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David F. Herr

abolitionist and businessman, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the son of John DeBaptiste, a businessman, and Frances “Franky” (maiden name unknown). Although the details of DeBaptiste's early life are uncertain, he appears to have traveled to Richmond, Virginia, as a youth, where he learned to barber and where, perhaps in 1829, as a free black he first helped a slave escape. While still in Virginia, he married his first wife, Maria Lucinda Lee, a slave, and bought her freedom. DeBaptiste subsequently remarried and had two children; his second wife's name is unknown. As a young man he demonstrated strong loyalty to his family, who remained in Fredericksburg. On two separate occasions in the 1820s he financially secured the property of two sisters when they faced significant debt.

Between 1836 and 1838 DeBaptiste moved to Madison Indiana where he barbered engaged in a number of other ...

Article

Theresa Vara-Dannen

entrepreneur, abolitionist, music teacher, and banjoist, was born in Hartford, Connecticut to Hosea Easton, a Boston-born minister in Hartford and Hosea's wife, the former Louisa Matrick. Sampson Easton's lineage is distinguished on both sides of his tri-racial family because his mother was the daughter of Quack Matrick, a Revolutionary War soldier; his paternal grandfather was James Easton of Boston, a well-known contractor and iron-worker artisan, and an activist for the rights of African Americans. Sampson Easton's father, Hosea Easton, wrote A Treatise On the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States; And the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them; With A Sermon on the Duty of the Church To Them (1837), a short book that suggested that black “uplift” could create a more congenial environment for African Americans only with a dramatic reversal of white prejudice.

While ...

Article

Lois Kerschen

Clinton Bowen Fisk, the sixth son of Benjamin and Lydia Fisk, was born in Livingston County, New York. His father had been a captain in the army, and his grandfather served as a major general under George Washington. The Fisk family moved to a settlement they called Clinton in Lenawee County, Michigan, while Clinton Bowen was still an infant. Benjamin Fisk died when Clinton was six, however, and Lydia was not able to hold onto the property. At age nine, Clinton Fisk apprenticed himself to a local farmer, but one year later he had to return home because his younger brother died. When Fisk was thirteen, his mother married William Smith, a successful farmer from Spring Arbor, who sent Fisk to Albion Seminary, a Methodist school in Michigan.

Fisk later went into business as a clerk for L. D. Crippen of Coldwater Michigan and married Crippen s ...

Article

Maria Elena Raymond

Barney Launcelot Ford was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of a Mr. Darington (given name unknown), a slaveholder and plantation owner, and Phoebe (surname unknown), one of Darington's slaves. Given simply the name “Barney” at birth, he adopted the name Barney Launcelot Ford as an adult to please his soon-to-be wife and to provide himself with a “complete” name.

Ford spent the first quarter-century of his life enslaved. His mother is reputed to have planted the seeds of education in him as a child by secreting him out of camp at night to meet with sympathetic people who taught him the basics of reading and writing. She may have put herself in mortal danger on many occasions by smuggling in a section of newspaper or a Bible page so that Barney could practice his studies. Upon the death of his mother (circa 1837 Barney was enslaved ...

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Maria Elena Raymond

, Underground Railroad conductor, barber, and businessman, was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of a Mr. Darington (given name unknown), a slaveholder and plantation owner, and Phoebe (surname unknown), one of Darington's slaves. Called “Barney” at birth, he adopted the name Barney Launcelot Ford as an adult to please his soon-to-be wife and to provide himself with a “complete” name.

Ford spent the first quarter-century of his life enslaved. His mother is said to have planted the seeds of education in him as a child by secreting him out of camp at night to meet with sympathetic people who taught him the basics of reading and writing. She may have put herself in mortal danger on many occasions by smuggling in a section of newspaper or a Bible page so that he could practice his studies. Upon his mother's death around 1837 Ford was enslaved on a ...

Article

Julie Winch

abolitionist, businessman, and Civil War soldier, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the fifth of nine children of James Forten, a sailmaker and Revolutionary War veteran, and Charlotte Vandine. He was named for the white craftsman who befriended his father and gave him his start in business. Of his siblings, Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, Sarah Forten Purvis, James Forten Jr., and William Forten became active in the antislavery movement. Robert Forten received his early education at a school his parents and other affluent black Philadelphians established because of the failure of the city's board of education to provide adequate schooling for their children. Eventually Robert and his brothers transferred to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society's Clarkson School, although they may also have studied with the private tutors their parents hired to teach their sisters at home.

Growing up Forten developed a wide range ...

Article

Loren Schweninger

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Jonathan C. Gibbs, a Methodist minister, and Maria Jackson. His parents were free blacks. His father died when Mifflin was seven years old, and his mother was an invalid. As a teenager, Mifflin attended the Philomathean Institute, a black men's literary society, and, like his brother Jonathan C. Gibbs (who would serve as secretary of state in Florida during Reconstruction), became a carpenter's apprentice, and subsequently a journeyman contractor. During the 1840s, Mifflin Gibbs aided fugitive slaves by participating in local Underground Railroad efforts and worked with its famous conductor William Still. It was through this work that he became acquainted with the preeminent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, accompanying him on an 1849 tour of New York State.

During this tour Gibbs learned that gold had been discovered in California and he set ...

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Loren Schweninger

businessman, politician, and race leader, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Jonathan C. Gibbs, a Methodist minister, and Maria Jackson. His parents were free blacks. His father died when Mifflin was seven years old, and his mother was an invalid. As a teenager Mifflin attended the Philomathean Institute, a black men's literary society, and, like his brother Jonathan C. Gibbs (who would serve as secretary of state in Florida during Reconstruction), became a carpenter's apprentice, and subsequently a journeyman contractor. During the 1840s Mifflin Gibbs aided fugitive slaves by participating in local Underground Railroad efforts and worked with its famous conductor William Grant Still. It was through this work that he became acquainted with the preeminent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, accompanying him on an 1849 tour of New York State.

During this tour Gibbs learned that gold had been discovered in ...

Article

Kathryn Grover

abolitionist and entrepreneur, was born in circumstances that are unclear. One undocumented account states that he was born in Virginia; another, simply that he was born into slavery; a third, that he purchased his freedom. It is known that Johnson was in New Bedford on 24 October 1819, the day he married Mary (called Polly) Mingo Durfee Page, who was descended at least in part from the Fall River tribe of Wampanoag Indians.

In 1820 Polly Johnson was working in the home of Charles Waln Morgan, who in June 1819 had come from Philadelphia to New Bedford to marry Sarah Rodman and begin his career as a whaling industry merchant. Nathan Johnson's mother, Emily Brown, who lived with her son in 1850 and was buried with him in New Bedford, claimed to have been born in Philadelphia; so too did his brother Benjamin A ...

Article

Lois Kerschen

who gave Frederick Douglass his last name. No photograph or sketch of Nathan Johnson is known to exist, and details about his origins are obscure. Although he claimed his birth to have been in 1797 in Philadelphia, some records indicate it was as early as 1794 and possibly in Virginia. Born into slavery, Johnson somehow gained his freedom. Eventually settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he married the widowed Mary J. Mingo Durfee (also known as Mary Page), ten years his senior, on 21 October 1819. Polly, as she was called, ran a confectioner's shop, and Johnson was a caterer. Through the years he invested in many other businesses, including a dry goods store and a bathhouse. By the time Frederick Douglass arrived in New Bedford in 1838, Johnson was a prominent and prosperous citizen.

Johnson was a delegate every year to the convention of free people of color ...

Article

Frank R. Levstik

John P. Parker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of a slave mother and white father, whose names are unknown. At the age of eight, Parker was sold as a slave to an agent in Richmond, where he in turn was purchased by a physician from Mobile, Alabama. While employed as a house servant for the physician, Parker learned to read and write. In Mobile he was apprenticed to work in furnaces and iron manufactures as well as for a plasterer. Beaten by the plasterer, Parker attempted to escape, only to be captured aboard a northbound riverboat.

From 1843 to 1845 Parker was hired out as an iron moulder and stevedore in the Mobile area He proved to be an extraordinarily skilled moulder which enabled him to earn enough money to purchase his freedom for $1 800 at the end of the two year period Obtaining ...

Article

Frank R. Levstik

abolitionist and entrepreneur, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, the son of a slave mother and a white father whose names are unknown. At the age of eight, Parker was sold as a slave to an agent in Richmond, where he in turn was purchased by a physician from Mobile, Alabama. While employed as a house servant for the physician, Parker learned to read and write. In Mobile he was apprenticed to work in furnaces and iron manufactures as well as for a plasterer. Beaten by the plasterer, Parker attempted to escape, only to be captured aboard a northbound riverboat.

From 1843 to 1845 Parker was hired out as an iron molder and stevedore in the Mobile area He proved to be an extraordinarily skilled molder which enabled him to earn enough money to purchase his freedom for $1 800 at the end of the two year period Obtaining ...

Article

Kenneth W. Goings

Born of free black parents in New Jersey, William Still grew up on a farm, with little opportunity for formal schooling. He moved to Philadelphia in 1844, married in 1847, and in the same year went to work for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. In 1851 he became chairman of the society. Later in the decade he campaigned to end racial discrimination on Philadelphia railroad cars. Until the end of the Civil War, Still was involved in aiding fugitives from slavery, an activity that allowed him to meet and interview hundreds of runaways. The records he kept of these interviews along with numerous other documents, such as biographical sketches of prominent activists and letters from abolitionists and escaped slaves, became the source material for his book, The Underground Railroad Commissioned by the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery this bulky volume was not ...

Article

The last of eighteen children born to former slaves Levin and Charity Still, William Still spent the majority of his life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he had moved in 1844. By 1847 Still began his involvement in the antislavery movement while working for the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Until the Civil War he headed the Society's Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, harboring Fugitive Slaves and directing them to Canada. Still would later compile the first detailed account of the Underground Railroad, as told by its participants. Published in 1872, The Underground Railroad remains a ground breaking text.

Leaving the organization in 1861 Still advocated for the economic development of Philadelphia s African American community exemplified by the founding of his own coal business during the Civil War Still remained attached to civil rights groups as a researcher writer and activist until his death ...

Article

Larry Gara

abolitionist and businessman, was born near Medford in Burlington County, New Jersey, the youngest of the eighteen children of Levin Still, a farmer, and Charity (maiden name unknown). Still's father, a Maryland slave, purchased his own freedom and changed his name from Steel to Still. His mother escaped from slavery and changed her given name from Cidney to Charity. With a minimum of formal schooling, William studied on his own, reading whatever was available to him. He left home at age twenty to work at odd jobs and as a farmhand. In 1844 he moved to Philadelphia, where he found employment as a handyman, and in 1847 he married Letitia George. They had four children.

In 1847 the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery hired Still as a clerk and he soon began assisting fugitives from slavery who passed through the city After the passage ...

Article

Rodger C. Henderson

William Still was born in Shamong, New Jersey, to Levin Steel and his wife, Sidney, both of whom were former slaves. Levin Steel bought his freedom and moved from Maryland to New Jersey; his wife escaped from slavery, was recaptured by slave hunters, escaped again in 1807 with some of her children, and finally joined her husband. To avoid reenslavement, they changed their last name to Still, and Sidney renamed herself Charity. William, the youngest of eighteen children, moved to Philadelphia in 1844 and married Letitia George in 1847. The couple had four children, Caroline, Ella, William W., and Robert.

Still took a job as a clerk at the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1847, thus beginning his lifelong work of ending slavery and working for black civil rights. Shortly after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 Still became an agent ...

Article

Mitch Kachun

abolitionist, entrepreneur, journalist, and politician, was born free in Hagerstown, Maryland. His mother had been a slave, and his father was a white man of German descent whose last name also was spelled as Waggoner. Henry was taught the alphabet at the age of five by his paternal grandmother, and furthered his education in part through sporadic attendance at a school in nearby Franklin County, Pennsylvania, but primarily through dedicated self-study. His early life was spent in agricultural labor around Hagerstown, but at the age of twenty-two Wagoner set out on his own, sojourning briefly to Baltimore, then Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, and onto New Orleans and St. Louis, before settling in Galena, Illinois, in April 1839.

In Galena Wagoner learned the craft of typesetting at a small newspaper where he worked as a compositor into the early 1840s accumulating a modest holding in ...

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Penny Anne Welbourne

Born a free man in Hagerstown, Maryland, and having had little formal schooling, Henry O. Wagoner primarily educated himself. For much of his early life he worked as a field hand and taught school during the winter. In 1843 he made his way to Chatham, Canada West (modern Ontario), a haven for runaway slaves, where he found a job setting type and writing for the Chatham Journal; in his spare time he taught in a primary school for African American children.

While in Canada, Wagoner married and had a child. He and his family moved to Chicago in May 1846, where Wagoner became a typesetter and editorial writer for an antislavery newspaper, the Western Citizen In order to earn additional money he purchased a horse and wagon and worked in the livery business Several years earlier he had begun to work with the Underground Railroad and ...

Article

Gregory Eiselein

and author of David Walker's Appeal. Although David Walker's father, who died before his birth, was enslaved, his mother was a free woman; thus, when he was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in September 1785, David Walker was also free, following the “condition” of his mother as prescribed by southern laws regulating slavery. Little is known about Walker's early life. He traveled widely in the South and probably spent time in Philadelphia. He developed early on an intense and abiding hatred of slavery, the result apparently of his travels and his firsthand knowledge of slavery.

Relocating to Boston in the mid-1820s, he became a clothing retailer and in 1828 married a woman named Eliza. They had one son, Edward (or Edwin) Garrison Walker, born after David Walker's death in 1830 An active figure in Boston s African American community during the late 1820s David Walker had ...

Article

Peter Hinks

radical abolitionist and political writer, was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, the son probably of a free black woman and possibly of a slave father. Almost nothing is known about either parent; only a little more is known about Walker's years in the South. Walker was born in a town where by 1800 African Americans predominated demographically over whites by more than two to one. Their influence on the town and the region was profound. Most labor—skilled or unskilled—was performed by black slaves who were the foundation of the region's key industries: naval stores production, lumbering, rice cultivation, building construction, and shipping. The Methodist church in Wilmington was largely the creation of the local black faithful. The skill and resourcefulness of the African Americans amid their enslavement deeply impressed Walker.

Sometime between 1815 and 1820 Walker left Wilmington and made the short journey south to Charleston South Carolina He ...