Extra-Legal Activism and the Paths to Freedom for African Americans during the Nineteenth Century

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Civil War and Reconstruction; Social and Cultural


During the 19th century, freedom for African Americans dominated public discussions and legal systems. Freedom necessitated first and foremost the ending of slavery, but activists in the mid to late 1800s continued to press for freedom through demanding rights such as a civic identity and freedom from intimate partner violence. Methods varied and often used the legal system for top down change. This panel focuses on bottom up change through re-defining social expectations with extra-legal activism, namely through newspapers, cultural performances, and religion. In “Jane Swisshelm: Using Newspapers to End Slavery,” Carole A. Butcher examines Jane Swisshelm and her use of the St. Cloud Democrat to challenge public opinion on slavery in Minnesota during the antebellum era. Swisshelm published articles on the evils of slavery, and despite being far removed from the South, her paper met with much resistance, including having her printing press thrown into the Mississippi River. She continued to use methods at her disposal to purchase a new press and impacted discussions in the Midwest on race with her fiery anti-slavery rhetoric. In “The Performance of Cultural Citizenship: The Pacific African American Diaspora and the performance of African British Identity in the Colony of Vancouver Island,” Sharon Romeo examines several hundred African American families who migrated from California to the colony of Vancouver Island in 1858. These individuals left California after the state legislature narrowly passed a statute that would have expelled free black residents. However, the new residents struggled to gain full civic inclusion as British subjects in the British colony of Vancouver Island. Inequalities remained especially in the form of segregation. These migrants used public performance to establish their right to inclusion in the community. These performances entailed militia drills, emancipation celebrations, parades and attempts to desegregate public facilities. In “Demanding the Right to Be Free From Violence: African American Women, Religion, and Domestic Abuse, 18801900,” Ashley Baggett explores how African American women sought to stop intimate partner violence—the physical, sexual, economic, psychological abuse of a significant other. Although courts increasingly racialized intimate partner violence as, supposedly, a black crime, African American women used newspapers to challenge social expectations about gender and the meaning of freedom. In letters to the editor and advertisements, they employed Biblical arguments and shamed abusers to redefine the meaning of freedom for African American women during the rise of Jim Crow. Collectively, this panel seeks to explore social and cultural challenges to inequalities during the 19th century. These activists used various resources to change social views on rights for African Americans. In doing so, they forged their own paths towards a fuller definition of freedom.

Papers Presented

Jane Swisshelm: Using Newspapers to End Slavery

Having grown up near Pittsburgh, Jane Swisshelm had no firsthand knowledge of slavery. She confronted it for the first time as an adult when she went to Kentucky with her husband and was appalled. But at the time there seemed little she could do to put an end to the “peculiar institution.” She took a job as a newspaper reporter and in 1850 was the first female reporter admitted to the reporters’ gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives. When Swisshelm divorced her husband, she and her daughter moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota. There she established a newspaper and settled into what she thought would be a quiet and ordinary life. When she discovered a slaveowner living in St. Cloud, she embarked on her crusade through her use of extra-legal methods to end slavery. Her paper, the St. Cloud Democrat, regularly ran articles and editorials about the evils of slavery. Despite being in the Midwest, her writing drew the ire of white supremacists. One night the newspaper office was broken into and the printing press thrown into the Mississippi River. Swisshelm immediately bought a new printing press and continued publishing her paper. Swisshelm’s call for freedom included the Dakota Indians following the 1862 US-Dakota War. This paper examines Swisshelm’s campaign to create a pathway to freedom for people of color, namely through the power of newspapers and her fiery anti-slavery rhetoric.

Presented By
Carole Butcher, Independent historian

The Performance of Cultural Citizenship: The Pacific African American Diaspora and the Performance of African British Identity in the Colony of Vancouver Island

Fleeing discriminatory black laws, hundreds of African American families migrated from California to the colony of Vancouver Island in 1858. The colonial governor, Sir James Douglas, invited African Americans in California to move to Victoria via a letter delivered to an African Methodist Episcopal church in San Francisco. Many settled in the Pacific Northwest port city of Victoria, where the new community residents sought membership in the British empire. In the years leading up to Canadian Confederation these residents made social and cultural assertions of civic identity. The new residents performed their claims to British subjecthood by their presence at militia drills, parades, and their attempts to desegregate taverns, the theater, and church services. This paper traces their cultural and social struggles for status, equality, and inclusion in the British colony and the wider trans-imperial world. As these migrants sought relief from the legal and social inequalities presented by California black laws and the ever-present threat of expulsions from that state, they worked towards a civic membership in their new home which they could not achieve in the United States.

Presented By
Sharon Elizabeth Romeo, University of Alberta

Demanding the Right to Be Free from Violence: African American Women, Religion, and Domestic Abuse, 1880–1900

After the Civil War, African American women increasingly sought an end to intimate partner violence—the physical, sexual, economic, psychological abuse of a significant other. Some turned to the Freedmen’s Bureau while others increasingly demanded courts hold abusers legally accountable. While successful prosecution of abusers increased in the South during the 1870s and 1880s, the white community began labeling “wife beating” a so-called black crime. By the 1890s, southern states used racialized stereotypes to disenfranchise African American men, and consequently, African American women turned to extra-legal activism to create change. Rather than surrendering their right to be free from violence, African American women wrote letters to the editor and personal ads in black-owned newspapers to challenge social views about intimate partner violence. Their writings shamed male abusers for violating bounds of respectability and new gender expectations. They also used Christianity to support their claims. By referencing the Bible’s creation story, African American women claimed God intended more egalitarian relationships between man and wife since woman was formed from the rib of man, not his head or his foot. These women also countered black preachers who defended abuse as a male privilege. In doing so, African American used methods available to them to pave a pathway to freedom for themselves, namely freedom from violence.

Presented By
Ashley Baggett, North Dakota State University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Christy Clark-Pujara, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Christy Clark-Pujara is an Associate Professor of History in the Department Afro-American Studies and Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; she is also the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Afro-American Studies. She received her B.A. in History and Social Science from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota and her M.A. and PhD in History from the University of Iowa—Iowa City. Clark-Pujara’s recent publications include: “In Need of Care: African American Families Transform the Providence Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans during the Final Collapse of Slavery, 1839-1846,” Journal of Family History (September 2019), “Contested: Black Suffrage in Early Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Magazine of History (Summer 2017), and “Slavery and the Northern Economy,” eds. Lynn Lyerly and Bethany Jay, Understanding and Teaching American Slavery (University of Wisconsin: Madison, 2016). Clark-Pujara’s first book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (NYU Press, 2016), examines how the business of slavery—economic activity that was directly related to the maintenance of slaveholding in the Americas, specifically the buying and selling of people, food, and goods—shaped the experience of slavery, the process of emancipation, and the realities of black freedom in Rhode Island from the colonial period through the American Civil War. Her current book project, Black on the Midwestern Frontier: From Slavery to Suffrage in the Wisconsin Territory, 1725—1868, examines how the practice of race-based slavery, black settlement, and debates over abolition and black rights shaped white-black race relations in the Midwest.
Clark-Pujara’s research focuses on the experiences of black people in British and French North America in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. She is particularly interested in retrieving the hidden and unexplored histories of African Americans in areas that historians have not sufficiently examined—small towns and cities in the North and Midwest. She contends that the full dimensions of the African American and American experience cannot be fully appreciated without reference to how black people managed their lives in places where they were few. An absence of a large black populace did not mean that ideas of blackness were not central to the social, political, and economic development of these places. Clark-Pujara was recently awarded the UW-Madison Vilas Faculty Early Career Investigator Award and the UW-Madison Outstanding Woman of Color Award 2020, Outstanding Woman of Color in Education Award, and the Feminist Scholar’s Fellowship from the UW-Madison Center for Research on Gender and Women in 2019 and the Honored Instructor Award from University Housing in 2017.

Presenter: Ashley Baggett, North Dakota State University
Ashley Baggett is an assistant professor of history at North Dakota State University. She is also associate faculty in the School of Education and affiliate faculty with the Women and Gender Studies program at NDSU. Baggett's research focuses on gender based violence and socio-legal reform. She is the author of Intimate Partner Violence in New Orleans: Gender, Race, and Reform, 1840 to 1900 with the University Press of Mississippi (2017) and has published in the Journal of Mississippi History. Baggett has a forthcoming chapter titled “‘Alleged Crusades' and 'Self-Fooled Reformers': The Rise and Fall of White Slavery Hysteria in the 1910s" in an anthology with the University Press of Florida, which will be in print by the end of 2020. She has given numerous conference and invited presentations at both national and international venues, including the National Women’s Studies Association, the American Historical Association, and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Baggett earned her PhD from Louisiana State University in 2014.

Presenter: Carole Butcher, Independent historian
Carole Butcher holds an MA in military history from Norwich University and is a PhD candidate at North Dakota University. She has published articles in the Civil War Quarterly, Army Magazine, Infantry Magazine, Nebraska Life Magazine, Military Heritage, and Armchair General. Butcher also has helped develop several public history projects, including interpreter guides at Fort Abercrombie, a museum exhibit titled "North Dakota Goes to War" at Bonanzaville: Cass County Historical Society, and script for "Dakota Datebook" on Prairie Public Radio. She has presented at conferences and been invited to give talks at various venues, including the Society for Military History, the Western History Association, and Minnesota State Historical Society.

Commentator: Jennifer Rebecca Harbour, University of Nebraska Omaha
Jennifer R. Harbour is an associate professor of Black Studies and Women's Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is the author of Organizing Freedom: Black Emancipation Activism in the Civil War Midwest with Southern Illinois University Press (2020). Her book explores "black emancipation activism in Indiana and Illinois during the Civil War era" in which "Midwestern black women negotiated relationships with local, state, and federal entities through the practices of philanthropy, mutual aid, religiosity, and refugee and soldier relief."

Presenter: Sharon Elizabeth Romeo, University of Alberta
Sharon Romeo is an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her publications include Gender and the Jubilee: Black Freedom and Reconstruction of Citizenship in Civil War Missouri, published by the University of Georgia Press in 2016. Romeo is a recipient of the American Historical Association’s Littleton-Griswold Research Grant and has most recently won the 2017 Lawrence O. Christensen Award for an article related to Missouri history. Her work has been funded by the Missouri State Archives, the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society, and the Alberta Institute for American Studies. She is at work on project about the migration of African Americans from California to the British colony of Vancouver Island during the US Civil War.