Reflection: Of Slavery, Freedom, and a Blackstone Valley Abolitionist
By Diane Marie Mariani
(In recognition of February’s Black History Month)
"The more we knew of freedom, the more we desired it" - Austin Steward,
Today, as American soldiers fight in Afghanistan looking to
end terrorism, safeguard our country with hopes to build a democratic Arab state, I
reflect upon the Africans and African-Americans of 1619-1865, and their long and
very arduous path to gain freedom. Though Boston’s census of 1790 claimed no
slaves, the North took generations to support these “freedom-fighters” who were
not even called Americans. They were called slaves, fighting for their lives and
liberty in the early colonies of North America.
In 1619, the first slaves sold in mainland North
America, were black Africans. Why were they captured and forced to work as human
machines? The tobacco plantations in the South were already being farmed by
indentured white laborers and by enslaved Indians. Yet, the numbers of these
forced to work was decreasing. The whites had sold themselves to, or had been
kidnapped and entered into contract slavery, and eventually were freed. Also,
Indians were dying in insurmountable masses from imported diseases.
And so, the black Africans were almost solely exploited
as slaves. They were coveted as slaves since they were not indentured. In fact,
black slaves were preferred, since it was harder for them to escape undetected,
and to live among a society of free whites. Once slaves were bought in North
America, most labored strenuously on plantations that grew tobacco, cotton, and
other crops. Others labored less painstakingly, if they were more fortunate, at
various jobs in the masters' homes and off the plantations.
Abuse was prevalent in the lives of most slaves. Their
African and Christian religious beliefs offered some solace to these tortured
souls, but it was not enough. Freedom was increasingly sought and the northern
states and Canada held complete freedom. The only action to take was to escape!
But, how would a slave escape to the North, secretly?
"…Yet we have abundant cause to thank God and take
courage for what we have been enabled to do, and we are sure our labor has been
blessed to ourselves." - Elizabeth Buffum Chace, abolitionist, suffragette, and
Multiracial, religiously motivated, the Underground
Railroad was the surreptitious network for escape. The courageous enablers, the
Conductors in the railroad, were black, white, slave, and free men and women.
Their homes were opened as Stations where slaves could be harbored. The
Conductors broke the law, and risked their lives or heavy fines and prison for
the abolition of slavery! Central Falls, Rhode Island, then called Valley Falls,
was the home of one such Station. Its Conductor, a white female, was the
remarkable abolitionist Elizabeth Buffum Chace.
In December 1806, Elizabeth was born in a house on
Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island. She lived half of her pre-adult
years on her paternal grandparents' farm in the village of Smithfield, Rhode
Island. In her writings, Elizabeth very affectionately recalls the Smithfield
house. I quote "…but to this day the place is to me the "spot of earth supremely
blest - a dearer sweeter spot than all the rest."
Elizabeth, also lived for a time in Connecticut and
moved to Fall River, Massachusetts in 1824. A Quaker, she went on to marry
Quaker and manufacturer, Samuel Buffington Chace of Fall River, Massachusetts.
In 1840, the family settled in the town of Valley Falls, Rhode Island. Valley
Falls was a small village located along both sides of the Blackstone River.
With her return to Rhode Island came Elizabeth's
immersion into Rhode Island antislavery activism. Elizabeth's passion for
abolition was in conflict with the devout Rhode Island Quakers, fueling
hostility from them. In 1843, disappointed with her colleagues and upon the
death of her only living child, Chace, emotionally wrought, removed herself from
the religion. Still, the basic teachings of the Quakers remained in her soul.
This detachment from Quakerism proved to be extraordinarily pivotal for
Elizabeth and for fugitive slaves striving for their own liberty!
As fugitive slaves forged north, they were given a safe
haven in Elizabeth's Valley Falls home from 1835 to1845. Fugitives living in
northern cities traveled from Fall River to Valley Falls aided by Chace
relatives. At the Station, preparations were made for the journey from
Worcester, Massachusetts (Liberty Farm, Mower Street) to the slaves' promise
land - Canada -freedom!
On December 6, 1865, approximately twenty years after
Elizabeth opened her home as a Station, post Civil War; the Thirteenth Amendment
to the United States Constitution was ratified, and then passed on January 31,
1865. Slavery was abolished!
Elizabeth Buffum Chace died in 1899. In March 2002, Chace became the first woman
ever to be commemorated with a statue, a bronze bust, in the Rhode Island State
House. Chace, an abolitionist, suffragette and reformer, accomplished so much
more than what can be written here. Elizabeth Buffum Chase's legacy is visible
in Rhode Island, as in the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center; a center for victims
(mostly female) of domestic violence. Elizabeth has been lauded as the
"conscience of Rhode Island". The Station no longer stands, but was once located
on the corner of Hunt and Broad Streets in Central Falls, Rhode Island.
The freed whites and African-Americans went on to lead
lives of choice and productivity as citizens of the United States of America!
Prominent African-Americans, whose ancestors were slaves, are neurosurgeon Ben
Carson, Bishop T.D. Jakes, actress Whoopi Goldberg, and TV
pioneer/philanthropist Oprah Winfrey.
These global, gifted, and talented African-Americans
have healed our bodies and souls, moved us to laughter and tears, and inspired
us to pause and reflect. Today, as I reflect upon the courage gone before and
the freedom born from that courage, I say to you, let us not forget the fight of
the earliest slaves and abolitionists, for where freedom is born; life is born!
Other area stop-overs for escaping slaves: Liberty
Farm, 116 Mower St., Worcester 1847-81 Home of Abigail Kelly and Stephen Symonds
Foster. Asa Waters Mansion, Elm St., Millbury 1826-29 URR station. Ross Farm,
Elm St., Millbury 1826-29 URR station
Thwing House, formerly corner of Hope and Hopedale streets, Hopedale. See
Upton - Presently, Spaightwood ceramics building, Upton center.
(I dedicate this to all of our courageous soldiers serving in the U.S. armed