R. J. M. Blackett—
A box of my most recent book arrived on the last day of Black History Month. It seemed only fitting as it is a biography of a prominent 19th century African American, Samuel Ringgold Ward who was born enslaved on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1817. The times, however, are not very auspicious for books dealing with such topics, the first in a series Black Lives. There are in certain states organizations and government officials keen to purge libraries and curricula of books that deal with topics some consider un-American. Near where I live in Nashville, Tennessee there are right-wing groups bent on ridding school libraries of what they consider objectionable materials. They attend school board meetings demanding to know if certain topics are part of the curriculum and intimidating administrators to remove certain titles.
None of this is new in U.S. history. This upsurge of intimidation and purges reminds me of an incident I covered in a book I published on community reactions to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. It involved the Rev. Samuel Green. A former slave who had purchased his freedom, Green was thought to be related to Harriet Tubman and assisted her in her efforts to get the enslaved away from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Green had assisted his son, of the same name, to escape to Canada sometime in the early 1850s. The authorities had their eyes on the fifty-five-year old Green who they suspected was at the center of an active local arm of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) but they could not, as one official put it ominously, put “the ropes on him.” When thirty slaves decamped from Cambridge in one night in 1858, the authorities decided to move against Green. They raided his home, where they found a map of Canada, train schedules, escape routes to the North, and a letter from his son telling his father it was time to get the next group of the enslaved out. It was also discovered that Green had recently visited his son in Canada. But most damning was the discovery of a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Green’s. The authorities were unable to tie Green directly to the recent escapes, but they were determined to punish him. Green was convicted under an obscure 1841 state law that banned free Blacks from possessing abolitionist information and literature. He was sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary for possessing a book.
One local editor did worry about the larger significance of prosecuting someone for possessing the novel. Did that mean, he wondered, if whites were liable to similar punishment? They were not; the law was specific in its objectives. It targeted free Blacks.
Books have always been a source of concern for those who wish to control what is read. Books such as Stowe’s which exposed America’s raw racial nerve have always been the target of custodians of what is true and correct history. They are at it again. All is not lost, however, as these regulators have run into stiff opposition from those who believe that banning what the public reads violates the principles of democracy.
R. J. M. Blackett is a historian of the abolitionist movement whose books include The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery and Making Freedom: The Underground Railroad and the Politics of Slavery. He is Andrew Jackson Professor of History emeritus at Vanderbilt University and lives in Nashville, TN.