Just as terrorism is on everyone’s watchlist today, slavery was the issue du jour during the years preceding the Civil War. The Revolutionary War had birthed our nation, but we had inherited a serious and debilitating disease in the process. Slavery was eating away at the heart of mid-19th century America. Here in the North, keeping people in permanent bondage to a master had proved to be morally offensive, as well as financially and logistically inefficient. Two nations were emerging — the agrarian South and the industrialized North, and slavery was the elephant in the room in every discussion about the two.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the communities of African Americans in the North. Here in Brooklyn, black folk were part of the growing population of Brooklyn, living wherever they could afford to, but mostly in the area which is now Dumbo/Vinegar Hill and Downtown, near the present day approaches to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Here, they built communities and founded churches and schools amidst the rest of Brooklyn’s populations, working as laborers, servants, tradespeople and craftspeople. Some barely made it, while others did well, with teachers, ministers, and other professionals among them.
As Brooklyn’s anti-slavery movement intensified, black Brooklynites formed their own organizations to fight against the enslavement of black people in the South. They were often allied in principal with white Abolitionist organizations, with many of the same goals, but amazingly, or perhaps, not really all that amazingly, the two groups existed side by side, and rarely joined forces. Some of the great figures of the day, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown moved from the elite drawing rooms and churches of the white elite, to the more humble pulpits and homes of Brooklyn’s black communities, but many of their admirers did not, or could not.
Last time, we met the Tappan brothers, Lewis and Arthur. The brothers were millionaire merchants living in Lower Manhattan in the 1830s. They were the founders of the Mercantile Agency, later called R.G. Dun & Company, the parent of the company that would become Dun & Bradstreet. Lewis Tappan moved to Brooklyn Heights after he and his family were forced from Manhattan by mobs of angry white protesters who rioted and destroyed his integrated church after a celebration of the anniversary of New York’s emancipation day. The Tappan’s were fierce and ardent Abolitionists, and donated generously to anti-slavery causes. Their story can be read in Part 1.
One of the most effective weapons in the abolitionists’ arsenal during the 1830s was the printing press. Publishers could print out thousands of petitions, broadsheets, newspapers and flyers, flooding the streets with speeches, announcements, notices, autobiographies and stories, all, in this case, advocating the rapid end of slavery. The reason we have as much information today about this time in history is because so many of these publications have been found in libraries, museums, private collections, churches and homes. One of the most prolific of these printers and publishers was a black man from Connecticut who had moved to New York City at the age of sixteen. His name was David Ruggles.
Ruggles was born in Lyme, Conn., in 1810 to free black parents. They moved to Bean Hill, a suburb of Norwich, Conn., when he was a child. His father, David Ruggles Sr. was a blacksmith and woodcutter, and his wife Nancy was a caterer of some renown, whose cakes were sought after for any important social occasion. His parents were devout Methodists, and they had eight children. Young David was so intellectually gifted that the people of Bean Hill took up a collection to hire a tutor from Yale to teach him Latin and other subjects.
At the age of sixteen, he left Connecticut and came to NYC, where he worked as a mariner and then opened a grocery store. He also became an activist in the anti-slavery movement. He discovered the power of the press, and became a correspondent and sales agent for The Liberator and The Emancipator, both anti-slavery newspapers. The abolitionist movement became his life’s mission, one he would be an active and aggressive participant in.
He closed his grocery and opened the first African American bookstore in the United States, until a mob destroyed it. His journal, The Mirror of Liberty, published between 1838 and 1841, is regarded as the first periodical published by an African American in this country. He was also a regular contributor to the Freedman’s Journal, the nation’s first black newspaper.
David Ruggles was the first black working journalist, and was often the subject of his pieces, as well as the writer, editor, printer, publisher and distributor of The Mirror of Liberty. He was what would later be called an “immediatist,” an abolitionist who was not content with winding slavery down, or phasing it out. He, like many others, wanted it gone – completely and immediately. His tools were the press, his writings, and something a bit more in your face, an organization he co-founded in 1835, and was quite involved in, called the New York Committee of Vigilance. It almost got him killed.
Ruggles and his Committee, which was financially supported by the Tappan brothers and others, would confront Southern slaveholders on the street, or in their place of business or homes. If their slaves were with them, they would tell them they were in a free state, and no longer subject to the laws of their masters, and offer to help them to safety and freedom. They also went after the “kidnappers,” who were flooding the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, looking for “escaped slaves.” These men said they were lawfully recapturing valuable “property,” but were also just grabbing free people off the street and whisking them down South into slavery; with the help of greedy or indifferent Northern law enforcement officials and judges.
Ruggles, who was easily identified because of his youth, his eyeglasses, and his scholarly and dapper appearance, was soon one of the most hated men in New York. In 1837, Ruggles exposed a Brooklynite named David Stanford as a Southern slaveholder with a home in New York. Stanford was a devout Methodist Church member, and Ruggles and his organization had vowed to remove slaveholders from the nation’s churches. Stanford was in Brooklyn as the director of the Brooklyn Savings Bank. He was so embarrassed by the coverage, he went back South, but returned to Brooklyn several years later, this time as president of the same bank.
Ruggles had also tried to rescue a woman and her children from the Brooklyn Almshouse. This free black Brooklyn-born woman named Margaret Baker had come on hard times and checked into the Almshouse with her three children, rather than starve. She was accused by the Almshouse administration of being an escaped slave, and the entire family was sold into slavery, shipped down South so fast that Ruggles and his Committee couldn’t get there in time, and never were able to find her. No one knows what happened to her or her children, but we can guess. That story still gives me the horrors.
When Ruggles or members of his Committee confronted Southern kidnappers, they demanded that the city government grant jury trials to fugitives. The laws permitted “hearings” where the slave catchers would offer “proof” of someone’s identity, and that was that. The accused fugitive was not granted any rights to offer their own proof, or even speak in court. The Committee offered legal representation, backed by members of the Manumission Society, which included the services of lawyer William Jay, the son of Chief Justice John Jay. Many innocent blacks, as well as fugitives, were saved by their intervention. All of these cases were written up in Ruggles’ journals and broadsheets, as well as in The Emancipator and The Liberator, and handed out and sold everywhere.
Ruggles and his Committee also took on white sea captains they suspected of participating in the slave trade; transporting slaves to the United States, which was illegal as far back as 1808. In 1836, Ruggles took on a Portuguese sea captain named Juan Evangelista de Souza, who was rumored to have five slaves in the hold of his ship that he was planning to take South for sale when he left New York. Ruggles demanded that the five men be held in a local jail until a hearing could be held. He obtained a writ of habeas corpus, and had Captain de Souza arrested on charges of slave trading. A black man having a white man arrested! And this was the second time Ruggles had had done this. It was unforgivable.
De Souza was let out on bail, and the court date to determine the fate of the five men was in the future. But the captain, along with a policeman named Tobias Boudinot and a slave catcher named D.D. Nash were not going to wait for the courts. They decided the black man needed to learn his place – in chains himself in the South. They tried to break into his house, but Ruggles escaped and made it to a police station where he exposed the plot. The slave catcher Nash tried one more attempt to get Ruggles arrested by claiming Ruggles matched the description of generic runaways named either Abraham or Jesse. Had his white abolitionist lawyers not rushed to his aid, Ruggles may well have found himself on a plantation picking cotton, although he probably wouldn’t have lived that long. He had made a lot of people angry in his short career.
Next time: The conclusion of David Ruggles’ story. Undeterred by threats or the hatred of white slave catchers and slave owners, David Ruggles continues to write, publish, and agitate. He becomes one of the most visible people on the Underground Railroad, and was responsible for a young Frederick Douglass’ care while in New York City, after Douglass had escaped from slavery. He also was one of three men implicated in the Darg case in 1838. What’s the Darg case about? You’ll have to wait until Thursday to find out.
David Ruggles, the Tappan brothers, and many of Brooklyn’s known and unknown valiant anti-slavery warriors are part of a ground breaking project called In Pursuit of Freedom: Anti-Slavery Activism and the Culture of Abolitionism in Antebellum Brooklyn. The project was a joint effort of the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Weeksville Heritage Center and the Irondale Theater Ensemble, and represents years of research and investigation into this little known area of American History. There’s a website connected to the project, as well as exhibits and a theatrical production.
Top photo: David Ruggles, from a period portrait. Photo via maap.columbia.edu