(Our guest this month, Hannah Rose Murray, @Hannah_RoseM , frederickdouglassinbritain.com)
One spring evening in 1838, formerly enslaved African American Moses Roper spoke to a crowded audience in Leicester, and during one section of his speech, declared:
“Many will say “This is the slaves’ side of the question. The slave-holders would tell a different story.” You have heard the slave-holders’ story 250 years ago. Now, I think it is time for the slaves to speak.”
In an extraordinary chapter of the antislavery movement, hundreds of black activists – many of whom were formerly enslaved – echoed Roper’s bold decision to tell the truth about slavery. Many of these individuals sought temporary reprieve from American soil, others permanent; some raised money to free themselves or enslaved family members; others sought work with varying success. Black men such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Josiah Henson, and women such as Sarah Parker Remond lectured in large cities and tiny fishing villages, wrote narratives, stayed with influential reformers and ensured millions of words were written about them in the newspapers. The Victorian press is littered with coverage of their speeches, from the John O’Groat Journal to the Royal Cornwall Gazette, alongside with accounts of audiences cramming into tiny churches or town halls to cure an insatiable appetite about American slavery.
Even by the end of the nineteenth century this appetite had not abated. Activists such as Ida B. Wells built on the precedent set by Moses Roper and declared to a Leeds audience in 1894 that “it was her mission to tell the black people’s side of the story.” In a powerful and succinct summation, Wells echoed the reason why African Americans travelled to Britain: to champion their testimony against slavery and its legacies, and challenge white supremacy.