Faculty Focus: Abolitionist Research
History professor Carol Wilson collaborated with three of her students in an independent research project that sheds new light on African-American abolitionists from Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Everyone has heard of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, the two African Americans born into slavery who led a national movement against human bondage. Other champions of liberty and equality—also born as slaves in Maryland and just as prominent in their day—are lesser-known in the 21st century.
Carol Wilson, the Arthur A. and Elizabeth R. Knapp Professor of American History whose own scholarship focuses on the boundaries of racial identity and status, wants to change that.
She enlisted the assistance of three students who had taken her Historical Methods class and were ready to learn for themselves what it means to be historians. Last fall, every week or two, seniors Katie Reinl, Isabelle Ryan, and Haley Keppel met with her to look for biographical information and speeches made by Douglass, Tubman, and three other local abolitionists. Then they worked independently to learn more about the people who surely were familiar with the fields and waterways of Kent County before freeing themselves and becoming outspoken members of the abolitionist movement.
Henry Highland Garnet, a Kent County native who escaped from slavery as a child, was the first black minister to speak out against slavery before the U.S. Congress. J.W.C. Pennington, born a slave in Queen Anne’s County, became a Union Army recruiter and author of the first history of African Americans. And Samuel Ringgold Ward, a fugitive from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, became a Liberty Party strategist and journalist who spoke out in New York, Britain, Canada, and Jamaica.
“My goal with this project was to create a visual display that incorporated quotes from these historical figures, particularly relating to how they talked about education and the role of citizenship,” Wilson says. She and her students hope that the installation in the Gibson Center for the Arts during Black History Month will draw attention to the significant contributions they made to the national dialogue about slavery and the cause for freedom.
“One of the ways to disenfranchise people in the present is to deny their past,” Wilson says. ”It’s important for us to recognize that African Americans had a viable and interesting past, that they weren’t just slaves. We need to know that they were ministers and soldiers and heroes who helped others to become free. Frederick Douglass is one of the most brilliant minds in American history. When you read some of his writings, his work stands up to any of the great thinkers of our day. That should help any young person—African American or not—think, ‘Hey, I can make something of myself. Here’s someone who was born a slave, who freed himself, educated himself, and became one of the great leaders of the 19th century. Here is someone who changed the course of history.’”
As for the young historians working on the project, it was as much about the journey as it was the destination.
Katie Reinl appreciated the opportunity to use primary resources and was thrilled to find a letter from Thomas H. Sands Pennington in the archives at the Lancaster Historical Society.
Haley Keppel, a history major, will springboard from this project into her senior thesis on slave children.
Isabelle Ryan took on the role of detective. “One of the things I liked most was trying to connect the small strands of facts that we were able to find in an attempt to piece together a story… especially with our research into Samuel Ringgold Ward’s birthplace,” Ryan recalls. He posed a particular challenge, she says, because his family never spoke of his earliest childhood in order to protect him.
“Ward grew up in the North. He and his parents escaped when he was a toddler,” Wilson says, “so he didn’t know he had been born into slavery until he was an adult. Given his middle name, there’s a good chance he’s from Kent County. But that’s our mystery. It was a good lesson for them to learn—that you don’t always find all the answers at the end of your project.”