Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society papers (1848-1868)


"Slavery," according to the constitution of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, "is an evil that ought not to exist, and is a violation of the inalienable rights of man" In the summer of 1851, notices were distributed throughout Rochester, N.Y., to gather together any women interested in becoming active in the antislavery cause. Six women responded, and on August 20, 1851, formally organized themselves into the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Sewing Society (the "Sewing" was dropped by 1855), electing Susan Farley Porter as president, Julia Griffiths, secretary, and Maria G. Porter, treasurer. As noted in their first annual report, the Society remained steadfast in refusing any partisan political alignment, hoping to broaden their appeal across partisan lines in recognition of "the utter coldness, in the community on the slavery subject." Although Rochester was widely known as the home of Frederick Douglass' Paper, at the time, Douglass' was "the only anti-slavery instrumentality in the community." The Rochester Ladies were anxious to improve the situation.

By March, 1852, the Society had grown to nineteen members, when they held the first of their Festivals, or bazaars. In these events, held annually for over a decade, the women of the Society raised money through the sale of items made locally or contributed by other anti-slavery societies as far away as Britain, and through gate receipts for lectures by Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, or other activists held in the Corinthian Hall. The first Festival was advertised in newspapers as far away as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and by all accounts, it was a rousing success, netting over $250. Following on the heels of this bazaar, the Society intensified their fund raising efforts, matching success with success. In 1853, Julia Griffiths edited Autographs For Freedom, a collection of antislavery essays with facsimile signatures of the contributors, which sold so well that a second edition was prepared the following year. In the winter of 1854-55, the Society also sponsored its first annual lecture series, bringing in renowned speakers. Once again, the Society found a large and receptive audience for their message. Colleagues in British antislavery societies provided an important and regular source of funds through bazaars held on behalf of the Rochester Society. By the late 1850s, the annual receipts of the Society surpassed $1,500.

The bulk of the money raised by the Society was used in the important task of keeping Frederick Douglass' Paper solvent, but money was also used to help support a school for freedmen in Kansas and for the publication and distribution of anti-slavery literature in Kentucky. The Society played a crucial support role in one stretch of the Underground Railroad, providing small cash gifts directly to fugitive slaves to aid them on the last leg of their escape to Canada. The Society's annual reports for 1855 and 1856 listed 136 fugitives who had passed through Rochester with the Society's help, and by the following year, they had begun to develop a connection with veteran "railroad" engineer, Harriet Tubman.

The political crisis of the late 1850s and 1860s began to effect the way the Society conducted their business, and even its most committed members began to demur from taking too radical a stance in such an increasingly polarized climate. In its annual report for 1860-61, the Society lamented that "the various means used in former years for raising money and disseminating Anti-Slavery doctrines have been unsuited to the times, or [have become] dangerous in execution." As secession replaced slavery as the dominant public issue, and as politicians and members of the white public became increasingly hostile to antislavery activity in general, even radical Rochester felt the backlash. One meeting of the Society was forcibly disbanded by reactionary citizens, and the lecture series and bazaar were both canceled in 1861. When open warfare erupted in April, 1861, and all hope of sectional compromise was ended, the Society resumed a more open antislavery stance, but by that time, the tight wartime economy, ended the Festival as a practical fund raiser, and more and more, the Society had to depend on donations from British colleagues. Their most ardent British supporter was Julia Griffiths Crofts of Leeds, a charter member of the Society who returned to her native England in 1856 after marrying.

The women of the Society responded directly to new war-time realities, and devoted the greater part of their energy to assisting the large numbers of freedmen, escaped slaves and "contrabands" who had come into the Union lines. In October, 1862, the Society undertook perhaps its most impressive mission, sending its former corresponding secretary, Julia A. Wilbur, to Alexandria, Va., to work with freedmen's education and relief programs.

At the end of the war, with the formal abolition of slavery and the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau, the edge was taken off the urgency of the (now) Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery and Freedmen's Aid Society, and the Society fairly rapidly dissolved. In 1868, the 17th and apparently final annual report of the society claimed that "Southern ideas of social life are giving way to more liberal views and to the more enlightened tendencies of the age," though they also noted that "in the present whirl and chaos of affairs, both civil and political, the Freedpeople will undoubtedly continue to have a hard time of it." The Society, however, found little support for continuing their efforts in freedmen's education and less in confronting the problem of racial inequality in America. The incoming resources of the Society declined sharply, and this last report recorded less than ninety dollars in receipts for the year.