Three Suggestions for Antislavery Organizing on Campus

November 20, 2014 Yale Gilder Lehrman Center Opinion 
Awareness, Policy Making

One of the largest antislavery groups to emerge before the Civil War was one of the most unlikely. Located in the isolated northwest corner of Ohio, the Ashtabula County Female Anti-Slavery Society attracted over 500 members. Led by a rural schoolteacher, Betsy Mix Cowles, the group focused on fighting the state's racist "Black Laws" and providing educational opportunities for free African Americans.

Cowles was a one-woman organizing dynamo that pursued members across the county with relentless determination. Typically, she would corner a potential convert, describe the horrors of slavery, point to the sisterly ties between enslaved and free women, and convince her listener that she could make a difference. She followed up with repeated correspondence until her target joined the group.

Betsy Mix Cowles offers those of us interested in organizing against slavery on college campuses valuable lessons. Perhaps most important, Betsy teaches us that it takes only one determined, focused, and energetic advocate to create a successful antislavery organization. She quickly inspired a small group of supporters, instilled in them her own passion, and enlisted them in expanding the group. These advocates relied on Betsy for occasional injections of hopefulness, but by and large they carried the message forward with their own sense of commitment. As faculty members consider organizing antislavery groups on college campuses it is helpful to remember this "one-passionate-leader" lesson.

But as any faculty member involved with student organizing knows, that one passionate student eventually graduates, and the group suffers. What then? How can we establish vibrant abolitionist groups on college campuses and maintain those groups over the long term? After discussing this challenge with various members of the non-profit organization, Historians Against Slavery (HAS), who have served as advisors to antislavery groups on college campuses, I share below a series of suggestions for the establishment of a thriving antislavery group. I believe these recommendations are applicable to high school environments as well.

#1 Integrate scholarship on slavery/antislavery/social justice or any related field into the intellectual fabric of the institution.

This blends beautifully with modern understandings of higher education. One of the goals of "liberal education" as articulated by the American Association of Colleges and Universities is to "develop a sense of social responsibility" in students. Teaching courses about historic and contemporary slavery and antislavery is a natural method for achieving this goal. Such coursework might be offered through History, American Studies, English, Criminal Justice, Sociology, Social Work, Women's Studies, African American Studies, Political Science, and other areas. HAS offers sample syllabi on our website. Such classes can become a pipeline into antislavery activism on campus. But instructors need to be aware of abolitionist opportunities on campus, and they need to actively promote the benefits and importance of applying knowledge from inside the classroom to real-world contexts. Faculty members teaching such courses can model social responsibility by participating in abolitionist groups and activities on campus themselves. We also recommend that faculty engage in research related to these fields. We urge administrators to promote such scholarship through public recognition, awards, and resources. HAS sponsors a book series focused on publishing scholarship related to both historic and contemporary slavery and antislavery. Several experienced abolitionist faculty have found that hosting a conference on the topic, particularly in connection to recent historic anniversaries of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, can facilitate a dynamic campus- and community-wide conversation about the history of slavery and its modern manifestations. The Gettysburg College chapter of Free the Slaves, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the end of legal slavery in the U.S., is hosting a conference in collaboration with HAS focused on how to organize students around abolitionism. Finally, inviting dynamic speakers to campus to discuss slavery and antislavery "then and now" can transform a college campus and catalyze abolitionist activism. When James Brewer Stewart visited Bradley University for several days the result was a vibrant and long-lasting abolitionist coalition that included students and faculty. HAS sponsors a Speakers Bureau and we encourage faculty and students to invite one of our knowledgeable and inspiring speakers to campus.

#2 Collaborate across disciplines, groups, and in the local community.

One of the reasons that Betsy Mix Cowles organized such a large group was her willingness to cooperate with multiple partners, including churches, and extend her reach across the entire county. Experienced antislavery faculty teach us that working with colleagues in various disciplines is a successful method for sustaining abolitionism on campus and also enriching the intellectual foundation of the movement through the inclusion of multiple perspectives. African American Studies can play a particularly important role due to its interdisciplinary foundation, its concern with the history of racial injustice and slavery, and its ability to reach students and faculty from racially diverse backgrounds. Modern abolitionists must learn from Frederick Douglass and other leading black abolitionists of the antebellum period the importance of inclusion and equity in their organizing tactics, policies, and practices. Campus abolitionist groups should work to partner with other student organizations in resourcing events, attracting audiences, and building support. In times of low student interest such partnerships can offer pragmatic paths toward restoring passion. Faculty should not hesitate to partner with community groups including churches, social service organizations, non-profits, government, and law enforcement. This allows students to engage in productive community conversations and build relationships with stakeholders outside the university. Such networking can lead to internships and service-learning opportunities and is a perfect example of successful "high impact practices." Finally, abolitionist groups should consider tailoring their activism to locally relevant issues, which may include migrant labor in border states, mass incarceration in areas near prisons, or sex slavery in urban locations.

#3 Student leaders and faculty mentors.

HAS member Chris Momany, a leading abolitionist at Adrian College in Michigan, reminds us that slavery is about denying agency to human beings. In organizing on campuses it is critical that we keep student agency at the center of our activism. Through engaged leadership of abolitionist groups, students learn innumerable skills and responsibilities and develop pride in their achievements. By taking ownership of their abolitionism, students are more likely to continue that activism long after graduation. If encouraged and mentored, students can be creative and relentless in their approach to battling slavery. Faculty mentors will always play a critical role in providing student groups with advice, skills, and support, and institutional memory.

When Betsy Mix Cowles left the Ashtabula Female Anti-Slavery Society in order to attend college, the organization faltered, but eventually found new leadership and new goals that reflected different priorities. Her abolitionist influence flourished for years. Those of us working in higher education must follow her lead. We are all devoted to preparing our students for successful, meaningful, engaged lives. By introducing them to historic and modern slavery and modeling compassionate citizenship in a global context, we provide them with lifelong skills and we build a foundation for a world without slavery. Please check out our website for student abolitionist organizing called The Free Project. It provides faculty mentors and student activists with all the tools and information they need to create a successful abolitionist group on campus.

Thanks to the following people for their input: Matthew Mason at Brigham Young University, Randall Miller at St. Joseph's University, Chris Momany at Adrian College, Timothy Roberts at Western Illinois University, James Brewer Stewart at Macalester College, Whitney Stewart at Rice University, and Ben Wright at Abraham Baldwin Educational College.

Article by: Stacey Robertson is Co-Director of Historians Against Slavery and the Oglesby Professor of American Heritage at Bradley University


Topics: Awareness, Policy Making

About the Author

Yale Gilder Lehrman Center

The Gilder Lehrman Center strives to make a vital contribution to the understanding of slavery and its role in the development of the modern world. While the Center's primary focus has been on scholarly research, it also seeks to bridge the divide between scholarship and public knowledge by opening channels of communication between the scholarly community and the wider public. In collaboration with secondary schools, museums, parks, historical societies, and other related institutions, the Center facilitates a locally rooted understanding of the global impact of slavery. Staff includes David W. Blight, David Brion Davis, David Spatz, Thomas Thurston and several visiting fellows.

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