Rose Myers

Angela Rose Myers is the former President of the Minneapolis NAACP. Her goals are to create bridges between Black organizing and public policy