The Trouble with Abolitionists
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

The Trouble with Abolitionists

Here's the last half of yesterday's talk at the Hilton Head Library.  Headed back to Tennessee soon, so postings will be scarce until next week. If you want to hear more about Frogmore, take a look at the dedicated website at http://theroadtofrogmore.co   It has lots of pictures of the real characters and places.


 Just who were the first abolitionists in South Carolina?

Mansfield French was the leader of the first arrivals.  An evangelical Methodist preacher, noted for founding a school for well-to-do free blacks in Ohio,  he was a charismatic speaker but a total airhead when it came to money matters. Pierce entrusted him with all the funds to pay teachers and purchase supplies.  Eventually he was tried for embezzlement, but all they ever proved was gross mismanagement. Money simply melted in his hands.
 
Austa French, his wife, was an opera singer and the mother of 7 children, all of whom she sent off to boarding school so that she could get on with her life.  She came to South Carolina to write a book about the evils of slavery, and spend all of her time interviewing slaves about the atrocities they had suffered.  As soon as she had gathered enough ammunition for a book, she went back to New York.
 
Susan Walker was a brilliant mathematician, a wealthy socialite, and the friend of senators congressmen and Lincoln’s cabinet officers.  She begged to go along with the abolitionists so she could report back to Chase.  Unfortunately, she hated dirt and manual labor.  When she discovered the very primitive conditions under which she was expected to live, she decided she had made a mistake.  She refused to set foot in a slave cabin until it was cleaned, would eat food only if she had not seen how it was cooked, and could not figure out what to do when she was assigned to do the laundry.  She left after only a couple of months.
 
Several young Quakers volunteered for abolitionist duty because their religion would not let them enlist in the army.  But much like Susan Walker, they had no idea how do do the tasks that were given to them.  One, Richard Soule, accidentally fed expensive cotton seed to the livestock on the plantation to which he was assigned.  Another, Charles Ware, followed his slaves to the fields every morning just to write down the songs they sang while they hoed. None of them knew anything about raising cotton.
 
Nelly Winsor and Harriet Ware were schoolteachers, but they refused to hold classes if the students arrived dirty.  They would send them home to take baths and put on clean clothes.  Of course, the children had only one set of clothes and no access to  water except for the mucky swamps, so they were at a standoff, and little teaching went on.
 
Edward Pierce was a wealthy economist who came along to prove that a plantation run by its owner and worked by paid labor would be more profitable than the traditional pattern of slaves and slave driver.  But to prove his point, he had to buy up land and pay his workers before he had made any profit at all.  Eventually he took on several investors and recouped his losses, only to be accused of exploiting the slaves who should have been allowed to purchase the land.
 
Charlotte Forten was a mulatto, a free Philadelphia black, who came to teach her people.  But “her people” refused to recognize her.  They called her that “brown gal” and rejected her because she lived with the other white teachers instead of with them. She violated their understanding of class.
 
Only one out of the whole group of abolitionists managed to find a way to work with the slaves and give them the kind of help they needed.  Laura Towne was a 38-year–old spinster who had never fit in with the society in which she had been raised.  She didn’t want to be a wife and mother; she preferred to live with another woman with whom she had formed a close relationship.  She studied medicine in the years before women could become doctors. She was a Unitarian, looked down upon by Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians alike because though religion should be private and free from doctrine. And of course she was an outspoken abolitionist when women were expected to hold no political views, or at least not expected to speak out about them. She was a misfit, but because of that, she understood the problems the slaves faced.
 
Laura and her freed slaves needed each other.  When the other abolitionists went home and moved on to the next great issue,  Laura Towne stayed on St. Helena Island for 40 years, teaching and caring for the people she had come to see as her own.