Wellesley Professor Writes about the Tactical Use of Violence by Black Abolitionists

February 28, 2019
A woman stands against a green backdrop.

Is violence a valid means of producing change? Should enslaved or free black people have been forced to obey laws that did not grant them the rights to shape such laws? Kellie Carter Jackson, assistant professor of Africana studies at Wellesley, addresses these questions in her new book, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence.

Force and Freedom is the first historical analysis exclusively focused on the use of political violence among antebellum black activists. The study argues that African American abolitionists used violence to provoke social change, creating the conditions that necessitated the Civil War.

Here, Carter Jackson, who presented her research at the Brooklyn Historical Society and New York Historical Society earlier this week, discusses her recent work.

Q: What inspired you to write about black abolitionists and political violence?

Kellie Carter Jackson: I first became interested in this project as an undergraduate at Howard University. I wrote a paper on the radical abolitionist John Brown, and wondered what possessed a white man to want to take up arms in defense of black people. Then I realized, Brown was not really a leader of a single, anomalous event (the raid on Harpers Ferry), but a follower of black revolutionary violence. Brown was merely putting black ideals and ideology into practice. To me, these black ideals regarding political violence was a story that needed to be told.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Carter Jackson: I want readers to see black abolitionists as the leaders and foot soldiers of their own movement. I want to place their efforts and their values at the center of the movement. Too much of the abolitionist movement is told through the lens of sympathetic white allies or limited to the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. There are so many black leaders who accomplished incredible feats in the face of insurmountable odds. At the very least, I want readers to learn something new, or equally important, I want readers to be affirmed in what they already know: that black abolitionists’ efforts were central to the abolition of slavery. I hope readers can connect their activism to a long tradition of resistance to oppression in American history.

Q: Why do you think the role of political violence in histories of abolitionism has been overlooked for so long?

Carter Jackson: I think too often historians minimize or neglect altogether the role that violence played in the coming of the Civil War. Scholars and educators have largely examined the abolitionist movement as a nonviolent endeavor based on morality. I think there is also a propensity to privilege the performance of nonviolence as godly. It’s an endearing bedtime story. We discuss the Underground Railroad solely in terms of heroic acts of escape, but fleeing often required fighting. Slavery was created in violence. Slavery was sustained through violence. It seemed logical that slavery might only be overthrown through violence. Not talking about the embrace of force by black abolitionists can feel dishonest. It can make it seem like the Civil War was a spontaneous and unfortunate outcome. But human bondage is warfare. The enslaved have been at war ever since they were placed in bondage.

Q: Why is it important to reconsider violence in this and other historical contexts

Carter Jackson: We benchmark history with violence. Almost every history class you take uses violence as a marker of time. From the American Revolution to the American Civil War, from WWI to WWII, from Vietnam to September 11, we understand the passing of time through violence. The American Civil War was the deadliest event to ever take place in our country’s history. One of the perennial questions in political thought asks: Is violence a valid means of producing social change? My study addresses how black abolitionists answered this question. A retreat from engaging in a complex understanding of the political purposes of violence limits both how we see and make use of the past. Accordingly, the ways in which black abolitionists utilized violence deserves a more sustained and nuanced analysis. Frederick Douglass once said, “The American public…discovered and accepted more truth in our four years of Civil War than they learned in forty years of peace.” The truth held in violence is an invaluable lesson, that hopefully if learned, need not be repeated.

Q: You posit an intriguing relationship between violence and democracy, suggesting that “violence is the double-edged sword of democracy.” Could you expand on this idea?

Carter Jackson: Force and Freedom could just as easily be expressed as “force for freedom.” The paradox of using force and violence to bring about freedom and ensure peace is common within our Western political context. Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” is the quintessential ultimatum. I think understanding political violence is often about understanding an ideology of last resorts. In many ways, this study is an analysis of “last resorts” among black Americans. The era of revolutions set an early example for understanding violence as both a rhetorical and physical weapon to maintain the status quo, as well as the model to overthrow it.

Q: How did female abolitionists respond to and participate in the calls for political violence?

More often than reported, black women employed similar motivations for force as their male counterparts. Throughout the 1850s, the political climate gave rise to black women’s need to address their grievances. Women such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sarah Remond, Harriet Purvis, and Sojourner Truth assumed stronger stances in the aid of fugitive slaves and self-defense. It is well-recorded that Harriet Tubman and other women were not above packing a pistol for their journeys out of bondage. Black women warned their communities about kidnappers, confronted slave catchers with pistols, and corroborated on collective and protective violence. In my work, I examine women’s responses not separately, but collectively, within a movement that pivoted equally on their influence, rhetoric, and action. Inside and outside the institution of slavery, black women had every reason to contemplate or resort to violence as a meaningful tool to combat their powerlessness. I contend black women’s contributions to the antislavery movement at all levels cannot be underestimated.