A 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, former slave

     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 reformer.
     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 www.geocities.com/daninhopedale/
Upton - Presently, Spaightwood ceramics building, Upton center.

(I dedicate this to all of our courageous soldiers serving in the U.S. armed forces.)