- Abolitionist Histories in the Context of Black Lives Matter
The array and depth of new scholarship on American abolitionism speaks to the movement’s pivotal role in U.S. history. Indeed, for those of us who write and teach in the field, the volume of scholarship has made it increasingly challenging to maintain currency. It also highlights the continuing importance of a full and complex understanding of the history of slavery and antislavery for political, social, and cultural realities in the twenty-first century. In the midst of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, social media exposure of police violence, and increasing concern about mass incarceration, such scholarship offers historical context for understanding oppression, racial injustice, and violence. Each of the three books under review offers meaningful engagement with important questions related to the history of race, violence, and inequality. How did nineteenth-century activists conceptualize their struggle? How did they engage with racial prejudice? Why did their methods change? How did they respond to opposition? In the process of exploring such questions, each of these books enriches and decenters abolitionist history and, in the words of historian James Brewer Stewart, “illuminates the problem of slavery today.”1
Despite very distinct methodological approaches, all three of these books recognize the Fugitive Slave Law as a vital development in the antislavery movement. Though abolitionist historians have long considered the law a [End Page 255] crucial moment in the 1850s, recent scholarship offers a more complex interpretation—placing the law in the larger context of geography, space, gender, violence, and literature. Most important, the Fugitive Slave Law allows scholars to place the experience of freedom seekers and free blacks at the center of abolitionism. With a few exceptions, past antislavery scholarship centered around the experience of white abolitionists. In the last few decades, however, abolitionist historians have begun to integrate the experience of blacks into the narrative. Too often this integration seemed awkward and not fully realized. Kytle, Morris, and Schoolman successfully use the Fugitive Slave Law and other moments to provide us with a model of inclusive and smart antislavery scholarship
J. Brent Morris, an assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort, takes on an important but challenging task in writing the abolitionist history of Oberlin. Although Oberlin is interwoven into the history of U.S. antislavery—its graduates, citizens, policies, and spirit transfusing abolitionism east, west, north, and south—Morris’ book is the first to engage fully and distinctly with its antislavery past. Robert Fletcher’s A History of Oberlin College (1943) and Geoffrey Blodgett’s Oberlin History: Essays and Impressions (2005) are more interested in the broad history of Oberlin, and both were written from the perspective of long-serving Oberlin professors. In the process of telling Oberlin’s story, Morris shifts our attention away from Eastern- and Euro-centric approaches to antislavery history, and re-centers our focus on African Americans and the West. As the western beacon of abolitionism and a community with an extraordinary 20 percent black population, Oberlin is a natural choice for asking new questions and deepening our understanding of the movement.
Founded in 1833 by Reverend John Jay Shipherd as a religious colony designed to guarantee the salvation of the West, Oberlin and the “Oberlin Institute” were always linked to ambitious goals. Open to both sexes and grounded in a “manual labor” tradition that required everyone to combine work with study, college founders hoped to produce the next generation of teachers and preachers who would educate and evangelize the West. When students arrived in December 1833, they found an institution lacking in buildings, faculty, and resources. Fortunately, a conflict...