Politics in the Archives of Abolition

Mary T. Freeman
A round printed emblem with an enslaved woman kneeling with her wrists shackled and the words

“Am I not a woman and a sister?” This emblem (and other variations of it) appeared on stationery used by prominent abolitionists in the 1830s and 40s. It suggests how enslaved people were more often envisioned as subjects of abolitionist correspondence, rather than authors.
Courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In my JER article, “Seeking Abolition: Black Letter Writers and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in the Era of Gradual Emancipation,” I consider how unexpected people intrude into the archives of abolition and what their motivations were for doing so. By examining letters written by enslaved people contained within the PAS archives, I reveal how enslaved and free Black people participated in abolition through the medium of correspondence. The preservation of these letters suggests their value to the mission of the PAS, and, for researchers today, provides valuable insight into the writings and lives of people often presumed to be excluded from the archive altogether. This latter point suggests an additional goal of my article: I aim to provide a starting point for understanding the archival politics of abolition—the power relations that have shaped abolitionist archives and the ways researchers use them.

Far from static and impartial repositories, the contents of archives shift with the tides of politics. Rooted in projects of colonial knowledge production; targeted for destruction, looting, and narrative-crafting in times of upheaval; and staffed by self-declared “insurgents” dedicated to unearthing radical interpretations of the past; archival institutions themselves have a long and still-developing history. And today’s historians are attuned to questions of how imbalances of power manifest in the archives, attending to circumstances of sources’ creation and preservation as well as the silences, omissions, and purposeful erasures that constrain our ability to see into the past with clear vision.

Such questions are particularly urgent for scholars of slavery. Researchers wrestle with sources created by eager participants in, nonchalant supporters of, and complicit bystanders to the commodification of enslaved labor. The scarcity of textual sources produced by enslaved people and the legacy of disregard and skepticism directed towards existing material reflect disparities of power within early American society, the dilemmas and restrictions Black people faced in telling their own stories, and the influence of racism in shaping archival preservation. Much of the scholarship on the archives of slavery thus centers on the theme of silence as an imprint of violence—a reflection of the physical brutality, economic exploitation, and narrative control upon which the system of slavery rested. Studying abolition, I face a distinct challenge. An influx of evidence, an army of literate and literary activists, and a bevy of archival institutions eager to honor their contributions are at my disposal. Yet for all this evidence, there is little scrutiny of abolition’s archival politics.

There are parallels between the archival politics of slavery and abolition. Just as archival sources and collections documenting slavery were created to serve particular ends—to record economic information or to elevate the reputations of slaveholding families, for instance—abolitionist archives originated with similar goals in mind. The PAS archives served the practical purpose of recording information about the work of the organization and the people it sought to aid. In addition, PAS members sought to secure their legacy through self-conscious processes of archival curation and preservation.[1] Both the archives of slavery and abolition are the result of choices about what to include or exclude; what to highlight, organize, and display; and what to file with minimal commentary. These choices inform the way researchers interpret them—what sources they return to time and again, and what material remains untapped.

As I began my research in the PAS papers, I didn’t expect to find much in the folders of correspondence that would surprise me. I was sure these boxes had been combed through by hundreds if not thousands of pairs of knowledgeable eyes before mine. And some of what I found—letters exchanged between the members of the PAS and other proponents of abolition concerning issues ranging from specific projects to the general progress of their cause—confirmed my expectations. My goal was to understand how the society’s correspondence supported its activist work across the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and there was much to establish that letters were of chief importance to the operations of the PAS, both in terms of logistical organization of its work and the intellectual refining of its ideas and goals.

Engraving of Phyllis Wheatley sitting at a table writing with a quill pen.

This portrait of Phillis Wheatley, the engraved frontispiece in her Poems on Various Subjects, is a rare depiction of an enslaved person in the act of writing in early America. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

What I did not expect to find, however, were letters written by enslaved people. I found pleas for assistance from people claiming to be illegally enslaved, demands for freedom and reunion with family members, assertions of accountability directed at PAS members, and even a few letters between Black family members that mixed news pertaining to ongoing legal struggles with more quotidian personal matters. Finding these letters intermingled in the correspondence of the PAS sparked a sense of curiosity, as well as frustration. The letters, it seemed to me, were hiding in plain sight. How, in one of the largest and most well-known collections documenting antislavery activism, had these sources gone unnoticed?[2] For all the handwringing over the scarcity of manuscript sources produced by enslaved people, as well as a growing interest in African American literacy and intellectual life, these letters did not figure into analyses of the PAS’s activism or enslaved people’s experiences of the gradual emancipation era.

My frustration speaks to distinctions between the archives of slavery and abolition. What does one do with a body of sources that is present and readily accessible, yet remains overlooked? This question drove me to think about the archives of abolition as a corpus, and to consider where the letters by enslaved people in the PAS files fit into it. On one level, researchers face a challenge of inundation: The PAS files alone contain hundreds of items of correspondence dating before 1865, not to mention voluminous minute books and legal and financial records. It is difficult for one scholar to have a comprehensive grasp of the collection, and nearly impossible to place it within a birds-eye view of abolitionists’ manuscript collections more broadly.

Beyond the issue of scale, a focus on the archival politics of abolition raises questions about visibility and power. In the PAS files and other abolitionist archives, an abundance of well-organized source material grants the illusion of straightforward access to any number of research topics. Yet assumptions about what it is possible to find in those collections—what sorts of people created and appear in certain types of sources, and what sorts of people do not—continue to be guided by murky archival reasoning. An abundance of rich scholarship has shown that the PAS was much more than its most prominent members and that it can only be understood within a broader context of Black activism in the early republic. Nevertheless, generations of researchers have glanced past the letters written by enslaved people, their families, and free Black allies that exist within the PAS’s correspondence files. This reticence reflects the assumption, guided by the PAS papers themselves, that the correspondence contained within them documents the activities of PAS members on behalf of enslaved people. The collection was not intended to capture the words of those enslaved people, yet at times it did. We should pay attention when their words intrude into the archives of abolition.


[1] See “Custodial history” in the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers finding aid. “Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers, Collection 0490,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania, http://www2.hsp.org/collections/manuscripts/p/PAS0490.html.

[2] As I note in my JER article, a few of the letters I discuss have been cited by other authors, usually as illustrations of how enslaved and free Black people engaged with the white abolitionists of the PAS. None, however, have been discussed more than in passing or with any concentration on their archival origins.

29 March 2023

About the Author

Mary T. Freeman is assistant professor of New England history at the University of Maine.

Recent Contributions to the JER
Share this Post