collections

Autographs for Freedom (1853)

Autographs for Freedom, edited by by Julia Griffiths; John P. Jewett and Co., Boston.

Autographs for Freedom, published in 1853, is an anthology of literature designed to help “sweep away from this otherwise happy land, the great sin of SLAVERY.” It was put together by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society and includes the only published fiction of Frederick Douglass, who would go on to become the first black citizen to hold high rank in the US government. His “The Heroic Slave” is a work of historical fiction centering on Madison Washington, the man made famous in 1841 for leading a rebellion on the Creole, a slave ship en route to New Orleans from Virginia. Having taken control the rebels managed to redirect the Creole to Nassau in the Bahamas. Because it was a British colony, slavery had been outlawed there since 1833. Upon arrival in Nassau 128 of the 135 slaves aboard the Creole gained their freedom. It was the most successful revolt of enslaved people in US history.

The driving force behind the anthology was an Englishwoman named Julia Griffiths, a prominent member of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. She had first met Frederick Douglass in London in the mid 1840s. Douglass had escaped his life of captivity in 1838, at the age of twenty, fleeing Baltimore and reaching New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he worked as a labourer and evaded suspicion. In 1841, at an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket, he was invited to describe his experiences under slavery. His spontaneous remarks so stirred the audience that he was catapulted into a key player in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. An orator and wordsmith of great power, he went on to write a classic memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). Upon its publication, fearing he would be recaptured because it mentioned the name of his former owner, Douglass left the US to tour the British Isles, give speeches, and build support for emancipation. It was there that he met and befriended Julia Griffiths. When Douglass returned to America he did so with enough funds to purchase his freedom and to set up an anti-slavery newspaper. In 1849, Griffiths sailed to Rochester, New York, to join Douglass. She supported his work and co-founded the influential Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, along with five other women.