Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Salem’s History Showcases Women Abolitionists

By Muriel Hoffacker
Gordon College News Service
February 17, 2010

Even as women’s suffrage was fresh in the picture, Sarah Parker Remond and Charlotte Forten, once residents of Salem, MA, and both African American women, pushed the limits for women’s rights in their time. The two were prominent leaders in the abolitionist movement, speaking to crowds of men and women throughout New England.


As local residents celebrate Black History this month and Women’s History in March, Salem has cause to celebrate both with Forten and Remond.

“The abolitionist movement changed this country and showed there’s always room for action,” said Emily Murphy, a historian at the Salem Maritime National Historical Site.  “Sarah Parker Remond and Charlotte Forten were key figures in this movement.”

Charles Lenox Remond, brother of Sarah Parker, was the first African American abolitionist paid as a lecturer on the abolitionist circuit.  But Sarah Parker did not let her brother do all the work. 

A stubborn, independent woman, and trained physician, Parker Remond first defended her rights as a human being in 1853 at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston, MA.  Though she bought tickets for herself and three guests for the dress circle, she was forced to sit in the segregated section.  But she refused and a manager forcefully escorted her out of the Athenaeum, pushing her down the stairs. 

This did not discourage her.  Soon after, she traveled as an agent of the Anti-Slavery Society across the United States, England, Ireland and Scotland gaining support for abolition.  When the Civil War started, Remond stayed in England, lobbying the British Parliament to refuse helping the Confederate side.  Successful, she remained and took a job as a physician in Florence, Italy.

“The Remonds as well as other abolitionists [like Charlotte Forten] were working on a political level to change things,” said Jim McAlister, a local historian and writer in Salem, MA.  “They [Sarah Parker and Charles Lenox] were nationally and internationally known.”

But Forten was no stranger to the cause either.  Forten served as a prominent figure in Remond’s “Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society.”  Earlier in her life, Forten’s father sent her to live with the Remond family in Salem, MA. Soon after in 1856, she became the first African American student at the Salem Normal School, an institution for educating future teachers. 

As the first African American teacher to join the “American Civil War’s Sea Island Mission,” Forten traveled to Port Royal, South Carolina, during the Civil War and educated recently freed slaves.  When the war ended, Forten returned to teaching and expanded her career as a writer and poet. 

“One of the (abolitionist) lectures that I was excited about was Frederick Douglass,” said George Harrington, owner of the Lyceum Restaurant. The Lyceum hosted dozens of well-known abolitionists and speakers, Harrington said, including Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner.  Forten organized these lectures at the Lyceum, attracting large crowds to these events.

Freeing slaves was Remond and Forten’s passion and life long purpose.  Murphy said that because these women were nationally and internationally known in their time, they should be remembered—especially during women’s history month—as fearless and remarkable people, who despite their race and gender, took charge.

McAlister agrees. “It’s important to hear about these women, as they made an immense effort to change society,” he said. “They made an attempt to end that [brutality].”

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