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  • More than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889 by Stephen Kantrowitz
  • Manisha Sinha
Stephen Kantrowitz. More than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889. New York: Penguin, 2012. 528 pp. $20.00.

In this meticulously researched and well-written monograph, Stephen Kantrowitz brings to life the mostly forgotten world of black activists and their white allies in nineteenth-century Boston. Explicitly eschewing an abolitionist framework, even though most of the characters and events he discusses are intimately connected with the abolition movement, Kantrowitz seeks to chart new directions in understanding the nature and terms of early African American activism. In choosing Boston to situate his work, Kantrowitz ploughs fertile ground.

A local case study of Boston’s activist black community is long overdue; the last such books, James and Lois Horton’s Black Bostonians and George Levesque’s Black Boston, were published years ago. Unlike the larger free black communities of New York and Philadelphia, which are the subject of excellent contemporary historical scholarship by Leslie Harris, Leslie Alexander, Gary Nash, and Julie Winch, black Bostonians have been relatively neglected. But Kantrowitz has written less a broad history of Boston’s black community than a more specific history of black activism in Boston. His monograph does not belong to the genre of community studies that characterizes much of the extant work on Northern free blacks.

Kantrowitz, who has previously written a well-received biography of the race-baiting white supremacist Governor Ben Tillman of South Carolina, uses a biographical approach to tell the story of black activism, concentrating on a handful of leading black Bostonians such as William Cooper Nell, Lewis Hayden, Robert Morris [End Page 795] and, to a lesser extent, John S. Rock, Joshua B. Smith, John Smith and Reverend Leonard Grimes. He adeptly foregrounds the life work of these men, among others, giving them starring roles in the antebellum struggles against Jim Crow and the fugitive slave law, with more well-known black and white abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Charles Lenox Remond, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips playing bit parts. Kantrowitz is able then to uncover the life and activities of a large cadre of talented black leaders in Boston whose activism remains unknown to most except experts in the field. And unlike many historians and literary scholars, who have been quick to dismiss these men and their ideas as bourgeois or elitist, he convincingly illustrates the hand-to-mouth existence of lives devoted to battles, large and small, against racial proscription. These battles put these leaders, he convincingly shows, just a step ahead of a majority of the free urban African American population in the North, confined to menial occupations and blackballed by employers as well as white workers. Nell, for instance, is forced to postpone marriage for years because of his economically precarious existence, while Hayden finds economic security only with the assistance of abolitionist allies such as Henry I. Bowditch and John Andrews, Governor of Civil War Massachusetts.

Kantrowitz excels when he details episodes of black activism, the fight over school desegregation which galvanized the city’s black population and resulted in internecine strife over its benefits, and dramatic instances of resistance to fugitive slave rendition, from the George Latimer case of 1842 to the Anthony Burns case of 1854. And he highlights the attempt of black Bostonians to form a militia before the war as well as their resistance to segregated units and unequal pay in the Union Army during the Civil War. Despite his explicit rejection of the label “black abolitionists,” Kantrowitz begins his story with a discussion of David Walker’s famous Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) and Garrison’s founding of the abolition movement a couple of years later in the basement of Boston’s historic black Baptist church, and carries it forward to the heyday of Reconstruction when Massachusetts elected its first black office holders and state legislators, including Walker’s son, Edwin Garrison Walker, whose name personified the radical, interracial abolitionism of the city. Indeed much of his story of black activism emerges from the pages of The Liberator...


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pp. 795-797
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