STEAMFUNK REFORMERS: Black Activists in the Age of Steam
Every month, in The League of Extraordinary Black People Series, we feature members of the League of Extraordinary Black People who fit specific Steampunk Archetypes. This month, we examine Reformers – the suffragettes; the revolutionaries; the protesters and abolitionists.
As always, your feedback is welcomed and encouraged.
Although Nat Turner led his rebellion a bit before the beginning of the Steampunk / Victorian Era (1837 – 1901), it did happen during the Age of Steam, the period of industrialization, which actually takes place between roughly 1797 and 1914. Besides, Nat Turner’s rebellion fueled the abolitionist movement, thus he certainly deserves a place within ‘The League’.
By far the most notorious and successful slave rebellion was led by Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.
Born in Southampton County on October 2, 1800, Turner, who was the slave of Joseph Travis, was a preacher who had visions and felt divinely inspired to lead his people to freedom. He plotted his revolt for six months, sharing his plan with only four others.
On the day the revolt took place, Turner and his men gathered in the woods and then began what is known by many as the “Turner Insurrection” by attacking the Travis plantation and killing the entire family. Turner’s group, which had grown to 60, then stormed the county, killing at least 57 whites. As the revolt progressed, the ranks of Turner’s army continued to swell, rising to the hundreds within hours.
Finally, on their way to Jerusalem, Virginia, the county seat, where they had hoped to gain additional support and replenish their ammunition, most of Turner’s forces were caught and subdued. Thirteen slaves and three free Blacks were hanged, but Turner was not captured until two months later, after returning from hiding to free more of slaves.
Turner was hanged on November 11, 1831.
After escaping enslavement in 1849, Tubman dedicated her life to fighting for freedom, equality, and justice.
Born Araminta (“Minty”) Ross in early 1822 on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, south of Madison in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was the fifth of nine children of Harriet “Rit” Green and Benjamin Ross, both slaves.
From early childhood, Tubman was often hired out to temporary masters, many who were cruel and negligent.
One day, while working as a field hand, Tubman was nearly killed by a blow to her head from an iron weight, thrown by an angry overseer. The severe injury left her suffering from headaches, seizures and sleeping spells that plagued her for the rest of her life. They also left her with powerful and accurate visions.
In the late fall of 1849, Tubman took her own liberty. She tapped into the Underground Railroad, which was already functioning well on the Eastern Shore. Traveling by night, using the North Star as her guide, Tubman found her way to Philadelphia, where she sought work as a domestic, saving her money to help the rest of her family escape.
From 1850 to 1860, Tubman conducted approximately thirteen escape missions, freeing – by her own account – “thousands of slaves”. Among those she freed were her brothers, parents, and other family and friends.
Tubman brought many of her charges to St. Catharines, Ontario, where they settled into a growing community. Her dangerous missions won the admiration of abolitionists throughout the North who provided her with funds to continue her activities.
In early 1862, Tubman joined Northern abolitionists in support of Union activities at Port Royal, South Carolina. Throughout the Civil War she provided badly needed nursing care to black soldiers and hundreds of newly liberated slaves who crowded Union camps. Tubman’s military service expanded to include spying and scouting behind Confederate lines and she went on to become the most famous among the revered and feared Black Dispatches.
In early June 1863, Tubman became the first woman to command an armed military raid when she guided Col. James Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina black regiment up the Combahee River, routing out Confederate outposts, destroying stockpiles of cotton, food and weapons, and liberating over 700 slaves.
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn, New York. There she rose even higher as a community activist, humanitarian, and suffragist, her humanitarian work triumphing with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, located on her own property in Auburn, New York, which she eventually transferred to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1903.
Tubman remained active in the suffrage movement, appearing at local and national suffrage conventions, until the early 1900s. She died at the age of 91 on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York.
Born a slave, Douglass escaped at the age of twenty and went on to become a world-renowned anti-slavery activist.
Douglass’ work as a reformer ranged from his abolitionist activities in the early 1840s to his attacks on Jim Crow and lynching in the 1890s. For sixteen years, he edited an influential black newspaper and achieved international fame as an inspiring and persuasive speaker and writer. In thousands of speeches and editorials, he levied a powerful indictment against slavery and racism, providing an indomitable voice of hope for his people and preacheing his own brand of American ideals.
Douglass welcomed the Civil War in 1861 and portrayed it as a moral crusade against slavery.
During the war, he labored as a propagandist of the Union cause, a recruiter of black troops, and an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln.
After the war, he continued to travel widely and lecture on racial issues, national politics, and women’s rights. In the 1870s Douglass moved to Washington, D.C., where he edited a newspaper and became president of Freedman’s Bank. As a stalwart Republican, Douglass was appointed marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti.
Douglass died in 1895 after half a century of activism.
Truth spoke only Dutch until around the age of nine when she was forced to speak English by John Neely, a cruel and brutal slave master, but she spoke with a Dutch accent for the rest of her life.
In 1799, the state of New York began to legislate the gradual abolition of slaves, which was to be put into full effect on July 4, 1827. Truth’s slave master had promised her freedom a year before the state emancipation, “if she would do well and be faithful.” However, he reneged on his promise, claiming an injury to her hand had made her less productive.
Infuriated, Truth escaped with her infant daughter, Sophia, later saying “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
Truth then immediately set to work freeing her five year old son Peter. With the assistance of Quakers, Truth made an official complaint in court. After months of legal proceedings, Peter returned to her, scarred and abused.
During this time, Truth had a life-changing religious experience, becoming “overwhelmed with the greatness of the Divine presence” and inspired to preach. She quickly became known as a remarkable preacher and soon changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth, telling friends, “The Spirit calls me East, and I must go.” She wandered in relative obscurity, depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. She eventually met and worked with abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles, giving her most famous speech at the Ohio Woman’s Rights Covention in Akron, Ohio, the legendary “Ain’t I a Woman?”
During the Civil War, Truth spoke on the Union’s behalf and helped enlist Black troops for the freeing of slaves. After the Civil War ended, she continued working to help the newly freed slaves through the Freedman’s Relief Association and the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
In 1870, Truth began campaigning for the federal government to provide former slaves with land in the “new West.” She spent a year in Kansas, helping Black refugees and speaking in white and Black churches to gain support for the “Exodusters” as they tried to build new lives for themselves.
On November 26, 1883, Sojourner Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan at the age of 86.
Maria W. Stewart
Stewart was born in Hartford, Connecticut, as Maria Miller.
Orphaned by age five, she became an indentured servant, serving a clergyman. Using the clergyman’s extensive library, she taught herself how to read and comprehend. When she was fifteen, left the clergyman and went on to work for herself as a servant.
In 1826 she married James W. Stewart, taking not only his last name but also his middle initial. With her marriage to a shipping agent, she became part of Boston’s small free Black middle class. Stewart became involved in some of the institutions founded by that Black community, including the Massachusetts General Colored Association, which worked for immediate abolition of slavery.
Upon the death of her husband in 1829, she became convinced that God was calling her to become a “warrior” “for God and for freedom and “for the cause of oppressed Africa.”
In 1831, abolitionist publisher, William Lloyd Garrison published Stewart’s first essay, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, as a pamphlet. She also began public speaking, at a time when religious bans against women teaching prohibited women from speaking in public, especially to mixed audiences that included men.
In her first address, in 1832, Stewart spoke before an audience of only women at the African American Female Intelligence Society, an institution founded by the free Black community of Boston. She used the Bible to defend her right to speak, and spoke on both religion and justice, advocating activism for equality. The text of the talk was published in Garrison’s newspaper on April 28, 1832.
On September 21, 1832, Stewart delivered a second lecture, this time to an audience that also included men. She spoke at Franklin Hall, the site of the New England Anti-Slavery Society meetings. In her speech, she questioned whether free Blacks were much more free than slaves, given the lack of opportunity and equality. She also questioned the move to send free blacks back to Africa. Garrison published more of her writings in The Liberator and, in 1832, published a second pamphlet of her writings as Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.
Stewart eventually made a move to New York, New York, where she remained an activist, supporting herself by teaching in public schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, eventually becoming an assistant to the principle of the Williamsburg School. She was also active in a Black women’s literary group and supported Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, but did not write for it. Stewart moved to Baltimore in 1853, where she taught privately.
In 1861, she moved to Washington, DC, where she taught school again during the Civil War. During that time Stewart was appointed to head housekeeping at the Freedman’s Hospital and Asylum in the 1870s. A predecessor in this position was Sojourner Truth. On December 17, 1879, Stewart died in the hospital in which she worked. She is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
I hope you enjoyed the latest in the League of Extraordinary Black People Series. Be sure to join us next month when we examine Aviators…yep…Aviators!