Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Jesse Olsavsky's "The Most Absolute Abolition"

Jesse Olsavsky is Assistant Professor of History at Duke Kunshan University.

He applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, The Most Absolute Abolition: Runaways, Vigilance Committees, and the Rise of Revolutionary Abolitionism, 1835–1861, and reported the following:
From page 99:
In the 1850s, the Vigilance Committees more firmly organized what they sometimes called the “submarine railway” or the “‘Peoples Line’ of steamboats.” In the early 1830s and 1840s, mainly Black sailors had worked informally to help fugitives stow away, then directing them to antislavery offices or sailors’ homes upon arrival in the North. Such work involved great risk, greater yet after 1850. Being caught helping runaways in southern ports meant jail time or worse. Being caught in transit by an unsympathetic captain meant severe physical disciplining or dismissal from the job. For the fugitive, it meant reshipment south. Still, sailors helped runaways “constantly.” The committees devised various strategies to as­sist sailors in their dangerous work. The BVC had agents on board ships, as well as “friends in the seaports of the south,” to inform them which Boston-bound ships contained fugitive stowaways. In one case, the BVC received a telegram about a vessel hiding a fugitive on its way to Bath, Massachusetts, rushing members there to meet him. Sailors welcomed them aboard the designated ship only to inform them that the fugitive had jumped ship a few days earlier, after the captain tried making arrangements to hand over the runaway to the police. The BVC even devised plans to deploy a “pirate” boat “off the capes of Virginia” to resist “pilot boats” that “boarded and searched every coasting vessel for fugitive slaves.” It additionally employed maritime workers directly to rescue fugitives from arriving ships. Austin Bearse, a sailor, and Henry Kemp, an Irish laborer, led the BVC’s maritime wing. They relied upon Black dock­workers and sailors as informants, while the committee gave them money to build a yacht. Upon receiving word of an arriving fugitive, Bearse, Kemp, and occasionally other members, including Wendell Phillips, William Bowditch, or John Browne, as well as any wharf workers interested in helping would get on the yacht, sneak onto the suspected ship, and rescue the runaway. Bearse and Kemp succeeded in doing this dozens of times. The BVC paid the two men up to fifty dollars for some of their more dangerous rescues.
The Page 99 Test works. The Most Absolute Abolition is the first full-length study of the interconnected networks of the vigilance committees, of how they organized the Underground Railroad, learned from thousands of runaways, exacerbated the sectional crises of the 1850s, helped plan John Brown’s raid, and revolutionized abolitionism in the process.

Vigilance Committees were urban antislavery organizations, formed throughout the north, committed to defending Black neighborhoods from police and slave catchers, and to helping runaways escape from the “prison house” of slavery. Committee members came from all walks of life. Most were African American, working class, or Women. They were also prominent abolitionists, maroons, sailors, feminists, wayward intellectuals, reprobate ministers, and other outcasts from America’s racist, conformist civil society. They built up an elaborate network of allies in the South, in Canada, in Haiti, in the British Isles, and helped as many as 10,000 enslaved people in their self-liberation by land and sea.

Page 99 gets at two crucial elements of my book. First, it shows the ways abolitionists in vigilance committees mobilized diverse networks of working-class people to assist thousands of freedom seekers to resist enslavement. Second, it shows the key role of maritime workers and maritime routes to the Underground Railroad. Very often the Underground Railroad is seen as something organized on the land. The enslaved often escaped by water too!
Learn more about The Most Absolute Abolition at the LSU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue