David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City by Graham Russell Gao Hodges (review)
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David Ruggles, Abolitionism, Underground Railroad, Antislavery

David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City. By Graham Russell Gao Hodges. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. 266. Cloth, $30.00.)

Historians of black America have had at best a loose grasp of David Ruggles's significance. There have been no scholarly biographies explicating exactly how and why Ruggles became a seminal figure in American history. This is perhaps in part because during the necessary but eclipsed era of contributionist and triumphal historiography, Ruggles, who died young, appeared to be overshadowed by longer-lived or more unique luminaries like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Over the last few decades, African American historiography largely left behind contributionist histories and biographies. [End Page 376]

Graham Hodges, though, makes clear that his biography of Ruggles is right in line with that tradition. Hodges's work is a kind of Sankofa—he manages to hark back to that once necessary tradition while simultaneously moving it forward. For instance, he centers abolitionist history—not simply black abolitionist history, but abolitionist history—on David Ruggles. He also places Ruggles within the antebellum hydrotherapy medical movement by describing how Ruggles first sought hydrotherapy for his serious health maladies, and then started his own well-respected hydrotherapy business in the latter years of his abbreviated life. The overarching thrust of the biography is not, however, to tell the story of developments in antebellum American society. The focus stays fixed on David Ruggles, and the image that emerges is of a militantly determined young man who adhered to a core set of principles throughout a life filled with adversity. His commitment, bravery, and activism exerted a powerful influence on black and white Americans. Ruggles answered David Walker's appeal.

Growing up on Bean Hill in Norwich, Connecticut, was an important formative experience during what Hodges labels a Revolutionary childhood. The Revolutionary spirit persisted among white and black residents. The chapter on Ruggles's childhood is a well-constructed, if occasionally a bit speculative, argument. Hodges describes Ruggles's father as a blacksmith who commanded respect because blacksmiths in general earned prestige due to the physical demands of their labor, and characterizes Ruggles's mother as a highly regarded cook in the area. His parents' strong work ethic, and the status this earned them, shaped Ruggles early on. In addition to Hodges's reading of that formative setting, however, it is possible that for black men like Ruggles's father, evolving racial ideologies led to jobs that demanded great strength— simultaneously garnering respect and feeding racist perceptions that enabled many whites to think of the black body as fit only for hard physical labor. Though David Ruggles likely did inherit his impressive work ethic from his parents, he may have also learned that his father's blacksmith labor and his mother's work as a cook could carry contrasting meanings in American society—respect from some, derision from others.

Nonetheless, Hodges's interpretation is certainly consistent with the man that Ruggles would become. After a brief period in early adulthood when he seemed more committed to fun than activism, in his early twenties Ruggles began to connect with black and white antislavery activists in New York City. Steadily radicalized through personal confrontations [End Page 377] with racists, signing on as a traveling agent for the Emancipator newspaper, and vocally criticizing the American Colonization society, Ruggles fairly quickly came to lead and epitomize the younger, more militant black leadership of the 1830s. Ruggles and other young black militants advocated practical abolitionism, which demanded immediate responses to slavery such as direct action to assist fugitive slaves, resisting kidnappers and slave catchers with force when necessary, and breaking northern institutions such as church denominations away from their southern branches. Ruggles also radicalized black and white activists as one of the founders of the New York Committee of Vigilance, through which he protected and transported several hundred escaping slaves. Via active involvement and writing in antislavery newspapers—including the one he started, Mirror of Liberty—Ruggles helped the loose network of fugitive slaves and their allies coalesce into an...