What is an Abolitionist?

Recently, I had an opportunity at the Missouri Conference on History to listen to University students from William Jewell College and Washington University speak on Anti-Slavery Myths and Pro-Slavery Realities. It made me stop and think about how essentially all of Missouri’s schools, established before the Civil War were built by slaves. Let me begin with the caveat, we were not talking about the buildings where enslaved individuals made the actual bricks that were laid up and created the school’s buildings, although that was the case sometimes. We were talking about when the funds generated to establish an educational facility came from the many individuals who owned enslaved individuals. Before Lincoln University’s founding by U.S. Colored Troops in 1865, every school in Missouri could be said to be built on that foundation, from our most esteemed Universities down to the smallest one-room schoolhouse. Because on August 10, 1821, Missouri became a State where anyone and everyone was legally allowed to own enslaved property.  However, when the subject of abolitionists came up, and how some owned slaves, I wonder: What is an abolitionist?

Just like the residents of Virginia, Kentucky, or Tennessee, which is where the majority of Missourians first came from, slavery was their legal right. With Missouri’s Public Schools Act, funds from sales of U.S. Government Lands in one section of each Township were to be used to establish a local public school. Many of those purchasers would often be enslavers whose wealth was in human property. Any enslaved individual was by Missouri law considered property and no different than a man’s cow, horse, or pig. That property was simply chattel in Missouri’s eyes. I know that is not among our proudest moments when recalling our  State’s history, but it is a fact. By 1830 the demographics of Missouri began to change when a German named Gottfried Duden published a work extolling our State’s virtues.  Many of Missouri’s first German arrivals were abolitionists, who wanted to see an end to slavery. However, this didn’t change the fact that the only individual that could legally emancipate another, was the one that legally owned them. But to state that anyone who owned a slave could not be an abolitionist is not true. Its’ time to dig deeper, research, and enable discussions about these studies.

The world is not simply black and white, and there is a lot of grey matter. Let’s tell the whole story. History is filled with abolitionists, both black and white, that owned slaves. Such as Absalom White, an African American owned once by Pierre Choteau and sold to James Audrain.  When Audrain realized how White was a preacher among his people and had heard “the Reverend White” speak; he felt he couldn’t keep this man enslaved and gave White his emancipation papers. White would then use this freedom, and his ability to purchase another black person, to purchase his daughter Emily. Confederate sympathizers in St. Charles would lynch “The Reverend White”. His will would state that his daughter Emily was to be emancipated upon his death.  But it didn’t happen and Emily would not be a free woman until Missouri put an end to slavery on January 11, 1865. Its’ time we get this right. Its’ time to go past the census forms and dig deeper into these people’s lives and look at the whole story.  It’s’ going to take some work, and I am happy to see that so many educational institutions are taking the challenge on.

The Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium, created and led by the University of Virginia, represents a multi-institutional collaboration focused on sharing best practices and guiding principles about truth-telling projects addressing human bondage and racism in institutional histories. Member schools are all committed to research, acknowledgment, and atonement regarding institutional ties to the slave trade, to enslavement on campus or abroad, and to enduring racism in school history and practice. https://slavery.virginia.edu/universities-studying-slavery/